Thursday, August 30, 2007
All this, like Rand's work in general, is easy to take issue with. But it is important to realize one thing when attacking her: Ayn Rand is, for all her loudmouthed claims to the contrary, not a philosopher at all. She is first and foremost a polemicist. This is evident, for instance, in her tendency to attribute to isolated events the characteristics of historical shifts; in her easy movement from one premise of condemnation to another, without any necessary logical connection between the two; in her focus on the personalities and minutiae of events rather than abstract underlying concepts (I have found that this is true of most of the work published in the sixties that we today are inclined to call philosophical). Perhaps the philosopher is latent in her, but is always buried by the avalanche of unfocused, unending indignation, which, lacking structure and symmetry, tends by its deficiency of aesthetic appeal to destroy the significance of the work.
Accordingly, there are lots of little ironies scattered through her text. Unfamiliar with Paul Goodman, she sees fit to smear him along with his student companions, though he probably had more affinity with her than anybody else in Berkeley at the time. She mounts a spirited defense of "system-building," though her beloved natural and constitutional rights were articulated by men whose impulse it was to combat precisely that tendency. She sets up a series of antinomies inherent in the regulation of public property, and her own interpretation of them comes out looking much weaker. All these are the excrescences of rage, not philosophy--not even her own elaborate and Cartesian philosophy.
But in the text, concealed amidst the froth, there is a manifesto. Rand proposes that the really effective and justified student rebel must possess, more or less, three qualities: anti-collectivism, which implies intellectual independence; rationality, the willingness to expose premises and assumptions and argue from them; and a recognition of the power and necessity of ideology. None of these are bad ideas; in fact, they are really prerequisites for any kind of philosophy. But they also constitute something else: intellectual courage.
In our unheroic days, courage means little--perhaps saving a baby from a fire, perhaps killing a terr'ist once in a while. It is a quality few of us ever have the chance to demonstrate. Intellectual courage, on the other hand, is apparently all over the place, especially in the academic fetishization of "speaking truth to power." We pretend that the latter is really equivalent to the former, when in reality there is nothing easier, nothing more harmless, nothing less courageous than being an oppositional intellectual. Take, for instance, Derrick Jensen's The Culture of Make Believe. It bristles with epater les bourgeois: "we" need to realize that civilization is bad, that nature is great by itself, that capitalism is bad, that the state is bad, that pollution and industrialization and war are all bad, bad, bad. No doubt hippies everywhere stretch grimy hands toward their cocks at such a profusion of rhetoric. But these ideas, however true they may be, have no function other than convincing ourselves of our own righteousness. Does anyone, deep inside, really believe that there is a practical function to this thousand pages of labored j'accuse? It only serves to widen the gulf between our avowed ideas and our actions, between the things we pretend to believe and the things we end up committing ourselves to.
Intellectual courage is not a conflict against The System, though someone intellectually courageous may reject it. Intellectual courage is, above all, a fight between the philosopher and herself. It involves her constantly probing her ideas for inconsistencies, conceding and adopting the arguments of her worst enemies, embracing unavoidable conclusions, however unappealing. And it is that quality which shines through most strongly in Rand's work. It is necessary, but not sufficient, for philosophy.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
In the old divisions of the country, various accidents at various times, and the ebb and flow of various properties and jurisdictions, settled their bounds. These bounds were not made upon any fixed system undoubtedly. They were subject to some inconveniences: but they were inconveniences for which use had found remedies, and habit had supplied accommodation and patience ... When these state surveyors came to take a view of their work of measurement, they soon found, that in politics the most fallacious of all things was geometrical demonstration ... It was evident, that the goodness of the soil, the number of the people, their wealth, and the largeness of their contribution, made such infinite variations between square and square, as to render mensuration a ridiculous standard of power in the commonwealth, and equality in geometry the most unequal of all measures in the distribution of men ...We seem to be faced with a contradiction. In his 1788 Warren Hastings speech, Burke had condemned spatialized morality as being against all the foundations of natural law. But here, he seems to be saying something totally different: namely, that spatialization--the unequal distribution of norms--is both inevitable and integral to effective policy. I have tried to establish a parallelism between historicism and spatialization; this confirms it. It does so because Burke's contradictory attitude toward space is almost an exact mirror of his uneasy attitude to history. On the one hand, history and tradition (in Alasdair Macintyre's sense of tradition as a mode of moral inquiry) are the source of political legitimacy, that deeply irrational inheritance which must guide us in our behavior; but on the other, natural law is still the governing force of morality. In the same way, historical delimitations of space are the natural companion of the traditions of communities, free cities, noble estates--the inequality of space is an index of the natural inequality of society, which Burke cannot but affirm; yet morality must not be guided by lines of latitude because it really depends on man's relationship to God and to his fellows, on a strange sort of natural law.
