[Paleopsych] TLS: Edmund Fawcett: Left languishing
checker at panix.com
Sun Jun 12 19:00:03 UTC 2005
Edmund Fawcett: Left languishing
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.10.1
WHERE HAVE ALL THE INTELLECTUALS GONE? Frank Furedi. 167pp. Continuum.
Pounds 12.99 (US $19.95). 0 8264 6769 5.
Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, is
calling for "a culture war against the philistines". Britain's schools
and universities are in calamitous decline, he writes, commitment to
high culture is vanishing and the dumbing down of public debate is
eroding democracy. These are serious, if scarcely original, claims.
Here they stand out for two reasons. One is that sky-is falling talk
about intellectual standards is commoner on the political Right,
whereas Furedi comes from the radical Left. (His title, though not his
biblical tone, is a nod to Pete Seeger's gentle anti-war roundel from
the early 1960s, "Where have all the flowers gone?".) The second
reason is that Professor Furedi blames his own side for the decline,
and particularly its culturally minded intellectuals.
Furedi spends little time defending his tale of decay or testing it
against contrary evidence. He decries foolish new teaching practices
in schools, derides "outreach" campaigns by public libraries and
museums, and laments declines in voter turnout. As proof of widespread
debility, this is thin. How typical his examples are, how today
compares with, say, 1950 and how far he is talking about the spread
rather than the depth of culture, Furedi does not really say. But this
is not that kind of study. He more or less takes it for granted that
his glum picture will be recognized by anyone who is actually reading
a work of non-fiction.
Furedi's culprits are teachers of cultural studies. This is the
subject, the joke goes, invented to give sociologists something to
look down on. Many people think cultural studies a spent force or, cue
Slavoj Zizek, a form of entertainment. Not Furedi. To him its
influence is baleful and lasting, especially for the Left. For he sees
the culture studies staples - critical theory and postmodernism - as a
betrayal of the "Enlightenment values" that the Left used to stand
for: equality, civil rights and social improvement through public
policy. Here Furedi, in effect, changes topic. What seemed to be an
essay on culture and democracy (in the tradition of Arnold, Eliot and
Dwight Macdonald) transposes into reflections on the responsibilities
of left-wing intellectuals (a line of thought familiar from Antonio
Gramsci and Paul Nizan). Furedi could have made things easier by
deciding which model he was following. As it is, he treats the
(radical) Left's rejection of old gods as a kind of despair based on
three connected mistakes: an exaggerated sense that society is too
complex to think of in broad terms, the denial of universal moral
values, and a politicized form of extreme anti-realism - the
incoherent idea that the authority of fact is just another form of
tyranny, to be replaced by the free play of perspectives and opinion.
Why intellectual heirs of European socialism and American
progressivism took refuge in the postmodern swamp is a good question
to which a selfless cultural historian may yet find answers. Several
factors suggest themselves. The radical Left had abandoned economics,
in 1968 it had made a hash of politics and "contesting" culture looked
a good third best (Perry Anderson, the former Editor of New Left
Review, inclines to this view in The Origins of Postmodernity, where
he writes, elegiacally, that "the long suit" of Western Marxism "was
always aesthetic"). Universities surrendered humanities to the new
irrationalism so long as law, medicine and business schools were safe.
Race, gender and "otherness" had bubbled up as issues for their own
Furedi's explanation is ingenious: the Right once spoke for "local"
values - custom, nation, authority, the Left for "universal" ones -
rights, peace, equality. By the 1980s, positions were reversed.
Neo-liberalism championed global values (free trade, open societies,
individual rights). The radical Left accordingly fell back on local
idols of identity politics. The embrace by left-wing educators of
"relevance" and "personal knowledge" followed inevitably.
This story is dazzling but too abstract to be convincing.
Quite who Furedi is writing for is a puzzle. At times he sounds like a
weekend-papers critic of modern follies. Previous books of his have
mocked undue fear of risk, and over-resort to therapists and tort
lawyers. At other times he seems engaged in a micro-debate about the
post-Marxist Left. Even here his focus is narrow. Not all ex-1968ers
became literature dons. Many joined established parties of the Left.
Several became ministers. Others, alternatively their children,
swelled the ranks of the anti- globalization movement or became
radical Greens - no despair there about not being able to see society
in the round or of having to treat climate change as a matter of
Even on Furedi's bleak view of "liberal culture", singling out culture
studies villains looks questionable. Arguably they are part of a
larger trend towards personalization in Western culture under debate
for over half a century.
For all that, Frank Furedi points his finger at important issues. It
would be wrong to fault him for not writing a different book. A more
economic (and more Marxist?) approach to the state of British culture
would nevertheless look harder at press and television ownership, at
public broadcasting, and at the structure of higher education. It
would pay less attention to critical theory and more to the influence
of business schools and right-wing think-tanks.
It would also look into the decline of book editing. In Where Have All
the Intellectuals Gone? Diane Ravitch's name in the bibliography is
misspelled, the title of Bertrand de Jouvenel's essay, "The Treatment
of Capitalism by Continental Intellectuals", is incomplete, and the
lead book critic of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, is
mistakenly thought to be a man. But perhaps this was a coded joke
against identity politics.
More information about the paleopsych