CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
Rapmail, blackmail, snitches, snivelers, and white stooges: The philosopher David Berlinski weighs in on Critical Theory. You must understand the Slingshot—due to Frege, Gödel and Church—he says. The lunatics might well be right, after all.
It has become a cliché to say that the lies of the Trump Administration represent the ultimate triumph of critical theory. Michiko Kakutani draws a straight line from academia to Trump’s rise.
So does Daniel Dennett: “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: ‘Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.’”
Is critical theory truly responsible for this? How does critical theory or “cultural Marxism,” whatever that is, figure in all this?
I’m not sure that it does at all. I see the influence of old-school fascism in the ideas surrounding him. The ravening about “cosmopolitan elites” and “enemies of the people” is Stalinist, of course. Then there are the partisans of Q—marrying the old fashioned anti-Semitic pamphleteers to a uniquely American obsession with Satanic child-molesters. But postmodernism? Cultural relativism? Where?
My father, however, thinks there is connection.
To understand whether the roots of Trump may be found in 20th century philosophy, I asked my father, the philosopher David Berlinski, what he makes of all of this.
CB: How does critical theory or even cultural Marxism figure in all this, Pop?
DB: I don’t think any theory goes any distance toward explaining what is happening in the States right now. What was it that Goethe said? Grau ist alle Theorie. You have to have a hot bubble of the authentic American berserk in your veins even to appreciate what’s going on. Explaining it is out of the question. One thing, for sure: We are in a Golden Age of grovelers, toadies, snivelers, scolds, snufflers, snitchers, sneaks, stoolies, stooges and squealers. The show is spectacular: it is white hot; and, what is more, it has something like a fractal pattern, the show re-appearing in all of its incandescence no matter how finely the manifold of experience is dissected.
A Sniveler named Karen is intrigued by India
I’ve wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember. I’ve a lifelong obsession with the literature and history of the continent. Photos of India fill me with longing like no other place …
She manages to score a ticket:
To a suburban Midwestern teenager with a severe anxiety disorder, that was like being offered a seat on a flight to Mars. …
The tone is perfect in its sappy appeal for sympathy. A severe anxiety disorder? Is there a woman alive without one? If so, she has a severe eating disorder and has imposed a vegan diet on her cat.
Whereupon, the Snitcher:
Karen, I’d ask you to re-read what you wrote and think about how your words feed into a colonial/imperialist mindset toward India and other non-Western countries. Multiple times you compare the idea of going to India to the idea of going to another planet—how do you think a person from India would feel to hear that?
Who is this infernal weirdo? Klein writes a blog optimistically entitled ‘The One and Only Alex J. Klein.” He is gay, fey and fatuous. In reviewing local restaurants, his preferred encomium is “Yum!!!”
Having been snitched-out, the Sniveler now snivels:
I have hurt, angered and disappointed a lot of people this week with my insensitive post about my upcoming trip to India and my handling of the response, and I am deeply sorry about it. I’ve spent the week listening hard, learning (in part about how much more I have to learn), and thinking about all of the things I can do — particularly here on the blog — to be more inclusive and supportive of people of color. I can’t take any of this week back, but I will work hard to do better going forward.
And there they are for a brief perishable moment: Snitcher and Sniveler, as in Italian commedia dell’arte. And for India, too, that hopeless longing.
CB: What do you know about India, Pop? You’ve never been near India.
DB: Well, never mind India. Consider the strenuous national effort to avoid using certain derogatory words. Nazi and Fascist—they are fine and everyone enjoys using these terms, both Hitler and Mussolini celebrating their rhetorical reincarnation long after their departure for Valhalla. The N-word, on the other hand, has recently been promoted to second-order opprobrium in virtue of designating a first-order insult. No white man in his right mind would use, or even entertain, the sentence, “Hey you, the N-word,” and think to live or even to escape legal action. There is no reason not to designate the the N-word by a number—66, say, to preserve its satanic character. And no reason again not to designate “Hey, 66,” by still another number–17, say, which designates ‘Hey, 66,’ which designates ‘Hey, the N-word,’ which designates the requisite slur. The question now arises whether using the number 17 counts as a racial infamy?
