Home pageTHE SURRE(GION)ALIST MANIFESTOChapter 7.- The Rorty of the Crowd, or Blood and Irony in Recent American Philosophy
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The Rorty of the Crowd, Or Blood and Irony in Recent American Philosophy

The metaphysician . . . does not question the platitudes which encapsulate the use of a given vocabulary, and in particular the platitude which says there is a single permanent reality to be found behind the many temporary appearances . . . . The ironist, by contrast . . . thinks that nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence.

Richard Rorty, CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY [1]

. . . it is important to insist that a sense of shared national identity is not an evil. It is an absolutely essential component of citizenship . . . .

—Richard Rorty, THE UNPATRIOTIC ACADEMY [2]

Richard Rorty is . . . "the most interesting philosopher in the world today."

—Harold Bloom, on the cover of CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY [3]

What can one make of Harold Bloom’s bizarre statement about his friend Rorty? It has nothing obvious to do with contingency. It was probably not written with conscious irony. But it undoubtedly shows solidarity.

Whether or not Rorty is the most interesting philosopher in the whole wide world, he is certainly the best-known contemporary American philosopher. That few Americans have ever heard of him says more about American philosophy and American culture than it does about Rorty. American philosophers have gone to extreme lengths to remain academic, insular and boring. American culture, on the other hand, continues to be anti-intellectual, popular and interesting—without even trying. What can the two possibly have to do with one another?

Rorty has decided to take a stab at bringing philosophy a bit more into the cultural mainstream. He has recreated himself as an American version of the philosophe engagé. Of course, political engagement is not a certain path to public recognition in the American intellectual world. Chomsky’s devastating critique of American foreign policy has only assured him of relative oblivion in this country, despite the fact that he is the most famous linguist in the world. Rorty has chosen a more promising approach. In CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY, he defends a completely innocuous form of political liberalism that places him well within the bounds of political respectability. And as the fortunes of even his mild version of liberalism decline, he has discovered an even safer cause: patriotism. In "The Unpatriotic Academy" he takes a giant step toward most wholesome conformism. He courageously defends nationalism against the onslaught of unpatriotic academicians, and in the process undertakes to make a name for himself as the new State Philosopher.

Whether or not he and American philosophy will ever emerge from their obscurity remains in serious doubt. What is quite clear is the complete absurdity of the post-modern nationalism that he now espouses.

Rorty on National Identity

While Rorty the post-modern ironist (that iconoclastic guy who believes that "nothing has an intrinsic nature") demolishes the basis for any idea of an enduring personal or collective identity, Rorty the State Philosopher ironically discovers his faith in "national identity." While Rorty the ironist rejects almost everything that is most fundamental to the masses, including all their most deeply held religious, moral, and social values, Rorty the State Philosopher makes an argumentum ad (this very same) populum for judging the legitimacy of political movements. Like every contemporary philosopher who is even vaguely au courant, Rorty duly and abundantly recognizes the importance of imagination. Yet Rorty the State Philosopher remains oblivious to the imaginary quality of nationalism, and, indeed, of the nation-state itself. Moreover, when he broaches the topic of the nation-state, he falls into the ultimate post-modern sin, "essentialism." Whereas post-modern Rorty could proclaim that "nothing has a real essence," retro-modernist Rorty finds essences everywhere, in "national identity," in national traditions, even in national heroes.

His call for nationalist hero-worship is particular nonsensical. For example, he advises white Americans to "take pride in Martin Luther King," since the latter is, of course, a certified Great American. The fact that most white Americans are far from sharing the passion for justice that Dr. King lived and died for should not stop them from feeling such pride: it’s enough that they just happen to come from the same nation-state. Chinese Canadians, on the other hand, presumably should not feel this pride, though Alaskan Eskimos should, thanks to the poor financial judgment of a long-dead Czar and his advisors. Gotcha, Richard, I’ll put MLK on my pride list, under the "Afro-American" heading. And if I meet any Alaskan Eskimos I’ll know what to tell them. That’s clear enough.

Yet Prof. Rorty’s Philosophy of Pride raises some perplexing questions for those of us who are struggling to be good, patriotic Americans. Should we be proud of Chinua Achebe, since he now lives in New York, or do we have to wait until he applies for citizenship? And why is "pride" the appropriate response to the message of someone like Dr. King, anyway? Turning prophetic figures into national heroes has always been a convenient method of burying their troubling questions and forgetting their scathing indictments. O, ye generation of vipers! Visit the Martin Luther King Theme Park!

Rorty sings the praises of the nation and "its professed ideals."

