Tuesday, May 17, 2005


In preparation for beginning the very last term paper I will ever write to complete a course, ever, I thought a little random musing was in order. And where better to randomly muse. Yes, better not put it in the actual paper...so let me get it out of my system here.

The topic for this very last paper, let me emphasize again, ever, is prophetic speech as a strategy for effecting political change. Maybe that sounds odd, but don't blame me. I'm just trying to tell you in a phrase what the deal is. This paper is for the seminar I took over at the university on "contemporary pragmatism," and we read people like Robert Brandom and Henry Levinson and Cheryl Misak and Mark Johnston and Richard Rorty. Most of these people I hadn't even heard of before taking this course. And I don't even know if that's admitting gross ignorance or if that's the case with everyone. Anyway, who cares. So: the topic for the week I did my seminar presentation bit on was "feminism and pragmatism." For that week we read some Rorty and his proposal was basically that pragmatism is useful to feminists politically because it makes room for prophetic speech. Prophetic speech for Rorty is basically a radical vocabulary shift, a shift that makes room for new concepts by providing new possibilities of expression. This is different from someone making a rational case for something, because making a compelling rational argument depends on convincing someone of your position in the vocabulary they already accept. Rorty argues that feminism won't win on this strategy, because what feminists want to advocate for can't be expressed in the ruling (patriarchal) vocabulary; this is what necessitates "prophetic speech."

Now that's not so hard to grasp, I think, especially since language is one of those issues focused on and critiqued by feminists, anyway.

The insight Rorty has that I really like is this one, though. He goes on to say, instead of appealing to some sense of "Reality" to make your case for the full humanity of women (or anything else), which is bound to fail 'cause ain't no such thing, appeal to the alternate practices of an imagined community. This is what makes prophetic speech really prophetic, the appeal to an imagined community where life is different from what we observe here & now.

This is so fascinating to me, because Rorty isn't talking about religion here at all. He's just talking politics. And offering a paradigm of political change that sounds like it's straight out of the Old Testament or something. So, anyway, that's all well and good. The problem is, Rorty's "imagined community of alternate practices" is a placeholder vision; it has no content; it is filled in by whomever is producing the prophetic speech. The prophet, then, becomes a Romantic figure whose personal charisma supplies content to the vision and gathers up followers. (Nancy Fraser critiques Rorty for this strain of Romanticism in his thought on this point. I am a student and therefore feel compelled to give credit. Just be happy it's not in a footnote.) This is why Rorty's proposal is "as useful for fascists as it is for feminists"--an admission he makes in a footnote. Guess he thought it would be less disturbing in 10 pt. font.

So, here's what I want to say. I want to say that 1) I think the basic insight that we'll get further by appealing to imagined future practices than to Reality is pretty sound; 2) Rorty attracts harsh and deserved criticism because he offers only a placeholder without content, which can be filled in by anyone with enough zeal and charisma, & therefore this paradigm doesn't work in a setting where the content of the prophetic vision is not communally agreed upon; 3) this paradigm works great in a religious setting where there is content supplied to the vision, available to the community and re-articulated by the prophet figure. That's basically it. This last move then brings in the role of tradition, the situating of the prophet as part of the community rather than a lone figure outside of it (Rorty's Romantic characterization), and makes prophetic speech both rational and irrational, because it initiates discourse continuous with the shared vision (tradition) but discontinuous with current practices/beliefs.

Now, this isn't brilliant and I don't think it's new. But I've got three days to write a paper and this is what I've got. Well, I have more than three days because this Friday is the deadline I've set myself, but it's already 10 days late and I am SO tired of this semester's work dragging on and on and on and on. I finally finished all that stupid grading today and I feel terrible about it. I feel terrible about everything, lately. Today I tried to make myself breakfast and dropped an egg on the floor. Smash. Goo. Expensive free-range organic goo. It's like the feeling of failure is contagious and leaves no area of life untouched. Can't grade papers? Can't write your own? Can't organize your bibliographies for comps? Can't cook? Can't clean? Can't drop the 5 stress pounds you gained over this horrible semester? Can't shake the tree-pollen allergies you've all of a sudden succumbed to? Just wait! Pretty soon you'll have halitosis, high-school grade acne, and your hair'll start falling out...maybe get those icky toenails, too...

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