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The Trouble With Looking Backward - A cultural conservative takes on the critics and denigrators of Western culture.

Lloyd Eby is assistant senior editor of the Modern Thought section of The World & I..
The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age
Roger Kimball
Publisher:Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000
359 pp., $28.50

What should a cultural conservative do if he thinks that Western culture is of surpassing value and an endowment to humanity that needs preserving, but sees it as being under attack everywhere, especially in those regions--academia, literature, the arts, the theater--that have usually been thought of as charged with the task of conserving and advancing it? One possible response is to publish articles and books that detail why it needs preserving, praise those who are doing so, and point out the errors of those who are leading the assaults. That is the tack taken by Roger Kimball in Experiments Against Reality, a phrase borrowed from Hannah Arendt, who once described totalitarianism as an "experiment against reality."

Kimball published earlier versions of most of the book's essays in the New Criterion, of which he is managing editor. The New Criterion, a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life founded in 1982 by the art critic Hilton Kramer and the late pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman, is a force in the present-day culture wars and a leading voice of critical dissent. On its Web site, it says of itself that it is a "scourge of artistic mediocrity and intellectual mendacity ... in the universities, the art galleries, the media, the concert halls, the theater, and elsewhere." Against all that, it raises "a staunch [defense] of the values of high culture." Kimball's essays are very much a part of that effort.

Paradigmatic exemplars

In an introductory chapter that precedes the three main parts of the book, Kimball lays out his concern and discusses a number of figures whose work he takes to be paradigmatic of the problem. He writes:

"Today, the very idea that there might be something distinctive about the Western cultural tradition--something, moreover, eminently worth preserving--is under attack on several fronts. Multiculturalists in the academy and other cultural institutions--museums, foundations, the entertainment industry--busy themselves denouncing the West as racist, sexist, imperialistic, and ethnocentric. The cultural unity that was [formerly] celebrated is challenged by intellectual segregationists eager to champion relativism and to attack what they see as the "hegemony" of Eurocentrism in art, literature, philosophy, politics, and even in science. The ideal of a "universal standpoint" from which the achievements of the West may be understood and disseminated is derided by partisans of postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and neo-pragmatism as parochial and, even worse, dangerously, arrogantly, "foundationalist.""

There are many exponents of today's experiments against reality. Kimball especially singles out for censure those theorists who have led the assault against two foundation currents in Western thought: the view that truth has both an intellectual and a normative (ethical) component. Kimball describes this as "the faith that the search for truth is not futile," and the view that truth has liberating power. Three leading philosophers who have spearheaded this assault are the nineteenth-century German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844--1900), Algerian- born Frenchman Jacques Derrida (1930--), and the American Richard Rorty (1931--).

In his claims that "there are no facts, only interpretations" and "to tell the truth is simply to lie according to a fixed convention," Nietzsche represents, Kimball asserts, "an indispensable background to almost every destructive intellectual movement this century has witnessed." Nietzsche's influence is based partly on a misunderstanding because he was himself profoundly concerned with ethical issues and scathingly critical of poseurs and frauds; the most important example is his eventual break with Richard Wagner (formerly a close friend) because of Wagner's anti-Semitism. But Nietzsche's glorification of violence, his claim about the importance of the "will to power," his distinction between master and slave morality, and his notion of the bermensch as being "beyond good and evil" all played into the hands of the Nazis and others who scorned received notions of ethics and value. Thus Kimball can justifiably say that Nietzsche was right when he said of his work that it is "dynamite," especially when he said such things as "everything praised as moral is identical in essence with everything immoral," and that he was engaged in a "transvaluation of all values."

In the 1980s and early 1990s Jacques Derrida became arguably the single most influential philosophical voice in America and perhaps the entire Western world. More than five hundred articles have been written about his work, and it has been the subject of nearly as many doctoral dissertations. Derrida is known primarily for championing the view known as deconstruction, expressed in his oft-repeated statement, "There is nothing outside the text." Kimball says that "this is shorthand for denying that words can refer to a reality beyond words, for denying that truth has its measure in something beyond the web of our language games."

