Thursday, December 30, 2010

I, Davros

I'm not a big fan of the twenty-first century Doctor Who - the Doctors seem too young and too trendy, and the special effects which swirl and bang around them are too slickly expensive - but as a kid I was keen on the show, and particularly keen on the many series which featured Tom Baker. One of Baker's most famous missions saw him travelling back a few millenia to confront Davros, the founder of those alternately ridiculous, alternately terrifying contraptions known as daleks.

Davros was a disabled humanoid who used robot technology to help him get around the house, and around the galaxy; one day he hit upon the idea of taking his technology a step further, by creating a species of robots purified of human frailties like flesh and emotion, and in due course the insanely logical daleks were born. In the final scene of The Genesis of the Daleks, the founder of the new species discovers his mistake too late; about to be executed - or, rather, EX-TER-MER-NA-TED - for some petty offense to rationality, Davros begs one of his creations for mercy. 'I AM NOT PROGRAMMED TO SHOW MER-CY' the dalek screeches in reply, as it fires a laser beam at the unfortunate transhumanist.

At one point in 'The Poverty of Theory', his sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-infuriating one hundred and ninety-nine page polemic against hyper-theoreticism and intellectual arrogance on the left, EP Thompson compares his bete noire, the austere Parisian philosopher Louis Althusser, to a dalek. Thompson believes that Althusser's texts, with their clunky theoretical categories and their insistence that inhuman 'structures', not human actions, drive forward history, have the same robotic quality as Davros' creations.

I suspect that a few readers of The Standard, the very popular blog run by a group of moderately left-wing trade unionists, might consider me something of a dalek, on the basis of my recent post The Politics of Hysteria. After The Standard reproduced my post, which argues that parts of the left have swapped analysis for cheap emotion, and have consequently ended up sounding like Oprah Winfrey or Sarah Palin, commenters queued up to denounce me as an uptight pedant who needs to get in touch with his feelings. Here are a couple of not-unrepresentative quotes from the comments thread at The Standard:

Time for a return to a politics with compassion, feeling, emotion, sympathy and solidarity. Reason and logic are here to serve our humanity, not the other way around...The cerebral Left is too disconnected from most peoples’ lives...

We should start with what’s most important – we have a great country...Then apply “compassion, feeling, emotion, sympathy and solidarity...

The left should know better. It should be more human...

If I'm not quite a fully-functional dalek, then I'm clearly, in the eyes of a few of the commenters at The Standard, a latter-day Davros, who has foolishly convinced himself of the merits of steely robotic thought over good old-fashioned human emotion.

In some ways, the comments at The Standard are understandable. It might have seemed like my post was arguing that everyone on the left, whatever their life situation and cultural and intellectual predilections, should have to set aside three evenings a week for the study of each of the three volumes of Marx's Capital, and that geeky blogs like Reading the Maps should become a prescribed text for trade union education classes.

Anybody who wants to can become an intellectual - all it takes is books, discussion, and a slightly sad social life - but it's neither possible nor desirable for everybody on the left to become an expert about every subject under the sun. I enjoy learning about and discussing the finer details of subjects like intra-left polemics in the '70s, the politics of Kendrick Smithyman's poetry, and the question of whether or not Tonga can be considered a capitalist country, which makes me a left-wing geek, but I steer well clear, for reasons of temperament and training, of numerous other subjects which are debated, often rather more urgently, on the left.

I rely, for example, on people like my mate Mike Beggs to keep me informed about the travails of the global banking system, and about the question of how well the back pages of Capital can explain the current global recession and the financial crisis which precipitated that recession. Economics was always a subject which filled me with fear at school, but Mike is a man who can consume tables of economic data as easily as I consume mine and cheese pies. Mike can crank out a recondite essay on the question of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but he's also able to write lucid summaries of his research for chumps like me to read on a website or in a magazine. Research is only useful if it can be understood and disseminated, and the left, and society in general, has always relied upon the ability of at least some of its geeks to popularise their work.

