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Mumbo-jumbo's survival instinct

About the author
Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh and professor of English at the University of Exeter, England.

The paperback publication of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world allows the possibility of reflecting on one of the most amusing and informative of recent books. Wheen is that very unusual thing, a journalist who is also a real scholar, and a writer who is not afraid to think. His biography of Karl Marx combined wide-reaching scholarship with faultless prose to provide an enduring portrait of the author of Das Kapital. Mumbo-Jumbo, which aspires to analyse the intellectual Zeitgeist of the last generation – from self-help to modern management, from post-structuralism to the weightless economy – gives him a large canvas on which to execute some savage portraits.

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The very best part of the book is an account of the speculative bubble of the late 1990s where the positive thinking of the self-help books, the meretricious inanities of modern management and the wishful thinking of those trying to get rich quick came together in an orgy of stupidity which Wheen savours expertly.

His tracing of the rise and fall of Enron is a masterpiece which includes as one of its subplots the way in which that company purchased the favours of Britain’s ruling Labour party for the trifling sum of £27,500. Indeed, one of the major miracles of this book is to make Tony Blair and “New Labour” look even more stupid and venal than one thought possible. I confess I was simply unaware that Blair had defended the teaching of “creationism” on the grounds that “in the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children”.

But if Wheen is right to throw up his hand in despair at the unthinking relativism which is now the orthodoxy at every level of education from primary school to university, it is not clear that his analysis is as acute as his description. Wheen starts his book with the coming to power of two apostles of unreason: Margaret Thatcher and the Ayatollah Khomeini, but it is very difficult indeed to align Thatcher’s monetarism and Khomeini’s brand of fundamentalist Islam in the assault on notions of objective truth. Both the mad mullah and the mad housewife had no truck with relativism of any kind.

More important, their ideologies only really make sense within much more specific histories than Wheen’s thesis allows. The appeal of Khomeini’s Islam is impossible to understand outside the context of a middle east in which all leftist alternatives to the status quo, be they social democratic or communist, had been eliminated by the United States or its proxies. The appeal of Thatcher’s monetarism only makes sense as part of a deliberate and very conscious strategy to undo the post-1945 consensual social settlement in Britain and to shift the class struggle onto terrain much more favourable to capital.

Indeed, if one really wants to talk about the problems of the Enlightenment project – which is how Wheen frames his discussion – does the “sleep of reason” not start far earlier than 1979, with the carnage of the first world war or the hideously irrational crime of the Judeocide?

Time and time again, Wheen describes the crazy and ridiculous world that we inhabit with an accuracy of report that is not matched by the level of his diagnoses or cures. Self-help books, which sell more copies than any other genre throughout the world, provide endless opportunities for the Wheen treatment of meaningless quotation juxtaposed with meaningful insights into the financial world of their authors. Wheen’s attitude seems to be that when you’ve extracted a suitably loopy and meaningless quotation and exposed the venality of the authors, there is little more that is left to be said.

Philosophers and charlatans

The real problem however is why people read such obvious rubbish by such obvious phonies, and here Wheen’s attitude seems to be that a good intellectual cold bath plus a certain amount of running around on the rugby field of rational controversy will deliver a rational universe. Self-help books, however, have a long history in conduct manuals, and the desire to find written authority for how we lead our lives seems to have long outlived a fixed system of religious belief. It is here that Wheen’s thesis seems at its most problematic. In the Manichean world of this book, rationality and good sense ruled the world until, in 1979, irrationality broke out all over. But self-help manuals – as indeed all other manner of irrational beliefs have being going for centuries. If you take society as a whole, the Enlightenment never enjoyed the kind of unquestioned supremacy that Wheen asserts.

Wheen might reply that what has changed is that humanities and social science departments in the universities now spout a lunatic relativism that marks a departure from previous decades and which licenses all this unofficial knowledge in an unprecedented way. Wheen’s argument has some merit in that an unthought and unexamined relativism is the philosophy of choice of huge numbers of university teachers in a manner that is indeed genuinely new. But opposing this with a brisk, common-sense empiricism, however funny, is not intellectually very convincing.

