The Reversal of Values as a Method in Criticism

One could say with only limited exaggeration that all intellectual vices reduce to the vice of intellectual dishonesty, and that all intellectual dishonesty reduces to the phenomenon of kneejerking. Kneejerking could be defined as responding to the form of the thing rather than the thing itself: to its associations or appearance or emotional resonance, not to the substance of the argument within its specific context. While in principle everyone knows this vice to be one, it does not mean that it is easily avoided (as is generally true for intellectual vices). Within the political and cultural left, particular forms of kneejerking occur that are peculiar to our social sphere. Without wanting to point the finger at anyone or any group in particular, I think it is worth examining in more detail some of these specific forms of intellectual vice that we are prone to. 

One such example I think is often not recognized as a pattern, despite being unfortunately rather common in ‘radical’ theorizing. In fact, it is often not recognized as being an intellectual vice at all, although I think more often than not it is one. It is a form of kneejerking, but at a high level of abstraction: a form I call ‘the reversal of values’.

By the reversal of values I mean this. Often there will be a dominant or powerful narrative with normative implications, whether historical, political, or otherwise, in which a clear value hierarchy is established. There are forces or abstracta that are portrayed as good or desirable, and ones that are portrayed as bad or undesirable, and through this value hierarchy the narrative tries to make sense of the dynamics at issue. One could call this the conservative master narrative. By definition, radical theorizing sets itself against such conservative master narratives in the specific domain which it studies, and seeks to undermine it. 

A frequent approach in radical theorizing has been to do this by taking the conservative master narrative and reversing its values. This seems, after all, the strongest kind of critique: to show that those things seen as good are ‘actually bad’, and those things portrayed as bad are ‘actually good’. This undermines not just the original narrative’s potency, but also the ability of the exponents of the conservative master narrative to make value judgements at all. It exposes their value hierarchy as reversible, and therefore not natural or inevitable, which has been one of the essential goals of radical theorizing in modern times since it roots in the Enlightenment and romanticism. Finally, it has the clear advantage of having the theoretical tools laying ready to hand. After all, the conservative master narrative has already done most of the work in distilling the relevant abstracta and providing the raw materials for theory: all one needs to do now is to question the normative frame. In this way, it is always a tempting approach, since it appears simultaneously radical and easy.

It is not difficult to find practical examples in (relatively) recent radical theorizing. A clear example is the study of the witch hunts. The conservative master narrative had portrayed the witch hunts as a kind of irrational mass craze, and their victims as (at best) pathetic losers who had lost social support or (at worst) sinister figures in their own right who might have brought it on themselves. From the 1970s onwards, a strand of feminist historiography inspired by the work of Margaret Murray and others has sought to reverse this approach. Most eminently represented by Silvia Federici’s work, this strand has argued that in fact the witch hunts were very organized, ‘rational’ and deliberate undertakings, supported by a social elite, and their victims primarily (proto-)proletarian women, whose freedom and self-organization the witch hunters sought to destroy in order to inaugurate or further capitalist social arrangements. 

Beyond the historical specifics, the argument is quite explicitly framed as a reversal of values: the witch hunters were not crazy but rational (in an instrumental sense anyway), their victims not social losers or sinister schemers but oppressed workers, the violence not primarily a work of religious mania but of gendered social control, and so forth. These are, of course, social abstracta and not values in the strict sense. But the normative import attached to it, and the purpose of the historical exercise, is precisely to demonstrate that the victims were – anyway from the viewpoint of Marxist historiography – the ‘good guys’ and represented historically progressive forces, while the witch hunters are to be identified with the same historically regressive forces of exploitation and oppression that would manifest under capitalism, and therefore the ‘bad guys’. For her, the victims of the witch hunts were indeed the social underclass, but this is good about them

Moreover, Federici hints at the old idea that the oppressed workers victimized by the witch hunts were really in some sense deviants from the official Christianity, and had a different religious life; it plays into the reversal of values between the conservative master narrative of church history and its radical opposite. It is not a coincidence that Federici is happy to regularly rely in her book on very old works inspired by Catholic reaction, works in which the witch hunts are essentially justified as necessary measures to defend Christianity. These suit her purpose, because they give her a perfect opportunity to reverse that polarity. She too presents the witches as representing an inherent challenge to that same Christianity, but argues that this is a good thing, because that Christianity was patriarchal, oppressive, controlling, etc. 

There is much that can be doubted about this line of argument; it is certainly not in agreement with the more contemporary historiography of the witch hunts, which does not see such strong class or religious differences between witch hunters and their victims, nor was the upper class of the time uniformly enthusiastic about the enterprise. But that is not the point. The purpose of the book is to establish a reversal of values, where the victims of history are feminine, working class, organized, and free, and therefore represent things to be valued, whereas the winner-protagonists of the conservative master narrative actually represent all the things to be despised. 

