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 spectacularly. 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.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • Patrick Sawyer

    David,

    Interesting post. I’m interested to know what (and where) you had your formal education. Please let me know if possible. I think I understand you to be in graduate school at NYU but am unsure.

    I do not know enough about the specific charges you make regarding Adam Kirsch but I agree with your general point that we should not dismiss a position before we have thoroughly heard it and we should never deceitfully truncate another position in order to gain an apparent polemical advantage. My particular context sees the academic left doing this at times.

    I assume you and Jonathan read my comments at least every now and then. If so you have some assessment as to where I may be coming from. You may be surprised (and happy) to know that I used a talk of Zizek favorably when I was leading a graduate school class through an exercise of how we might go about building a society composed of people from differing ideological standpoints if we could start from scratch. Using Zizek in such an instance actually fits with where I am coming from although I don’t subscribe to his over-arching perspectives. Thanks for the post.

  • Jonathan

    Three questions:

    1. Does the Corey Robin book meet your standards of sensitivity in its treatment of conservative thinkers?
    2. Does it consider that conservative political philosophy could have any merit, in any of its many varieties?
    3. Do you think that Adorno’s criticisms of Heidegger had any merit?

    My view: I’m equally bored with lazy reviewers who aren’t interested in examining ideas. However, philosophy is not the business of venerating gurus or quasi-prophets, it’s a process of critical examination, and grand reputations might turn out to be undeserved. It’s possible to have doubts about the worth of Badiou and Zizek without resorting to “leftism is bad” knee-jerking. It’s also a good thing to avoid equally tedious “conservatism is bad” knee-jerking, particularly as the term covers quite a range of positions, just like “the left”.

    • http://lhote.blogspot.com Freddie deBoer

      I can imagine (and have read) many criticisms of The Reactionary Mind, but the notion that it fails to take conservatism’s ideas seriously is pretty much nuts.

      • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

        (1) “Sensitivity” is not the issue; fairness is, and most of the time I think Robin is fair. (2) Obviously, everything I say above goes for right-wing radicals as well; Lilla is just as bad on Carl Schmitt, for example. (3) I haven’t read Adorno on Heidegger, but what tastes I’ve gotten have struck me as utterly missing the point. Not to say there’s not plenty to critique in Heidegger, but I wouldn’t say Adorno would be among the places I’d go.

        Your second paragraph is basically a restatement of my point – I’ve got no problem with people disagreeing with Zizek and Badiou (as I do myself), but with their lazy contempt.

  • http://lhote.blogspot.com Freddie deBoer

    I think that part of the reason for this is also one of the biggest problems with it: many American middlebrow intellectuals these days display a stunning rhetorical failure to actually muster anti-radical arguments. It’s not just that they don’t make them. It’s that the pretense that they don’t have to be made has eroded their ability to make them. It’s like an atrophying muscle.

    I meet, interact with, and argue with a lot of young liberals. They’re often very bright and very passionate. But the conversation often hits an impasse when it comes time to discuss Marxism and similar post-capitalist economic philosophies. They just don’t have any vocabulary for how to actually rebut them; they’ve come up in an intellectual environment where social credit is given not for mounting anti-radical arguments but for assuming that those arguments don’t have to be made. The cool kids share as one of their existential commitments the belief that genuinely left-wing political sentiment shouldn’t be rebutted, as this somehow legitimates it. Instead, it should be simply dismissed.

    Great piece.

  • PEG

    On the one hand, I think you’re fairly accurate in describing an incapacity in a certain kind of writer/thinker in grappling with radical ideas.

    On the other, there is something faintly absurd about saying, in essence, “The philistines, they dismiss thinkers just because they hold odious ideas.”

    You can sorta-maybe-kinda explain away Sartre’s communism (although your turn of phrase of “who the hell are we” to criticize him is, I must say, awfully French, and you know that that’s not a compliment for me), but Badiou is a guy who didn’t just affiliate with Maoism to fit in in French philosophical circles but actively participated in Maoist groups and considered–considers–it a big part of his identity; a guy who loudly defended the Khmer Rouge well after the reality of the regime was undeniable; a guy who defended the Maoist regime *as recently as the 2000s* all the while denouncing Sarkozy as a barbarian (guess it takes one to know one).

    Is there absolutely no point at which throwing up your hands and going “Well, if that’s where your ideas lead you, my guess is they’re probably not very good” is legitimate? How big the river of blood one must cheer?

