Wednesday, January 10, 2007

frankfurter with lip service, please

not too recently, i had a discussion with one of my assistants. well, that is not exactly right because it so happens that whenever i start talking, they get rather awed, almost frightened and although it is not my intention in the slightest and acquiescence almost always bores me, a discussion either becomes an argument or an asymmetrical power show. anyway, she boasted that she is an adept of the "critical school".

as an aside for the uninitiated, the critical school in sociology, also called the frankfurt school is the popular culture of the social science community. its major brands include marcuse, adorno, habermas, horkheimer etc. i do not hesitate to call them "brands", they serve exactly that function in the markets of conspicious culture consumption in dimly lit locales frequented by the often also dimly enlightened intelligentsia. the frankfurters are also the inventors of such totally unexplainable, arbitrary, unscientifically eclectic and unproven categories as popular culture (as if culture, in its final totality, could be any other way!), public sphere (which in compounding ignominy, was translated to turkish as "public square!"[*]) an undefinable concept except in law where it comes closest to a socially comprehensive covenant; or habermas's famously impossible ideal speech situations.

if you ask me, the best frankfurter contribution to understanding society was the authoritarian personality, an immense field study on fascistic and discriminative behavior as a function of personality, by theodor adorno, else frenkel-brunswik, daniel levinson and nevitt sanford, . conducted at berkeley university (therefore also referred as the berkeley study), published in the aftermath of the ww II, the beginning of the so-called cold war and the heyday of mccarthy and unamerican activities committees, the study reached the uneasy conclusion that a respectable population of the americans who only recently were victorious against fascism, nazizm and japanism, fared no better than antisemitic and nazi loving, at least nazi obeying germans when it came to espousing character traits that could make a democratic society easier to achieve.

the authoritarian personality research, conducted on 50 thousand people was finally squelched to silence. its statistical findings were attacked on (arguable) technical grounds while nobody attempted to tackle the hurting politico-psychological conclusions, except the likes of edward shils who, practically using the results of the berkeley study, contended that there might be authoritarianism on the left, too. prof. shils, it might be worth reminding, was in that team of comparative theoreticians (the modernization theorists) who advocated in the 60's and 70's in samuel huntington's apt adage that "students and priests cannot run a state but colonels can". wondering how apt the statement is? ask three neighbors, at least one will tell you about the "torture counters" of the 1971 and 1980 coups d'etat in turkey. richard perle, a neocon adviser to the hopefully fargone don rumsfeld, who at the time was in an intelligence position in turkey reported the 1980 putsch with the note "our boys did it".

anyway, thus was wasted the only real and possibly universal contribution of the critic(al)s. after that they turned into intellectual passa tempo rather than hard research orientation, an excuse for sob sistering for the squeamish left, a source of enlightened ennui for misfits like me who felt sick running around in verbose circles of misapplied logic leading nowhere etc. if you have a half baked, unfounded, precariously grounded theory about society, go to the frankfurt school. their tomes will supply you with plenty of plausible sounding truistic arguments that you can pass of as proof of anything if you have the inclination. change your mind? now you think just the opposite of what you thought is true? go back. you'll find enough material for that, too. see what i mean?

well, they are not all too bad either, in the last analysis though. the frankfurters did supply a load of arsenal for the critics of raw positivism and empiricism, generally mocked as scientism. they pointed out to the contextuality and thereby the fragility of reality construction and truth building, i.e., knowledge and science . they did that without resorting to metaphysics, ideologic inerrancy a la positivism or divinity (which, through al gazali, was the bane of islam, through confucianism, the far east and through orthodoxy, the russias). their guide, true to german idealism and aufklaaruung spirit, was always rationality.

however, as ever, disciples of the school wove a mantle of piety over the teachings of their masters. the critical school, which in fact came forth with no coherent ideology has become so much the basis of an idealistic, ethicist and also etic ideology of knowledge that i am awestruck to see how far more liberal i am than many of my younger colleagues and students in almost every matter in life. more than 90 percent of the youngsters i am in touch with are rigidly ensconced in one ethos or other. well, all right, i am a totally unethical rationalist, for me ethics do not exist in contradiction to rationality and aesthetics, which are the true binding of society. from history, i have learnt mainly that the more copious the rules organizing "good conduct", the worse frayed are social mores.

such rough ethic-alism amounts practically to taboo-ism. taboos are only valid with censorship. most, indeed an alarmingly large majority of my students imply in their work they are ready for censorship in defense of their own morality and weltanschaauung. in fact, this is what the alarming results of the authoritarian personality had revealed in the 50's. the comic paradox here is that my students were mentally shaped to become intellectual and ethic witch hunters by their teachers who are minions of the frankfurters and their cohorts. they are supposed to think critically. yet, my dear colleagues think that critical thinking is thinking like their pundits. they are happy belonging in a school that follows particular protocols of cogitation, forgetting that schools of thought are here to partition, to make parties of thought. they end up complaning rather than criticizing when they start citing from their gurus much as a priest would quote from the old testament.

thinking critically is like sailing a ship in a storm. it requires putting all your life's knowledges into finding the right waypoint without drifting too much off your course and always considering what the weather dictates. watching each wave, the closer the sharper, for the effect it can make on him, his actions that determine the fates of the ship, the crew, the passengers, the cargo, no skipper can claim the right to believe in a universal rule will render the ocean lenient if you show obeisance. life is seldom an anthology of ethic and etic collective truths than irregular exigencies that challenge those ethics. only rational and sensitive, well thought out and heuristically tested covenants can help man build good ships to cruise the currents of the mind.

the better the ship, the more skilled the captain has to be. therefore, the only valid critique is only situation deep. withot forgetting however that, situations sometimes may be life-and-death-deep, indeed.

that probably is why oscar wilde wrote that the critic must know more about the subject of the critique than anyone he is criticizing [**]. critical thinking, after all, is how an individual places himself in the flux of life.

[*]- field, to be exact but square covers it better -

[**] the critic as artist

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