Monday, April 03, 2006

Burn the witch: the 'Decent Left' grab for their torches and pitchforks.

The Decent Left are all in a huff about this from Madeleine Bunting. I'm serious. Shuggy has popped several veins in both eyeballs, HP Sauce almost broke their keyboards, Geras actually got so worked up as to reach for the decanter, and Andrew Anthony, whom I can only muster mildly amused contempt for, actually wrote a riposte.

Side issue: I detect quite a whiff of misogyny about all this: the rhetorical energy in the margins of this ridiculous, overblown talking point is quite pungent. Anthony's post was originally called "A Damsel in Distress". It's now called "A Relativist in Distress". Shuggy's ranting rebukes to the "sister", and the associated accusations of "barking" insanity come to mind as well. And for whatever reason (I'll happily suppose the worst), Geras appears to absolutely obsessively detest Bunting, which is reason enough for me to have a sneaking admiration for her. If she's a wind-up merchant, she's absolutely priceless.

Main issue: this contrived controversy is almost entirely frivolous, crass, infantile, point-missing, over-the-top, hidebound, puerile, reactionary nonsense. As it happens, I don’t think Bunting is "silly" or "muddled" or "barking" or even suffering from "bionic insanity". She raises some speculative questions about the recently elevated import of this reified, unproblematised Enlightenment on some parts of the left, particularly the Decent Left. She thinks that the increasing tendency to fondle one's Enlightenment in public has something to do with Islam-bashing, and support for imperialist war. She's so astoundingly and obviously correct about this that Anthony couldn't help reminding us that it was about the superiority of Western civilization, whose virtues we share in each time they are mentioned. She makes a few delicate suggestions about the relationship between Islam and the Enlightenment which are worth thinking about, but certainly incomplete. In general, I should say that it's worth looking at the canonical texts, those associated with the Enlightenment in some form or other, and assessing the position of the European vis-a-vis his Other in them. It's not about Islam as much as it is about the White Man and his imperial mission; not about the Ottomans as much as it is about Africa, India, Australia, the Near East and the Americas. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, makes an excellent case that Kant's rational subject is Christian, European and male, and that his apparently marginal remark about the apparently unjustifiable existence of the Neuhollanders and the people of the Tierra de Fuego, these "raw men", has to be read against the background of imperialist expansion and serious discussions about whether the natives were altogether human. The topic of what we understand by the Enlightenment and its relationship to the idea of Europe and its Others, is an important and worthwhile discussion to have.

But the headbangers were not long in letting their ears bleed. Don't you understand that it's about free speech, civil liberties, secularism? Would you rather live under clerical rule? How does the chador sound to you? You spoiled middle class Western harpy, you don't know you're born!! One of the intellectual high-points of this charade was as follows:

Similarly it beggars belief that we are being asked to swallow the idea that the Enlightenment was a Nineteenth Century construct - unless she wants us to believe that the constitution of the United States and the laws of the first French republic were backdated forgeries actually drafted 100 years after the dates on the face of them.

That's Marcus at HP Sauce, quoted on Shuggy's crucible. Shuggy adds: "Yep - Enlightenment as a sort of Roswell cover-up conspiracy; it's a very strong field in which to compete but this surely has to be the most insane thing Maddy has ever written?" When reading Marcus' bewildered wheedling, I can't help being reminded of that anecdote about Mark Twain's meeting with the local yokel in which he asked the fellow of he believed in baptism. "Believe in it?" Came the incredulous reply. "Hell, I've seen it done!" This childlike error of mistaking a discourse for the phenomena it supposedly represents is common to Believers, religious or otherwise. Marsilio Ficino translated Plato's works in the fifteenth century, but the Neoplatonist movement was not considered part of the Renaissance until Jacob Burckhardt retroactively branded the whole period in the nineteenth century. Galileo laid waste to the geostatic, geocentric cosmos in the early seventeenth century, but it was not considered a part of the Scientific Revolution until Alexandre Koyre invented the term in 1939 (and the whole discourse was subsequently inflected with Cold War concerns). It isn't unknown for discrete historical developments to be retrospectively constituted into a coherent intellectual movement.

It isn't inconsistent either, as Geras supposes, to suggest that while there is a discourse of Enlightenment shaped in part as Europe's self-definition against the Ottomans, there is no real corresponding referent. Nor does Bunting actually say that the Enlightenment has just been discovered. Actually, nothing about Geras' thankfully brief attempt at a witty retort gets it. For a philosopher, he has a remarkably cavalier way with the text he supposes he is commenting on.

On the more sensible side of academia and bloggery, Chris Brooke asks some good questions about the Enlightenment, but I'm afraid I think it misses the point, the nosebleedingly obvious point that the sole reason for this Viking Jihad (if you like, and even if you don't) is that a purblind, stoical, dogmatic defense of it against real or imagined foes or critics is precisely the form that contemporary liberal imperialism takes. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to correctly understand the Enlightenment, and everything to do with instrumentalising the normative force of pious pronouncements about free speech and the rule of law against opponents of imperialism, and the corrollary Muslim-bashing. The whole brickheaded, abortive, painfully unimaginative response to what is hopefully a very devious provocation, dramatises this poignantly.

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber also hits a nail or two on the head.

Danish mid-Summer witch-burning.

Update: Bunting responds to her critics.