But nations come and go, and so do their ideals. The land stays there, more or less. My native land is the Mississippi Delta (the Spiritual Center of the Universe). Its ideals for thousands of years were tribal ones. The French, my ancestors, brought new ideals here a mere three centuries ago. The most exalted of these were to toil less, to make more money, and not to die of yellow fever. A strutting little macho Corsican despot sold us to Rorty’s Great Nation, so his vaunted ideals could become ours also. Still, we fought against it to preserve our own hallowed ideals and their latest incarnation in King Cotton, States Rights and slavery. Since we lost, we got the Enlightenment by default (though as in the case of the end of the War of 1812, the news has yet to reach us). If we had won, we’d still be here in our swamp, but Rorty would care about our ideals as much as he does about those of Jamaica.

So what’s the message of this brief lesson in history? In a word: Contingency, Contingency, Contingency!

Yet for Rorty, despite all his talk of contingency, the last-minute arrival of certain ideals—courtesy of the State—is crucial. For some undivulged reason, we must "yearn to live up to the nation’s professed ideals." We shouldn’t choose, for example, the highest and best ideals imaginable—maybe we don’t want to wear out our imaginations. We shouldn’t choose the ideals of our neighborhood. Those ideals are too small. We shouldn’t choose the ideals of the whole world. Those ideals are too big. We should choose "the nation’s professed ideals." Those ideals are just right! Presumably, if we were to prefer any other ideals (say, the Native American ideals that existed here for 95% of human history) we would have some kind of yearning deficiency. For Rorty, if we fail to identify with the nation-state, "we fail in national hope," and "if we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways." No Irony here from Mr. Contingency, just pure old ignorant Solidarity!

Despite the chain of if-then statements, Rorty’s encounter with post-modernism seems to have rendered this formerly analytical philosopher logically brain dead. What he should have said is that if nationalists fail to identify with the nation-state, then they will no longer have national hope, and will no longer change, stay the same, or do anything else in a national way. For the rest of us—localists, regionalists, surre(gion)alists, anarchists, Earthlings and non¬nationalists of every sort—we can find other identifications, other ideals, other kinds of hope and other reasons to change.

Rorty on the Enemy of Conformism

It is particularly ironic that Rorty invokes Ralph Waldo Emerson and, specifically, that writer’s essay on "The American Scholar" in defense of his nationalist fundamentalism. According to Rorty, unless we are "proud of being the heirs" of various American heroes, we will not be capable of Emersonian "joyous self-confidence." Such mindless appropriation of Emerson betrays our philosopher’s intellectual and moral flaws. Mr. Irony might have noticed a trace of his favorite quality in the fact that Emerson could entitle his essay "The American Scholar," without intruding into it the slightest trace of American nationalism. His point was, as he states near the end of the essay, that the scholar "must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future." The "chief disgrace," he adds, is to be "reckoned in the gross." [4] Emerson’s ideal "nation" will come into being not because it embodies Rortian "national pride" but because of its freedom and universality. It will exist because "each believes himself inspired [not by a impressive list of authors who have not been read carefully by those who cite them] but by "the Divine Soul which also inspires all men." [5] It is based, in Emerson’s perhaps sexist but certainly not nationalist formulation, on something that vastly transcends the nation-state!

It is indeed puzzling that Prof. Rorty could make a hero out of the author of these words, while proposing a quite anti-Emersonian culture in which a large dose of national pride, but "no trace of divinity remain[s]."" [6] It’s puzzling until we realize that Rorty doesn’t give a flying philosophical fuck what nonsense Emerson might have spouted. He’s a famous guy, he’s an American, so we might as well be proud of him!

But what exactly does Rorty mean when in his apology for patriotism he exhorts "American leftists" to "be proud of being the heirs of Emerson"? Should they experience some special feelings when they hear the word "Emerson"—certain warm sensations, shivers, euphoric states, dizziness, orgasmic impulses, or what? Somehow I can’t manage to get a better feeling of any kind when I hear "Emerson," as compared to, say, "Rabelais," "Laozi," or "Hieronymus Bosch"—as undeniably un-American as all of these may be! No offense meant to the noble Waldo, that uncompromising New England individualist whom nationalists would do better to read than to betray by perverting him into a national hero.

Tellingly, Rorty invokes Emerson six times in his brief nationalistic editorial but, ironically, mentions him not even once in his lengthy discussions of social theory. It is an outrage that our budding State Philosopher seeks to implicate Emerson in his conspiracy to give thought a national pedigree. The same Emerson who in his essay on "Politics" proclaimed that "the wise man makes the State unnecessary."

He might have added that the foolish one glorifies it.

