Monday, April 25, 2005
Welcome Message: Put away that calculator and think about those words.
In important ways, how we talk about politics and what we think about politics are one and the same. The sometimes maddening discussions about what we mean ("OK, but how are you defining 'liberty'?" or "That depends on what the meaning of is is") is a problem for a world that demands quick answers. But, with the triumph of generative grammar affirmed, postmodern conceptions of human language symbolize the freedom that underlies all human cognition. These spaces also provide democratic politics with endless sites for debate and contestation. Yes, I am a proud, card carrying member of what Pope Benedict XVI has called the "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain . . ." (among other wisdoms) - or I am at least insofar as the limits of our political imaginations are concerned.One of the most difficult hurdles theorists have to clear in thinking about politics is learning how to handle language. Recognizing the ways in which we deploy certain terms, or fix our meanings, provides us with a roadmap that uncovers our commitments, biases, hopes, and inhibitions. This is why the greatest theorists are not only those who concoct the greatest theories, but those who relate those theories through meaningful narratives, who bring themselves and their politics close to their readers.Due to a distinct willingness on the part of those who practice the so-called objective social "sciences" to refuse to investigate the relationship between language and politics in their own work, it is hard to understand what they think their work actually is. In passing over this fundamental question, moreover, they undermine our own efforts, and call into question the validity of their findings and reports. These are the "scientists" who see the kind of language games that go in some traditions of political theory as just a "branch" of political science, and not the foundation upon which all theoretical work is premised. Because they proceed as though language is fixed and meaningful in of itself, a good portion of their political work ends up being what Jeremy Bentham rightly called "nonsense on stilts." These positivists, their calculators in hand, assume that language means something concrete and uncontested. But they don't seem to notice 1) the unscientific basis of this assumption and 2) the authoritarian tendencies it reveals. This much is true: it is impossible to quantify something when its very "nature" is questionable. The political world, it follows, is not simple, and these scholars study (and are sometimes defeated by) their own straw men. Like a typewriter salesman who, fearful that Remington Portables are becoming obsolete, tells his clients that computers don't exist, these "scientists" have turned the otherwise important art of thinking about politics into a giant faith-based spreadsheet.