by Justin Murphy
Politically subversive intellectual work — in other words, forms of thinking and living that are functionally threatening to the continuation of present institutionalized dynamics — is closer to extinction than probably any legitimated intellectual today is willing to admit. The reason societies have institutional procedures for the legitimation of intellectuals is that any human being who lives their life based on authentic, autonomous commitment to truth is, and has always been, one of the most potent threats to any institutional order. Such a threat is uniquely dangerous because the honest zeal for truth against lies and error is effectively a virus for any institutional status quo, as human collectives only sustain themselves over time through what are basically lies that serve collective stability. Because such stabilizing lies are naturally oppressive to individuals, any one human performance of liberated zeal for truth infects all who are touched by it, as it is a way of being that almost by definition we are all longing to assume if only we can figure out how and with whom we can do so. Anyone who has managed to maintain such a deep autonomy of conviction and responsibility through the cracks of their ideological conditioning is effectively a political epidemic waiting to happen.
Society has only survived into what we now call modern society by evolving institutional mechanisms for snuffing out such threats, preferably before they arise in any human subjectivity. Recall that this is precisely what markets do; the market is that key social technology that would give human beings so much power but only by overpowering human being as such. For those who appear even possibly capable of maintaining intellectual autonomy over their adulthood, modern societies evolved legitimate intellectual vocations (academia, journalism, whatever), because the risk of such individuals doing who knows what else is far too risky to those invested in the established order. Over time, this institutional mechanism has worked, as professional intellectuals have never been more fully defanged than they are today. But because this is the mechanism whereby our society gives people the right to think and speak with authority, a key insight I would like to highlight at the moment is that one only becomes a legitimated intellectual to the degree one appears as a genuine force issuing from an authentically autonomous and therefore potentially dangerous perspective. And the self-belief that one is indeed a genuine force challenging the status quo is the crucial psychological wage without which contemporary intellectuals would not be willing to carry out their otherwise mostly useless and ineffectual daily work.
This is why today professional intellectuals have never been more confident and self-satisfied, while from a historical perspective they have never been less dangerous. This is an excellent example of how institutional equilibria of mass self-deception are not only possible but indeed the long-term norm for any society in which culture itself is organized by market mechanisms. Fundamental empirical realities shift over time while institutions silently, and without any sinister direction from any particular overseer, change what is perceptible and expressible.
I am not conducting “critical” academic research. Almost all academic work that styles itself as “critical” is worse than complicit because, even more so than mainstream research, it pretends to be opposed to the status quo. In general, if you are interested in transforming society and you encounter an academic journal article or academic book with the word “Critical” (with a capital “C”) in its title, the safest rule of thumb is to run for the door. The difference between academic work that styles itself as “Critical” and academic work we might loosely call “Positivist” (that which explicitly aims to be demonstrably true, however ideologically inflected that might be) is a much larger and more politically salient difference than the much-discussed quantitative/qualitative divide. It is even more significant than the difference between humanities and the social sciences, although many of these dimensions are likely correlated.
While so-called critical intellectual work does tend to have more ethical and political intention than Positivism, Positivism tends to be more true. This is the rub. You simply cannot purchase ethical or political goodness with any amount of untruth, yet this is almost always implicitly the cultural strategy of most so-called “progressive” human beings. Buried deep into the cognitive style of most “progressive” or left-leaning, thinking beings is the assumption that social goods are gained by denying bad realities. As if to make a good society we need to have the courage and will to collectively lie about certain things, and any refusal to lie in harmony with the consensus lies is seen as ideological complicity with status quo injustices. This being the case, the idea of doing ethically or politically valiant intellectual work within institutional parameters one knows full well to preclude the slightest possibility of generating liberatory dynamics anywhere in the world, is the height of self-serving self-deception. On the other hand, Positivists are indeed reproachable for being decidedly more comfortable with the continued existence of the systemic injustices that are part and parcel of their own life and society. In their willingness to bite the bullet of a vague ethical nihilism, there is nonetheless a courage and clarity with which they purchase real knowledge of how the world works, real knowledge that comes with real power; real knowledge and real power are largely inaccessible to “critical” academics, who are simply engaged in an altogether different activity, consisting neither of authentically committed opposition nor authentically committed truth seeking.
Activist theory, by which I mean all of the various texts that are produced for the stated purpose of helping to build social change, are closely akin to “critical” academic work but typically with less of the monetary rewards earned by academics. Whereas critical academic work sells a product of superficial rigor to the greater glory of institutions, while silently and dishonestly diluting it with false ethical commitment that is a kind of secret psychological wage for the author, activist theory is essentially the same operation but it sells hope and flattery directly to its small audience, based on a silent consensus to assume that hope and laudable personal characteristics of the audience already exist in whatever quantity we psychologically need to believe. Again, it is based on this deep-seated belief that doing good means the will to never query any empirical realities that it could be psychologically harmful to observe. Activist theory is basically the textual form of precisely this service: inquiries and arguments and proposals that promise to either find or produce glimmers of hope through various styles of avoiding the frightful possibility of pessimistic reckonings with the real.
Interestingly, what critical academic work, positivism, and activist theory all have in common is that they are all permissively dismissive of each other, in such a way that even their antagonisms are secretly back-pats in which they all agree to let each other persist in their respective spheres of the status quo. Kind versions of this dismissiveness manifest as the uncaring pluralism or faux interdisciplinarity of several ships passing in the night; unkind versions manifest as “positivist imperialism” or indignant humanists and activists who scoff at the impropriety of measuring various aspects of the human experience. So many performances of disagreement and differences of approach, underwritten by a silent institutionally attuned consistency with the status quo.
In other words, while almost all of the individuals who currently participate in any of these three dominant modes of intellectual life are doing their honest best to diagnose and improve society, they actually constitute a kind of unspoken modus vivendi in which they agree to let the status quo continue exactly as it is so long as their authority in their own domain is not blocked by any too aggressive encroachment from another. The situation is quite like the Cartesian bargain between science and religion, when in the sixteenth-century the Church allowed the development of a certain institutionalized rationalism so long as the rationalists affirmed the Church’s intellectual authority over matters of the soul. The humanists and activists allow the positivists to exercise power over human behavior and policymaking; the activists and the positivists allow the humanists to feign intellectual authority over ethical and political questions in our society; and humanists and positivists allow activists to pretend there is hope they will change the world.
A truly revolutionary intellectual path can only be one that aggressively violates each prong of this triadic modus vivendi. To the degree an honest and empirically demonstrable characterization of society could be achieved in a parsimonious framework that avoids all of these false registers, almost by definition the attitudes and behaviors it would generate would be inconsistent with the persistence of the status quo. The truly dangerous achievement I am pursuing is not the specific, contingent framework I am developing between these two covers, it is rather the immanent insight-infection that any project which aggressively violates this modus vivendi—if it is honest and simply carried through—would be a reliably revolutionary path that could not fail to have world-historical consequences (however small or large they happen to be due to other contingent factors). In other words, at stake here is not some new revolutionary theory uniquely capable of saving the world, but rather a kind of meta-theory of what not to do if one desires immanent dynamics at least tending toward liberation and revolutionary social transformation.