Rorty on the Left

What Rorty ops in his op-ed article is the left that advocates the "politics of difference." Not surprising, since the line he promotes is a politics of sameness, founded (quel horreur postmoderne!) on a metaphysics of sameness. But as they say, the more things differ, the more they stay the same. Some people, including both nationalists like Rorty and also the partisans of difference he attacks, want to have it one way or the other. Is Rorty in any position to attack his political mirror images (who at least have the virtue of consistency between their politics and their anti-metaphysics)? Certainly not. Since those obsessed with difference [differance? difference? differ@nce?] tend to lapse into total incoherence, there is at least the logical possibility that they may be trying to say something quite extraordinary and wonderful. Rorty, on the other hand, writes rather clearly, so that there is no doubt that what he says is ordinary, mediocre, and self¬contradictory.

In his various pronouncements on society, Rorty somehow manages to overlook such rather conspicuous phenomena as the State, Capital, and the technological megamachine. He attacks a silly left that babbles on about "difference." Yet he fails to notice any left that is concerned with these ineluctable social and political realities, which are far more significant to lefts everywhere—with the possible exception of those that reside in certain Departments of English.

Rorty complains that the left he attacks "refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits." But what country is it that this left, Rorty himself, or anyone "inhabits"? Does anyone actually inhabit that horrendous hybrid of monster and abstraction, the nation-state? Rorty proclaims that we should "take pride in being citizens of a self¬invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy."But does he really "take pride" in this? Does his contingent little self really swell up with pride that the genetic material that created its preconditions happened to configure itself appropriately in the good ole U.S. of A.? Beyond being horrendously bad philosophy, isn’t this the most transparent bad faith?

As Rorty muses about the fate of the left, he is bold enough to make both an empirical claim and a prediction. The empirical, historical claim is that "an unpatriotic left has never achieved anything." The prediction is that such a left will in the future "have no impact" and become "an object of contempt."

The empirical claim is demonstrably false. Actually his own liberal tradition, before it became impotent and senile, was a hotbed for unpatriotic leftists. Some were traitors and revolutionaries. Early unpatriotic liberalism—loyal to principles, treasonous toward regimes—changed the course of history by overthrowing established orders in various countries, including Rorty’s own. Perhaps when he thinks of his own revolutionary forebears, he becomes so choked up with nationalistic pride that he succumbs to appropriate nationalist amnesia and forgets that they were unpatriotic.

Of course, Rorty’s liberal forebears were not the best example of a creatively unpatriotic left. The Spanish anarchists were the most unpatriotic left imaginable and created the most thoroughgoing social revolution in modern history—before they were slaughtered by nationalist patriots. [7] Rorty might acquaint himself with Solidaridad Obrera before he dares to write another book with "solidarity" in the title.

While it is clear that Rorty knows little about unpatriotic lefts of the past, how he purports to know that unpatriotic lefts in the future will "have no impact" is a mystery. If the nation-state is entering a period of crisis, it will probably be subject to various assaults from right and left, from super-patriot and anti¬patriots alike, but a Richard Rorty is unlikely to shed much light on this subject.

Where he is, however, precisely on target, is in his recognition that a left that courageously attacks the bloody mythology of patriotism will, of course, be an object of contempt. Here Rorty’s judgment is atypically accurate. The prejudiced are always contemptuous of, and indeed, enraged against those who call their biases into question.

But the left does not have to wait until it becomes courageous to elicit contempt. The left is already an object of contempt, in large part because the popular mind associates it with the kind of anemic, hypocritical liberalism that Rorty dispenses. A left that is enlightened enough to question popular prejudices, but duplicitous enough to pander to these same prejudices when it courts a public that it thinks too stupid to catch on.

Rorty on the Book Cover

In his patriotic appeal, Rorty tells us that the academic left suffers from a "need to stay as angry as possible." Why this is necessarily a disadvantage is not clear. As Nietzsche long ago pointed out, the dominant mood of modern society is ressentiment. They’re mad as hell, they don’t know why, and the whole idea of politics is to give them a good reason! If the academic leftists could harness the power of anger and resentment like a Rush Limbaugh, they might be as influential as he is—instead of merely being as annoying. But Rorty’s liberals are not angry, and neither does he appear to be.

Consider his image as we see him on the cover of CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY. He smiles, more or less. True, he does look a bit pained, as if forcing himself to make a face for the camera.But the intended image is obviously one of contentment. So let’s take our philosopher at his image. He is the well-dressed philosopher, in his Oxford shirt (open at the collar), and sport-coat. He is a neat, conservative liberal. Relaxed. A bit of the country gentleman. We can almost hear him intone, "Ask not what your country can do for you; rather, ask what you can do for your country club!"

But there are deeper levels of meaning in this image. The symbolism betrays Rorty’s aspirations to be the State Philosopher. In his Times article, Rorty merely waves the flag. On the cover, Rorty becomes the flag. The dominating image consists of Rorty’s ruddy face, his white hair and jacket, and his blue shirt. Mr. Red, White and Blue. And just as the State creeps in subliminally, so does the Church. Behind our human flag rises a tree trunk, apparently intersected by a horizontal tree limb. The objects are not clear, but the image is. Behind Mr. Flag looms a large cross.

