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Interview with McKenzie Wark on the outer limits of Marxism and Information Theory

McKenzie Wark is originally from Newcastle, Australia, but moved to New York City in 2000. He is Professor of Media and Culture at Eugene Lang College the New School for the Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of several books including The Beach Beneath the Street.

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C. Derick Varn:  Recently, you mentioned in an interview on Douglas Lain’s Diet Soap that you didn’t think Marx had an understanding of theories of Information, such as that of McLuhan, and that limits a lot of Marxist answers to fundamental problems.  However, there is something similar to information theory in the idea of the objectification of the commodity fetish (the abstract idea that is given material manifestation and then thus drives material production).  Do you see a relationship between this theory of reification and information theory?

McKenzie Wark:  Well, you could get a theory of anything out of reading Marx, or any other classic text, if you want to. You could get a theory of information out of Aristotle. You could get a theory of fly fishing out of The German Ideology. But my method is to ask: what would Marx do? I think he would read the technical literature on the subject, like Shannon and Weaver. I think he would read equivalent of the political economy journals of his time, like the Macy Conference proceedings. I think he would look for something like the Parliamentary reports on factory conditions, which in our time probably only comes out in court cases, and so on. He wasn’t just making notes on Hegel in his voluminous journals, he was also drawing steam engines. So I think we have to get away a bit from this text-grubbing approach to Marx, which is so utterly unmarxist, and study the forces at work in the class struggles of our time. We need the spirit of Marx to do that as well as the letter. Central here is the rise of a whole techne that barely existed in his time, the control technologies of the information age, which have so fundamentally reshaped the production process, not to mention its spatial distribution over the planet. Its what Norbert Weiner called the second industrial revolution.

C.D.V.:   You have no argument from me on the focus of current conditions of life and its empirics.  Why do you think Marxists have gotten away from going through the hard numbers?  Furthermore, do you see this shift as a sign of developments within what you see as the information economy itself? Or to be put it simpler, is there something about the text focus that shows us something about our political reality today?

M.W.:  The problem is more that the theoretical and empirical sides of Marxist work drifted too far away from each other. The intellectual division of labor as the university defines it edged out any other way of organizing the production of knowledge, such as around a common sense of struggle.

Perhaps the beginning of the end was Althusser. The doctrine of the ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructures legitimated working on just one, and using the conceptual tools of a given discipline: economics, politics, culture. And of course in his universe philosophy retained a policing role overall in relation to method. For a while it was enabling, but then each of the separate bodies of Marxist work were absorbed by their respective disciplines.

I am of course in favor of a close reading of Marxist classics, but they have to be understood now as classics, as works of another time. They cannot be read philosophically, as Althusser did in his own disingenuous way. They are texts from a project that has to be re-imagiend in all its components.

First of all: I just don’t think we can assume that we are living in ‘capitalism’ as Marx defined it. Just exactly what kinds of mutations occurred in its form between the 1850s and our time? But to frame such a question one has to overcome the tremendous unthinking insistence by — of all people — ‘Marxists’ that nothing much has changed. Ironic given that “all that is solid melts into air.” And note that all I want is to ask the question; and yet the alleged Marxists keep telling me the answer in advance. This is scholasticism. It isn’t method.

C.D.V.:  What can we learn about capitalism from information theory?

M.W.:  If one were to root this in Marx it would be in something he mentions occasionally but does not yet grasp conceptually — the telegraph. He sees how it is part of an extension of the turbulence of capital in space, but he does not quite see its distinctiveness as part of the ensemble of technological changes going on around him in the mid to late nineteenth century.

The telegraph is really the first time that information can be mobilized at a different, and faster, speed, to any other kind of ‘thing’. Labor, commodities, munitions — all those things are moving rapidly by the railway age, at least along those vectors where there is a railway or a steamer. But information is suddenly moving even faster. Its the real beginning of the ‘market’ as an abstract, non-localized place. What Marx presciently describes as the ‘world market.’ But one not based on ‘adventure’, which was when merchants set off with stock not even knowing who or what they would trade with. The telegraph closes the era of adventure.

