Return of the real

A.D. Nuttall

  • Uncritical Theory: Post-Modernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War by Christopher Norris
    Lawrence and Wishart, 218 pp, £9.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 85315 752 9

The idea has got around – among ‘advanced’ thinkers of various political persuasions – that realist epistemologies are a thing of the past, that truth values in criticism have now been discredited (or shown up as just a figment of bourgeois ideology); that history and politics are textual ( = fictive) phenomena on a par with poems, novels, or whatever other ‘kinds of writing’ you care to name; and that henceforth the only ‘discourse’ that counts is one that cheerfully acknowledges all this, along with such assumed faits accomplis as the ‘deconstruction’ of the humanist subject as a locus of ethical choices, conflicts and responsibilities.

Show these words to any student of literature in any British university and I am willing to bet that you get, in some form or other, the response: ‘This is some frightened mental dinosaur of the Old Guard, droning on against Deconstruction; these people really can’t adjust, can they?’ In fact, they are the words of Christopher Norris, the leading British Deconstructionist, who knows his Derrida, has worked, so to speak, at the coal-face of the subject, and is therefore in rather a good position to make judgments.

The passage quoted is in no way untypical of the book. Throughout, Norris is squarely in favour of rationality, of the lodging and testing of truth-claims, of the erasure of those ‘queasy’ (his word) inverted commas now obligatory whenever the word reality is used. He is against ‘inverted ontologies, placing rhetoric above reason, fiction above fact’, against the current ‘mixture of Nietzschean and Heideggerian irrationalism ‘which has arisen from “fashionable” late-1960s rhetoric’, against the idea that ‘knowledge is always and everywhere a function of the epistemic will to power.’ It looks just like a case of mid-life reaction-to-the-reactionary. After all, the world has seen such things before; remember Robert Frost’s ‘I never dared be radical when young/For fear it would make me conservative when old.’ In fact, however, it is nothing of the sort. Norris is a passionately engaged radical critic of the Anglo-American Establishment. It is precisely because he is not content to fool around, playing one rhetoric against another, but rather wishes to fight lies with facts, that he defends reason.

Nor should we suppose that this political enterprise involves a break with Deconstruction. Norris argues in this book, as he has argued before, that Richard Rorty’s formalist reading of Derrida as a dissolver of truth and objectivity is wrong: Deconstruction may expose particular areas of aporia or vertiginous bewilderment in the logic of interpretation and explanation as these things are practised in the world, but Derrida has made it clear (especially in the 1989 ‘Afterword’ to Limited inc. but also in Grammatology) that he repudiates the charge that he scorns truth and belongs to the ‘anything goes’ school. Norris draws a sharp distinction between critical Deconstruction and Post-Modernist theory: the former is intently cognitive, the latter relativist or even nihilist in tendency. The villains in this book are Jean Baudrillard, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, closely followed, as we shall see, by Presidents Reagan and Bush, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The heroes are – well, Derrida, of course, but above all Noam Chomsky, here exalted especially because of his sturdily rationalist opposition to Foucault, in an exchange on Dutch Television in the early Seventies about the location of political power.

It may be that the contrast between Derridean Deconstruction and Post-Modernist theory is less firm than Norris believes, or hopes. It is true that Derrida in a recent question-and-answer session held in Oxford maintained, if my information is correct, that Deconstruction was emphatically not dissolution but analysis, and this fits well with Norris’s own contention, in a recent lecture in the same city, that Derrida is really an unusually meticulous exegete of other people’s philosophies, mistrusting simplifying summaries, attentive to footnotes, afterthoughts, qualifications. One’s reaction to the news is twofold: first, to say, ‘Excellent! Now we can all co-operate in the indefinitely complex but exciting task of explicating real works of literature and philosophy, in striving to understand a real world,’ and, secondly, to say: ‘Was that really all? Did we imagine the abolition of a terminal guarantor of knowledge, of epistemological foundations, with the consequent sovereignty of aporia? Did we imagine the ludic Derrida?’

