Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection

In this post, I intend to do something perhaps unpopular among the contemporary left: that is, to provide a conditional defense of Theory, with a capital T, and by implication the academy from the point of view of the radical left and its critiques. While the first part of this reflection will focus on the latter, this sets the stage for my discussion of the former; it is the need to defend theory for its own sake, the virtues of abstraction, and the recognition of the nature of knowledge and what this means for a radical view that animates my thoughts.

Much has been written about the ‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement. Everyone is familiar with the way in which Marxism besides moved increasingly within the domain of professional theorizing from its previous points of emphasis: economic history, economic theory and political theory are less and less Marxist, whereas (at least in the Anglosphere) many Marxist academics have either abandoned it altogether or sought refuge in the ‘safer’ domains of literary criticism, cultural studies and so forth. This is, however, in a certain sense a battle within the academy, and takes its institutional framework for granted. While I believe that this shift is a major part of the defeat of Marxism in the 20th century, both as cause and effect, this is not the view in many parts of the contemporary left. Rather, it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead. Continue reading “Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection”

A Program for the Destruction of Meaning: Identity, the Body, and Trans Narratives

This is a guest article submitted by Morgan.

A Program for the Destruction of Meaning

A Taxonomy of Identities. Inscription and Violence.

What is an identity? The most basic definition I am aware of is that it is culture in microcosm: a relationship between an individual and their social context. Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferiusi. These relationships may be roughly taxonified: some are defined by personal characteristics, including – beyond the gender identities that are the topic of this essay – racial and ethnic identities, sexualities, variously abled identities such as that characterizing members of the Deaf community; others arise from material circumstance, such as national and class identities; and still more are products of choice, such as political identities, union identities, self-identifying movements or subcultures such as goths or hippies, various forms of esprit de corps. I am concerned principally with the first set of identities here, and unless specified otherwise any mention of “identity” may be taken in that sense.

The formation of an identity of this primary sort is a response to an enforced psychic territorialization, a confirmation of having been set apart. It is never a pre-emptive self-recognition; it is always a formalization of the violent inscription of Otherness on the subject. This is the great joke of classical psychoanalysis: “man”, rather than describing himself, instead describes, sets apart, and therefore identifies his Other, “woman”. “Man”, it is important to note, is not at all affected, at least directly: just as heterosexuals, cisii people, hearing people, and western whites are not usually thought of as identified, so too “man” is merely the default, the standard against which difference is measured and demarcated. And one might say it is an especial goal of feminist projects to make “man” feel as he has made “woman” feel. Not merely in the service of some Hammurabic vengeance, but in that making “man” consider himself as an identity is a necessary prerequisite to equality between women and men.

The setting-apart is not a purely metaphysical operation: the body is made to bear material significations of difference, to physically represent itself as Other. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the inscribing punishment-machine of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, describing this violence committed upon bodies as the mechanism by which macrocosmic culture maintains, refines, and propagates itself: “Cruelty has nothing to do with some ill-defined or natural violence that might be commissioned to explain the history of mankind; cruelty is the movement of culture that is realized in bodies and inscribed on them, belaboring them” (145). This violence is not an immediate, personal thing, with a perpetrator directly intending and enacting hurt; it is instead the accumulation of individual cruelties, the hurts and the torments and the “corrections” that are intended solely to make an Other of the target. Each such instance of violence comprises another singular iteration of the ever-repeating punishment-machine, which taken together serve to confirm and codify the differences of the body of the victim. These signs are heavy with meaning for the individual: they are identity-marks, they can signify commonality with others, they ground one’s self-conception in the material. But for the culture considered in aggregate, they are nothing more than respiration.

