Sunday, August 05, 2012

Bruce Andrews, Bill O’Reilly, and the Location of Knowledge

Where — or perhaps the better question is ‘through what means’ — does one find knowledge?  I wasn’t expecting to end up asking this question when I was hanging out at the Unicorn Café in Evanston with Michael Gregory Stephens and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas.  We were talking about how there’s been loss as well as gain with the rise of the new media: we all conduct our business with publishers over the internet now, and it’s just not the same as the days when Michael used to meet with the Grove Press people at Max's Kansas City.  This led us to talking about Youtube clips of various poets, and Lina mentioned Bruce Andrews’ appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News broadcast back in 2006.  I’d never seen it, but when I watched it, I felt almost immediately that the conflict between Andrews and O’Reilly wasn’t really a conflict between the political left and the political right, although that’s certainly how O’Reilly saw it.  At its core, it was a conflict deeper than that, a conflict about where, and how, one finds the basis of knowledge.  The most intriguing part of the conflict hove into view when it became clear that O’Reilly’s view of the location of knowledge had its origin in ideas propagated not on the right, but by the New Left of the 1960s and 70s — while Andrews’ view had deeper historical origins, in the classical liberalism of people like Matthew Arnold and, behind them, the Enlightenment.

O’Reilly wasn’t interviewing Andrews in Andrews’ capacity as a leading representative of Language Poetry, but in his capacity as a professor of political science at Fordham University.  Someone on O’Reilly’s staff had heard that there was a well-known book about then-President George W. Bush’s Iraq War lies on the syllabus of a course Andrews taught on foreign policy, and O’Reilly wanted to present this to his public as an outrage.  The segment of his show on which Andrews appeared was even called “Outrage of the Week.”  The conversation began with O’Reilly noting the presence of this anti-Bush book on the syllabus, and asking Andrews if “that sounds fair and balanced.”  When Andrews begins to talk about his syllabus, O’Reilly demands “which book is fair and balanced, or presents a pro-capitalist point of view.”

This is a fascinating question, since it seems to propose two contradictory theories about the path to truth and knowledge.  On the one hand, O’Reilly seems to be saying that only a book with a “pro-capitalist” point of view could be “fair and balanced.”  On the other hand, he seems to imply that individual books should be partisan, and that a course can become “fair and balanced” only by presenting different partisanships, letting the truth emerge from the clash of admittedly biased ideological viewpoints.  As the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that O’Reilly holds the latter view: that everyone has an ideological bias, that their discourse inevitably reflects self-interest, and only through presenting different views together can we arrive at valid knowledge.

Andrews, to his credit, does not let O’Reilly control the terms of discussion.  Rather than trying to find a “pro-capitalist” book on his syllabus, he responds by saying that the point of his foreign policy course is not to be pro- or anti- capitalism, but “to explain different countries’ foreign policies.”  It’s not about advocacy; it’s about analysis.  This simply does not compute for O’Reilly, who resumes his line of questioning about the ideological content of books on the syllabus.  “Is there any… book in your class you consider pro-American?” he asks.  Unshaken, Andrews replies by saying his is “not a normative class” — he doesn’t want to embrace or reject a particular ideology.  “It’s about understanding,” he says.  Unwilling or unable to grasp the notion of a course that aims at objectivity, O’Reilly asserts that Andrews is taking advantage of his students, “feeding them one world view” when he should be presenting more.

Andrews’ sense of the location of knowledge, here, is that it can be found in the individual’s attempt at objective, disinterested analysis—that we approach our texts with as cold and unprejudiced an eye as possible, and look not for what confirms our desires or our self-interest, nor for what we wish would be true, but for what is actually the case.  There’s a long tradition behind this way of thinking, with a center of gravity in the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century.  More proximate exemplars of the tradition include Matthew Arnold and, later, I.A. Richards.  Since I have a particular fondness for Richards, and have his Practical Criticism ready to hand, let’s quote from him.  Here, he defines what he thinks of as primitive thinking:

In primitive man . . . any idea which opens a ready outlet to emotion or points to a line of action in conformity with custom is quickly believed. . . . Given a need (whether conscious as a desire) or not, any idea which can be taken as a step on the way to its fulfillment is accepted. . . . This acceptance, this use of the idea—by our interests, our desires, feelings, attitudes, tendencies to action and what not—is emotional belief.

In Richards’ view, primitive thought is thought that takes confirmation of one’s own biases, needs, desires, or vested interests as true.  There’s no sincere attempt at objectivity or disinterest.  Rather, what feels right must be right.  If you’ve ever had the dire misfortune of getting into an argument with a gun rights zealot, you’ve probably encountered this kind of thinking: dubious and misinterpreted statistics fly fast, and are hurled around without much checking into their validity or applicability.  Statistics are valued less for the rigor that went into their creation than for their utility as intellectual ammunition. 