Derrida’s affirmations of rationality clearly carry weight, but not necessarily an overriding weight in every case. In the 18th century David Hume affirmed, entirely truthfully, that he fully believed, like everyone else, that the sun would rise on the following day, but meanwhile the famous critique of induction – the demonstration that we can have no reason for supposing that the future will resemble the past – in the sceptical part of the Treatise drew, and draws, blood. Nor is the problem of Derrida settled by the fact that particular passages of Derridean analysis presuppose realism (e.g. by showing that we cannot meaningfully correct our misreadings of Rousseau if Rousseau’s writings do not exist, as a possible object of analysis). Even Baudrillard, whom Norris consigns confidently to the ‘anything goes’ school, similarly presupposes realism when he writes that ‘the Gulf War did not happen.’ His contention is that the phenomenon known as ‘the Gulf War’ is to be wholly resolved into competing representations or rhetorical performances. So far, so formalist. But in so far as this claim is attached to a particular phenomenon, ‘the Gulf War’, a negative realist claim is implicitly lodged: namely, that the Gulf War is notable in that it did not happen, as that term is ordinarily (realistically) understood. For ‘the Gulf War never happened’ to figure as an interesting statement there must be in the world other cases of real happening – and this is a realist presumption. Even if we say that all Baudrillard needs is a common expectation that wars happen and then assume that he would be able to show in each and every case that the expectation was disappointed, he still presupposes that the expectation was real – that it really arose in the minds of those concerned. In practice, where there is no prior signal of fiction (as with novels or poems) the mere grammatical use of the indicative mood tends to commit the user to realism. The case remains open. Norris says less than one would wish about, say, Derrida’s notoriously ludic reply to John Searle in Glyph (1977).

My complaint must, however, remain mild, for Norris, with characteristic fairness of mind, notes that Derrida has not publicly repudiated Rorty’s ludic account of his work. Norris further concedes that Derrida’s essay on nuclear war in Diacritics (1984) is not a million miles away from Baudrillard’s in spirit, since it appears to suggest that reality is a vanishing concept. If Deconstruction is the child of Derrida and if Derrida is after all himself at times Post-Modernist, then perhaps it would not be wholly wrong to re-align the terms and say that Deconstruction itself exists in both a rationalist and Post-Modernist form, or even to assert that Baudrillard is a Post-Modernist Deconstructionist. Such arcane problems of protocol and nomenclature, however, are plainly trivial when set beside the strong central thesis of Norris’s book, which is that Post-Modernist frivolity significantly impedes our perception of the fact that the Gulf War was an atrocity, committed from self-interested motives by the United States and her allies.

We thus have a substantial politico-ethical thesis within a theoretical. It is somehow redolent of the age in which we live that chapter after chapter is devoted to justifying the practice of claiming truth for one’s own statements, and to a defence of that most elementary of speech-acts, assertion, while almost no space is given to an argumentative basis for the political thesis itself. How could one begin to explain to a person in the street that Norris is arguing for the right to say, for example, that ‘the Post Office is in West Street,’ as opposed to ‘the cultural construction x is conventionally and rhetorically sited in y.’ I write feelingly, for I once found myself forced into a similarly elaborate stratagem, in a book on Shakespeare.

To be sure, the Post-Modernist philosophy Norris attacks has its own political implication, which means that the links between the philosophical and political parts of the book are more complex than one might at first suppose. Moreover, although the political thesis is briefly stated, it is rationally stated, and the case is documented. He says that the Allied campaign was fought in order to keep the oil flowing, by maintaining a client régime (Kuwait), that the civilian infrastructure was deliberately attacked, with appalling consequent casualties of non-combatants, and that the prolonged onslaught on the retreating Iraqi Army was mechanised mass-murder. These operations were then systematically misrepresented in the docile media, where great stress was laid on ‘smart bombs’, precision-destruction of military targets and the like. The arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, had been brought to power and sustained until the very last moment by the United States, who perhaps wished to put pressure on Kuwait over oil prices. Hence Saddam’s inference that his invasion would not be resisted or punished by the West. The Americans, in fact, turned on Saddam because they saw him as an erstwhile ally who had become ‘difficult’. Norris points out that in the Seventies the Pike Commission found that the President and his advisers simultaneously wished that the Kurds would go on fighting (and so sap the resources of Iraq) and hoped that the Kurds would not actually break through to victory. Neither the Kurds nor the American people were informed of this policy, but Saddam (then the Baathists’ number two man) was informed. It was about this time that he signed a border treaty with the Shah, and so restored balance. Here also Saddam may have inferred that he could, for example, get away with using chemical weapons on the Kurds. Norris has strangely little to say about the later betrayal of the Kurds, encouraged to rise against Saddam after the defeat of his army but not, in the event, backed, although under the United Nations terms it would have been quite possible for the Americans to move against the Iraqi helicopters; and in the entire account he makes no reference, for example, to the State of Israel.

