Monday, March 20, 2006

Fresh Light

"A philosopher...would be one who seeks a new criteriology to differentiate between "comprehending" and "justifying."

Alain's prompted this.

Alain who is again posting pictures, as is his wont, of the unavoidably repellent on Long Sunday. Or is that the repellent unavoidables. (And here I am, always google-scouring for horizons, pretty sunsets and poetic vistas...By the time we're both done, half the technorati profile will consist of illicit hotlinks from either proud wingnuts, or boring conservation, tourist blogs. Be that as it may.) But even if I don't share Alain's particular fascination, I appreciate the impetus.

And I suspect he would agree, that discussions of Fukuyama and B-Henri hardly do the subject justice. Which is the way I prefer to read his concluding remarks, in any case.

That subject being, broadly, the social and political role of philosophers, and even more broadly their relation to the question of Europe.

As to the former, Alain cites those two repellents distinguishing strictly between "government" and "private life", and "realistic" and "idealistic" intellectual labor. As Alain, and a savvy commenter do not fail to note, neither of these sets of bins are very helpful, or even all that relevant.

Rather, and in a manner that overlaps a great deal with John Emerson's recent forays into questions of philosophical ethics, global citizenship and intellectual responsibility in "analytic" vs. "continental" circles, one might more usefully distinguish, following Giovanna Borradori, between models of social and political commitment aligned with either a "liberal" or "Hegelian" lineage.

I would like to return to this Hegelian lineage in a moment.

Of course Zizek is not the first to imagine or so theorize about a counter-balancing future Europe, and from an assumed position (or in Zizek's case maybe a more presumed authority, largely sloganeered from others) more nuanced and philosophical, in a certain sense, than the knee-jerk hyperbole that characterizes so much popular political rhetoric, and especially, if one dares to say it, on the part of what passes these days for a hard or "leninist" left.  Neither is he the most interesting, in my humble opinion.  And it's true that issuing forth from him, such generalized and (as always) somewhat calculatedly sloppy and provoking pronouncements may risk coming across at least, as simplistic if not outright racist endorsement of a merely reactionary euro-centrism or new nationalism.

But moving more slowly: what is meant by "a counter-balancing Europe"?  This has been a serious question for more than a few important thinkers for quite some time now.  Is it first and foremost a resistance of some sort to the current USian, or neoliberal "free-trade"-for- offshore-cartels, silencing,-debt,-prison-and-polution-for-everyone-else model of international capitalism?  It seems, quite obviously, not enough to either oppose the Euro to the dollar, or to simply resist the Euro as such.  Rather there are both more and less resistant potential (for instance constitutional) frameworks in which the Euro may some day represent one site of resistance, and on the way toward something else.  That is, not in any idealist sense of course, but rather in political terms.  In fact Derrida states it like this:

Humanity is also what I have called the horizon of a "new international."   It reaches beyond that Europe that all the competing discourses still present within the rhetoric of sovereignty:  "loss of sovereignty" fears "Pasqua" for instance; "gain in sovereignty," rather (in the competition with the United States) replies, for instance, "Strauss-Kahn":  the same language, basically–always the theo-logic of sovereignty.  The "new international" reaches even beyond cosmopolitanism–which still, via citizenship, assumes sovereignty of the nation-state type–even beyond the schema of fraternity.  As regards the Europe that is currently in the process of formation, a criticism of the market that is conventional, magical , and incantatory, a straightforward denunciation of European monetary union, seems pretty inadequate.  Sometimes it sounds childish and animistic.  No denial will be weighty enough:  there exists and there will exist the market, the euro, the banks, and capital.  Another kind of left-wing expertise is therefore necessary, and new skills.  They are still rare; you don't hear them often in politicians' rhetoric.  ("My Sunday 'Humanities'")

However without new international organizations and institutions (that is, not themselves tied or bound specifically to any particular nation-state), without new appropriate orientations and priorities for these organizations, and without seriously strengthening those with genuine potential already in existence, one does wonder if such a project–namely that of a "New International", doesn't go exactly nowhere.  Call it crypto-liberal anti-communism if you absolutely must, but on the contrary, such would be a 'Europe' crucially open to the demise of capitalism, which is to say, perhaps, to a future conditioned by this very openness itself.  Without a doubt, the global south is already engaged in such resistance. It's high time that Europe lent a hand.

Then again, Zizek inviting this particular criticism, that of Eurocentrism, is hardly news. Polemicizing is just what he does, and judging by the blogosuffix at least, it's been having a not altogether negative impact, at least among the unlikely to be converted. (Which, let's face it, is the only way to read anyone with any diligence, but especially to read Zizek.)   But it seems to me true that genuine self-critique on the part of the (both fundraiser and radical) left is often these days sorely lacking.