It is impossible not to observe, that, in the spirit of this geometrical distribution, and arithmetical arrangement, these pretended citizens treat France exactly like a country of conquest. Acting as conquerors, they have imitated the policy of the harshest of that harsh race. The policy of such barbarous victors, who contemn a subdued people, and insult their feelings, has ever been, as much as in them lay, to destroy all vestiges of the ancient country, in religion, in polity, in laws, and in manners; to confound all territorial limits; to produce a general poverty; to put up their properties to auction; to crush their princes , nobles, and pontiffs; to lay low everything which had lifted its head above the level, or which could serve to combine or rally, in their distresses, the disbanded people, under the standard of old opinion.
- Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolution in France"
Burke's exit from the contradiction between the historicized and spatialized morality of tradition and more-or-less transcendent natural law depends on the redefinition of natural law itself as something accessible through historical and spatial inquiry. This is never wholly satisfactory, and in his "Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs" he avoids the responsibility of fully resolving the contradiction:
No lines can be laid down for civil or political wisdom. They are a matter incapable of exact definition. But, though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable.The problem, of course, is that what may be tolerably distinguishable in one age or place is not necessarily so in another. If Burke cannot, then, resolve his dilemma, perhaps we can try to suggest a different approach.
I propose that the operative question is not of morality, but of power: applied ethics. What does the India of Warren Hastings have in common with the France of the National Assembly? They are both victims of the imposition of a supposedly transcendent, but arbitrary, power with the privilege of governing morality. Thus Warren Hastings' crime is not that he thinks ethics vary from place to place, it is that he thinks this distribution ought to be governed by some method of inquiry other than tradition; his arbitrary exercise of power is not a consequence of the indigenous political development of the Indians. Similarly, the National Assembly presumes to substitute geometry for tradition, denying the necessary inequality of space. It is obvious to any reader that Burke's objection to the French Revolution is that it deploys reason inappropriately. But why, then, does he compare the French to conquerors? It is because power, applied from outside, is always illegitimate.
The significance of spatialization here is clear. If history provides a source for morality, space delimits and circumscribes its legitimacy. The Burkean ideal is not the dynastic state (like Japan, whose rulers descended from Amaterasu), wholly legitimized by history; it is the tiny London principalities of Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill. This ideal allows the philosophy of Burke to emerge from its hidebound devotion to the powers that be and provide a genuine site of resistance, an incontrovertible claim to resistance against state power, which by its nature is external, un-historical, un-spatial. We may then more easily recognize the roots of Burke's revulsion for even, geometrical, surveyed space, a revulsion which, again, has found its echo in Foucault.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
How can people like us, who shun official appointments like the plague, fit into a ‘party’? And what have we, who spit on popularity, who don’t know what to make of ourselves if we show signs of growing popular, to do with a ‘party’, i.e. a herd of jackasses who swear by us because they think we're of the same kidney as they? Truly, it is no loss if we are no longer held to be the ‘right and adequate expression’ of the ignorant curs with whom we have been thrown together over the past few years.
A revolution is a purely natural phenomenon which is subject to physical laws rather than to the rules that determine the development of society in ordinary times. Or rather, in revolution these rules assume a much more physical character, the material force of necessity makes itself more strongly felt. And as soon as one steps forward as the representative of a party, one is dragged into this whirlpool of irresistible natural necessity. By the mere fact of keeping oneself independent, being in the nature of things more revolutionary than the others, one is able at least for a time to maintain one’s independence from this whirlpool, although one does, of course, end up by being dragged into it.The trouble with Marxist theory is that it so often removes Marx and Engels from their vital, human context. How would, say, Althusser respond to the claim made in this letter? I don't think he would have been able to. Marx is mythologically a creature identified with revolution, with the proletariat. But here it seems that Engels is concerned with maintaining independence, not only from the mediocrities of the socialist parties, but also from the great popular movement itself--even if this is a hopeless effort.
