When introduced to American audiences from the podium or by TV interviewers, Bernard-Henri Lévy is always called a philosopher -- a label that says less about the substance of his work than the efficiency of modern public-relations techniques. Like Sartre, he is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure. Unlike Sartre, he was formidably good-looking in his prime, and is aging gracefully. His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish. And in the spirit of Andy Warhol and Paris Hilton, Lévy has always grasped -- more profoundly, or at least more profitably, than any mere philosopher could -- an important truth: the media must constantly be fed.
Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French.
His latest opuscule -- called in translation Left in Dark Times -- has just appeared from Random House. Writing about it elsewhere, I failed to note something peculiar about this development. How it is that a volume of afterthoughts on last year’s French presidential election should appear -- in such short order, no less -- from a major commercial publisher in the United States?
It seems counterintuitive, and a matter for concern. Clearly it is time to reinvest in America’s fast-thinking infrastructure. Dependence on foreign sources of ideological methane is just too risky. Besides, as a couple of my far-flung correspondents have recently pointed out, the recent embrace of BHL by the American media is raising questions about just how gullible we really are.
Lauren Elkin, a Ph.D. candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center and the Université de Paris VII, says that the very occasional links to BHL items on her blog tend to bring out the worst in her readers. One mention can be reliably predicted to yield 10 gripes.
“In Paris, it's just the done thing to bash BHL,” she tells me. “Recently I featured an awesome graphic that went along with a BHL piece on Sarah Palin in New York magazine -- an image of Palin getting bopped on the head with a baguette -- and I included a link to the NY mag article, because hey, I re-used their graphic, I owed them a link. The comments that followed amounted to taking the baguette and turning it on BHL!” (Well, at least it wasn’t a cream pie.)
Usually the expressions of exasperation are “all in good fun,” says Elkin. But one item at her blog -- linking to a BHL piece on Simone de Beauvoir -- provoked an exceptionally pompous display of aggravation from a French journalist.
“You and your fellow Americans,” he wrote, “should realize that BHL is not a philosopher but a clown and a buffoon. You want real French philosophy, read Derrida, Foucault, Badiou, Baudrillard, if you are a right winger, read Aron, but please forget about this pompous arrogant shmuck BHL and his unending and shameless self-promotion. As a Frenchman, I am ashamed of BHL.”
The notion that silly Americans are somehow responsible for Lévy’s prominence is a bit rich. By my estimate, his career has spanned more than a third of a century -- yet BHL, Inc., has had a fully staffed U.S. office for barely half a decade. (Note to Wikipedians: This is a figure of speech. No actual office exists, so far as I know.) And it is the work of a long, ill-spent day at the library to try to track down any discussion of his work by American intellectuals who take Lévy seriously as a philosopher. Our culture has its faults. This is not one of them.
“What really got me, as you can probably guess,” says Elkin, “was the ‘you Americans’ bit and the implication that as such we could not possibly tell Derrida from Aron, much less evaluate BHL for ourselves.” All the more galling, perhaps, given that Elkin has never concerned herself with BHL’s books. “I've been too busy reading Derrida and Foucault, so pat me on the head,” she told her blog’s interlocutor.
Given her own neglect of the playboy’s philosophy, Elkin says she “really can't comment on whether the bashing is appropriate.” But she suspects the strong feelings Lévy’s work provokes is a cultural phenomenon. “The French disdain for BHL is reflective of an inherent distaste for blatant self-promotion; as for the non-French who read my blog and write in with these comments, hating on BHL is as good a way as any to fit in.”
In an incisive review published a couple of years ago, Doug Ireland cited a critical analysis of BHL’s oeuvre, characterizing him as “a philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible, and the totally false, a patch-work filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre....”
Yet Lévy swims in the main currents of European culture, and does not sink. If anything, he belongs on the short list of the world’s best-known intellectuals. How is that possible?
It seemed like a good question to pose to Arthur Goldhammer, a canny observer of French politics and culture who chairs the seminar for visiting scholars at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He responded to my inquiry with an e-mail note -- albeit one that amounted to a judicious essay on the mystery of BHL.