But the concept of information is not really going to appear until after world war two. And its connected to another dimension of information. The telegraph is what I would call an extensive vector. It enables information to move across broad spaces. It enables commodity markets to exist that are uncoupled from space yet still based on calculation rather than adventure. But there is also the intensive vector, which is the capacity to process information rather than merely compile it.

One of the first forms of which was the modern newspaper. Marx himself is a journalist of the telegraph era.Techniques of sorting and ordering these vast flows of information from remote sites is a nineteenth century invention. But the quantitative evaluation of information is another side to the intensive vector, and it takes a big step forward due to war time logistics and code breaking. People start using machines to find patterns in information.

Information theory arises out of the needs of managing production and distribution at new scales of complexity and over unprecedented territories. Control is vested much more in information than in the design of physical plant. The design of the labor process within the factory to extract maximum value was at the center of nineteenth century capitalism, and this is still being refined into the twentieth century. But the new kind of production and distribution circuits take full advantage of the intensive and extensive vector together. To the point where ownership and direct control of the factory becomes optional. (Samsung runs its own factories, but Apple does not).

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C.D.V.:  What do you think you can seem about possible post-capitalist futures through information theory?

M.W.:  Like anything that emerges out of the development of the forces of production, one has to separate out the actual and potential powers of a technology. The tendency in what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron used to call the “California Ideology” is to talk only of a potential, and to make that potential equivalent to some sort of free market libertarianism. The tendency on the left is to take those people at their word, and to merely address the negative side of that rather narrow understanding of potential. Its really striking how critics on the left often just take the Silicon valley mouthpieces at their word about the shiny free market future.

But I think there’s another way to go about it. And its to ask: who are the organic intellectuals of these new developments in the forces of production? One has to seek out people actively exploring the hidden potentials of information based technology. Yes, overall it is being used to control the labor process in ever widening and deepening patterns. Yes, it is being used to extract information from people’s nonwork activities and valorize it. But those uses are not identical to the potential of the technology itself. So in short, its about reconnecting Marxist thought with the leading sectors of workers, or as one might also call them — hackers.

For those who think everything about information technology is always evil, just remember that the only reason we know about climate change is because of the bringing together of the intensive and extensive vector. Its messy big data sets massaged via computer and put through models which simulate the laws of physics. And the result is robust science. We have a pretty good idea of what after Marx we could call the “metabolic rift” opening up through the displacement of carbon into the atmosphere.

At another scale altogether, if you look at Occupy Sandy, it turns out the be a counter-logitics exercise. Can we use mutual aid to start learning how to run infrastructure where both capital and the state are failing? But for that mutual aid to be effective takes a whole lot of information-based tools. Its a small thing, obviously, and does not confront the totality of — call it what you like — neoliberal or vectoral commodity production in all its flailing glory. But points to the kind of praxis we might need to develop when the current infrastructure starts to really fail. I think we’re going to need every tool we can get, no matter how embedded it is in the old regimes of accumulation, to start putting together coalitions of those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads in a common front to build again in the ruins of the old commodity economy.

C.D.V.:  Do you think these counter-logistics movements could be scaled up to deal with problems the size of the ecological problems we have now?

M.W.:  Well, we’ll see! In one way not. We really are sitting on top of a massive infrastructure that was built for a mode of production for which we are simply running out of planet. If you have ever seen an open-cut coal mine or a steel plant or have flown over the midwest and seen industrial agriculture — the scale of these things pretty reliably produces the feeling of the technological sublime. And we need not just other technologies but another mode of production — or maybe modes. So scale is a major problem for our times.

The importance of something like Occupy Sandy is on the one hand that it reveals the scale of that problem in negative. The gap between what can be done and what is to be done is always the space where critical thought happens. And its a school for techniques of organizing life and labor and the everyday otherwise.

And also — who knows? — the future might actually be about a more finely distributed network of finer links and nodes, rather than the massive hub-and-spoke approach of late capitalism. But one would want to sever that technical and geographic imagination from some of the ideological baggage that currently comes with it.

There’s always a difference between the space of possibility that a technology implies and its actual deployment within a given economic and cultural context. Technologies are usually brought out of the lab into the world to fight some war or other, be it actual war or economic war. But these things exceed their instrumentalization.