- Engels to Marx, February 13, 1851
Is it ironic that such an attitude would be found in the work of someone so strongly associated with collective action? Again, I think not. The reasoning seems to be this: we are describing certain processes which inevitably occur in capitalist society, like revolution; but we recognize that our role as intellectuals is distinct from the broader revolutionary project; so therefore we must work to maintain an autonomy of mind that will tend to erode away in the context of these movements, even if we approve of them. Marx and Engels, acerbic cynics with nary a shred of faith in humanity, would hardly abandon their own, "more revolutionary," social location in favor of running with the "jackasses."
The denial of this privileged philosophical standpoint, which Marx and Engels inherited from a line of philosophers stretching back to Heraclitus, is, I think, the cardinal error of contemporary leftism. For historical materialism, as described by Marx, could stand and fall only insofar as it accurately reflected the movements of the masses: not merely the fact of class struggle, but the fact of class-conscious agency. As it became clear throughout the course of the last century that no such class-consciousness was forthcoming, and as the form of it that existed in the 19th century began gradually to dissolve under reformist pressure, leftists became aware that in order to salvage their theory some cardinal assumptions had to be revised. The abstracted, independent, "more revolutionary" philosopher--not merely a member of the vanguard--was the first to go, to be replaced by a sincerely idealistic revolutionary who was intimately in tune with his people, feeling their suffering like the God of liberation theology. After all, if the entirety of your revolution is to be carried out by a squad of twelve scruffy college students, you have of necessity to substitute sincerity for reliance on the masses.
The great debate between theory and praxis is the fallout of a misunderstanding of that classic eleventh thesis: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Who is doing the changing? Certainly not the philosophers, and certainly not, for all his organizational activity, Marx himself. He was too smart to conceive of the philosopher's practical role as anything but incidental to the great movements of class. And hence, as he repeatedly declared, he was "no Marxist."
The cretinous idealism that pervades the Left today--in which anyone who criticizes the assumption that the silent majority is just waiting for some enlightened Antioch graduate to lead them to freedom is attacked as not "daring to dream" or whatever (though thankfully no longer as a running dog lackey)--is thus fundamentally antithetical to the grounded pragmatism of Marx and Engels. Which is not to say that leftists would be any more effective otherwise, but it certainly suggests that they are far more bourgeois than they would admit. For the demand for authenticity, the need to be a "real," camo-wearing, face-painted revolutionary, is quintessentially bourgeois. If anyone had suggested to Marx that he be on the frontlines of the class war, like some bearded Jewish Marianne, he would have laughed in their face. (after asking them for money, naturally)
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Franklin's essay on farts is the essence of the Enlightenment. Reason, here, is not the highminded abstraction of the Cartesians, nor the cracked idol of the nineteenth century. It is a tool designed to liberate man, to allow him by its liberal application to improve his life. This extends to the smallest things. Improving the smell of farts by practical reason is not some kind of faint echo of the great society-shaping projects of the French Revolution; in fact, the latter proceeds from the former, rather than the other way around. If reason can be used to improve the smallest things, it can also be used to make big things more convenient, more manageable, themselves more amenable to rational improvement. Without this attitude, the "recovery of nerve" would be so much idle talk.
GENTLEMEN,I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question ... I was glad to find by these following Words, "l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE", that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis’d greater_Utility ... My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes ... For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick’d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! ... Surely such a Liberty of Expressing one’s Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human Happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight & die for. -- In short, this Invention, if compleated, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms.
