Weird Studies

A filmmaker and a professor talk art and philosophy at the limits of the thinkable

No one understands you

Post by Phil Ford

Since 2006 (with time off now and then) I have been recording my thoughts at Dial 'M' for Musicology. By now co-blogger Jonathan Bellman and I have accumulated close to 700 posts at Dial M and at this point I have forgotten a lot of the stuff I've written for that site. The other day I re-discovered something I wrote in January 2009 called "No one understands you" and was surprised at how much it predicted a certain dead end in which conversations around identity always find themselves nowadays.

One historical interest I developed in writing my book Dig is the intellectual history of the American Left. When identity politics became a hot topic in recent years (and I am old enough to remember its last big moment in the early 1990s) I knew what I was looking at: an argumentative dead end that the American left has been stumbling into since the 1960s. The postmodern left, the academic left, has inherited a useless mental script from its New Left parents. Anyone who has gone to an academic conference in the last few years will have seen some variation on the following script play out in someone's Q&A session:

A: You suck.

B: No, you suck.

C: Speaking as a C, I think you both suck.

A: You would say that, wouldn't you.*

Needless to say, no-one is really having a conversation in this type of a situation.

Now, on a platform called "Weird Studies" you might think it's going to be Halloween every day and therefore wonder why I am talking about postmodern-left politics and not something a bit sexier. But I'm always interested in those habits of mind that limit what we can think, and this script has got to be one of the most limiting of all. And it is no longer confined to academia: the big story of progressive politics in recent years, I think, is the wholesale transfer of academic styles of thought to the mainstream. All of Twitter now looks like a particularly poisonous faculty meeting.

So I am going to dust off this old blog post and re-publish it here on Weird Studies, taking the opportunity to clean it up a little and bring it up to date.

About 15 years ago I was on a postdoc at Stanford University and doing research at the Hoover Institution archive, a bottomless well of ephemera related to every conceivable political opinion. I was looking into the late-1960s/early 1970s historical moment during which countercultural notions of revolution seemed kinda-sorta plausible. One of the things I found in the New Left collection was a digest of the "underground press" called Source Catalogue Communications. It listed publications (some of them profoundly obscure) in order of affinity group -- black liberationist, women's liberationist, gay, Chicano/a, etc. One of the categories was "high school movement." Did you know there was a radical high school student movement analogous to the collegiate SDS? No? That's because there wasn't one. Not really, anyway -- at least nothing much beyond a few wildly self-dramatizing high-school publications that lasted one or two issues before disappearing (presumably after a stern lecture from Dad in the family den). But a "radical high school movement" could be posited in advance of any such movement actually materializing because it made sense to imagine that very young people would form an autonomous and radical political consciousness. This was the logical extension of an already well-entrenched habit of New Left thought.

One thing the New Left borrowed from Marxism was a particular mechanism of radical critique. George Orwell somewhere writes of how the animals in Animal Farm develop a Marxist-style critique of human power: from the point of view of the animals, the class lines that divided men were really only illusions, transient and shallow eddies in the world current. Humans might fight among themselves, but when faced with revolutionary animals they would unite against a common enemy. Thus it could be proven, in proper dialectical fashion, that the mechanics of class struggle are secondary to the true engine of world oppression, the domination of animals by humans. This is a parody of Marx's critique of the bourgeoisie: they only seemed to favor universal rights in opposition to the hereditary power of the landed classes, but when faced with proletarian revolution they would show their true colors and band together with their erstwhile enemies. Marxist critique then could argue that it got at a more fundamental truth than any of its competitors -- for example, the ideas associated with liberal politics. It was a style of critique that knocked the legs out from under its competitors by asserting a kind of radical consciousness that sees things at a deeper level. This deeper level would remain unavailable to those not initiated into the Marxist gnosis.

This critique played out in the New Left, but in an increasingly fractured way. At the beginning of the sixties it was leveled against liberals in a civil-rights context: northern liberals appeared to oppose southern reactionaries, the argument went, but when the chips were down both factions would unite against black revolution. African Americans, then, had a privileged consciousness of oppression that liberals and reactionaries alike did not and could not share. At about the same time, though, the young -- meaning the collegiate youth who made up the SDS -- started to think of youth as a category similarly left out of consensus and similarly equipped with a unique consciousness. And once the New Left had learned to make this cognitive move, any number of groups within it could posit their own radical consciousness, each marginalized by all the others: Native Americans, women, gays, hispanics, poor whites, etc. But no-one could agree any more on which radical consciousness was more foundational than any other -- or, to put it more crudely, who was the most oppressed.** And as a result the New Left split into mutually uncomprehending groupuscles, and the vision of a grand unified movement of the Left faded in the early 1970s.

