Anxious Intellects: From Contradiction to Complacency

review by Ralph Dumain

"Unity is always effected by means of brutality." — Ernst Renan

Promising Start, But . . .

Reading the first two chapters of John Michael's Anxious Intellects, [1] I thought that my initial assumption that this book was to be just another narcissistic artifact of postmodern Cultural Studies might be wrong.† Michael is fairly perceptive and falters only occasionally in these chapters.† As I delved further into the book, its fundamental strategy became more obvious and thus its limitations more perceptible.† The book's central achievement is to reveal the contradictions in the claims of the Cultural Studies crowd.† As Michael is criticizing his peers, he focuses on the main logical contradictions and leaves their other nonsense more or less intact.† He criticizes their contradictions but not their moral corruption.† The contradiction is in the pretension of populism, the desire to become organic, to abandon universalistic claims, which, Michael demonstrates, is an impossibility.† But he tellingly fails to go far enough in analyzing the problem, thus remaining as gullible as the rest of the cultural left.† Ultimately, his characterization of the "populism" he critiques is benign.† In actuality, the cultural left, in every atom of its being, is all about slumming.† This is the key to everything.† Slumming.† There's a logic to slumming, and in this time of terminal cultural decay, one must not fail to discern its logical contours and reveal its deep structure. [2]

In the introductory chapter, Michael addresses the contemporary misuse of Gramsci by the Cultural Studies crowd.† Gramsci is shown to be aware of the complexities of even his own situation, prior to the ensuing distortions on the part of the Cultural Studies people in their delusional quest for the contemporary organic intellectual.† The introductory chapter also intelligently addresses the intellectual's quest for transcendence of mere particularism.

The chapter on black public intellectuals (chapter 1) is surprisingly free of the gullibility usually associated with the topic.† Michael slips up rarely, most notably in his uncritical attitude toward Robin Kelley (p. 41).† Otherwise, Michael is quite astute about the organicist mythology and deceptiveness of the racial brokering academic industry.† He characterizes the Skip Gates/Cornel West preoccupation with the Talented Tenth as self-serving (26).† Du Bois is shown to be very aware of the issues surrounding black class distinctions in his time.† Frederick Douglass recognized the composite nature of American national identity in arguing against the exclusion of Germans and Asians (29).† Cornel West comes in for a fair amount of criticism (34).† An anecdote on West's encounter with a homeless black man supplied by bell hooks comes in for a skeptical analysis (36ff).† In a footnote (181, #17) hooks' pretensions of creating the beloved community are also subject to skepticism.† Adolph Reed, Jr. and Gerald Early are wisely brought in for their diagnosis of the fraudulent posturing of black public intellectuals pretending to represent something more than themselves.† Michael concludes:

Intellectuals cannot effectively hide the unpopular nature of the work they do; nor can they cover themselves in the robe of the philosopher king.† There is no way out of this dilemma.† Some contradictions must be held to and lived with.† Transcendence without universals, universals without transcendence: these are the paradoxes of contemporary intellectual work and modern politics in the West and, I suspect, elsewhere as well. (42-43)

Chapter 2 is aptly titled: "Pedagogy: Enlightened Instruction as Oppressive Discipline."† Michael begins with the debates over fragmentation, muticulturalism and identity politics.† One proffered criticism is that phony pluralism (characteristic of the talk show mentality) gives the illusion of dialogue while silencing any coherent intellectual perspective.† Michael criticizes such criticisms as emblematic of the desire of the intellectual to exert control.† His criticism of Todd Gitlin is not based on the claim that Gitlin is anxious about his eclipsed status as a white heterosexual male, but rather that Gitlin resents the dethroning of the role of the modern, progressive, intellectual identity he believes he has the right to assume (47).† I am not taking any position on Gitlin myself, but I am not entirely convinced by this argument.

