Sex! Politics! Dubious Footnotes!

How much excitement can you take? Scott McLemee looks at some scholarly scandals that seem faintly familiar.

May 9, 2007

It is the mark of a jaded appetite that its taste for excitement grows more demanding all the time. The thrill isn't gone. It's just harder to find. This is usually taken as a sign of decadence. There is a weariness to it -- the sense of having experienced and remembered too much.

But suppose a taste for sleaze is combined with an extremely short attention span, and no sense of the past at all. Could that be a sign of decadence, too?

I ask out of puzzlement at some cheap kicks on display, lately, involving the life and work of some prominent thinkers. Sure, controversy is the spice of conversation; and when the names are sufficiently well-known, the line between gossip and cultural critique may grow ambiguous. But in each case, people are expressing shock at "revelations" that aren't revelations at all.

Perhaps this is the result of naivete? Maybe, but it could just as well be a sign of extreme boredom.

My misgivings started last year, while various articles appeared during the centennial of Hannah Arendt's birth. Her work has had a long shadow. Arendt denied that she was a philosopher, preferring instead to call herself a political theorist -- one whose attention was turned to the public world of action rather than the vita contemplativa. Even that distinction is endlessly debatable, to say nothing of her analyses of Nazi terror, Marxist revolution, and American society. At the time of her death in 1975, it was not obvious that she would loom as one of the major figures in American intellectual history during the 20th century. That point, too, might have been controversial; and there are still arguments to be made about whether her influence is a good thing or a problem. But her importance (either way) would seem hard to deny. So far this year, we've had two new collections of her work, Reflections on Literature and Culture (Stanford University Press) and The Jewish Writings (Shocken Books).

But the impression one might well have taken away from the discussion last year was that the single really important thing to consider was the fact that Hannah Arendt had, in late adolescence, entered an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger.

Now, this was not news, to put it mildly. Ever since the publication of Elzbieta Ellinger's book Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (Yale University Press, 1995), it has been analyzed and quite thoroughly clucked-over by countless people, made into the subject of a novel, and even put on stage in a play called "Hannah and Martin" -- a title suggesting their romance now ranks with Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Iseult. (Either that, or Americans are comfortable calling even the most severely highbrow German mandarins by their first names.)

And in fact, Ellinger's breathless little book did not really break any new ground even when it appeared a dozen years ago. At the time, I scratched my head at the uproar -- having learned about the affair in the mid-1980s from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, which Yale had published in 1982.

But Young-Bruehl's biography was not at all sensationalistic. Nor did it treat the romance as the key to Arendt's entire life and thought. Evidently Young-Bruehl hasn't learned a thing over the past quarter century, because her most recent book, Why Arendt Matters, also insists that the ideas should be discussed on their own merits. That's no way to stir up a controversy.

Another combined experience of deja vu and "so what?" came in the wake of the recent appearance in English of the whole of Michel Foucault's History of Madness, published by Routledge. It was accepted as a doctoral thesis by the Sorbonne in 1960 and published in France the following year.

Foucault’s abridged version has long been available under the title Madness and Civilization,” translated by Richard Howard. His first major work, it is lyrical and sweeping even in the more compact version -- an account of the emergence of the "Age of Reason" through the psychiatric policing of public space. For Foucault, the insane asylum is one of the cornerstones of a new cultural order emerging between the 17th and 19th centuries. Locking away the mad, subjecting them to control and to study, bourgeois society sought to contain the irrational and reassure itself of its own perfect rationality.

An exciting book, and one that found its first audience in English among the "anti-psychiatry" movement of the late 1960s that challenged the authority of the mental-health establishment. That movement is often blamed for the release, a couple of decades later, of many thousands of psychotics to wander homeless in the streets. Well, maybe. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that legislators studied Foucault's work and found in it a perfect justification for cutting social-service budgets. Ideas have consequences! But I do tend to suspect that the barking men and dead-eyed women haunting my neighborhood are more the "consequences" of free-market economic doctrine than of Parisian structuralism.

Be that as it may, the resurfacing of Foucault's book in unabridged form has been an occasion for a closer look at its claims. In March, the Times Literary Supplement in London ran a very critical review pointing out that Foucault's command of the historical evidence concerning the treatment of the insane in the past is unreliable.

The critic, Andrew Scull, is a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Some of his review is a bit over the top. The impulse to denounce the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s is, like the tendency to mock hippies, quite understandable; yet both are largely unnecessary and should for the most part be avoided.

But many of Scull's complaints hit their target. Foucault drew on out-of-date or otherwise questionable sources. Even then he sometimes cited them inaccurately, and in the case of medieval references to "ships of fools" (boats filled with madmen) he construed a literary allegory as literal social history. "What interested him, or shielded him," writes Scull, "was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong."

This critique set off rounds of defense and counterattack. One line of response is that Foucault was far more of a philosopher than a historian. (Which is, of course, just a familiar variation of that trusty move in scholarly shadowboxing, "the interdisciplinary shuffle." If questions come up about his interpretation of Descartes, one could respond that Foucault was really more historian than philosopher.) And then there is the special license available to genius qua genius. One blogger complained, for example, that it was unfair to judge History of Madness by the normal standards of historiography. Instead, it should be understood instead as a text through which Foucault engaged in an act of self-creation.

Well how nice for him.... Even so, the work takes the form of a work of historical scholarship, rather than of speculative fiction -- so there's a natural tendency to evaluate it by standards appropriate to the genre of the monograph. This shouldn't be controversial. But what makes the situation even stranger is that none of these complaints about Foucault's scholarship are new.

A quarter century has now passed since two American researchers, Winifred Barbara Maher and Brendan Maher, published an article in the journal American Psychologist showing that Foucault's insistence that there were literal "ships of fools" rested on a misreading of a couple of 16th century books. Other work testing Foucault's generalizations about a move toward "confinement" of the mad beginning in the 17th century against the historical record found that his claims don't hold up. The development of the asylum as a social institution was much slower than his account suggests, with no dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration accompanying the rise of bourgeois society.

Next week's column will take up a third case -- one that may be sadder than either of these, though the individual in question is not quite so well known as Arendt or Foucault. In the meantime, it's worth asking if the taste for scandal and indignation in intellectual affairs hasn't entered an awfully louche phase.

Even after two decades, I remember well the effect of the news about Paul de Man's collaborationist writings during World War II. He had been my professors' professor, and I had produced my share of papers sedulously mimicking his way of unpacking a literary text. The revelation, once it settled in, felt like a punch in the stomach. And it's been a dozen years since my editor at Lingua Franca mentioned an article in the pipeline by some guy named Alan Sokal who was going to reveal a hoax he had pulled at Social Text. That felt a little different; guffawing was involved.

In each case, it really was a matter of something unexpected happening. If the experience created a sensation (a literal sensation, physical and emotional) that was in part because it was a disruption of routines. But there's something far too pre-programmed about the half-hearted sensationalism regarding Arendt's love life or Foucault's imaginative way with historical data.

In the 19th century, Walter Pater declared that "all art aspires to the condition of music." Maybe now we should update that to "all reality aspires to the condition of reality TV." But even by that standard, it is hard to take some recent bits of controversy as anything but bored surfing through reruns.


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