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One of the consequences of beginning to think seriously about society and politics in the early to mid 1990s is that, because theories like Marxism had been cast on the dustbin of history, and it we had seen the “end of ideology”, the hegemonic philosophy of the time was a neoliberal orthodoxy mystified by postmodernism (as the cultural logic of late capitalism). Due to that and an early reading of Nietzsche, I took on many of the postmodern assumptions, which I have in the intervening years walked back as a result of my deeper reading in Marxism. However, one of the takeaways from postmodernism that I think is worth saving - and this puts me at odds, probably, with Marxist-Leninists for example - is the idea that transhistorical abstractions (truth, intellectual freedom, etc.) must not be privileged over material realities (lives, bodies, wellbeing, flourishing, etc.). The dominant library position on intellectual freedom, as we can see in the current TPL controversy, is precisely such a privileging: in TPL’s view, an abstraction like “intellectual freedom” takes precedence over the lives, bodies, wellbeing, and flourishing of transgender people.

Raymond Geuss, in his “Philosophy and Real Politics” has criticized this kind if privileging of abstraction, which he associates, as do I, with a particularly pernicious tendency of liberalism towards paternalism: liberal institutions (parliament, public libraries) do not see themselves as part of their communities, but as transcending them, setting themselves up as guardians of truths and values that we community members are too young, or ignorant, or crypto-totalitarian to understand and support. This position was on display yesterday in Vickery Bowles’ interview with CBC radio, where she argued that civil society had no business sanctioning anything: protecting values was the prerogative of the police and the courts. I have already written on the tensions within the intellectual freedom position between constituent and constituted power, and such a contradiction is on full display here.

However, despite the fact that “suspicion of grand narratives” (abstractions) is a hallmark of what Lyotard calls “the postmodern condition”, I think that such a position can be found in Marx himself. In The German Ideology he argues against the idealism of the Young Hegelians, who suppose that the ills of the world are just a matter of not holding the right ideas, rather than the immmediate effects of real inequalities and oppressions. This is the idealism of public libraries who hold that if critics just understood the concept of intellectual freedom, the value of debate, and the marketplace of ideas, then the world would eventually be rid of the kind of intolerance exemplified by transphobic speakers and the alt-right. Marx argues that more knowledge, better understanding, or more adequate ideas were not enough to dislodge the entrenched power relations (economic, social, political) of a given society. Instead, what was required was material resistance leading, eventually, to a revolution in the name of the whole community.

Elsewhere, in a draft text of 1857, he argues that abstractions have a particular place in our understanding of society:

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations…

What Marx is saying here is that by thinking of intellectual freedom (for example) as a real thing rather than an abstraction, the rich materiality of people’s lives is lost, obscured, mystified. This oversimplified abstraction then tends to be pressed into the service of the status quo (i.e. intolerance, exploitation, domination). His own method, he argues, begins by recognizing the abstract nature of something like intellectual freedom and then proceeds to analyze the things that compose it. Eventually, his method gets down to the atomic realities that build up to form the whole, reconstructing the thing again this time not as an unmoored abstraction, but as a “rich totality” of the lives, values, relationships, etc, that make it up.

When I spoke in a previous blog post on the need to have a different, larger, conception of intellectual freedom, one that recognizes the dialectical interrelationships between intellectual freedom and social responsibility, it is Marx’s method that I’m thinking of. The abstract idea on which Meghan Murphy relies, that of all transwomen as violent offenders, is denied by the very real lives, personalities, situations, and dynamics of oppression in which trans people live. The abstraction in this case, as Marx argued, does real violence to the real people who are supposedly covered by it. This should not be news: I was a boy in the early 1980s, it was “common knowledge” that gay men were child molesters - a horrific thing to suggest. This kind of evil, oppressive abstraction which lies at the heart of anti-semitism, misogyny, homomisia and transmisia erases the lived reality of all the people it claims to describe.

The privileging of “truth” over real experience is still widepread: we see it in MRAs arguing about ‘logic’, we see it in the writers and artists who are exposed as valuing their art over the people they hurt, we see it in teachers who hold to some abstract “scholarship” or “science” (or “western civilisation”) rather than engage meaningfully with people’s lives. We saw it in the late Harold Bloom. And we see it in public libraries who privilege “neutrality”, “free speech”, “security”, and “both-sidesism” over the very real fact that people are dying and the world is burning. It was this privileging of “truth” (as “civilisation”) over people’s lives that led to the residential school system, though history is not short of further examples. We have to challenge this privileging of truth and abstraction if we are to live up to Marx’s maxim that society must foster “the free development of each as a condition of the free development of all”. Excluding any group of people from this vision, as TPL is currently exluding transgender people, must be challenged and prevented.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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