Rorty on Ironism

It’s ironic how little irony there is in this ironist. Neither is there much humor. Ironically, the first words of his book are a quote from Kundera in which "those who do not laugh" are identified with "the non-thought of received ideas." Rorty is not a very funny guy, so we should not be surprised that he ends up as a nationalist.

Rorty brings to mind the philosopher mentioned earlier who staunchly defended the proposition that Nietzsche is funny. He offered as evidence for his thesis the fact that he only laughs out loud when reading Nietzsche. He even had to suppress a little giggle at the thought of Nietzsche’s funniness. What I found rather ironic and perhaps even slightly funny was that no example of Nietzsche’s humor was ever given. I’m still amazed at the fact that he filled his twenty¬minute quota of verbiage without stumbling into some feeble attempt at illustration. A truly Rortian achievement! A humorism that rivals Rorty’s ironism! Needless to say, Rorty finds Nietzsche absolutely hilarious. He refers to "Nietzsche’s boundless sense of humor." (p. 108) Of course, he gives no examples.

Yet there are examples of funny philosophers.Marx, for one, had an absolutely boundless sense of humor. As he once said (more or less), "One morning when I was on safari in Virginia, I shot a liberal ironist in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas I don’t know! Maybe he was practicing the Sleep of Reason."

Rorty’s approach to sexist language is a bit ironic also. Instead of using literally egalitarian forms like "he or she" and "she or he," Rorty alternates the "she’s" and the "he’s." But rather than doing it randomly, he bestows on "her" and "him" different roles. For example, while "he" usually talks obsolete metaphysics, "she" spouts Rortian ironism. And when the "ironist" is specifically defined (p. 73) it is "she" who is endowed with all three of its essential qualities.

Perhaps we should take this as some kind of feminist gesture or an act of post-modern chivalry. But the effect is that wretched "she" ends up taking the rap for Rorty’s intellectual ineptitude. The liberal ironist comes across as somebody who doesn’t have the ovaries to own up to what she really thinks. And why does she wear that white sports jacket?

Rorty optimistically claims that the ironist "weaves candidates for belief." (p. 84) The sad truth is that she only crochets nominees for disbelief.

Rorty on the Real World

It is de rigeur for a State Philosopher to make pronouncements on such topics as contemporary history and popular culture. Accordingly, Rorty does so—and once again stumbles into the abyss of irony. Writing in the momentous year 1989, he opines that "it is hard to imagine a diminution of cruelty in countries like South Africa, Paraguay, and Albania without violent revolution." (p. 63) What is so striking about his statement is that he does not describe such a change as "unlikely" but rather as "hard to imagine." At that late date, our patriotic intellectual should have had some strong hints about change that might have spurred his imagination on a bit. Ironically, at the same moment that Rorty was expressing these views, African National Congress leaders were explicitly rejecting the necessity for violent revolution, and advocating "neither too much violence, nor too little violence, but the precise level of violence called for by the existing conditions." [8]

Rorty’s obliviousness to the changes occuring in Communist regimes is an even more flagrant example of his lack of contact with history. Summarizing the sad state of the world, he observes that "the capitalists remain as greedy and shortsighted, and the Communist oligarchs as cynical and corrupt (unless Gorbachev surprises us), as Orwell said they were." (p. 175) Poor Orwell can hardly be blamed for the fact that the actual Soviet Union of 1989 did not correspond precisely to his fictional society based in part on the Soviet Union of 1948. But we may assume that Rorty was still alive enough in the late 80’s to check the news.

Rorty is also a bit weak on what’s been happening in his own beloved nation-state. According to the universe’s most interesting philosopher, "most non-intellectuals" out there in O.J. Land—in Beavis and Butthead Land—in Michael Jackson Land—in Super Bowl Land—in Elvis is Still Alive Land—most of those non¬intellectuals "are still committed either to some form of religious faith or to some form of Enlightenment rationalism." (p. xv) Isn’t that interesting? He believes that half of the general public thinks that Jesus is coming again soon, and the other half thinks that Voltaire is. You might begin to suspect that Mr. Irony is a bit on the oblivious side in the area of popular culture.

Not so fast! He is well aware of the fact that "the novel, the movie, and the TV program have gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the primary vehicles of moral change and progress."

(p. xvi) And he wants his "liberal utopia" to give this change its well¬deserved recognition—through a turn away from theory and toward narrative. Irony attack! This momentous statement is followed not by a story or a TV program, but by a theoretical treatise. We still have to wait for CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY: THE MOVIE.

