Norman Levitt, Steve Fuller and Academic Failure

Norman Levitt, scourge of postmodernism, and author of books such as Higher Superstition (with Paul Gross) and Prometheus Bedeviled, has died of heart failure aged 66.

Steve Fuller, a British sociologist, responded to this sad news by writing an ‘obituary’ that was… well let us say ill-judged. For example:

I believe that Levitt’s ultimate claim to fame may rest on his having been a pioneer of cyber-fascism, whereby a certain well-educated but (for whatever reason) academically disenfranchised group of people have managed to create their own parallel universe of what is right and wrong in matters of science, which is backed up (at least at the moment) by nothing more than a steady stream of invective

I don’t really want to say anything about this partly because it’s too daft to be taken seriously, but also because the torrent of self-indulgent invective directed at Fuller at his own blog site is already almost as distasteful as Fuller’s obituary.

However, Fuller does make a substantive claim about what motivated Levitt to defend the ‘science establishment’ that it is worth saying something about. In essence, Fuller claims that Levitt was an academic failure (relatively speaking), and that his defence of science and criticism of postmodernism was an attempt ‘to render his own sense of failure intelligible’.

Okay, so likely this claim is unfalsifiable (and therefore fairly tedious). But I was lucky enough to meet Norman Levitt, and I chatted to him at length about what motivated him to take on the postmodernists, and he didn’t mention academic failure (yes, yes, I know that likely he wouldn’t have mentioned it even if it were a factor). This is what he told me:

‘What first drew my attention to the peculiarities of academic humanists was the de Man affair in the States. Paul de Man was an eminent literary scholar at Yale University; he was the person who made deconstruction mandatory in English departments. After his death, it emerged that during the Second World War – he was Belgian, originally – he had been a collaborator with the Nazis. He wrote pro-Nazi journalism. But he had never come clean about this fact. Indeed, when he came to the United States, he passed himself off as having been something of a resistance fighter.

‘The fact that his misdeeds had only come out after his death was scandalous enough, but what happened then was that all his disciples and admirers – all the expected literary characters and also a number of historians and social thinkers – rallied to his defence. Rather than taking a hard look at human folly, which would have been the appropriate response, they plunged into mystification, hypocrisy and obtuseness. Amongst the claims that they made in de Man’s defence was one which had it that by writing pro-Nazi, antisemitic articles, he was, by some uncanny deconstructive legerdemain, actually denouncing Nazism and anti-Semitism! It was quite absurd.

‘I watched this from the other side of the campus as evidence of some very strange goings on. Then my university, along with many other American universities, set up a cultural studies centre. It was decided that its first year would be devoted to science. By this was meant the cultural study of science and the new sociology of science, so we’re talking here about people like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway. A leaflet was circulated, and I think I was probably the only person on the science campus to look at it. I was a bit irritated by it, so I decided I wanted to participate as the local curmudgeon and naysayer.

‘In the end, it was determined that I could hang around and perhaps give a talk. Well, the more that I heard what the science studies people had to say, the more I became convinced that there was some very slovenly scholarship going on, mostly devoted to the claim that science was some kind of illusory, ideological construct. I got more and more annoyed by this stuff, and I was toying with the idea of writing a book about it. Then two things set me in motion. The first was the fact that my daughter became seriously ill, with a disease which twenty or thirty years ago would almost certainly have been fatal, but which was now treatable. This really brought it home that there were important matters at stake here. The second thing was that I read some articles by Paul Gross, which dealt with similar themes, so I wrote to him, we started corresponding, and I found that he had had a very similar experience with his own university. We decided that we would have some fun by writing a book, and ‘Higher Superstition’ was the result.’

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