Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

Month: September, 2012

Full-spectrum thinking

Although Right Scholarship is devoted to promoting an uncompromisingly Rightist approach to scholarship (to the extent that is possible, given that this is a tiny blog), I don’t want to suggest that I dream of a Rightist orthodoxy in the humanities and social sciences. What we desperately require in the university system is full-spectrum thinking.

I’d like to see political pluralism within the university, with scholars from every position on the political spectrum working together, along with those who claim no political allegiance at all. There will be disagreement, but unless its allowed to degenerate into departmental feuding, it will surely benefit both professors and students.

Students need to be exposed to academic controversy. Right now, there is a disturbing lack of controversy and debate in the university, and especially within the humanities. There’s lots of behind-the-scenes griping, grumbling and gossip within departments, of course, and there always will be. When it comes to teaching and research, however, departments display a unified left/liberal front. And both students and professors, I feel, are bored.

I have great respect for the university system, but the humanities and social sciences are in dire need of reform. Bringing full-spectrum thinking into teaching and research would attract more students and funding.

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One-dimensional thinking: The problem with Saussurean linguistics

One of the foundations of the “Theory” that still dominates the current academic scene is the work of the pioneer of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

It has long seemed to me that the interpretation of Saussure that guides Theory is founded upon the denial of both nature and history. I am not an expert in linguistics, however, so I invite criticism of this claim.

Saussure looked at language as a closed system, or collection of signs determined by their relations to each other, and specifically by their differences from each other. According to what seems to be the most common interpretation of his work, he saw the relationship between the elements of a sign (the signifier and the signified) as being arbitrary. The spoken word “cat” (the signifier) has nothing to do with the sound or shape of a cat. Furthermore, the signified in this case is not a physical cat, but a concept of a cat, defined in relation to other concepts.

Saussure’s idea of language is an abstraction, used for purposes of analysis. Saussure separated langue (language as a self-contained system) from parole (language as used by a specific person in a specific situation). He also focused on the synchronic (non-temporal or relational) aspects of language, and largely ignored the diachronic (temporal or historical) aspects of language.

There are a number of problems that Saussure’s ideas, and those of his followers, raise. I make no claim to originality here. Others have pointed to these problems, which tend to be dismissed or left unsolved among those who accept Saussure’s ideas as foundational.

1. The idea of the arbitrariness of the sign obviously has limited applicability to the study of the language of images such as paintings (iconic signs) or photographs (indexical signs) (to use terms borrowed from Charles Peirce). Further, it is not clear how a Saussurean should treat the elements of iconicity and indexicality that enter into the construction of letters, words, sentences, and other linguistic structures. Should these dimensions of discourse be treated as conventional as well? Some classic examples come from poetry: Ezra Pound explored the iconic dimension of language by using (semi-iconic) Chinese ideograms in his Cantos, and the Italian Futurist poets and performers made bold and extensive use of onomatopoeia. How can the sign be truly arbitrary if it contains iconic or indexical dimensions, which to all but the most committed perceptual relativists would display at least traces of non-arbitrary reference or influence? Why should we limit ourselves to understanding a language as merely a complex and self-referential, but ultimately arbitrary, “code”?

2. The signifier and signified form a sign that is supposed to be studied only within the closed system of langue. According to Raymond Tallis, if I understand him correctly, post-Saussurean theorists tend to ignore or blur the distinction between the signifier and the sign, and between the signified and external reality. They thus blur the distinction between langue and parole. (To clarify: they imagine that we live in, and are constituted by, langue, when in fact we are always outside it, even if we use it in particular speech acts. Derrida’s critique of the ‘transcendental signified’ is a reaction against Saussure, but he launched this critique after already blurring the distinction between langue and parole. He had to start with the assumption that the subject is constituted through and within language before he could begin his deconstructive project.) This blurring, as I see it, is emphasized in specific circumstances, in order to either undermine the idea of the stability or rootedness of the self (something that Tallis addresses in the work of Jacques Derrida) or simply to portray particular objects of analysis as mere sign-systems, and thus to show that these objects of analysis are arbitrary constructions that can claim no authenticity or connection to a stable ‘reality.’