Michael critically dissects the flawed reasoning in the egalitarian pretensions of Paulo Freire (51-53).† (Henry Giroux is also mentioned critically in passing, but this pretentious gasbag could use some deflation as well.)† Gerald Graff's "teaching the conflicts" also comes in for a well-deserved debunking (54-56).† Michael Berube's advocacy of politicizing cultural studies is also subjected to a skeptical analysis (57ff).

Pragmatism as a Profession of Anxiety (Chapter 3)

The point of departure is the academy according to Bill Readings's concept of dissensual community, and the topic is the dominance of cultural relativity, or the displacement of universality by community as an ideal.† The hypocrisy and mendacity of cultural relativism have been analyzed to death elsewhere, but Michael's approach is different.† A good portion of this chapter is about Stanley Fish, not a savory subject.† Fish defends his discipline and its boundaries on purely arbitrary grounds.† Academic inquiry must function without questioning its foundations.† Interpretive communities are justified within their institutional context, and they work well when playing by the rules of their game.† The key is to rely on rhetoric rather than argument.† Yet Fish here and there reveals anxieties about his position (74, 82).† C.S. Peirce had already defined the community in conflictual terms.† For Fish, there is a great deal of assumptiveness about the "we."† Fishís fishy perspective is not easy or very rewarding reading, and this is about all I'm going to do with it.

Next, we move on to Rorty, the liberal ironist, who is found to evade all the issues he raises.†† Here again, there's too much complacent assumptiveness about "we" (86).

Culture: Western Traditions and Intellectual Treason (Chapter 4)

This chapter begins with Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations, a relativist position that argues for western imperialism in order to defend its values.† Among the embedded assumptions is a monolithic, homogenous conception of the allegedly competing cultures.† On the other hand, Frederic Jameson and Micahel Ignatieff defend totalization as a way of mapping a diverse social reality.† Michael argues that multiculturalism is a struggle for rather than an attack on the values of the "West" (105).† The conclusion: "Cultural relativism is not really the problem, and resistance to totalization is not really an answer." (107)

The Critic: Cultural Studies and Adorno's Ghost (Chapter 5)

This is a much more interesting chapter, because Michael perceptively nails the contradictions even while leaving the rest of the b.s. undisturbed and exonerating the individuals concerned.

Adorno's project is out of fashion, deemed to be elitist.† Today's populist intellectual no longer believes in the autonomous intellectual who purports to break the spell of mystification of the masses.† The culture industry is no longer to be seen as an oppressive monolith.† Populists seek to become organic intellectuals, muting their own voices in order to listen to the voices of consumers.† But this pretension of Cultural Studies is not viable (114).† Michael thinks that all these populists function very much like Adorno.

Tim Collins argues that intellectuals should not police popular discourse (114).† Simon Frith, a devotee of Dick Hebdige, celebrates the self-ordering of subcultures and thinks, for example, that Hebdige's celebration of punk adds to the experience (115).† Michael evinces skepticism about some of these claims, especially the intellectual's assumption that all popular expression is resistance, but otherwise he accepts a great deal of this piffle.

Other pop culture studies claim to be empiricist, merely documenting what's there, e.g. Ien Eng, Janice Radway (117).† Tania Modleski, on the other hand, reads Radway's advocacy of romance fiction aficionados as the narcissistic projection of the intellectual.† John Fiske sees consumerism as resistance, shopping as oppositional (118-9).† Henry Jenkins sees Trekkies as a critical discourse community (120).† But even Jenkins cannot make the real world go away.† Michael's analysis finds Jenkins' vision of the fan community a failure (126).† Constance Penley studies the Trekkies from a feminist standpoint, again through resistance-colored glasses.† But even she succumbs to the need to speak up and criticize (127).† Michael catches Penley in a contradiction: Penley suggests the work of professional intellectuals should be welcomed by fandom, and will be if intellectuals respect the fans.† But Michael argues that such respect can only be accompanied by critical distance, if one gives people answers they seek.† The bases for such clarifying answers must be different from the existing assumptions of the community.† Empiricism and populism cannot work (128).

