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  • Awful Patriotism: Richard Rorty and the Politics of Knowing
  • David Palumbo-Liu* (bio)
Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

This essay addresses the current debates surrounding what some have labeled the Two Lefts: a “cultural left” and an activist left. 1 Debate over this “divide” has made many strange bedfellows, but perhaps none quite so unheimlich as “liberal leftist” Richard Rorty and cultural conservative Harold Bloom. To be sure, Rorty has often alluded to Bloom’s work, especially Bloom’s notion of “strong poets,” but in his most recent book, Rorty has appropriated Bloom in a particularly telling manner. In 1994, Harold Bloom published his polemic The Western Canon. At once eloquent and pathetic, it pressed all the right buttons. Bloom succinctly (or shall we say, reductively?) deployed his version of the “aesthetic” against any other approach. Cultural conservatives were gratified that someone of Bloom’s stature had done them the service of voicing their interests in a highly visible and contestatory manner; more moderate sorts squirmed uncomfortably at Bloom’s unabashed elitism and the shrillness of his tone; theorists and cultural studies folks were outraged at Bloom’s absolute ignorance of their work and his resort to parody instead of anything vaguely resembling an engaged critique; and ethnic, minority, queer, and feminist critics had more than enough to be insulted by in his racist and sexist arrogance. So far out is Bloom’s jeremiad that it probably came close to realizing his worst nightmare—it may have driven students screaming into all those horrid cultural studies classes to find out what was so seductive, so powerful as to corner The Canon. So I didn’t worry too much about The Western Canon. That is, until I read Richard Rorty’s essay “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature” and its companion pieces in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. What was Rorty, a self-proclaimed leftist, doing, calling to his aid the social and cultural archconservative Harold Bloom?

In the first part of my essay I ponder this strange alliance, particularly as it joins forces against ethnic studies (to be sure, its common target is more generally “theory” of any stripe or color, but I want specifically to address the issue of ethnic literary study). Rorty adapts Bloom’s School of Resentment to characterize what he calls a certain, bad “knowingness,” against which he poses “hope” and “inspiration.” I want to examine more closely the nature and content of that destructive “knowledge,” for it becomes clear that [End Page 37] this knowledge is for Rorty the recognition of Otherness as a politically (as opposed to “merely” ontologically) functional identity. This knowledge is disturbing to Rorty and deeply informs his notions of “patriotism” and Americanism. For him, such knowledge impedes the formation of a leftist politics. It is precisely the disjunction between the “knowing” discourse of the cultural left obsessed with identity politics and an activist political left (modeled after the old reformist left) that troubles Rorty.

My essay will be largely devoted to showing how Rorty’s recent work develops his earlier work on “ethnocentrism” into an “Americanism” that erodes precisely the liberal foundations of that earlier work and discloses the weakness of its claims. I understand this development as compelled by a certain impatience with identity politics that is shared by a number of liberal and leftist critics of American political society, an impatience fueled perhaps not so much by a conservative threat as by a perceived threat from “within” progressive politics. Basically, I ask, how and why are knowledge and recognition of “difference” taken to immobilize progressive politics? To frame that same question in a slightly different manner—what is the presumed content of that “progressive” politics, and what assumptions do we have to make in order to arrive at that point of view?

Against the rather odd Bloom/Rorty pairing, set against “knowledge,” one would naturally seek out an enemies list for possible allies. Rorty in fact begins his essay by providing us with one in the figure of Fredric Jameson, an archpractitioner of theory whose “antiromantic” skepticism Rorty finds both debilitating and...