- Benjamin Franklin [hat tip]
But there is something else here, too: the ironic pose of a Swift or a Mandeville. With our still nineteenth-century understanding, we often think of irony and sincerity as mutually exclusive, polar opposites. If that's so, the question becomes: did Franklin really want perfumed farts? Was he making fun of rationalism? This phrasing, which demands a binary response, is misguided. Irony, in the eighteenth century, was never simply a means of ridicule. It was a way of abstracting oneself from one's own engagement with a topic--the complement of Richard Sennett's idea of the public self. Franklin, of all people, would hardly have been one to attack fighting and dying for free speech. But by making light of his preoccupations, he could avoid metaphysical ponderousness, taking himself too seriously. The Enlightenment's application of reason to practical matters was always in contrast to the system-building of the seventeenth century. Practical reason (not the Kantian kind) does not require confidence in one's own omniscience or at least impeccable good sense; it only requires the kind of joyful, pragmatic experimentation that would produce a perfume for farts that is not merely functional but also not disagreeable.
And this is a profoundly democratic impulse. Cartesian metaphysics, with its weight of trees and hierarchies, is always elitist at the core. Practical reason relies on the individual herself to figure things out; she doesn't need political power, she needn't even have read Newton, but she has something to contribute to the world's great body of knowledge. This, maybe, is why botany was so popular in the colonies. Botany, as Jane Colden and Alexander Garden and Peter Collinson saw it, required only patience and some mental effort. Thomas Jefferson's great premise--that we can be trusted to govern ourselves--stems from this faith in the ability of the insignificant to change the world, even perhaps in insignificant ways.
This respect and trust for local, small-scale efforts often gets lost in critiques of the Enlightenment; even Burke, the man who after Rousseau was practical reason's greatest foe, did not really grasp it. But I think that it's perhaps the most important--certainly the most inspiring--legacy of the eighteenth century.
Monday, August 20, 2007
It is my bees, however, which afford me the most pleasing and extensive themes; let me look at them when I will, their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new ... I seldom thwart their inclinations; it is in freedom that they work: were I to confine them, they would dwindle away and quit their labour. In such excursions we only part for a while; I am generally sure to find them again the following fall. This elopement of theirs only adds to my recreations; I know how to deceive even their superlative instinct; nor do I fear losing them, though eighteen miles from my house, and lodged in the most lofty trees, in the most impervious of our forests ... After I have done sowing, by way of recreation, I prepare for a week's jaunt in the woods, not to hunt either the deer or the bears, as my neighbours do, but to catch the more harmless bees. I cannot boast that this chase is so noble, or so famous among men, but I find it less fatiguing, and full as profitable; and the last consideration is the only one that moves me ... I seldom fail of coming to the tree where those republics are lodged.The image comes, it seems, from Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, one of the best satires of an age fixated on satire. Mandeville was one of the first to claim, in the traditional formulation, that private vices bring public benefits. Likening England to a hive of petty, vicious, hypocritical bees who, because of their depravity, construct a flourishing state, he portrayed this state's subsequent decline as a direct result of the bees' sudden moral rectitude.
- Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters From an American Farmer
What, then, is the precise relationship between the ideas of Mandeville and of Crèvecoeur? It is crucial that the latter does not directly discuss the bees from this standpoint. But he is preoccupied with them: he states twice that they, above all the other species sharing his rural homestead, are the source of insight and enjoyment. His writing about them is shot through with political themes: he rescues some bees them from a "kingbird" (at which point the bees, endearingly, "returned to life, licked themselves clean, and joyfully went back to the hive; where they probably informed their companions of such an adventure and escape, as I believe had never happened before to American bees!"). The obliqueness of the political references should not confuse us: Crèvecoeur's second letter, whence these passages come, is concerned with establishing a political image of a self-reliant farmer through descriptions of his daily activities. The bees fit this project quite well.
Crèvecoeur uses the bees' habits for, not the public, but his own benefit. He catches them by baiting a trap with honey ("for they are fond of preying on that which is not their own") and tagging them with vermilion, which they carry back to their hive and thus allow it to be found; he uses them to predict the weather, and, of course, for honey. But he also has a deep respect for them, unlike his cattle (whom he is obliged to "govern ... as wise men are obliged to govern fools and the ignorant"). The bees are republicans, and they are best led by themselves, except when their political organization fails them. The kingbird episode is instructive: the bird preys on the bees, who attack it in a "phalanx," but soon, sensing their superiority, become disordered, allowing the kingbird to eat them all up. If this had come from the pen of a revolutionary, it would be read as a straightforward injunction to keep together and maintain virtue in the face of royal depredation and corruption.
