Philosophy & Ideas

Pricking the Gaseous Balloons of Cultural Studies

magritteAnthony Easthope, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester, was quoted in the Times Literary Supplement of March 17, 1995, as having asserted the following three propositions during a conference at the University of Warwick:

1. Truth does not exist in itself but is rather a meaning constructed in and by a particular discourse.

2. Language is not by nature transparent to meaning …

3. The subject is not a sovereign individual, freely inquiring and freely choosing, but rather the effect of a position assigned by history, discourse and the process of the unconscious.

Long ago as this was, it still seems relevant, when so-called postmodernism has swept through humanities and social studies in many, perhaps most of our universities. I would like here to reflect on each of these striking propositions, with a hopeful eye to driving back the waves.

All three claims are problematic. They sound familiar. The effects of history, discourse and the process of the unconscious here are similar to other effects of cultural studies and to effects of much recent literary theorising. One of the most striking of these effects is the rise of Professor Easthope’s discipline: Cultural Studies is the flavour of several decades now.

My reaction is confessedly in part an effect of the forces and discourses. I say: “A curse upon all X studies.” If an inquiry cannot be pursued within established disciplines (and I am aware that many departments of such disciplines are stuffy and throw up obstacles to worthwhile inquiry), the likelihood of the inquiry being valuable is slight. I am betting that the worthwhile inquiries carried on within established Humanities and Social Sciences (often by appointing people who are asking hitherto novel questions) are superior, for the most part, to inquiries carried on in departments of X studies. This will be a matter of degree and there will be the problem: “Who is to say what is valuable inquiry and what is not?” There is no avoiding that. Not to be disingenuous, I have no illusions that X studies will be seriously challenged short of establishing a Department of Studies of X Studies, which would be regressive. The current constellation of forces and discourses has too much of the high ground, and the guilt of LEMs (Liberal European Males) is in danger of turning us into lemmings.

In the meantime, having been, as a philosopher, educated with particular interest in the issues involved in (1), (2) and (3), above, I will have a say. Philosophy does not bear quite as heavily on (3) as on (1) and (2), for (3) raises ethical questions in which philosophy has no special interest. In what follows I describe and criticise a tendency of radical thinkers (or academics on the make) to construct propositions that have a striking feature. This feature is that there are (at least) two plausible interpretations of these propositions, one of them so silly as to merit summary rejection, the other being so obvious as not to be worth saying; one blatantly false, the other trivially true. What is striking is that these extremes can be blended to produce shiny and gaseous intellectual balloons.

John Wisdom, a Cambridge philosopher, once said, commenting on how philosophers trivialise their theses in order to defend them: “First there’s the bit where they say it; then there’s the bit where they take it back.” Another Cambridge philosopher, G.E. Moore, was perhaps the source of Wisdom’s remark. Moore attacked the banner pronouncement of psychological hedonism, which runs: “No one ever does anything unless he reckons it will provide him more pleasure than any other course of action available.” He then gave us Moore’s Fork. Moore said that this statement either means what it prima facie says, in which case it is obviously false, for people often do what will be less pleasant than an alternative, or the statement means that, by definition, whatever you do, doing it means that you deem it the most pleasant thing to do, which makes the proposition trivial. I suggest that Professor Easthope’s propositions are similarly shiny balloons and can be deflated by Moore’s Fork. None of the three quoted propositions is pellucidly clear. I suggest that each has at least two readings which are, respectively, blatantly false and trivially true.

Let us start with (1): Truth does not exist by itself, but is a meaning constructed by and in a particular discourse.

I offer:

1a. There are no ways things are without language users existing to say so.

If that is not blatantly false, it will do until something more so comes along. People who say this, if they mean it, are committed to, for example, dinosaur remains being the constructions of palaeontology departments, instead of things found and known to have been on earth long before there were any language-using beings. I am aware that when readings, such as (1a), of things like (1) are suggested, proponents are prone to say they are being misunderstood. But there is nothing for it; (1) certainly seems to have (1a) as a reading. I think it is the reading (1) depends on for its excitement. An article in the New York Review of Books some years ago avowed that the Pacific Ocean was an invention of nineteenth-century cartographers. Would that meteorologists in drought-stricken Australia could produce such a volume of water!

So much for the blatant falsehood; here is the triviality:

1b. The word true applies to beliefs and to things said or sayable. If there had never been any use of language (or any believing beings), then nothing would have ever been true (or false); for there would have been nothing to which to attach the predicate “is true”, and no users of language to do the attaching.

Despite its triviality, what this does not say is important. It does not say that dinosaur bones (let alone dinosaurs in the past) would not have existed if there had never been any palaeontology departments. Nor does it say that, after some huge comet annihilates the earth (and there is some probability that one will), the debris will not continue to roam the heavens. So as far as Easthope’s (1) is concerned, then, mission accomplished. It is either blatantly false or trivially true.

On to (2). It says: Language is not transparent to meaning.

The blatant falsehood:

2a. People, when they talk to each other (or read), never achieve definite understanding of what is said or written.

This is perhaps not quite as blatantly false as (1a). But it flies in the face of an awful lot. We do bring the coffee, pass the salt, get the right change. We find the right lavatories, locate the coffee where the sign says it is, and so on. We routinely and successfully disambiguate sentences such as “I will meet you at the bank” and “Visiting relatives can be boring”. We may even offend each other, because we understand clearly what others are up to when they are saying crazy things, by saying that they strive to titillate rather than to inform or enlighten. I may be completely correct about what someone is doing precisely because his words do make it clear what he is saying, what he means.