Identity and Individuation

So identification is born of violence. This is hardly the fault of the multifarious identities so begotten! And as Deleuze and Guattari put it, this violence is the movement of culture: not exactly something we are able to dispense with, and were we, our culture and indeed our bodies would not be recognizable to us – for it is our bodies that are targeted by this violence, and it is the same violence that has given us our understandings of our selves. Still, many theorists have a difficult time of reconciling themselves to things as they are. Witness Judith Butler: “we may seek recourse to matter in order to ground or verify a set of injuries or violations only to find that matter itself is founded through a set of violations, ones which are unwittingly repeated in the contemporary invocation” (BTM, 29). She does, to her credit, admit that she is critiquing “something we cannot do without”; rather less creditable is that she does her best to do without it anyway, as she “continue[s] to hope for a coalition of sexual minorities that will transcend the simple categories of identity … that will counter and dissipate the violence imposed by restrictive bodily norms” (GT, xxvii). She thereby discards the actual and potential value of identification in her haste to combat a violence which is part and parcel of culture itself. Many of her followers do not even bother with such minimal lip service to this problem, a squeamishness one suspects is at the root of queer theory’s decades-long siege against the solidity of identification itself.

Aversion to these fruits of violence, however inescapable that violence is and however useful its fruits may be, is also what informed Andrea Dworkin’s utopian program, predicated as it was on the supersession of gender and the mechanization of the sexed work of childbirth (Ch. 9); it is there behind Haraway when she calls her cyborgs creatures “in a post-gender world”; it inspires Butler to call for the active dismantling of gender identities through infinite fracturing and a paradoxical “parodic” repetition and resignification (GT, 200). Even Halberstam, hardly a voice for conservative readings of gender, seems more than a little shocked and alarmed at realizing that such campaigns have actually worked to a certain degree, noting in 2005 that “many young gays and lesbians [now] think of themselves as part of a ‘post-gender’ world and for them the idea of ‘labeling’ becomes a sign of an oppression they have happily cast off in order to move into a pluralistic world of infinite diversity” (19).

It is not precisely diversity, however, that Halberstam blanches at; for her aims, and for those of other queer theorists, mere diversity is entirely too concrete. Butler complains, writing about being associated with lesbianism in the opening to her article “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: “I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies”. How best to accomplish this obfuscation? Taking the simplest possible definition of the lesbian identity – a woman who has sex with women – there are two terms which may be attacked. One might attempt to deny sexuality, assert that what she is doing is not sex by any of several rhetorical tricks; but ask any embarrassed politician how well those tactics worked for them! That leaves “woman” herself; however, Butler is cautious enough to avoid explicitly taking this approach in “Imitation”. Instead she implies, hints, equivocates, claiming that “to install [herself] within the terms of an identity category would be to turn against the sexuality that the category purports to describe; and this might be true for any identity category which seeks to control the very eroticism that it claims to describe and authorize, much less ‘liberate’”. She professes ignorance of a scare-quoted “theory” even as she invokes Foucault and Spivak as talismans against the specter of “totalization” of her self – a slight overestimation of the consequences of identification along the one axis of sexuality, to say the least. Still, looking at her other work, especially at her advocacy of a strictly social-constructionist “performative” model of gender, it is not too difficult to work out her line of reasoning: render “woman” an ambiguous sign, and any composition involving that sign becomes equally if not more ambiguous.

But obfuscating “woman” is no easy task. Primary identities such as gender are impossible to break on their own terms: they are too deeply rooted in physicality, a physicality natal to cis people and whose lack is experienced as dysphoria by trans people. So gender must first be extracted from its material foundation by asserting that it is a secondary (circumstantial) or even tertiary (adopted) identity, an act of calculated misapprehension or misconstrual which then enables the introduction of a profusion of alternative “identities” as being of equal theoretical validity to the identities “woman” and “man”, and which cannibalize them, diluting and distributing their many-fold meanings among themselves. No longer is gender a unifying class of signs; “woman” and “man” have become merely two individuations among many, and cannot themselves mean much at all any more – nothing can. This is not the diversity Halberstam decries, for within diversity there still exist multiple skeins of unity framing the manifold whole. This product of the program of individuation is a shattered psychosocial landscape in which the unified nature of the self held above all inevitably leads to alienation: in other words, a libertarian paradise.


