Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Courtesy of Intellectual Debate

Critics of postmodernism and poststructuralism, such as Alan Sokal, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Frederick Turner, Joseph Carroll, etc. have been criticized themselves for making straw men of their opponents' arguments. I think this criticism is valid to some extent: Turner's pointed critique of the postmodern avant garde in Culture of Hope and Carroll's treatment of "textualism and indeterminacy" in "Theory, Anti-Theory and Empirical Criticism" do tend to reduce much of the past 40 years of literary theory to grouchy caricatures. However, after reading some of the Marxist New Historicists on Shakespeare, such as Stephen Greenblatt, Jean Howard, Stephen Orgel, and Richard Levin, I couldn't help but notice that they also rely heavily on constructs such as the bourgeois straw man, the Western metaphysical straw man, the positivist straw man, the formalist straw man, the capitalist straw man, etc. Orgel and Greenblatt, in particular, see fit to mock and sneer at these as well.

Intellectual debate should be conducted like a martial art. Boxers touch gloves before striking their first blows, and often hug when a match is over. Karate fighters bow, showing mutual respect and proud submission to their tradition. Such games involve serious risk, but are as much an art and a dance as a "fight" per se. All martial arts have rules against hitting below the belt, and specify serious consequences for unsportsmanlike conduct. Once upon a time, scholarship had a similar code of conduct, if not camaraderie, that involved disinterestedness, objectivity, self-effacement, and neutrality. In recent years, this has been criticized (sometimes with good reason) as an ideological mystification "naturalizing" racism, sexism, the covert pursuit of class interests, and political partisanship.* Regardless, I think that, at the very least, scholars of all stripes can and should work harder to be courteous, civilized, and to acknowledge their own biases without resorting to demagoguery.

Politics, schmolitics--we're humans first and ideologues second. If the 20th century taught us anything, it's that even the most apparently humane political ideologies can end up machine-gunning each other into a ditch. If humanities scholars, of all people, can't have a civil conversation, then we might as well all give up and go home to pursue biochemistry degrees or sell carpet cleaner and credit cards over the telephone.


*"Argument," according to a related line of thinking, is symptomatic of patriarchal aggression and ought to be replaced by "discussion," wherein no one, presumably, attempts to advance a logical position with the aim of changing another's mind.

(Image from


Troy Camplin said...

Well, maybe if you weren't such a racist, sexist, homophobic, politically oppressive jerk, you'd understand why the neo-Marxist postmodernists have to set out to destroy all foes (much like the bad karate kids in Karate Kid).

And there's the rub, at least with the neo-Marxist postmodernists. If you really believe your opponents are racist, sexist, homophobic, oppressive, etc., why would you want to treat them as rational people with whom you should give the courtesy of engaging in rational dialogue? That being the current intellectual culture, it's perhaps not surprising to find opponents engaging in the same kind of rhetoric. Which of course does not excuse it. In fact, your criticism is dead on. The satirist in me still wants to ridicule ridiculous things, though. :-) Still, we do need more martial artists of criticism.

John said...

Don't forget "classist." Sometimes I kick homeless people when I think no one's looking.

I felt bad using Fred as an example, because I've seen him extend such courtesy in debate with arrogant and cruel opponents, and I know how generous he is. But several smart people whose opinions I respect haven't been able to get past Culture of Hope's chapter The Failure of the Avant Garde, and I don't think it's because they're card carrying liberal fascists.

I sympathize with the first group of authors I mentioned, though. I don't really care if po-mo is euthanized or rehabilitated, just as long as it happens soon.

Troy Camplin said...

I try to be gentler in my official scholarship than I am online, that's for sure.

Goatse said...

WTF is a pankotic mangoscript?

John said...

I've been trying to figure that one out for 2 years now.