Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Below is the fifth and final part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). Threat was very favourably mentioned in of the book in the Spectator yesterday; good to see.
Very many thanks to Dan for taking the time out of such a busy schedule to answer my questions:
Mark Thwaite: You end The Threat to Reason with a call for a re-energisation of the public sphere. Isn't this a kind of naive amalgam of Habermas and Internet optimism?
Dan Hind: Well I am not that naive about the emancipatory potential of new technology. The internet has great potential as a way to widen participation in research and debate; that is, I think, already being demonstrated and we are only at the start of that process. But it is also a great venue for peddling misinformation, violent pornography, and corporate advertising.
Habermas and I mean different things when we talk about the public sphere. Habermas is describing a history of modern society, which he traces back to eighteenth century England. He is talking about how individuals and institutions create a space for discussions about the 'public interest'. I follow Kant in seeing the public sphere as a realm where individuals and groups abstract themselves from their institutional roles and try to achieve a state of total autonomy. Collaboration, of course, but an acute sensitivity towards, and suspicion about, the distorting effect of institutional power on the free exercise of the intellect. This runs against the idea that one can be entirely free to inquiry in the context of one's institutional life (a claim that academics and journalists sometimes make). Kant's conception of the public/private divide is a good deal more exotic, and more radical, than we usually recognise. He is very far from Habermas in this regard.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
From the Enlightenment, Hume is an extraordinary figure and in many ways a sympathetic one. I'd like to read more Diderot and more Madison over the summer, too, now I think about it, but I wouldn't call them favourites. It won't come as a great surprise that I admire Noam Chomsky a great deal. His book with Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, is still news. Joel Bakan's The Corporation is a model of how to deliver an unanswerable polemic. It is calm, concise, devastating, and it achieves precisely what the author intended. As far as reading for pleasure I have recently been introduced to graphic novels. Two that stand out are Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Joe's Matt's The Poor Bastard. In their very different ways they are exceedingly fine.
Can't claim any great authority or knowledge about fiction. I don't think anyone would regret taking the time to read Bulgakov's The Master and Magarita (I read Glenny's translation) or Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there is something about The Iliad that I can't stop wondering about. Christopher Logue's re-workings of it are a good place to start. Not so much a favourite as a puzzle I can't solve, and wouldn't want to.
MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
DH: The main point I'd like readers to take away is that the Enlightenment doesn't belong to a small group of experts. The Enlightenment was a public debate about the fundamental issues in society; who should rule, how should their power be limited, how do we agree on a common account of reality? We can take useful things from the historical Enlightenment, and use them to help us in the work of becoming more enlightened now. Without becoming lost in the thickets of the history of ideas, we can draw on the work of figures like Bacon and Kant and learn from them about the possibilities and dangers of a campaign for knowledge. I believe that only a world more fully understood can be made more just.
But don't take anyone else's word on faith. What the Enlightenment was, what it might be now, these are questions for us all to try to answer.
MT: Thanks so much for your time Dan. All the best with the book!