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Hard Concepts and
Soft Sells

Linda Brigham

Cary Wolfe
"Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the 'Outside.'"
Theory Out of Bounds. 13. ,

U of Minnesota Press, 1998.  $44.95 hardcover; $17.95 paperback. pp. xxiv+176.



The problem with antifoundationalism is its resemblance to soft money.  Given the metaphorical resonance of "soft money," you'd think we were talking about a gentler world, a world in which the harsh parameters of getting and spending had shaded off into other more multiple, more holistic and accommodating forms of value.  But no: soft money translates into IMF scarewords like "discipline" and "productivity," also the lingua franca of ever more incorporated, ever less public, public spheres - not least American universities.

Can Critical Environments, Cary Wolfe's ambitious synthesis of pragmatism, systems theory, and poststructuralism, offset a paranoia about the all-too-coincidental homologies of antifoundationalism and late capitalism?  Can internet communication, like the University of Minnesota Press's Theory out of Bounds (TOOB) series talklist, extend the reach of academic work and so enlarge the woefully narrow "expert cultures" that constrain the circulation of ideas in public life?  Since higher education has gotten nothing but kicks in the teeth over the past decade or so (and so many of these from its own avatars), I do not want to just say no.  And with good reason.  Critical Environments is a fine book on a very important subject.  Systems theory's promise as an access to poststructuralism and pragmatism ought to have a lot of people excited, and clearly does have some people excited, to judge by the TOOB talklist. Furthermore, systems theory has much to offer policy cultural studies in the latter's attempts to intervene in the world of people who do things.

Wolfe's book confronts a problem that at the risk of illiberalism I'll insist ought to be everybody's obsession: the problem of the "outside" - in Wolfe's words, "what used to be called the 'referent' or 'object' of knowledge" (xiv).  And as systems theory demonstrates in a bracingly literal way, the problem isn't that the outside, with the demise of essentialism, has gone away, that reality has steamed out of port like the Titanic, leaving us with only our nostalgic insides to contend with. Just the opposite: the problem is, as Bruno Latour points out, we are riddled with hybridity.  The outside is everywhere.  Despite that, nowhere does the absence of foundations halt the metabolism of institutions. Regardless of the fact that I sit across a table from university administrators whose self-manufacture requires blind spots positioned quite differently than my own, we do business.  We achieve enough consensus to keep the system going - often at the expense of what us teacher-types think of as the very heart and soul of the public university: its role in furthering democracy.  We bob and weave and warp and woof our little holes together into a fabric of blindness.  Outside our outsides, pressing in, is fear: the fear of system collapse.  Can an awareness of self-contingency help loosen the grip of fear?  Can we call soft money's bluff?

That is, can we invest in a currency of ideas?  This sounds like the promise of the internet, seeming to exchange them for free (or nearly).   Why, then, do talklists so often flop?  My guess would be misguided expectations.  The phrase "exchange of ideas" holds a clue here; the phrase is unfinished: the exchange of ideas for what?  The system reproduces itself in the blank.  Academics exchange their ideas for promotion and tenure.  And open internet talklists, presumably beyond the narrow confines of university systems of exchange, still demand discursive reproduction against whose backdrop some agents might grope towards other ways to fill in the "for what."  In the case of the TOOB talklist on CE, both processes happened.  We got a high-level, esoteric exchanges by a group who cued and responded to each other, and a couple participants whose discourse did not resonate as closely with the esoteric group. These found little purchase and follow-up in the dominant discussion, but nonetheless found each other and established their own exchange within the talklist.  Such an outcome may be as good as it gets: groups become segregated according to that for which they exchange ideas.  In the case of expert cultures, the "for what" lies in a perpetuation and extension of an expertise and a confirmation of the community of circulation. Outsiders are just that: outside such circulation.  But since there's no cover, the door's not locked and no particular dress is required, outsiders wander inside and find ways they're inside to each other, at least with respect to their outsider-status.

Therein lies contingency.  But can it really constitute political potential?  Much of the talklist talk as well as CE is politically vexed; systems theory's functionalist origins easily render it an instrument of the status quo.  Can it overcome its instrumental status?  Well, that depends on who wields the instrument, and how; and this thread leads back to the overall status of antifoundationalism.  As Wolfe points out in his introduction,  "On the one hand, the critiques of the traditional philosophical paradigms of positivism, empiricism, and the like, which stress instead the contingency and social construction of knowledge... would seem politically promising because they hold out hope that a world contingently constructed might also be differently (i.e., more justly) constructed.  But, on the other hand, that very constructivist account has left intellectuals seeking grounds for their own political practice without a foundation from which to assert the privilege of their own positions." (xii).  This statement confronts the dilemma of antifoundationalism head on, but it also begs a question: it is privileged to HAVE a position.  It is privileged to have a refrigerator.  Moreover, such privileges are no secret, hidden from self-observation by a wily ISA. On the talklist Michael Hardt asserted the Jamesonian view that capital has subsumed everything, succeeded in retooling every value.  But from another angle, there is always an outside to capital.  We are segregated from this outside by our own recursive algorithms and by all kinds of extrinsic terroritorializations.  But like non-whites in America, this outside grows, and we know it: more authoritarian terror, more sweatshops, more shantytowns, more desert.  To us, such products of postmodern devastation are the very spectre of system collapse.  To us, this scenario is both the price of doing business and the consequence of not doing business.

The absence of effective reform is a function of fear.  So where do we go from here, if not into more analysis?  Samuel Johnson famously refuted Berkeley's idealism by kicking a stone.  With similar philosophical blockheadedness, I look for a pragmatist squandering her way to Chapter 11.  Even so, I would recommend this be done with theory rather than without, preferably with the spiritual advice of Georges Bataille, who insisted that "it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return" - crossing the threshold from systems to chaos.

Both Linda Brigham and Cary Wolfe contributed to ebr4 "Critical Ecologies."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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