In recent decades the likes of Stephen Hawking and Oliver Sacks have become famous for their popularisations of natural science, but there have always been fine popularisers of left-wing research in the human sciences. In the twenty-first century the philosopher Bertell Ollman has written wonderfully about the dialectical method, showing that it is not mystical hocus pocus but instead a very practical way of grasping the world, David Harvey has made geography, which had a reputation as a fusty subject, into a brand-new way of analysing and critiquing capitalist globalisation, and sociologist Michael Lebowitz has emerged as a commentator capable of assimilating and explaining the detailed dramas of Venezuela's ongoing revolution. Ollman, Harvey, and Lebowitz all have audiences, but they lack the fame of left-wing popularisers of previous generations, like Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre or even Noam Chomsky. Too much of the left, it seems to me, has lost its appetite for the intellectual side of politics.

I haven't wanted to argue that everyone on the left should become a super-geek, and spend his or her days in a library far from the barricades, scribbling notes about this subject and that. What I've wanted to suggest is that the left has traditionally had a culture in which scholarship and ideas are valued, and that this culture of research and reasoned debate should not be lost.

It would be foolish to deny that emotion has an important place in politics. The chants and speeches at any half-decent demonstration are rightly emotional. But there’s also a place for analysis – and analysis doesn’t always benefit from emotion. Theory in general, and clunky-sounding concepts like ‘mode of production’ in particular, may seem like a bit of a bore, but they enable us to move out of our immediate circumstances and to survey both the society we live in and the history which produced that society. Emotion gives us a close-up view of the world, but theory offer us a view from the air, and the latter is essential for map-making.

Whether you agree with me or not, don't be shy to go and dip your oar into the discussion at The Standard. There are some exchanges on the social structure of Polynesian societies mixed up with all the talk about emotion and analysis, and some of my statements about various modes of production in pre-contact and nineteenth century Maori society might need to be qualified or completely overturned by some of the learned folk who regularly comment here...


Blogger AHD said...

Hey great post Maps. I certainly experience the same problems: a disconnect between a reasoned, considered and rational argument and a world around me--without being too harsh--that is not always willing to engage on those terms. I am painted, unfairly I think, as an extreme rationalist that denies 'humanity'. However, if we don't engage at the level of dispassionate analysis, then we'll end up like TV News: full of sound and fury, with no clear distance from the events we are covering.

I think that the type of discussion you are generating enables praxis, which, in the end, is the best that we can hope for.

1:28 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Way to go, Maps!

The boys and girls at The Standard must guard against what should now be called the Noelle McCarthy Seduction Test.

In today's Herald, Noelle castigates "dreary socialism" and informs her readers that being chatted-up by socialists makes her long for death.

There's an element of the Left that withers (so to speak) before this sort of criticism. For them the rigor of analytical thought is something to be avoided - lest they and their analysis be considered BORING.

The Right, of course, went through its boring phase many years ago (roughly from the late-1940s to the late-1970s) during which it got all its ideological ducks in a very neat little row. By the 1980s they were ready to take on the world - and win.

And, of course, to the Noelles of this world, power has always been the ultimate aphrodisiac.

But power only comes to those who can make out a convincing case (i.e. not an emotional plea) for wielding it.

The Left simply can't do that at the moment.

It needs to remember that the Russian Revolution had its origins in the library of the British Museum.

And I strongly suspect that its long-haired, bearded and generally unkempt originator, were he somehow able to be introduced to Noelle McCarthy at a party, would stand absolutely no chance at all.

11:38 am  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

btw, Maps, congratulations on your vindication by the BSA:

Say not the struggle naught availeth ...

11:47 am  
Anonymous Mike B said...

Thanks Maps... Although I have some sympathy for the daleks, I'm afraid 'a recondite essay on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall' makes me sound very sad indeed, and I plead not guilty on that count!

4:21 pm  
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