The tools for the kind of cybernetic socialism imagined, say, by Bogdanov in Red Star now actually exist. But it is as if we are caught in an additional regime of surplus extraction. The extraction of surplus information, and not just from labor, but from non-labor as well, from everyday life. At least a part of what is distinctive about Google for example as a business is the capture of surplus information.

But that’s not all these sorts of tools could do, and a different, more livable, more equitable organization of life is certainly an affordance of what half a century of information technology might enable. Classic case of the forces bumping up against the fetters of obsolete relations of production, although not quite as Marx imagined.

C.D.V.:  To shift gears for a moment, I would like to ask you about what do you see as the limitations of left-wing imagination since Occupy?

W.M.:I’m a bit tired of ‘critiques’ of occupy by people who were not even there. I was myself only one of the crowd, a body, and only ‘part time’, as it were. Actually I spent more time writing in Zoccotti Park than anything — all three of my pieces where actually written there! That’s why they are rather abrupt — the battery does not last forever! And particularly in ‘This Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit’, which ended up in my book Telesthesia but circulates pretty freely as well, I wanted to concentrate on the ‘glass half full.’

I went to the launch of the latest issue of Tidal just last week, and I was impressed with some of the directions people were pressing an activist analysis. Looking at how the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian people, are increasingly controlled by debt. And I was particularly interested in the attempt to reach out to comrades in Detroit who have many decades now of organizing in the ruins of the old capitalist mode of production. What Grace Lee Boggs calls visionary organizing rather than protest organizing.

But I think one forward step would be to join up critical energies coming from the humanities and the technical fields again. It Happens intermittently: in the thirties, again in the seventies, and it needs to happen now. The mutual suspicion of these two domains is an effect of reification itself. So I would like to see something like Mike Cooley’s work, and the Lucas Aerospace Plan, but imagined for this whole, emerging, post-capitalist but still commodity and exploitative economy we are entering upon. Given current productive capacities, what other totality could this be? That strikes me as a key question for the times.

C.D.V.:  Why do you think there is much more interest in Humanities on the academic spectrum of the left and seemingly less interest in sciences in the theoretical discourse?  Do you think this is a large part of why there has been less thinking and writing on information theory in Marxist and post-Marxist circles?

M.W.:  Its good to have a knowledge of Marxist philosophy, but one can only get so far reading ‘classical’ texts and interpreting the world through them. That way you end up often seeing what is old about the present moment and not what is new. You see how it still conforms in a large part to the analysis Marx makes in the 1850s. But then he was talking about emerging tendencies. You do this now and you see the residual ones more clearly than the new ones. And one is certainly not going to have much clarity on forces of production that did not exist in his time. One is in short going to see the thermodynamic economy rather than the information economy.

There’s several historical twists where the interest Marx and Engels had in all things technical gets downplayed and we end up with a Marxism of the residual superstructures (culture, politics, art, literature) rather than of the emerging technical forms.

One is Lenin seeing of his rival Bogdanov, and opting for Plekhanov’s rather dogmatic materialism rather than Bogdnaov’s open-ended critical theory of science — his ‘tektology’. Another is Lukacs’ polemics against ‘reified’ scientific knowledge — about which he actually knew very little. He does not see, dialectically, how his knowledge of the totality is also reification, in negative. There’s Althusser’s return, not to science but to the philosophy of science, and the ‘high’ sciences at that. And where incidentally philosophy still claims for itself a regulatory role.

Perhaps most important for our historical moment is that I think we are still in the shadow of the ‘western Marxism’ put together after the failure of the moment of ’68. A western Marxism that retreats to the superstructures. It curious how Perry Anderson can claim with a straight face that outside of historiography there is no English Marxism. He pretty much totally ignores the great anglophone marxist science culture of the 30s and 40s. It was rather Stalinist, so there were good reasons to slight them at the time. But those reasons no longer apply to us.

And, unfortunately, a ‘one-dimensional’ romantic anti-scientism took hold. This was not without its merits, but in our era of climate change denial and evolution denial, it is definitely time to ‘bend the stick’ (as Lenin would say!) back the other way. Of course actually existing science and technology are homologous with the commodity form, but so very obviously are culture and philosophy. Its time for the dissenters on both sides of the ‘two cultures’ to find each other. One step towards that might be a revisionist history of what i would prefer to call ‘Northern Marxism’, some of which i just sketched.

