Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reading Richard Rorty

I've always wondered how to reconcile Nietzschean self-creation with liberal politics, and so it is with a tremendous sense of excitement, and relief, that I learn from Richard Rorty that it is not necessary to reconcile the two, that in fact it is a mistake to try for some kind of synthesis. One has to be contented with their separation, to be a liberal ironist, as Rorty calls it. The irony is directed at all final vocabularies, one's own as well as others', understanding that there is no final vocabulary that is not contingent and not formed by one's historical and social contingencies. Discourse and socialization goes all the way down, and the best one can hope for is to re-write a small part of one's inherited script. The geniuses among us re-write a bigger part. That is the self-creation advocated by Nietzsche. It retains his perspectivism but relinquishes his essentializing move of making "the will to power" a commonality in all human beings. "The will to power" may be a useful description of people some of the time, but it is nonetheless merely a description. We cannot step out of our language to judge whether it corresponds to a truth out there in reality or a truth in here in us.

As for the "liberal" part of being a liberal ironist, Rorty repeats Judith Shklar's useful definition: liberals are people for whom "cruelty is the worst thing they do." There is no non-tautological way of defending this definition, just as there are no non-tautological ways of defending other definitions. The test of the pudding is in the eating. Is it a useful way to bring about the progressive changes that liberals have traditionally wish to see happen in society? To my mind, it is. It highlights the desire to avoid pain, which we share with animals, and by extension, the desire to avoid humiliation, which we don't share with animals because we have selves that are constituted by language and therefore capable of being humiliated. The avoidance of pain seems sufficiently "basic." This definition of liberalism also seems broad enough to encompass a wide range of politics, and narrow enough to exclude the politics of exploitation and intolerance.

Contingency, irony, and solidarity consists of three parts. Part I titled "Contingency" argues for the contingency of language, selfhood, and a liberal community. Part II titled "Ironism and Theory" re-examines the roles of private irony and liberal hope in the writings of Proust, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. Part III titled "Cruelty and Solidarity" shows how the pursuit of self-creation (Nabokov) and of community (Orwell) could be cruel to others. There are books, as Rorty argues, that we read for re-creating ourselves, by becoming more sensitive to others' pain, for instance, and there are books, different ones, that we read for re-creating our communities. Narratives, more than philosophies, are useful in describing or re-describing others' pain, and so are more useful in sensitizing us to it.

In Rorty's liberal utopia, we are free to pursue our private dreams of self-perfection, as long as we don't cause hurt to others or use more than our fair share of resources. The goal of such a utopia is the increase of Freedom, and not any approximation to Truth.

In his short book Achieving Our Country Rorty argues that the American Left has veered off-course from action into theory, from politics into culture, from participation into spectatorship. He praises the achievements of the cultural Left in elevating the status of women, gay and other minorities, but points out also the dark side of the achievements. The Left has no answer to the economic upheaval of globalization. Rorty: "Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises." This economic elite maintains a cultural elite either to justify the former's existence or to give the appearance of contest by engaging in cultural politics. The general populace, sensing the sympathetic class interests between the economic and the cultural elites, will then revolt against constitutional democracy and elect a strongman. We now have Trump on our hands, as Rorty predicted back in 1998.

Are his suggestions for change already useless? To deal with the consequences of globalization, "the present cultural Left would have to transform itself by opening relations with the residue of the old reformist Left, and in particular with the labor unions. It would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma." To effect this transformation, the Left should put a moratorium on theory and mobilize what remains of national pride. "It should ask the public to consider how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved." Although we should be international-minded, the only real change we can effect is through the current nation-state. We have to subordinate our differences to a common dream. Putting so starkly an approach that Rorty describes in a much more sophisticated and elegant fashion has this advantage at least: it makes clear the difficulty of such a transformation of the American Left.

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