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New Left Review I/202, November-December 1993


Michael Billig

Nationalism and Richard Rorty: The Text as a Flag for Pax Americana

Richard Rorty is in danger of attaining the sort of eminence which today is normally reserved for French philosophes. [1] The author would like to thank members of the Loughborough Discourse and Rhetoric Group for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.He is one of the few English-language thinkers whom defenders of postmodernism feel able to cite along-side the continental icons of Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. He has been described, for example, as ‘one of the major US philosophers of the post-modern movement’. [2] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford 1988, p. 52. As such, Rorty can be treated as a representative of wider cultural, ideological trends. [3] See, for instance, Christopher Norris’s claim that ‘Rorty is undoubtedly swimming with the cultural tide despite his fondness—shared with fellow pragmatists like Stanley Fish—for making the same point over and again, as if against a massive and well-nigh unbudgeable weight of deceived opinion’; The Truth About Postmodernism, Oxford 1993, p. 285. Rorty, by contrast, says of his own position that ‘most people find these views repellent’; ‘Wild Orchids and Trotsky’ in Mark Edmundson (ed.), Wild Orchids and Trotsky, New York 1993, p. 43. Roy Bhaskar takes this line in his recent Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom. ‘Why Rorty?’, he asks, having devoted the bulk of his book to criticizing the American philosopher. Bhaskar answers his own question by claiming that Rorty’s philosophy, with its anti-realism and celebration of irony, provides an ideology for intellectual yuppies. [4] Roy Bhaskar, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom, Oxford 1992: ‘I suggest that Rorty provides an ideology for a leisured elite—intellectual yuppies—neither racked by pain nor immersed in toil’, p. 134. See also Terry Eagleton’s comment that in Rorty’s ideal society, ‘the intellectuals will be “ironists”, practising a suitably cavalier, laid-back attitude to their beliefs, while the masses . . . will continue to salute the flag and take life seriously’; Ideology, London 1991, p. 11. There is nothing new in seeing the tones of conformity in Rorty’s professed postmodern liberalism. Nancy Fraser has accused Rorty of failing to acknowledge patriarchal assumptions. A few years ago, Richard Bernstein saw Rorty as a Cold War theorist. [5] Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices, Cambridge 1989; see also Sabina Lovibond, ‘Pragmatism and Feminism’, nlr 192, May-June 1992. Richard Bernstein, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward: Richard Rorty on liberal democracy and philosophy’, Political Theory, 1987, 15, pp. 538–563. Also Jo Burrows, ‘Conversational Politics: Rorty’s pragmatist apology for liberalism’, in Alan Malachowski (ed.), Reading Rorty, Oxford 1990. Indeed, Rorty himself writes that ‘the left’s favourite word for me is “complacent”, just as the right’s is “irresponsible” ’. [6] Rorty, ‘Wild Orchids and Trotsky’, p. 32.

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