And that might clear some space. Not to go off and obsess about Cantorian set theory or magically withdrawing objects or some other distraction, but to look at the sciences and technologies that really did reshape both the world and our perception of it in the late twentieth century, of which information science is an element. There are some elements of this already, but the task would be i think to reimagine Marx’s 19th century critique of political economy as a 20th century critique of information science.

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C.D.V.:  Do you think that the last say five years and the reemergence of popular forms of Marxian discourse could open up a way out of the current malaise?

M.W.:  I think its good that there’s been a revival of interest in Marxian discourse. There has also been a renewal that you can see going on in several directions. The critique of university, of precarious labor, of finance and debt, even of the new post-culture industry media. There’s also new theoretical work going on and also some interesting engagements with various past thinkers. There’s a more practical discourse going on connected to occupations as well. Its all good.

On the other hand there are some more etiolated philosophical trends that may not be so helpful. The task is to get out of philosophy, not to endlessly return to it. After Lukacs and Sartre, there may be diminishing returns in yet another return to Hegel, for instance.

Some future paths to explore might include looking back through the archive for paths not taken, which might be useful now in ways they did not appear to be at the time. Why did Merleau-Ponty have to say about nature? How can the ecological and the informational components of marxian critique be brought together? But I think in the end its the vitality of social movements that leads to the vitality of theory, and not the other way around.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 3

This is the third  part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part and second part prior to this.

Skepoet:  I find the rhetoric of the rhetoricians quite interesting.   I feel like we are diverging on the topic, but I keep meaning to point out that there is a danger to high level specialized academic discourses and that is one can forget that other academic discourses may completely reject the terms of engagement.    For example, the way literary historicists u e Foucault without interrogating his notion of power which Foucault rejected any attempt to pin down as reductive. This has always seemed to me to be a cop-out.    Here’s another example: your tropes of meaningful, colonizing, imply normative boundaries that you can’t make without a coherent social epistemology which is something you are bracketing out.

This is why I reject the idea of “science as rigorous common sense” in that those notions are over-filled signifiers semiotically which have almost no cognitive meaning to demarcate them even in “everyday” language. What does it mean to say science is “rigorous common sense” and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is none science,” and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.

Again, I feel like we have similar problems with the Skeptic’s community, but for reasons of method, we can’t make the same critiques nor can we even recognize the validity of the critiques.   This allow puts out the necessary for structural demarcations and not just the borrowing of political-philosophical language to talk about ideas.  I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends.

I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?

Jamie McAfee:  You’re losing me a bit here.

“What does it mean to say science is ‘rigorous common sense’ and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is not science.’ and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.”

I’m perplexed. What is “rigor” if is doesn’t include normative constraints? As I discussed way back, rules and norms make science science. I’m not trying to be glib, but I don’t see where this is coming from. I’m deferring, as a rhetorician, to scientists about what the norms are. I’m not saying there are none. Sokal was, as a scientist, saying that there rules that defined what he did. (Well, that’s my charitable interpretation. If he meant something lazier, then up against the wall with him.)

I’d concede that I’m unable, as a the kind of rhetorician that I am, to comment on what the norms are. I don’t have any interest, as a rhetorician, in doing so. I can understand why they are and what they afford though. I can talk about the discrepancy between why the norms are, and they are justified, and I can talk about how arguments that flow from those discrepancies are problematic. Arguments are safely rhetoric, so I think I’m okay if I can get to that point.

“I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?”

