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In praise of war and caricature

March 12, 2012

Various efforts at procrastination have led me tonight to read this New Criterion article from 2000, an attack on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I haven’t read Kuhn’s book, so I’m not 100% sure the critique is accurate, but I have encountered his ideas many times–so many that I feel as if I already have read his book. But maybe the book itself is more nuanced, makes an argument actually worth engaging? The article says that shouldn’t worry me:

As with many caricatures, one finds that the original consists of the caricature with the addition of a number of qualifications; the qualifications render the original inconsistent, and the author’s subsequent denials that he had said anything so radical increase further the number of inconsistencies. One observes also that the caricature has a historical career considerably more vigorous than the original, whose qualifications would have lessened its appeal. Besides its simplicity, the caricature makes the story of science into one of the simple emotive plotlines that literary folk find so engaging.

I don’t know. I often find it tempting to say this about philosophical figures; it’s so much easier to read a summary of Kant’s third critique than to read the critique itself (which, alas, I have not yet done). And if you’re doing intellectual history it’s often justified, because it often is just the caricatures that survive, while the nuances–those things that make the argument particular to its author–drop by the wayside. But attacking the caricature often leads to a position that is itself a caricature. The caricature of Kuhn is a relativist, but this article lets itself slip very nearly into positivism. For example, it allows itself to attack the eminently reasonable claim that “even if scientific theories were true, they could not cause reliable transmission of themselves”–i.e. we have to choose to transmit them ourselves. Denying this is just another way of taking the human out of history. It’s the old skeptic/anti-skeptic dialectic, where it seems the only winning game is not to play–or so Stanley Cavell thinks, I take it. But Christianity sees suicide as unacceptable, so what are we to do? Well, what I want to say: be nuanced. But “what I want to say” just means “a caricature of a thought”, not a particular thought at all.


I also recently read this more recent New Criterion article, an attack (the New Criterion does a lot of these) on the “new old lie” that war is always and everywhere bad. It makes a number of good points, particularly about how prosaic so much anti-war literature is, and how non-pacifistic works of art are denigrated as either crass commercialism or dangerous fascism:

None of this is to dismiss the merit of antiwar art. There is plenty of talent on the side of cynicism. Indeed, it seems the majority of the talent has been on that side, because the bias has become self-perpetuating: great artists depicted war as meaningless brutality; serious critics determined that such depictions were great art; and aspiring artists and critics, hoping to be taken seriously, followed suit. As a result, the Boston Globe is right. Nearly all war literature, both good and bad, has been antiwar literature. Jarhead, both the book and movie, stands out in this regard: writers and filmmakers tried so hard that they produced an unintentional parody of the form.

I was disappointed not to see a mention of David Jones or Cormac McCarthy, who both in very different ways reject the unreflective pacifism of modernist and postmodernist literature. I was also ultimately disappointed by the exaltation of patriotism as the proper alternative. There’s something to that idea–Jones’s In Parenthesis makes a big deal out of his soldiers’ Englishness, and McCarthy, in my reading of the Border Trilogy, has great disdain for those Mexicans who began civil wars for their own benefit, but great respect for those hombres del pais who fought for the good of their homeland. But it’s not a full answer. “Patriotism” may be where we want to end up, but so far it’s just a word, and one that doesn’t tell us how it differs from fascism, nor show us a path out of the darkness of the space between “the ends justify the means” and “violence is always and everywhere wrong”. Another skeptical dialectic.

Personally I’m uncomfortable with saying “well we should just undo modernism”. It’s interesting to note that, from what I remember of Aquinas, he can be read as saying that it’s not permissible to kill in self-defense, only in defense of others, and then only if it is really impossible not to save them otherwise.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Elliot Kaiser permalink
    April 4, 2012 5:12 pm

    After reading this, Joseph, Ive now chosen to play your game. I draw my gun first and blow you the fuck away. See ya at the wedding!

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