The idea that there is a stark separation between many of our ideas of the social world, on the one hand, and the realities of the social world in which we live is an old one. We think “fairness and equality”, but what we get is exploitation, domination, and opportunity-capture. And there is a reasonable suspicion that this gap is in some sense intentional: interested parties have deceived us. In some sense it was the lesson of Plato’s allegory of the cave; it is the view that Marx expresses in his ideas of ideology and false consciousness; Gramsci’s theory of hegemony expresses the view; Nietzsche seems to have this separation in mind in much of his writing; and the Frankfurt School made much of it as well. The antidote to these forms of illusion, according to many of these theorists, is critique: careful, penetrating analysis and criticism of the presuppositions and claims of the ideological theory. (Here are several efforts within Understanding Society to engage in this kind of work; link, link, link.)
Peter Baehr’s recent book The Unmasking Style in Social Theory takes on this intellectual attitude of “unmasking” with a critical and generally skeptical eye. Baehr is an expert on the history of sociological theory who has written extensively on Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, and other fundamental contributors to contemporary social theory, and the book shows a deep knowledge of the history and intellectual traditions of social thought.
The book picks out one particular aspect of the sociological tradition, the “style” of unmasking that he finds to be common in that history (and current practice). So what does Baehr mean by a style?
A style, in the sense used here, is a distinctive way of talking and writing. It is epitomized by characteristic words, images, metaphors, concepts and, especially, techniques. I refer to these collectively as elements or ingredients. (2)
The elements of the unmasking style that he identifies include rhetorical tools including weaponization, reduction and positioning, inversion, deflation, hyperbole and excess, and exclusive claims of emancipation (chapter 1).
The idea of an intellectual style is innocuous enough — we can recognize the styles of analytic philosophy, contemporary literary criticism, and right-wing political commentary when we read or hear them. But there is a hidden question here: is there more than style to these traditions of thought? Are there methods of inquiry and reasoning, traditions of assessment of belief, and habits of scholarly interaction that underlie these various traditions? In much of Baehr’s book he ignores these questions when it comes to the content of Marxist analysis, feminist theory, or the sociology of race in America. The impression he gives is that it is all style and rhetoric, with no rigorous research and analysis to support the claims.
In fact the overarching impression given by the book is that Baehr believes that much “unmasking” is itself biased, unfair, and dogmatic. He writes:
Unmasking aspires to create this roused awareness. The kind of analysis it requires is never conveyed to the reader as an interpretation of events, hypothetical and contestable. Nor does it allow scientific refutation or principled disagreement. True as fiat, unmasking statements brook no contradiction. (3)
Such an approach to theory and politics is problematic for several reasons. Its authoritarianism is obvious. So is its exclusivity: I am right, you can shut up. Yet ongoing discord, unlike slapdash accusation, is a good thing. (131)
Part of Baehr’s suspicion of the “style” of unmasking seems to derive from an allergy to the language of post-modernism in the humanities and some areas of social theory:
To be sure, unmask is a common term in social theory and political and cultural criticism. Find it consorting with illusion, disguise, fiction, hieroglyph, critique, mystification, fantasy, reversal, hegemony, myth, real interest, objective interest, semantic violence, symbolic violence, alienation, domination, revolution and emancipation. The denser this cluster, the more unmasking obtrudes from it. (5)
And he also associates the unmasking “style” with a culture of political correctness and a demand for compliance with a “progressive” agenda of political culture:
Rarely a day passes on Twitter without someone, somewhere, being upbraided for wickedness. When even a gesture or an intonation is potentially offensive to an aggrieved constituency on high alert, the opportunities for unmasking are endless. Some targets of censure are cowed. They apologize for an offense they were not conscious of committing. Publicly chastened, they resolve to be better behaved henceforth. (7)
A third salient difference between unmasking in popular culture and in academic social theory is that in the academy unmasking is considered progressive. Detecting concealed racism, white privilege, patriarchy, trans-gender phobia and colonial exploitation is the stock in trade of several disciplines, sub-disciplines and pseudo-disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The common thread is the ubiquity of domination. (8)
Marxism lives on in sociology, in the humanities and social sciences, and in pockets of the wider culture. And wherever one finds Marxism, typically combined today to race and gender politics, and to postcolonial critique, one finds aspects of the unmasking template. (91)
These are currents of thought — memes, theoretical frameworks, apperceptions of the true nature of contemporary society — with which Baehr appears to have little patience.
But here are a few considerations in favor of unmasking in the world of politics, economics, and culture in which we now live.
