MERELY ACADEMIC? TRY DICK HOWARD

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Tue Apr 11 23:23:53 MDT 1995


How does one distinguish between vital abstract intellectual work
and mere academic recycling of cultural capital of the sort Louis
Proyect decries?  This is a profound and subtle question.  I've
thought about it, but I can't get into it now.  Louis is right
about the overblown intellectual pretensions of much of what
passes for deep thinking these days.  The knowledge industry is
extremely corrupt.  But I don't think his criticism applies to the
sort of scholarship that interests me, eg. Patrick Murray, Rob
Beamish, or Paul Thomas, and sight unseen I doubt that it applies
to Postone or to Tony Smith either.  I have been close enough to
see academic corruption at work, which is much worse in English
departments than it is in many other areas.  Murray and Postone
don't seem to be doing the fashionable stuff wherein the
compulsive recycling of cultural capital posing as profundity
really matters.

But here is a sterling example of pseudo-profundity at work:

Howard, Dick.  _The Politics of Critique_.  Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

This particular press is especially suspect, known as it is for a
huge heap of postmodern theoretical crap.  However, there are real
works of merit, too, such as Peter Sloterdijk's _Critique of
Cynical Reason_, the definitive philosophical work for our time.
(Just ignore the pomo preface that distorts the content of the
work itself).  I just purchased a number of books on sale from
this press, most of them at $1 apiece.  In some cases, I would say
I overpaid for what I got.  Dick Howard's book is one of these.  A
person who writes a book called _From Marx to Kant_ goes on my
shit list automatically, but I said to myself: for $1 what have I
to lose?

The book is not obscurely or really badly written for an academic
book. It is not senseless, pointless, or particularly
obscurantist.  There is some useful and interesting information in
it.  It is not exceptionally stupid, which itself is an
extraordinary occurrence these days.  I simply find it ....
unproductive.

Let me just quote from the back cover, since I am going to waste
as little time on this as possible:

"_The Politics of Critique_ starts from a paradox: criticism
presupposes a standpoint from which the critic judges -- a
standpoint that could be called the critic's "politics."  Doing
politics, on the other hand, implies criticism of the established
order; but this politics must be justified intellectually in the
form of an explicit critique.  How are these poles to be
reconciled?  Usually, Howard maintains, they are not.  He traces
the pattern of "avoidance" inherent in this paradox -- first, by
showing the inadequacies of Kantian, Marxian, Frankfurt-School
Critical Theory, as well as the general notion of Revolution;
then, by reconstituting these theoretical approaches to politics;
then, by reconstructing these theoretical approaches to politics;
and finally by attempting to integrate Marx and Kant around the
challenge of a radical modernity, and by confronting two types of
Revolution, the French and the American."

I dread what I suspect will be a reaction of many reading this
description: "Gee, this sounds really interesting to me; why is
Ralph snoring so loudly?"  Sorry, I just can't be bothered.  I
will only say that this book treats the fundamental issues, as
they apply to Marxism anyway, with such a superficial schematism
despite the breadth of learning and erudition summoned, that the
philosophical as well as the political depth of the book is about
a quarter inch deep.  I can't speak for Kant, but the grasp of
Marx is so shallow as to be insufferable.  The most cursory
examination of _The German Ideology_ is used to criticize Marx's
supposed reductionism based on the base/superstructure model, and
while the author cites countervailing passages from Marx to show
him in a better light at times while highlighting the difficulties
of Marx's negotiation of the issues, there is no analysis of any
depth or substance.  Howard criticizes Marx for failing to come up
with a needed theory of politics, but Howard's own analysis is
pretty thin.  Howard contents himself to deal in general
philosophical abstractions -- modernity, normativity, etc., with
the conceit that he has dug to the bottom of the fundamental
theoretical questions and corrected all the historical conceptual
errors of Marxism.  This work is quintessentially academic, and
while the reader's own erudition may profit therefrom, his or her
intellectual perspective is not likely to deepen significantly.


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