Three Monkeys Online

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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions – Francis Wheen

This book has already generated several recent column inches, and with it, Marxiologist and columnist Francis Wheen delivers an extremely relevant polemic. His central point is that the Enlightenment (the 18th century movement which popularised the ideals of reason and freedom in the West, leading to secularisation and democracy) is under attack from all sides. His argument is that the last twenty-five years have seen an unholy alliance between religious fundamentalists (Christian and Islamic), wannabe eastern mystics, cults, life-style gurus, spiritual gurus, management gurus, astrologers, post-modernists, conspiracy-theorists, ufologists and the irrational exuberance of markets (eg: the dot-bomb phenomenon) which threatens to end the age of reason. In short, there has been a mass retreat from reason.

Not much argument there. Wheen?s position is amply supported by a litany of hilarious anecdotes. My own personal favourites include his treatment of New Labour?s addiction to gurus, its mish-mash of concept-driven initiatives after victory in the 1997 general election (?rebranding Britain?, ?holistic government?, ?flexibility networks?, etc), and Tony & Cherie?s penchant for Mayan rebirthing rituals. Anyone who had the good fortune to get a rigorous education before the world tried to sell them any of this narcissistic lifestylist nonsense will be continuously amused. Alas, rigorous education is a rarity these days ? most members of the chattering classes probably imagine Mayan rebirthing rituals to be the height of sophistication.

With the central thrust of Wheen?s thesis both conceded and applauded, then, it is left for me to point to some of the weaknesses and oversights in his argument. For a start, he never says exactly what he means by ?reason?. Like so many of his 18th century heroes, perhaps, he thinks its meaning is self-evident. So let me presume to guess what he means. By ?reason?, Wheen means a certain set of rules for argument which were popularised during the 18th century. It was the Greek dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, only more confrontational ? the purpose was, after all, to change the world. If this is what he means, then Wheen is quite right to be protective ? these rules have served us well, and need to be preserved. Dialectic may be historically embedded, and thus have historical limitations, but it?s still the only game in town. Its purpose, whilst knowing it can never free itself of them, is to gradually push back precisely those limitations. Here, Wheen?s problems begin, however. For a start, he maintains that the rot started in 1979, with the advents of Thatcherism (and its implicit bogus ?monetarist? economics) and the Ayatollah Khomeini?s Islamic revolution in Iran. But the popularisation of oriental spiritual traditions, and the endless opportunities for self-absorption, narcissism and convenient moral superiority which they offered, dates back to the 1960s at least. And what about psychoanalysis? It?s the original psychobabble, and Wheen has practically ignored it. In order for any dialogue to be meaningful, one rule of argument must be that each participant in the discourse is primarily, if not exclusively, competent to represent their own position. Psychoanalysts have blatantly broken this rule for more than a century, with very sinister political consequences. Using tactics which border on Stalinism, they have attempted to establish a monopoly on interpretive competence, and their circular logic mirrors that of the business gurus Wheen complains about so bitterly ? ?If you don?t get it, then there must be something wrong with you.? One wonders if his reluctance to take psychoanalysis to task (apart from a passing reference to Jacques Lacan) is down to its status as a western research tradition. Is he, perhaps, drawing the battle-lines according to a crude occidental-oriental dichotomy?

Also, Wheen?s largely disparaging attitude to all forms of organised religion betrays one of the enlightenment?s greatest naiveties ? the idea that everything was amenable to reason. It is a logical impossibility that everything can be proven. Your logical starting point, by virtue of its being a starting point, has not logically followed from other beliefs, and is therefore arational by definition. As you construct any belief-system (except pure maths), it will become necessary, in order to get started, to make assumptions. They may as well be religious assumptions ? like, say, Kierkegaard?s ?leap of faith?. Whilst reading this book, I was also reading T. E. Lawrence?s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a military memoir of the Arab revolt against the Turks during the First World War. Herein, Lawrence makes an insightful remark about the Arab mindset. ?Their minds? he says, ?were as logical as our own. They followed the same reasoning processes. Only the premise was different?. As deserved as Wheen?s hatchet-job on postmodernists such as Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida is (he calls them “the demolition merchants of reality”), he seems less willing to square up to more heavyweight opponents like Kierkegaard. In other instances, his interpretation of serious contenders such as Adorno and Horkeimer is just lightweight. Back to Derrida, however. Given that Wheen?s journalistic strength is in being funny, why don?t we get any one-liners about Derrida?s blue rinse? More coverage on his cronies? careerism would also be good for a laugh. The average postmodernist?s raw megalomania reminds me of what an old friend once said ? ?Academic politics is a bit like random street-violence. It is so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low?. While historians, social theorists and academics in less fanciful fields have less scope for the kind of professional bitchiness I?m referring to, litcrits love it. Never trust an intellectual who claims to be interested only in things of beauty. Aesthetics becomes a place to hide when what you?re actually peddling is a political agenda.