“How does he pull it off?” wrote Goldhammer. “First, it must be recognized that he's not a total fraud. Though a wretched scholar, he is neither stupid nor uneducated. His rhetoric, at least in French, has some of the old Normalien brilliance and flair. He had the wit to recognize before anyone else that a classic French role, that of the universal intellectual as moral conscience of the age, had become a media staple, creating a demand that a clever entrepreneur could exploit. He understood that it was no longer necessary first to prove one's mettle in some field of literature, art, or thought. I think that someone once said of Zsa Zsa Gabor that she was ‘famous for being famous.’ Lévy realized that one could be famous for being righteous, and that celebrity itself could establish a prima facie claim to righteousness.”
Righteous or not, BHL is certainly timely. His denunciations of Communism in the late 1970s were hardly original. But they appeared as the radical spirit of May ‘68 was exhausting itself -- and just before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Chinese party’s own denunciations of late-period Maoism. BHL developed a knack for showing up in war zones and sending out urgent dispatches. Last month he did a toe-touch in Georgia following the Russian invasion -- filing an article that was impassioned, if, it seems, imaginative.
“He chooses his causes shrewdly,” continues Goldhammer. “He may not have been the first to divine the waning of revolutionary radicalism, but he made himself revisionism's publicist. He has a knack for placing himself at the center of any scene and for depicting his presence as if it were what rendered the scene important.... His critics keep him constantly in the limelight and actually amplify his voice, and why should a ‘philosopher’ of universal range stoop to respond to ‘pedants’ who trouble the clarity of his vision with murky points of detail?”
And so he has acquired a sort of power that survives all debunking. If the topic of BHL comes up at “a typical dinner party of Parisian intellectuals,” says Goldhammer, seven of the guests will be sarcastic. “But the eighth, enticed by the allure of making a brilliant defense of a lost cause, a venerable French oratorical tradition, will launch into an elaborate defense beginning, ‘Say what you will about the man, and I wouldn't contradict a word of it, but still you must admit that for the Chechens (or Bosnians or Georgians or boat people or insert your favorite cause here), he has not been without effect.’
“The French love their litotes,” Goldhammer continues (rhetoric lesson here), “and of course no one can say that BHL has been without effect, that he has probably done more good for someone somewhere than most of us, so the revilers are reduced to sheepish silence for fear of appearing heartless.”
The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.
It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.
But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.
“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”
This is savvy. Also, convenient for journalists. BHL has now become “the respectable media's go-to guy whenever a French opinion is needed.” Goldhammer cites a recent article in The New York Times in which Lévy, like the presidents of Pakistan and Chile, was quoted as “as an exemplar of what ‘the world’ wants to know from the next American president.” Get in the right Rolodex, it seems, and you are the embodiment of cosmopolitanism itself.
“To those familiar with the sad nullity of Lévy's work,” says Goldhammer, “this is infuriating, but to protest is only to perpetuate the folly. His celebrity is a bubble that must be allowed to burst, but we can be sure that when it does, no crisis will ensue.”
Wandering around the Lyceum with an entourage, Aristotle would hold forth on his conception of the universe: one in which God is the Unmoved Mover, while all else shuttles between the potential and the actual. Part of what we know about Aristotle’s thought comes via notes from those lectures. (You picture a student scribbling furiously as the philosopher pauses to dislodge a stone from his sandal.)
This picture does not square with the usual notion of intellectual activity, which is a cross between Descartes’s self-portrait (the cogito talking to itself in a warm room) and Rodin’s nude dude. But there is a counter-tradition in philosophy -- one which takes thought to be, in essence, shambolic.
“A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit,” says Nietzsche, blaspheming tongue not entirely in cheek. “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And more recently, Martha Nussbaum has insisted that running is an organic part of the philosopher’s professional ethos: “Lawyers tend to be tennis and squash players -- maybe it's the competitive element -- but philosophers tend to be runners, perhaps because of the loner, contemplative quality."