One little line from Source Catalogue Communications underscores this point. It is a quote from Our Time Is Now, a publication of the “high school movement” that “explains that high school students are forming their own consciousness, and shouldn’t be treated (by SDS organizers or anybody else) as embryonic college students.” This was in 1970: whoever wrote this was simply rehearsing a well-worn trope. By then, any New Left groupuscule could claim its own radical awareness, whose particularity and un-co-optedness would be jealously guarded. The thinking goes, We're young, but we're not college students. We are oppressed in ways that college students can't even begin to understand. As the more-oppressed we claim the right to have our own institutions, our own underground papers, our own movement, uncontaminated by college students. The pocket-sized radical consciousnesses claimed by the “high school student movement” et al find their historical echo in the identity-political factionalization of the early-mid 1990s and in the present day.

And it was as self-defeating in the 1970s as it would be in its later forms, because once you claim unique and privileged perspective for your own group you have made an epistemological end-run. Staking a claim to radical consciousness, you are left with nothing to say but shut up and listen, now, to this new voice of conscience; I and those like me have been silenced by you for too long. While this rhetoric is powerful -- it does get people to shut up, at least -- it removes the possibility of real communication. If the members of a given group assert a consciousness of oppression that privileges their collective voice as uniquely their own and epistemically unavailable to those outside it, on what basis could those outside the group understand them?

If I'm an outsider to a group's shared consciousness, the best I can do is remain mute as I am lectured on things I am assured I will never understand and must therefore take on faith. I am faced with a stark choice: submit to authority or rebel against it. But conversation, true conversation, becomes impossible, because if this is the conversational role I'm stuck with, I can never be on an equal footing with my interlocutor.

Think of it this way: I make an utterance in the expectation that it will be understood, and, so doing, I envision (or at least have an enabling tacit background assumption about) the kind of person who will understand that utterance. In speaking, I am positing another speaker, and in interpreting me, my interlocutor is entering into that role. The philosopher Donald Davidson has argued that this is a basic, non-negotiable aspect of all communication. If you cannot assume that your interlocutor (real or virtual) shares the same basic habits of mind and standards of rationality as you, then there is no basis for any kind of interpretation at all. “If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behavior of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything at all.” (Davidson, “Radical Interpretation,” in Truth and Interpretation, 137.)

If you say "no-one understands me except people who are like me," then how could anyone understand or even care about your oppression? We understand people when only we can make a threshold assumption that their minds are something like ours. This isn't the same thing as saying that people are exactly like us, or that people will always be as rational as we ourselves are. It is just to say that when you set yourself up on a hermeneutic pedestal, placing yourself above your interlocutors, you won't have a conversation.***

And that's pretty much where we are today: not having conversations. Instead, we have monologues, sermons, rants, diatribes, accusations, and parodies; we don't talk to one another, but about one another, from within our cushioned solitudes. For one of the things that distinguishes this historical moment from earlier ones is that the American Right has learned the style of critique I have tried to anatomize here. Now we're all doing it, and it's as if we can't remember that only a few short years ago there was some other way we used to think.

*I didn't invent this archetypal dialogue; the person who did is an academic who enjoys the quiet life and most certainly does not want to be publicly associated with even an innocent joke like this. Which gives you some idea of the mood of fear that hangs over the academy in the age of the Cold Civil War.

**Latter-day identity politics tried to avoid getting dragged into the "oppression Olympics" with the notion of intersectionality. Suffice it to say, it didn't work.

***Francis Davis once wrote about the loft-scene free-jazz/poetry/political rants he remembers from the early 1970s, “the confusing gist of which was likely to be that only blacks were culturally equipped to understand jazz and white people ought to be ashamed of themselves for not supporting it in greater numbers.” This is also the same habit of mind one finds among hipsters of all stripes, who resent uncool outsiders and at the same time resent the cultural "mainstream" that doesn't understand their music.