Minds over matter

Radical Thinkers

Various authors <em>Verso, £6 each</em>

Verso's beautifully designed Radical Thinkers series, which brings together seminal works by leading left-wing intellectuals, is a sophisticated blend of theory and thought. The 12 authors whose writings are included in the series have worked tirelessly to expose the mechanisms by which culture and knowledge are manufactured, managed and controlled. Indeed, critics like me are hugely grateful to these writers, because criticism - all criticism, not just the literary type - owes a great deal to them.

Terry Eagleton's The Function of Criticism (first published in 1984) is perhaps the best, and certainly the most accessible, of the 12. Where Eagleton explains why criticism is so essential, Raymond Williams, one of the founders of cultural studies, shows in Culture and Materialism how cultural criticism should be carried out. But not all the texts are as readable as these. Louis Althusser's love letter to Marx, For Marx (1965), would test the patience of even the most ardent admirer of dialectical materialism. None the less, it is a decisive book - and it is probably easier to read this than to plough through the work of the master him- self. Despite its age, it retains a degree of contemporary relevance. Similarly, Signs Taken for Wonders, Franco Moretti's superb take on the sociology of literary forms, is as enlightening to read now as it was when first published in 1983. For good measure, we have two of the most influential postmodern philosophers of the 20th century, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, vying with each other in intellectual acumen and impenetrability in The Politics of Friendship (1994) and The System of Objects (1968).

Taken together, the works selected by Verso embody the creation and development of a dissenting tradition that set out to question and subvert the established order. Yet while this was once the prin-cipal strength of these thinkers, it has become something of an Achilles heel. A collective reading exposes all that has gone wrong with radical thought in the 20th century. Traditions, and intellectual traditions in particular, rapidly ossify and degenerate into obscurantism. They have to be constantly refreshed, renovated and reinvented. It is time that radical thought broke out of its confining structures. It is time to put Adorno's anxieties about mass culture and media to rest; to move forward from Baudrillard's and Derrida's postmodern relativism to some notion of viable social truth; and for criticism to stop messing about with signs and signifiers, and instead confront the increasing tendency of power towards absolutism.

Radical thought, as exemplified by this list, suffers from three fundamental problems. First, jargon. These thinkers have developed a rarefied terminology that they employ to talk among themselves to the exclusion of the majority - on whose behalf they presume to speak. This tendency has been directly responsible for the intellectual decline of the left. Obnoxious right-wing thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and Michael Ignatieff command worldwide audiences because their message, whatever its political connotations, is clear and accessible. By contrast, jargon-ridden radicals are confined to the backwaters of academia, quoted and promoted only by like-minded academics in an ever-decreasing circle of influence.

The Sokal hoax shows just how ridiculous the situation has become. In 1994 Alan Sokal, a physicist, submitted a paper to the highly respected journal Social Text. He used modish jargon to talk nonsense - for instance, he claimed that gravity was culturally determined - and his bibliography comprised a Who's Who of radical scientists, even though the content of his paper bore little relationship to their work. The editors of Social Text believed the jargon and published the paper.

The second problem is theory. The function of theory is to predict and to provide a framework for analysis. In radical circles, theory started out as an expression of dissent, a mechanism for exposing and predicting the uses and abuses of power. A system of thought that tells you what to expect and how to react can itself become a substitute for genuine thought and analysis, however. At its worst, theory becomes little more than a tool of tyranny. Paul Virilio's The Information Bomb (2000) provides a good example. Virilio's analysis of information technology and the relationship between science, automation and war is knee-deep in theory but perilously short on insight, offering hardly any advance on Jerry Ravetz's 1971 classic Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems.

The third problem that radical thought faces is irrelevance - which brings me to Slavoj Zizek. Much of what thinkers of this sort have to say has little relevance to the non-western world: that is to say, the vast majority of humanity. While they pay much lip-service to the "voiceless" and the "marginalised", they rarely consider the perspectives of these groups. Zizek, whom Eagleton describes as "the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in general, to have emerged in Europe in some decades", is a good illustration of this. In The Metastases of Enjoyment (1994), perhaps his best book, he argues brilliantly that even though Nazi racism focused on subordinating most other non-Aryan races and nationalities, its main concern was the annihilation of the Jews. This focus on annihilation, he says, is now a characteristic of all racism: the logic of anti-Semitism has been universalised. In which case, why doesn't Zizek draw any parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? Why is he silent about the racism inherent in Serbian nationalism? Instead, he offers an absurdly down-and-dirty reading of western popular culture, women, sexuality and violence - the kind of thing all too familiar from cultural studies courses.

The work of radical thinkers has played an invaluable role in dethroning western civilisation and decentring its "natural and superior" narratives. But yesterday's dissent easily becomes today's tyranny. We urgently need new ideas and new tools for reconstructing thought. That cannot be done by preserving and worshipping the ashes of the fire ignited by yesterday's radicals. We need to transmit its flame.

Ziauddin Sardar's What Do Muslims Believe? is out in paperback from Granta Books