All of this by way of introduction to "Examined Life," the latest documentary by Astra Taylor, whose Å½iÅ¾ek! now turns up on the Sundance Channel from time to time. Taylor’s camera follows nine thinkers of various disciplinary extractions -- here’s a list -- as they walk on the street, ride in the backseat of a car, paddle around the pond in New York’s Central Park, and haul luggage around an international airport. They speak for about 10 minutes each -- sometimes in dialogue with Taylor or one another, sometimes in peripatetic soliloquy.
The trailer for "Examined Life" is now up on YouTube, though viewers should be warned against trying to form an impression of the film from it. "Examined Life" is more than an anthology of short lectures by famous talking heads. Taylor's intelligence as a documentarian extends to both content and form. The film is put together with a subtlety and wit that two minutes of highlights cannot capture. And she has not only scouted interesting or appropriate settings for her subjects (Anthony Appiah discussing cosmopolitanism in an airport, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek challenging liberal environmentalism in a trash dump) but found common themes and points of implicit conflict among them.
But then Taylor takes another step. What might seem like a gimmick (the “philosopher-in-the-street” interview format, as I called it when blogging about the trailer last week) becomes a way to reflect on questions of context, meaning, and mobility. She does not explicitly mention Aristotle and Nietzsche, but the allusions are there, even so. Confirmation of this comes in her introduction to a book that The New Press will publish this June, based on interviews that Taylor did for the film. There, she cites another inspiration for her approach: Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
One of the figures onscreen is her sister Sunuara Taylor, an artist and writer -- shown zipping through downtown San Francisco in her wheelchair with the queer theorist Judith Butler. They discuss what it means for a disabled person to “go for a walk” (and to insist on using that language even when it involv
Photo: Zeitgeist Films
Sunaura Taylor (left) and Judith Butler, in "Examined Life"
es a motor). I don’t dare try to paraphrase the exchange. The segment, which comes near the end of "Examined Life," is beautiful, fascinating, and transformative. It changes the context of all that has gone before in the film, and leaves the everyday world looking strange and new.
A couple of years ago, Tamara Chaplin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an absorbing book called Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television (University of Chicago Press). It analyzed more than half a century of efforts to put abstract thought on screen. For the United States, no such monograph is necessary or, indeed, possible. The subject could be covered in a treatise the size of a take-out menu for a Chinese restaurant.
In short, Astra Taylor seems to be inventing her own genre of documentary film -- which means she is making it up as she goes along. After pestering her for an early DVD of "Examined Life," I followed up with a string of questions by e-mail about how she conceived the idea and put together the finished product.
When approaching potential participants, she described the project as “a feature length film consisting of a series of short contemplative 'walks' with world-renowned thinkers from various branches of philosophy." The formal challenge was to avoid an overly didactic approach. Getting thinkers out into public space was only part of this; it was also a matter of mode of address.
“When I first conceived the project,” says Taylor, “it was very clear to me that I wanted to try to make viewers feel like they were being engaged directly, or that they were part of a conversation even if there's only one person speaking on screen. So while half the subjects are doing direct address to the camera, the other half are actually talking to me (or in the case of Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, to each other). I didn't want the audience to feel lectured at, but this was difficult since the movie is monologue driven. The way the movie is directed and edited tries to make some space for viewers to insert themselves, both into the discourse and the environment.”
How did she decide who should appear on screen? “I looked for subjects whose work I value,” she responded, “who have made some sort of effort to speak to an audience outside of the academy, who focus on ethical issues, who seemed like they may enjoy the experience. The final requirement was absolutely essential. If the act of filming isn't fun, isn't a pleasure of some kind, the finished project will feel burdensome, stagnant. Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, being such a movie buff, certainly brought his cinematic enthusiasm to the making of Å½iÅ¾ek! and that was truly invaluable. I was pleasantly surprised by the energy, playfulness, and sense of spectacle of everyone who appears in "Examined Life".... It was important to me to achieve a certain
Kwame Anthony Appiah, in "Examined Life"
diversity, not only in terms of intellectual outlook but also in regards to race, gender, age, ability, et cetera. But at a certain point it was just an intuitive sense that the cast made sense and that they would bounce well off one another.”
