Feb 102003

Mark Goldblatt attends an MLA conference and gives Professor Turtleneck the what-for:

As the session was winding down, I decided to ask a question. This is something I habitually do after such discussions; it’s sadistic act, the academic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and it speaks badly of my character. I directed my question to Professor Turtleneck though it could as well have been addressed to virtually anyone in the room. Recalling his notion of a “state of semi-erudition” that characterized those who support President Bush’s war on terrorism, I pointed out that many of Bush’s supporters would characterize the antiwar movement in much the same way. “As an epistemological matter,” I asked, “how do you deal with the fact that each side sees the other as uninformed? You don’t want to make the claim that your knowledge is somehow privileged, do you?”

There was an awkward, slightly panicky pause after I asked this.

Professor Turtleneck began his response by saying he’d cut a lot out of the paper he’d read and then segued into an utterly irrelevant tap dance about Adorno’s own epistemological presuppositions. He was interrupted after a minute by a man sitting behind me, who called out, “You’re not answering the question! You can’t deny that you’re making a claim to knowledge here!”

“I’m not denying that,” Professor Turtleneck insisted. “I’m only saying that Adorno would say . . .”

If Turtleneck’s intellectual father, so to speak, is Adorno, then his grandfather is Marx, who theorized that everyone’s thought is determined by his class, and thus his opponents were merely bourgeois apologists. Only Marx himself, and possibly Engels, are exempt from this iron law.

His great-grandfather is Kant, inventor of the noumenal (“real”) world, as distinct from the phenomenal world, which we actually perceive. Nothing can be known about the noumenal world except that it exists, and even that much only if you’re Kant.

His great-great-grandfather is Plato, who held that an ideal version of everything exists in some region too bright for human eyes to gaze upon directly — unless they’re Plato’s.

Archimedes said that, with a lever and a place to stand, he could move the world. Like all of his illustrious predecessors, all Professor Turtleneck lacks is a place to stand.

We may conclude, incidentally, that regression to the mean is as much a rule in intellectual families as in actual ones.

(Thanks to the Blowhards for the link.)

(Update: Cinderella and Jim Ryan comment.)

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