In general, his refusal to admit any moral motive on the Allied side seems too absolute. Even if the political centre were wholly self-interested, it is hard to believe they could have ‘sold’ the idea of the Gulf War to the American people had there not been a general feeling of moral outrage at the violent invasion of Kuwait (Norris concedes the brutality of Saddam’s regime). If this thought is correct, morality figures in the complex causal infrastructure of this war. More fundamentally, it is not clear, to me at least, that a desire to maintain balance in the potentially explosive area of the Gulf need necessarily be wholly cynical (in particular, the idea that it might be dangerous if someone like Saddam gained an undue share of the oil supply). Finally I find that I am more willing than Norris to believe in cock-up explanations, and less willing to believe in conspiracy. Although the political case, unlike the epistemological, is under-argued, however, it remains challenging.

It is clear that Norris has made an important pitch to shift critical interpretation away from Coherence Theory of truth (characteristic of idealist philosophy, Hegel, F.H. Bradley ...) towards Correspondence Theory, though Norris himself does not use these terms. According to the former doctrine, a statement is true if it conforms with the relevant patterns of discourse; according to the latter, a statement is true if it conforms to reality: ‘the President is in Moscow’ is true if the President is in Moscow. Of course the second option is not available to those who deny the existence of an extra-linguistic or extra-textual world. For them, there can be nothing beyond formal matching and mismatching.

Norris suggests that the natural political tendency of such thinking is conservative: coherence here roughly equals consensus. If truth is founded only on consensus, it is actually illogical to hold that a view maintained against the dominant cultural norm could be true. One worries a little about the transition from a metaphysic to a particular political consequence (much as people used to worry about Karl Popper’s deduction of a piecemeal liberalism from his metaphysic of provisional knowledge). The trouble with metaphysical theories is that they are utterly general, and so designed in advance to accommodate my particular cultural adaptation. Norris grants that empirical verification is often unavailable to those investigating media presentations. He argues that in such cases we have recourse to a fine-grained sense of probability, gained from innumerable analogous occasions. I welcome this, having argued myself years ago in a parallel manner that literary realism is sustained not by one-to-one correspondence to the actual but by probability, Aristotle’s ‘what would happen’ (Norris himself speaks of ‘a revived Aristotelianism’). It is then suggested that a sceptical insight thus founded on probability may properly be employed against a dominant political power. A Coherence Theorist, however, could retell the entire story as a victory of broad-based consistency over narrowly-based consistency. Norris, contra mundum, is indeed flying in the face of the Western media in saying what he says, but (if we are nevertheless able to feel that what he says is probable) his words cohere with innumerable prior narratives, concerning, for example, the likely behaviour of persons in power. After all, if the Coherence Theorist feels able to dissolve apparent cases of empirical verification, a fortiori he or she will have little trouble with the heavily textual world of politics. Psychologically, however, I strongly suspect that Norris is right. The habit of despising truth-claims can sap healthy unbelief. Even Lyotard, with his apparently opposite mission on behalf, not of consensus, but of a maximum, simultaneous, multiple ‘dissensus’, is really caught in the same net, for ‘dissensus’ is a tacitly reconciling term, promoting symbiosis, postponing ethical judgment.