First, Baehr’s aversion to active efforts to reveal the pernicious assumptions and motives of specific voices in social media is misplaced. When the language of hate, white supremacy, denigration of Muslims, gays, and audacious women, and memes that seem to derive directly from the fascist and neo-Nazi toolbox, is it not entirely appropriate to call those voices to task? Is it not important, even vital, to unmask the voices of hate that challenge the basis of a liberal and inclusive democracy (link)? Is it the unmaskers or the trolls conveying aggressive hate and division who most warrant our disapproval?
And likewise in the area of the thought-frameworks surrounding the facts of modern market society. In some sense the claim that class interest (corporate interest, business interest, elite interest) strives hard to create public understandings of the world that are at odds with the real power relations that govern us is too obviously true to debate. This is the purpose of much corporate public relations and advertising, self-serving think-tanking, and other concrete mechanisms of shifting the terms of public understanding in a direction more favorable to the interests of the powerful. (Here is an article in the New York Times describing research documenting sustained efforts by ExxonMobil to cast doubt in public opinion about the reality of global warming and climate change; link.) And there is no barrier to conducting careful, rigorous, and intellectually responsible “decoding” of these corporate efforts at composing a fantasy; this is precisely what Conway and Oreskes do with such force in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming in the case of corporate efforts to distort scientific reality concerning their products and their effects (link).
Baehr’s statements about the unavoidable dogmatism of “unmasking” analysis and criticism are also surprisingly categorical. “The kind of analysis it requires is never conveyed to the reader as an interpretation of events, hypothetical and contestable.” Really? Are there no honest scholars in the field of critical race theory, or in feminist epistemology and philosophy of science, or in the sociology of science and technology? What is this statement other than precisely the kind of wholesale rejection of the intellectual honesty of one’s opponents that otherwise seems to animate Baehr’s critique?
The Unmasking Style is a bit of a paradox, in my view. It denounces the “style” of unmasking, and yet it reads as its own kind of wholesale discrediting of an intellectual orientation for which Baehr plainly has no patience. This is the orientation that takes seriously the facts of power, privilege, wealth, and racial and gender domination that continue to constitute the skeleton of our world. It is fine, of course, to disagree with this fundamental diagnosis of the dynamics of power, domination, and exploitation in the current world. But Baehr’s book has many of the features of tone and rhetoric that the author vigorously criticizes in others. It is perplexing to find that this book offers so little of what the author seems to be calling for — an intellectually open effort to discern the legitimate foundations of one’s opponent’s positions. For my view, readers of The Unmasking Style would be well advised to read as well one or two books by scholars like Frédéric Vandenberghe, including A Philosophical History of German Sociology, to gain a more sympathetic view of critical sociological theory and its efforts to discern the underlying power relations of the modern world (link).
In general, I find that there is much more intellectual substance to efforts to uncover the interest-bias of various depictions of the capitalist world than Baehr is willing to recognize. How do energy companies shape the debate over climate change? How did Cold War ideologies influence the development of the social sciences in the 1950s? How has pro-business, anti-regulation propaganda made the roll-back of protections of the health and safety of the public possible? What is the meaning of the current administration’s persistent language about “dangerous immigrants” in terms of racial prejudice? These are questions that invoke some kind of “demystifying” analysis that would seem to fall in the category of what Baehr classifies as “unmasking”; and yet it is urgent that we undertake those inquiries.
A companion essay by Baehr, “The image of the veil in social theory”, appears in Theory and Society this month (link), and takes a nuanced approach to the question of “mask” and “veil”. The essay has little of the marks of polemical excess that seem to permeate the book itself. Here is the abstract to the essay:
Social theory draws energy not just from the concepts it articulates but also from the images it invokes. This article explores the image of the veil in social theory. Unlike the mask, which suggests a binary account of human conduct (what is covered can be uncovered), the veil summons a wide range of human experiences. Of special importance is the veil’s association with religion. In radical social thought, some writers ironize this association by “unveiling” religion as fraudulent (a move indistinguishable from unmasking it.) Baron d’Holbach and Marx offer classic examples of this stratagem. But other writers, notably Du Bois and Fanon, take a more nuanced and more theoretically productive approach to both religion and the veil. Refusing to debunk religion, these authors treat the veil—symbol and material culture—as a resource to theorize about social conflict. Proceeding in three stages, I, first, contrast the meanings of mask and unmasking with more supple veil imagery; second, identify anti-religious unveiling that is tantamount to unmasking; and, third, examine social theories of the veil that clarify the stakes of social adversity and political struggle. Du Bois’s and Fanon’s contributions to veil imagery receive special attention.
The Unmasking Style is erudite and interesting, and plainly designed to provoke debate. I only wish that it gave more consideration to the very real need we have to confront the lies and misrepresentations that currently pervade our contemporary world.