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      I’m much more inclined to look at the overall result of say, Sartre’s or Badiou’s political activism, than the label they give it or what they rhetorically support. The results of Badiou’s political groups, for example, have been defense of immigrants and marginalized workers, not (that I know of) bombs or assassinations. And his “Maoism” is almost in name only; he’s much more interested in the theoretical content of Maoism as a framework for revolution as opposed to the party model of Leninism, etc.

      That said, Badiou and Zizek do support violence in some fashion and defend historical instances of it, and I don’t; thus, I’m not against those views being criticized or rebutted. I would have no complaint if their views on violence were mentioned in proportion with the whole of their philosophy and political activism, rather than portrayed as defining (it’s not) and/or automatically disqualifying. I think one of the weaknesses in American criticism that I’m circling around here is the overemphasis on politics; we (the general public) don’t discuss philosophy except through the lens of politics, and we only have one political lens. Critics like these want to sieze on “hot-button” views (violence, Israel) and reduce very large and complex philosophical oeuvres to those issues that get everyone riled up. It’s a very easy and cheap thing to do.

    • http://lhote.blogspot.com Freddie deBoer

      But this is precisely the point: the American capitalism you yourself prefer has rivers of blood of its own. Why am I not permitted to throw up my hands, in your terms, and simply dismiss those who support it? Because you merely assume the superior seriousness of those who justify it and the inherent unseriousness of those who prefer alternatives. Which exactly is David’s point: ideas must be rebutted, not dismissed, if you want to claim to be a serious antagonist to them. The only reason you feel permitted to dismiss radical ideas without rebuttal is because that is typical of your social cohort. And as you must know, that is no defense. None at all.

    • http://lhote.blogspot.com Freddie deBoer

      To put it more simply: you’re entitled to throw up your hands at these ideas, but when people write essays purporting to intellectually engage with them, they actually have to do so. Saying “I’m going to engage with this thinker,” and then metaphorically throwing up your hands while in the process of doing so, is neither serious nor helpful.

    • http://www.foarp.blogspot.com FOARP

      The problem with simply ascribing everything bad that happened under a government ascribing to a certain ideology to that ideology is that it allows the people you are criticising to respond by ascribing everything good that happened to that ideology and saying that the good was worth the bad. You see this a lot when discussing the current Chinese government – pretty much all the evils of Maoism and the Deng period are, in the views of the Chinese government’s defenders, worth the economic growth and relative stability of the past two decades in China. The fact that this economic growth could have happened without millions of people being done to death is neither here or there if you simply ignore the mechnisms underlying the cause of these deaths and ascribe them directly to the ideology in whose name they were killed.

      In the end, by simply pointing to all the bad things that happened and saying “your ideas did this”, you will not have won the argument. You can point to the Tiananmen square massacre as an example of what Chinese-style authoritarianism requires to keep it in power, but without explicitly showing the mechanism by which one causes the other, and showing that the ‘good’ that eventually came did not require the ‘bad’, you won’t have done anything.

  • AC

    A simple point – if you merely dismiss ‘out of hand’ the philosophy of others don’t be surprised when you find yourself undone by those of whom you scoffed.

    I would prefer to try to understand the Who-Why-How? Of their worldview & continue to engage rather than shut em down & leave them mired in anger, isolation & scorn – no telling how that may play out…..

  • Neil Wilson

    Interesting post – it seems that the boundaries of what is considered as ‘acceptable in US academic philosophical debate reflect the wider political world of the US where for example Obama is considered by many as ‘left wing’ and liberal’ and yet in the context of other Western democracies that the US likes to compare itself to Obama would be a center right politician. The left right spectrum in the US is quite narrow in reality in that the basic assumptions of both sides are near identical (eg: everyone in the US agrees that a capitalist free market economy is the ideal – something major political parties in Europe don’t agree on) and so all debate comes down to a matter of emphasis.

  • AC

    Neil – you haven’t read Obamas bio? Watch obamasamerica2016 – he may not be the world peace messiah everyone thought but he is far from the values Americans dear…. And he could careless about capitalism – he just wants control & economic devestation will ensure the controlled America he & his backers envision

    • Neil Wilson

      In what way is ‘he far from the values Americans dear’?
      I suspect you are saying this as Obama does not hold values exactly like you. Another obvious feature of modern US life is how siloed it has become. With so many sources of news and information people can live their entire lives only ever hearing and reading things that pander to their biases and beliefs and demonize anybody different. On the left we had the “Bush Derangement Syndrome” and now from the right we have the “Obama Derangement Syndrome”.
      A perfect example of the effect of siloing was shown up by the meltdown of the credibility of Karl Rove as an ‘expert’ guest forecaster on the FOX News coverage of the last election night. As was well put to him on air – “are these facts you make up to please yourself as a Republican?”
      That being said In fact on many many basic principles the two main political parties in the US are in agreement – certainly there are biggish groups who are more right and more left but even they broadly agree on such things as having a capitalist free market economy, whereas in France for example the Communist Party is still a major force to be contended with and its ideas influence French policy.

