Is the “analytic/continental divide” a politically obsolete concept?

So, this weekend I watched GI Joe 2. For all of the things it doesn’t do–like be aesthetically “good” cinema–one thing it does capture fairly well is the obsolesce of cold-war thinking (which, obviously, was what informed the cartoons on which the movie is based, hence the need to confront and move past the cold war mythology that inspired original GI Joe stories, characters, etc.). Zartan (remember him–he was the action figure who changed color when exposed to UV light) disguises himself as POTUS and calls an international summit for nuclear disarmament. What is a more quintessentially cold-war concern than that? The film gets all Dr. Strangelove-y for a few minutes (again, quintessentially cold-war aesthetics, concepts, stories), but then rapidly turns on its heel and heads down a war-on-terror path. Zartan tricks all the world leaders into destroying their nuclear arsenals, and then COBRA, an international terrorist organization, destroys London with a massive geological shockwave.

The point of this scene is that the cold war is over. Mutually assured destruction, international summits, superpower nations, modernist aesthetics, even the culture wars (there’s a teensy bit in the film about feminism & women in combat)—these are all easily gamed and exploited by contemporary institutions, like neoliberal capital and war-on-terror discourse. While we’re distracted rehashing cold-war-style battles, the rug is begin pulled out from under our feet.

The so-called “analytic/continental divide” is one of these cold-war-style battles, and the neoliberalizing university is COBRA. They distract us with worn-out disciplinary battles, getting us to deplete our arsenals fighting each other. That way, when they come with MOOCs, adjunctification, demands for external funding, the elimination of tenure, and so on, we have nothing left with which to return fire.

In what way is the analytic/continental divide a cold-war battle? There are at least two ways to get to this conclusion. First, John McCumber’s “Time in the Ditch” argues, pretty convincingly, that the analytic/continental split was the discipline’s way of responding to McCarthyism. All that political Marxist-existentialist stuff, that’s not what we do here. We seek “truth,” which is universal and thus apolitical. From this perspective, the analytic/continental divide was directly and explicitly tied to the political and material conditions of the US academy in the postwar era. Which is fine. But it is 2013, and the political and material conditions of the US academy are vastly different than they were when my parents were born

For example (and this is also the second way to get at that conclusion), the US university of the 1950s was a place for specialized scientific research. Its value to society was that it was an elite ivory tower of advanced knowledge. Just think about Milton Babbitt’s 1958 essay “Who Cares If You Listen?” Here, he argues for the value of musical research by appealing to then-dominant concepts of scientific research: specialized, inaccessible, driven by discovery and progress not by application or immediate utility. (These are all, in a way, very modernist values.) “Analytic” and “continental” name two highly specialized areas of research that are inaccessible to outside audiences, and driven by values of intellectual purity, not application or utility. Just think about the way “applied” or certain kinds of political work is devalued in the most elite journals/departments of both types.

I understand that there constituencies heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, and defending it against educational “disruptors” calls to revamp the university, cut philosophy departments, divest the humanities and liberal arts, get rid of tenure, and so on. I don’t think this status quo is necessarily worth maintaining. As well-suited as “analytic” and “continental” philosopher were to the latter half of the twentieth century, the conditions of philosophical production have changed…and “philosophers” have changed (though, sadly, not too much–we’re still disproportionately white and male, even compared to the other humanities). Philosophers read more widely now–across old intra-disciplinary divides, but also across other disciplines in the liberal arts, sciences, and professions. Philosophers work more collaboratively. We act less like the specialists of yore and more like…well, I don’t know what the term is, exactly. It’s not interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, because these non-traditionally philosophical areas are integral parts of our philosophical practice. I guess what I’m seeing is lots of work that does more than just narrowly-drawn “analytic” or “continental” research. And continuing to think in these old terms erases what is perhaps most contemporary about contemporary research.

So, not only does analytic/continental language tie us to outmoded notions of what philosophy is and what philosophers (ought to) do, it also ties us to outmoded notions of what the university is and what it ought to do. Finding new ways to talk about the discipline will both help us do better philosophy, and, just as importantly, it will help us make better, more compelling arguments for our own survival as a discipline. Make no mistake: they want to kill us, to close down philosophy departments and make us all adjuncts. We are fighting for our survival. And to survive, we’ll have to adapt. And we are adapting…it’s just that a lot of that work goes unrecognized and undervalued because journals and doctoral department hiring committees don’t have a way to understand its value.

Just as COBRA came in and took over while Zartan had everyone distracted fighting 50-year-old grudges, the neoliberal university, the Gates foundation, state legislatures, they’re all coming in and killing us off while we’re distracted fighting our own 50-year-old grudges. I just hope that as philosophers we can be smarter and more nuanced than the plot of a GI Joe movie. Our survival depends on it.