Everyone approached expressed a willingness to participate, but things did not always work out. The Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton was busy, and far away. Charles Taylor broke his arm. (I resist the temptation to ask if he didn’t just sprain it from trying to pick up a stack of his own, ever longer books.)
Taylor filmed “between 90 minutes and four hours of talking footage for each philosopher," she says, "shot over one or two days.” It then took “about two weeks to get a rough cut of each individual walk,” followed by a couple of months of work to shape the larger film. That meant “sequencing and refining, trying to tease out and highlight recurring themes, and also to figure out some sort of ‘narrative arc’ in a movie that lacks plot or chronology. How to make viewers feel they've been on a journey when there really no beginning, middle, or end to the tale?”
The result feels like a cinematic essay, instead of an educational filmstrip. It is the product of a sustained engagement with the figures onscreen, an effort to elucidate what they think and how they argue.
“I always had a bunch of prepared questions or talking points that I thought would guarantee usable material,” Taylor says. “Occasionally we worked out the brief argument we wanted to make in advance, though just as often the interview was free-floating, jumping from topic to topic, the central idea to be discovered in the editing room. Obviously a lot of material didn't make it into the final movie, which is why I decided to do the companion book.”
The project, she writes in the introduction to that volume, “doesn’t wrap everything up or pretend to provide a definitive answer to the difficult issues addressed in it; after all, if our answers were incontrovertible, we wouldn’t need philosophy.... If this effort inspires some people to pause and ponder how they come to hold the beliefs they do, to question the ethical assumptions and preconceptions they take for granted, to reconsider their responsibilities to others, or to see a problem in a new way, I’ll be content.”
The deepening economic crisis has triggered a new wave of budget cuts and hiring freezes at America’s universities. Retrenchment is today’s watchword. For scholars in the humanities, arts and social sciences, the economic downturn will only exacerbate existing funding shortages. Even in more prosperous times, funding for such research has been scaled back and scholars besieged by questions concerning the relevance of their enterprise, whether measured by social impact, economic value or other sometimes misapplied benchmarks of utility.
Public funding gravitates towards scientific and medical research, with its more readily appreciated and easily discerned social benefits. In Britain, the fiscal plight of the arts and humanities is so dire that the Institute of Ideas recently sponsored a debate at King’s College London that directly addressed the question, “Do the arts have to re-brand themselves as useful to justify public money?”
In addition to decrying the rising tide of philistinism, some scholars might also be tempted to agree with Stanley Fish, who infamously asserted that humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” Fish rejected the notion that the humanities can be validated by some standard external to them. He dismissed as wrong-headed “measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perception, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination.”
There is little doubt that the value of the humanities and social sciences far outstrip any simple measurement. As universities and national funding bodies face painful financial decisions and are forced to prioritize the allocation of scarce resources, however, scholars must guard against such complacency. Instead, I argue, scholars in the social sciences, arts, and humanities should consider seriously how the often underestimated value of their teaching and research could be further justified to the wider public through substantive contributions to today’s most pressing policy questions.
This present moment is a propitious one for reconsidering the function of academic scholarship in public life. The election of a new president brings with it an unprecedented opportunity for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The meltdown of the financial markets has focused public attention on additional challenges of massive proportions, including the fading of American primacy and the swift rise of a polycentric world.
Confronting the palpable prospect of American decline will demand contributions from all sectors of society, including the universities, the nation’s greatest untapped resource. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s recently released rankings, the U.S. boasts 13 of the world’s top 20 universities, and 36 U.S. institutions figure in the global top 100. How can scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences make a difference at this crucial historical juncture? How can they demonstrate the public benefits of their specialist research and accumulated learning?
