3/4/21 — The Gnashing of Teeth and the Smashing of Keyboards
An article I recently enjoyed is the editorialist Noah Smith’s interview with Liam Kofi Bright, a British philosopher. As the article explains, Bright is one of those rarities in philosophy with a humorous and erudite personality. The combination has won him a considerable following on Twitter in addition to his academic posts and awards. Bright’s philosophical research focuses on the social epistemology of science. Put into more straightforward language: he studies how science is performed. This not only means an investigation into, say, laboratory conditions but also an investigation into how it formulates truth claims at the level of report and institution. In this, he takes inspiration from the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. If you know of logical positivism, you probably — like myself — have it in mind that its project was a failure. And this is basically right, but Bright finds there to be more value in this failed project than is commonly recognized:
“They were scientists and philosophers interested in how to interpret breakthroughs in physics and mathematics that they had lived through, such as the discovery of Einstein’s general relativity. What’s more, they were living in post-world-war-one Vienna, formerly the head of a large empire but now the capital of a small rump state and in the midst of the socialist experiment we now call ‘Red Vienna’. Many of the logical positivists thought that the social changes the world was undergoing were intimately tied up with the scientific and conceptual changes they studied.
Most philosophers take their project to have been an interesting failure, set aside for good reason. But I think the way they combined scientific and social philosophy has much to recommend it, and the arguments against it far less convincing than generally supposed. Hence, I am the last to carry the torch!”
Bright’s research continues this tradition by synthesizing investigations into the epistemology of science interested in the health of democratic, socialist institutions. Readers inclined towards continental philosophy should imagine an analytic version of Bruno Latour. If you are, like me, a skeptic of Latour and his ilk, Bright may be a welcome substitution.
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Moving further in the direction of politics, another article I immensely enjoyed is this piece by Anton Jäger and Daniel Zamora in the New Statesmen. With the snappy title “‘Welfare without the welfare state’: the death of the postwar welfarist consensus,” the article analyzes the collapse of social democratic, welfarist parties and policies across the globe in the latter half of the twentieth century: “As citizens left the lively postwar network of institutions — unions, parties and other civil society associations — which had translated local needs into concrete, collective demands which the state could then attempt to meet, statesmen increasingly turned to public relations experts to win office. The link between politicians and the public shifted: instead of listening to an organised civil society, they began to project “opinions” onto an atomised public. Welfare politics followed suit: either punitive workfare and the slashing of public programmes, or shooting liquidity downwards, responding to needs in the “abstract” — in the form of increasing spending power — rather than in the “concrete”: providing good schools, decent housing and so on. Poverty was conceptualised as a simple lack of money, not as inadequate access to services.”
This sleight-of-hand has not only massively titled the global distribution of wealth towards the upper classes, but it has also shaped the revival of welfarist politics today. While there is much to be said for the revival of concepts like basic income, such a solution extends rather than rejects the neoliberal logic underpinning of present anti-welfare state:
“The “populist explosion” of the 2010s accelerated this process of abstraction. A curious alliance formed between technocrats and populists — both opponents of the old party democracy — over their mutual preference for cash transfers. In a society with fewer permanent jobs, more precarious work and higher ratios of self-employment, a corporatist welfare state built on trade unions and insurance funds seemed increasingly obsolete. Direct cash payments could furnish security for the new “precariat” of atomic individuals, no longer attached to a political party or embedded in the traditional family units postwar welfarism had presupposed.
The left-wing appeal of cash transfers has always rested in their offering a solution to poverty that is less punitive and inefficient than many existing welfare programmes, eroded by 30 years of neoliberal restructuring. But their popularity is also a sign of the times: cash transfers fit all too neatly with our increasingly individualist and “liquid” democracy. A class society which cannot agree on anything can at least agree on individuals’ need for money. In this sense, basic income has become the distant horizon of our new welfare world: we might not get there soon, but everything already happens under its sign.”
What does this mean for the future of the American welfare state? I am not sure. I can only hope that the current movement transcends the stop-gap effort of cash transfers, focusing instead on rebuilding social institutions.
Finally, the literary criticism world saw rising tensions in the so-called “Method Wars” the past month. David Kurnick’s article “Queer Theory and Literary Criticism’s Melodramas” is an excellent intervention in the debate. He returns to the Sedwick text that continues to set the terms of this debate. Kurnick sensitively engages with the text, sympathetically and critically asking why it seems to discordant with Sedgwick’s other seminal works:
“Sedgwick’s major literary critical monographs, Epistemology of the Closet and Between Men, remain tremendously convincing bids to add to collective knowledge, contributions to a shared store of human truth. The paranoiac invents structures where none exist; the world he sees is a dark diagram of his projective fantasies. The social objects of which these books offer such searching accounts — male homosocial desire, the sexual closet — are indeed brimming with paranoid fantasy. But there is no relevant sense in which the interpretive method informing the books could be thus characterized: Homosocial desire and the closet are, Sedgwick’s work decisively demonstrated, real, powerful, and interpretively complex social facts. To claim otherwise is to misrepresent Sedgwick’s own prodigal gifts as a critic — and insofar as she represents the best of what remains a professional habitus, it is to misrepresent the profession generally.”
I can only hope this corrects some of Sedwick’s current legacy, especially insofar as it has been distorted by these “method wars.”