As a colleague of David Simpson at the University of California and a friend graciously thanked in his acknowledgments, can I pretend to have the disinterestedness necessary to write an objective review of his book? Or, as a reviewer opening with a confession of this sort – what in the lingo of our day is called a ‘full disclosure’ – have I then somehow neutralised my personal stake in such a way that I can offer my opinion as unbiased? Can such reflexivity work to undo the debilitating effects of situatedness?
These are the kinds of question that agonise Simpson, who has written Situatedness in the hope of stemming the tide of what he calls, following Andrew Sullivan, ‘azza’ declarations – ‘as a colleague of David Simpson’; ‘as a white, middle-class male’ – in the age of identity politics. ‘Agonise’ is the right word here: every page of his book radiates anger, frustration and impotence at a situation in which the obsession with situation is itself the problem. For underlying the current impasse, he fulminates, is an eternal oscillation between two equally problematic positions. The first is a now discredited transcendental universalism, a view from nowhere enabling a putatively objective knowledge which can be used to inform rational social and political decisions. The second is the relativising of all views as mere expressions of a concrete particularity – a local place in a world of incommensurable, non-totalisable perspectives – which don’t have sufficient critical purchase to address the pressing problems of the day. Together, Simpson the unrepentant dialectician tirelessly insists, these two positions produce an antinomy or aporia, not the potentially productive contradiction that may lead us to a higher plane of understanding and a more effective way of acting. As such, they reflect or express the current dilemmas of a late capitalist, liberal democratic society in which we can’t make up our minds whether we actively create the social world or are merely its passive victims.
Situatedness reconstructs what Simpson sees as the maddeningly unproductive fluctuation between these two alternatives in several different contexts: legal reasoning, social science, literature, biography and philosophy. Neither of the two positions is spared, but his anger is directed more towards the fetish for particular affiliation than the residual faith in disinterested universalism. Here, his critique often hits vulnerable targets, for it is clear that the appeal to identity as a means sufficient to legitimate or even explain a belief or an argument comes up against the difficulty of deciding which of one’s many possible identities is really at stake. How can we know, for example, whether it is more important that a person is a woman, a baby boomer, a heterosexual, Asian-American, a Catholic, a breast cancer survivor, upper-middle class, a college drop-out, twice divorced, a fashion victim or second in birth order in her family in understanding why she campaigned for Ralph Nader in the last American Presidential election? Which of these characteristics defines her identity? Is it, moreover, really possible to embed opinions and prejudices squarely in a specific cultural tradition, when the word ‘culture’ signifies a multitude of different phenomena, and ‘traditions’ are inherently divided and amorphous things? Can we avoid biological essentialism by appealing to the allegedly shared ‘experience’ of different groups when it is far from clear what we mean by that term? Are ‘communities’ really homogeneous and coherent entities with the capacity to compel a common point of view in all their members? Is the apparent humility shown in speaking only for oneself and not for others really a cover for indifference to the plight of those who have no voice?And does it serve to mask a loss of confidence that reasoned arguments might win over open-minded people whatever their identities? As Simpson puts it, situatedness turns out to be an ‘unignorable but imprecise field of forces that raises more questions than it answers’.
He is also refreshingly provocative, and surprisingly so considering his professional identity as a literary critic, in challenging the role that literature has played in cultivating then wallowing in ambiguities and aporias, when it should be providing ways of going beyond them. Against thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, he refuses to celebrate the literary as a way to avoid or perpetually defer addressing hard epistemological questions as to how we can know a real world whose solidity cannot be dissolved even by the most imaginative exercise in self-fashioning. He is not won over by Postmodernist models of social science in which there has been a wholesale abandonment of the objectivist hopes of its classical practitioners.
Much of what Simpson says should encourage self-consciousness about the costs of an unthinking appeal to dubiously concrete subject positions. But there will inevitably be qualms about some of the deeper premises of his argument. Is it, for example, really the case that the antinomies he so abhors are becoming increasingly acute at present, that ‘the pressure currently being put on the rhetoric of situatedness is greater than it has been in the past,’ producing what he calls a ‘crisis’ in need of a radical solution? Is it not possible that virtually all the antinomies he deplores in the present will have been felt no less sharply at previous moments in history: for example, during the long and vigorous debate over what became known as ‘psychologism’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? The main issue then was the reduction of putatively transcendental ideas, in particular the truths of logic and mathematics, to the psyches of those who held them: of Mind to individual human minds. Although there are foreshadowings in earlier thinkers such as Kant, it was Gottlob Frege who launched the reaction, in his Foundations of Arithmetic (1884), by vigorously defending those truths as immanently and timelessly valid. Soon the critique was broadened by philosophers including Edmund Husserl, Hermann Cohen and Rudolf Hermann Lotze, and cultural critics such as T.E. Hulme, to denounce social or cultural attempts to relativise ideas and even ethical values. For the critics of psychologism, validity had nothing to do with genesis, truth content was independent of individual judgments, and justification did not rely on mere rhetorical persuasion. In aesthetic terms, the cults of impersonality and purity in high Modernism expressed a similar rejection of Romantic claims that art expressed the interiority of the artist, or realist ones that saw it as an imitation of social conditions. Even sociologists of knowledge such as Karl Mannheim struggled mightily to get beyond the relativism implicit in their stress on the situatedness of ideologies (Mannheim’s solution, which he called ‘relationism’, involved the harmonising of the complementary perspectives of intellectuals from different backgrounds, but was a non-starter). In short, the critics of psychologism were every bit as threatened by the plague of ‘azza’ thinking that they perceived in their surrounding culture as Simpson is by his. And judging by the difficulties they had in putting it to rest, it is clear that their answers were not overwhelmingly persuasive, especially the further they got from logic and mathematics into the messier world of human culture and values.
