Last updated: 3 October 2023

DR. RICK RODERICK – Department of Philosophy – DUKE UNIVERSITY
Recorded at – THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN – April 8, 1987

AB: Today we have the pleasure of meeting Doctor Rick Roderick, a philosopher from Duke University who is here visiting the University of Texas which is his alma mater. Yesterday he gave us a brilliant lecture in my seminar and so I asked him if he would meet me today and tell me a little bit more about himself so we keep something of his visit with us. Rick, you are particularly interested in Habermas and the school of critical theory. I want to ask you some things about that, but first I would like to ask you about your background; where you grew up and what it was that led you to philosophy.

RR: Well I grew up in West Texas and I think that a couple of things about being a Texan are interesting philosophically. Of course Texans believe that the topic of being a Texan is infinitely interesting anyway but Texans are… I guess Texans… it’s the only state where people would have a bumper sticker that says “SECEDE“, and both people from the right and the left would use this bumper sticker. So I think Texans tend culturally to either identify with everything American in order to overcome a kind of cultural alienation that they feel from the nation as a large. Or they tend to view themselves perennially as outsiders and from the very beginning that was my stance. I mean, I was a troublemaker in grade school and high school and I think that outsider’s consciousness was important in shaping my political views later; the fact that I grew up in a culture where these extreme choices were open, either of complete identification or of the feeling of the outsider.

AB: Is this more exaggerated in West Texas?

RR: I think it is particularly exaggerated in West Texas where there is ah… There is a famous joke about West Texas: God made too much hell so he decided to put a little of it on earth and that was West Texas and so life in West Texas is particularly brutal, particularly difficult and the stereotypes that we find throughout American culture are obviously exaggerated in this setting and so the consciousness of the outsider there can become almost pathological. That’s why I started reading very early on because I thought my God everybody can’t think reality is this way. So I started reading Russian novels, philosophy at a very early age simply to find someone to talk to. I remember when I was fourteen or fifteen reading Notes From Underground and finding out that right, I might not be totally insane, I might just be in a setting where the values themselves are a little messed up. So that’s some of the background there. Plus my mother and father; I had the great advantage of having both a mother and a father who were outsiders, not normal workers, who, you know, were… my father was a conman, my mother was a beautician and my father was an ex-wobbly so I had both… and neither were Christian but I had some advantages by being raised by bizarre parents which was very fortunate and lucky.

AB: Did they steer you toward the intellectual life?

RR: Not really at all, I mean I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. So it was really a family of just, you know, very poor rural whites just existing on the margins, as it were. My father did pitch some minor league baseball and he did chain letters and other various con-jobs and my mother set hair so it was very much ah… but they read books. They didn’t go to school but they read books.

AB: Was there any teacher in high school that particularly aimed you towards philosophy as opposed to other…

RR: No, actually I was aimed toward philosophy by the experiences of… the cultural experiences of the late sixties; first by the civil rights movement, by the various assassinations, by the experience of friends that I had known coming back in body bags from the war in Vietnam, and I wanted to try to understand this situation and philosophy was just one among many things that I read in order to do this but philosophy became particularly important because as Guy Debord once said “It is the thought of separate power and the power of separate thought”, it is sort of at the pinnacle of the attempts to understand things in a very large way; how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together.

AB: The love of wisdom, huh?

RR: And so it was driven though by passion and by horror of the conditions around me, to try to understand them and make some kind of sense out of them and that’s what initially led me to philosophy as well as the way I personally reacted to it… with such utter outrage and that outrage was mixed – well to be honest – with a kind of joy that was mixed with the outrage was that I could see… as I began to see the structures around me falling apart I began to see the hidden past of America; the past that was there in the thirties, that was there when I listened to Woody Guthrie… which I came to after Bob Dylan, right, and I began to see a hidden past of America. A past full of promise that had basically been taken over by a bunch of shoddy insurance salesmen and techno war bureaucrats and I began to see and feel part of an America that’s been hidden and is still hidden and it’s certainly systematically hidden at the University… in my opinion.

