Saturday, November 27, 2010

Against Idealism

It is now quite fashionable to speak of the "linguistic constitution" of politics, to speak in terms of various "discourses" and their genealogies. For some on the academic Left, it is self-evident that it's all "discourse" all the way down.

In extreme versions, the view is taken to imply that "there is nothing outside the text". One exegesis of this remark could even claim that viruses are simply discursive all the way down. The painfully obvious fact that HIV, say, can kill us regardless of what our conceptual or discursive repertoire consists in seems utterly lost on these folks.

Strangely, many of the basic theses of this new orthodoxy are structurally similar to 19th century idealism. Idealism is just the view that the world, and, hence, reality itself is the mere product of our concepts, ideas or, in the presently fashionable parlance, discourses or "signifying practices". In other words, there is a one way street and it proceeds from a set of discursive practice to the world, which is itself nothing but a collection of significations.

Perry Anderson has rightly rebuked this turn for worshiping the "megalomania of the signifier" in such a way that there cease to be extra-linguistic referents at all.

This becomes extremely problematic once we start thinking about what's wrong with the world and how to change it. If you think that discursive problems are the only problems there are, naturally you're not going to worry much about collective struggle, revolutionary demands for justice, or radical reconfiguration of basic social institutions. You're not going to have much to say about the structure of social relations, economic systems, material conditions, productive forces and technology, etc. Instead, you'll emphasize certain kinds of oppositional discursive practices that aim to unseat or disrupt other discursive practices. Perhaps you'll emphasize performances of various kinds that take up and redeploy oppressive signifying practices.

Now, I don't want to suggest that such oppositional practices are pointless or apolitical. On the contrary, I am convinced of their critical potential and I support struggle at all levels of contemporary life. But let's not kid ourselves that this is all we can do. And let's not kid ourselves that such practices have the capacity, all by themselves, to spontaneously shake the foundations of the status quo.

To be sure, idealism gets something importantly right. We wouldn't want a crude, "vulgar" materialism that simply reduced ideas, concepts, practices, etc. to the configuration of say, the productive forces, or, worse, to the biological constitution of social agents. We don't want to be stuck with positivism. If it were a choice between such reductionism and idealism, I'd take idealism any day of the week (for at least there is a recognizable human element in the idealist story, as opposed to the mechanistic determinism of reductionism).

I agree that such reductionist, positivist views miss the point, correctly identified by idealists, that we always already find ourselves in some network of intersubjectively shared meanings which forms the horizon within which we act and make sense of ourselves and the world. Marx's statement at the beginning of the Eighteenth Brumaire says as much: we make our history, to be sure, but not in conditions of our own choosing, but in conditions transmitted from the past. The traditions of past generations, he argues, weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

As Alasdair MacIntyre has put the point, "to posses a concept involves believing or being able to act in certain ways in certain circumstances, to alter concepts, whether by modifying existing concepts or by making new concepts available or by destroying old ones, is to alter behavior." That is, "if the limits of action are the limits of description, then to analyse the ideas current in a society is also to discern the limits within which action necessarily moves in that identify the limits of social action in a given period is to identify the limits of descriptions current in that age". MacIntyre's view is that this is just what the Marxist critique of ideology is all about. But, and this is crucial, the Marxist view, though it gives the importance of conceptual schemes and sets of beliefs their due, does not collapse into a static idealism. How is that?

What Marxism gives us, which classic and contemporary forms of idealism do not, is a way of seeing how our conceptual repertoire is impacted by, and in turn impacts, the structural configuration of society as a whole. That is, systematic mechanisms in contemporary societies impact our conceptual "lifeworld" from "the outside". By "outside" I mean that such mechanisms aren't just another set of linguistic processes. Any approach which does not recognize this threatens to become structurally blind to the material conditions that partially constitute, and enable the reproduction of the lifeworld itself.

Succinctly put, our reproach to linguistic idealism in contemporary societies could just be: "what happened to capitalism?".

Let me drive the point home. Idealism is most implausible when looking at social change throughout history. If we're idealists, we'd have to say that even the history of conceptual change is simply "a linguistic process largely independent of political change" (see Farr (1989) in Political Innovation and Conceptual Change). As Gustav Stern put it, "the development of language largely follows its own laws". This suggests that the history of our concepts has nothing to do with political struggles, the system in which such concepts emerge, the basic structure of society, the material conditions in which social formations reproduce themselves over time, social relations, the level of the development of the productive forces, technological and mechanical capacities, the structure of the built environment, etc. etc.

Why exclude all of that from critical theory? Why think that we could use the idealist model to understand why concepts change, why people are led to innovate and create new concepts, etc.? I'm not sure. It is obviously false that we should think that structural transformations in the basic structure of societies might impact the set of concepts dominant in that society? I would have thought the negation of such a claim was obviously false, but many contemporary idealists take it as self-evident that such materialist concerns are misguided.

My guess is that such idealists, wrongly, suppose that we really are forced to choose between reductionist materialism on the one hand, and idealism on the other. In one sense, there are enough bad versions of Marxism to lend some creedence to such a mistake (e.g. Cohen's technological determinism, 2nd International determinism, Stalinist mechanistic reductionism, etc.) But the beauty of Marxism, or at least of critical, dialectical (I would say "genuine") Marxism, is that we see that such a choice is a false one. As Lukacs puts it: "Fatalism and voluntarism are only mutually contradictory to an undialectical and unhistorical mind. In the dialectical view of history they prove to be necessarily complementary opposites, intellectual reflexes clearly expressing the antagonisms of capitalists society and the intractability of its problems when conceived on its own terms".

All of this should make clear why there has been a legitimation crisis facing various idealist approaches in the wake of the global economic meltdown. What could they say about what happened? What would be their story about how to make sense of such events? Would we just track rhetoric and chains of signification? Should we simply analyze various self-standing discourses and linguistic practices? I'm not sure what it would mean to do this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid the political implications of idealism go far beyond what you seem to envisage in this post. There are lots of contemporary "idealists" who devote their lives and their criminal energy to actually manufacturing ideas that are meant to impact on the course of events. These people do not ask if "idealism" is viable or true, they just practise it (for what it's worth), and are hardly ever challenged.

There's an unorthodox (anarchist?) text, Analysis of Welfare Society, that tries to draw attention to the damaging (if often trivial) kind of "idealism" that surrounds us in everyday life.