This, as far as it goes, is quite interesting and illuminating.† But as I've said, it does not go far enough.† Because all of Cultural Studies, all of the cultural left, is about slumming, slumming, slumming, slumming, and nothing but slumming.

Bad Science

In his final two chapters, on science, Michael reveals himself as the Cultural Studies parasite he is.† Chapter 6 is prefaced with a quote by Althusser on the naive philosophizing resorted to by scientists which Michael proceeds to misuse.† All Cultural Studies people, very much like their New Age predecessors, think they are entitled to discuss scientific ideas in terms of their popular imagery alone.† So this chapter is about Stephen Hawking, especially the documentary film about him, "A Brief History of Time."† Hawking has become the foremost icon of the universal intellectual since Einstein, all the more so because of his severely disabled condition, which enhances his image as both a disembodied and cyborg intellect.† It is also a gendered view of science, as feminist critics of science (based on what expertise?) have conclusively demonstrated, so Michael thinks (136).† Michael gives a detailed analysis of Stephen Hawking's appearance in an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" playing himself, more precisely, a holographic image of himself playing poker with holograms of Newton and Einstein as well as the android Data.

Michael makes a couple of shrewd observations about Hawking and then proceeds to misinterpret their significance.† He notes Hawking's canny manipulation of his public image including the fascination with his disability (137-8).† Michael also suggests that while Hawking promises philosophical profundities to accompany his exposition of cosmology, he does not deliver.† (This is where the Althusser quote applies.)

The disembodied male scientist is compared to the masculine gaze of the movie camera (140).† Hawking's prosthetic male image is curiously sexy (142).† Abstraction is inherently male (143).† The black hole is likened to the universal intellectual, disrupting the unity and continuity of the (social) universe, in an attempt to escape society and politics (145ff).† But reality is ineluctably situated, in us, and is ultimately political (147).

While I don't want to tarry long with this insufferable claptrap, I want to point out where Michael goes wrong with his Althusserian observation and his examination of Hawking's character.† The mystification of modern physics and its admixture with bad mysticism long predates Hawking.† One is unlikely to understand what is behind it by resorting to fraudulent feminist philosophy and analysis of Hawking's disability.† However, Michaelís striking observations about Hawking's manipulation of his public image do stand in need of further analysis and are likely to have a great deal more to do with his disability than gender politics in general.† Einstein was aware of his mystique, and used it to endorse progressive political causes.† He also only rarely resorted to mystification in popularizing his physics.† But the behavior of Hawking as a more self-conscious publicity hound could stand some explanation.† I always strongly disliked the public focus on Hawking's condition rather than his actual ideas.† It never occurred to me that Hawking would endorse this.† But I donít think this is just vanity at work.† Hawking must realize that the public neither knows nor cares about scientific ideas as such, and that the mystique will get him attention he might not garner otherwise.† But consider where Hawking would be without it, given his physical condition.† Without the intellectual gift and the hype, he would hardly be sexy and may never have succeeded in finding two wives.† Most people in his situation would likely have succumbed to demoralization.† But overcompensation by cultivating a certain image worked for him.† Under the circumstances, can you blame him?† If Michael really had an ounce of humanity in him, why could he not have seen this instead of resorting to the idiotic platitudes of feminist philosophy?

Chapter 7 (Science Wars and Interdisciplinary Studies) is about the Alan Sokal affair, and here you will see the arrogant ignorance of the academic humanist at its worst. Michael starts out by posing the question: why listen to anything humanists have to say about science?† He insists that despite skepticism about their competence, they may have something important to say.† He is wrong.† They deserve a good beating for wasting people's time.

The Sokal affair then comes in for analysis.† Michael turns Sokal's accusations around and accuses him of lack of rigor and disciplinary incompetence for not understanding the philosophical and critical views he ridicules (150-1).† Worse, Michael claims that no intellectual issue is really at stake, but an interdisciplinary issue, a material issue, a competition over resources (151).† This is bald-faced dishonesty.