If the crisis that Simpson sees as our own has been a feature of modern life for a very long time, one may also wonder if the oscillation he describes is characteristic of liberal democratic ideology alone. Isn’t it just as easy to discern the dialectic of ‘azza’ and ‘anti-azza’ in the history of Marxist theory and practice, which was dedicated precisely to the subversion of that ideology and the ‘modern bourgeois’ subjectivity it supported? The tension between the intellectual’s objective knowledge, understood in philosophical or scientific terms, and reliance on the concrete location of the working class in the current mode of production as a source of radical critique, can certainly be found in Marx. His famous put-down of the tailor and intellectual autodidact Wilhelm Weitling – ‘ignorance never helped anyone’ – neatly encapsulates the gap between progressive theorists and those whose interests they claim to represent.
Later, in 1923, Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy defended an anti-transcendental theory of radical historicism in which critical theory was understood to be the direct expression of political practice. When the proletariat was reformist, Korch explained, and worked to better itself within the system – for example, between the failure of the 1848 Revolutions and the onset of syndicalism and Bolshevism some fifty years later – Marxist theory was concomitantly evolutionary or revisionist. Here situatedness determined ideas: moderate practice led to quietistic theory, while heightened class struggle produced theoretical radicalism. Here, a ‘workerist’ interpretation of the relationship between theory and praxis privileged ‘azza’ identity over allegedly objective knowledge.
Conversely, Louis Althusser’s For Marx of 1965 spurned all historicist or humanist impulses in the Marxist tradition, radically separated theoretical practice from the consciousness of the working class, and sought to restore Marxism’s scientific credentials against any appeal to the concrete. Anyone who naively thought he knew from whence he spoke was merely adopting the ideological subject position produced through his ‘interpellation’ by society. Grounded in a Spinozistic faith in the congruence between knowledge and its object, Althusser’s thinking supported a dubious Leninist vanguardism – or at least a leading role for Marxist intellectuals – that had little use for the ideological delusions of the working class, whose ‘lived experience’ was nothing more than a distorted effect of deeper structural trends.
Simpson knows all this, and has a few criticisms of the totalising implications of Althusser’s theory, but chooses to address the Marxist duplication of the aporetic logic he dislikes only in several brief, sceptical references to Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. He treats that work’s would-be solution of the problem – the conflating of the proletariat’s ‘objective’ standpoint and ‘ascribed’ class consciousness with the neo-Hegelian unity of subject and object – with the disdain it deserves. The failure of the Revolution Lukács had expected to transform the world in the heady days after 1917, Simpson acknowledges, left him open ‘to the irony of a history that has not yet and in the opinion of many today may never bring about this objectification of the consciousness of the proletariat or indeed of anyone else, so that his argument stands now as visibly utopian rather than obviously predictive’.
Yet, immediately after conceding that this version of Marxism left all the old antinomies still in place, Simpson resolutely asserts his own continuing ‘faith in history as the most profitable testing ground for the dilemmas of situatedness’. Following Fredric Jameson, he holds out hope that history may yet get beyond aporias to reveal a genuine contradiction ‘with its lurking sense of imminent solution or mediation’. He suggests that we can get out of our epistemological impasse, in which local situatedness oscillates endlessly with empty claims to universalism, if a new situation somehow manifests itself or is actively manufactured, a situation that will dialectically sublate the binary opposition between particular and universal.
Simpson’s faith in ‘history’ – a term whose centre of gravity is now placed in the future, not the past – allows him to disdain contemporary theorists such as Seyla Benhabib, Richard Bernstein and David Hollinger, who think the answer to ‘azza’ relativism is dialogic consensus-building or post-ethnic hybridity. Even their cautious optimism about the potential for such solutions comes up against the deeper social and political causes of the impasse, which no amount of discursive creativity – what Simpson dismissively calls ‘an exhortation to civility and good manners’ – can alleviate. A similar impatience with short-term pseudo-solutions manifests itself in Simpson’s curt dismissal of the current fascination with ethics, which he sees as little more than a compensation for the failure to overcome the fact/value split in bourgeois culture. He approvingly cites Jameson’s sweeping characterisation of ethics as a ‘historically outmoded system of positioning the individual subject’ within an allegedly homogeneous class. It is especially pernicious, Simpson claims, when it is tied to professions of situated identity. ‘The imperative to situate oneself is perceived as ethical even as (or perhaps because) it is usually devoid of critical content and without consequences beyond the moment of utterance.’
Here many of Simpson’s readers, including some of those friends thanked in his acknowledgments, may wish to get off the train. For only if you wager on something called ‘history’ as the way to resolve our problems will worrying about the little ethical dilemmas that bedevil us in the unredeemed present seem a vain exercise. Only from the vantage point of a utopian future situation, in other words, will it appear safe to reject the hard choices we face in the present, choices that may never be dialectically resolved and demand to be addressed no matter what our class position. Indeed, identifying with that future situation may well provide some of the dubious ethical comfort that Simpson wants to deny those who find it in their ‘azza’ identities. The same evasive logic allowed Heidegger, another critic of scientific objectivism and cultural relativism with no time for ethical dilemmas, famously to insist that ‘only a God will save us now.’ Can even a secular believer that a future history will bail us out make a convincing case that such a solution is on the horizon in this most inauspiciously begun 21st century? As a professional historian, cognisant of the past wreckage of such hopes, I must confess I have my doubts.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.