Some stronger examples may be needed, if we are to polish the lens on two positions that seem to be emerging, and in order to better understand the texture of the silence or gulf between. Namely, and somewhat crudely, that between the 'Said' or 'Chomsky left' and the 'Arendt' or 'Hegelian left.' A representative example of what I take to be (an over-zealous student of) the former is probably in order, though I hesitate to link to it.  Betraying what is something of a unfortunate and fashionable tick, striking endlessly against The Man would appear not to be in the cards for Piyush Mathur, who concludes a rhetorically stinging but utterly substanceless review of Philosophy in a Time of Terror with the following remarks (one may need to read the whole thing, which is not without its charm, certainly, to get a fuller sense):

The drama of this entire intervention, however, actually points up the duo's erstwhile neglect of vital and long-standing issues in global politics as played out within the public, activist, and journalistic spheres. So, at best, these two individuals make an arduously late pop-up on the effective global public stage (contrast them, for example, with Noam Chomsky and Edward Said); at worst, they are academic tigers now determined to get out of their jungle.

For all that, I am not so confident of Derrida's confident responses to Borradori's questions related to the role and place of philosophy in a time of terror. The philosophizing of terror and terrorism - their sophisticated defining and redefining - took place elsewhere and was done by a whole host of other intellectuals, writers, activists and politicians.

Dating back to the 1960s are of course the political and strategic analyses - an elaborate contention against standard notions about terror and terrorism - by Chomsky and Said. In addition are Ashis Nandy's direct and rather insightful reflections on terrorism in the early 1990s - well before bin Laden was picked up by the press - as is his brilliant essay in the wake of the September 11 attacks in "The Romance of the State" (2002). Likewise, James Der Derian provided cogent theoretical formulations on the topic in his book Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War (1992). In most ways, Vandana Shiva's ecofeminist exposes, dating back to the 1980s, are de facto philosophical treatises on various kinds of terrorism as are the political tracts brought out more recently by Arundhati Roy - and, far prior to that, by Hannah Arendt.

Then, we have such political stalwarts as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and Aung Sang Su-Ki, to mention just a few. Almost each one of the above has directly "questioned" terror and terrorism. However, Habermas and Derrida - unlike Chomsky, Said and Nandy (also academics) - do not even acknowledge them as such and the cosmopolitan traditions of thought and action of which many of them are a part.

So long as Habermas and Derrida - and their associates - stick to their intellectual provincialism and academic and textual purism, they shouldn't expect to make much more than the "embarrassing" splash of a latecomer through such occasional public interventions as the present one.

The author is not a complete numbskull, for certain. He has a lot of names. He cites them freely, and to combat vague "associates" on the other side. He prides himself on being, if not quite absolutely modern, surely more contemporary than everybody else. And to be fair, while his reading is uncharitable in the extreme, it does seem an extreme the book anticipates, and so implicitly dignifies, in a way.

Still, only someone swaggering habitually out of their league would dare to call Derrida an intellectual "provincial."  This is just ridiculous (one might read Counterpath, for starters).

Another review, this one by Thomas Elk, takes up the question and provides more substance:

Borradori poses a more general question first: How does the philosophical endeavour deal with the question of politics?

She makes the distinction between philosophers who are political activists, i.e. their body of work is more or less separate from their political work, and philosophers active in social criticism. Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky are examples of the former and Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida of the latter. Arendt argued that the task of philosophy was to reflect on human laws and institutions, i.e. the governing principles that humans use to be able to coexist with one another, and how these change during the course of history. According to Borradori, this view has influenced Derrida and Habermas both and there is ample evidence to that effect.

Let's examine that distinction more closely, in Borradori's own words, from which I quote at some length. It's a useful introduction, though one may well object to some of it:

In the twentieth century, the evaluation of the relation between philosophy and the present has had a crucial impact on how philosophers have interpreted their responsibility to society and politics. I would like to distinguish between two different models of social and political commitment, roughly aligned with the liberal approach and the Hegelian lineage: I will call them political activism and social critique. British philosopher Bertrand Russell and German émigré to the United States Hannah Arendt, respectively, embody them. Both of these figures have engaged politics to the point of becoming public intellectuals. However, I suggest, each of them understood the relation between philosophy and politics from opposite ends. While Russell tood political involvement as a matter of personal choice on the ground that philosophy is committed to the pursuit of timeless truth, for Arendt philosophy was always historically bound, so that any engagement with it carries a political import...