Poststructuralism abhors a static binary, and, generally speaking, its suspicion is well-placed. The current state of gender politics does not exactly give the lie to Muriel Dimen’s assertion that “a binary always conceals a hierarchy” (7). But at these deeper strata, where we see not identities and constructions but the bodies in and upon which they are inscribed and built, such framing assumptions are not always helpful. We know sex to be two, broadly speaking; researchers such as Anne Fausto-Sterling have made intersex conditions out to be sexes in their own right, but it is important to note both that she locates them on a continuum between “female” and “male” poles rather than outside them, and that intersexed people tend in any case to identify themselves as women and men, even to the point that some, trans as well as intersex, defy the surgical assignments of sex made in their infancyiii. For Deleuze and Guattari too, the binary of sex is fundamental: “everyone is bisexual, everyone has two sexes, but partitioned, noncommunicating; the man is merely the one in whom the male part, and the woman the one in whom the female part, dominates statistically” (69).

Gender being a relationship between an individual and their culture built up from this sexed binary, it follows that it is twoiv as well. This is effectively borne out, not just by the mass of cis people gendering themselves as expected, but even by the supposed exceptions. As Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan point out, the very concept of a “third gender” is a recent Western anthropological invention “produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability”, and is applied for Western reasons to non-Western cultures – particularly by postmodernist queer and gender theorists in order to appropriate cross-cultural understandings and expressions of gender to shore up their own political viewpoints. Worse, such appropriation both ignores the cultural contexts in which “third genders” exist and even works against its own ostensible goals. As Towle and Morgan put it, “By focusing on hijras, for example, American readers may be less inclined to inquire about or to investigate other Indian discourses around sex and gender. The ‘third gender’ concept encourages students to think that ‘the natives’ must have only one alternative to the dichotomous gender system available to them.”

Anuja Agrawal notes that these cultural understandings do “not, by implication, sever sex from gender. It is only when sex is understood in fixed binary terms that such a separation from gender becomes imperative in view of the presence of a third gender which seemingly negates the mimetic relation between sex and gender.” Further on, she adds that “it is even possible that the greater the number of genders the greater their oppressive potential as each may demand the conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines.” Her “third gender”, too, is not merely a gender in isolate: it reifies itself and modifies sex, such that “the hijra identity crystallises only with either the prior possession or the subsequent acquisition of a ‘correct body’, here a castrated one.” Gender is not freefloating, but is linked to and even reciprocal with sex; there are not two sexed embodiments, but three. This latter point, the culturally-bound understanding of sex itself, is incompatible with the Deleuzean approach I have taken; however, the proliferation of genders she cautions against is precisely what the individualizing program is intended to bring about. And in order for this program to begin its work, it is imperative that the stable binary, which precludes the usurpation of identities by individuations, be replaced by a more open model.

The Transgender, Quote-Unquote

The set of individuations which the social-constructionist program positions to replace gender are collectively invoked as the figure of ‘the transgender’, an amorphous Other-to-all. The only criterion for inclusion is whether an individuation may be said to ‘subvert’ the heavily-constrained genders considered valid by the hegemonic processes at work within the culture. So in the name of postmodernism, queer theorists throw butch dykes, drag performers, male-identified transvestic fetishists, and others together side-by-side without heed for how they see themselves. This all has little to do with trans people as we actually exist, and unsurprisingly, much of this work appears to have been done by people able to treat gender dissonance more as an academic exercise than as a potentially deadly lived reality.

There are trans people who assert that we are included under this ‘transgender umbrella’, but as Jay Prosser points out in a critique of Butlerian theory, “there are transsexuals who seek very pointedly to be nonperformative, to be constative, quite simply, to be. What gets dropped from transgender in its queer deployment to signify subversive gender performativity is the value of the matter that often most concerns the transsexual: the narrative of becoming a biological man or a biological woman (as opposed to the performative of effecting one) – in brief and simple the materiality of the sexed body” (32). While Prosser is gesturing specifically toward the various physical processes of transitioning, there is a broader point there as well: that trans narratives are predicated on physical sex and on the existence of a gender binary more or less continuous from it, a point A to start from and a point B to cross (trans) over to, a concreteness which the proliferation of individuations is intended to destroy. There is no shortage of construction built on top of gender, no limit to the subjectivities of living it; but denying the physicality from which it springs is to deny us ourselves.