Wheen seems to assume, for example, that there is a simple distinction between science and ideology and that it is possible to produce a general account of the accuracy of our systems of representation. It is perfectly true and well worth repeating to any average post-structuralist that we find it very easy to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific explanation in any specific instance just as we have very well worked out practices to establish accurate and inaccurate representations.

However, all the efforts of Althusserian Marxists and logical positivists have absolutely failed to find a general account of how to distinguish scientific discourse from non-scientific discourse. And almost every serious philosopher from WVO Quine and late Ludwig Wittgenstein to Michael Dummett and Jacques Derrida has stressed the absolute impossibility of finding a general justification of our systems of representation outside the specific practices in which they are articulated. If the thought that “every signified is always already in place elsewhere as signifier” is a bit rich for your blood then you can try the calmer tones of Quine’s Two Dogmas of Empiricism. What you can’t do is adopt a position of Humean empiricism, which affects to pretend that neither Immanuel Kant nor Wittgenstein ever existed.

Liberals and cannibals

How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world is a delight. You will laugh, you will cry. But the problems it identifies are so deep-rooted and recalcitrant that it is doubtful it will have much effect. For that, you would need a simple plan for global economic equity and an account of how to deal with the contingency of life and the inevitability of death which was as satisfying as monotheistic religion.

All this is not to deny that Wheen has identified a real problem – the unbelievably ignorant teaching of philosophy in university departments, from literary criticism and art history to sociology and anthropology, is one of the contemporary follies of the world. Once again, however, the question of why this is the case is much more complicated and difficult than the “pull up your socks, Baudrillard minor” tone of Wheen’s book would suggest.

If we seriously ask why someone who wrote such hilariously obvious rubbish as Jean Baudrillard could ever have been taken seriously within the academic world, I think we would be drawn into questions about the death of politics and the way in which the contemporary organisation of knowledge, particularly through think-tanks, has left university academics in a position of such marginal despair that they will whore after almost any strange god.

In this context, Wheen’s book poses a serious question to those in universities who have allowed arguments against the universalism of the Enlightenment to blind them to the most obvious of truths. Wheen starts his chapter on what he calls “the demolition merchants of reality” by recalling the “MacCabe affair” at Cambridge University in 1981, when the question of whether to award me tenure as a lecturer became the focus of arguments over the way "English literature” was defined and taught. Although he is scrupulously fair in not attributing to me views that I never espoused, Wheen does suggest that if I was symptomatic of, if not responsible for, the beginning of the end. The entire story of how the explosion of theory from the Parisian 1960s ran aground in the failures of the European left of the 1970s and then migrated to America where it became the solace of much more serious political failures in the 1980s and beyond has yet to be told; and it may well be that we need considerable historical distance before it can be told.

It is difficult for anybody outside the research environments of the universities to recognise how desperate the situation is. (My own road to Damascus came over a decade ago when an entire fifteen-strong graduate class in cultural studies subscribed to the opinion that they would not outlaw clitoridectomy in other societies on the grounds that this would be the imposition of western norms.)

If claims to universalism must always be examined with the utmost rigour, it remains true that they are both important and politically necessary. Yet those who make them must, like Paul Gilroy, be more than aware of how these very universal claims have been used historically for the imposition of the most local of prejudices.

Here Wheen’s very title is against him. “Mumbo-jumbo” as a catchall phrase for African superstition derives from Francis Moore’s (1738) and Mungo Park’s (1799) African expeditions. To this day no phrase closely corresponding to it has been found in the languages of West Africa where Moore and Park report it. Like much evidence of primitive irrationality, it is in fact evidence of the projection of civilised ignorance. Wheen argues eloquently for the defence of rationality but any contemporary defence must be well aware of how such defences have been historically misused. The current dominance of a pernicious relativism is in large part a reaction to earlier flawed arguments for universalism; it is crucial to remember this history as we argue for a planetary humanism.

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