But Crèvecoeur was no rebel; in fact, he was a fairly die-hard Loyalist. Why would he have written something like this (besides just to talk about his bees)? Indeed, his description of the kingbird is explicitly very ambivalent: kingbirds protect the field from crows, but wreak havoc on the bees. What this suggests is an antagonistic version of the conventional 18th-century Polybian narrative of politics: monarchs fight the aristocratic crows (which, it seems, represent the Patriot bigshots that vexed Crèvecoeur so), but cannot but oppress the gentle Third Estate of bees. After all, "nothing exists but what has its enemy, one species pursue and live upon the other." For Crèvecoeur had no investment in the monarchy as such; he reveled in the almost complete absence of a king in the American hinterlands. He was concerned chiefly with the welfare of his family.
If Crèvecoeur truly adhered to, or had some vague sense of, an antagonistic Polybianism, then perhaps this explains some of the "monarcho-anarchist" tendencies of his thought. If political conflict is a historical constant, a function of the wheel of fortuna, then it is best not to take sides so adamantly as to perish when your faction inevitably loses the upper hand. Thus the Farmer seeks to protect the bees and the kingbirds simultaneously. And the result is that, like Mandeville's bees, Crèvecoeur can use the vicious cycle of fortune to carve out his own little republic.
Friday, August 17, 2007
When I consider the impression that our river of Dordoigne has made in my time, on the right bank of its descent, and that in twenty years it has gained so much, and undermined the foundations of so many houses, I perceive it to be an extraordinary agitation: for had it always followed this course, or were hereafter to do it, the aspect of the world would be totally changed. But rivers alter their course, sometimes beating against the one side, and sometimes the other, and sometimes quietly keeping the channel. I do not speak of sudden inundations, the causes of which everybody understands. In Medoc, by the seashore, the Sieur d'Arsac, my brother, sees an estate he had there, buried under the sands which the sea vomits before it: where the tops of some houses are yet to be seen, and where his rents and domains are converted into pitiful barren pasturage. The inhabitants of this place affirm, that of late years the sea has driven so vehemently upon them, that they have lost above four leagues of land. These sands are her harbingers: and we now see great heaps of moving sand, that march half a league before her, and occupy the land.Rivers as a concept are perhaps the oldest philosophical metaphor, and perhaps also the most contested. For Heraclitus, rivers are slippery, undefinable, pure Becoming; for Thales, they are an object of statist rationalization (we might also remember Derrida's "things like reflecting pools"). Rivers can serve nationalist rhetoric ("Volga, Volga," "the mighty Mississip'"), and in these cases they represent stability, unhampered communication, commerce. Unlike the open sea, with its unpredictable and violent storms, rivers represent nature tamed, harnessed to human aims. There are as many uses for rivers, both in reality and in philosophy, as there are rivers themselves.
- Montaigne, "On Cannibals"
But what is the point of Montaigne's strange aside--almost a non-sequitur, like many of his asides--coming as it does in the middle of an essay about the people of the New World? It expresses, beautifully and poignantly, some basic anxieties and contradictions in our vision of history, the history, specifically, of rupture and turmoil. It is as powerful an image as Walter Benjamin's Angelus Novus, the mounds of debris piling up before its retreating flight. But it is neither a simple nor a well-examined image.
The passage proceeds dialectically, from contradiction to contradiction. The river is agitated and destructive; but it was not always thus, because our world would then be incomprehensible. But this is not an exceptional moment either, since changes of pace and channel are inherent in the nature of the river. But maybe it is an exception after all, since "sudden inundations" are something which "everybody understands," and Montaigne has not a clue why this has been happening. It is grotesquely destructive, and parallels the violence of the sea at Medoc--but the sea is preceded by the sand, its harbinger, and thus can be predicted or controlled.
