The term “neoliberal” and the ecumenism of blame

This entire interview with Colum McCafferty is well worth reading, especially the parts referring to the contrast between liberal citizenship and republican citizenship, as well as the growing use of the word “consumer” in place of any reference to citizens. I want to mark the following for attention too though:

Regarding this use of language to limit of discourse, you refer to the expression ‘the political class’ as another term that has become widespread, even among well-regarded journalists.

Well, before this term arose you had a tendency to talk about ‘The Politicians’, which is also used as a way to eliminate discourse. It eliminates the very possibility that there are different politicians with different points of view. Michael D Higgins called it “an ecumenism of blame”.

You now see this term changing to ‘the political class’, so you have the political class and people change within it, but it’s permanent.

I have noted previously that we would do well to have a Godwin’s Law for the term ‘neoliberalism’, given that in the best case such references are exercises in taxonomy (I think I called them ‘trainspotting‘ in one of my more uncharitable harrumphs). Invoking neoliberalism is similarly a way to eliminate conversation. Zizek also refers to this rhetorical maneuver in the use of the term “fascist” as a way of shutting down an argument. There is both an ecumenism of blame as well as an agnosticism of responsibility here. If some politician or political act is identified as neoliberal, then room for alternative action and debate is effectively precluded. We don’t even think in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘constitutional’ or ‘unconstitutional’. Something is simply ‘neoliberal’ – and that’s it.

This is at once a testament to how what is identified as ‘neoliberalism’ utterly suffuses our discourse. I think of the title of Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes here as a symptom of this, of which he is of course aware. The best an alternative to this status quo can be is to have the tragic honour of a lost cause, because the possibility of a real alternative doesn’t exist. This term is a testament to how impoverished the debate is in terms of constructing possible worlds, and scenario planning, and how so much effort has been expended in the equivalent of Late Scholastic taxonomizing of minutiae.

I recall a recent experience after a conference where the discussion of an academic by others (including one quite senior figure in the field) turned to what can best be described as a Blutreinheitsgebot. This academic, early career, on whom an anathema was declared was identified as ideologically suspect purely because he didn’t discuss the topics they did by invoking neoliberalism. His attempt to step beyond this term (for whatever reasons) was singled out as suspect and cause for censure in and of itself. This is the paranoia of the academy taken to its absurd conclusion. Thankfully, however, there may be an equivalent of the Gartner hype cycle for such ideas, and we can move beyond this limited and limiting idea, beyond the identification of problems, to a fuller concept of critique which is proactive as well as descriptive.

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Where are the higher education libertarians?

How come we don’t have a Tea Party of research evaluation? Where is the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag for the REF?  How come all the market ideology which is imported into the administration of universities is the of the unreconstructed sort? How come the focus is on ever more regulation (of individual researchers and their work), whereas elsewhere in this grand market regulation is anathema? Where is the spontaneous order ideologues, the invisible hand acolytes for the knowledge economy? Where aren’t academics and researchers recognised as the experts they are and so left to self-regulation, as is the norm elsewhere in the ‘market knows best’ dreamlandfantastytime? If the Michael Goves and David Willetses of the world are bringing market mechanisms into education and research on the principle that these realms are markets already, well why not expand this thought to its ultimate conclusion. If they are markets (of ideas, of knowledge, of technology, of understanding) then the last thing required is any government involvement. Or perhaps it is an incoherent analogy from the off…

Quote: Style and the linguistic bases of Roman rhetorical devices

I decided recently to brush up on my Latin (it has been a damp week in Ireland so far), and so dug out old grammars, dictionaries, and anthologies. I turned to Cicero (kik-er-oh I keep reminding myself), as the flavour of some of the orations seemed appropriate to the times, and thus perhaps I was more likely to drive on with my revision. O tempora! O mores! I have a copy of J.B. Greenough and G.L. Kittredge’s Select Orations of Cicero (New York, 1896) which I picked up for a song somewhere, sometime (but html version here, and pdf here). Reading the introduction, I came across the following passage:

Of course he is not always at his best, but it is never safe to criticise his compositions without a careful study of the practical necessities of the occasion.

Thus Cicero’s style is often criticised as redundant and tautological, a criticism which must proceed either from ignorance or inattention. One of the great arts of the public speaker is to keep before his audience a few points in such a way that they cannot be lost sight of. To accomplish this, these points must be repeated as many times as possible, but with such art that the fact of repetition shall not be noticed. Hence the same thing must often be said again and again, or else dwelt upon with a profusion of rhetoric, in order to allow time for the idea to gain a lodgement. […] Literary tautology is in fact a special oratorical virtue. A spoken word you hear but once unless it is repeated, and there are things which have to be heard many times before they can have their effect.