Ever in touch with contemporary society, Rorty notes that "in our increasingly ironist culture, two figures are often cited . . . . " (p. 98) Guess who? Proust and Nietzsche! Yes, they’re often mentioned on the talk shows. Oprah is very big on Proust while Geraldo digs Nietzsche. "Our culture" is, of course, for our liberal ironist the minute subculture of a subculture that reads his favorite books.

Rorty (the Secular Humorist) on God

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says that the old gods all laughed themselves to death. In Rorty’s future liberal utopia, the gods will also have disappeared, but one suspects that they will have been bored to death. They will certainly have little to do in Rorty’s secular society.

According to Rorty, "in its ideal form, the culture of liberalism would be one which was enlightened, secular, through and through. It would be one in which no trace of divinity remained, either in the form of a divinized world or a divinized self. Such a culture would have no room for the notion that there are nonhuman forces to which human beings should be responsible." It would also reject "not only the idea of holiness but those of ’devotion to truth’ and of ’fulfillment of the deepest needs of the spirit.’" (p. 45) In other words, the liberal utopia would carry to perfection all the nihilistic values of our economistic society.

However, Rorty’s secularism—indeed his banishment of everything sacred—is lethal to all his patriotic pretensions. To begin with, it undercuts his fetishism of the State and national tradition. One reason why they retain their power is because most other forms of the sacred have been demystified by the society of consumption. When the sacred aura is taken away from these last mystical realities, their basis in illusion and imagination becomes apparent.

What’s more, if Rorty had the courage and honesty to profess his secularism as openly as he professes his patriotic faith, it would kill any appeal he might have to those masses to which he panders. On the other hand, it would no doubt endear him even more to those liberals who can’t manage to believe in anything but yearn to feel like more like those who can. I suspect that for the relativistic liberal the thrill of talking patriotic is much like the thrill for the fundamentalist of finding a prostitute and talking dirty. [9]

Rorty on Philosophers

Ironically, the world’s most interesting philosopher can’t discuss one of the more interesting of philosophical topics, Nietzsche’s Superman, without making it entirely boring. Nietzsche would say that Rorty is under the power of the Spirit of Gravity, though we might call it the Spirit of Irony, in the sense that his jeux d’esprit go over like an iron balloon.

According to our iron-ist, when Nietzsche "starts explaining how to be wonderful and different and unlike anything that has ever existed [N.B.: This is Rortian literary breathlessness] he talks about human selves as if they were reservoirs of something called ’will to power.’ The superman has an immense reservoir of this stuff, and Nietzsche’s own is presumably pretty big." (p. 106) What can one say of a writer who can pen the phrase "The superman has an immense X, and Nietzsche’s own is presumably pretty big," open up the abyss of irony and then fill it from his infinite reservoir of prosaism? Only that his is rather pathetically small (i.e., his reservoir of imagination, of course).

Rorty’s comments on Michel Foucault are much more interesting, not because his writing is any better, but because what he says is so outrageously ludicrous. Rorty refers to "the desire to avoid cruelty and pain" as "a desire which Foucault shared." (p. 65) Well, we can forgive the academic philosopher for being oblivious to developments in the Soviet Union, South Africa and other places of mere theoretical concern, but ignorance of what was going on in Foucault’s bedroom is a truly unpardonable sin!

The truth is that not only did Foucault have no "desire to avoid cruelty and pain," he loved it and reveled in it. He couldn’t get enough of it!

Although Foucault treated the subject obliquely in his writings as early as 1962, he openly discussed sado-masochism in texts published beginning in the late 70’s. His outlook in the late 60’s and early 70’s can be epitomized by the injunction "be cruel," a principle that by 1972 led him to endorse a bloody uprising on behalf of a "popular justice" in which the masses might revive the charming custom of presenting "the head of an enemy on a stake, for public viewing." [10] He was always haunted by the masochistic appeal of suicide, which he described in 1979 as "the simplest of pleasures." [11] In an interview published in 1982, he praised sado-masochism as "the real creation of new possibilities for pleasure." [12] Biographer James Miller, in describing the diverse practices in which Foucault participated, comments that "there are not enough words for the colors of pain." [13] Foucault reported dreams that "seethe with cruelty and destruction." [14] Late in his life, he told an interviewer of "one of his best memories" in which he experienced "very, very intense pleasure." What he fondly recalled was his experience of being hit by a car and having for a few seconds "the impression that he was dying." [15] If only he had lived to read CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY!

