We continue, here, with the task of thinking about the rise of Theory in the United States––a phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the displacement of the New Deal order by neoliberalism, beginning with the economic shocks and crises of the early 1970s. What we are asking is whether the new passions for methodologically sophisticated critique within the humanities and social sciences since the 1970s might productively be categorized as evidence of an emergent Epistemic Left.
Over the past weeks, we have been grateful to receive some helpful criticism. This criticism has assisted in the clarification of several fundamental premises. First, we want to make sure that we are not arguing that all speculative experimentation––from Thales to Post-Humanism––is, in some way, “Left.” That would be a very difficult claim to prove. No part of our current task requires such a universalizing appraisal. Furthermore, at an intuitive level, it simply does not seem to be true.
Second, we do not want to be mistaken for arguing that all Left thinking is speculatively experimental. This brings us back to the original motivation for thinking about “Epistemic Leftism,” inspired as it was by Peter Novick’s observation that so much Left historiography has hewed closely to nineteenth century protocols (what history people refer to by the shorthand of “Rankean”), apparently allergic to the conceptual innovations of the modernist and postmodernist moments. Thus, for us, “Epistemic Left” is to be understood as a minor idiom within a methodologically traditionalist field—what might be called an “Epistemological Left,” a Left for which conventional epistemology is not a problem.
Finally, we wish to make sure that “Epistemic Left” does not translate as: “a descriptive container for things that I like.” I am a person of the Left, it’s true, and I am interested in Theory, and thus some overlap of this sort is unavoidable. But we would never contest the fact that intellectuals outside the penumbra of the Left thought and wrote some interesting and clever things in the period 1973-2016, and that intellectuals within that penumbra thought and wrote some boring and stupid things.
Today, we wish to think further about the criticism that is, by far, the most convincing of all—that (setting everything else aside) Theory is and always has been a mandarin endeavor with political pretensions. To take seriously the Left-ness of the “Epistemic Left” is merely to flatter the vain self-celebration of the Theorists themselves; in the words of Edward W. Said: “the often ridiculous and always self-flattering notion that their discussions and debates have a supremely important bearing upon crucial interests affecting humankind.”
The “Epistemic Left,” to this way of thinking, is, in fact, a “Putative Left,” as Said suggests in “Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism” (1979). Seeking no political purpose outside of the seminar room, “the putative Left… is very far from playing a left-wing role.”
I would like to briefly review the main points that Said establishes in this essay, and conclude by thinking a bit about where Said’s critique leaves us. Does it destabilize, entirely, the project of historicizing Theory as a product of an Epistemic Left? Or does it leave us––as I think it does––with a more sober-minded and dialectical understanding of the changes in Literary Studies (following the displacement of New Criticism in the aftermath of the 1960s) as still plausibly attributable to an emergent scholarly radicalism?
“Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism”
Surveying the field at the precipice of the Reagan Era, Said observes that most of the popular new strains of literary criticism––“among others, semiotics, hermeneutics, Marxism, and deconstruction”––tend to adopt “a position and a rhetoric of opposition to what is considered to be established or conservative academic scholarship” and to take on “the function of the left-wing in politics.” Said insists that the “oppositional” posture of Theory fails to correspond to any genuine social or political function of resistance. “In this setting,” Said suggests, “even Marxism has often been accommodated to the exigencies of rhetoric (fierce ones) while surrendering its true radical prerogatives.”
Said is troubled not merely by the political pretensions of the “New New Criticism,” but also by the ways in which such pretending may serve reactionary ends: above all, the strengthening of the social structure and political order undergirding the culture of the American university. The most glaring example of this dynamic, for Said, is to be found in Derridean Deconstruction: practiced “as if Western culture was being dismantled” while paying very little attention to the world outside of Europe and the United States.
Particularly galling, from Said’s point of view, is the systematic avoidance of any discussion of the state and the problem of authority. Nowhere in any of the literature of the Putative Left “will one encounter a serious study of what authority is, either with reference to the way authority is carried historically and circumstantially from the State down into a society saturated with authority of one sort or another, or with reference to the actual workings of culture, the role of intellectuals, institutions, and establishments.” Under such circumstances, Said opines: “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that oppositional Left criticism contributes absolutely nothing to intellectual debate in the culture at large today.”