Halberstam responds to Prosser’s critique of Butlerian theory by attempting to further extend the rupture queer theory places between physicality and identity. She opens by claiming to be “totally sympathetic” (50) to his argument that queer theory deploys trans significations in ways that are actively hostile to trans narratives, but this sympathy turns out to be nothing more than an insincere courtesy. She goes on to blithely ignore the subjectivity of embodied experience: ”after all, what actually constitutes the real for Prosser in relation to the transsexual body? The penis or the vagina? Facial hair or shaved legs? Everyday life as a man or a woman?” (51). Instead, she favors a subjectivity of “realness” – the eternal pursuit of an unattainable physicality, which she claims is “precisely the transsexual condition” (52) even as she identifies it equally with “transgendered” individuations; her example of choice is a drag contest. For Halberstam, gender identity at odds with sexed physicality is void, and we are instead all of us hapless Melmoths, doomed to chase after an ever-elusive embodiment – for all that, however undeniable it is that one never really finishes transitioning, we are still just as physical as cis people and must eventually come to terms with that, one way or another.

Matters of Vocabulary

Outside academia, the term ‘transgender’ has been recoded by those at whom it halfheartedly gestures, to the point that the academic use as an umbrella of individuations is now referred to as I have put it above, the ‘transgender umbrella’. The term ‘transgendered’ is now frequently preferred as a descriptor to ‘transsexual’. A few commonly given reasons for the adoption of the term are: that it signifies inclusion of those who experience gendered dysphoria but will not or cannot seek out genital surgery, for whatever reason; that the adjectival form must be used as a modifier (when necessary to highlight my status, I describe myself as a ‘transgendered woman’, or shorten it to ‘trans woman’) rather than the noun indicating totality of nature and connoting a third-sexednessv; and an aversion to anything that might link one’s dysphoria to sex-as-verb rather than sex-as-noun, a rhetorical timidity it is difficult to find fault with given the extent to which we are simultaneously fetishized and despised as the ‘ultimate fetishists’ ourselves.

Related to the recoding of ‘transgender’, the individuations to which queer theorists apply the term are frequently grouped as ‘genderqueer’, both to avoid confusion with the trans people the academic term occludes as well as to draw an association to the activist program of queering – which, it must be acknowledged, is quite a useful thing in itself. As a political program of gender activism, it serves to expand conceptions of what can constitute gender expression and to demonstrate that “valid” gender expressions are not necessarily restricted to being the antitheses of expressions associated with the Other gender – both of which help those of us who end up expressing an Other gender than what we were supposed to have been born with. It is not without its downsides: I remember once discussing being trans with someone, only for him to respond: “oh, I know what that’s like, I used to dress all weird, do the tranny thing for goth shows back in the day”; reading my process of signifying my identity as of a kind with his individualizing expression.

A further recent development of vocabulary has been the addition of an asterisk after the shortened form: trans*. Following the use of the asterisk as a wildcard character in computing, this term explicitly orients discussion of identity towards strict social constructionism. While it is still used to refer to the individuations grouped under the ‘transgender umbrella’, gender and sex are conspicuously absent from the form, making it a symbolic rather than an indexical rheme. It is hence vulnerable to overcoding for still other individuations, gendered and otherwise; perhaps this is intentional, since if being is entirely socially constructed, who can say what is not valid ground for reterritorialization by individuation?

Appropriation as Praxis

Queer theorists have already made mock identities out of particular ‘subversive’ expressions and other qualities by enshrining them as ‘transgender’. But these are insufficient in that they are still shared and held in common, and by groups of people who may not even think of them as identities at that. The individualizing machine will not stop until every person is made unique. So new gender individuations must be manufactured and still new ones from those: we now have people who claim to be ‘agendered’; ‘bigendered’, either in having qualities associated with a stereotype of either binary gender, or, even less defensibly, in switching identification apparently at random; ‘genderfluid’, as the latter definition of ‘bigendered’ except contextualized against the profusion of individuations instead of the binary of identity; ‘butch’, making a particular style of expression connected with lesbian sexual identities a gender unto itself; and others. Many such individuations ‘borrow’ the notion of traversing gender expressions from trans narratives and make of it – instead of a grueling and unpleasant but generally necessary part of living with gendered dysphoria – an ‘identity’ in and of itself, even a mark of pride.