Another, better approach to knowledge comes when we attempt to achieve disinterest — something not possible in an absolute sense, but approachable by degrees (there is, after all, a difference between outright propaganda by, say, climate change deniers, and the attempt at objectivity by most members of the scientific community).  Here’s how Richards describes the process of attempting disinterest:

To respond, not through one narrow channel of interest, but simultaneously and coherently through many, is to be disinterested in the only sense of the word which concerns us here. A state of mind which is not disinterested is one which sees things only from one standpoint or under one aspect. At the same time, since more of our personality is engaged the independence and individuality of other things becomes greater. We seem to see ‘all round’ them, to see them as they really are; we see them apart from any one particular interest which they may have for us. Of course without some interest, we should not see them at all, but the less any one particular interest is indispensable, the more detached our attitude becomes. And to say that we are impersonal is merely a curious way of saying that our personality is more completely involved.

The individual’s attempt to see things as they really are — that’s the essence of disinterest.  The goal of thinking, here, isn’t to win a fight by thinking up arguments for what you already believe, or what you think will advance your particular interests.  The goal, as Bruce Andrews might say, “is understanding.”

Bill O’Reilly’s sense is that knowledge isn’t located in the mind of the person who attempts disinterest.  Rather, it is located in the clash between overtly self-interested antagonists: that’s why O’Reilly can’t seem to understand Andrews when he refuses to accept the pro-American/anti-American or pro-capitalist/anti-capitalist dichotomies O’Reilly throws his way.  Knowledge must be a matter of conflict, in this view, and the notion of disinterest makes about as much sense as bringing a slide rule to a knife fight.

The truly interesting thing about O’Reilly’s view, which has become a staple of the right wing, is that it comes from a left wing source.  That is, biggest challenge to the notion of disinterested knowledge came from the left radicalism of the 1960s.  Here’s an anecdote that I think captures something of the circumstances under which that challenge emerged.  It’s from a memoir of teaching at SUNY-Buffalo in Robert Hass’ Twentieth Century Pleasures:

The year must have been 1969; the room was packed with students and faculty dressed, as the style was, to their archetypes: Indians, buffalo hunters, yogis, metaphysical hoboes, rednecks, lumberjacks, Mandingo princes, lions, tigers, hawks, and bears.  Everything the American middle class had repressed lounged in that room listening to speaker after speaker with beatific attention.  Which took some doing.  I remember in particular a graduate student from the Progressive Labor Party who read an exceedingly long essay on the parallels between Bob Dylan's career and the growth of political theory in the New Left….When he finished, Edgar Friedenburg, the sociologist, rose to speak.  He is a dapper man and he wore a light gray suit with a striped broadcloth Brooks Brothers shirt.  His glasses sat low on his nose, his hair was tousled, and he looked amused.  He only managed one sentence: "I have been reflecting this afternoon that we are patient beings, and that, though popular culture deserves our most urgent attention, it requires from us a good deal less credence and more clearwater."  Some of the audience laughed; and a student in the front stood up, jabbed a finger forward, and said, "Friedenburg, it took twenty fucking years of repressive fucking education for you to learn to talk like that."

Friedenburg is clearly a representative of the Arnoldian tradition, looking to the free and fresh play of ideas and to the calm clarity of the disinterested mind as the sources of truth.  The kid from the Progressive Labor Party isn’t having it.  For him, Friedenburg’s position is just another unconsciously ideological bit of self-interest, worse than most in that it masquerades as an objectivity that it can never be.

This New Left skepticism about disinterest entered the academy over the course of the 70s and 80s, becoming quite commonplace in certain departments, especially English and Comparative Literature.  A famous article by William Spanos appeared in PMLA in 1985 that explicitly attacked notions of disinterest, and called I.A. Richards to account.  Richards,” wrote Spanos, “categorically dismisses as inevitably activating intellectual warfare … a hermeneutics of understanding as antagonistic dialogue.” For Spanos, the path to knowledge didn’t lie through the attempt at disinterest.  Rather, it was to be found by constructing arguments for one’s own self-interest, and pummeling the opposition with them.  The opposition was welcome to pummel back (if you want to know more about the Richards-Spanos debate, you might have a look at my article “Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism, in Re-Reading the New Criticism, edited by Miranda Hickman and John D. McIntyre, out from Ohio State University Press earlier this year—you can actually read a large portion of the article for free using the "look inside" feature on's listing for the book).