Well, I don’t think anybody has “invalidated Lacan.” I just meant that some of the trendy science studies that was trotted out during the science wars is stuff that rhetoricians don’t read very much. I’ve never seen anybody reference heavily Lacanian science studies article in rhetoric. I’ve never seen Irigaray cited in a rhetoric article of any kind, for example. Laclau is something that I’m interested in. It’s not actually very popular, although not unheard of, in rhetoric. That was just sort of an aside about the science wars stuff. Some of the very technical Lacan business, about math for example, that’s been pored over isn’t really stuff that defines science studies as I know it. So I’m not sure there’s an issue there, unless you think Lacan should be discussed in science studies for some reason that I’m not catching

You’re making an excellent point here by the way about the appropriation of bits of theory out of context. Within rhetoric (and withing literary criticism before I switched over for my PhD program), it was something I tried to deal with to the extend that I could with the resources I had at the time. The magpie approach to theory that people in English departments do can be really problematic. There’s a limit to how deeply we need to get into the weeds as we are rhetoricians and not philosophers, but we need to go deeper than we often do.

“I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends . . .It would be mutual in a sense because critical theory does build on rhetoric but doesn’t address it as such and rhetoric seems to using the concepts and boundaries of critical theory while bracketing out the epistemology and political economy that under-girds them. I suppose this is the hostility that only related fields could have to one and other. “

I’d like you explain this more, as I’m interested. There’s plenty of complaint about aspects of leftist theory in some corners of rhetoric. One of the few rhetoricians I know who calls himself a Marxist, not just as a scholar, but as a person, is sometimes pretty brutal about the failures of Marxists theorists. I’m somebody in rhetoric who is particularly interested in some leftist theory, and I fell the friction as well, and not just as a scholar.

I don’t quite follow what your take is, but I’d like to hear more about your take on this divide, as I find it a little puzzling.

S.:  I think you’re losing me too:  I am saying that critiquing something without defining it as a set of social practices but even as a set of social practices that are recongizable as such you have to have a normative definition.   Since science itself lacks a hegemonic
singular epistemological justification at the moment “accepting science’s norms” seems hopelessly confused.   The language about colonization and colonization of other discourses implies meta-demarcations between them and that requires a coherent
epistemology, which are not spelling out for methodological reasons. The rhetoric of rhetoric seems incompatible here with the bracketing.This tension is always there.   I  don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.

This is the crucial frustration is that langauge employed, as you acknowledge, actually assumes a framework but its a framework that cannot be addressed within rhetoric.  That’s fine in a way: that’s true of say physics too (which assumes methodological naturalism and a universal metaphysics that is coherent with mathematics in a consistent way.)  Philosophy itself has such limitations and many checks, but the order of checks seem different.   But it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.

Now put myself in rhetorical mode for a second, I can totally see how frustrating this is for the rhetorician who thinking, “Man, I am just pointing problematic assumptions that is betrayed by the language of the community” and in a way the critical theorist would do that without thinking as consistently on language as rhetoricians do.  Yet I would say that this frustrates the relationship between critical theory and rhetoric/literary theory.  It seems like there are bracketing out of the very epistemological and political economic categories that created the concepts’  specificity. For example, “Hegemony” without some notion of class conflict seems odd to me.   It seems like there has been a move to use that rubric, but to disconnect it from real social conflicts between groups of people over various forms of valuation.  So when we talk about “hegemony” in science, Iwant to go for whom as I don’t see scientists are a class or even a coherent enough community, but mainly as  a set of practices with a specific aim and specific limitations.  The definition I am working with though see to agree with yours until the last instances of “specific limitations” while merely descriptive approach can’t really set.

Here’s what I do like about your posture though: It actually avoids the “linguistic turn” in philosophy in a way by pointing out that this really is the domain of rhetoric and cannot deal with truth.  Badiou would call this an acknowledgement of anti-philosophy, and he wouldn’t consider it an insult.   I actually think this is important admission. It just seems that there are some many assumptions in the language that we trip up.   It is infuriating though to see Marxist theory being divorced from political economy in a way that makes it amendable to ignoring productive and structural elements of  class, and it seems   like methodologically rhetoricians can’t address that and maybe that this can lead to the sort of left-liberal tendency one sees in popular
uses of rhetoric. You can see how this would completely frustrate Marxists and anarchists who think that material conditions would have to be changed for serious  identity change to happen.  It would seem to be losing “our” (if anyone can have a claim to discourse) weapon in a way that doesn’t fight the battle “we” “designed” it for, no?

Anyway, we need to refocus on our common concern: Why do you think the New Atheist movement and the Skeptic’s movement has been increasingly co-terminus over time?

