On “Epistemic Closure” and Other Maladies of the Right

Libertarian blogger Julian Sánchez recently posted a very interesting comment on the “systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement.” Leaving aside some conceptual imprecisions – Sánchez himself addresses them on another post – I should say that he does an excellent job discussing “the effects of technological change” on modern day conservatism.

Obviously, technology plays an important role on this issue. The democratizing effect of current media technologies, for instance, has the immediate result of allowing non-professional actors into a more disaggregated field. With non-professional I don’t mean less educated but less exposed to the disciplinary discourse that characterizes college-educated professional journalists – and here I look for parallelism with Foucault’s genetic criticism of the medical / psychiatric profession as systems of thought. Today’s journalists are less like Time‘s Henry Luce and more like Glenn Beck or Abby Hoffman – digital journalist Robert Niles actually equates both professions, community organizing and modern day’s journalism.

On this issue of the democratization of the media, I agree with Sánchez assessment that “there’s a lot of institutional and cultural capital built up in [traditional media] outlets, which at least produces a set of norms and practices that create pressure toward more fair and accurate reporting.” Although Foucault’s vision of disciplinary institutions was rather negative – his favorite metaphor was Bentham’s panopticon -, the fact is that they play an important role – as Sánchez recognizes – in producing those self-regulating norms and practices so necessary to create stable institutions, as traditional journalism – with all its presumed and real liberal bias – is today. Then, the problem with conservative media outlets like Fox News is that they are trying to create an alternative “allegedly” non-biased media institution but not by providing a new set of norms and practices that – as Sánchez rightly points out – try to “to get it right” but by undermining those same norms and practices so necessary for their own viability, as alternative or whatever kind of institutional media.

Curiously enough, the same ought to be said about conservative’s distrust of government. And I mean that unhealthy irrational distrust that characterizes modern day Tea Party-ers as opposed to the at times helpful anarchist strain that has always permeated American politics.

To conclude his post on “epistemic closure,” Sánchez puts forward a working hypothesis:

So here’s a hypothesis: Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.

He supports this his hypothesis, in part, on a non-related event concerning a young lesbian high school student from Fulton, Mississippi, who was banned from taking her same-sex girlfriend to the school’s prom. The media covering of this was, as expected, intense. On one side, some liberals portrayed the small town people as “ignorant hillbillies” and/or “inbred rednecks.” On the other side, conservatives portrayed the whole issue as an example of the attack on the traditional values of this country. In any case, what Sánchez gets from all this is the fact that conservatives seem to feel under siege because of the deterritorializing effect of modern communication technology. Therefore, their “epistemic closure” seems to function as a sort of defense mechanism against the fact that geographic segregation is not a viable strategy for geographically-based moral relativism. In other words, it seems that conservative’s crisis is due in part to the fact that instances of bigotry cannot be justified anymore on the basis of geographic locality. (By the way, a similar case could be done on certain leftist postures in and outside America’s politics.)

If that is the case, the Tea Party movement could thus be inserted into a global trend against globalization and – particularly – against cultural hybridization and/or transculturization. This, of course, plays well within the epistemic function (purpose) of conservatism – that is, to preserve their current beliefs, the status quo.

In a larger scale, conservative media do what they do – undermining institutional (liberal) journalism – not because they want to “get it right” – as Sánchez rightly pointed out – but because they want to support their own essentialist worldviews. They want to seize the destructive side of the globalizing/democratizing drive of modern information technologies, and they believe they will be able to control it, to limit its radius of destruction, in order to protect their own definition of locality – culturally and geographically. Whether such a strategy based on “epistemic closure” will work or not, the most likely answer is: no, it won’t! If history has taught us anything (as explained by Fernand Braudel), it is that cultural isolationism has never been a wining strategy to anything that lasts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.