Similar kinds of arguments can be found outside historical discussions too. One may think for example of the arguments about the nature of ‘rationality’. The conservative master narrative of philosophy and reason of old presented rationality as masculine, cultural, and dominant, and therefore associated irrationality with femininity, nature, and passivity. Clearly, this is no longer generally believed (although it still has its fans in many dark intellectual corners). What is surprising perhaps is how popular nonetheless the reversal of its values remains. A popular response is to say things along these lines: perhaps femininity is better then, because more in touch with emotions; or perhaps artificiality is ultimately destructive and harmful, and the natural is more balanced and more sustainable; perhaps rationality is not so desirable, because instrumental reason is ultimately a form of domination, and we should seek a more intuitive approach; perhaps acceptance of the dictates of nature is better than the aggressive and vainglorious attempt to control and dominate the natural; and so on and so forth. 

All of these represent in one form or another an attempt at the reversal of values as a method of criticism of the conservative master narrative, in fact a reversal by now much more common and more persistent than that old narrative itself is. Many more examples could be furnished: one need only think of the postcolonial studies tradition of revaluing the ‘subaltern’ against the Orientalist conservative master narrative, or the desire to revalue ‘queering’ against a vast array of master narratives of Otherization, and so on. 

It would seem a banality to observe that this method, as a method in radical criticism, is not really adequate, were it not so pervasive. Its great weakness is that while it undermines the value system of the conservative master narrative to which it responds, it preserves its parameters intact. It is in this sense that it is a kind of kneejerking: it says “if you say X is bad, I will say X is good!”, while thereby conceding that X has the properties and meaning that were ascribed to it in the first place. 

Analogous to how for Wittgenstein “philosophy leaves everything as it is”, the reversal of values also leaves everything as it is: it challenges the normative implications or the identification with one or another label, but does not challenge the structure of the argument itself. One might instead ask: what if the witch hunts were neither a defense of the true church nor a conspiracy by the ruling class, but a product of the particular social tensions of Renaissance state-building and religious conflict in which perpetrators and victims were often quite similar? What if rationality is not masculine to begin with, or femininity not natural, or the artificial not inferior to the spontaneous, or indeed none of these binaries particularly sustainable or likely to refer to natural kinds?

The point here is of course not to take positions in those specific debates, but to identify a pattern of reasoning. Indeed, reversing values is by itself not necessarily a bad thing. Many values do deserve reversal, and the reversal when undertaken as a deliberate enterprise intended to provide a form of counterculture or counterideology can be a healthy contribution to the landscape (Gerald Gardner’s inspiration of Wicca comes to mind here). But as a product of the kneejerk it is a serious methodological problem in radical theorizing. 

The upshot is that the critique of ideology demands a questioning not just of the normative claims inherent in the analysis but also of the analytical parameters themselves. The first instinct should not be to preserve the reasoning but to reverse its polarity, but to find that tertium quid – one that is not merely saying “this binary is insufficient” (which is surely itself often banal), but to find that analytical ground from which the parameters themselves come to look very differently, and the normative reversal becomes as irrelevant as its original counterpart. The way past the reversal of values as a method in criticism is to reject the instinct to say, as the witches in Macbeth, that “fair is foul and foul is fair”. This is a beginning, perhaps, but not adequate to the task. Instead we should make our instinct to go outside: to find that Archimedean lever, with which one can move the world.

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Beyond Default D&D: Worldbuilding Made Better

The release of 5th Edition has both enabled and benefited from a revival in Dungeons & Dragons across the world. On the whole, I think, 5th Edition is a good system, possibly the best D&D system released yet. Certainly it has the smoothest gameplay and is the most accessible and easiest to use. (Disclaimer: I have never played 4th Edition and do not know it well, nor Pathfinder, so those may be competitors for all I know.) Besides the mechanics, my main concern is really with worldbuilding. While roleplaying itself is fun, for me the juice, the real vigour is in the worldbuilding that provides the context for the roleplaying, and this goes especially for D&D given its high fantasy setting. Few things are more reliant on doing well-established tropes well as high fantasy is: after all, being tropey is precisely the point of that genre, and D&D has always recognized this (as does Shadowrun, for that matter).

Given that fact, there are certainly things to be satisfied about from that point of view in 5th Edition. Although it is not new for this edition, getting rid of the bizarre ‘race’ based restrictions on class is a clear step forward in general: no longer can gnomes, for some unaccountable reason, only cast arcane spells as illusionists, as was the case in 2nd Ed. They have also decided to abandon negative racial modifiers, leaving in place the racial bonus system but removing the malus, which strikes perhaps the best balance between the demands of the trope (why else bother with the idea of separate ‘racial types’?) and the understandable desire to not associate the term with negative attributes. One can wonder whether using the term race in this context at all is still appropriate and helpful. ‘Subspecies’ might sound too clinical or biological, but something like ‘physical nature’ or simply ‘character type’ would do just fine, especially given how vague terms like ‘class’ and ‘archetype’ already are anyway. But that is not what I want to talk about here. I have a few enduring frustrations with the worldbuilding assumptions of what I call default D&D, and I want to rant about those here instead. Continue reading “Beyond Default D&D: Worldbuilding Made Better”

Book Review: Bas van Bavel, “The Invisible Hand?”

