Adam Kotsko has written an interesting post about hostility towards high theory over at An und fur sich.
I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be particularly intense at CTS, but I’m sure happens elsewhere. This is the phenomenon of being impatient with scholarship and theoretical work that does not appear to have an immediate practical application or to be immediately communicable to “common people.” Today this did not come up in class, since we were talking about a very topical book of Judith Butler’s (Precarious Life), but when discussing the idea of how an identitarian “we” very often ends up excluding some of those that it by all rights should include, this issue came to mind.
It seems to me that various types of activist movements, identitarian or not, and also religious movements tend to marginalize or exclude their more “intellectual” members. Hence when we get the impatient question, “But how does this play to the people on the streets/in the pews?,” it may represent a certain defensiveness among people who are seeking to be intellectuals who are faithful to the movements with which they identify. In rhetorically identifying with the “common person” — which the speaker, who is in this case enrolled in an advanced degree program, simply no longer is, whether they want to admit it or not — the speaker can make a double assertion:
1. The common people are right to be suspicious of some intellectual work, which really is useless at best or counterproductive at worst.
2. I, however, do not do that kind of intellectual work and am very suspicious of it myself.
This identification and distancing, then, can be a means of expiating a certain type of guilt for enjoying “useless” intellectual pursuits for their own sake. It is difficult for me to imagine that anyone would enter a PhD program without enjoying intellectual work for its own sake, even if the primary goal is, for instance, to document a neglected aspect of one’s cultural heritage or history, or to develop specific programs to help people, etc., etc. Even if one really is a “movement intellectual” in sincere solidarity with an activist or religious group, one is still an intellectual, which is always going to include at least some minimal slippage between one’s intellectual pursuits and the immediate needs (strategic of propagandistic) of the movement. One may take theological stances that one’s church body takes as disruptive of the training of ministers, or one may ask questions about sexuality that are experienced as attacking the unity of one’s identitarian movement — in any case, one’s identification is not complete. Even if that must necessarily be true for every member of a movement, it is much more of a “public” issue for the intellectual, whose role makes it much less easy to hide misgivings than is the case for a “private individual” in the rank and file.
I confess that I’m increasingly guilty of this. In the realm of political theory I increasingly find myself feeling that high theory seldom leads to any genuine action, and is often remote from the living struggles of its day. As such, it finds itself in a sort of performative contradiction. At the level of its content it espouses a radical agenda of change, yet the form of its discourse and the way it is addressed to other academics ends up withdrawing it from the social sphere and allowing the very things it claims to struggle against to persist. The academy can be thought as a way of containing more public forms of engagement and cutting them off in advance.
With regard to theology my suspicion is that high theology is often a rationalization of much more basic religious phenomena. Here the situation is not unlike the Heidegger affair. Heidegger comes up with all sorts of nuanced and sophisticated grounds to explain the world-historical significance of the Nazi party, but at the end of the day the Nazi party is a very stupid, very vulgar, very ugly social phenomenon that possesses none of the saving power he suggests at the level of its concrete practice. Heidegger ends up supporting the very thing promoting the forgetfullness of being he decries. The theologian ends up supporting, in action, the very things they decry by virtue of how religious politics objectively functions.
At any rate, I’m continuously being told that I don’t recognize the diversity of religious belief so I cited some statistics:
Here in the states 59% of Protestants voted for Bush, 52% of Catholics voted Bush, and 78% of Evangelicals/Born-Agains voted for Bush. 64% of people that attended church more than once a week voted Bush, as did 58% of those that attend church weekly.
These are numbers that can’t simply be brushed aside or ignored, and I think they underline why Adam’s allusion to this variety of religious believers is a disingenious argument to make. The numbers for Catholics and Protestants are heartening as they’re almost split down the middle. Consequently, for me the interesting question would be one of how to push those numbers in the other direction. Is high theology going to do this? I don’t see how any of you, however, can reasonably deny that as it stands now there’s a strong coalition between conservatives and religion in the United States.
You can imagine the response from Adam:
Show me an atheist Mother Theresa and we’ll talk. Show me that doctrinaire atheism promotes anything other than stupid pride and other than that just totally going along with the capitalist system, and we’ll talk. Until then, just fucking shut the fuck up.
It’s interesting that Adam believes there haven’t been any atheist benefactors of mankind. It’s even more interesting that he so readily accepts the stories about Mother Teresa and doesn’t look into her own relationship with capitalism (i.e., the way she was perhaps making the condition of the lepers worse due to a religious mission). But the most astonishing claim is the idea that atheists are somehow alone in going along with the capitalist system. If anything, religion in the United States seems to systematically function as one of the central promotors of capitalism. In the end, however, I think Adam’s call to shut up says it all and reveals his true nature. This is the whole problem.
UPDATE: Apparently I’ve been banned from the Weblog and An und fur sich for my remarks. It is good to see Christlike behavior alive and well. I think a not so careful examination of Adam’s mode of speaking to others reveals the true nature of how he feels about discussion concerning religious belief. He’s completely open to such discussion so long as no one disagrees or criticizes the religious. It’s interesting how this company immediately resorts to invectives and attacks the moment they feel questioned. Who knows what else they might do (they certainly did some unkind things to Rich Pulasky over at the Weblog). In his response to this post he refers to me as a doctrinaire, fundamentalist atheist. I wonder if Adam understands that I, and most other atheists, would never speak up about their atheism at all if it weren’t for folk like Adam brutalizing our positions and religious zealots enacting legislation in the United States. We’d much rather discuss ways of solving political problems, social problems, engage in philosophy and science, and discuss an interesting novel or film. At any rate, Adam’s banning performatively re-enacts the history of the church with regard to dialogue. I’m just glad he doesn’t have the institutional power to burn me at the stake or torture me like Galileo.