Arrogance and Vitriol: Kotsko and the Self-Cannibalism of the Left

The thickness of Adam Kotsko’s vitriol and arrogance in his latest anti-GCAS post is disconcerting, and almost astounding. While there are certainly very real concerns regarding GCAS, and it is definitely a program that will take time to grow and develop, this level of hateful (I don’t think this word is too strong) disrespect is precisely the sort of negative self-cannibalism that has, and continues to render the left (particularly the academic left) completely impotent. It is easier to callously dismiss than to support attempts to think academia differently. As anyone who has actually worked to develop curriculum and to start a school would know (and I have worked with a school upstart) the opening months of operation are tremendously difficult, and a certain amount of “growing pain” is to be expected. How precisely Kotsko understands this sort of arrogant rant to actually positively affect this situation, or the broader world at large, is completely unclear.

I would rather stand behind and offer my voice in support of a school (whatever faults it may possess [and I can agree that it has some]) that is putting its feet to the ground and trying to act into the world differently, than behind the all-to-easy task of arrogantly critiquing from behind the computer screen.

Constructive criticism is a necessary part of any socio-political endeavor. But caustic troll-esque rants help nothing.

How, it might be worth asking Kotsko, is his sort of attack “revolutionary or paradigm-shifting”? How does the consistent attempts by the left to blithely undercut one another offer “a blow against neoliberal hegemony”?

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About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on March 11, 2014, in News, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I believe that the GCAS is a fundamentally misguided effort and hence am not endeavoring to provide “constructive criticism.” I want to convince people to abandon it and devote their energy to things that actually have a chance of succeeding. The left does form circular firing squads, but isn’t it equally problematic if the left wastes its limited energy in a pointless boondoggle?

    • Dr. Kotsko,

      thank you for responding, I hope to have not misrepresented you and that my critique might not be undully harsh. It seems, at least from my persepctive, that projects of this nature, even if it does not “succeed” in its ultimate goal, still has two great values to offer. First, Low cost access to top notch faculty (the quality of the faculty, I would suggest, is undeniable) and (as I’ve posted in another comment) access to the sorts of ideas that are generally relegated to the deepest reeches of academia. Second, bringing many into a more active, participatory stance toward the neoliberal logic of academia. These two facts alone seem to suggest to me that the project at least deserves a real try, or at the very least, is not deserving of derisive undercutting.

  2. How, precisely, is the school trying to “act in the world differently?” It’s a sincere question.

    • I think, as far as I have been able to extract from conversations with Dr. Davis (who in my experience has been nothing but gracious and goodwilled), that there is a real effort to provide low cost access to the types of ideas that are often relegated to the deepest recessess of academia. Even if other aspects of this project are not able to ge toff the ground, the bare fact that students who would be unable to gain access to this calliber of professor, as for example Badiou and Caputo, in other circumstances might now be able to do so, is already, in my mind, a worthwhile project. Will it change the world and overturn neoliberalism? Probably not. Is it actively seeking to think and act academic access differently, I think very much so.

  3. How is a video conference “gaining access”? That’s not how I teach courses. I sit down with students, I form relationships, I actually read their papers, etc.

    • While I’m not really intersted in, or properly situated to function as a spokesperson for the GCAS, I will simply say what I have been able to discern from interactions with Dr. Davis. First, I think that for those who have no access, that even video access is a step in the right direction. I agree that relationality is more easily fostered in-person, and in almost every way prefferable, but I would contend that this is a movement in the right direction. As for whether or not the professors in GCAS will “actually read their papers” (the implication being that they will not) I can not say, but would be very surprised if they did not (of course in a team-taught class it is likely that one prof will take that role, but I shouldn’t speculate on what I don’t know). Lastly, as far as I am aware, while many classes will be available only online, a significant portion of the classes will be available “in-person” in Michigan beginning this summer. But again, I should emphasize, I am not a spokeperson for GCAS, nor have I even taken a class with them (though I hope to possibly do so this summer).

  4. Being a better thinker or more prominent writer does not mean that the person is going to be pedagogically most effective. In many cases, the correlation between those two traits is actually negative. It is much better for a student to have a close mentoring relationship with an unknown academic who is an ongoing part of their education than to have brief, one-off interactions with big-name philosophers who are most likely not going to remember them a month later — and that’s not because the big-name philosophers are uncaring jerks, but it’s inherent to the very format of this kind of class. You have more meaningful “access” to these people through their books.

    • I completely agree that close personal relationships with “unknown” academics can be (and most often are) more helpful for a student. But for many who don’t have access to that type of situation (can’t afford admission, or can’t travel/relocate to a school), this might be a nice alternative route to critical theory.

      Additionally, I also think there is an advantage to hearing someone describe their project in a forumn where questions can be asked and clarifications can be offered.

      I don’t believe that by offering the latter, that GCAS is implying that there are not advantages to the former. One organization can’t be all things to all people. But by offering the latter (a chance to interact with prominent scholars), I think GCAS is offering a unique, worthwhile opportunity.

  5. Well, if nothing else, your will to believe is impressive.

    • Hope for radical positive change is the best thing that Christian-Leftism has to offer. 😉

      • I suppose that’s one fantasy you can concoct of it. But maybe double check the meaning of radical. Cause this ain’t it.

        • But the suicide of the left is? I feel like I should emphasize that my issue here is less with GCAS specifically, than with a particular vitriolic, and fundamentally quietistic stance endemic in the left.

          • What exactly do you think the left is? And what exactly gives you the right to assume people who criticize the sell of snake oil precludes actual agitation? I think the left you’re projecting is the same one that all the meaningless revolution words in press statements are appealing to: a fantasy of action without any actual action behind it.