Michael quotes sources to show that science is in crisis.† He also defends Sandra Harding's feminist pabulum against the criticism of intellectual fraud by Gross and Levitt (153-4).† Michael then adduces Andrew Ross's confused arguments for populism in science (155).† Michael defends the social constructivist view of science and invokes the testimony of another scientific genius, Stanley Aronowitz (156-7).†

Both sides of the science wars are defensive about their professional positions and claims to expertise.† As people in science studies gain power (157-8)† they in turn are being attacked by right-wing populists.†

Holding to a pragmatist view of science, Michael separates science from philosophical considerations and thus accedes to the former while entertaining endless absurdities about the latter (e.g. 160).† Plato is invoked as the first policeman of disciplinary borders (161).† This is linked to the autocracy of all professionalism.† The Nazis endorsed professionalism, and cultural relativism and multiculturalism could serve as antidotes to absolutism (162).† Michaelís duplicitous arguments are as old as the hills.

Michael finds interdisciplinarity to be a fiction.† Stanley Fish, who took objection to Sokal, insists that interdisciplinarity is an impossibility, and advocates tight compartmentalization and specialization, on strictly relativist and solipsistic grounds (165).† But Michael suggests that the hermeneutic sciences are entitled to pry open everyone's black boxes (166).† He then challenges the traditional role of scientists as philosopher-kings (167).† Science is under threat by other institutional problems, not science studies (168).

Michael's argument is duplicitous from beginning to end.† First, he posits a symmetry between the disciplines and makes it all about the maintenance of boundaries.† However, Sokal's argument was not that non-scientists poached on his turf, but that they were irresponsible and incompetent and demonstrably talked nonsense. It hardly matters whether Sokal lacks the philosophical sophistication to untangle the philosophical underpinnings of the Cultural Studies ideologies in play.† That the Cultural Studies people are all completely incompetent in matters of science is what matters, after all.† People with no rational accountability for their methods and assertions are inherently more exclusionary than those with rational methods.† Humanists are far more snobbish and exclusionary than scientists.†[3] Before Michael and his friends came along, the left was more likely to be pro-science and anti-obscurantist. (At least as an ideal, notwithstanding such abominations as Lysenkoism.† However, even the limited rational accountability of the past has now disappeared as a value.)† Demonstrated expertise in a specialized area is not a synonym for the arbitrary, bureaucratic division of knowledge on purely subjective grounds.† The specialization required to work in the natural sciences is determined by the object of investigation and the inherent limitations of individual human effort.† The specialization in the humanities as Stanley Fish defines it is irrational, arbitrary, and nothing but bureaucratic, as there is no expertise to protect.† To be sure, there is specialized expertise in the humanities, but philosophical and interpretive acuity beyond strictly defined competencies is not justifiably subject to licensing.† With access to a good library, one can bypass the whole kaboodle of academic parasites.† Michael suggests that science is hieratic while the humanities are democratic, while the exact opposite is closer to the truth.† Michael reserves the right of the literary intellectual to pass judgment on all matters without having to know anything or be responsible to standards of evidence and proof.† And in fact he knows nothing about science; all his arguments in both these chapters are external to the subject matter.† It is all about imagery,† metaphor, ideology, cultural criticism, everything but the content of science itself.† Finally, he absolves science studies of any harm, thus conveniently overlooking the pervasive irrationalism of the whole society, of which he is yet another perpetrator. The cheek, hypocrisy, and duplicity of all this are just too nauseating for words.


[1] John Michael, Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values (Duke University Press, 2000). [—> main text]

[2] See for example my essay Remembering the Past and Forgetting Yourself, Or, Why Oprah Is Not an Abolitionist. [—> main text]

[3] Though Noam Chomsky makes a comparable claim about soft disciplines, I discovered from my own experience that humanities people are far more exclusionary and protective of status than scientific people.  Perhaps what they have to protect stands on shakier ground. †[—> main text]

Written 11, 15, 21, 22 April 2004, revised 1 May 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain.† All rights reserved.

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Uploaded 1 May 2004

©2004 Ralph Dumain