Meanwhile, parallel dramas are playing out in other identity categories: people are inventing and reinventing individualizing sexualities, manufacturing “orientations” out of frequency of sexual activity, desire for romantic as well as sexual fulfilment, a dubious attraction to intelligence to the wholesale exclusion of physical characteristics, kink (again), etc. It is a long list, and, as might be expected from a recursive program of this kind, it is only getting longer. And beyond sexual identities, there are those, particularly in various online communities such as Tumblr and LiveJournal, claiming to identify – individuating themselves – as ‘transspecies’vi, ‘transfat’, ‘transabled’vii, ‘transethnic’viii. Such individuations co-opt the terminology, theoretical concepts, struggles, and narratives of trans people, in the latter cases in order to enable their further appropriation.

Of the people engaged in these patently ridiculous forms of appropriation, many if not most seem to be exactly the kind of person whom one would not expect to bother with them: heterosexual, cisgendered, white, abled. The extreme dysfunction of the communities which exhibit this behavior is beyond the scope of this essay, and in any case owes less in the end to any branch of critical theory than it does to a highly toxic interpersonal dynamic. But it is exacerbated by the piecemeal absorption of postmodernist, poststructuralist, and queer theory that characterizes these communities and enables them to justify their appropriative behavior with appeals to the individuatory program. Their appropriation is an extreme example, but extreme or not, appropriation is the practical counterpart to the theoretical work against concrete identification. It is the process of converting another’s (or an Other’s) identity into an individuation for the self, of severing it from its physical matrix, tearing it apart and refashioning it, an operation that must be repeated until all meaning deriving from materiality has been destroyed and myriad individuations float cloudlike above the body, unsullied by contact with base matter.


The adoption and promulgation of strict social constructionism by queer theorists is founded in a myopic unwillingness to consider products of the inherently violent movement of culture as useful and meaningful in their own right. Instead of working with identity as it exists and relates to physicality, or even making their project the mitigation of this violence as far as possible, they have determined that the whole system is rotten at its core – notwithstanding that the violence that they abhor is not merely patriarchy or heteronormativity or any of the other hegemonic processes, but instead is that which gave birth to these and to still other processes, including those that actively combat hegemonic oppression and erasure.

The social-constructionists propose that identity be severed from physicality, so as to circumvent this violence entirely. But not only is this a project with ramifications far more extensive than they may suspect, it is also doomed to failure: its only possible success condition is nothing less than the abandonment of extant understandings and physical realities of embodiment and the replacement of culture with an infinite – and infinitely alienating – uniqueness. The true danger lies in what it will do before it fails. The individualizing program is inherently and directly hostile to the narratives of trans people, predicated as they are on the normativity of continuity between physicality and identity, and the restoration of that continuity in the instances in which it has been ruptured.


Anuja Agrawal, “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the “Third Gender” in India”. Contributions to Indian Sociology 31:2 (1997), p. 273-297.

Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London 1993: Routledge)

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London 1990: Routledge)

Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in: Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out (London 1991: Routledge)

Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis, MN 2000: University of Minnesota Press)

Muriel Dimen, Sexuality, Intimacy, Power (London 2003: The Analytic Press)

Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York, NY 1974: Plume)

Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”. The Sciences (1993), p. 20-25.

Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place (New York, NY 2005: New York University Press)

Donna Haraway,  “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London 1990: Routledge)

Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York, NY 1998: Columbia University Press)

Evan B. Towle & Lynn M. Morgan, “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the use of the “Third Gender” Concept”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8:4 (2002), p. 469-497.


iFrom the Emerald Tablet of Hermes: “That which is below is like unto that which is above, and that which is above is like unto that which is below.”

iiThe inverse of the Latin trans, used as a shorthand for “not-transgendered”.

iiicf Reiner & Kropp “A 7-year Experience of Genetic Males with Severe Phallic Inadequacy Assigned Female” (2004); Minto et al “The effect of clitoral surgery on sexual outcome in individuals who have intersex conditions with ambiguous genitalia: a cross-sectional study”, Lancet 2003; as well as case studies such as those in Catherine Harper’s Intersex.

ivThe criticism that the binary genders as they operate today are unnaturally constrained by patriarchy and other hegemonic processes, and that gender expression can and should be far broader than is currently allowed by these processes, is entirely well-founded if somewhat beyond the scope of this essay. My defense of gender identity as binary should not be construed as a defense of these constraints on expression.

vIt bears reinforcing that “trans” is not an identity, but rather describes a process of amending as best possible a break or discontinuity between a normally-continuous identity and physicality.

viMore commonly referred to, by others and by themselves, as “otherkin” and/or “therian”, and always presenting with a specific “kintype” such as wolf, cat, or dragon. However, a significant and vocal minority continue to use “transspecies” and to claim a comparability of experience and embodiment with trans people in spite of repeated requests for them to stop by trans members of these communities.

viiThe opposite of what one might expect on hearing the term: “transabled” people are abled people who co-opt the signifiers of disability rather than the other way around.

viiiThis term is already used to describe children adopted by parents of other ethnicities; the sense here is of, say, a white person in no such circumstance claiming to truly be Japanese.

Preliminary Considerations on Politics, Identity and Language

Each body has its art, its precious prescribed
Pose, that even in passion’s droll contortions, waltzes,
Or push of pain—or when a grief has stabbed
Or hatred hacked—is its and nothing else’s.
Each body has its pose. No other stock
That is irrevocable, perpetual,
And its to keep.

– Gwendolyn Brooks, “Still Do I Keep My Looks, My Identity…” (1944)

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

– Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” (1951)


In this article I want to make some critical comments about what has been called the politics of identity and of privilege. I am certainly quite sympathetic to many of the emancipatory projects that are undertaken in its name, and have taken part in a fair number of them myself. At the same time, I have some theoretical as well as personal issues with it, at least in the ways I have often encountered it. This is – one might say ironically – a purely personal experience and reflection on the subject, both in its theoretical and its personal dimensions. It’s driven by both some very bad experiences I have had with the socially corrosive and psychologically destructive effects that ‘privilegetalk’ can have, as well as some theoretical concerns with how it seems to be a somewhat undertheorized kind of language – something that sounds like a theory but is not really a theory.

I may be wrong about this, and to some extent this will no doubt remain a matter of dispute, but my strong feeling is still that the potential universality of its language is the absolute premise of any emancipatory project that goes beyond the subjective, the personal, and its limitations in time and space. It is not a hankering for science in the masculinist-positivist sense of the 19th century (although that amuses me somewhat in Jules Verne and similar books), but it is an Enlightenment desire to go beyond the personal and the particular, however justified one’s ideas are in personal experience, toward the universal and the general as the prerequisite for emancipation. (Of course, this is only one side of the Enlightenment legacy, but it’s the one I think is good.) Without this, I fear, one is forever bound to one or another form of parochialism, solipsism, or a culturally relativist paralysis, which ultimately proves to be much more harmful to real emancipatory causes of all kinds than the alternative. Continue reading “Preliminary Considerations on Politics, Identity and Language”