There are places in this book where Norris might have argued less politically, more directly. For example, he attacks ‘all reading is misreading’ on the ground that it leads to a vacuous conception of the historical process. So it does, but meanwhile the phrase dismantles itself. We normally distinguish a sound from an unsound interpretation by checking both against the object of interpretation. But if all interpretations are wrong and we can never give a true account, it follows that we have no way of allowing the character of the object to influence our discourse. We have reached the point, welcomed by some theorists, at which the object falls out of the picture: ‘There are only interpretations.’ But an interpretation having no reference to an object-to-be-interpreted is a nonsense: therefore what we took for interpretation is really a fiction. The strange suicide of the proposition can be repeated, for radical textualists, with reference to the word ‘fiction’, which itself loses all force if there is no implicitly contrasting fact. Norris seems to have a distaste for such internal arguments. For example, to say to an ‘all truth is merely relative’ theorist, ‘You must now concede that your own sentence, just uttered, is merely relative,’ is for Norris a weak retort, because the theorists in question are too canny to resist: they will willingly agree that their own statements are merely relative. To me, however, the retort is a real bonecrusher; if they concede this much, they have conceded that, in other contexts and connections, truth may be non-relative, and the concession is crucial. Earlier prophets of the modern age like Marx and Freud, who used grandly to exempt their own utterances from the general solvent of relativism, seem in a way ‘straighter’. People sometimes suggest that believing in the truth of one’s own views is a sort of imperialist arrogance: in fact, talking to a person who doesn’t believe a word he says rapidly becomes both boring and futile.

Norris says that Michael Ignatieff misread Hume, in a piece he wrote for the Observer. Hume, notoriously, pointed out that you cannot argue from an Is to an Ought; you can heap up factual statements until the cows come home, but your ethical conclusion will not follow, logically, unless there is an ethical element somewhere in the premises. Ignatieff, according to Norris, took this to mean that there is no point in going into the rights and wrongs of the Gulf War, because the Gulf War simply happened: it thus belongs to the world of Is rather than to the utterly separate world of Ought. Norris observes, a little fuzzily, that Hume actually believed that we can and do move from Is to Ought, but the precise logic of the move presents difficulties not so far dealt with. The fuzziness here is like the fuzziness of the contention that Derrida exposed fundamental aporias in our processes of rational interpretation but still carried on as a practising rationalist (‘it will all come right in the end’). The truth is that in the case of Hume the argument cuts very cleanly. The way to deal with the Gulf War in the light of Hume’s remark is not to say that – somehow – we can move from an Is to an Ought, but rather to build an ethical element into the premises. All Norris needs is some elementary ethical proposition like ‘the infliction of gratuitous suffering is evil’ (a proposition I have never seen disputed by any political party or by any culture, for all we hear of cultural relativism) and the case will conduct itself. I certainly cannot imagine Ignatieff offering any serious resistance.

This criticism of Norris, like my earlier one, is faint (praising with faint damns). There is much densely brilliant writing especially when Norris shows how Lyotard extended the Kantian Sublime into the ethico-political sphere. The result is an aestheticised political ideology which Kant himself would have found repugnant. Meanwhile it remains true that Kant’s mind boggled at the French Revolution, which seemed in its burning career to melt the categories of judgment, much as our own Marvell, in our own century of revolution, had marvelled at Cromwell, who ‘ruined the great work of time’: Norris has the kind of imaginative intelligence which can perceive fundamental transformations in philosophy – for example, when he notices in passing that Lyotard has rewritten Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The original version ran: ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that my maxim should become a universal law.’ Lyotard’s version runs: ‘Act always in accordance with the maxim that no single narrative will have the last word.’ Norris repeats the trick, with Hobbes’s ‘war of all against all’, observing that Lyotard and friends have translated the notion into a universal logomachy, a war of all discourses. Norris might have added that Hobbes was thinking of a pre-political, pre-ethical world when he used the phrase. Hobbes’s State of Nature, unlike Locke’s, was neither Arcadian nor Edenic, but rather a kind of egoistic Chaos. In the writings of Lyotard the laborious ethical and political advances of Enlightenment thinkers are undone. One’s thoughts fly back to Pope and the end of the Dunciad:

Lo! Thy dread empire, Chaos, is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word.

Uncritical Theory is all about philosophy and politics and hardly at all about literature. It is said that, at a recent conference of professors of English, no poet’s or novelist’s name was mentioned, in four days of frigid theorising. In this brave intelligent book a similar disjunction from literature is maintained. Nevertheless lovers of literature and criticism should read it, if only to learn how strongly the wind is now blowing from the South.