The foreshortening effect of history--recent events seem more momentous, history seems to be moving faster, a turn in Civilization takes 1 year rather than 20--is widely recognized. That stops no one from saying "9/11 changed everything" or even "the post-Imus world." We can attribute this tendency to a lack of historical sense in the populace, to the planned-obsolescence consumer culture, to the increased speed and efficiency of communication and industry; all of these are probably, to some extent, true. Montaigne, however, seems to suffer from the same malady. He can hardly be accused of a lack of historical sense, he was not a consumer, he lived in comparative isolation. So perhaps this tendency is in some way inherent in our interpretation of history itself?
The only historical constant is not that the bourgeoisie is always rising, but that history is always altering its course. We think we know the river, where and how fast it will flow, and even when sudden inundations will upset its normal run, but the Halys can cut straight through its meander, even the oldest villagers will be surprised at the river's latest depredations...
For ages the fault creeps secret through the rock; in a second, ledge and railings, tourists and turbines all thunder over Niagara. Which snowflake triggers the avalanche? A house explodes; a star. In your spouse, so apparently resigned, murder twitches like a fetus. At some trifling new assessment, all the colonies rebel.The river and the sea are incompatible. The sea destroys, it piles up the sand like Benjamin's debris--but we already know the story that down there awaits its end. The river can be placid, can be turbulent, but it will not be bound by rules, every instant changes the aspect of the world. It's not just one damned thing after another: sometimes, it's lots of things, sometimes nothing at all. We can not only not predict it, we can't even interpret it: is its turbulence now an echo or an innovation? Is it the final confluence of forces long in preparation, or is it a caprice of weather, or is it the unintended result of some new watermill? Our own perception, our own immersion in the river, denies us the abstracted standpoint of the scientist.
- John Barth, "Two Meditations"
And finally, of course, Montaigne was right. The New World's opening up to Western colonies would prove a cataclysm as important for the fate of the world as his Dordogne's was for his village. Fatal for the "cannibals" whom Montaigne so adored, productive perhaps for his peasants, it would be an inundation unpredictable and yet something everyone would "understand." Something genuinely new? Or just the river's long-prepared flow?
Thursday, August 16, 2007
If the French Revolution could fix for all eternity the dramatis personae of French politics, why couldn't a different revolution do the same thing? Maybe the American Revolution was not such a radical event after all; maybe it, also, centered around tropes picked out at an earlier age. Whence could the Americans have derived the dramatic structure of their great revolt? Not from Country Whig ideology, which, the work of the past three decades to the contrary, was never quite as homogeneous a source of influence as Bailyn and Pocock like to think. For if ideas inspire a revolution, they can contradict one another; but if they determine it, they must be consistent.
If the American Revolution drew its dramatic heritage from anywhere, it would be from the English Revolution. The similarities are striking, and they seem not to emerge simply from a common Anglo-American mindset. For instance, the language in the merchants' agreement to oppose Charles I's ship money is remarkably similar to the non-importation agreement of the American colonists. Objections to the dissolution of legislatures bear a like resemblance.
In general, there seem to be two characteristics which both revolutions have in common and which separate them from the French. First, the focus on the significance of property and the cash nexus; second, the very Freudian, and explicitly acknowledged, renunciation of the role of the king as a father to his country. Thus these revolutionaries seem to be acting out a family-romance story of adolescent rebellion, of youthful radicalism cooling off to a predictable stolidity. This is why neither the true radicalism of a Thomas Paine nor the theocratic radicalism of the Diggers and the Fifth Monarchists could hope to really triumph: in the bourgeois novel that is revolutionary history, these enthusiasms were to be sloughed off like so many Che Guevara T-shirts.
Furet and Freud, and the Marx of the "Eighteenth Brumaire": these are the prophets of a new, localized historicism. We need not assert that reified history follows a predictable path to recognize that as historical agents, it is too easy and too common for us to flow into channels already carved, to replace with the theatrical evocation of emotion the real drives and impulses that once constructed our agency.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
I am not indeed certain that some operatical farce, under the name of a social contract or compact, may not have been acted by the Illuminati and constitution-manufacturers at the close of the eighteenth century; a period which how far it deserved the name, so complacently affixed to it by contemporaries, of "this enlightened age," may be doubted. That it was an age of enlighteners no one will deny.Several things about this text are striking. It departs markedly from the measured and judicious tone of the rest of the work, which is not an example of the paranoid style. It is only vaguely relevant to its content, and it is difficult to tell whether Coleridge is being ironic, genuinely outraged, or both.
