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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/18/18

Michiko Kakutani's Book on Trump Is Alerting, Not Alarmist (REVIEW ESSAY)

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By suggesting here that both Ong's work and Lonergan's philosophical masterpiece can be reframed as kinds of deconstruction in spirit, I am doing this to suggest that there was something in the air, figuratively speaking, in the 1950 and 1960s that contributed somehow to the emergence of Derrida and the Yale deconstructionists.

For an intelligent and reasonable defense of deconstruction, especially with reference to Derrida's thought, see Christopher Norris' encyclopedia article "Deconstruction" in the book The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2011, pages 244-247). In effect, Norris explains that Derrida's thought can be categorized as being in the broad category of philosophical realism, even though in some of his early statements this was not always obvious. According to Norris, Derrida does not subscribe to mere subjectivism and relativism in all thought and all propositional statements -- Kakutani's death of truth. In other words, you cannot at the same time and in the same way subscribe to philosophical realism, on the one hand, and, on the other, mere subjectivism and relativism in all thought and all propositional statements.

For an intelligent and reasonable contribution to the philosophy of science, another casualty in Kakutani's death of truth, see William Rehg's book Cogent Science in Context: The Science Wars, Argumentation Theory, and Habermas (MIT Press, 2009).

For further discussion of Rehg's book, see my review essay about it: "Rehg admirably takes the science wars to a new level" in the online and print journal On the Horizon, volume 18, number 4 (2010): pages 337-345.

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However, I have no reason to suspect that Kakutani is familiar with any of Ong's books -- or with Lonergan's philosophical masterpiece. But she is familiar with the Yale school of deconstruction that was prominent when she was an undergraduate at Yale -- and with the deleterious trickle-down influence of deconstruction on many American academics, often resulting in a lot of glib cant. Perhaps many of the glib academics who spout trickle-down deconstruction do indeed subscribe to mere subjectivism and relativism in all thought and all propositional statements -- Kakutani's death of truth.

For a fine rejoinder to the glib cant of certain academics, see Martha C. Nussbaum's article "Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism" in the journal Political Theory, volume 20, number 2 (May 1992): pages 202-246. Nussbaum is best known for her philosophical theory of emotions as intelligence for us to discern.

For an essay of related interest, see the Canadian Jesuit Frederick E. Crowe's "Neither Jew not Greek, but One Human Nature and Operation in All" in the book Communication and Lonergan: Common Ground for Forging the New Age (Sheed & Ward, 1993, pages 89-107).

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Now, I come to a tricky point. My way of proceeding in reframing Ong's mature work and in reframing Lonergan's thought in his philosophical masterpiece in terms of the spirit of deconstruction involves recognizing and acknowledging certain similarities and parallels. But my way of proceeding in doing this is basically similar to Kakutani's way of proceeding in seeing parallels between the worst tendencies in trickle-down deconstruction, on the one hand, and, on the other, Trump's fabrications and exaggerations -- in general, the death of truth, as she puts it. Trump, in his own way, is glib. Many academics influenced by trickle-down deconstruction are glib.

My way of proceeding here and Kakutani's way of proceeding in her new book are basically relationist in spirit. Ong's way of proceeding to discuss cultural developments is relationist in spirit, as he himself explains in the preface to his 1977 book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (pages 9-10), mentioned above.

Because I have long been fascinated with the relationist orientation of Ong's thought, I was fascinated by Kakutani's quotation from Thomas Pynchon's lengthy novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973): "'If there is something comforting -- religious, if you want --about paranoia,' he wrote in Gravity's Rainbow, 'there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long'" (page 85).

Not surprisingly, Kakutani discusses Richard Hofstadter's famous characterization of the paranoid style in American politics (pages 21-23). But Ong's relationist thought does not strike me as the expression of the paranoid style, because he does not deliberately aim to evoke fear, as the paranoid style in American politics aims to do. In any event, I suspect that the paranoid style in American politics will always be with us.

Now, the non-college-educated white voters who gave Trump his margin of victory in certain key states included many Catholics and many Protestant Evangelicals -- many of whom are ardent anti-abortion zealots. But those non-college-educated white voters most likely never even heard of the Yale deconstructionists by name, Derrida, Norris, Ong, Lonergan, Crowe, or Nussbaum. However, because of the intensity of our culture wars, they may have heard of the glib academics who spout trickle-down deconstruction. After all, conservatives, including perhaps some non-college-educated conservatives, have made certain books best-sellers.

Trump made the campaign promise that he would appoint conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court, and he hinted that he expected that the conservative justices would overturn Roe v. Wade -- this was music to the ears of anti-abortion zealots. He has appointed one conservative to the Supreme Court, and he has just selected a second conservative to appoint. Anti-abortion zealots who voted for him are not likely to get upset with him anytime soon, regardless of how many false and/or exaggerated and/or unsupported statements he makes.

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In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump ran against former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential candidate. Trump attracted large enthusiastic crowds. The crowds cheered him on when he attacked her personally ("crooked Hillary") and when he attacked so-called "political correctness" generally. In these ways, he fanned the flames of misogyny. But the voters who cheered him on are not likely to read Kakutani's book -- and they are not likely to turn on him anytime soon. Why not? Because they most likely voted for him because of their own deeply felt resentments.

Consequently, I suspect that the people who are likely to read Kakutani's book are book-reading people who voted for Clinton in 2016, as I myself did.

In any event, Kakutani says that "relativism has been ascendant since the culture wars began in the 1960s" (page 18). "Since then relativistic arguments have been hijacked by the populist Right" (page 18). "Relativism, of course, synced perfectly with the narcissism and subjectivity that had been on the rise, from Tom Wolfe's 'Me Decade,' on through the selfie age of self-esteem" (page 18).Kakutani even mentions "the idea of competing realities or unreliable narrators" (page 18).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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