A report published by the British Academy in September contains some valuable guidance. It argues that the collaboration between government and university researchers in the social sciences and humanities must be bolstered. The report, “Punching Our Weight: the Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making” emphasizes how expanded contact between government and humanities and social science researchers could improve the effectiveness of public programs. It recommends “incentivizing high quality public policy engagement.” It suggests that universities and public funding bodies should “encourage, assess and reward” scholars who interact with government. The British Academy study further hints that university promotion criteria, funding priorities, and even research agendas should be driven, at least in part, by the major challenges facing government.
The British Academy report acknowledges that “there is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of research,” but contends that the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
The report mentions several specific areas where researchers in the social sciences and humanities can improve policy design, implementation, and assessment. These include the social and economic challenges posed by globalization; innovative comprehensive measurements of human well-being; understanding and predicting human behavior; overcoming barriers to cross-cultural communication; and historical perspectives on contemporary policy problems.
The British Academy report offers insights that the U.S. government and American scholars could appropriate. It is not farfetched to imagine government-university collaboration on a wide range of crucial issues, including public transport infrastructure, early childhood education, green design, civil war mediation, food security, ethnic strife, poverty alleviation, city planning, and immigration reform. A broader national conversation to address the underlying causes of the present crisis is sorely needed. By putting their well-honed powers of perception and analysis in the public interest, scholars can demonstrate that learning and research deserve the public funding and esteem which has been waning in recent decades.
The active collaboration of scholars with government will be anathema to those who conceive of the university as a bulwark against the ever encroaching, nefarious influence of the state. The call for expanded university-government collaboration may provoke distasteful memories of the enlistment of academe in the service of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, a relationship which produced unedifying intellectual output and dreadfully compromised scholarship.
To some degree, then, skepticism toward the sort of government-university collaboration advocated here is fully warranted by the specter of the past. Moreover, the few recent efforts by the federal government to engage with researchers in the social sciences and humanities have not exactly inspired confidence.
The Pentagon’s newly launched Minerva Initiative, to say nothing of the Army’s much-criticized Human Terrain System, has generated a storm of controversy, mainly from those researchers who fear that scholarship will be placed in the service of war and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and produce ideologically distorted scholarship.
Certainly, the Minerva Initiative’s areas of funded research -- “Chinese military and technology studies, Iraqi and Terrorist perspective projects, religious and ideological studies," according to its Web site -- raise red flags for many university-based researchers. Yet I would argue that frustration with the Bush administration and its policies must not preclude a dispassionate analysis of the Minerva Initiative and block recognition of its enormous potential for fostering and deepening links between university research and public policy communities. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The Minerva Initiative, in a much-reformed form, represents a model upon which future university-government interaction might be built.
Cooperation between scholars in the social sciences and humanities and all of the government’s departments should be enhanced by expanding the channels of communication among them. The challenge is to establish a framework for engagement that poses a reduced threat to research ethics, eliminates selection bias in the applicant pool for funding, and maintains high scholarly standards. Were these barriers to effective collaboration overcome, it would be exhilarating to contemplate the proliferation of a series of “Minerva Initiatives” in various departments of the executive branch. Wouldn’t government policies and services -- in areas as different as the environmental degradation, foreign aid effectiveness, health care delivery, math and science achievement in secondary schools, and drug policy -- improve dramatically were they able to harness the sharpest minds and cutting-edge research that America’s universities have to offer?
What concrete forms could such university-government collaboration take? There are several immediate steps that could be taken. First, it is important to build on existing robust linkages. The State Department and DoD already have policy planning teams that engage with scholars and academic scholarship. Expanding the budgets as well as scope of these offices could produce immediate benefits.
Second, the departments of the executive branch of the federal government, especially Health and Human Services, Education, Interior, Homeland Security, and Labor, should devise ways of harnessing academic research on the Minerva Initiative model. There must be a clear assessment of where research can lead to the production of more effective policies. Special care must be taken to ensure that the scholarly standards are not adversely compromised.
