The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: October, 2016

Against Method: Why Feyerabend insists that we read Carlyle, with asides on the US Election and the Current Politico-Ideological Climate

One of my favourite books of those I have read as an academic is Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (first published 1975; I will refer to the Verso 2010 publication edited with an introduction by Ian Hacking and based on Feyerabend’s final edition of 1993 [he died in 1994]). Its influence on me has so far not been very advantageous in career terms: a criticism I have come up against several times is that my methodologies do not tend to be very sophisticated by academic standards. It is by invoking Feyerabend, among other things, that I try to defend this: I’m not looking for theoretical sophistication. I don’t accept that thought in the humanities is well served by an insistence on theoretical sophistication. Rather than directly defend this position at this point, I will recap a few key arguments from Feyerabend’s book, which will give some indication of the arguments I try to use.

Feyerabend came from a scientific background, and he was interested in progress in science. His central contention was that this progress came about not through following tightly structured research according to well-developed methodologies, but through retaining an openness to experimentation and a general looseness of approach. Feyerabend was very historicist about this point: he less wanted to prove theoretically that it was so than to show that this was how scientists from Einstein to Galileo worked. Thus, he quotes Einstein in the opening pages, on the idea that the scientist should appear as a kind of “ruthless opportunist” (2), when it comes to epistemological method, picking up data and ideas wherever he can find them, rather than confining himself to what such data/ideas as were considered scientifically proven according to the dominant paradigm.

Feyerabend describes his epistemology in the opening lines as “anarchism”, being careful also to differentiate his position from political anarchism. Nevertheless, this designation and that implied by the famous “anything goes” statement on page 12 has led to Feyerabend being rather misunderstood. One might well think he disavows all standards of truth, and is a pure postmodernist-relativist. However, Feyerabend should be absolutely distinguished from relativism. He does not think all methods are, in the final analysis, of equal validity, but he does think the final analysis never comes. The point for Feyerabend, rather, is not to prejudge. We cannot take account of all the evidence if we stick to a single methodology, so we have to keep open at all times to other approaches, even ones that have been dismissed by authorities. Handily, the edition I consult has a “Postcript on Relativism” from Feyerabend that tackles this misconception about him. Here he clarifies that he allows for rival methodologies because “there cannot be any theory of knowledge (except as part of a special and fairly stable tradition); there can be at a most a (rather incomplete) history of the ways in which knowledge has changed in the past” (284; Feyerabend’s italics). If we can never have a full theory of knowledge – at least not until the post-apocalyptic final analysis – then we have to try and stay as open to epistemological pluralism as we can.

So what are the consequences for a researcher in the humanities of a Feyerabendian epistemology? One, I suggest, is that we become very much aware of the provisionality and historicity of our own ideologies and metanarratives. This sounds rather postmodern. In theory, perhaps it is, but in practice, it is not. Because postmodernism, though allegedly it rouses us from our certainties, in practice has given rise to a young intelligentsia who are as complacent about their own positions as any group can be. The political consequences of having an academic/press/internet intelligentsia who manage absolutely no sympathetic engagement with opposing positions has recently manifested in England in the Shy Tory phenomenon, wherein everybody in media and most people in media-run polls express a preference for liberal politics, but then vote Conservative on the day. By denying a platform to speak for persons of a right-wing persuasion, we don’t abolish the sentiment associated with such a persuasion – rather we strengthen it by melding it with a strong sense of disgruntlement among right-wingers, who begin to conceive of themselves as a silent majority, being essentially kept down by the media and the intelligentsia. This may be about to become a whole lot more live as an issue, if the Trump campaign in the US elections does perform better than expected on polling day. Then, finally, we might start seeing some meaningful movement from academics about speaking to those who are outside the loop.

So, I’m not talking about science here – and neither was Feyerabend, a committed humanist whose favorite point of reference in Against Method was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I’m talking about how we make sense of our own and each other’s lives. We shouldn’t do that by developing our own theory at the expense of all others, but by practicing standing outside that theory and applying an external standard of judgement. We need to engage with the Other. And here my contention is that we need – to truly step outside contemporary academic ideology – not to engage with and identify with any group we consider victimized. This would be in itself the ideological move par excellence. Let us recall Žižek here:

[T]he key feature of the ideological constellation that characterizes our epoch of the owrldwide triumph of liberal democracy: the universalization of the notion of victim. The ultimate proof that we are dealing here with ideology at its purest is provided by the fact that this notion of victim is experienced as extra-ideological par excellence: the customary image of the victim is that of an innocent-ignorant child or woman paying the price for politico-ideological power struggles. (Metastases of Enjoyment, 213)

To truly step outside contemporary ideology we must identify with our true Other: the exploiter, the non-victim, the self-perceived alpha male, the colonizer, the racist. We must seek to identify the grain of validity and empirical truth that must lie within any such position, even if we we are accustomed to demonize it. And we must use our knowledge of this position against ourselves, against our own smug certainties. It will not be a comfortable ride.

Here is where Carlyle comes in. He identifies with the racist and the colonizer, and he lauds the alpha male. He hates victims and the weak. He espouses all the positions from which we shrink, but which, had circumstances been otherwise, could have been our imbibed and internalized ideology. Engaging with Carlyle is precisely what we should be doing, rather than finessing a, say, Foucauldian theory of power, as though our object were not life in its indefinable and untheorizable wholeness, but the works of a selected canon of theorists who shape our ideology and whose work is expected to yield a coherent whole if only we continue theorizing it with all our intellectual might.

