Thursday, May 14, 2009

55 and Still Alive

Today's my birthday. Every day is a good day to be alive but birthdays are special reminders of that fundamental truth. Having recovered from brain surgery as an infant, I've long had a sense that I was living on some kind of stolen time.

And am glad of it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dennis Praeger Hates Europe

In his Townhall column for today, right-wing columnist Dennis Praeger continues the endless conservative rant against Europe.

Today's theme is the decline of European "greatness."

Outside of politics, sports, and popular entertainment, how many living Germans, or French, or Austrians, or even Brits can you name?

Even well-informed people who love art and literature and who follow developments in science and medicine would be hard pressed to come up with many, more often any, names. In terms of greatness in literature, art, music, the sciences, philosophy, and medical breakthroughs, Europe has virtually fallen off the radar screen.

As is usually the case with conservative claims about Europe, the United States or anything else come to think of it, this is simply not true.

Most of my training comes in the field of "social theory," an intellectual enterprise that involves an enormously wide range of theorizing about society, capitalism, psychology, power, language, gender, sexuality, literature, architecture, and other topic. Given that most social theorists have egalitarian world views, they tend to revolt against the kind of intellectual ranking that Praeger wants here. But the field has such an extensive intellectual root system with ancient sources going back to Plato and Aristotle, modern roots in Hobbes, Kant, Marx, and Nietzsche, and 20th century roots in Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School Marxism of Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and the Annales School of historical writing in France. So, certain comparisons can be made between contemporary social theorists and their sources even if those comparisons go against the spirit of the social theory enterprise.

Getting to the point, contemporary work in social theory stands up very well. So do European efforts. The most important dimension of social theory to consider in relation to Praeger's concerns is European post-structuralism and post-modernism. The European generation that pioneered post-structuralism and post-modernism is still passing from the scene. As someone who has read extensively in all of these authors, its sad to list those who have died, but Jacque Lacan died in 1981, Michel Foucault in 1984, Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1998, Jacque Derrida in 2004, and Jean Baudrillard in 2007. But big-time post-structuralism is far from dead. Among the pioneering European post-structuralists who are still alive are the feminists Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Monique Wittig.

As a generation of social theory that is still partially with us, this group of European social theorists stands up to any generation before it in terms of pioneering spirit, originality, and the profundity of its impact. I focused on Europeans here but there have been Americans like Judith Butler and Frederic Jameson who have contributed in fundamental ways to the post-structural movement as well. Ultimately, I think that the advent of post-structuralism will be seen as a bright clear marker in the development of a "global" social theory out of the various roots in "Western" social thought. At least that's the direction that post-colonialism and other developments in global social thinking are moving. Just like there was no going back from Plato and Hobbes (although many tried), there is no going back to "modern" Kantian, Marxist, and Weberian modes of thinking after forty years of post-structural critique and re-imagination.

Some other European thinkers who are "major," "great," and "big, really big" would include the German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and the Italian novelist and language philosopher Umberto Eco. Habermas and Bourdieu have both been prolific authors whose work ethics would be the envy of any American conservative. Habermas' work on the public sphere from the 1960's is more influential than ever. For his part, Bourdieu writes classic books like Distinction more quickly than most people can read them.

European social theory is very much alive and well, much more so than American conservatism.

By the way, when has an American conservative ever written anything particularly great or memorable?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dick Cheney to al-Qaeda: Attack the U. S.

Talking Points Memo argues that Dick Cheney is inviting the formation of a Truth Commission in relation to torture.

But isn't he practially inviting an al-Qaeda attack on the U. S. with his constant criticism that the U. S. is less well defended now that we're out of the torture business?