But, Kimball asks, is this really true? If it is, he says, "then there is at least one thing 'outside' the text, namely the truth of the statement 'There is nothing outside the text.'" In other words, deconstructionism is self-refuting. But it has had an enormous influence in the academic world. Even though it is not talked about nearly as much today as a decade or two ago, "the fundamental ideas about language, truth, and morality that [deconstruction and structuralism] express are more widespread than ever." Today they have moved out of the fields of philosophy and literature into "history, sociology, political science, ... architecture, ... law schools, and ... business schools," and the nihilistic attitudes, tenets, themes, and presuppositions fostered by these movements have become "almost unnoticed, part of the ambient spiritual pollution of our time." Indeed, President Clinton's declaration "It all depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" was a near-perfect example; Clinton was our first deconstructionist president.

Richard Rorty began as a serious analytic philosopher. But, Kimball writes, "since the late 1970s ... he has increasingly busied himself explaining why philosophy must jettison its concern with outmoded things like truth and human nature." Instead, Rorty now sees philosophy as just another form of literature, an "undifferentiated 'general text,'" as he sometimes puts it, and he prefers to call himself a "liberal ironist." But, as Kimball says, "the problem with liberal ironists [is] that they are ironical about everything except their own irony, and are serious about tolerating everything except seriousness."

The underlying metaphysical question is, does "language point ... to a reality that exercises a legitimate claim on our attention and provides a measure and limit for our descriptions of the world? ... Is truth something that we invent? Or something that we discover?" The Western tradition has emphatically endorsed the view that truth is (or at least can or should be) objective. Rorty and his cohorts say otherwise. Observing that he does "not have much use for notions like 'objective value' and 'objective truth,'" Rorty looks toward achieving a culture, a "liberal utopia," as he puts it, where the "Nietzschean metaphors" of self-creation are "literalized." In such a culture, he says, it would be taken for granted "that philosophical problems are as temporary as poetic problems, that there are no problems which bind the generations together in a single natural kind called 'humanity.'"

We should ask, however, whether such a culture is even attainable, let alone good. The Rortyan-Nietzschean program has moral as well as intellectual or academic import; it is a call for radical secularism. But, as Kimball points out, a nonironic stance and a commitment to religion continue to be the norm in many parts of our society. Moreover, he says, "There is much in our culture--the culture of Europe writ large--that shows the disastrous effects of Nietzsche's dream of a postmetaphysical, ironized society of putative self-creators." As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed, "Culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense."

Kimball is right when he says that "the self-creators from Nietzsche through Derrida and Richard Rorty are reluctant children of the Enlightenment." The Enlightenment had two prongs. One "sought to emancipate man by liberating reason and battling against superstition." But when "Enlightenment rationalism turns against the tradition that gave rise to it, it degenerates into a force destructive of culture and the manifold directives that culture has bequeathed us." Nietzsche, Derrida, Rorty, and those in their train have taken that second tack and have indeed produced experiments against reality.


Part one of Experiments Against Reality deals with the rise of modernism and the response to the intellectual and spiritual desolations of the age. Kimball presents essays on the literary figures Walter Pater, T.E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Muriel Spark, and Robert Musil.

What is notable about Eliot, Kimball claims, is that "the extraordinary literary and critical authority that [he] once commanded is [now] almost incomprehensible." This has occurred within the space of less than half a century, Kimball says, because the stance that Eliot once occupied is now unavailable because the culture of high modernism that he "presupposed and helped to sustain," both as a poet and a critic, is no longer in stock. Kimball suggests that "for younger observers, the entire world that Eliot's sometime authority animated is irrecoverably strange and distant." It is clear that Kimball thinks that the demise of Eliot's reputation is a great loss for present-day culture, even though there were important lapses in Eliot's moral universe, such as his anti-Semitism. Kimball concludes by noting that Eliot "was obsessed by reality" and that he was "everywhere engaged in a battle against ersatz" in culture, religion, and humanity. This was the source of his power and authority, both as a poet and critic.

