Critical Inquiry 9 (3):597-610 (1983)

Critics, then, who label theories such as objectivism or deconstructionism as “authoritarian” or “subversive” are committing a fallacy of overspecificity. To call Hirsch’s theory authoritarian is to assume that such a theory lends itself to one and only one kind of political use and that that use can be determined a priori. To refute such an assumption, one need only stand back from the present in order to recall that today’s authoritarian ideology is often yesterday’s progressive one, and vice versa. Indeed, there’s considerable historical irony in the fact that objectivism has now acquired the status of a right-wing idea, while Nietzsche and Heidegger have emerged as heroes of literary leftism. As recently as a few decades ago, these alignments were different. George Orwell, for instance, thought that the tendency to deny the possibility of objective truth reflected a totalitarian mentality. “Totalitarianism,” he wrote, “in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the existence of objective truth.” He added that “the friends of totalitarianism in this country tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. It is pointed out that all historical records are biased and inaccurate, or, on the other hand, that modern physics has proved that what seems to us the real world is an illusion, so that to believe in the evidence of the senses is simply vulgar philistinism.”10It’s not that it hadn’t occurred to Orwell that the notion of objective truth could easily be used to justify the actions of tyrants and oppressors. But Orwell’s experience of Fascist and Communist falsification of history showed how the denial of the possibility of objectivity could also justify oppressive actions, perhaps in a more disarming way. For various historical reasons, Orwell’s insight is easily lost today. His is one of those Enlightenment concepts of truth which have been compromised in usage. As the Enlightenment has come to be associated not with progress, democracy, and equality but with the ideological exploitation of those concepts in the interests of social control, a great moral and political transvaluation of the epistemological vocabulary has occurred. Enlightenment thinking is frequently associated with the bourgeois complacency or the menacing technology of Western democracies or is identified with the totalitarian regimentation of the Soviet Union. Thus the concepts of objective truth, nature, essence, identity, and teleology have come to be viewed as conservative or reactionary ideas, as if these ideas had never operated, and never could operate, in quite other ways.11 10. George orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols. , 4: 63-64.11. As Frederic Jameson has noted, “it is certainly the case that a belief in the natural is ideological and that much of bourgeois art has worked to perpetuate such a belief…. Yet in different historical circumstances the idea of nature was once a subversive concept with a genuinely revolutionary function, and only the analysis of the concrete historical and cultural conjuncture can tell us whether, in the post-natural world of late capitalism, the categories of nature may not have acquired such a critical charge again”
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