In a manner somewhat similar to Russell Jacoby (then working the same intellectual-historical terrain), Said contrasts the engagement of left-wing public intellectuals (Randolph Bourne and Joseph Freeman) with the isolation of the Putative Left. The latter, drawing much of its inspiration from France, seems to reject any affiliation with earlier strains of domestic intellectual radicalism. The Putative Left embraces a de novo Marxism, a Marxism born fully fledged in the 1960s and apparently able to skip over most of the history between the death of Marx and 1956. For Said, the weakness of the Putative Left is to be found in two related absences: the absence of a “continuous Marxist theoretical tradition or culture to back it up and the absence of any relation to “concrete political struggle.”
Interestingly, Said sees possibilities for correction against the most pernicious of these tendencies in the epistemologically modest field of left-wing “revisionist” US political history––along the lines pursued by William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko. Overcoming the flamboyance and vainglory of Theory––its drift toward the pursuit of refinement as against the demands of radical knowledge-production––requires a return to archival research, the careful measurement of hypotheses against the evidence: “for there to be effective interpretation in what is, after all is said and done, a historical discipline, there must also be effective history, effective archival work, effective management in the actual material of history.”
Out of such historically informed inquiry, Said proposes, literary theorists might begin to grapple with the two related Gramscian themes that ought to be central to future left critique: “elaboration” and “affiliation.”
“Elaboration,” Said explains, denotes the critical tasks of refinement, working-through, conceptual reconstruction of world-pictures, and the imperative to take seriously the proposition that “culture itself, or thought, or art is a highly complex and quasi-autonomous extension of political reality” that “has a density, a complexity, and a historical-semantic value that is so strong as to make politics possible.” To prioritize “elaboration” is to inquire into the role played by language and thought in the legitimation of political regimes, to accept the fact that “thought, art and culture make up a large part of that upon which State authority depends, of that which the State governs.”
“Affiliation,” for Said, denotes that work of reverse-engineering that searches for the conditions of possibility of this or that statement in this or that place and time––the study of the processes through which “texts are made permissible.” This work may then be put to use in service of the goal of “understanding, analyzing, contending with the distribution, deployment and management of power and authority within the culture.”
This summary has no doubt left out a number of important details from Said’s essay, but I think we have gone over the essentials.
Where does this leave us?
What provisional judgments can we generate regarding the salience of this essay––treated here as a primary source to our larger project of mapping the history of the Epistemic Left?
I will offer a few.
First, I think that Said’s text is valuable precisely because it highlights the problematic character of Epistemic Leftism at the moment of its emergence while not denying that the new literary critics (and, complicatedly, their peers across the humanities) were of the Left.
They were doing leftism wrong, to be sure; probably, for Said, they were doing leftism stupidly. But they were not “post-political” (as some Theory types surely would become––some more interestingly than others).
This leads me to wonder: how is this internecine battle about who is doing leftism correctly not, in fact, in keeping with the broad tradition of US leftism? The “fracture,” here, constitutes a historical repetition (down to many of the keywords). The lack of historical memory and continuity connecting the 1970s academic Left to earlier moments is, too, entirely consistent, with the US Left tradition. V.F. Calverton and Michael Gold could not recall their many forbears when they began to reimagine a left wing intellectual tradition in the 1920s. In the early years of the New Left, C. Wright Mills and Tom Hayden often wrote as if their task was to begin everything from scratch. It has largely fallen to exiles––Joseph Schumpeter, C.L.R. James, T.W. Adorno, even Gunnar Myrdal––to connect the meaningful dots.
The other thing that stands out––I wonder if you will agree?––is how lucidly Said illuminated the limitations of Theory, circa 1970, and also how prophetically he laid out the course that Theory was to follow in the ensuing three decades. We could not say, today––whether we love Theory or hate it––that issues of power and the state have been ignored within the literature of Theory over the past decades. For a variety of reasons, including, importantly, the publication of Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism and their wide diffusion––Theory now informs an enormous range of studies guided by the imperative to challenge the ethnocentrism of language and literature departments. The question we are left with, then, is as follows: can we attribute these changes in the world of Theory––this bending towards the priorities laid out by Said––as reflecting a certain kind of politics? And if this is so (as I believe it is) what would such a politics be other than some kind of Epistemic Leftism?
Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism.” boundary 2
Vol. 8, No. 1, The Problems of Reading in Contemporary American Criticism: A Symposium (Autumn, 1979), pp. 11-30.
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