If so, what about x = 18 – 1?
It’s an honest question.
CB: No, it’s not, you know that, Pop.
These videos—rap generally, in fact—constitute a genre of Performative Defiance, a genre symmetrically mapped to Performative Virtue Signaling, not far removed from Expectant Veneration, as the ubiquity of White Stooges might suggest. Preemptive Groveling follows, and, remarkably enough, in the sciences, too. Science and Nature have both confessed to systemic racism, Science doing its groveling in an issue otherwise devoted to mud; and Nature groveling for the sheer pleasure of the grovel.
DB: You’re right. It’s not an honest question and I do know it. But it makes an honest point. The United States represents a civilization of matchless scientific power and intellectual daring now returned to magical thinking. Medieval magicians had a list of words they considered so dangerous that to utter them was to risk death. To convey them to an adept, they wrote them with their finger on moving water. We have given words a frightening power to reach over themselves and conquer action at a distance. When undergraduates complain that they are apt to be harmed by Huckleberry Finn, they are making common cause with those medieval magicians. They lack only pointed hats and shoes with turned-up toes. It is touching and earnest and dopey all at the same time. And dangerous. It is an achievement of civilization to draw a sharp distinction between words and things, one easily lost.
CB: What does this have to do with critical theory?
DB: I don’t know. I am not sure there is anything like critical theory—not as a body of disciplined thought. A collection of hunches, moods, attitudes, incomplete arguments, sentence fragments, power grabs, statue-topplings, dim historical memories? That’s more like it. Some of it may be traced to Herbert Marcuse, another figure from the sixties—a former spy for the CIA, I might add. He had already developed a following in 1962 when I lived next to a group of young law students at Columbia. In time not spent studying contracts or civil procedure, they were talking about repressive tolerance. Or, perhaps, it was tolerant repressiveness. I can never remember which was which. Or even whether either was thought a good or a bad thing. Marcuse was a great favorite because he was understood to favor sexual promiscuity. What was the name of his book? Something about Eros. Marcuse was, at the time, in late middle age and he was eager to reacquaint himself with Eros on a personal level.
Look at his photograph. Now tell me that this is not a man eager to drape his arm in pedagogical solicitude over the shoulders of a 19-year-old English major named Naomi. There were a few other books like that: Norman O’Brown’s Life Against Death, which today reads like so much dangerous gibberish: polymorphous perversity, indeed: who knows what kind of monster bug is liable to slither out of that mess? and, of course, Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.
I reread it a few months ago, just after reading Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. The two quartets really belong together. They make for a kind of threnody. Durrell offers up Alexandria as a great cosmopolitan city, at once in Europe, in Egypt, in decay, in decline, still shimmering, French, English, German, Coptic, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, pity the monoglot, decadent, cruel, complicated, secret, private, adult, the Second World War in the background for Durrell and Scott, just as the First World War was in the background for Naguib Mahfouz. It would be impossible for anyone to write these kinds of books today. No one is likely ever to confuse Elena Ferrante with Lawrence Durrell. Ferrante is stuck in some Neapolitan slum muttering away in dialect: Durrell has Alexandria in which to wander, the world.
CB: I thought you admired Ferrante.
DB: I do. Very much. I also admire Philip Roth and regard Ferrante and Roth as the same kind of writer. Nor do I think that Lawrence Durrell is a better writer than either of them—just bigger. Some of critical theory goes back to the Frankfurt School: Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas. Some to Richard Rorty. I knew Rorty very well at Princeton. He was very well-read and he had a gift for sensing how things would turn out. There was a kind of dark rumble to the man. And some of critical theory goes back to French deconstructionism, once fabulously fashionable, now pretty much a flop: Paul de Mann, Jacques Derrida, people like that. Good old Jacques! Not quite a charlatan, but not quite the real thing either. Still, not a fool. He came from Algeria and had the provincial’s eagerness to be accepted in Paris. He never made it, but, then again, neither did I. A tough world.
De Mann seems to have occupied himself during the Second World War by writing anti-Semitic pamphlets, circumstances that no amount of deconstructive ingenuity could quite efface. Jacques Derrida came to his defense. Officials at Yale regarded the whole business in a witless agony of embarrassment. An anti-Semite! And at Yale, too! Wir waren noch nie so beleidigt.
