I just read Bruno Latour’s short essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” It is a critical defense of facts against critique, motivated by Latour’s observation that the waste-laying weaponry of deconstruction has fallen into the hands of its enemies, who use it to cast doubt on global warming and to construct elaborate conspiracy theories about the CIA and Mossad’s connivance in the bombing of the World Trade Towers. “There is no sure ground even for criticism. Is this not what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anyway? But what does it mean, when this lack of sure ground is taken out from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against things we cherished?”
Latour worries that critical intellectuals are fighting the last war, that their aim is bad. Exposing the enemy misses the target when everyone is already busy running around pulling masks off and pants down. If the bad guys’ certainties are unwarranted, what about ours?
In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact–as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past–but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?
This is of a piece with Latour’s more extensive (and acerbic) dismissal of postmodernism in We Have Never Been Modern, but somehow this one triggered a different association for me. It’s been a long time since I read it, but isn’t this some part of Allan Bloom’s argument in The Closing of the American Mind? As I recall, it’s not that Bloom didn’t see the value of the marxian and nietzschean critical ordnance that enables the demolition of the eternal verities, but that he thought they were too powerful. In unskilled or inimical hands they leave nothing but scorched and salted earth, or at least fool kids trampling his lawn and having sex in his bushes.
I’m no more comfortable now with philosopher kings locking away the most powerful engines of human intellection than I was in grad school when I read Bloom. But from Dostoevsky to Bloom to Latour smart people keep making good points about what happens when you let everyone play with dynamite. All else being equal I certainly do prefer good sense to scorched earth. But what exactly is at stake? Wouldn’t it be just typical for intellectuals to overestimate the importance of ideas in the world?