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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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Kakutani says, "I've been reading and writing about many of these issues for nearly four decade, going back to the rise of deconstruction and battles over the literary canon on college campuses" (pages 18-19).

Later in her book, Kakutani discusses Vladislav Surkov, the contemporary Russian master of propaganda behind Vladimir Putin (pages 144-149). Kakutani says that in the service of his nihilistic vision, "Surkov has invoked arguments repudiating the existence of objective truth" (page 148).

Kakutani says, "In November 2017, the Russian site RT published an essay by Surkov that invoked Derrida-inspired arguments about the unreliability of language -- and the gap between words and meaning -- to suggest that Western notions of truthfulness and transparency are naïve and unsophisticated" (page 148).

Hmm. In Ong's 1967 book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, mentioned above, he says "Words are symbols, and all symbolization proceeds by indirection and to this extent demands a lack of contact with reality. . . . We shall not enter into the question of conceptual symbolization here, but consider only the sensible word" (page 137). Whatever else may be said about Ong, he was/is not a nihilist. However, as Kakutani says, Surkov is.

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Robert Alter in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley is also not a nihilist. But in his book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press, 2010), Alter says, "Novels, one must concede, are urgently a whole variety of things that are not made up of words: events, individual character, relationships, institutions, social forces, historical movements, material culture, and much more" (page 25).

According to Kakutani, the nihilist Surkov was/is the mastermind behind the Russian "operatives working for the Internet Research Agency (the Russian troll farm based in St. Petersburg)" (page 145).

Kakutani rounds off chapter 9 of her book with great force (pages 160-163): "Some trolls have employed relativistic arguments to insist that the promotion of alternative facts is simply adding a voice to the conversation, that there are no more objective truths anymore -- only different perceptions and different story lines. They are clearly using postmodern arguments in bad faith, but their assertions are no more disingenuous, really, than the efforts of Paul de Man's defenders to explain away his anti-Semitism by using deconstruction to argue that the articles he wrote for a pro-Nazi publication in the 1940s didn't appear to mean what they appear to mean" (page 160; also see pages 57-59).

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Elsewhere in her book, Kakutani specifically singles out Derrida. She says, "More disturbing still were efforts by some of de Man's defenders, like Derrida, to use the principles of deconstruction to try to explain away de Man's anti-Semitic writings, suggesting that his words actually subverted what they appeared to say or that there was too much ambiguity inherent in his words to assign moral responsibility" (page 59).

In chapter 6, Kakutani says, "In a long [1993] essay about contemporary culture, [David Foster] Wallace argued that while postmodern irony could be a potent instrument for blowing things up, it was essentially a 'critical and destructive' theory -- good at ground clearing, yet singularly 'unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.' Its promulgation of cynicism made writers wary of sincerity and 'retrovalues like originality, depth, and integrity,' he wrote; it shielded 'the heaper of scorn from scorn' while congratulating 'the patron for rising above the mass of people who still fall for outmoded pretensions.' The attitude of 'I don't really mean what I say' would be adopted by those alt-right trolls who wanted to pretend that they weren't really bigots -- they were just joking" (page 162).

Kakutani says, "The trickle-down legacy of postmodernism, Wallace argued, was 'sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You've got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It's become our language' -- 'Postmodern irony's become our environment.' The water in which we swim" (page 163).

Not surprisingly, Ong does not discuss the kind of irony engendered by trickle-down deconstruction. But he does discuss irony more generally in his essay "From Mimesis to Irony: Writing and Print as Integuments of Voice" in his 1977 book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (pages 272-302), mentioned above.

In the relationist spirit that Ong himself uses, I should also mention that Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's famous book The Irony of American History (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952) that was published years before the Yale deconstructionist school emerged in the 1960s. Clearly a lot of influential intellectual currents were at work that contributed to the popularity of trickle-down deconstruction's use of irony.

In the epilogue (pages 165-173), Kakutani discusses Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Aldous Huxley's 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, and George Orwell's 1949 dystopian novel !984 (pages 165-166).

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Before I retired from teaching at the University of Minnesota Duluth at the end of May 2009, I taught an introductory-level course on Literacy, Technology, and Society. The required reading in the course included not only Ong's book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), but also Postman's books Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993) and Huxley's novel Brave New World (1932) and Orwell's novel 1984 (1949). If I were still teaching that course, I'd now add Kakutani's book to the required reading in the course. Like Postman's books, her book is alerting, not alarmist.

An example of an alarmist book would be Patrick J. Buchanan's State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin's Press, 2006).

At the end of the epilogue, Kakutani says, "[James] Madison, somewhat more succinctly [than Thomas Jefferson], put it like this: 'A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.' Without commonly agreed-upon facts -- not Republican facts or Democratic fact; not the alternative facts of today's silo-world -- the can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled. The founders recognized this, and those seeking democracy's survival must recognize it today" (pages 172-173). Amen.

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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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