Sidney Finkelstein vs Marshall McLuhan

Out of the mothballs:

This is ancient history, and quaint from the vantage point of today’s high tech media saturated environment. But the path from the past to the present is instructive. Finkelstein is referenced in all of the critiques of McLuhan’s work, which is noteworthy given that his book was published under the auspices of the Communist Party. In 1968, the television industry was 20 years old, and the impact of the medium was just beginning to be understood.

I always considered McLuhan a fraud. I first read this book in the 1970s, before the subcultures of that era were destroyed and their innovations fully commodified and processed into the hegemonic culture. I may be forgetting some predecessors, but I take McLuhan to be, fittingly, as the first truly pop intellectual. By this I do not mean a public intellectual, or a journalist or amateur writing a serious popular work on social phenomena, but a pop intellectual with all the hucksterism that suggests, whose very work is mimetic in duplicating and embodying the very commodity logic and ideological opacity of the phenomenon it purports to characterize.

Finkelstein is no Marcuse or Adorno; he doesn’t address the incorporation of popular subjectivity into the culture industry. Being a product of an earlier age and of working class militancy of that era, he doesn’t believe that the masses have been fully absorbed into the make-believe world that McLuhan consecrates. He is an old-fashioned product of the humanistic culture he defends, though he is not a philistine that Communist parties tend to generate. Finkelstein’s 1948 Jazz, A People’s Music, was fairly influential, and he wrote an intelligent book on alienation in American literature as an indictment of American society.

Not perfect, but I am in accord with his general outlook. Nobody could have dreamed what American culture would look like in 2014–and luckily for them, these folks didn’t live to have to see it. We have different fish to fry now. but again, the comparison of then and now helps to yield perspective.

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post Time travel lore (5): ‘Victory Over the Sun’

Victory over the SunVictory Over the Sun (1913) is a notorious specimen of Russian Futurism, a multimedia avant-garde opera that makes practically no sense. Wikipedia provides the basic information:

“The libretto written in zaum language was contributed by Aleksei Kruchonykh, the music was written by Mikhail Matyushin, the prologue was added by Velimir Khlebnikov, and the stage designer was Kasimir Malevich. The performance was organized by the artistic group Soyuz Molodyozhi.”

I believe I have seen some artifacts of this production in a museum. I also recall a documentary with narration and excerpts from a performance. The narrator was, of all people, Hugh Downs.

Here is an English translation of Victory over the sun by Larissa Shmailo.

Among the dramatis personae is “A Time Traveller”. He makes his appearance fairly early, in the First Action, scene 1: “A TIME TRAVELLER rides onstage on airplane wheels; on him there are pages with the inscriptions Stone Age, Middle Ages, and so forth”. He speaks, he sings, he speaks and sings again, and speaks as various antagonists appear. And that’s the last we see of him.

He speaks mostly gibberish. This is the most coherent thing he has to say:

I will travel all ages, I was in ’35
where there is strength without duress and the
insurgents wage war on the sun and even though
there’s no happiness there but everybody looks [6]
happy and immortal…It’s no surprise that I’m
covered with dust and transverse… Visionary
kingdom… I will travel all ages even though I
lost two baskets until I find myself a place.

I do not know the history of the concept of “time travel” in Russian literature. Presumably it made its appearance in science fiction at some point. It is a subject to investigate. The history of H.G. Wells’ reception in Russia is well documented and I can look it up. It would not be at all surprising were there a direct link to the Russian futurists. It would be surprising were there not.

post Existential America (7): Highway 61 revisited

When I first read George Cotkin’s Existential America several years ago, I came across this review:

T. H. Adamowski, “Out on Highway 61: Existentialism in America,” University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 4, Fall 2005, pp. 913-933.

From this link you can download a PDF of the full text.

The reviewer is obviously highly informed about literature. His political, philosophical, and even literary judgments fail to impress me more often than not, but one can learn a lot about Cotkin’s book and much else from this review. There is a superficial glitz to Adamowski’s analysis that smacks of English Department Syndrome. For example, he doesn’t have a clue when it comes to engaging Cotkin’s take on Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and blues existentialism. There is no real understanding of the reactionary nature of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and its influence, or for that matter, of Heidegger’s. Teasing apart the conceptual structures of the various existentialisms and their relationships to various authors’ agendas is not the reviewer’s forté.

post Martin Kusch, Psychologism (3)

Kusch, Martin. Psychologism: A Case Study in the Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. London; New York: Routledge, 1995. See also the Four Appendices to Psychologism (1995).