At some point, the right wing adopted the New Left’s distrust of disinterest, taking the idea that no form of knowledge was free of bias and distorting it into the belief that opposing views must be presented on all issues, and are to be treated as if equal. Hence the phenomenon of talk shows on which a scientist, presenting what he or she sincerely believes to be the truth, is forced to debate a propagandist, often funded by giant corporations or their think tanks, who only wants to present facts, or pseudo-facts, that advance the interests of his paymasters.  We’ve got people who live by the culture of disinterest (always imperfectly attained) set in combat against people who don’t really care whether what they say is true, only whether it advances their cause.

It’s the triumph, on the political right, of what Spanos (himself no right winger) called “a hermeneutics of understanding as antagonistic dialogue” that makes it impossible for Bill O’Reilly to understand Bruce Andrews when he says his course isn’t normative, but devoted to understanding.  And it’s Andrews’ embrace of old notions of disinterested knowledge—in a climate where both the academic left and the political right distrust claims to disinterest—that makes him a truly counter-cultural figure.


  1. This actually explains a great deal, Bob. I'm surprised there are no other comments.

    1. I sort of thought people would be miffed, since this sort of muddies the left/right distinction a bit, and since the notion of disinterest is out of fashion in the circles from which the blog's readership comes. I thought about adding something at the end about poetry criticism as advocacy vs poetry criticism that aims at disinterested inquiry, but I didn't want to stray too far from the main point. But I was scolded not long ago by a prominent critic for not advocating for "my poets" (?) in my criticism, so I think there is some kind of connection.

  2. Occasional reader here,

    Kant qtd. in Arendt's Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy

    "The only general symptom of insanity is the loss of the sensus communis and the logical stubbornness in insisting on one's own sense (sensus privatus), which [in an insane person] is substituted for it"

    Under the sensus communis we must include the idea of a sense common to all, i.e., of a faculty of judgment which, in its reflection, takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of all other men in thought, in order, as it were, to compare its judgment with the collective reason of humanity . . . . This is done by comparing our judgment with the possible rather than the actual judgments of others, and by putting ourselves in the place of any other man, by abstracting from the limitations which contingently attach to our own judgment . . . .

    Contrast Kant's idealism, which granted may seem a bit overwrought, with the later genealogical Foucault:

    It is the fact of being one side--the decentered position--that makes it possible to interpret the truth, to denounce the illusions and errors that are being used--by your adversaries--to make you believe we are living in a world in which order and peace have been restored. "The more I decenter myself, the better I can see the truth; the more I accentuate the relationship of force, and the harder I fight, the more effectively I can deploy the truth ahead of me and use it to fight, survive and win." . .

    The point in the later Foucault, however, is that your own truth is itself inevitably biased, an instrument of power, and that there is no possibility of a disinterested position which arbitrates between the different camps into which a society is divided.

    The point Foucault will make is that one's own truth will ALSO be biased. Truth becomes a weapon in the hands of one party, to be used against another party, in a battle to occupy the center, to impose one's will on a society deceived into thinking that there is in fact something like impartiality (the ruse of the strong). It seems to me that a lot of literary criticism, obviously also under the influence of the later Foucault, is inclined towards this type of hostile discourse, in which truth is a weapon to be used to combat an opposing party, rather than to the Kantian view.

    Having studied both philosophy and literary criticism, it always strikes me how quickly literary critics are drawn to this type of skeptical position.

    Do you think this has something to do with what you yourself point out in your essay 'The State of the Art':

    In 1938 John Crowe Ransom claimed that, unless poetic form and poetic language became central concerns, the American English department might “almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of ethics.” Cleanth Brooks would later assert that, unless form and the special nature of poetic language became paramount, professors of poetry would find themselves “quietly relegated to a comparatively obscure corner of the history division,” or be “treated as sociologists, though perhaps not as a very important kind of sociologist.”

    Is the turn to various forms of skeptical thinking in literary criticism an extension of self-preservation which you describe here? And to what extent does the turn to skeptical thinking in literary criticism relate to the rampant philosophical incompetence one usually encounters in literary criticism dpts.?

    If I am right to think that the forms of skeptical thought which predominate in literary criticism are means of self-preservation rather than genuine critical gestures, isn't it time that literary criticism starts to think about new avenues of thought?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I forgot to mention the title of Foucault's book.

      Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76

    3. I see that a comment of mine seems to have been removed, above -- I think I must have done this by accident. Sorry!

  3. I think your analysis is pretty much on target. (And, yeah, I do think you could analogize it to poetry criticism, as you suggest in your comment. Specifically, how criticism has become more and more like cheerleading, while independent uninvested book reviewing remains the last bastion of disinterested assessment.) Of course, Bill O'Reilly also believes, as do many political extremists, that if you simply assert a statement enough times, it de facto becomes the truth, even if it has zero factual basis. People on the far right like to claim that MSNBC is partisan, but that's merely because MSNBC spends a lot of time doing factual corrections on FoxNews, which has long since lost its connection to actual reportage in favor of what O'Reilly represents.

    A few years ago I read Deborah Tannen's book "Argument Culture," which takes a similar look at public rhetoric, and with great clarity points out many of the same conclusions you arrive at here. Specifically, political discourse is currently viewed as inherently antagonistic and partisan, avoiding compromise and empathy in favor of argument and turf-defending.

    With regards to poetry criticism, the notion of disinterest being untrustworthy is of course rooted in the postmodern/deconstruction of post-colonial literature, which carried lots of unspoken assumptions about class, etc., which as you know is the very set of assumptions the New Left began to question. The problem is, the New Left didn't replace their analysis of "the establishment's" worldview with a viable replacement; the facade of disinterest and objectivity was torn down, but nothing new was built in its place. This is one of the trends in academia that leads us to where we are now: afloat on a sea of questions about discourse, but with no real anchorage in any system that can be seen as universal. it's just islands, no continent. "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold."

    I frequently feel as if the political extremes, especially the political right, is looking to build a continent by tying their various rafts together. They want to convince themselves that they live on solid (moral, religious, ethical) ground, but in fact they're still just as adrift as the rest of us. Reactionaries like O'Reilly are reacting against the very rootlessness and centerlessness of postmodern life by (perhaps unconsciously) adopting the rhetoric of the New Left to prop up their raft-islands—which as you point out is pretty ironic.

    1. Deborah Tannen's "Argument Culture" sounds fascinating. I'm going to dial up a copy on Amazon pronto!

  4. Hi SC,

    Thanks for the Arendt/Kant and Foucault quotes -- those are exactly the right things to put the two different viewpoints expressed by Andrews and O'Reilly into the context of the history of ideas. In fact, they're a better way of framing the issue than the Richards and Spanos quotes I dug up from the books available on my desk at the time of writing.

    The larger speculation you present about the predominance of the Foucauldian view in English departments, and the need of those departments for self-justification, is fascinating. I'd have to mull it over for a while, since I haven't looked at things from quite that perspective. When Brooks wrote about finding a justification for the English department, rather than reducing it to a wing of history or sociology or philosophy, he was making a case for an emphasis on literary form -- the other aspects of poems or novels, he thought, might be subsumed under other departments, but form was something English could emphasize without overlapping with other departments. On the one hand, this is a step away from the idea of thought as the combative expression of self-interest, since the emphasis on form removes, or seems to remove, discussion of literature from politics or ethics or what have you, at least to a degree (I actually think that there's an ethical dimension to this kind of formalism, in that it trains us to step away from self-interest, which is an argument as old as Schiller's "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man," and is also the belief informing much of I.A. Richards' thinking -- but many people too Brooks to be apolitical). On the other hand, the quest for a principle of study that will make English into an autonomous field could, I suppose, be seen as itself a form of thinking motivated by professional self-interest.

    Historically, the rise of explicitly Foucauldian thinking in English departments more or less coincided with the eclipse of Brooks and his kind, though -- so this complicates issues. The new justificatory principle of English was less form than a kind of cultural politics -- canon revision, multicultural representation, feminism, and other kinds of social missionary stuff. This I can certainly see as involved in the kind of process you describe.

    As for the philosophically and critically muddled nature of most English departments -- you're on to something there. I think part of the problem has been the resistance to continental philosophy and critical theory in American philosophy departments. I was on a hiring committee for a philosophy department position lately, and it was a real education: very few American philosophy departments take continental thinking seriously. There's Vanderbilt, the New School, Columbia, and a surprising number of Catholic universities, but that's about it. This matters, because it has meant that English department people have gone into continental thought without the benefit of colleagues, more rigorously trained in philosophy, to advise and inform them.



    1. I should also add, regarding your last question -- YES! Yes, I do think it's time for some new kinds of thinking. I hope the book I'm working on, "Poetry, Autonomy, Society," which is essentially an attempt to historicize Kantian perspectives about the aesthetic, will do a little bit to help in that regard. But I've got another two years of work on it to go.

    2. Have you read any of the work of Stanley Cavell, per chance? I think some of the essays of Must We Mean What We Say? or some of the chapters of The Claim of Reason might fit in with the book you're in the process of writing.