AB: Well we could get back to that…

RR: I am sorry…

AB: No please, that’s fine. So there was a deep love of your country…

RR: I love America, this is the odd part about being a person who loves America but feels alienated from the power elite that’s been in place since the Second World War and actually from many aspects of our own past, not just the power elites since the Second World War, but as John Stockwell the ex-CIA agent reminds us, he says – sort of our version of Saul of Tarsus, ah, struck blind – as John Stockwell reminds us, America has fought 200 wars in 200 years. It has committed genocide against Indians, Africans and killed mass millions of people. Since we are a mobile society unlike the Russians; the Russian Gulag is static and in one place, ours is sort of mobile like a trailer park. So that is the ugly side of America. It’s hard to love a country that is implicated in that degree of both moral horror and in a sense horror objectively generated by a structure of which America is the centrepiece. At the same time it’s hard not to love America and its promise and its struggle and the culture and what it represents. So it may be like all love affairs, it’s highly ambiguous; there are elements of both mixed in.

AB: Yes, that’s fascinating. So you went to University and you studied philosophy as well as communications.

RR: Well I… uh huh… well, I started with communications. Actually I really took classes in the school of Communication because I was busily involved in anti war activates and the easiest major I could find was in the RTF department where you could see a lot of movies and television and write papers about that so my first degree was really based on finding something that I could do in order to take up as little time as possible and on the side I took up philosophy courses with my first degree. It was only later that I came back and studied philosophy systematically.

AB: So you started early seventies, late sixties?

RR: I started late sixties

AB: Uh huh

RR: And only really actually returned to serious philosophical study in the mid seventies after the counter revolution had succeeded in America. I did what I guess is a fine revolutionary tradition; I returned to the study to rethink what had happened so part of that process was studying philosophy. But in a very broad sense I see philosophy as a conversation with economics, with history, with politics, with feminist studies, with race, and with everyday life. So I came back to philosophy in that spirit in the seventies to try to rethink what had happened, ah you know, in the aftermath of the Reagan counter-revolution and the zombie-isation and the banalisation of America, the study looked as good a place to be for a few years as anywhere.

AB: For a think about the whole thing?

RR: Well yes and then also I had to find somewhere to raise enough money to eat, which is one of the imperatives capitalism has always placed upon us and as Hunter S. Thompson says – as I told you on the phone this morning – “When the going gets weird the weird turn pro” so I decided to become a professional philosopher.

AB: Great. Well were there any books or certain key teachers that were really important when you were…

RR: Yes and some of them are still here at Texas and I can recommend them highly. Ah, Doug Kellner directed my dissertation here and was a close personal friend. Louis Mackey is another delightful person who both is an excellent philosopher and is a living example of the philosophical life and so yeah there were important teachers but I think that it’s also fair to say that I never – or at least I tried – to never let schooling get in the way of my education, to quote Mark Twain, and I learned a lot by meeting people outside the university and meeting other students and other people.

AB: Anti war activists, or…

RR: Many kinds of people. Avant garde artist types I have always interacted with, you know, Bergman film festivals, anti war activists, bizarre music, all of these things I took to be part of constructing alternative futures, which I take to be important.

AB: So you were already seeking an alternative, I see, but first I want to know why critical theory. Was it because it was well, taught here, or did it offer you some kind of explanation of what had gone on and made you angry

RR: Well the first thing that drew me to critical theory was to attend a lecture by Herbert Marcuse.

AB: Uh huh

RR: And Marcuse combined both a wonderful European intellectual heritage drawn from Marx and Freud with a lot of appreciation for American popular culture. It should be better known that Bob Dylan was Marcuse’s favourite artist in a certain sense and so Marcuse combined in himself many of the things that I saw in my own life so at that level I became interested in critical theory through actually meeting and encountering this famous figure. It was only after that that I began to systematically study critical theory as a way of overcoming the isolation of disciplines within universities and as a point of struggle within the university system as well with trying to make link ups with alternatives in the working class movement at large. So critical theory was important first through that encounter and then later I began to read the tradition of critical theory that comes out of Lukacs and Korsch

AB: Yes

RR: Of course this was a reading subsequent to a long study of Marx.

AB: Yes. I think that for our listeners if you could encapsulate what was the essential attraction of critical theory for you; describe it a little.