Finally we come to Kusch’s summary and conclusions. Kusch summarizes the book and his approach to Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge (SPK). Kusch adheres to Bloor’s strong programme in the sociology of knowledge, but he does not practice sociologism, or the reduction of the intellectual content of intellectual disputes to personal or institutional interest. (274) Not all social variables are identifiable. All sides of an argument involve social variables, though some will see one side or another’s arguments as a smokescreen for personal interest. Social variables apply universally, not just to the losing or undesirable side.

The researcher’s neutrality is difficult to maintain, the more so the closer one approach’s issues endemic to the sociology of knowledge itself. (275) The arguments of the neo-Kantians are similar to those who oppose the strong programme today. Kusch’s only sympathies lie with the psychologisticists rather than with Frege or Husserl. Kusch finds two weaknesses in his field: adherence to the whiggish history of science, and failure to explain adequately the closure of scientific debates. Case in point is Shapin’s and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), to which Kusch’s work is nonetheless indebted. Kusch feels he has avoided said two weaknesses.

Based on this case study, Kusch offers a set of metaphilosophical hypotheses. (276-8) (1) Controversies in philosophy are much fuzzier than those in natural sciences. (2) Controversies in philosophy like those in science are often cases of boundary projects and policing. (3) A very small number of publications can and most often is the focal point of philosophical controversies. Candidates for focal points are texts which are boldly accusatory, short, and highly rhetorical. (4) Charges of relativism, irrationalism, extreme skepticism, etc. tend to be more central in philosophical controversies, especially as they influence a wider reading public. (5) Philosophical controversies are abandoned, not resolved. (6) The victors create the philosophical canon, determining who we read today and how we interpret the history of philosophy.

I see one mention of Marxism in the extensive bibliography, though I do not know what the text’s argument is:

Lewalter, E. ([1930], 1982), ‘Wissenssociologie und Marxismus’, in V. Meja and N. Stehr (eds.), Der Streit um die Wissenssociologie, vol. 2: Rezeption und Kritik der Wissenssociologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 551-83.

This book is invaluable, but here is a list of my concerns.

(1)   I do not see what is particularly “strong” in Kusch’s application of the strong programme. It seems eminently reasonable to me.

(2)   Taking sides overall is difficult, because all sides seem wrong to me.

(3)   The sense of inadequacy is heightened by the social and political illiteracy of all parties concerned, their reactionary politics above all. Quite clearly, taking psychology or logic as the foundation for an entire world view, let alone explanation of social institutions, is bankrupt.

(4)   Mathematics and logic form a special case in which in my view psychologism is completely wrong. The disputes end up being more wide-ranging, but Kusch’s narrative morphs from the case of logic and mathematics to the total gamut of psychology and epistemology and losing this vital distinction in the process.

(5)   Endemic to issues both in psychology and philosophy is the mind-body problem, but it is not clear that this foundational issue is adequately addressed in either discipline involved in the controversies covered in this book. Given the focus on the mental, experimentation notwithstanding, it is not clear to me from Kusch’s account how the psychologists relate the mental to the neurophysiological structure of the organism.

(6)   The broader issue in these controversies, relevant also today, is the question of naturalizing epistemology. As both traditional and naturalized epistemology are highly skewed and thus not necessarily reliable guides, how is this fusion to be accomplished? On the naturalistic side, there is not only the inevitable incompleteness of knowledge to be considered, but changing and ultimately ideological paradigms, e.g. behaviorism, sociobiology (evolutionary psychology), computationalism, or neurophysiology. Yet epistemology to escape from artificial and at this point fruitless concerns, e.g. what the Popperians call justificationism, must answer to advances in scientific knowledge. Also, scientific knowledge claims, though they must be adjudicated by scientists, nonetheless are subject to philosophical scrutiny for conceptual coherence and ideological bias.  Hence there remains a presently ineradicable creative tension between the two.

(7)   Kusch’s case study is fertile ground for the analysis of the dynamics of bourgeois philosophy, its vacillation between positivism and irrationalism (e.g. Lebensphilosophie), scientism and Romanticism—or however the dichotomy expresses itself.  This goes beyond Kusch’s apparent conscious awareness of what is ultimately at stake.

(8)   The ontological status of formal logic and mathematics, precisely because of the nature of formal systems, involves further considerations. But concerning epistemology generally, there is the peculiarity of the experiential gap between the world (and cognition itself) subjectively perceived and objectively measured, and thus the need to correlate if not merge the two. Philosophical speculation cannot alone settle the problem once and for all, but there can be a guiding thread connecting subject and object. Marx’s early concept of praxis provides a clue. Not actual praxis (as substitute for critical reflection), but the concept of praxis.

Older Posts

Martin Kusch, Psychologism (2)

Martin Kusch, Psychologism (1)

Black mystic in hyperspace

Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (8)

Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (7)

Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (6)