James Lindsay and Helene Pluckrose have recently published a guide to critical theory: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody; but a homeopathic solution of the stuff is ubiquitous, as easily obtained now in Walla-Walla as it ever was at Yale. The whole thing is vaguely Marxist, I suppose, at least to the extent that someone is being oppressed by someone else and is mighty tired of it.
CB: But what of its role in our political life?
DB: The curious think about critical theory—I am speaking for myself—is that the more it is exposed as a fraud, fake and folly, the more it prompts the sneaking suspicion that there may be something there, after all.
James Lindsay has entered Twitter to affirm that 2+2 = 4 is an unassailable and objective truth. A professor of mathematical education at Brooklyn College named Laurie Rubel has, in turn, tweeted her fool head off, affirming that two plus two equals four “reeks of white supremacist patriarchy.” If so, it is a win for our side, right? A Ph.D. candidate in mathematical statistics at Harvard named Kareem Carr determined that under certain circumstances two and two might equal five. He produced a picture in which two squares and two squares were seen to yield five squares when their perimeter was taken into account.
And, yet, the exchange is a little like Mexican food: it goes down easy but comes up hard. What is really at issue? I am not asking the question with respect to Laurie Rubel, seen last in losing conflict with four whole numbers; or that boob, the square-shuffling Kareem Carr.
I am asking about the ideas. When Euclid the Great published his Elements, he found himself troubled by one of his axioms—the fifth, as it happens, the parallel postulate. In the 19th-century, mathematicians determined that Euclid’s fifth axiom could not be deduced from his other axioms. It stood alone; it was independent.
In 1930, Kurt Gödel published his completeness theorem—the prequel to his famous theorem, and now in uncut studio release. It describes the relationship between a formal system, where things are demonstrated, and the structures in which they are satisfied. What Gödel established ratified the logician’s expectations and justified their hopes. The first order predicate calculus is complete. Every proposition satisfiable in every structure is demonstrable within the system and vice versa.
So far, so good.
CB: And then?
DB: One year later, Gödel published his famous incompleteness theorem. For formal systems rich enough to express simple whole numbers of arithmetic, there is a proposition such that neither the proposition nor its negation can be demonstrated within the system. From the completeness theorem, it follows that the proposition could not be true in every structure. There are places in which it is true, and in other places, not so much.
Arithmetic has non-standard models.
There it is, the bat squeak and straight from the Bat Cave, too. You must listen for it.
CB: Yes, I think I hear it. It’s hard to tell because he’s coked out of his mind, of course, but I dare say the lad was all flummoxed up Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Now it begins to makes sense.
DB: In his second incompleteness theorem, Gödel showed that the system of whole number arithmetic could express but not demonstrate its own consistency. A proof requires a stronger system. Gerhard Gentzen provided the proof; but to anyone interested in absolute assurances about arithmetic, Gentzen’s proof rather suggested a man struggling for life in the water being assisted by another man struggling for life in the water.
A very good Russian mathematician at Princeton—a great mathematician, in fact— named Vladimir Voevodsky asked whether arithmetic might be inconsistent. Edward Nelson thought for a moment that he had, in fact, discovered an inconsistency in arithmetic. His argument turned out to be flawed. It is the fact that he made it that is important, that underlying intellectual anxiety.
CB: Surely the consistency of elementary arithmetic is very very exotic, no?
DB: No, not at all. From a contradiction anything follows. Yes, anything.
Let Q be any proposition at all: 2 + 2 = 5, if you wish.
- 1. (P & ~P) ⊃ Q is a tautology since (P & ~P) is always false;
- 2. ⊢ (P & ~P) ⊃ Q by the completeness of the propositional calculus; and therefore
- 3. (P & ~P) ⊢ Q by the converse to the deduction theorem.
No one is pleased to see a contradiction appear in any system or scheme; and for the most obvious of reasons.
