Two Academic Ways of Conceiving an Unfair Argument: The Division of Intellectual Labour Between the Good and the True

By Lukas Meisner

In academia (and beyond), there are two standard ways of conceiving an unfair argument. Either by presenting oneself as the sole representative of the true, this is as a modern expertocrat; or by staging oneself as the harbinger of the good, this is as a postmodern inquisitor. The modern expertocrat denies the intelligibility of that Other who contradicts ratified expertise. Since understanding depends on hermeneutic proximity, the more radical one's Otherness is as deviance from basic assumptions, the more radically unintelligible one becomes. As a result, when an analysis is in the minority – for example because it is too critical of the supposedly evident matters of course –, it easily becomes unintelligible: not only “false” but even “incomprehensible”. To cut a long story short, the postmodern inquisition denunciates its Other as ethically indefensible, personally astray, or at least as politically dubious. These two ways of conceiving an unfair argument belong to the two most traveled discursive paths in the academic world. Let us go through them together.

Both the modern expertocrat and the postmodern inquisitor are academic authoritarians. The former (as the sole representative of the true) presents you with an authoritative argument that is epistemically undeniable; the latter (as the harbinger of the good) is blessed with an authoritative argument that is morally out of question(-ing). Hence, the former is a scientistic, the latter is a politicist censor. The former argues as if no humans existed, the latter argues ad hominem. The former is rising from the dwelling down to earth as the inductive messenger of the thing in itself, the latter is descending from the heights of the messiah saving the underprivileged, discriminated, and marginalised of the world. The former poses as the “moderate” positivist; the latter masquerades as the “radical” postmodernist. Neither is the positivist moderate, nor is the postmodernist radical, but never mind: ideology is a dialectical program.

To be fair, the “moderate” positivist's position at least is coherent – which (to be even fairer) is not too hard for a position completely in line with the mainstream's soft coercion called “common sense”. On the other hand, the “radical” postmodernist's position even prides itself to be incoherent – almost as if incoherence were a political agenda. And still. The latter's position is as logical as the former's. It is logical since logic itself, including coherence, becomes – in the executive of the postmodern “radical” – just another rationalist, read: enlightenment, read: eurocentric, read: white male heterosexual, read: racist-chauvinist-patriarchic bias. (And full stop. Nothing more. Nothing less.)

Let us focus on this illogicity just for a moment. It hegemonialises itself since decades as the only (moral) intelligibility among intellectuals. Despite illogicity being its emblem, it is astonishing that its crusade for the sake of Otherness is one against its very own Other. This Other is negated already ontologically in its qualitative Otherness, for what kind of Otherness remains if one (in postmodern style) claims subjectivity, autonomy, intentionality, and responsibility to be nothing but “metaphysical” prejudices stemming – exactly: from Western (white, male, blabla) ways of thinking? At least, there remains no qualitative Otherness. Rather, difference is only allowed if it follows from blind societal differentiation (from capital's quantified division of labour); not from making a difference in a conscious manner (since consciousness is part of devilish rationalism). Yet, the illogicity goes further. In similar fashion, the postmodern messiah is able to ring the bell of the end of history just to declare to be in the most advanced position whose cutting-edge-standpoint has overcome the rest of history's mistaken belief in – linearity. Wow! If one wonders how this can be possible, the postmodern vanguard clarifies to finally be standing at the very front of an overlooked historical development in order to judge the sinners of yesterday that still believed in – historical progress (including emancipation, utopia, or a better world). Wow... In this way, beyond (or above) good and evil as well as true and false, illuminated by the transhistorical insight into right and wrong, the postmodern inquisitor/ messiah/ vanguard teaches “delearning” – namely that enlightenment, the will to knowledge, and Christianity are all one (“Western”), which means: they are ignorant, false, and evil. If this all sounds a bit too self-contradictory, be reminded: the law of excluded middle is part of the conspiracy of – “Western” – rationalism. Illogicity is hegemonialised as moral intelligibility.

But don't get me wrong. None of this is just one of the structural cases of conceiving unfair (and blatantly illogical) arguments within universities. Rather, it is a strategy of transforming leftist academia into its own self-parody peaking, since quite some time, in two most extreme, no longer just grotesque but dangerous cases. Firstly, there is the German inquisition of the “antideutsche”, and secondly there are the (more globally relevant) cyborgian martyrs of humanity – the transhumanists. In the case of (some of) the antideutsche, the important concern against antisemitism ends up as a defense first of anti-Palestinian politics, then of US foreign policy ("imperialism"), and finally – why not? – of one of capitalism's favourites: the food speculation on stock markets (since “finance” is seen to be “Jewish” – an utterly antisemitic argument). Unfortunately, this is no joke. In the case of (some of) the transhumanists, a concern against a reduction of individuals to “females” or of women to nature or of ethics to humans and of humans to specific (ethnic, gendered, “abled”) identities results in the abolition of the ethical worth and responsibility as well as rationality of humans tout court. This switch effectively embraces reification and capitalist “rationalisation”, yet in a very moralising manner. And again, it is not meant as a joke. Indeed, it is questionable whether these postmodern – self-inverting – extremes can still be located on the left side of the political spectrum. For sure, that they respectively unite less as a church than as a sect makes their inquisitorial eagerness not less dangerous for the left but more.

For both postmodern extremes, but also for postmodernism at large, my proposal would be to reunite their moralising stance with one interested if not in truth then perhaps at least in some moral coherence (which may not bring more sociological or historical understanding of the world, but at least less illogicity). In turn, it would do the modern expertocrat some good to learn that, albeit knowledge often becomes power, not all power must be represented as knowledge. Here, some moral concern, at least to regulate one's limitless ethico-political indifference – universalised as so-called “liberal democracies” – may be a relief, at least for all those that are less assured to own the truth.

Yet, this proposal is naive. Since in our hypercynical world of completed nihilism, the true and the good are equally assumed to be mere fantasies or rhetorical figures on the chess field of political power games, authoritarianism is perfected by the concerted action of the modern expertocrat and the postmodern inquisitor. For at the end of the day, both have sacrifised any more radical understanding either of the true or of the good. Within this world, even Kant's solution to unite the scientistic and the moralising authority in an aestheticist third way seems to be hopeless. The reconciliation of the true and the good within the beautiful of the aesthetic profession is not very likely to occur – already because today's artistic world either replicates the state of affairs as it is (as documentary without journalistic standards), or moralises against its own financiers (in a sublime form of hypocrisy). But anyway. We should keep in mind that the three are already united in the intellectual betrayal of false reconciliation. Namely, they are united as positivist humanities; as quantified social sciences; as transhumanist natural sciences – added up with a world of art lacking imagination. Meanwhile, who is still raising objections against false reconciliations? Are we not too used to them? The unfairness of an argumentum ab auctoritate is fair enough in an utterly unfair world. Hence, culture as a whole equips what-is with the unbroken halo of the true, the good and the beautiful. Culture cultivates us in its own image – as befits it. Its image, however, is a reflection. Its division of labour is conducted under the one roof of capital, normalised by the norm of the oikos (home), which is the economy (oikos-nomos) – or capitalism. The most unfair argument, despite it all, remains the striking (to death) reality surrounding us all. It is touchable, undeniable, inescapable. And as such it is the mute, yet all-intrusive argument from the supreme authority of things-as-they-are. In this ontology of unfairness, being becomes what it is not: good, true, beautiful.