Sunday, March 09, 2008

Something like the Truth

Last week, I expressed some concern about what I called the "depressingly utilitarian" nature of much of the writing I see, using Christopher Hitchens and his favored forms, the short column or polemic (and his reputation as "polemicist") as my jumping off point. By coincidence, the very next day at I Cite, Jodi Dean took issue with what Foucault says in this short extract from an interview conducted in 1984 ("Polemics, Politics and Problematisation"). The following, from Foucault, sounds like the kind of thing I was attempting to say in my post:
The polemicist . . . proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.
This sounds a lot like what I might have been saying about Hitchens. He certainly does proceed as if he is setting out to destroy an adversary, an adversary he would often not recognize as even worthy of the name. But Jodi Dean points out that Foucault's formulation is itself highly polemical. And she reminds me that polemics are merely "disputations, arguments against another position defended by apologists". She goes on to say:
Together, the positions engaged in an argumentative practice designed to get to something like truth. The polemicist pushes a side, but against another side, in an agonistic practice that is itself dialogic. As a practice of speech, it is not the same as war and annihilation.
In this way, polemics, as argumentation, can be essays into a topic, explorations in words, in writing, though in opposition to another set of ideas or positions. I think that the word "polemic" has, for me, been so tied up with someone like Hitchens--whose particular mode, I still claim, is not argumentation, but in fact attempted destruction--that I rolled that word into my question about the "utilitarian". So I'm happy to unroll them, so to speak. However, the question itself still nags at me.

With my Hitchens example, of course, the problem could simply be, not that polemics are a problem, but that he has long since abandoned any kind of rigor he once held, in favor of bullshit; that the things he says, the big points he makes, are all too often simply and demonstrably wrong, relying as they do on truth-claims about factual matters, truth-claims that can be researched and shown to be factually incorrect (as he would say of his religious enemies). My general point was not about Hitchens but about what I perceive as, again, a depressingly utilitarian approach to writing and public discourse (I'm sticking with those words until better words occur to me and until I do a better job of explaining what I mean). And I can see that I'm merely back where I began, only with the word "polemic" removed from the equation.

While I'm here, I'm going to make a related observation, one that, I hope, will allow me to refrain from mentioning Christopher Hitchens again in connection with this line of argument. One complaint that has been commonly thrown at people like Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that they are "fundamentalist atheists". I find this formulation unhelpful (and a little irritating), not least because it allows them easy space for further dismissal and ridicule, but also because it doesn't do much to gain access to what's amiss in their arguments (politics aside). Another complaint is that they have not read enough theology. This complaint is more interesting, though unfortunately it seems to be made with the expectation that immersion in theology will somehow make the non-believer realize what he or she is missing in their lives (the odds are against it.) What these writers, I think, are caught up in is the idea that there is a "right" and a "wrong" to everything, and that they can necessarily identify it and that they can tell us about it. I think this idea lies behind the tendency to see fundamentalists as representatives of "true" religion. Possibly, theology could help disabuse them of this notion (I don't actually know). In his book, Hitchens has all the answers. He feints in the direction of acknowledging that science does not have all the answers, but he has an answer for that too (science just hasn't discovered the answers yet, or they're not worth knowing). He has written god is not Great not in order to enter a discussion, because for him there is no discussion. There is nothing in the book that evinces the slightest doubt about anything. This in itself might not be a huge problem, were it not for the subject and the audience (and those pesky facts that might get in the way). He accuses religious people of having certainty, when it seems to me, in my limited engagement as an outsider, that religious people are full of doubts about their faith, about their relationship to God, about the Bible as this massive compendium of contradictory stories and lessons and all kinds of weird stuff. For those of us who are not only atheists but have never felt any twinge of religious faith, I think we are attracted to the idea that the Bible must make sense, so we are in turn attracted to (and repelled by) those religious people, generally fundamentalists, who treat, or claim to treat, the Bible as the literal truth, as the literal Word of God. These people, on some level, we understand, though we strenuously disagree. But we fail to understand the experience of religion and faith for others, for the vast majority, and this failure is almost total, and potentially dangerous.

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