Again, apart from “repetitional” tautology, it must be remembered that the Latin language was in a sense a rude tongue, lacking in nice distinctions. Such distinctions must be wrought out by a long-continued effort to express delicate shades of thought. Hence it often becomes necessary in Latin to point the exact signification of a word or phrase capable of several meanings, either by contrasting it with its opposite, or else by adding another word which has an equally general meaning, but which, like a stereoscopic view, gives the other side of the same idea, and so rounds out and limits the vagueness of the first. Thus the two together often produce as refined distinctions as any language which has a larger and more precise vocabulary. [‘Cicero as an Orator’, p. xliv]

This strikes me as a singularly incisive, hermeneutic overview of the myriad ways which a language can function. On the first level, it gives an explanation for those rhetorical devices I have long read about, and wondered how something so artificial, so formal, could be accepted by a listener. Surely the auditor would hear the first part of this figure of speech, and get bored. “Yes, I know what you mean, you don’t need to say it twice or thrice.” This passage shows up the condescending (not to say anachronistic) nature of my long-held assumptions.

Beyond this, it nicely distinguishes between formal and informal logics, the appropriateness of both, and the reasons for one being used rather than the other. We delve a little deeper into language, beyond the stage of it being spoken, towards the theatre machinery of the entire language’s vocabulary and grammar, and beyond this into the box office and foyer to the point of content with the outside world. We see language as it works, where it comes from, and what is beyond its remit or outside its control. Might be worth while drawing attention to the related figures hendiatris and hendiadys here, as the editors do further on.

The philosopher-strategist and the philosopher-tactician: Hume and Žižek

I have been trying to work on an approach recently which makes an analogy with the construction of argument in terms of the tension between strategy and tactics in the prosecution of a war. As such, I have been trying to see whether the tactics of a philosopher can be shown to be integral to their overall philosophical originality, the speculative framework which they create being akin to a strategy in this light. It when I was rereading through Hume’s Treatise that I started thinking about this, and how often it is a single lightning insight of a given philosopher that anchors in our mind, such that I find myself saying things like “Hume basically tried to separate cause and effect“, as though that should be sufficient explanation of his position.

When I step back from this, however, I have to ask whether this is actually a fair characterization of what goes on in a philosophical work. Is there simply one idea, and everything else flows from this? This seems too narrow and too linear a description, surely, to do justice to the intricacies of philosophical argumentation. Consider then, the notion of the tactic and how it nests into the macro-scale concept of the strategy. Continue reading

Hannah Arendt and “raising awareness” – the suffering of others as a Veblen good

“I do a lot of good work for charity, but I don’t like to sing about it”

The hopes for liberation via technology are just hopes, and though efforts such as (PRODUCT) RED seem admirable, they are ultimately redundant. What is this but an effort at social signalling? At the very least, it is using the suffering of others as a bauble, to demonstrate how supposedly “engaged” one is. It allows us to indulge in armchair misery tourism. If you have one of those red iPods, what is the best scenario one can hope for? I see it playing out as follows. You walk around, with your iPod, listening to it, and it stays in your pocket. Perhaps one day you meet friends and you take it out of your pocket, and they might say “hey, nice colour”. “Yeah, some of the money from this goes to an AIDS charity.” “Cool.” Continue reading

Networks and philosophical style

Does a new subject in philosophy lead to a new style in philosophy? Sometimes it does, because it causes us to drop previous disputes, or to take up preoccupations. This is the content however, as contrasted with its expression. How does new content lead to a new style, and is this only of interest in terms of aesthetics or rhetoric? Does a different style of philosophy imply new thought?

Continue reading

An alternative to yes/no

Truth in the broad philosophical sense is redundant. If not because of postmodern relativism, then because of Rorty-derived pragmatism. It has Platonic and theological overtones which we can only interpret as the worst cognitive cacophony. True and false have a place in predicative logic, in the same way that 1 and 0 are the bedrock of information technologies. Leave them there.

Consider an alternative, three-fold approach, which allows for consideration of the world, the human, and the possible. Accordingly, things can be discussed in the following terms:

The World

The Human

The Possible

Correct

Right

Future

Incorrect

Wrong

Past

Continue reading