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 CafĂ© 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.