One of the most positive trends in the social sciences in the last 30-40 years or so has been the renewed interest of economic historians in long-run analysis. Under various monikers such as ‘global history’, ‘world history’, and even ‘deep history’, the comparative study of economic and social change in the long run has offered some profound perspectives on the origins of our times. Generally, however, the guiding question has been the one at issue in the ‘rise of the West’ debate and the adjacent topics of Eurocentrism, imperialism, technological progress, and colonial ideology. That is to say, much of the discussion has been primarily concerned with the question “how did Europe come to dominate the world?”, and to some extent also the followup question, “when did, whatever it was that allowed this to happen, begin? “.

Bas van Bavel’s recent book, The Invisible Hand?, asks a very different kind of question. This book is not concerned with the rise of the West, but with the underlying economic framework that most mainstream economic historians use in understanding the long-run socioeconomic patterns that they study. Although the specifics differ by author, of course, most of the economic historical mainstream still presents the story of economic history, and with it the difference between poor and rich today, as that of the ‘unfolding’ of the free market. The main disagreements consist of what kind of institutional order was necessary to make that free market flourish in Western history, and to what extent such an order as the Western world has could be adopted by developing nations as a matter of policy. Although there are exceptions, for the most part the working assumption is still that more markets, freer markets, and strong property rights – read: strong enforcement of the power of property owners – were the core ingredients that the Western nations achieved and by which they prospered. Whereas others, failing to achieve such an institutional order, suffered and still suffer stagnation and poverty. It is in this light that these economic historians also read such historical sources on markets and merchants as we have: as analytical and political defenders of what Adam Smith called the ‘commercial society’. Continue reading “Book Review: Bas van Bavel, “The Invisible Hand?””

A Corbyn Hot Take, or: A Revolution Without Solution?

Since the Lord knows that what the world really needs is another take on Corbyn, let me add mine to the pile. Since getting a sense of the strategic issues involved around his leadership involves something approaching a pros-and-cons format, it is probably best done in the form of a set of succinct points rather than a fully fledged essay. I hope to provide at least some sense of why I am skeptical about Corbyn’s prospects and yet find defending him important for the future of the British left, including those of us (such as myself) who have not joined the Labour bandwagon. Continue reading “A Corbyn Hot Take, or: A Revolution Without Solution?”

How can a Marxist read Tolkien? Or: ‘An Unreliable Narrative’, part II.

Not long ago, I found myself in a bar in Germany with two comrades, and force of circumstance brought up the writings of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. As a known fan of his works, I found myself inevitably confronted with the question, why someone with Marxist convictions and such a different world outlook than Tolkien’s own would enjoy his works, beyond the mere love of a good tale. I found it difficult to answer this question in an effective way, even though it was hardly the first time I was asked this. The easiest, and in some respects best answer is to simply say: De gustibus non est disputandum. This ancient principle is easy to defend as the essence of all debates about whether the enjoyment of a particular work of writing – or for that matter of film, or music, or any other medium – is ‘problematic’ and whether one should care. There’s no accounting for taste. More importantly, one should not want to account for taste in this sense: while the question where tastes come from, what economists would call the determination of preference, is interesting from a social science viewpoint, it helps not at all in resolving the interminable arguments about ‘problematic’ works. Such debates begin and end with a dialogue along the lines of: “But X is bad for such and such reasons!” “Yes, but I don’t care, because it’s fun”. And such a waste of energy is best avoided in the first place.

In this essay I do not, therefore, want to indulge overmuch in an argument of that kind. It’s not about whether it is ‘okay’ for a leftist, indeed a radical, to enjoy Tolkien’s works, despite their author being as far from a left-winger as it is politically possible to be. That Tolkien was indeed not even just a conservative, but properly a reactionary, in the full sense of that often abused word, is well known to anyone who has investigated his life or views in to any degree. What I want to do here is to go beyond that mere observation and the intractable arguments about politics versus taste in one’s choice of reading material: I want to investigate what I get out of Tolkien’s works, despite being so opposed to his politics, his religion, and indeed much of his worldview, and in so doing perhaps contribute also to an understanding among radicals of how his work can even so fulfil a need that is not met by any avowedly left-wing work, not even in the genre of left-wing fantasy. Indeed, this also means engaging with some of the extant critiques and evaluations of Tolkien’s works, but not at the level of apologetics or to join the critics, but for the purposes of getting a better grip on what, in my view, his contribution is really about. More than that, I hope to do so in a different way than most commentary on Tolkien has done: by going beyond The Lord of the Rings in examining his ‘Legendarium’, the total of his life’s mythopoeic work, of which the story of the hobbits and Mount Doom is only a relatively small component. The Legendarium, taken as a whole and as a single project, is I think the proper subject for understanding Tolkien. So the purpose of this essay is not to convince you that you should like Tolkien if you do not do so already. That would be ridiculous. But it is to suggest how he can be appreciated, if one does, from the viewpoint of a Marxist.

Note that I assume the reader has a basic familiarity with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, its characters and structure, such as could be gleaned from reading either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, or from watching the films.

Continue reading “How can a Marxist read Tolkien? Or: ‘An Unreliable Narrative’, part II.”