J.M.:  Ah. I gotcha. This is an interesting digression, but it’s not what we set out to talk about, so I’ll be quick.

“Since science itself lacks a hegemonic singular epistemological justification at the moment ‘accepting science’s norms’ seems hopelessly confused. . . but it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.”

Yes. We tend to study controversies in science or think about agency in terms of change. I’m not sure why you’d think that I think that “science” or even a discipline is monolithic. I think this gets at where we might be talking past each other. I didn’t mean to suggest that “science” had “a” set of norms necessarily. I think you have to talk about science as locally and specifically as you can.  I’d respond by saying that if science doesn’t have a single epistemological justification, I’m not sure how it’s a problem to think about it in social terms, particularly in terms of thinking about how people argue. Our starting point is “science is messy, let’s not accept the coherent, neat ways people talk about it and look at what people do instead.”

“It don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.” Yeah. I’m glossing stuff. The alternative way to look at this is to say that rhetoric purposefully blackboxes certain philosophical baggage.

I’m borrowing a technological metaphor here. A machine is a blackbox, and when it works, you don’t open the box. I scan my page in the copying machine and copies come out. It the machine isn’t working right, I open it and see where the paper is stuck. There are many, many moments in rhetoric when people open the box, but in order to “do rhetoric,” you are going to have to close it. The same it true of any intellectual activity. I want to bracket things that you don’t.

The specific complaint you make here is not a new to me though, and I’ve indirectly referenced the problem during the conversation. Rhetorical Hermenuitics, which is an anthology about Dillip Goankar’s essay about rhetoric of science is all about this issue. There are many efforts in there to deal directly with what you’re saying. I won’t claim it’s been solved, but it’s not new territory. The “ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language” is what Goandar is worried about.  (Again, you are very much on the ball if you are making that complaint.)

You’re point about hegemony is astute, and I like it. Hegemony is, to be clear, my imposition. Talking about modern culture as a hegemony is not a widespread thing in rhetoric. It’s something that I’m working out, and I agree with you about the class thing. There is a response to that in Laclau and Mouffe, but I’m not really getting that into the discussion yet. I’m revealing thinking in progress there. I agree with your critique. I think using hegemony as I am trying to us it is not wrongheaded, but I’m happy to admit I haven’t worked it out. Your comment is a good one, and helpful.

The worry about what happens when we use Marxist theory is a good one, and I’ve complained quite a bit about it (in graduate school, not here).  There is a crisis communication article I know that describes Nike as a subaltern, so I feel your pain. I’m trying to be a lot more contentious than some rhetoricians about using leftist theory, but you are right that our differences in what to explore and what to blackbox, and the anti-philosophical nature of rhetoric is going to make some tension. (I think that antiphilosohpical stance IS the goal, by the way. I saw a presentation from the little Latour cadre at a conference that explicated Latour’s version of anti-philosopihcal. He is against “critique,” and is very emphatic about looking at “surfaces.”)

But enough of that. I think I see our differences better. I appreciate your perspective quite a bit, and this was useful for me. I hope it was, at least, entertaining for you.

Back to our charge. . . . there was an older and smaller group of public skeptics out there, and I think the Atheist thing offered a more ideologically driven position that has created the bigger and more political Skeptic movement.

There has been, for example, a Skeptic society and a Randi orginazation for a long time, and folks like that used to concern themselves with “critical thinking about popular culture” and debunking hokum. Randi going after faith healers, for example. The first Shermer book I read was all about cults, groupthink, and superstition, not about the more political stuff he’s been into in recent years. (Interestingly enough, he talks about having been an Evangelical Christian and then an Objectivist. Micheal Shermer is an interesting guy.)

New Atheism, I think, allowed skepticism to become a movement. It wasn’t just explaining away fringy parlor trick stuff or sensational pop culture hokum or aliens, but a serious complaint about the power that religion has in society. I can’t imagine a Skeptic movement as big as what we’ve got without new atheism. Like, there would there be a widespread movement to complain about fortune tellers? The two aren’t exactly inseparable, but from where I’m sitting, they are damn near close.

I think the materialist point of view and the concern about the influence of religion predate New Atheism, but that stuff wasn’t articulated into something resembling politics before New Atheism got rolling.

