Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

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It seems hard to believe, from our current vantage point in which the academic study of literature appears to be in a state of perpetual crisis, that there was a time, not so long ago, when the literary humanities reigned over an expanding scholarly empire — one that was not unlike the empire of the quantitative social sciences, and especially economics, today. Instead of literary academics feeling tempted or obligated to apply quantitative methods to the study of literature — as, for example, Franco Moretti has done, with results of (predictably, it seems to me) real but limited value — non-literary scholars felt tempted or obligated to become conversant in literary theory.

I was reminded of this while reading some essays by Jerome Bruner, an academic psychologist who died in 2016. In works like “Life as Narrative” (1987), Bruner found it useful to draw on literary theory about the structure of narratives as a source of ideas for understanding his own field, and even for designing empirical experiments. He cites Vladimir Propp, Frank Kermode, and Paul de Man, among many others.

Who outside of literary academia reads the works of literary academics today? What happened?

I would like to propose, a little controversially, that the literary humanities finds itself in its current state of isolation in part because of its rejection of structuralism. By “structuralism,” I do not mean only what Lévi-Strauss meant when he introduced the term. I mean something more broad: arguments that attempt to reduce complex, unwieldy human phenomena into relatively simple structures that can then be used to make predictions. The kind of models that the structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas developed, for example. In its turn to poststructuralism, American literary academia developed a profound antipathy toward this kind of thought — an antipathy, I would argue, that has discouraged literary scholars from developing insights and models that might be of use outside of academic literary studies.

When literary scholarship turned against structuralism, it also implicitly turned against modeling. But models are a large part of what we use to make sense of our worlds, and they are one of the primary ways that ideas move between academic disciplines. To reject the search for predictively useful models is to invite the kind of intellectual isolation in which literary academia currently finds itself.

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Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

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In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

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I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

The media at the hinge of political history

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I’m beginning to wonder whether the media is in some sense the most crucial actor in understanding political change in a democracy.

The more you read in political science, the more you find grounds for skepticism that various ostensibly powerful actors can bring about change through their own actions. The presidency, for example, doesn’t appear to be all that it’s cracked up to be. Despite our desire for a President who will use the “bully pulpit” to sway the public, the evidence suggests that Presidents rarely succeed in changing public opinion. At most, their public statements can help shape the agenda, forcing the public to have an opinion on an issue — by influencing what the media talks about.

The courts rarely depart significantly from public opinion, despite the myth of the Supreme Court as the last refuge of liberty and equality in times of crisis and stress. In theory, the Supreme Court might be able to bring about political change by decree, ordering the government to do this or that radically unpopular thing. But that almost never happens in practice.

I suppose someone could argue that Congress is a driving force for political change. Maybe they’d point to the Senate’s ostensible deliberative golden age in the antebellum era. But I don’t imagine many people would seriously suggest that Congress today is leading much of anything, or more influencing than influenced.

The public itself is remarkably uninformed, and seems likely to remain uninformed despite the dreams of theorists of deliberative democracy for “deliberation days” and so on. To the extent that some portions of the public are informed, they’re largely informed by the mass media — and, perhaps, social media, to the extent that the two are different.

How about grassroots activists? There’s no doubt that activists can be a real force for political change — on those rare occasions when their decades of Sisyphean efforts bear fruit. But, when this happens, it is usually in part because they have succeeded in getting favorable coverage by the media. Or because they have made their own favorable media, for example by creating a popular, muckraking documentary film.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

Civil Disobedience: the Poor Man’s Lobbying

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So let’s assume, as I considered in an earlier post, that there’s a relatively stable hierarchy of political needs among voters in democracies like the United States — a rough ranking of concerns that tend to determine voting behavior, especially in presidential elections. And let’s assume that in this ranking, “national security trumps economic policy, and economic policy trumps other issues, such as civil liberties, or campaign finance reform, or more altruistic goals like saving future generations from the consequences of severe climate change…”

That means that voters will tend to vote based on how they perceive the economy to be doing — unless there is a perceived threat to national security, in which case voters will tend to support the candidate or party that is perceived as strongest, or at least will only support candidates that are perceived as sufficiently strong, on national security. Maybe there’s something that trumps even national security — something like honor, identity, or recognition — but I’ll set that aside for the moment.

What if you, the engaged citizen, want to bring about change on some issue that is beneath the economy on the hierarchy of political needs? What if, for example, you want to see the federal government change its policies on carbon emissions? Is this a hopeless dream?

It seems to me that there are several mechanisms in our democracy for getting around the hierarchy of political needs.

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Politics, Science

Syll, Krugman, and Models in the Social Sciences

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The heterodox Swedish economist and gadfly Lars Syll had a blog exchange with Paul Krugman recently that reminded me of some thoughts I’ve been meaning to post about modeling in the social sciences. First, Syll accused Krugman of not being a “real” Keynesian, because Krugman subscribes to the model-driven, orthodox-economics “John Hicks IS-LM interpretation of Keynes,” not to the true Keynesianism that passed down through Syll’s heterodox mentor Hyman Minsky.

Krugman offered his usual responses, noting that “Keynes said a lot of things, not all consistent with each other,” and that in any case, the important thing in economics — as in any field hoping to be a science — is predictive power, not faithfulness to some oracular founder.  Then Krugman offered a remarkably direct challenge:

And as I have often argued, these past 6 or 7 years have in fact been a triumph for IS-LM. Those of us using IS-LM made predictions about the quiescence of interest rates and inflation that were ridiculed by many on the right, but have been completely borne out in practice. We also predicted much bigger adverse effects from austerity than usual because of the zero lower bound, and that has also come true.

Now, what have those who declare themselves the true Keynesians had to offer? Has insisting that expectations are volatile and unpredictable been helpful in this context? Actually, if anything it lends support to believers in the confidence fairy. After all, if it’s all animal spirits, who are we to say they’re wrong?

Has declaring uncertainty to be unquantifiable, and mathematical modeling in any form foolish, been productive? Remember, that’s what the Austrians say too.

If you can show me any useful advice given by those sniping at me and other for our failure to be proper Keynesians, I’ll be happy to take it under consideration. If you can’t, then we’re just doing literary criticism here, and I’m not interested.

What surprised me — and I have to admit, disappointed me — was Syll’s response. He failed to offer any example of “useful advice” (good predictions) made by heterodox economists like Syll but overlooked by gadget-driven, orthodox “Keynesian” (i.e., not dogmatic right-wing neoclassical) economists like Krugman.

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

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