            • I hope that the following thoughts can clarify my concerns.

              My problem is not with criticism. For, what else am I offering here but a criticism? In fact, I would insist, as I suspect would you, that criticism is an integral part of any healthy social or political movement. I am merely trying to critique a brand or style of critique that I think is counter productive to any sort of movement or progress. A type of hateful speech that is not intended to move toward positive outcomes, but rather to cut down, not intended to provoke action, but rather to suspend action. In fact, I resonate very deeply with you sentiment against the “fantasy of action without any actual action behind it.” It is precisely such a fantasy that I see this type of harmful discourse perpetuating.

              In the case at hand, if I could offer an example, I am not challenging Kotsko’s specific critiques. I would agree that the most recent syllabus has noteworthy race/gender problems, for example. I also agree that there is a definite limit to an online approach (though I suspect that I don’t think it is as useless as others). But what bothered me about the post enough to pen a response, was the tone of the original post. It did not appear to be written in any sense as an attempted corrective, or as move toward opening further dialogue, but rather as a disturbingly gleeful undercutting of what I understand to be a genuine attempt to think and act differently in academia. Even if GCAS is misguided (and I think it is truly yet to be seen whether or not it is), I don’t see any value in what amounts to a mean-spirited smear campaign. It does not appear to be directed toward positively building anything.

              To move back from my specific example to the broader question of the left (which, to answer your question, I am trying to simply use in its broadest connotation as those who seek to challenge the hegemony of capitalistic ideologies), I am simply contending that there is a definite tendency in the left to seek to undercut one another, a sort of rhetorical violence often marked by attempts to out-radical other people, that I think is really poisonous to the entire community. Critique and healthy dialogue is absolutely essential. But it often seems to descend (if I might borrow Kotsko’s words) into a “circular firing squad.”

              I don’t know if this has been your experience, but it has been my experience that this agressive posture pervades the entire spectrum of left socio-political thought, from the black-block anarchists to the tankie Stalinists, and everything in between. Has this not been your experience?

              • First, I can’t really follow the move you make between your issues with Adam’s criticisms to a general problem on the left with vehement criticism. You’re asking me to accept that GCAS is “on the left” without any sense of what that means to you. I have no interest in building something with them. Nor do I think Adam is trying to out-radical anyone (thought the institution he is a part of is, frankly, far more radical than GCAS’s model of lecture series based around personality cults). Do you call out GCASers when they denigrate actual universities or make presumptions about people’s motives working in those universities while simultaneously living parasitically off that structure?

                As for the experience of the left. Yes, people are very critical. When it comes to actual organizing those theoretical differences play a part, but people often put them aside to work together for common goals. It’s an antagonism that animates and drives what’s left of the left. I think you may be indulging in a bit of a fantasy though thinking that any of this has to do with those systematic issues though. I mean, why this post? What investment do you have in GCAS and AUFS such that you weren’t moved to write about some actual organization (you should be under no illusions regarding how we see ourselves — it’s a blog)? I’m not convinced you’re really talking about anything other than the same empty revolution words of Creston (who I’ve had a very different experience of…).

                I am not going to take this any further with you though. You are conflating issues and moving about a bit wildly, but working in a rather uncritical manner as regards GCAS. Enjoy your Google hangout (and, yes, I am 100% positive that Zizek and Badiou will not be reading papers).

                • I’m not sure what constitutes the great logical leap between arguing that there is a broadly problematic tendency, and then providing an example of that tendency. Certainly, you might disagree, arguing that I am exagerating about that tendency, or that my example does not hold, but I can’t really see where the “wild jumps” in logic are…

                  Also, I have nothing against Shimer. I like great books programs and small classes, it seems like a really neat program. But, there are definite limits to the scope of a program that both admits a small number (200) of students and costs upwards of 30 grand. Again, this is not to speak ill of Shimer, as I’ve said above, one can’t be all things to all people.

                  Regarding the question of definition, I above provided a relatively simple definition of what I meant by “the left” (I could certainly be more specific, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to do so in a blog comments section). I might ask how you understand the left, such that an organization such as GCAS which appears to identify itself with those movements broadly called the left, and which seems to support and disseminate the works of thinkers in that community can be excluded from it? That practice seems narrow and exclusionary.

                  Regarding action, I am glad to see that you have had good experiences in left work. But I suspect that that is not the norm for a great many people, including myself. The community is often described by its participants as fractured, and this is, for me, disheartening. The notion that theoretical differences could empower the movement, but be put aside to work towards “common goals” is certainly an aspiration that I can share, but the idea that the left in its currect form is informed by this practice appears to me to be (if I might borrow a word that you have tossed in my direction a number of times) a fantasy.

                  As for the GCAS and AUFS, I have no particular ties to either. Again, I merely see them to be endemic of a broader problem, an example for illustrating what I see to be an issue worth considering.

                  I am not sure what is uncritical about adopting a “wait and see” posture toward GCAS, which also acknowledges existing faults. My only assertions regarding GCAS have been that it is an interesting project, and one that I could anticipate becoming a useful tool to many for whom, for a variety of reasons, traditional academia is a bad fit. Whether this hope will play out, I am unsure. But I merely argue that attempts to preemptively undercut it are unhelpful.

                  Lastly, I am not sure why AUFS’s status as a blog is particularly relevant to this conversation.This is also a blog.

                  Godspeed.

                  -Justin

  6. I’ll be interested to see how you find things once you actually take one of the courses (if you do).

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