Now for the triviality:

2b. You cannot determine, from just the facts that a sentence in your language is grammatically in order and contains only familiar words, what (if anything) would be said by someone speaking or writing the sentence.

This is one of the most trivial truths of linguistics. It is the commonly invoked force of the reminder that “It depends on the context”. Something so much said these days (and for about fifty years to my recollection) that, in emulation of Hermann Goering, I feel like saying that when I hear the word context I reach for my gun. The word that Goering mentioned was culture, and on any day on campus or in the right coffee shops today, Goering and I would have both worn out our holsters.

On to (3): The subject is not a sovereign individual, freely inquiring and freely choosing, but rather the effect of a position assigned by history, discourse and the process of the unconscious.

A prefatory comment before the falsehood and the triviality. (3) seems to be essential to the successor of the kind of criticism of thought and action which we were once taught as Marxism or Freudianism, a new kind of ad hominem, question of cui buono or, to use a newer expression, suggestion of hidden agenda. It looks rather like a mix of all three masters of suspicion—Nietzsche, Marx and Freud—but how much of each of the masters is involved is obscure. This makes it even more nebulous than its predecessors. Even so, it raises, as all such assertions must, the issue of what are the forces and discourses which have as their effect the position from which the claim itself emanates. (I heard recently of an academic shouting from the audience that a protégé of his, delivering a paper and taking questions, was not required to answer a question about the self-application of his thesis.)

The late David Stove coined the expression “Ishmael Fallacy” for ideas and theories about ideas and theories that try to avoid self-application. Does Professor Easthope think that he alone is lived to tell the tale? The words from the Times Literary Supplement are traces of assertions by him. But, by his very words, there is not really a “sovereign” subject to whom we should address our concerns as to whether these words are true or supportable. This could be a wonderful way to avoid defending assertions. But I am going to assume that Easthope and those who agree with him will take responsibility for claims like these and engage in the kind of discussion that tries to find out whether the claims are credible. My understanding of the use in (3) of the word sovereign is particularly feeble. I would really like to know what Easthope thinks it would be like for there to be this sovereignty. Without some idea of it, its denial is rather empty. I say a bit more about it further on.

Here is the blatant falsehood in (3):

3a. Hidden motifs or motives, perhaps unconscious, always lie behind any belief or action. Ask what forces and discourses are in the background of a human being’s sayings and doings and the notion that any individuality or originality occurs will be shown up as an illusion.

This seems gaseous enough for many balloons. I confess, however, that perhaps it is not sufficiently obviously false, though false it is. Along with falsehood however, what is going on here is disrespect for human beings, including oneself. Spelling out the triviality will help to show this.

3b. Our social and historical background and environment have a significant influence on what is available to us to deploy in our reflections. Enough so that it is probably useless, except to aid us in our appreciation of contingency, to indulge in much speculation about what we would have been like and how we would have reflected, if we had been born or nurtured or educated in other times or places.

Doesn’t everybody know that, and certainly doesn’t everybody know it who is remotely likely to read the words of Professor Easthope? Does any teacher (and Professor Easthope is one) in praising a student for thinking for himself or herself mean that the concepts and words the student uses are his or her inventions? At best what is said here was better said by T.S. Eliot: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” Teachers rarely, but usually happily, encounter a student who “makes Plato her own” or “finds his own way around in Shakespeare”. The students do not suppose they have no predecessors in insight or criticism. That is not now, never has been, never could be and never should be, a demand we make on our students; though even more to our delight (or envy), something new and deep sometimes comes along.

There is a kind of intellectual paralysis that can grip us early on in learning and understanding, a fear that we are just conduits for, or, in Easthope’s words, effects of a position among, the forces and discourses. But Easthope would, I lament, inflict this paralysis before he allows, if he does, any going beyond it. Perhaps he likes the chestnut about liberating people by dramatising their oppression. But it all comes down to a fancy version of what other boys used to say in high school when I spoke up for Roosevelt and for trade unions: “You’re just saying that ’cause your dad works in a factory.” To these jibes, even then, I found it repellent to have no more to respond with than: “And you’re just saying that ’cause your dad doesn’t.” One wants to know another person’s reasons, not just diagnose the causes of illusion, condescendingly, demeaningly, contemptuously assuming that it is illusion. Respect for our fellow intellectual citizens (or just our fellow citizens) demands reasoning and argument on the issues, the grounds, not the causes. Why inflict the insult of merely locating one another within the forces and discourses, finding out where my pimple is relative to yours on the acne-ridden face of society?

It is bad enough that our politicians all too frequently confirm our suspicion that they say what they say mainly to curry favour with the voters or factions of voters. Their statements all too often invite not a question as to why they believe this or that but a question about which wind blowing which way has landed them here or there. Democracy encourages this, of course, and it is, as Churchill said, the worst form of government except for all the others.

But to treat all inquiry and discussion as similarly windblown is to politicise our relations to one another right up to and including our conversations, or at least any of them that go much beyond: “I went to Melbourne last week.” “That’s interesting, I didn’t.”

Lloyd Reinhardt was a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1979 to 2001.


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