The note suggests a few things. It implies, first, that the Enlightenment in general, and political liberalism specifically, was not a structured historical process at all, but a project defined and created by the individual agency of the "enlighteners." Second, it seems almost to identify the Illuminati with the "constitution-manufacturers." Who are these manufacturers? Coleridge is certainly not talking about the English Constitution, an idea whose political conceptualization significantly predates the 1776 founding of the Bavarian Illuminati. It is clear that he is talking about the American Constitution, and probably, following Burke, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as well. Finally, and most surprisingly, the whole thing is described as an "operatical farce."
Coleridge was not, of course, the only one to attribute the great eighteenth-century revolutions to a conspiracy of secret societies; such an argument was, and continues to be, a staple of anti-liberal ideology. But Coleridge's role as a founding Romantic, an aesthete, and a critic of Bentham allows us to locate some interesting theoretical intersections. Was Coleridge a monarchist in Gordon Wood's sense--tied to a hierarchical, face-to-face society, inclined to interpret political events as the machinations of a conspiracy composed of individuals? Or was he a typical Burkean, committed to an organic conception of political development, critical of the practical uses of unfettered reason?
It seems to me that Coleridge's interpretation of politics is on some level both a personalistic and an aesthetic one. The operative metaphor here is the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan. The pleasure dome is a work of art and will, created by a great and terrifying figure with the authority to move mountains and men. The surface level of the dome is placid and pastoral, but underneath it, of course, run caves filled with demonic turmoil. If the eighteenth-century revolutions are an "operatical farce"--that is, a failed and vulgar work of art--it is because they are built on the ahistorical and illusory foundation of contract theory, without accounting for the "measureless" chthonian depths that underlie the structure (a classically Burkean denial of the power of reason to substitute for, or even understand, the organic and irrational institutions that hold society together).
Politics-as-art is a dangerous vision, finding echoes in Hitler as well as in Gabriele D'Annunzio's short-lived fascist utopia in Fiume. But as an interpretive framework, it is uniquely liberating; as art critics, we have the advantage of not having to get our hands dirty. An aesthetic theory of politics allows us to disclaim responsibility for the great political events that shape our lives.
Monday, August 13, 2007
These gentlemen have formed a plan of geographical morality, by which the duties of men in public and in private situations are not to be governed by their relations to the great governor of the universe, or by their relations to men, but by climates, degrees of longitude and latitude, parallels not of life but of latitudes; as if, when you have crossed the equinoctial line, all the virtues die, as they say some animals die when they cross the line; as if there were a kind of baptism, like that practised by seamen, by which they unbaptize themselves of all that they learned in Europe, and commence a new order and system of things.As a conservative, Edmund Burke disliked historicism as much as he disliked the "geographical morality" of men like Warren Hastings. He insisted on a natural law that was both transcendent and universal. But if we can part ways from that enlightened viewpoint for a moment, we may have the opportunity to analyze a more interesting application of Burke's indictment: the clear parallel between historicism and geographical morality.
- Edmund Burke, Speech on the Impeachment of Warren Hastings
At the end of the study someone spoke up -- a Sartrean psychologist -- who firebombed me, saying that space is reactionary and capitalist, but history and becoming are revolutionary. This absurd discourse was not at all unusual at the time. Today everyone would be convulsed with laughter at such a pronouncement, but not then.
- Michel Foucault, 1984 interview
Is it time, then, to speak of a spatialized and not simply a historicized morality? I do not mean this merely in the sense of a cultural relativism, though the latter's premises deserve to be viewed in this context. I mean that just as Hegel could trace the development of Spirit and its attendant modes of thought through time, we can trace them through space (even Hegel himself, actually, grounded his argument in both historical and geographical considerations) . This involves not only a crude classification of the moralities of different areas, but also an interrogation of morality's superimposition on the fields and networks of the interconnected world, on relationships of core and periphery, on loci of power and rebellion.