Richard Dawkins and the Contradictions of Enlightenment

I used to be rather a fan of Richard Dawkins. Not so much because of his most famous work, his spirited and systematic defense of atheism known as The God Delusion, but rather because of the inspired, eloquent, and sometimes brilliant way in which he has popularized natural science. Being a biologist, he has naturally made defending and explaining the achievements of that discipline a major topic, working up a complex and many-layered theory like evolution by means of natural selection into an intelligent but fairly straightforward narrative. But not just that: he has also emphasized – as must be done by anyone concerned with questions of the relationship between religion and science – the real aesthetic and sublime that can be had from a materialistic understanding of the world, in the philosophical sense. Dawkins famously cited Darwin about evolution that “there is grandeur in this view of life”, and in works such as Unweaving the Rainbow and A Devil’s Chaplain he has rather gone out of his way, unusually so for an Anglo-trained natural scientist, to engage with the sublime of religion and also of literature and art. He has also, not unimportantly for the purposes of this article, taken his time to examine the ways in which people have (rightly in the former case, wrongly in the latter) felt naturalistic philosophy and theory to undermine the experience of this sublime. Although from academia there is often much contempt and sneering to be heard behind closed doors about the colleagues engaged in ‘the public understanding of science’, it is an essential, invaluable, and by no means effortless task. Richard Dawkins has proven particularly adept at it, and has rightly been included not just in the Royal Society for his efforts, but also in the Royal Society of Literature. (In fact, as far as I can tell, he is currently the only living person to carry both the titles FRS and FRSL.)

For this reason, it has been a disturbing and disappointing trend to notice Dawkins’ increasing indulgence of lazy, narrow-minded, and often outright racist and imperialist thought, fitting the worst traditions of Oxford contempt. On his Twitter account, he has made numerous absurd statements, often (as many people have pointed out) following a pattern of purposefully insulting and ridiculous rhetorical questions, in order to respond to the ensuing outrage and irritation with a smug dismissal of the public’s inability to understand the rhetorical uses of analogy. Such Oxford debating tactics are elitist and unproductive enough in their own sphere, but with the considerable public audience and scientific prestige Dawkins commands, they are all the more unacceptable. Suggesting (be it rhetorically) that one support Christian missionary activity in Africa because “Islam is such an unmitigated evil” compared to it is not only endorsing imperialism, but also totally inconsistent. His repeated inability to understand the significance of sexism, including within atheist debate and campaigning organizations, is disturbing. He makes profoundly silly comments on abortion and women’s bodies, purposely choosing annoying analogies in the Oxonian style thereby further obfuscating a point intended to discuss late-term abortions in moralistic terms. He continuously engages in equivocation about Islam and Muslims which can serve no useful or scientific purpose. He associates himself systematically with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who share not just a desire to put atheism forward as a political subject, but also immediately integrate this idea into a greater project of ‘reasoned’ Western imperialism. Similar is his coalition with neo-sociobiologists such as the Viscount Ridley, a former director of the failed Northern Rock bank who now pontificates on social darwinist views of the natural liberty of the market, and so forth. All this serves but to reinforce, as many of his political comments generally do, what James Blaut has called ‘the colonizers’ model of the world’. Continue reading “Richard Dawkins and the Contradictions of Enlightenment”

On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

So Edmund Burke begins his examination of the natural sublime in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), often seen as one of the central works in outlining the concept of the sublime and its role in the cultural transition from the classicist to the romantic period. Arguably, it is written somewhat too early to fulfil that role; but in its descriptions of the central concepts of the natural sublime – the effects of fear, of vastness, of infinity, of darkness, of magnificence and of great light – it is beyond doubt a powerful foreshadowing of the central themes of romantic figurative art and of the notion of the thrill of the sublime, especially the sublime of nature, that has moved us ever since. The stereotypical depiction of this sensation is of course the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, and the like.

But I believe the contemporary world has a powerful place for the natural sublime, whatever may have been the progress of technology since those days. Indeed, one may argue that this process, together with the attendant secularization and disenchantment of the world, has in fact strengthened the desire for the experience of the natural sublime, by making it harder to find in the immediate effects of the everyday natural world, and by making that natural world a more threatened and remote thing for the city-dwellers that make up the majority of the population of the world today. Indeed, perhaps the ever increasing familiarity with the scope and interconnectedness of our own globe in the here and now, provided by the hitherto unimaginable progress of communication and computing technologies, airplanes and cargo ships, makes the modern natural sublime require an altogether greater tableau to effect that great thrill and terror that causes the suspension of the reasoning mind and the carrying away of the emotions that Burke describes. Continue reading “On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man””