RR: I am going to describe it in a way a little different than say; Doug Kellner would if he were here. For me critical theory represents what Horkheimer calls the systematic unfolding of a single existential value judgement concerning the crisis ridden nature of the capitalist system and for me beginning from that judgement it represents an unfolding of that value judgement as we trace reification, domination, sexism, racism, dehumanisation, as it spreads throughout the society we trace it and we don’t respect any disciplinary boundaries when we trace it. We study television seriously and we study the Odyssey seriously. We take the divisions between economics, history, philosophy to just be matters of the college catalogue and the fragmentation of bourgeois society. So using that as a model for study means that one does not have a list or a sacred canon which is racist and sexist on its face in philosophy. They are all fat white old guys, you know. So prima facie it’s obviously implausible that the whole wisdom of the West is summed up by eleven fat white old guys; this is prima facie implausible. Critical theory gives us a way to try to make connections; to see why that’s the case and to understand philosophy in its broadest sense and to use it to bring together people who are interested in alternatives… in real alternatives.

AB: Yes

RR: Among the real alternatives are utopian hopes, dreams, daydreams, fantasies, wishes. The voices that are silenced; the voices of women, of blacks, of yellow people, I mean after all most of the world isn’t white, isn’t male.

AB: This is a very idealist interpretation of the Frankfurt School…

RR: Certainly it is because this is an interpretation that breaks decisively with Adorno‘s pessimism. I myself find Adorno’s pessimism terribly attractive so I react against it violently, and I am willing to see this contradiction in myself. I think the Adorno of dialectic enlightenment is one of the most seductive, brilliant intellectual figures in the 20th Century and the only response to it has to be – in my view – one based on the practical postulate that if we take this seriously then there is no hope and the response to that is Bloch‘s response; is that reason and humanity cannot flourish without hope and so this is a practical postulate of action and not a theory so this response comes from that level; I don’t deny the power of that.

The same contradiction appears in British Marxism when E. P. Thompson on the one hand writes the redemptive history of the working class and on the other hand writes an essay called “Exterminism” that shows how we are doomed by technical systems of power to extinction. The same duality appears in my own thought but my reaction to it is never to give up because that becomes a self fulfilling form of behaviour. To the extent that we feel paralysed, to the extent the social critic succeeds in paralysing us… which in a way is his job; is to paralyse us with horror.

This appears in Foucault where the world looks like a prison, it appears in Thompson’s Exterminism, it appears in Adorno in a highly sophisticated form. To the sense he succeeds in doing that, which is the critic’s job, he contradictorily loses by paralysing us for action and the response to this paradox is not itself a theoretical response but should be an activist response. This may have taken us to the very edges of critical theory but in this regard this is what led me to Habermas as Habermas was attempting to find responses to the dialectic of enlightenment; to the way Enlightenment had generated a world full of nuclear weapons, instrumental reason and the disappearance of bourgeois subject; what we used to call people, okay.

AB: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a marvellously Texan response it seems to me…

RR: It’s Texo-Marxisim in a way, I think, so…

AB: [laughs] No but there is the elegance of Adorno’s way of presenting things and the elegance of his grand world vision; but on the other hand the lack of hope at the end is what really stirs you to respond?

RR: Yeah, I think it does. I mean it has to.

AB: You wrote your dissertation on Habermas, yes?

RR: I can explain that. I mean a lot of people have asked me why anyone who is as bizarre as you would have written a dissertation on someone as in love with reason as Habermas. Well one of the reasons I wrote on him is at the time many leftists were going to Habermas as a source for sustenance and an academic career and it was virtually an academic cottage industry so my book on Habermas was meant to be a dialectical critique of Habermas where I both give a positive evaluation of Habermas’ attempt to return to the critical theories of the thirties, to return, as it were, to this super disciplinary structure and to try to recover moments of; for him reason, for me revolt, to use a famous distinction, but this attempt seemed to me laudatory.

On the other hand Habermas was clearly operating in a West German political climate that is so repressive that just defending John Stuart Mill and Walter Mondale is a radical act. So I wanted to critique him so that we wouldn’t uncritically take over Habermas’ radical analysis for America where it is perfectly represented by the left wing or the Democratic party and that needs no theoretical support since it has some support, you know, in the media and in other places, so it was a dialectical critique that showed both the strengths and the limitations. I also wanted to warn people against reading Habermas as the obvious theoretical outcome of a tradition that I still believe is better represented by Marcuse, Bloch and Benjamin than it is by Habermas.

AB: For an American audience, certainly.

RR: For an American audience without question

AB: Yes

RR: I mean we have to remember that Habermas is defending reason in a situation where German historians are saying forget Auschwitz; we fought the Russians, we are with NATO, and he has to respond to people who think in this way so naturally his response is… he begins with very moderate concepts like consensus, liberalism in the Julian sense, and that’s not always a bad place to begin in America in the aftermath of Reagan but that’s only a start, I mean this is only to get people to listen who would otherwise simply tune out. It’s only the beginning.