3. Saussure seems to assume that systems of language have always existed. But how does a language system come into being? Which came first, langue or parole? My intuitive answer is parole. Grunts and gesticulations became primitive words, which eventually formed systems of language that can seem autonomous when seen synchronically as langue. Parole is the use of langue, but it is also its creator and developer. It would seem that langue cannot be detached from its diachronic roots in parole and lived experience in the physical world. Language is, on some level, derived from nature and from human history.

What was an abstraction for the purpose of analysis in Saussure became an absolute truth in Theory, where radically new understandings of identity and culture were developed based upon the idea of the fundamental arbitrariness of the sign. The linguistic connection to nature and history was denied so that identity could be seen as a complex semiotic arrangement, capable of dissolution and reconstruction.

For Tallis’s critique of post-Saussurean thought:
Tallis, Raymond. “The Linguistic Unconscious: Saussure and the Post-Saussureans.” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 126-46. First published in Tallis, Raymond. Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 272-89.

Right Thinkers #2: Irving Babbitt (1865-1933)

I wanted to write up something about Irving Babbitt, one of the twentieth century’s great defenders of the classical tradition of education, but I discovered a fantastic essay on Babbitt by Robert C. Koons, first published in Modern Age, that says everything I wanted to say and much more.

Recognizing that education in the twenty-first century has become almost completely removed from the principles that Babbitt upheld, Koons envisions the rise of a new class of independent scholars:

“Marvelous lectures and texts are now available for free online as an academic open source. Social media and teleconferencing make possible the spontaneous formation of international communities of scholarly amateurs (in the original sense of the word), in and through which the heritage of the West can find its outlet. All that is needed is for the remaining scholars of the true republic of letters, those faithful thousands who have not ‘bowed the knee to Baal,’ to join together to provide some formal quality control to the process.”

This should inspire every scholar who has been excluded by the current orthodoxy.

Koons, Robert C. “The War of the Three Humanisms: Irving Babbitt and the Recovery of Classical Learning.” Modern Age 52.3 (Summer 2010). 198-207.

The ‘Right’ in Right Scholarship

St. Thomas Aquinas

This blog is meant to appeal to scholars of the political right, but its larger goal, as grand as it may sound, is to inspire and aid in the “righting” or right ordering of academia. Since the advent of Theory, and even long before that, our universities and the intellectual environments they once protected have undergone a great process of leveling. The simple idea that power and knowledge are inseparable (based on Michel Foucault’s idea that knowledge is just power hiding behind a cloak of ‘truth’) has made it possible for the practitioners of Theory to portray any intellectual discipline or scholarly approach as a manifestation of political power. These Foucauldian academics have, despite the audaciousness of their claims, managed to entrench themselves within the humanities, as representatives of a new academic anti-order with its own fluctuating anti-canon consisting of the works of like-minded thinkers. The panoptic, nihilistic gaze of Theory is directed at everything except its own simplistic and uncompromising politics of liberation.

This is old news for many academics of the right, but it is still painfully relevant. Unfortunately, the only alternative for rightist academics has been the world of neo-conservative scholarship, and teaching positions within the Great Books programs that Allan Bloom once championed. While these programs are an excellent alternative for scholars and students alike, they exist under a shadow of Straussian elitism, which I have discussed elsewhere. They introduce students to the great ideas of human history, but in doing so, they risk instilling a sort of jaded trans-historical cosmopolitanism in young minds. Right Scholarship has little in common with neo-conservative scholarship, save for its openness to the thought of the past.

Right Scholarship recognizes the legitimacy of the God-given standard of truth passed from Aristotle through St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church and into the intellectual wasteland of the twentieth century, where it is currently under attack. It calls for the reintroduction of the spiritual and moral dimensions of Western thought into academia. It calls for a right ordering of thought in accordance with Natural Law, a concept of which Aquinas is the most prominent spokesman. In this sense, it has more in common with neo-Thomism than Straussianism (and it is no coincidence that Aquinas is the thinker that, arguably, repelled Strauss the most).

Rejecting the left/liberal academic hegemony is useless if you can not propose an equally uncompromising alternative. Right Scholarship is uncompromising but not simplistic, and it recognizes a truth which exists outside of power. Indeed, this truth is now forced to defend itself against the attacks of the reigning academic regime.

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