      • Patrick Sawyer

        Neal,

        I understand your point and to some extent it has merit, but (with respect) the more accurate assessment finds that both parties reject an undiluted free market economy. Both parties favor a hybrid system of socialism and capitalism. Both parties are content with significant government intrusion and regulation in the private sector leading to unearned financial gain and power to federal, state, and local government.

        Just two examples (and there are many others) are property taxes and public school. They both run counter to a truly free market. They ultimately are tethered to principles rooted in communism and they are virtually untouchable in the U.S (as they are inextricably connected). Neither party would completely dismantle these institutions if given the chance. So you are right that the parties in the main have some similarities but it is certainly not over a truly free market as envisioned broadly by theorists such as Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, von Mises, Hayek, George Reisman, the best of Milton Friedman, and others.

        However it would be fair to say that there is notable difference between the far-left and the far-right, both minorities in their respective parties.

        • AC

          Good call Patrick – both parties have proved themselves pretty useless –

          In America it should be us against them – but instead they pit is against us as they laugh at us…..I say shut it down – stop letting Government be your god…..Go Rand Paul or Ted Cruz & screw the establishment .

          And Neil, I’m tired of non-Americans providing their analysis…..you ain’t got a clue

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  • http://www.foarp.blogspot.com FOARP

    A nice essay warning against complacency, but don’t we much the same kind of thing everywhere? In left-wing discussion, the disease of simply deciding that someone is a ‘neoliberal’ and castigating them on this basis (without bothering to define the term ‘neoliberal’, explain why they fit this definition, and why this is bad, bad, bad) is quite prevalent – a situation that is particularly ridiculous given the original meaning of the term ‘neoliberal’. What you are describing is merely the right-wing version of this. It isn’t even exclusively an American phenomenon – one sees it as often in the UK press as you do in the US, and my guess is that if I could read German or French well enough, I would see it in their press too.

    • David Sessions

      I sometimes wish people would resist the urge to comment with some version of “You’re right, but why didn’t you write about THIS problem instead?” The fact that this dynamic is also done to right-wingers or with the catch-all use of neoliberal may also be problems, but not the ones I chose to write about.

      Of course, some version of blindness and narrow-mindedness can be find anywhere you find people. But I think there is a unique narrowness in American middle-brow ideas writing. Even if there is a dominant “establishment view” in most European countries, there is a broader political spectrum and a broader range of political ideologies participate in the discussion.

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  • Alexander Price

    Well said. I have often thought or at least felt something similar, but without formulating this sort of comprehensive critique. I don’t think it would be too difficult to trace an intellectual genealogy of the attitudes you describe, and it would perhaps be useful to demonstrate that this particular form of received wisdom is something other than eternally existing common sense. At the same time the Anglo-American distrust of “irrationalism” goes very deep. But what is so striking in publications like TNR and NYRB (never mind the NYT, in which Bill Keller recently described Foucault as a “creepy French philosopher”) is the extent to which they are out of step with academic research in the humanities, where “French Theory” remains enormously influential.

  • JP

    I basically agree that really intelligent/creative people can be drawn toward radical ideologies and I don’t think it’s necessarily a huge mark against them. Disagree that Marxism isn’t inherently totalitarian though, the whole false consciousness concept pretty much provides all the intellectual backing for that.

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  • Benjamin

    Very thought-provoking article, David. I’m on the right wing of things, but I’ve definitely noticed this on both sides, as you say. There seems to be a blind spot when it comes to Euro-radicalism, and when it comes to the ideas of the above, you’re right that the actual rebuttals don’t seem to be required.

    For me, that’s worrisome. When you don’t take the other side(s) seriously, then as one commenter put it, it’s like a muscle that atrophies. The ideas are still there, and so we should be prepared to give answers to them, whether or not we agree with the underlying philosophy.

    What makes me wonder, though, is why there is this blind spot. Is it lack of originality? Lack of research? Apathy? Supposed moral superiority? It really makes me wonder.