This is not the only case in which Rorty sabotages philosophy in his heroic pursuit of the Platonic Form of the Obtuse. While a significant literature was building up on the connections between Heidegger’s philosophy and his Fascist politics, Rorty could still dismiss the problem through an appeal to crude psychological dualism. He remarks that "on the general relation between Heidegger’s thought and his Nazism, I am not persuaded that there is much to be said except that one of the century’s most original thinkers happened to be a pretty nasty character. He was the sort of man who could betray his Jewish colleagues for the sake of his own ambition, and then manage to forget what he had done." (p. 111) Rorty notes that "if one holds [his own] view of the self as centerless," then "one will be prepared to find the relation between the intellectual and the moral virtues, and the relation between a writer’s books and other parts of his life, contingent." (p. 111)

Rorty’s comment is more than mildly ironic in view of the fact that the themes of forgetting and remembering are central to Heidegger’s philosophy (and thus, we might deduce, for the benefit of Rortians, to his "books"). It seems rather strange, and also quite ironic, to conclude that the kind of forgetfulness into which this philosopher lapses is irrelevant to his thinking about forgetfulness, or to what he forgets to think about forgetfulness! More ironic still is that not only does he forget in "his life" (to use Rorty’s absurd term for that which one does when not writing books, or, perhaps, when one is not officially thinking) such minor details as his betrayal of colleagues, but he also systematically forgets in his books the annihilation of whole peoples by a regime and movement in which he participated and which he failed (forgot?) to renounce. And what is ultimately ironic is the fact that our nasty but original philosopher’s only public mention of this mass slaughter is an ironic one! [16]

Why is our liberal ironist unable to mine any of this irony? In Heidegger, Rorty might have finally discovered the quite interesting connection between philosophy, blood, and irony! Instead, he finds nothing more than a convienient instance to which to apply a Rortian "view."

Rorty on Liberalism

Rorty’s liberalism is ironic to the core because it is founded on a monstrous absurdity and a process of resolutely overlooking this absurdity. Philosophy professors sometimes like to give their freshman classes the classic Zen exercise of trying not to think about a monkey. Rorty’s liberalism is an exercise in trying not to think about a nine hundred pound gorilla.

For Rorty, "a liberal society is one whose ideals can be fulfilled by persuasion rather than force, by reform rather than revolution . . . . "

(p. 60) The liberal ironist, he thinks, makes a crucial distinction between "the use of force and the use of persuasion." (p. 84) Liberals are the most uncompromising foes of force, coercion, and domination, right?

Guess again. The liberal ironist somehow forgets to apply these exalted principles of non-violence to a rather conspicuous phenomenon: the nation-state. A deliciously ironic oversight, equivalent to Kierkegaard’s paradigmatic example of obliviousness. Just as Kierkegaard’s pious churchgoer fails to notice one thing—the Mysterium Tremendum, alias God—our gentle, non-violent liberal philosopher ironically overlooks the fact that the nation-state he presupposes is, in practice and by its very definition, a monstrous system of force and coercion. The State is not a debating club! And a propos of clubs, as Bakunin once said, "if I’m being beaten with a club, it doesn’t hurt any less if the club is labelled ’the people’s club.’" The nine hundred pound theoretical gorilla hangs tenaciously on the liberal’s back.

Neither does Rorty waste much time reflecting on how the economic oligarchy protects its investments through the force and coercion of the State, not to mention through the force of circumstance—the enforced constraints of "everyday life." Certain kinds of force remain invisible to Rorty: they lurk in his imaginary blind spot. So don’t expect him to have much solidarity with the victims. He certainly doesn’t experience the force of economic necessity, and prison is definitely not part of the liberal academic lifestyle. His ideology conveniently and magically transforms all this force and coercion into the "suffering" that he laments with the coldest of intellectual sympathy.

Nor does he delve into the forces that dominate the mass media in which most of his vaunted liberal "free discussion" will take place. For Rorty, the true and the good are no more than "whatever is the outcome" of such "free discussion," defined in a typically liberal manner as "what goes on when the press, the judiciary, the elections and the universities are free, social mobility is frequent and rapid, literacy is universal, higher education is common, and peace and wealth have made possible the leisure to listen to lots of different people and think about what they say." (p. 84)

Fear not! We are well along the way to such a utopia of free discussion: a kind of zombie-like state in which growing amounts of leisure-time are devoted to gleaning truths from the talk-shows and TV hyperreality. One can reflect on the pro’s and (especially) con’s of daughters who think their mothers dress like sluts, cops cleaning the bad boys out of the hood, the latest visits of ET’s to Middle America, and the never-ending saga of O.J. And should any semi-serious politics somehow squeeze its way into the world of "free discussion," Rortian liberalism gives us no reason to question its ideological limits. We can just sit back and watch the right-wing bigot corner the shame¬faced liberal, as the latter stands up for free enterprise, patriotism, and a small dose of compassion. We wait in vain for a "free discussion" of whether social oppression should exist, but we can tune in every day to stimulating debates about exactly how brutal it should be, and whether its victims fully deserve their fate, or whether they have earned our liberal sympathy.