AB: But remember yesterday I asked you how such a globalising, globalist type of approach to things such as the Frankfurt School and even Habermas could be digestible in a philosophical environment of pragmatism such as America…

RR: Well it’s… it is… in one sense I don’t even want it to be digestible in the sense that I think that the Hegelian concept of totality; of understanding literally everything about everything is an illusion and a dangerous one politically and theoretically but on the other hand the attempt to understand the macro level; the attempt to get some sense of what is going on in the world is something the right is quite good at. I mean, Oliver North was a master dialectician; he had the whole world mapped out in conspiracies and things were flowing from country to country and this was all based on a world view that had theory and practice were combined and so there is a level at which we want to attempt to understand the large picture without turning it into some grand theory that shuts out in an elitist way the moments of difference, of non convergence with our theory. So there is that moment where I want to defend the larger view without falling back into the older trap of the totality which was theoretically criticised beautifully by Adorno and others.

AB: Yes

RR: On the other hand the only meaning that theory can have in my tradition is the meaning of the practical struggles of human beings against it. Where that is absent, my theory is absent. Where that is present, my theory is present. So I want no strategy that doesn’t ultimately appeal to the finite struggles of human beings to come together and to achieve real freedom; concrete freedom, not “philosophical” freedom but things like more time. Real free time, not – quote – “leisure time”. Real free time, real creativity and in many parts of the world simple things like food, clothing, shelter, because before we can have what no human beings have ever had – which is real freedom – we need to have at least what every human should have which is food, health, housing, free baseball games, things like that.

AB: But this is all very fine if we were to accept a materialist definition of life and meaning and freedom. Suppose I were to say to you that maybe the biggest need is for contemplation, for spiritual reflection and so on, would your critical theory have a space for me?

RR: Not only would it have a space but I hope that if I have listened to your question – and I have tried to listen – one of the things that male academics don’t often do is listen. But if I have listened to your question my rejection of the older notion of totality means I’ll listen to this and precisely here is where Marxism becomes implicated with its enemy. I mean, in a way capitalism disguises the world and says all needs are economic and we as its enemy go “they’re right, all needs are economic”. That’s just false and so to listen to non inquisitive cultures like the cultures of India, to listen to women when they say “look, my needs aren’t all for the latest fashion, I have a need for compassion, for tenderness” If critical theory can’t make a place for this I would rather throw away the theory than these other things. So my own view can. Whether I can do this consistently… I mean whether this can be done theoretically consistently is not to me of importance. I mean I take the typical philosophical obsession with deductive consistency to be itself a, you know, an incredible example of both the political and sexual unconscious at work.

AB: Uh huh

RR: So I mean I… this is… I hope I have listened to your question.

AB: Yes I am happy to hear that really because it seems to me that the emancipatory aims which were certainly there at the beginning of the Frankfurt movement and certainly there in Marx I read in Habermas and it leaves spaces for other dimensions of being, a quest for freedom, different parts of humanness that have been silenced. So I was hoping that it would be part of your vision.

RR: Certainly

AB: And so I wanted to lead into the final question. I understood yesterday that you share my malaise about the structuralist critique of action, agency, which Marx has always stood for… and the Frankfurt School.

RR: Uh huh

AB: Yes you were pretty angry at the movements recently in France

RR: Well I think that on the one hand I have a kind of love/hate relationship with France too. They do wonderful things like May ’68 and in my own life this is an incredible event. The first Western industrial nation brought to a standstill by a revolution where no-one is killed, where they are defeated at the level of the totality of society; they are defeated in the factory, in the streets, and in everyday life for two months, okay. But the failure of this experience then calls forth the same kind of totalising response; an absolute nihilism: “Well we tried it…” And this is to be a terrible historian of any kind because everything that appears in history doesn’t appear all at once in all of its glory, complete, final and succeeded all at one time. Surely we have learned that. Things appear, they disappear then they come back in a fuller form and so on and this is… so I think the fact that the expectations were so great and then disappointed means that a lot of new French theory takes as a local situation a universalising negativity in this case.