Here’s an interesting exercize. Go to The “List of Episodes” page on wikipedia for Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit.” The show starts off, in 2003, firmly in the tradition of James Randi, with episodes about psychics and Near Death Experience. By 2006, you’ve got very serious episodes about the Death Penalty and the religious influence on the Boy Scouts. (That is not an orderly progression, as they did some political topics early on, and they kept doing silly hokum stuff until the end of the show.) If we put them in the context of New Atheism in popular culture, in 2006, the Blasphemy Challenge was going strong. The tipping point had been reached by then, I think. There were probably other reasons for for the changes in that show (like running through all of the usual targets for debunking. . . I don’t think they ever did a holocaust denier show though, or P and T getting more self important or self indulgent as the show went along), but I do think there was in increasingly political point of view that Bullshit that became felt along with the rise of New Atheism. Like, these guys who were in the tradition of magic performers to debunk things (which came from Houdini, although he wasn’t a magician) ended up being political commentators. Penn has made appearances on Fox news, and he’s become a popular online personality who talks about politics, ethics and religion. I think that without new athiesm, he’d have remained a magician.

S.:  It found it interesting that some many in the New Atheist movement were actually attracted and assumed to be true some really questionable (by anyone’s standards) science like Evolutionary Psychology and memetics. This is not entirely true for the skeptic’s movement in which memetic and evo-psyche are actually high points for debate and have many within the movement considering them either proto-science or even psuedo-science, but with the New Atheist movement it seemed like evolutionary psychology and memetics were used to push evolutionary biology into the social sciences and the humanities.  I have seen this in narratology where increasingly you see evolutionary psychology used to read literature.  I found this problematic because it seemed to stem from the same disrespect for any demarcation line of discplines in a way that was really scientistic. I also noticed increasingly after Shermer a movement to talk about markets as if they were memes or even evolutionary which is something
one had seen in Von Hayek and in, frankly, in social Darwinism. Now I do know biologists who pushed back on this:  evolution is not efficient and if that comparison is being done then some primary economic assumptions even by neo-liberals can’t be shared with evolution. Do you see this drift? It is interesting to me because I have seen real push back within the Skeptic’s movement itself on evolutionary psyche and I hear fewer and fewer people pushing memes around as a serious science, but now I see it more in the humanities.  What do you make of these tendencies?

J.M.: Yeah. That pushback is maybe a way to kinda untangle the New Atheism thing from the broader Skeptic thing. I seems to me that some of New Atheism’s roots in the sciences (what I mean is simply that some of those guys are professional scientists who became being public intellectuals) have lead to efforts to appropriate, really, science rhetoric as a way to talk about philosophy, religion, or politics. The bizarre hubris of some of those guys, and the really cavalier way they make huge claims, seems to come from confidently using the wrong tools for the jobs they are trying to do. (Here’s my physics hammer that I’m going to unscrew this theology screw . . . ., and then Sam’s gonna come out with his neurology broom to replace the morality light bulbs.)

I’d have to do a lot more study and deeper reading to really make the case, but some of the more problematic scientism that I see in Skepticism seems to be coming from there. I haven’t gotten down in the weeds with that stuff in a while.

As for people in the humanities messing around with claims about  evolution. . . . ug. I haven’t read that stuff, but I’ve heard of it. It seems like the latest version of  something like early psychoanalytic criticism or archetype-oriented criticism or structuralism that some other schools that maybe tried to do to uncover some underlying “truth” in literature. I’m not familiar with the stuff you’re talking about (except for having had previous conversations with you about it), so I’m not sure what it looks like, but that move doesn’t seem that novel. Silly, but not unprcidented. (These are outside of my areas of expertise.  My interests back when I was a literature guy were really different. I haven’t read Nothrop Frye in years, and was never an expert.)