Third, universities, especially public universities, should incentivize academic engagement with pressing federal initiatives. It is reasonable to envision promotion criteria modified to reward such interaction, whether it takes the form of placements in federal agencies or the production of policy relevant, though still rigorous, scholarship. Fourth, university presidents of all institutions need to renew the perennial debate concerning the purpose of higher education in American public life. Curricula and institutional missions may need to align more closely with national priorities than they do today.
The public’s commitment to scholarship, with its robust tradition of analysis and investigation, must extend well beyond the short-term needs of the economy or exigencies imposed by military entanglements. Academic research and teaching in the humanities, arts and social sciences plays a crucial role in sustaining a culture of open, informed debate that buttresses American democracy. The many-stranded national crisis, however, offers a golden opportunity for broad, meaningful civic engagement by America’s scholars and university teachers. The public benefits of engaging in the policy-making process are, potentially, vast.
Greater university-government cooperation could reaffirm and make visible the public importance of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
Not all academic disciplines lend themselves to such public engagement. It is hard to imagine scholars in comparative literature or art history participating with great frequency in such initiatives.
But for those scholars whose work can shed light on and contribute to the solution of massive public conundrums that the nation faces, the opportunity afforded by the election of a new president should not be squandered. Standing aloof is an unaffordable luxury for universities at the moment. The present conjuncture requires enhanced public engagement; the stakes are too high to stand aside.
Gabriel Paquette is a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University.
For most of us, any effort to philosophize about love would be an invitation to embarrassment. And not simply because of any limitations in our conceptual apparatus, or the considerable difficulty in avoiding cliches. Here, speculation soon runs to confession. The autobiographical strata of our thoughts do not stay buried for long. Much wisdom in this arena is, after all, the product of mistakes, if not necessarily of disillusionment.
This is true even if you are happy in love -- maybe especially then. It means the regrets have been sublated; you’ve made something out of them, which is no small feat. I won’t get any more memoiristic here than that ... except to say that luck has a lot to do with it.
At the other extreme from our episodic private fumblings towards meaning in such matters, we have the work of Irving Singer, a professor of philosophy at MIT. In 1966 he published The Nature of Love: From Plato to Luther -- the first volume of what became a trilogy covering thinking on its subject through the 20th century. Singer is thorough. Also unrelenting: since completing the trilogy in 1987, he devoted more books and papers to the subject. The MIT Press has just published his Philosophy of Love: A Partial Summing-Up -- a short, swift book that serves as a kind of portico to the Irving Singer Library, a series that will reprint his collected works (including the trilogy) in a uniform edition.
My own previous exposure to Singer’s work had been limited to The Pursuit of Love (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). But even from this narrow sampling, it was obvious that the durability of his concern reflects, in part, the scope of the subject, which is deep and broad. Once in love, you don’t get back out easily, or maybe ever. This is true of intellection about it, as well as the experience itself.
And while the new book is a scholarly rather than an intimate self-portrait, Singer makes clear that his interest in the history of philosophical efforts to think about love had a personal dimension. “I was motivated,” he writes, “by anxieties, confusions, unresolved ambivalences within myself as a human being and not merely as a thinker.... I felt that I could overcome the dilemmas in my own affective life by a careful, albeit plodding, analysis of what matters to everyone.”
We are spared the details, though that seems just as well. Philosophy of Love is intellectual autobiography in a casual register, but it does not offer false intimacy. Its approach takes for granted that the reader will share Singer’s concerns by virtue of a common share in the human condition.
That may sound presumptuous. Who’s to say there is a common human condition, anyway? There is some basis for this reservation: Singer’s literary and philosophical references are exclusively Western, nearly all of the figures he cites are male, and his conception of sexuality tends to be (as a clumsy word has it) heteronormative. I do not point this out in a spirit of political correctness. I point it out in the spirit of being an adult -- one who has lived long enough (and among enough sorts of people) to have lost the illusion that he can undertand very much about how other people experience the world. So isn’t Singer in danger of thinking on the basis of too narrow a set of references?
