Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Zadie Smith on why the French are to blame for climate change

This is, I assure you, not a wholly misleading headline, but it is not all the French, just Jacques Derrida and his acolytes. See below for details.

Zadie Smith, musing strangely in the New York Review of Books, imagines her seven year old granddaughter asking why people didn't do more about climate change, why there was not "A global movement of the people [to force] it onto the political agenda, no matter the cost".

Before I turn to her answer, think of your own one. (In order to play this game, you have to take it as given that in 2050 the world is suffering more droughts, more floods, more ice, less ice - whatever the reasonable worst case scenario is - so we're all still here, most of us anyway, huddled together on higher ground and annoyed at our grandparents because they didn't drive enough Priuses.) Why did that happen? It's a great intellectual Rorschach test. You might answer: "because, frankly, it didn't look that bad - in fact it seemed to be beneficial on balance - the costs of stopping it looked huge, we hoped for some new technologies to bring down the costs - and we had some other stuff to be getting on with that seemed more important at the time." That sounds reasonable enough to me, but it's got a few ideological biases in it. Or you might answer "big business stopped us", or even "it was all the fault of George W Bush" - there is some ideological bias there too.

So what is Smith's answer? "I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes—and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat."

Gosh, that's quite a claim - it's all the fault of philosophers, especially the French ones. As Wikipedia tells us, accurately enough for present purposes, "A central premise of deconstruction is that all of Western literature and philosophy implicitly relies on a metaphysics of presence, where intrinsic meaning is accessible by virtue of pure presence. Deconstruction denies the possibility of a pure presence and thus of essential or intrinsic and stable meaning — and thus a relinquishment of the notions of absolute truth, unmediated access to "reality" and consequently of conceptual hierarchy... No word can acquire meaning in the way in which philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell have hoped it might—by being the unmediated expression of something non-linguistic (e.g., an emotion, a sense-datum, a physical object, an idea, a Platonic Form)."

For all that French philosophy is normally uncongenial to people brought up in the Anglophone tradition, it sounds quite plausible when put like that (the first sentence aside). But is Smith seriously asking us to believe that if Derrida had not written Of Grammatology then the peoples of the world would have risen up to demand more subsidies for carbon capture technologies and universal lower settings on central heating thermostats?

What is really going on when someone like Zadie Smith makes a claim like that? She is 'bigging up' the academy, for one thing. If you're an academic and a writer then it's nice to believe that academics and writers can change the world, even if not always for the better.

But also, perhaps more interestingly, she is endorsing a traditionally conservative way of looking at subjects like relativism. Arguments about relativism or the fundamentally unstable meanings of concepts often have a stage where the conservative says "if there is not really a right and a wrong, if ultimately morality is just a set of arbitrary social practices, then why should I care about doing the right thing? why do I have to do it?" to which the (Anglo- American) relativist has a number of replies, e.g., "because the sentence 'you must do the right thing' is still every bit as true as it was - all I have done is explain what 'being true' means in a way you hadn't thought of". Not everyone finds the relativist's replies emotionally satisfying (so much the worse for emotions, the relativist is perfectly entitled to reply) - and it seems that Smith falls into that camp.

Nothing is essential and everything changes - it takes the fight out of you, says Smith. It's taken the fight out of Western civilisation. By way of consolation, I offer this Jesus and Mo cartoon. In vino veritas, perhaps, but in cervisia ...?

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