Rorty’s defense of liberal society might be stronger if he had made it into some kind of distant ideal, like communism and the withering away of the state were supposed to be. But what he defends is already here, embodied in some of the nation-states whose citizens need from Rorty’s point of view to be more proudly patriotic. We get to compare actually existing liberalism to what Rorty says about it, and no liberal KGB shuts us up. No wonder liberals don’t need a sense of humor to make liberalism sound like a joke.

Rorty writes of "the sort of social hope which characterizes modern liberal societies—the hope that life will eventually be freer, less cruel, more leisured, richer in goods and experiences, not just for our descendents but for everybody’s descendents." (p. 86) Everybody’s? Consider how these societies treat immigrants within and foreigners outside their borders. Of course, it’s cheap to hope, but what evidence is there that there is even any interest in the welfare of these others, much less hope for them? And far from cherishing such hope for everybody’s descendents, these societies are becoming increasingly cynical about such aspirations for anybody’s descendents. After all, what has the future ever done for you?

Near the end of the book, we finally get a concise statement of the foundations of Rortian political theory. I am aware that Rorty says that seeing them as "philosophical foundations" is the "wrong way" to read them. However, I am using the term "foundations" in the more basic department-store sense of "a supporting undergarment, such as a corset or girdle, especially one with an attached brassiere." It is what underlies the Rortian corpus when the outer garments are stripped off—what is employed to give it shape and form. Rorty states that the correct way to read his statements about solidarity and obligations to others is "as a contribution to the attempt to achieve what Rawls calls ’reflective equilibrium’ between our instinctive reactions to contemporary problems and the general principles on which we have been reared." (p. 196) Rortian political philosophy thus reduces to philosophy at the service of gut reactions and conventional wisdom.

While the liberal ironist may struggle valiantly to reconcile conflicting feelings and beliefs, millions of blessed souls who can’t stand liberals and think that irony was sent by the Devil or is some kind of Jewish Communist plot are born into "reflective equilibrium." "My daddy tol’ me they was no good, and I can look at ’em an’ tell they ain’t no good!" Q.E.D.

Rorty on Cruelty

Like many of his liberal predecessors, Rorty thinks that the infliction of pain and suffering are the greatest of social evils. He proposes that "liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do." (p. xv) What "unites" ironists like Rorty with others is "just susceptibility to pain and in particular to that special sort of pain which the brutes do not share with the humans— humiliation." (p. 92) Why it is just this [to echo Rorty’s emphasis] is not clear, and in fact doesn’t make much sense. Most of us probably think that a lot more positive things unite us with others. Presumably, from Rorty’s point of view if we became Zenlike enough or perhaps even catatonic enough to detach ourselves from sources of humiliation we would disunite ourselves from the ironists and everybody else.

But while susceptibility to pain unites all of us, awareness of and concern about this susceptibility apparently doesn’t. From Rorty’s arrogant perspective, few people other than those Europeans and Americans who have had the benefit of his sort of liberal ideology have been able to develop the qualities required for such awareness and concern. "The ironist does not see her ability to envisage, and desire to prevent, the actual and possible humiliation of others" as an "essentially human" quality, but rather as "an ability and a desire" that is "associated primarily with Europe and America in the last three hundred years." (p. 93)

In reality, such abilities and desires have been central (if not "essential") to traditions that have spanned most of human history (though they have usually been more interested in preventing "actual" than "possible" humiliation). Twenty-five hundred years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha initiated a tradition that envisioned a "cure to suffering" through a compassion that aimed precisely at such a goal. Laozi’s "Three Treasures" of "deep love, simplicity, and never putting oneself ahead" introduced a similar idea into the Daoist tradition at about the same time. Dorothy Lee describes numerous tribal cultures that have been based on a respect for the person and a careful avoidance of any act or expression that would judge a person comparatively, much less humiliate him or her. She writes of the Navaho workers who resisted giving orders to others and Hopi children who refused to keep score in games when the economic system and school system of modern, Western, liberal society imposed such practices on them. [17] None of these traditions seem to exist in World History According to Rorty.

His arrogant elitism sinks to its lowest when he reduces "the oppressed" to the status of passive victims. "As I said earlier, pain is non-linguistic: It is what we human beings have that ties us to the non-language-using beasts. So victims of cruelty, people who are suffering, do not have much in the way of language. That is why there is [sic] no such things as the ’voice of the oppressed’ or the ’language of the victims.’ The language the victims once used is not working anymore, and they are suffering too much to put new words together. So the job of putting their situation into language is going to have to be done for them by somebody else. The liberal novelist, poet, or journalist is good at that." (p. 94)

As I said earlier (remember?), this is arrogant elitism at its lowest! It is no accident that the diabolical Professor Rortyarty prefaces his comment on the oppressed with a reference to "beasts," for it is precisely beastlike qualities that he attributes to the victims of suffering. His liberalism requires that the oppressed be reduced to victims who can be conveniently represented by liberals. He seems unaware of the literature, poetry, journalism, film, art and other forms of self-expression of women, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, gays, poor rural whites, and many other oppressed groups. Since he doesn’t believe in ideology, he can’t understand how their voice might be eloquent, strong, and, to use a word he would disdain, truthful, yet often marginalized, distorted, and co-opted by the dominant system of power. Perhaps this situation is a bit too ironic for our ironist. For Rorty there is a simple, convenient and non-ironic explanation for their failure to get a fair hearing: the poor suffering wretches have been reduced to silence or incoherence. So let the literary liberals speak for them, and let the theoretical liberals explain to them their good fortune in having liberals around, so they don’t have to bother to learn how to talk.

