If you’re an American of letters of the sort who currently gets called upon by places like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books to diagnose European philosophers, you have a fairly straightforward job laid out for you. Step one: Read the book, preferably with no prior familiarity with the philosopher’s work, influences, or academic milieu. Step two: search the text, as well as perhaps some basic biographical sources, for any indication that the philosopher had or has radical political commitments, or might have ever made comments about Hitler or communist regimes that are difficult to parse at first glance. If so, you’ve already discovered the main theme for your review. Step three: open with a few paragraphs of summary of the philosopher’s biography before transitioning into your central disquisition about whether or not they have apologized for ever having radical ideas and, if not, cluck disappointedly about their lack of intellectual responsibility. If you’re feeling a little bold, insinuate that they are anti-Semitic. For good measure, throw in a few concluding bromides about the temptations of being an intellectual.
This is obviously a polemical rendering. But if we have a problem in American criticism, it is something like this: intellectuals of a very narrow, almost comically American political perspective eternally lecturing Europeans about their intellectual vices to the point that it is difficult to find good-faith debate about European thought anywhere most nonspecialist readers would look. Whether they are marginally left or right, American critics join in a remarkably uniform effort to police the frontiers of ideas, immediately tarring anyone whose ideas give off the scent of transcendentalism, metaphysics, or political liberation with labels like, “intellectually irresponsible,” “apologizes for tyranny,” “unrepentant _______.” The result is a public discourse where the requirements for being a Serious Person are so stringent that everyone published in any prominent organ of ideas sounds some variation of the same dull notes.
A somewhat trivial recent example is a review of a new collection of Sartre’s essays by the poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch. The brief essay is a perfect illustration of the American critical posture: Sartre’s “dark side” (his political commitment) got the better of his conscience and he succumbed to the “vices” of being an intellectual by arguing for a time that people should derive their identity from membership in the Communist Party, and by being “an apologist for the worst kinds of oppression, so long as it comes waving the banner of liberation.” After describing how Sartre struggled with the totalitarianism of communist regimes and eventually criticized it, Kirsch chides him for continuing to believe in the “illusion” that socialist principles could be useful for oppressed residents of the third world.
This characterization only stands up because Kirsch has decided beforehand, and expects most of his readers to agree, that any philosophical espousal of Marxist ideas is ipso facto complicit in totalitarianism, and that any serious engagement of such ideas is intellectually irresponsible. Another characterization of Sartre might go like this: he was a philosopher of a previous generation who found himself confronted with an incredibly radical mid-century French philosophical scene (Althusser and structural Marxism), and who continually wrestled with whether his own philosophical program was compatible with communism. He was indeed “all over the place” intellectually for a few decades that happened to follow the most traumatic events in European history. The future we now see as given—total capitalist victory, liberal-democratic dominance, United States hegemony—was not at all obvious, and to many in Europe and the U.S., Marxism offered a better path. European intellectuals felt enormous responsibility for achieving the best outcome from that chaos and some, including Sartre, risked their lives in the effort. Sartre continually reworked his political affiliations to better reflect his convictions, including his break with the Parti communiste française in 1956, which he saw as becoming too authoritarian. However off-note we might find some of his writings now, who are we to say what year Jean-Paul Sartre should have become a critic of which regime, and which ideas that were plausible to many principled people at the time were “illusions” he should now be castigated for refusing to abandon?
But Kirsch’s intent is not to present a textured portrait of Sartre’s thought. It is to turn him into a moral lesson that all radical roads lead to tyranny—especially if they involve any traces of hope for liberation or any effort to rethink human society outside the liberal capitalist paradigm. It’s no surprise that right-wingers in places like Commentary and National Review believe they can spend the rest of their lives shooting their cardboard-target version of Marx before adoring, if aging, audiences. But it is rather disheartening to see the sort of moralizing that parades as argument even in the nation’s most storied liberal publications. For example:
—Mark Lilla lumping Heidegger, Benjamin, Derrida, Badiou, Zizek, and Agamben into his overblown, historically dubious narrative about European intellectuals who just can’t let go of their desire for transcendence, which inevitably leads to totalitarianism. His book The Reckless Mind, a collection of NYRB articles, is an attempted biographical character assassination that deals with the actual philosophy of its subjects only in the most rudimentary, prejudicial outlines. In his 2008 piece that focused heavily on Alain Badiou (a French “Maoist” who happens to be the one of country’s most original living philosophers) snark overpowers any semblance of argument. As in his other intellectual profiles, Lilla virtually ignores Badiou’s philosophy in favor of mocking his philosophical support for political violence (which is at least partly a performative posture and which Lilla doesn’t bother trying to explain) and recycling the ludicrous charge that Badiou is anti-Semitic.