As poet Wallace Stevens matured, Kimball says, he "increasingly acknowledged the recalcitrance of reality in the face of the blandishments of the imagination." The lushness of Stevens' early poetry gave way to a "growing tautness." Quoting critic Janet McCann, Kimball says that Stevens' poetry can be seen as a "gradual approach to the religious commitment that took place at the margin of his creative life." Stevens was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church at the end of his life, a move that some have seen as a "final prank," but that Kimball thinks was serious because Stevens had begun to distrust the nonreligious humanism that he had previously espoused.

Treacherous philosophers

Along with the introduction, Part two constitutes the philosophical heart of Experiments Against Reality. Here Kimball discusses five philosophers who, he thinks, have led the assault on the existence of truth and ethical verities: John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and E.M. Cioran.

John Stuart Mill (1806--1873), best known today for his Utilitarianism and his treatise On Liberty, succeeded, Kimball claims, in making a bad argument--the argument for his notion of liberalism--so mesmerizing that it came to be seen as inevitable and thus made its alternative seem partisan and stupid. Kimball is especially trenchant here:

"For anyone interested in understanding the nature of the modern liberal consensus, the extraordinary success of Mill's rhetoric and the doctrines it advances afford a number of lessons. Above all, it provides an object lesson in the immense seductiveness inherent in a certain type of skeptical moralizing. Together with Rousseau, Mill supplied nearly all the arguments and most of the emotional weather-- the texture of sentiment--that have gone into defining the liberal version of the world. His peculiar brand of utilitarianism--a cake of Bentamite hedonism glazed with Wordsworthian sentimentality--accounts for part of Mill's appeal; it provides a perfect recipe for embellishing programmatic shallowness with a cosmic patina of spirituality. It is a recipe that has proven to be irresistible to those infatuated with the spectacle of their own virtue."

Mill surely did not begin the tradition of one-sided arguments and examples, but, according to Kimball and other critics, he made the most of it.

Kimball quotes Maurice Cowling, who claimed that, although Mill pretended to promote unbounded freedom, he was really interested in making sure "that Christianity would be superseded by that form of liberal, rationalising utilitarianism which went by the name of the Religion of Humanity." According to Cowling and Kimball, Mill pretended to be liberal, but he was actually dogmatic and religious in the sense of promoting his own antireligious religion. He really wanted to convert people to his own doctrine and morality, and he accused anyone who held a different view of operating out of bigotry and prejudice. Among other things, he did this by denigrating custom and the "tyranny of opinion;" insisting that the individual must be "eccentric," "novel," and "original;" claiming a monopoly on "rational" for his views and denying this to his opponents; calling points of view other than his stupid; and by elevating his own opinion into an abstracted, reified, and exclusive position. Thus, Kimball claims, Mill's liberalism ultimately resulted in paradox and moral paralysis.

In assessing Jean-Paul Sartre, Kimball emphasizes the paradoxes and complexity of both his life and his work: The antibourgeois philosopher, who was of a bourgeois background and lived a bourgeois life, alternated between intense socializing (including rich meals, much drinking, drugs, and a lot of tobacco) and periods of near- monastic writing. The kind and generous man was also wantonly vicious. Sartre was himself "aloof and isolated;" his supposed great sympathy for the dispossessed was mostly rhetorical and self-congratulatory.

Kimball claims that "the real key to Sartre's character is his intellectualizing aestheticism, his tendency to dissolve reality into a play of abstract philosophical or political categories." He continues, "For Sartre, life was essentially an agenda for reflection," meaning that he was constantly scrutinizing his own life and impressions. In discussing Sartre's notions of freedom and authenticity Kimball says that his "tremendous appetite for abstraction and his suspicion of the life of feeling is ... evident in his absolutist approach." He adds that Sartre's freedom is "little more than an invigorating slogan," and that, although Sartre doesn't really give a clear definition of authenticity, he "understood it to be characterized chiefly by the individual's defiant assertion of unqualified freedom in the face of an essentially absurd reality." The center of Sartre's philosophy is that man should be "his own foundation--that is, to be God." Thus, other people are seen as "a threatening infringement on one's sovereignty," to be spoken of not as persons but as "the Other." Kimball concludes that, even though Sartre "was one of the most gifted writers of his generation, he was also one of its greatest monsters."