What could be the advantages of an approach which privileges the spatialized aspect of morality? First, it can perhaps teach us something about the relationship between the universal claims of ethics and their local expression, bringing to history and social science an awareness of the implications of the langue/parole dichotomy so crucial for (post-)structuralism. Thus we can move beyond a condemnation as simplistic as Burke's (which criticizes the East India Company for abandoning supposedly universal values) towards an understanding which grasps the inherently non-universal aspects of even the most universalistic moral theory: the values violated by Hastings and his men were no longer the same values they would have been in England, because of the fundamental interweaving of fields of power and morality.
But ethical thought, as Leo Strauss has noticed, is also a gateway to a broader scope of theory; we can make sense of the historicism of ethics only because we can make sense of the historicist mode of thought as such. Thus a spatialized theory of morality can lead us to a spatialized theory of metaphysics, politics, and ontology, in full Hegelian spirit. And the discovery of space will lead us back to Foucault and Deleuze, to institutions and to becomings-rhizomatic...
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Economically, the contradiction between town and country is an extremely antagonistic one both in capitalist society, where under the rule of the bourgeoisie the towns ruthlessly plunder the countryside, and in the Kuomintang areas in China, where under the rule of foreign imperialism and the Chinese big comprador bourgeoisie the towns most rapaciously plunder the countryside. But in a socialist country and in our revolutionary base areas, this antagonistic contradiction has changed into one that is non-antagonistic; and when communist society is reached it will be abolished.A basic, and largely unexamined, tendency in our perception of Marxist theory has been the implicit differentiation between the theoretically productive work of the Heroic Age of practical Marxism--the age of Marx himself, of Lenin, of Rosa Luxemburg--and the supposedly derivative and unsophisticated activity of the Cubans, the Shining Path, the various decolonizing leftists. While this distinction may be correct, it also promotes the questionable assumption that, among the latter groups, Marxist theory is only a superstructure for nationalist or authoritarian political aims. And even this assumption is in many cases justified.
- Mao Tse-tung, "On Contradiction"
But sometimes it fails us, suppressing rather than contributing to understanding. One of these cases is the dictatorship of Pol Pot. "Pol Pot" is not, as many assume, a Khmer name at all; it is not even an Asian name. Instead, it stands for politique potentielle: potential politics, adopted as a pseudonym by Saloth Sar while a student in France in the 1950s. This instance of the forgetting of the name is symptomatic of our forgetting of the ideological roots of the Cambodian genocide. We think of the two million victims as undifferentiated, or, at best, merely as "intellectuals." But they were also, and fundamentally, the residents of Cambodia's cities.
Why did Pol Pot kill the urban population of his country? Neither the Marxist-controlled student movement nor its successor, the early Khmer Rouge, were so resolutely agrarian. But it is in their Maoist descent that we must seek the origins of the genocide. For Mao, as opposed to Marx or even Lenin, the peasant class represents a revolutionary agent in itself. But the urban proletariat, as his early analysis of China's class structure shows, is still the inherently revolutionary class. With his specific brand of worker/peasant unity, Mao imagined a congenial resolution of the town and country contradiction specific to capitalist society. But the Maoist strategy of "encirclement" suggests that the "principal aspect" of the contradiction was no longer the proletariat--a truth which could not be articulated without placing into question the Marxist underpinnings of the Chinese revolution.
Pol Pot decided that urban/rural unity was impossible, and thereby realized the essence of the contradiction implicit in Maoism. This evolution is starkly un-Marxist: if historical materialism could stand the strain of the peasants operating in concert with the revolutionary proletariat, it could certainly not be compatible with a solely agrarian agency. The idealization of the peasants in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, nonetheless, owes as much to the heritage of Western thought as it does to the concrete circumstances of the Cambodian revolution. Its anti-intellectualism means it did not draw on the classical conceptualization of a natural retreat; rather, it is a primitive positioning of the country as a space uncontaminated by capitalism--or even civilization.
Thus, perversely, the romantic and unreal (and urban!) ideal of a privileged agricultural sphere saw its practical manifestation in one of the worst genocides in history. But that should not be surprising: after all, the demand for purity already inheres in that ideal, and an actualized revolution founded upon it could not help but purify itself. The truth of this ideology, then, is not a noble, but a very modern savagery.