Last week, I wrote a little bit about my current relationship to Theory, and found myself stumbling into a term which I thought I had borrowed from the great intellectual historian Peter Novick: “the Epistemic Left.” While it is possible that Novick used the term somewhere, I am pretty sure that I botched the reference. In fact, what Novick discusses, at length, in ‘That Noble Dream” is a very different phenomenon: the strange aversion of so many American left historians (and, more broadly, left intellectuals) to methodological experimentation. Until recently, most left US historians and intellectuals (let’s agree, for now, that by “Left US historians and intellectuals” we mean people who think or study the past, guided by commitments to large-scale projects of collective emancipation) hewed tightly to a fairly old-fashioned ideal of objectivity. For this reason, we might distinguish between an “Epistemological Left”––an intellectual formation rooted in the framework of nineteenth-century science and committed to universalist ethics––and an “Epistemic Left.” This latter would include encompass thinkers motivated by the same emancipatory or utopian desires, but who are open to or eager for non-objective and non-universalist ways of seeing, knowing, reading, and understanding.
Could such a distinction yield intellectual historical insights that are of value, or facilitate the creation of a new narrative of post-World War II thought? I think that it might. Furthermore, I think that such a study might help us build a new historiography of the US Left—one that does not eschew the gains made in recent years to include a wide variety of grassroots activisms in the story of struggle, but that makes room for reflection on books, articles, seminars, and symposia (and, more recently, social media activity and blogs) as significant elements of the Left constellation.
Having established this research intention, we should reflect briefly on what we think we might get out of its pursuit.
First, I think that a new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left we would enable us to transcend the highly localized and often very distorted intellectual histories generated by Left polemicists.
A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left would help us to bring out the political implications (for better or for worse) of Left-identified interpretive projects that stay mostly silent about questions of praxis.
A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left would allow for a productive differentiation of “jargon” (the bugbear of anti-Theory critics in all times and places) and the specialized language of political mobilization that seems to be necessary for any collective movement to gain ground.
A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left would assist in transforming accounts of the function of the academy within rich countries in a moment of profound crisis for mature capitalism.
A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left could help us move past scandal-oriented itineraries (the revelation of details regarding this or that thinker’s past, the Freud wars, the Sokal hoax), which leads to the transformation of history into a gossipy and complacent catalogue of follies.
Emphasizing the second term in “Epistemic Left” also might work to forestall the category errors and fallacies of misplaced concreteness that dog histories of postmodernism and poststructuralism. In many such histories, methodological necessity is often translated into desideratum. The temporary suspension of commonplace presuppositions––the facilitating condition for the achievement of a novel perspective––is presented as an elaborate act of trolling. Wordiness and linguistic play––usually a side-effect of an attempt to craft an alternative interpretive modality––is taken as evidence of authorial vanity. Most significantly, the struggle to reveal the situated and constructed quality of a given social force is rendered as an all-out assault on some phobic object (truth, the gender binary, race, subjectivity, rights, etc.). The obvious motivation underlying so much of the work of the Epistemic Left (the creation of new techniques for melting the glue that keeps contingent political arrangements in place) is ignored; and political projects are thereby travestied and presented as so many adolescent efforts to épater le bourgeois.
What I am not proposing is any sort of hagiography or glossing over of contradictions and problems. Many projects of the Epistemic Left have been failures, and many of the successes have been hamstrung by internal limitations. What I am proposing is the creation of a more sensible set of criteria by which to measure success and failure.
Here, we have much to learn from the social historical literature of the last half century. We no longer evaluate social movements by asking whether they achieved all of their goals, immediately, in exactly the ways they originally intended. We are attentive to what George Lipsitz calls “the long fetch of history.” We understand that what makes political projects work is often also what makes them fail; what makes them virtuous is sometimes what makes them blind to deep problems; what makes them inclusive in one respect might make them exclusive in others.
One important takeaway from social history is that normal politics often seeks to rig the game so that no form of extra-systemic protest is ever licit, no aspiration to equality ever “fair,” and no systemic critique ever legible. The greatest threat to the Epistemic Left has always been (and likely will continue to be) the notion that politics as such is impossible. We cannot aspire to anything more than administration. Subtending this powerful belief is the idea that intellectuals are unnecessary. Power needs only the advice and counsel of experts. For all of its many faults, the Epistemic Left has never stopped pushing back against this ideological offensive. That makes it history worth telling, and properly.
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