More Dangerous Thinkers, Please


It seems to me there is a developing trend in political theory/radical studies that I would want to identify as broadly pragmatist.  It tends to like Dewey, it tends to be almost entirely negative in its critical account of other thought, and what positive visions it does offer tend to be very limited in their political ambition. The structure of the typical sentence seems to be something like: “neither extreme conservative strawperson x or extreme radical strawperson y, but rather my own moderate, reasonable, unassuming option z” (q.v. Mazzarella, p. 727).  Z of course avoids the terrible old ways of x, but it also avoids the supposed starry-eyed extremism of y, or whatever the most au currant radical theory is.  The author, in this tradition, takes absolutely no risks.  S/he critiques strawpersons, or the most extreme bits of a theory, the reader passively agrees, and then the author charts out an unobjectionable middle ground that seems pleasant and mild. The author can only seem smart, thoughtful, rigorous, and their ideas are almost entirely insulated from critique.

I don’t like this approach really at all.  I certainly don’t like the strawperson stuff, which usually is just a condemnation of an argument the theorist-of-the-moment never made anyway.  And I don’t find anything delicious in the mild–or really, bland–alternatives on offer.  The modern pragmatists, just for example, manage to write entire tracts without ever saying anything explicitly about (let alone decrying) capitalism or class domination.  (Of course there are improvements to be made to the class-reductionism of so much Marxism, but avoiding the entire issue is no solution–or rather, it is a pro-capitalist solution).

Similarly with Mazzarella.  I’ll take H&N’s challenge to continually find ways to flee structures of representation and institutionalization, thank you very much, rather than Mazzarella’s undefended acceptance of those structues as “fundamental” (p. 722) and subsequent agenda to merely add to “the richness of our investment in them” (p. 727).

What is this trend away from dangerous, tightrope-walking thinkers (whether they be Nietzsche or Kant) and toward safe, mild-mannered ones (like Dewey or Habermas)?  Better I think to be confronted with the thrilling challenge of Kant’s argument, and then decide what to do with it, rather than be drugged by someone like Mazzarella’s unobjectionable middle ground.