Much of Kimball's chapter on the French philosopher and literary figure Michel Foucault--best known in America for his abandonment of truth for power--is a critical presentation of James Miller's biography of Foucault. Miller "seize[s] what was most vicious and perverted about Foucault--his addiction to sadomasochistic sexual practices." (Foucault died of AIDS at age 57 in 1984.) Kimball concludes by calling Foucault's life a "private tragedy" and his career a "con job," reflecting that it is a "public scandal" that academics celebrate his "intellectual perversions."

In part three, the final section of the book, Kimball deals with four more accounts of contemporary culture. In a chapter entitled "The Trivialization of Outrage" he presents and criticizes the growing acceptance--indeed the celebration--of anything, the more outrageous the better, as art and as deserving of attention and respect; the result is that outrage itself has become trivial. Next, he offers a sympathetic account of F.R. Leavis' devastating attack on C.P. Snow's celebrated presentation of The Two Cultures; Kimball calls Snow's work a "terrible muddle."

Concluding reflections

This book is well written, sometimes witty, informative, and full of trenchant observations. (I noticed at least one editing error: The title of the Bu-uel-Dali film is Un Chien Andalou, not La Chien Andalou.) It succeeds in giving deep and nuanced accounts of where many critics and despoilers of the received classical tradition have gone wrong, their lack of intellectual and moral integrity, and the consequent havoc. As such, this book is recommendable.

Kimball tends to be one-sided, however. This can be seen especially in his treatment of Mill. Considered in just one of his aspects, Mill may indeed exhibit the problems that Kimball ascribes to him. But Mill contains both prongs of the Enlightenment: the one that criticizes the stifling anti-individual, antifreedom, and antiscientific forces of the pre-Enlightenment era in order to erect something better, as well as the other that, followed to its end, results in Stalinism as well as the intellectual and moral depredations of Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and so forth. To use philosopher David Stove's metaphor for the opposite purpose for which he gives it, failure to admit that the "they all laughed at Christopher Columbus" argument is sometimes right is just as mistaken as failing to admit that it is frequently wrong. Kimball fails to admit when Mill is right. Mill sought to break free from the stifling religious and cultural burdens of the past, and to set up liberating intellectual and political orders. Kimball is intellectually unfair as well as ethically suspect in failing to acknowledge sufficiently this aspect of Mill's intention and work. Partisans of at least some of the other philosophers and writers Kimball discusses, especially Nietzsche and Sartre, could no doubt also bring similar caveats against his accounts of them.

More generally, the second problem with Experiments Against Reality--a problem that it shares with today's cultural conservatives altogether-- is that Kimball does not tell us what he wants to achieve. He does not offer any alternative to what he decries, except perhaps a tacit call to return to something like the Burkean classical-religious tradition, or maybe philosopher George Santayana's "mild doctrine," or possibly the high modernism of T.S. Eliot. Kimball recognizes, but only sometimes, that this is not possible today because all forms of classical-religious tradition and high modernism are now essentially dead, or at least sufficiently comatose as to defy revival. A central reason for their demise is that those received religious and cultural traditions contained internal problems sufficient to topple them, as well as large elements of racism, cultural snobbery, and class oppression.

Kimball may already know this, but it's not clear that he does. Showing that the critics and denigrators of those cultural traditions were themselves intellectual imposters, mountebanks, or monsters, as Kimball repeatedly does here, fails to solve the problem because it is based on the tu quoque fallacy. All forms of the received tradition that Kimball and other cultural conservatives seem to wish they could resurrect are deficient because they contain the seeds that grew into things that their denigrators and despoilers could and have used to trash them. Something more than cultural conservatism, of whatever form, is needed, both intellectually and ethically, for the emergence of a better global human order. To provide that requires, among other things, looking both backward to examine and criticize what has gone wrong and forward toward what can and should be recommended for the future. Despite his enormous erudition and insight and the felicity of his writing, Kimball succeeds at most only in the backward-looking part of that task. For that reason, I suspect that Experiments Against Reality will have few readers and only a minor influence and effect. But it is important and worthwhile because it serves as a warning that serious cultural conservatives must heed.n
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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