Sunday, June 17, 2007

Diablerie: Paying Tribute to Richard Rorty

On Friday, June 8th, I read Stanley Cavell on Emerson and saw that America was the heart and soul of Emerson. On Saturday I read Harold Bloom on Emerson and saw that Emerson was the voice and mind of America. On Sunday, the seventh day, I rested. On Monday I summoned the most strength I had yet achieved and moved on Rorty’s appropriation of Romanticism, shattering it in a display of declared superiority by changing the name to post-Emersonian (admittedly not an earth shattering shift in philosophical policy, and sadly a mimic of Rorty’s shift from post-modernism to post-Nietzschean, and for the exact same reasons).

On Tuesday I learned that on Friday Richard Rorty had passed away due to complications with pancreatic cancer.

I’m not sure what one is supposed to feel about the death of someone you’ve never met. Certainly there is the general felt loss of life, any life, the empathy for his family and friends. But I received e-mails from friends and acquaintances, many assuming they were telling me something I already knew, a few offering condolences. I didn’t know and I didn’t know how to feel.

How does one feel when one loses a writer?

We have the writer’s books, we continue to have what we had before, the only links we readers have to our writers. What do we lose, what did I lose?

Most of the obituaries are classically wrong about Rorty in the way that outsiders aren’t quite sure how to handle the fire that incenses the insiders. But they performed their duties, their function, admirably well, proliferating snapshots of his life and work. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity were his grand works, but his voice remained in the essay, a balance between cunning completion and impatience. Throughout his life Rorty struggled with two daemons, the desire to argue and the desire to be interesting. These arose, like it does in most, in the dynamic between professional and amateur. With his professional face he gained considerable street cred with tightly argued articles on philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, though he spent a large amount of time on metaphilosophy, an often neglected angle of presentation in analytic philosophy. His metaphilosophical reflections are where the trouble started, at least from the professional, analytic establishment’s point of view. Metaphilosophy, or talking about how we talk about philosophy, is troublesome because there are hardly any rules for how we should talk about how we should talk.

These reflections are where Rorty’s second muse began bucking for attention. Raising its head in witty cappers on solid arguments, they captivated in their audacity. They worked against professional decorum, the professional attitude of saying no more than what is dialectically allowed. But the amateur attitude is that boredom is a bigger enemy and that the conversation needs to move forward. Rorty balanced in his writing his pure professional face and his professional amateur face, the classic philosophical gadfly. Not an amateur professional as G. E. Moore is sometimes said to have been, charming but not really knowing what everyone else is talking about, but a professional amateur, a line that begins with Socrates, continues to Montaigne and Emerson and on to Bloom and Cavell, and Rorty could not control, though he could restrain, his muse because his muse was the only sense he had that he was going in the right direction.

But how should we feel when we lose a writer? Most of Rorty’s writings had long become transparent to me, disappearing on the page as they’d already become a part of me. In a certain (though pregnant) sense, I know Rorty’s mind better than my own. A few lines here and there, and the best of his essays, are still opaque, still breathing, robust and unflagging in their hidden energy, the hidden source of their power, like few philosophers have had the courage to summon and sustain. For better or for worse, Rorty was a hedgehog, and if he remains a bit foxy to me, the attraction is no doubt incumbent upon the vitality of that one big idea, not exactly his, but endlessly resuscitated, repeated, and reformulated. It is a bit unclear what that big idea is, but I suspect that is mainly because it is unfinished and I suspect it sometimes goes by the name of “America.”

One of Rorty’s most often attacked lines aims directly at this idea: “truth is whatever your peers let you get away with”. The line is quoted so often because it seems on its face so frivolous and cynical, representative of everything that is wrong with Rorty and quoted lovingly by every detractor, just as it is, a gift from Rorty showing his true colors, mocking everything holy. Every time I see detractors jump all over the line, I think, “No, no, he’s not saying something horrible. He’s adding a little speed to the notion that peers aren’t going to let you get away with just anything. It needs to be good!” The line has everything in common with more tempered ones like “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones—no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers,” “All that can be done to explicate ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, ‘morality’, ‘virtue’ is to refer us back to the concrete details of the culture in which these terms grew up and developed,” and “…‘method’ and ‘rationality’ are names for a suitable balance between respect for the opinions of one’s fellows and respect for the stubbornness of sensation.” Glossing the line with the others, it’s hard to see what’s so wrong with it. It is neither frivolous nor cynical, though on the other hand it is a tad mocking of the holy, at least that which most analytic philosophers still consider holy.

I will miss Rorty’s jocular teasing, his poking and prodding at the midriffs of philosophers, and I will miss, when they became testy and angry and cried out that they think this is serious, how he would calmly, and with a sad smile, shake his head and reply, “I know, I know my child. But so am I.” I will miss Rorty’s wit and verve, but there is nothing left from him that I wish to know, and that is only because, as he well knew, what we know isn’t what is exciting, isn’t what is worth knowing. I look forward to the posthumous material, I hope he was able to finish his replies to his forthcoming volume in the Library of Living Philosophers, but what I look for, and what I’m saddened we will no longer have the opportunity to wait for, are what Pater called those hardened bits of gemlike flame, the things that give us sustenance, the ideas that we mine seemingly forever.

The most important lesson that Rorty taught me was that writing, and in particular philosophy, is vampirism. The old cliché must be amended in a Bloomian way: good writers borrow, great writers steal, but the genius makes us think that she is the authentic originator, having been so effective at stealing her predecessors’ life blood. I have no questions for Rorty, nothing I wish to know. I have no questions for anybody because they are only tools for me—I don’t care about getting you right, preserving the aura you’ve created, I only care about stealing your strength, creating something new and better. Emerson’s heirs don’t care to mummified, embalmed for future generations to stare glazed eyed at. They don’t want schools or disciples. They only wish for what they did to be returned to them—ritually sacrificed at the height of their powers, diabolized in a frenzy by the young so that they may live on in the young, not stuffed and propped up behind exhibit windows to be looked at by the young.

When a writer dies, when your writer dies, you weep for the person, you weep for their family and loved ones, but more than any of that, you weep for the power they might have unleashed upon the Earth, potentially changing it irrevocably, a power you could have usurped for your own.

The young vamps are gathering now and the fight begins in earnest.