It seems like this speaks to some authority (we’ll not call it “hegemony,” but it’s some legitimacy granting sparkle dust that we seen to believe in) that science has. Like, if we can enroll ourselves in the physical, even if it’s some indirect semiotic structural way, we’re getting at an underlying reality. I know this problem a little better, oddly enough, in some social sciences and in medicine than in the humanities. There was a fallout recently in Anthropology between the social people and the “sciency” people (I don’t know what to call them).  The DSM is now supposed to be “evolutionary,” and whenever they work on a new edition, there is an outcry from therapists and researchers who see their work as being social. Or the sometimes whacky ontology of medicine. (I think by the way, that this psychical/social division is a really screwed up way to categorize things, but that’s where the fault lines of argument are. I’d say that those fault lines are problems for talking about how people do things.)

Not a “rhetorical” question: while there is pushback from skeptic people against some of the abuse of scientific rhetoric that some of the New Atheists have committed, are there people arguing for the validity of knowledge that makes no effort to do the sparkle dust thing? That, for me, would be the move that would align skepticism more in line with the arguments I’d want to make about legitimacy of practice. As was the reason for our discussion, I’ve dropped out of the skeptic thing except for reading about the occasional flashpoint, so I don’t know exactly what the conversations are right now.

S.:  I find the humanities aping the sciences problematic, and it always seems to be done with a prior paradigm is just lingering too long. In this case, I think this comes from a push back to dominant historicism. Still what bothers me is that this doesn’t seem to be the same kind of theoretical enterprise, the claim is that we are making literary studies scientific by using the sciences, not scientific by adopting their methodology. That seems to indicate that the humanities have already fell into some of this cache. Now I come with a harder sense of the demarcation line, but I see this move as invalidating in two fronts: One it weakens to humanities separate project and two it weakens clear demarcations.  To use your rhetoric, it’s self-colonization.

Do you see this as a problem?

J.M:  Probably so.

One of “our” (rhetoric’s) answers for identity/demarcation stuff is an insistence on some idea of a classical heritage, which tends to mean that we define problems according to our vocabulary. So, like, when I read Collins and Evans, for example, I want to use it to figure it out how to discuss ethos or agency. Of course, this gets us back to the Goankar problem, since that vocabulary comes with ideology. (It’s very “thin” theory, though, that can be built upon in different ways.) Actually, some of the liberal-rhetorical vs. cultural theory tension might come from that. I think the dialogue between those two ways of thinking about relationships between discourse and material culture is harder than, I think, many rhetoricians let on. (Of course, lost of folks aren’t interested in that.) And, I think, that common exigency is the reason those ways of thinking are important, and why I think they should be in dialogue. (Although, again, it’s a bear though. We’ve, I think, found differences though this conversation that I’m not sure rhetoric has thought about very much. At least not in the professional communication areas where I am.)

Arguing for the strength of the humanities (or social science that doesn’t do the magic phsycialist sparkles) as a way to know things (as opposed to it being a pedagogical or aesthetic tradition or something) without appropriating problematically or doing some other odd thing is, frankly, really tough. Not just for “cultural” or institutional reasons, but because it can be tough to argue for the legitimacy of recursive social ways of knowing that don’t end up as some kind of “linguistic turn” defense. I think the kind of literary studies you’re describing (which, again, I don’t know much about) is a major misstep in trying to think about this problem.

S.:  Anything that you would like to say in closing?

J.M.: One tricky thing about this discussion that we didn’t explicitly talk about is the difficulty in defining a “Skeptic movement.” Is is the active online communities who participate, the public intellectuals, the activists, or something else? My having “dropped out” a few years back makes me less in touch with the conversations going on at the moment, but I think I’d be a little fuzzy on that even if I were reading the blogs every day and going to events. I’m glad you pointed out that its not a monolithic perspective. One issue that we didn’t get into is that we might talk about it as a kind of identity politics, or at least, there’s some identity politics involved. That I don’t identify with.

I think many of the issues that have come up in this discussion, both in terms of talking about lenses through which we can discuss science, and in terms of the ways that science discouse is used, might be understood in terms of the constraints/affordance theme that I recognize in my rhetoric. Of course, by focusing on that theme I’m giving up other possibilities. And with the shadow of the meta creeping up again, I’ll call it a day.

Thanks for the invitation, and I really appreciate your toughness. For me, the most valuable part of this has been seeing your more political take on the Goankar problem. You’ve cogently elaborated problems in trying to think across the rhetoric/Marxian theory gap.

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