      I think the resistance to continental philosophy also has to do with the philosophical climate in general in the USA, since the focus is very much on the rigors of analytical philosophy in most of the big universities. I tend to think that the rigorousness and preciseness of analytical philosophy is one of it's appealing features, but that it at the same time forces analytical philosophers into thinking about very narrow, technical subjects. This is why I mention Cavell as a person who has found something of a middle road between analytical and continental philosophy.

      When I referred to Foucauldian skepticism as a form of self-preservation, I of course didn't mean to imply that this type of skepticism is an extension of, or heir to, the new critical paradigm. I simply meant to imply that the evasion of a more normative philosophical voice in literary criticism might itself be a symptom of a drive for self-preservation (the same counts for the often banal focus on fashionable themes: disaster, memory studies, etc.).

      I think this evasion of the philosophical voice, the voice that speaks for itself by speaking for and about a text, is at the heart of the sense of perpetual crisis in literary criticism. In philosophy, there is never any real agreement on any question, but this is not seen as a problem, especially because the positions people take are positions which they set out to defend, speaking for themselves. In literary criticism, one gets the impression that people are just out looking to score paradigms which they can then apply to a set of texts.

      There is this ideology of the literary as that which resists intelligence or intelligibility, but it often seems as if people have forgotten that Stevens adds: almost successfully.


    3. I haven't read Cavell since graduate school, when Alistair McIntyre put me on to him. I'll have to root around in my bookshelves and have another look.

      I see what you mean about the situation of literary criticism -- there certainly is an element of branding and mass production involved. One finds a theory, one runs a set of texts through it, one has a career. My sense, and it's only an intuitive sense, is that this sort of thing peaked in the 1990s. The Bedford Critical Editions series has always been my touchstone for how bad things got. These were editions of classic novels with critical analyses at the back, labeled by methodology: "a feminist reading," "a postcolonial reading," etc. It all seemed very mechanical.

      My sense is that literary criticism is in the doldrums of late -- Simon Critchley may have been on to something when he said, not long ago, that the action had shifted away from literary studies. But to me this is a good place to be: it gives us a chance to reformulate what we're doing, and maybe come up with something better.

  5. I think this is a very illuminating post, Bob. I wonder if we could go further, along the lines others here have indicted about poetry & form, with Andrews's presentation of his perspective as Arnoldian and invested in a disinterested understanding rather than a motivated partisanship.

    Because we know Andrews primarily as a poet (and as a "Language Poet" in particular), we are surprised to see him representing a p.o.v. with roots in classical liberalism, just as we are surprised to see O'Reilly expressing an epistemology based in the '60s / '70s New Left--the intellectual milieu that created the Language Poetry we associate Andrews with! But what I want to know is the relationship between poetry and Political Science and the epistemologies they imply: do we read Andrews's poetry differently now because we have placed the poet in classical liberalism rather than the New Left, or do we see Andrews's responses on Fox as a cynical performance of objectivist, universalist belief (do we doubt that Andrews is actually interested in critiquing capitalism and America's foreign policy within that capitalism)? Or can we say that poetry and political science motivate different epistemologies, neither of which is universal or bearing in all moments, but each of which can be deployed as fits the situation (if so, what can we say about Marxists in English depts. and the disciplinary relationship Ransom wanted to talk about between literary studies and the social sciences?)? Or is there some kind of sweet-spot between classical liberalism's disinterested conception of knowledge and the extreme version of Foucaultian epistemology that sees all knowledge as the motivated production of ideological discourse?

    I think I've confused myself with all this jargon. I wish I could write as clearly as you, Bob.


    1. Those are some very good questions, Lucas -- and I wondered, even as I was writing this, about whether the positions Andrews takes here pertain to his poetry. One possible answer is that he's even more of a Kantian figure than I'd thought. Kant, after all, argued for a kind of separation of one's attitude to one's official role and one's attitude as a private citizen. That is: for Kant, a person acting as an official (a judge or policeman or soldier or bureaucrat) ought to aim for disinterest, but outside that role one can be partisan. This does make some sense for the functioning of society: would we really want policemen to only enforce those laws they personally find moral? Or would we prefer that they seek the reform of those laws while off the clock? Perhaps Andrews sees his role as professor as one where he doesn't try to spread his personal views, but to teach people factual information and critical thinking, and perhaps he sees poetry as the sphere where he can be an advocate for more radical views. But I'm just speculating here, I really haven't done the legwork on this. It's certainly worth investigating, maybe even in a full-dress scholarly paper.