Russell's public profile was that of the political activist, because he understood public involvement as his personal contribution to specific pressing issues. The political activist, in the sense that I am trying to demarcate here, may freely choose whether to be politically involved, which causes to intervene in and fight for or against. Presupposing the availability of all these choices is to endorse the liberalist "live-and-let-live" conception of freedom and deliberating beyond social constraint.

A condition for Russell's political activism is that philosophy be granted the same negative freedom by history that the individual citizen is granted by society. By binding knowledge to experience, empiricism seemed to him to be the only orientation that secures philosophy its independence from historical pressures. "The only philosophy that affords a theoretical justification of democracy in its temper of mind is empiricism." "This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interest of theory"...

For a political activist on the Russellean model, the specificity of a philosopher's contribution lies in sharing with the public her analytic tools, helping it think lucidly about confusing and multifaceted issues, sorting good from bad arguments, supporting the good ones and combating the bad ones. In more recent years, Noam Chomsky's public engagement, which includes a short book on 9/11, continues in this Russellean tradition of political activism...

If for Russell philosophy's first commitment is the pursuit of knowledge over and beyond the impact of time, for Arendt, philosophy's first commitment is to human laws and institutions, which by definition evolve over time. Such laws, for her, designate not only the boundaries between private and public interest but also the description of the relations between citizens. In her two major books, The Human Condition (1944) and The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958), Arendt underlines the need for philosophy to recognize the extreme fragility of human laws and institutions, which she sees dramatically increased by the onset of modernity...she understood her philosophical responsibility in terms of a critique of modernity–an evaluation of the peculiar challenges presented to thought by modern European history. In it, the concept of totalitarianism features as the ultimate challenge.

[...]For Arendt, Habermas, and Derrida, philosophy's first commitment is to human laws and institutions as they evolve through time. This belief marks them as post-Holocaust philosophers. Their common challenge has been, necessarily, how to give a positive turn to the intellectual depression into which the generation of their teachers had fallen after the experience of personal exile and the horrors of the 1930s and 19403...The problem for [Habermas] is not that the Enlightenment has failed as an intellectual project but that its original critical attitude toward history got lost, opening the way for political barbarism. On the other hand, Derrida believes that universalism is what republican institutions and democratic participation struggle toward in their infinite quest for justice. This quest is ensured only if we are open to considering the notions of republicanism and democracy, institution and participation, not as absolutes but as constructions whose validity evolves with time and are thus in need of constant revision.

...Derrida's endorsement of hospitality in place of tolerance is a sophisticated reworking of a key text by Kant, who first posed the question of hospitality in the context of international relations. Those who interpret Derrida as a certain kind of postmodernist–a counter-Enlightenment thinker with a leaning toward relativism–would use his deconstruction of the universal reach of tolerance in support of their argument. To the contrary, for Derrida, demarcating the historical and cultural limits of apparently neutral concepts of the Enlightenment tradition such as tolerance expands and updates rather than betrays its agenda..(Borradori, 1-22)

All straight forward enough, but nevertheless perhaps where the conversation must still start, if it is to start at all.

As for furthering the project of any more responsible Europe, well, it's hard to tell where that is going...cynicism is understandable if cheap, and leaders capable of articulating a nuanced vision for which it would be worth the fight do seem in short supply...



Nate said...

hi Matt,

I see the "we must Europe" thing as a repetition of the old cold war blackmail, with the difference that today the military aspect of the cold war is taken up by Freedom vs Terror, while the political aspect that Z and co are trying to muster is Europe. That is, I suppose, an interesting difference, but in the end still a blackmail (as you put it, liberal anti-communism).

This is not to say that the differences don't matter, they do (like Bush vs Kerry, which is another blackmail) but the big objection I have is the implied presumption that this is what politics is. As a US citizen (or for folks who are non-European citizens who live in Europe), if I'm pro-Europe or anti-Europe, what does that amount to? If I'm pro- or anti-Iraq war? All of this strikes me as a colossal displacement and distraction from other arenas of problems that are within my actual area of influence (and, to be clear, in my view larger problems are concatenations of problems resulting from power imbalances across many many small arenas), as well as repeating a distribution of who counts and matters (some folks think, some folks get told what to think, other folks are invisible: the philosopher, the citizen, and the noncitizen or disenfranchisd citizen). It also seems to me to repeat a sense of being pro- or anti- as the holding of beliefs, politics as saying X thing to Y person regarding Z issue. That clearly has a role, but if it doesn't turn into acts of power against power, it's all just a thought experiment.

take care,

Matt said...

Hi Nate, thanks for the comment.

