Hunting Dodo with Blunderbuss

by CarlD

Friends, this blog and my blog culture are not yet a year old, and it shows in my newbie fascination with tired old blogtastic shenanigans. The instance in question is an intermittently interesting discussion at scatterplot about the racism, or not, of this cartoon:

As usual I’m simultaneously interested in both the conversation’s topic and its dynamics. And regarding the latter, my no-shit-Sherlock observation is that it’s very difficult to develop an analysis under certain conditions common to the blogosphere, among them systematic confusion of premises and conclusions and, as Jeremy says there, quick devolution of charged discussions into ideological preening. Of course, as a student of the history of marxism I know this can be accomplished without new media as well.

Along these lines the one I like the best is the one where it turns out we’re not having an investigative dialogue among human beings articulating reasoned hypotheses but a dogmatic monologue against avatars of hopelessly stupid counterpositions. Reading what someone actually wrote is so beside the point. The sport is then to load up the blunderbuss with whatever crap you’re carrying around in your pockets and blow away these dodos.

I am such an Enlightenment geek! No matter how often it happens, it’s weird and awesome to see “Carl” turn into whatever dodo the gunners happen to be hunting that day.

UPDATE: The topic here is communication, but if actual analysis of the cartoon interests you please visit Prof. Susurro’s outstanding post detailing the long history of racist imagery that can be read out of and into it. She follows up in a later post on the public debate. I’m not entirely on board with Susurro’s conclusions, but she knows how to construct a case.

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13 Responses to “Hunting Dodo with Blunderbuss”

  1. to be honest, it took me two days to write my rather quick and dirty analysis of this cartoon ( http://likeawhisper.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/ny-post-says-humor-trumps-racism ), mostly because the colonial images I had in mind (including the girl drawn like a monkey being led down the street to auction and the image of several 1900s black political figures as monkeys in victorian dress or with monkey like features) were unavailable in digital form. Add to that the nature of blogging which is meant to be brief and the result was an even more reductive analysis than I had planned. So I am sure it can be viewed in some of the terms you discuss here. However, I worry about any discussion that automatically assumes dogmatic right to dismissal or rant without evidence which seems to be present from all sides in the discussion you reference and elsewhere on this issue. Blog culture tends to lend itself to the “b/c I said so” and “Get over it” school of discussion and I’m not sure that with these kinds of topics we can move forward in any serious way if it all boils down to “blowing away the dodos.”

  2. Howdy Whisper, what a great name! It does sound like your analysis is more multidimensional than the powerful but simplistic ape=Black=Obama line that dominates the other thread. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    You’re right that the nature of blogging does not immediately lend itself to quality analysis. Yet there have been several occasions I’ve seen here and at other blogs where what I might call a ‘salon’ has broken out: an interesting question, intelligent and generous commentary, a little playfulness, and willingness to see where the conversation leads rather than leap to a conclusion. I love that and it keeps me coming back for more.

  3. I agree but I think that it is one of those things you have decide on from the beginning and that far more people prefer the Lord of the Flies approach to discussion. These issues really are the kind that deserve thoughtfulness so I am glad they are making their way into forums where that happens.

  4. But see, that’s precisely the problem with “rational-critical discourse.” The definition of “rational-critical” is what’s at stake in the debate, and there’s no way to get around that problem except by laying down arms and accepting the interpretation that says “anything I say is racist is racist, and if you disagree you’re a privileged tool of the system.” You shouldn’t be lamenting the lack of reasonableness in these discussions–you should either accept the fact that debate, for all its surface politesse, is a no-holds-barred knock-down-drag-out struggle for rhetorical legitimacy, or just refuse to engage in it at all.

    (Sorry, I wrote my honors thesis on this issue, so it’s a sore spot for me.)

  5. Greg, I want to read your thesis but not to hold my response until I do. I really couldn’t agree with you more, including the part where you make fun of me. I really am an Enlightenment geek, pre-Dialectic of Enlightenment and everything. A lost cause, please stay and hold my hand whilst I breathe my last.

    Trapped in that naive faith in the spirit of Reason as I am, I don’t start out assuming that “the definition of ‘rational-critical’ is what’s at stake” in any given debate. It might be we agree or can hammer out a treaty on the conventions of argumentation, either right away or after a ritual introduction of fearsome chest-beating, and actually talk about what we’re talking about. It’s worth a try or two, I think in my vulgar-wittgensteinian way. If it’s just about a scrap, Lord of the Flies as Susurro says, I can do that too; but in my experience I either win those or stalemate pretty quick, which long since does nothing for my ego and certainly contributes little to my understanding.

  6. thanks for the links. I’m curious about what conclusions you differ on but applaud you in noting I may not be in the headspace this evening to respond to them constructively were you to spell them out. Maybe another time, in another space, the opportunity will arise. I tend to think that there is learning in disagreement.

  7. PS. by the way, I’ve been a long time lurker here and I love your blog. Forgive me for not saying that from the start and yet still talking like I’ve always been here.

  8. Greg, I like the opening sections of your thesis, I might print it out and read it, maybe even show some sections to my students in a “See, this guy is Russian and look how he writes, see? Go learn to write like this and come back in 20 years” – actually, I read some Habermas maybe 10 years ago, I mean I was really into him and I still have a shelf of his books at home.

  9. I didn’t mean to sound like I was making fun of you! It’s understandable if you do make the assumption that debate is about learning new things and talking to one another like intelligent people–and occasionally we may even succeed at pretending that that is actually the case. But it’s liberating in a way if you don’t try to. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be open-minded, it just means that whatever conclusions or realizations you come away with were not arrived at with communicative purity and scrupulous adherence to pregiven ground rules. Debate is a messy thing, and there’s no way to prune away the bad parts without destroying the good parts.

    I actually kind of hate Habermas. I think he has very few useful or interesting things to say (especially since he ditched the last of his Frankfurt School influences sometime in the mid-80s). The only reason people like him is that he fits into the Rawlsian moment and provides “philosophical” support for democracy. It doesn’t matter for him if the arguments are any good, as long as we have some superficially compelling reasons to believe in the democratic ideal. I mean, does anybody seriously believe that the Discourse Principle has any connection to reality whatsoever?

  10. In a way, Habermas is the John Locke of our generation. The content of his thought, which is all ungrounded ahistorical speculation that justifies an already dominant liberal order, doesn’t matter. What matters is that his ideas make a flag with “Democracy” and “Enlightenment” written on it, which people can get excited about waving. Between Facts and Norms could really have been 500 pages of lorem ipsum followed by a paragraph that says “As you can see, we have established firm and rational foundations for democratic deliberation.”

  11. Susurro, thanks for unlurking and jumping right in! I’m a big fan of your work too. I’ll come over and comment properly at Like a Whisper and if anything I say seems worthwhile we can chat when our headspaces align.

    Greg, go ahead and make fun of me, all my best friends do. I’m at my most ridiculous when the merits of reason are the topic, because I ought to know better!

    My own dissertation was on the decentering of reason in Gramsci, Durkheim and Weber. Habermas ends up being a peripheral figure for me precisely for the reasons you say – he’s a nice man and does good work as a shill for liberal democracy, but really can’t be taken seriously as an analyst. Your John Locke line is very good – we’re back to state-of-nature mythologies with Habermas. In this respect I like Rorty much better. He knows where the loose ends are and as a pragmatist, doesn’t feel the need for decontextualized truthiness to pseudo-resolve them.

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