And, doubt it not, even in Carlyle we will find a redeemable core. We will find expressed some issues of continuing relevance. Maybe they are not expressed in a theoretically convincing way, maybe the methodology is paradigmatically outdated, but we should agree with Feyerabend that this is not all. We should still take on these theoretical failures and “make the weaker case the stronger” (14), because strengthening our own case, on our own terms, is worth little, except in a narrowly academic sense. Something about Carlyle worked for a 19th-century readership, and we should try and isolate and recover it; we could concentrate on his failures, but that doesn’t advance our understanding. It is by engaging with the truths of our opponents, of the Others, that we advance.



Dracula Untold (2014)

Sherlock Holmes, who I’ve written on in this blog numerous times, is not the most often depicted character in screen history. The most often depicted, by a long way, is Holmes’ near contemporary Count Dracula. Sherlock Holmes has 172 IMDb screen appearances; Dracula has 520!* Both are, essentially, products of the 1890s (Holmes first appeared in a 1887 novel, but his mass popularity began with the short stories published from 1891 onwards). It is interesting to seek common characteristics in these characters that make them so enduringly appealing. Well, they’re both tall, certainly; they’re both urbane and suave; they both wear capes; uh… that’s all I got.

The Dracula I have watched most recently is Dracula Untold, an origin story from 2014. The origin story, I am convinced, is the defining narrative of our time. The contemporary audience’s need for an origin story for all characters who display any oddity at all is really characteristic of this epoch. Such a story centres around a primal scene, a single happening that explains why the character is the way he/she is. This is the key difference between Arthur Conan Doyle’s conception of Sherlock Holmes and that found in Sherlock or Elementary, as I have written about before. It doesn’t occur to Doyle that he has to explain his character’s personality, whereas modern narrative needs an explanation for any eccentricity of character.

And this we get in this retelling of Dracula. But what, first, is the great difference between Dracula and Holmes? Dracula is evil, of course. The need for an origin story for an evil character is even more pressing. Bram Stoker didn’t provide an emotional background to Dracula’s  bloodlust and amorality, but that’s not how we do vampires in the 21st century. Twilight and True Blood amongst others have habituated us to empathize with vampires: sure, they’re murderous, but it’s not their fault. They are deeply sensitive and moral beings with an urge within them which they can’t control, and which is independent from the rest of their personalities. They have become the perfect subject for modern narrative, then, both psychotic and innocent. And, of course, vampires have always been sexy (well, except Nosferatu). As Darryl Jones writes in Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film: “vampirism has always been used as a vehicle for more-or-less encoded articulations of sexuality and desire (as a way of writing about sex without writing about sex)” (Hodder Arnold, 2002, p.85).


Max Schreck as the title character in Nosferatu (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Sex, psychopathy, and innocence: these are the core elements of the recent trend in vampire narratives. Stoker’s Dracula was an evil to be stamped out. In 2014’s Dracula Untold, we can guess this will not be the case.mv5bmtkznzi1oti4n15bml5banbnxkftztgwntq2nzewmje-_v1_uy1200_cr6406301200_al_

The title already hints at hidden depths in the character. Dracula is “more” than the traditional conception both in terms of his history and in terms of his psyche. The history of Dracula in this film is given as that of 15th-century Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler, Stoker’s supposed model for Dracula. Vlad was a famously brutal ruler with a penchant for the type of execution after which he was eventually named. So the film has not only to redeem Dracula, but Vlad as well. And it begins this from the opening moments. The opening montage shows young boys being whipped:

In the year of Our Lord 1442, the Turkish sultan enslaved 1000 Transylvanian boys to fill the ranks of his army. These child slaves were beaten without mercy…

Vlad was one of these boys, forced into soldiery and violence, and forever after trying to atone for these acts and to rule in peace. This opening scene of child abuse is Vlad’s primal scene, what makes him the person he is and explains the things he has done. The film is just interested enough in historical accuracy to acknowledge that Vlad was responsible for some atrocities, but he has a rationale: “Men do not fear swords; they fear monsters. They run from them. By putting one village to the sword I spared ten more.” Thus Vlad’s massacres were utilitarian, securing the greatest happiness of the greatest number: killing some to save more.

Vlad’s historical record thus complicates slightly the conversion of Dracula into a tragic hero, but not unduly. To watch this Dracula in conjunction with older versions is a study in modern ontologies of the self. From outside threat, the vampire figure has come to represent something in our selves, something that we are encouraged to find in ourselves by modern culture. We are dark, disturbed, damaged, and even evil, according to theses depictions; but we have to embrace this, and find reasons for it, in our past and our relations with others. Thus the vision of humanity here is Christiano-Freudian: the original sin of Christianity has returned in the sense that we are all consumed by dark urges; but these, though inevitable, are not innate, but result from something in our past, some dark childhood happening for which we can take no responsibility, rendering us, like vampires, guilty but still innocent.


*And the number of screen Draculas is increasing at a ridiculous rate: over 80 since 2104! There have been 15 Holmeses in the same period.

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