I can appreciate the impetus behind the slogan to "think globally, act locally" if that's what you're implying by "colossal displacement and distraction." Though the reactionary reverse has certainly been taking place, in many respects.

I don't at all think that Derrida's positions amount to any sort of blackmail, insofar as the question of being either pro- or anti- Europe is precisely what he is striving to complicate. No?

As for the question of what defines "what politics is", that's something Derrida and say Badiou would seem to differ on, but again I'm quite convinced to side with Derrida.

Sorry, rushed response.

More later though, maybe.

Matt said...

As for the unthinking repetition of Cold War context, that is also precisely what Derrida seeks to address.

Alain said...

Matt, thanks for the thoughtful response. Clearly this is a more nuanced and helpful discussion of the public intellectual than the one I referenced. I posted the comments by Fukuyama and Levy because they demonstrate the "real world" influence of conservative thinkers on policy. Of course, I do not celebrate their accomplishment but look at it and wonder what kind of impact more progressive thinkers could have. And I realy am posing the question in a rather naive way because I am not sure if it is possible for leftists to have the similar effect.

The whole Zizek firestorm is rather curious. Beyond the personality conflicts, it seems he really touches on a division within the left - one between engaged solidarity with the victims (perhaps bad choice of words) and those who want to "ruthlessly critique" all "religious ideology."

And I am sorry about the picture thing - I know it has come up before. I just thought Levy looked so pompous that I couldn't resist. But seriously, if you ever dislike a picture to the point of nausea, I would certainly remove it.

Thanks again.

Matt said...

Of course you will do no such thing. (I shall control my precious nausea.)

But just out of curiosity, what is solidarity without critique?

Alain said...

Matt, I think your question is correct: Solidarity without critique is meaningless. But it seems the response to Zizek is so polarizing because many think that it is an either/or proposition: Either you are with those who are the focus of the "war on terror" or you are with the bad guys. Kind of like a mirror image of Bush and his "your either with us or you are with the terrorists" crap. That is not to say that critics of Zizek don't have a point: His choice of topic for the OpEd seems bizarre - at a time where the US is at war against "Islamofacism" he chooses to deconstruct the ideology of the deluded angry masses in the street. I don't get it. But unlike some of his critics I think the longer piece (from which the OpEd is a small segment) is provocative and has some insight into ideology in general. But what would the blogosophere be without controversy?

Kenneth Rufo said...

"What is solidarity without critique?"

I'm working on a paper dealing with these issues, and I love the framing this question provides. I'll try to get a post up about it eith some haste.

Matt said...

I feel the blogowhatever could do with a great deal less of insipid controversy, truly.

Agreed about the longer piece. And in case it wasn't clear from the above, sincerely enjoyed both of your posts, you know.

Nate said...

hi Matt,
I may have simply missed the point of the Derrida stuff (including his take on Europe). If so, my apologies. I was in argreement with the left stuff I'd read saying 'vote no' on Europe, so that's where my sympathies lie there. That said, my sympathies are entirely abstract as there's no component to them other than saying some words to some people. That's what I wonder at generally with both solidarity and critique, what they amount to beyond conversation.

I feel awfully close to a playing out a dumb stereotype here, but, I hope I can avoid that by making clear that I'm not trying to pull any power play here of being involved with 'real action' while others 'merely talk'. Rather what I mean is that outside an organizational context, and in some cases within one, what do solidarity and critique amount to? I think the example a while back at Jodi's and Before The Law of not crossing is a good example, in that case the action of not crossing (and of talking with strikers, and raising money for them if needed, and bringing coffee down to the line and other small gestures) provides a context within which to build relationships and then to voice some disagreements (something like critique). But that's as much an affective operation as purely discursive (in the sense of an exchange of sentences with propositional content). I think there's actually a nice aspect to this, which is that it lowers the stakes (or shows them up as being lower than sometimes assumed) such that folk can afford to be nicer to each other.

I hope this makes sense.


Alain said...

Matt, thanks for the kind words. The entire inflated hyperbole of internet conflict does realy give me pause. I love the exchange of ideas and I learn a hell of alot from the more learned contributors - but the vitriol is really disturbing. Why? Because it is expressed among people who I suspect largely agree on the larger political concerns - unless I am totally off.

Matt said...

No, you're spot on. One must of course draw lines of silence, still.

Scott and Tim may address some of those questions.

Matt said...

As for the content of this post, I do think it's a bit of a stretch to render Derrida a happy (young) Hegelian, though nowhere near as obscene a tack as is, often enough, made out...

Matt said...

Thank you for the follow-up, Nate.