CB: Of course not, but Pop, we knew this well before Voevodsky. William of Soissons proved this in the 12th century. Ex contradictione sequitur quodlibet—
DB: —if consistency is one place where the bats go to squeak, necessity is another. That 2 + 2 = 4 is true goes without saying. Its truth is accessible to anyone capable of counting by one: 2 = 1 + 1 and so 2 + 2 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. What is wanted is something that goes beyond the truth to the claim that necessarily 2 + 2 = 4. That’s more like it. That 2 + 2 must be 4 is a declaration that owes nothing to the way in which these numbers have been designated and everything to the presumptive force of necessity. I could just as well have written 2 + 2 = 22 = 4 and achieved the same urgency. Or written 2 + 2 = √16 = 4. Or written 2 + 2 = the number of Gospels = 4. Whereupon the wheel of inference grinds to a halt. Necessity descends through these replacements until the last. It is not necessarily true that there are just four Gospels.
Something has gone wrong. This is an argument, or an observation, that W.V.O. Quine introduced more than sixty years ago. What is necessary, Donald Davidson remarked to me once—we were colleagues at Stanford: I introduced you to him when you were two: you didn’t say much and neither did he—depends on how things are described.
How described? Described by whom? And under what conditions? There it is—that squeak.
CB: But again, how do we get from that to the Trump Administration?
DB: Do you remember Kellyanne Conway’s remark about alternative facts? Critics were appalled. You, too. And for every good reason. Facts are facts and where would we be without them? In drerd, right? Facts are independent of what we think of them. They are a part of reality itself, obdurate, unavoidable, and, of course, irrefragable. To deny the facts is to lapse into delusion.
The lapse is apparently unavoidable. What follows is an argument called the Slingshot. It is due to Frege, Gödel and Church. The argument has a long windup and delivers a short sharp fatal blow. Let me quote it in full from Church’s Introduction to Mathematical Logic. The conclusion first: all true sentences designate, denote, name, correspond to or are coordinated with one and the same fact. And ditto for all false sentences.
Thus the denotation (in English) of “Sir Walter Scott is the author of Waverly” must be same as that of “Sir Walter Scott is Sir Walter Scott,” the name of Sir Walter Scott being replaced by another which has the same denotation. Again the sentence ‘Sir Walter Scott is the author of Waverly’ must have the same denotation as the sentence ‘Sir Walter Scott is the man who wrote twenty nine Waverly novels altogether,’ since the name ‘Sir Walter Scott’ is replaced by another name of the same person; the latter sentence, it is plausible to suppose, if it is not synonymous with ‘The number, such that Sir Walter Scott is the man who wrote that many Waverly novels altogether,’ is at least so nearly so as to ensure its having the same denotation; and from this last sentence in turn, replacing the complete subject by another name of the same number, we obtain, as still having the same denotation, the sentence ‘The number of counties in Utah is twenty nine.’
This is grim and powerful. There are no necessary relations in Nature; neither are there any facts in Nature. It requires no very great imaginative powers to wonder whether there is anything like Nature in Nature? These reflections do nothing to compromise the concept of truth. That remains. Some things are true; others not. Many true things comprise a theory; and, I suppose, one might call a fact a very small theory, but to what effect? The presumptive and rock-ribbed world in which the truth has answered to the facts is gone.
When the truth is in dispute, as it often is, how far, really, are we from the claim you think that something is true and I think not, and the Devil himself cannot decide between us if he is appealing to the facts?
How far are we from Kellyanne Conway?
CB: Still some ways, I suspect.
DB: The concept of a single objective, universally accessible world of fact may now be allowed to recede into the darkness; and just as critical theory might have suggested, what has come to replace that image of the world is another in which the chief thing is to see who has the upper hand.
Consider Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, who have released a new video entitled WAP. The women are rumpy, dumpy, and untalented, so much so that they give every indication that having found sashaying difficult they would find strutting impossible. Cardi B is a retired stripper, formerly occupied in rolling drunks, and Megan Thee Stallion is so covered in tattoos as to resemble a squid squirting ink in mid-flight. Both women have shot straight up from the lower depths, where, of course, they are destined shortly to return. They are in public ill at ease, quick to lapse into profanity, but luridly appealing. There is plenty of room at the bottom, as Richard Feynman observed; the place is now gender neutral, like an all-purpose restroom in which everyone’s stool is welcome. A Kardashian wanders onto the scene just long enough to attract criticisms for cultural appropriation. The production has the appeal of a diamond dental stud. Ron Dreher linked to the lyrics and held his hands clasped in prayer. Ben Shapiro read them aloud and discovered promptly that his ironic declamation had been cross mixed against the video itself. No one from the American evangelical community bothered to immerse himself in sulfur the better to denounce the great whores of Babylon. They had been down that road before. They know better.