Another weakness is Wheen?s apparent belief that the Enlightenment project, in its original form, stood intact until 1979. Of course it didn?t. It had to reformulate itself several times in order to remain rigorous. Take scientific realism, for example ? the belief that there is an external, independent reality, to borrow a phrase from The X-Files (Wheen?s least favourite TV show), the idea that the truth is ?out there?. This belief is one of the core constituents in what Wheen calls ?reason?, but only the most clumsy Enlightenment thinkers insisted upon it. A whole range of alternative positions have been successfully negotiated by thinkers whose project was to provide a sound basis for ?reason? ? Hegel, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Habermas, etc. The argument is simple enough ? if, by definition, I cannot experience ?out there?, then I cannot conceive of what I am attempting to talk about when I refer to it, even as a pure abstraction? Hegel disassembles the question itself into its constituent parts, and shows that the question cannot be reassembled. Ergo, it must have been a formally meaningless question all along. Never trust a Marxist who doesn?t get Hegel. Even Kant himself (the star of the Enlightenment, and one of the heroes of Wheen?s book) did not believe that such an independent noumenon could be the proper subject of scientific discourse. Science treated of phenomena only, he insisted. In other words, Kant himself sewed the seeds of Thomas Kuhn?s supposedly anarchistic position two hundred years later ? that scientific theories were not truth-games. The scientific method?s own presupposition of an unbridgeable gap between subject and object prevented them from operating thus. Their purpose was simply to explain things. In citing both Kant and Kuhn, Wheen conveniently overlooks this point. In other words, it?s not a straight choice, as Wheen hints, between being a naﶥ objectivist and being an obtuse postmodernist schyster. For all his criticisms of the oversimplified models of Fukuyama or Huntington, oversimplification is precisely what he?s guilty of here. It?s the Enlightenment?s rules of argument we need to preserve, not the dodgy metaphysics or epistemology on which those rules were originally grounded. Of necessity, the Enlightenment project has moved away from metaphysics and regrounded itself in pragmatics and hermeneutics, which usually works on an idea of the truth as ?that which survives all possible questions.? In other words, yes there are universals, but only in terms of what is contingent. I don?t need to make the assumption that there is an independent, external reality (which is just as well, as the assumption would be formally meaningless). The grammar of my language (and, indeed, every other language) implicitly makes the assumption for me, thus creating a world, which we have in common, and about which we can argue, reason, and make universalised truth-claims. QED ? problem solved.

In this regard, Wheen is quite right to lambaste the woolly-headed, radical relativism and subjectivism which characterise so much contemporary moral, political, and historical discourse. But he misses an opportunity here ? that of charting the political dynamics which make relativism and subjectivism such attractive tactics within contemporary bourgeois discourse. Have you ever noticed that people are most likely to say ?But, isn?t it all subjective?? at about the same time they begin to lose an argument. In other words, these tactics are the discursive equivalent of a pitch-invasion in the 89th minute. What?s more, they intend to convey a sense of tolerance and sophisticated worldly wisdom, when just like other western bourgeois fads such as psychoanalysis and spiritual tourism, their purpose is often simply to evade dialectical argument, making them hallmarks of nothing more than a pretentious intellectual laziness.

Somewhere along the line, a book like this had to be written. It was necessary. It is worthwhile because, like the thinkers he discusses, Wheen?s main contribution to his subject matter relies, not on whether he?s right or wrong, but on the value of his questions. He asks enough good ones for me to recommend this book, for the moment. Until something more measured comes along, it?ll have to do.

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