AB: Yes, right

RR: What was once a universalising positivity now becomes caught in the universal negative at the end “well, we tried, it’s over” and you know, that attitude is part of the conservative counter-revolution in France, West Germany and in America, but at the same time that’s going on there are peace movements, the women’s movement continues, there are working class movements. For example I take it to be… the fact that the major unions are losing membership is in a sense a positive thing because American workers no longer see their interests as represented in purely economic terms by these bureaucrats and so all of these things are going on all around us and we take one beautiful expression of revolutionary history and revolutionary life and its failure and then say “well that’s it” but I don’t want to draw either the positive or negative universalist thesis from a local experience.

AB: Well you just challenge us to look for signs of new births, emancipation, what sort of advice would you offer to students and colleagues about how to mould our praxis in an emancipatory way. Have you?

RR: Well on of the things is that I think we should – and this is deep in the American tradition – we should be more critical. We should ask questions like why do the humanities dehumanise us? Why once I have got my degree in the humanities am I less human than when I started? Why are all my humanist teachers actually Nihilists; people who believe in nothing? You know, we should start with basic critical questions. A student for example in a class – in my view – the first question he should ask is he should look at the syllabus and go “why the in the hell are we reading this?” What good are these books? Why should I read them? And so at that very mundane level of student life, you know, my advice would be… they don’t have to follow it, I want them to do whatever they want to do; find their own forms of struggle. But I think a beginning here is to realise the poverty of student life; that you are an unpaid worker, in fact you are paying to work, and you are working in an atmosphere where the university has really turned education into a very poverty stricken experience and so at this level of university struggle I think students can play a large role simply by being more critical of the system which doesn’t even give them internally what it promises to give them. You take a degree in the humanities to be – quote – “well rounded”; this appears in all the cruddy little speeches at commencement. Well you could start by saying “how come that’s not happening?” and ah…

AB: What about teachers?

RR: Ah, teachers… this is very difficult because on the one hand you stand in front of the classroom so you are already placed in a context of authority; of power, you are part of a disciplinary structure. Part of your job is to normalise students. You are the soft side… you are like a prison guard except you are… you know, the two cops, the tough guy and the soft guy. Well the university professor at one aspect is the soft guy; you are trying to normalise them in a very nice way when you stand in that objective structure and so there is a paradox in denouncing it from the outset. The only way I have even been able to resolve this is to quite bluntly say don’t leave my class saying “strike out against all authority” based upon the authority of Rick Roderick – that this is paradoxical – to find your own form of struggle, questioning, of living more fully and I have had some good response to that but there is no reason to deny the paradox that you have been placed for reasons that may be large ones… I mean, one reason that I think there has been a sort of rebirth of certain kinds of critical studies; women’s studies at university is that the bourgeoisie themselves see the poverty of their educational enterprise and it’s quite important for modern capital to produce knowledge. So on the one hand they need us and they implicate us in power but we have to be aware of that paradox and make our students aware of it and to prove our authenticity to them. I have found this to be very important; is that students observe the connection between how you speak and how you act, a connection that I advise them to observe.

AB: Yes but you are an exception to your own theory of university as prison and I hope I am too. Wouldn’t there be many others who are exceptional?

RR: No, there is no doubt about it. I am just saying that we need to recognise that the student has every reason to suspicious of an authority who says “don’t believe authority”. They have a reason to be suspicious and our way to meet that suspicion is by recognising that paradox and then acting authentically on your commitments. But no, I think that there are people – many people – throughout the university and the information sector of modern life who share an attempt to try to find alternatives and so on and I don’t want to say or do anything theoretically to stand in their way. There are many levels – heterogeneous levels – of struggle because once capitalism invades the whole of life – and that’s what I take to be the later stages – marketing is from our micro desires all the way up to consciousness in the form of TV, magazines; the whole of life, well then struggles will also involve the whole of life; from the university to our every day relations with other people to politics and across the whole spectrum, so I don’t want to say in advance what any of these heterogeneous struggles… I don’t want to limit them based on anything I say, I just want them to flourish and I will help them flourish wherever I can and I hope this attitude spreads because we are in a period where Reagan’s hegemony and the hegemony of the counter-revolution is delegitimizing all around us. You know, oh well… you got me excited with the question, I am sorry, I just…

AB: No, I think you give us a challenge, you give us a spark of hope about the future, we may disagree with some of the things you believe in…

RR: I hope so…

AB: Well anyway Rick, thank you very much for coming in this morning and I know that my students and colleagues are going to enjoy meeting you again on the screen.

RR: Well thank you very much for asking me and I have had a wonderful, wonderful time this morning.

AB: Good, good. Thank you.

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