What is curious and very suggestive about the videos is the way it is designed to compel a certain kind of reaction. WAP is a form of Rapmail, a nice displacement of emphasis from orthodox blackmail inasmuch as Rapmailers compel allegiance by proposing to burn down their own house. The point of the video is the pornography; the threat is self-imposed degradation. Although a frank failure when it comes to armed robbery, the principle your money or my life works very well otherwise. No matter how coarse, degrading or disgusting the video, no one dare criticize it forthrightly or comment on it without irony. Corporate America is, no doubt, eager to comply. A WAP sneaker cannot be long delayed, a successor to the George Floyd sneaker, now in prospect or in development.
Rapmail serves elegantly to divide the reactions it elicits. On seeing WAP, black women are allowed to whoop and holler. Black men are advised to keep their damn fool mouth shut. It is easy to imagine Michelle Obama guffawing even as Barack Obama scrunches into himself, mortified and silent. White men have nothing to say and had better not say it. It is the reaction of white women that is significant, and for this, The New York Times is instructive. In an article entitled ‘The Glory and the Taboo of WAP,” a preposterous gynecologist named Jen Gunter, having given up her speculum for a higher calling, remarked that she was “thrilled to listen and watch WAP.” Thrilled? By an obscene video in which two grunting women prance, dance, grind and slobber? Apparently so. “So as I watched Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion praise a wet and gushy vagina in a stunning display of confidence—and not just sexual confidence—I was thrilled.” That she was not by profession a proctologist is a small mercy afforded readers of The New York Times.
Gunter, of course, played her expected role, the one demanded by Rapmail. She appeared on the front page of The New York Times as a White Stooge, a racial version of the Sniveler in the same Italian comedy. There it is, that curious and irremovable nostalgie de la boue that comes over The New York Times whenever blackness is at issue.
Dear Doctor: you idiot. Cardi B and Meagan thee Stallion are not interested in “the culture of the problematic, shameful and, yes, wet vagina.” They are indifferent to genitals that leak, squelch, squish, dribble, or that hang like a horse collar. They are smart enough to see your expression of desiccated enthusiasm for what it is—a form of pandering. No one is fooled.
These videos—rap generally, in fact—constitute a genre of Performative Defiance, a genre symmetrically mapped to Performative Virtue Signaling, not far removed from Expectant Veneration, as the ubiquity of White Stooges might suggest. Preemptive Groveling follows, and, remarkably enough, in the sciences, too. Science and Nature have both confessed to systemic racism, Science doing its groveling in an issue otherwise devoted to mud; and Nature groveling for the sheer pleasure of the grovel:
We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been—and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.
Two French scientists wrote in response that they had heard enough and so had enough:
This is the language of religious confession, not scientific analysis. As scientists ourselves, we feel insulted by such blanket self-denunciations—since we are not racists, have never been racists, and have never met colleagues who, to our knowledge, acted in a racist manner.
Those poor French dweebs—Moi? Raciste? Science and Nature have undertaken Preemptive Groveling on the grounds that whoever grovels first, grovels least. God knows what would happen if anyone in the black community figured out that peer review is a racket.
It would, of course, be unthinkable to meet anyone in the American academy willing to say that, you know, basically I just don’t like blacks. The point is beside the point. Systemic racism is not tangible. It is to thoughtcrime that Science and Nature are confessing. Whereupon there is that curious symmetrical shift. Members of the black community can say whatever they like in terms as derogatory as they wish. If they rant at will, they are excused. And they are excused precisely because they are free of thoughtcrime.
The question inevitably arises: Just who determines thoughtcrime. The answer is pure critical theory: Whoever has the power.
In a world without facts, whatever answer is possible?
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist. Her father, David Berlinski, is an author who lives in Paris, blocks away from his daughter.