Adam Kirsch’s 2008 essay on Zizek in The New Republic, which cherry-picks passages on violence to build a case that Zizek is a both left-wing revolutionary and a fascist, and also possibly an anti-Semite. Predictably, Kirsch tried to understand Zizek by way of the tired American binary “freedom vs. tyranny,” and, as is apparent to anyone with a philosophical background who has encountered Zizek’s work, failed quite spectactularly. There is simply nothing in the middlebrow moral-critical framework that can accommodate an paradigm that is equal parts Hegel and Lacan, and that deploys deliberately outrageous digressions just to reveal how total the capitalist grip on thought is. To the earnest American liberal, this is all either just patent absurdity, the result of dangerous spiritual yearning, or both.
The British philosopher John Gray reviewing Zizek in the NYRB last year, where he wonders why Zizek doesn’t care about empiricism and historical facts. Gray is rare in this genre for being an actual philosopher, but he manages to judge Zizek through the same uncomprehending, moralizing lens. He indulges in the same sort of textual sampling as Kirsch, rambling about Zizek’s view of violence and painting him as someone who plays fast and loose with the Holocaust. As usual, a coherent reconstruction of the philosopher’s ideas doesn’t seem to be a priority; we get only what is necessary for the ritual dismissal good liberal readers think is owed anyone who might still think revolution is possible.
Carlin Romano’s 2009 anti-Heidegger rant in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which piggybacked on another in a long line of French books claiming that Heidegger’s thought should be rejected because of his involvement in Nazi politics. Romano’s screed—if anything, that description is an understatement—reiterates a litany of biographical facts about Heidegger that have now been known for decades, and, without any apparent familiarity with Heidegger’s philosophy, claims he should be “mocked to to the hilt” rather than engaged by philosophers or historians. There is no curiosity as to why Heidegger might have influenced such an enormous swath of European and American thought from his own day to the present—left and right, political and a-political, religious and non-religious—despite the fact that for part of his life he was an “unrepentant” Nazi. (That adjective may not be incorrect when applied to Heidegger, but its ubiquity in American criticism reveals a pervasive presentist bias and a strange obsession with moral prosecution.
My point is not that critics cannot review philosophers, that there are not political criticisms to be made of radical intellectuals, or that the ideas of modern-day revolutionaries like Badiou and Zizek should not be considered controversial. The point is that they are only engaged in the form of the “takedown,” a reality that exposes a conservatism opposed to even giving certain ideas—often philosophical, often European, often from the far left—so much as a fair hearing. It is to be expected that American liberals will disagree with a French Maoist, but they currently do not believe they even have to make an argument. (This extends in an unfortunate number of cases to academic philosophers and historians who do have the expertise a serious engagement would require.) A few random passages, a load of snark, and a dash of political moralizing will suffice.
What are they so afraid of? If Anglo-American political theory and liberal-capitalist politics are so superior, then what do they have to fear from a few fringe theorists? While I understand the entertainment value of a withering takedown, I will never understand the desire to finger-wag ideas off the stage before the fight can even begin. You do not have to be at all radical to welcome a good-faith conflict between ideas, and to believe that engaging even the most unsettling ones can improve your own. (As Stephen Metcalf put it responding to the Romano essay, “I never thought the answer to illiberalism was more illiberalism.”)
The notion that “responsible politics” must be protected from dangerous intellectuals is itself an ideological danger, one that risks excusing the enormous, ongoing, and entirely preventable crimes of our political system. It’s precisely this unquestionable ideology of givenness that people like Badiou and Zizek are attempting to unsettle, and the reason I suspect they provoke such an anti-intellectual reaction.
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