Under Discussion

Funny, that comment I did on Arundhati Roy was a catch-up item, as I said, left over from weeks ago, but I no sooner post it than there is a small flurry of posts on Roy because of an interview with her in Outlook India (which I hadn’t seen). She does say one or two woolly things there.

Mind you – to be fair, she also says some okay things. I may be unfair to her because her manner puts me off – and that’s not really a very compelling reason. She may not be as smug as she appears (just as I may not be as deranged and malicious as I appear – who knows). Though I am not the only one who thinks so. David Sucher of City Comforts had this to say at Harry’s Place:

Have you ever heard her speak? I found her foul: smug and self-satisfied, and certain of her own superior morality.

Yes, that is exactly the impression I got. But maybe she’s just shy. Anyway in the name of fairness here is one of the okay things she said:

Globalization, what does it mean? I keep saying, we are pro-globalization. It would be absurd to think that everybody should retreat into their little caves and continue oppressing Dalits and messing around the way they used to in medieval times. Of course not.

Good. Of course, some of the other things she says may give help to people who do indeed want to go on oppressing Dalits and women and other medieval messing around. But at least she’s aware of the problem.

The comment at Harry’s Place is worth reading. So is the one at Marc Cooper’s place and the one at No Credentials, which goes on to a different discussion, and a very interesting one. How does an academic who is avowedly not interested in facts go about ‘demonstrating’ something factual?

A Shakespearean scholar at the University of Oregon–a professor I actually like, which makes this more painful to report–will serve as my anonymous example. She wrote a well-received article using Foucault’s notion of geneaology to “demonstrate” that a noted historian’s view of anti-Semitism was poorly grounded, and that the “evidence” was in Shakespeare. I asked her, in all innocence, if she had ever thought about contacting the historian, or any other historians, to alert them to her discovery. It was my first term in grad school and I still hadn’t read a great deal of Foucault; I thought that–since he’s called a historian of ideas–his ideas were worth a damn.

She made an astounding statement; it went something like this: I know you’re interested in science, Rose, but I just don’t understand why people are attracted to the world of facts. That’s why I’m in literature; I love the imagination. If I wanted to do history, I’d do history.

This was in front of an entire class, and I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t say what I thought, which was, “But you say right here that you’ve demonstrated something. Doesn’t that imply something, you know, factual?”

One would think so. But of course that’s just petty empiricism, plodding positivism, sucky scientism. And yet…there are people who wonder what all the fuss is about. What postmodernism, they wonder. Who are all these people who say all these absurd things? I never hear anyone say things like that, they say. How odd – I hear them and read them all the time, not always even because I’m looking for them. But Marc Mulholland’s experience is different.

…post-modernism and multi-culturalism remains the favourite whipping boy of every ‘Valiant for Truth’ hero of the Enlightenment. I hardly ever meet post-modernists, only ever courageous souls who standing alone fight the modern filthy tide of those who will reduce truth to narrative, bury sense under ‘hegemonic discourse’, defend atrocities on relativist grounds, and so bloody on. Post-modernism is the great straw-man that allows dull empiricists and purveyors of moral inanities to imagine themselves as some kind of underground resistance…

Really. Never read anyone in Science Studies (or ‘Strong Programme’ Sociology of Science and other variants) for instance? Never read any Andrew Ross? No feminist epistemology? Never browsed syllabi for university courses? Got no friends doing Open University courses?

The usual accusation is that relativism allows post-modernists to pretend that all human phenomena are equally to be welcomed. Perhaps one can find ‘theorists’ who say this, but I’ve never come across anyone who has seriously argued that, say, the back of cornflakes boxes are of equal literary value to Shakespeare. Could be that I’ve never found them because they’d have to be, more or less literally, barking mad? The idea that such notions rule the intellectual world! Puh-lease.

Puh-lease what? There are entire disciplines dedicated to problematizing the borders between ‘High Culture’ and Popular Culture (the scare-quotes because High Culture is a silly word that denotes a straw man, in my view, as is the word ‘canon’).

I was surprised once to come across the article that is, I gather, the source of the ‘Valiant for Truth’ brigade’s assertion that wicked relativists defend female circumcision. I was surprised to see that its reasoning followed the lines that, if western society permits all sorts of body modification for aesthetic and occasionally religious purposes, then why should female circumcision – under proper medical supervision – not be permitted in non-western societies? One might demur for various reasons, but a battle-cry for patriarchy, a rejection of civilisation?

Um – there’s more than one article on the subject? With more than one argument? People really do fret about interfering with other people’s cultures, and FGM is a frequent example? I’ve heard them with my own ears?

One is indeed sensitive about deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth. I don’t scream at first years that (a)theism is for idiots or that their support / opposition to the war in Iraq marks them out as some sort of criminal.

Straw man again. And squishy words with all too many possible meanings again, just like last time we got into this discussion, when the claim was that a ‘ramified mode of human expression’ deserves respect. Same problem here. I, for one ‘one’, am not sensitive about all ‘deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth.’ I’m just not. Because that covers too much ground, is too blanket an amnesty. A lot of individuals (I know quite a few personally) have senses of self-worth that are very very closely tied up with their sense of superiority to other individuals – their sense of inherent, born, automatic, by definition, superiority. You’ll have guessed what I mean by now – I mean people who think others are inferior (have less worth) because of their sex or race or similar genetic category. They really, really, really believe that – their beliefs are deeply engrained. I don’t feel any need to be sensitive about that. (Well – I tell a lie – sometimes I do. I have been known to bite my lip in some situations, in order not to hurt someone’s feelings or cause feelings of foolishness and shame. Okay. I admit it. But then it should be phrased that way – as reluctance to shame people, not as sensitivity about ‘deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth’ – that language is just too flattering toward the possible beliefs.)

Blimey – this is long. How does this happen. I set out to write a few words and before I know it I have half a book. That’s enough of that.

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