Ironically, Rorty says elsewhere that we "should stay on the lookout for marginalized people—people whom we instinctively think of as ’they’ rather than ’us.’ We should try to notice our similarities with them." (p. 196) This must be rather difficult, since the differences are usually much more obvious. For example, that we have spare change and they don’t. Rorty obviously lives in one of the better neighborhoods, where a notable difference about the marginals is that they are nowhere to be seen, so that he has to "stay on the lookout" for them. Strange that the big difference he notices when he finally scouts out a few is that they can’t speak. Perhaps he has only encountered them as he passed them in his BMW, observed that they often carry signs, and hastily concluded that they are mute.

Rorty on the Platform

On March 26, 1982, Richard Rorty spoke in New Orleans. He treated his audience to an excruciatingly boring reading of a manuscript he called "Post-Philosophical Man." Despite the title, Rorty said rather little about the man in question, and he did not reveal whether she was a liberal or not. Perhaps Post-Philosophical Man needed the rest of the decade to discover her true identity. Rorty revealed himself to be only slightly more of an ironist in person than in print. He discussed, for example, "the fear that something will be lost if philosophy fades from the cultural scene," a something that, he added, is "not just the employment possibilities for philosophers." This statement was in fact more ironic than he thought, since Rorty actually said "fades from the cultural scene like theology." Theologians Hans Küng and Gustavo Gutierrez later both came to the intellectual backwater (and, indeed, the veritable swamp) that I call home and spoke to packed auditoriums of eight hundred, while Rorty could pull in only a small fraction of that number. What is the grammar of the word "fade," anyway? Near the end of an hour of Rorty’s tedious, uninspired reading, a bell rang loudly. As usual, our philosopher’s irony-meter was inoperative, since there was no evidence of a reaction as he droned on. (Fade-out).

On Rorty

And lest the reader begin to hear the ringing of imaginary bells, let us conclude these reflections on the world’s most interesting philosopher. We must now ask how our patriotic academician rates as a budding State Philosopher, as the self-anointed prophet of blood and irony. Lamentably, he fails on two counts. His blood is thin, his irony weak. He suffers from a terminal case of irony deficiency anemia.

 

[1] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 74. Emphasis by Cafard.

[2] Op-ed article in The New York Times, (Feb. 13, 1994), p. E15. Emphasis by Cafard.

[3] Lack of emphasis by Cafard

[4] Emerson, "The American Scholar" in THE SELECTED WORKS OF RALPH WALDO EMERSON. (New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. 63.

[5] Ibid.

[6] It is indeed puzzling that X does Y" is contemporary Anglo-American philosophical jargon for "X is a complete asshole." The quote is from CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY, p. 45, with emphasis added. All future references to this book will appear in the text after the passage cited.

[7] Conveniently forgotten by mainstream historians and liberal historians in particular, as Chomsky pointed out decades ago in "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship." See AMERICAN POWER AND THE NEW MANDERINS. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 23-129.

[8] This position had in fact been adopted long before Rorty published his comments on the subject. The formulation quoted is from Dr. Neo Mnumzana, the official U.S. representative of the African National Congress, in a speech entitled "South Africa: Still at the Crossroads," presented on Oct. 12, 1988 in New Orleans.

[9] See my analysis of the decline and fall of Jimmy Swaggart, in "Anti-Ecorotica: Sex Among the Televangelists," in Exquisite Corpse #54 (1995): 6-9.

[10] James Miller, THE PASSION OF MICHEL FOUCAULT. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993, p.205.

[11] Ibid., p. 55.

[12] Ibid., p. 263.

[13] Ibid., p. 267.

[14] Ibid., p. 78.

[15] Ibid., p. 306.

[16] In a speech in Bremen in 1949, Heidegger, while discussing modern technology, quipped that "agriculture is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps . . . . " Quoted in Victor Farias, HEIDEGGER AND NAZISM. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 287.

[17] See Dorothy Lee, FREEDOM AND CULTURE. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1959), esp. pp. 5-26.

Exquisite Corpse, 2003 Copyright © 2007 Max Cafard.