The short answer here is that yes, he is -- but he knows it, and remains open to argument and emendation. For the thrust of Singer’s reflection is always towards showing that the nature of love is far more complex than any of the available notions for understanding it would make it seem. He is an empiricist of the heart.
“I don’t think,” Singer writes, “that large-scale terms like love, happiness, meaning of life, meaning in life, sex, beauty, and such, are able to have any one definition. These phenomena are so enormous within our human nature – and the same is true of what we even mean by human nature – that we cannot justifiably constrict them within a single, fixed, and all-embracing definition....There will always be realities of feeling and experience that do not fit.”
What this leaves for the philosopher to do, then, is a more or less open-ended process of analyzing the inherited ideas about love (from Plato, Shakespeare, Freud, Sartre, etc.) in a way that is not simply a form of intellectual history – for the ideas are woven into our experience in ways that are terrifically subtle and tenacious.
A case in point is the doctrine that love is a desire for merger between two people. It is embodied in the myth recounted by Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”; aspects of it can be found in Freudian theory. “There is a kind of romanticism that predicates a basic hunger in everyone for some such fusion,” says Singer. “Without denying the frequency of this aspiration, I see little reason to think that it is characteristic of all forms of romantic attachment, and I’m sure it is not fulfilled in any actual cases of love.”
We are, after all, ineluctably distinct: “The most that can happen is that because you think you’re merging, you end up falsifying ingredients in the reality of your relationship.” Some people figure this out; others never do. Either way, the power of the desire is not lessened by millennia of metaphysical speculation, not to mention half the popular songs ever written. It feeds “the overwhelming and quasi-religious emotionality that men and women may get from love, particularly sexual love” – but without recognizing another dimension of it, which is much more complex.
This Singer calls “bestowal” – one of his few terminological innovations, resting on a contrast with “appraisal” that becomes all the richer as he pursues it. Appraisal he defines as “the ability to discover value, in oneself or in other people.” This may or may not be passionate; for that matter, it can be quite self-interested and even utilitarian. The very term, with its mercantile overtones, suggests as much: “At the level of mere appraisal, we are all commodities for each other.”
By contrast, what Singer calls bestowal involves “an engendering of value by means of the relationship we have established, by means of one’s appreciative attitude toward the person, thing, or ideal to which we attend. It’s a kind of projection. It’s a creating of affective value, both in oneself and in the other....”
Appraisal identifies a value. Bestowal surpasses existing values, generating something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. It is a gift – one that you receive in the act of giving. And being in the nature of creativity itself, bestowal is open-ended, with no fixed rules for its possible forms. This is a vast idea, bigger than romantic love. Happy is the person who finds both together.
Last week Leon Kass, chairman of the Council of Bioethics under President Bush, took to the podium to deliver the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- an event I did not go to, though it was covered by one of IHE's intrepid reporters.
My reluctance to attend suggests that, without noticing it, I have come to accept Kass’s best-known idea, “the wisdom of repugnance.” There is, alas, all too little evidence I am getting any wiser with age -- but my visceral aversion to hearing a Bush appointee talk about human values is inarguable.
As you may recall, Kass wrote in the late 1990s that biotechnological developments such as cloning are “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” In our rising gorge, he insisted, “we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.... Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”
Judged simply as an argument, this is not, let’s say, apodictically persuasive. Anyone who as ever taken an introductory anthropology course, or read Herodotus -- or gone to a different part of town -- will have learned that different groups feel disgust at different things. The affect seems to be hard-wired into us, but the occasions provoking it are varied.
Kass invoked the "wisdom of repugnance" a few years before he joined an administration that treated the willingness to torture as a great moral virtue -- meanwhile coddling bigots for whom rage at gay marriage was an appropriate response to “the violation of things we hold rightfully dear.”
Now, as it happens, some of us do indeed feel disgust at one of these practices, and not at the other. We also suspect that Kass’s aphorism about the shallowness of souls that have forgotten how to shudder would make a splendid epigraph for the chapter in American history that has just closed.
In short, disgust is not quite so unambiguous and inarguable an expression of timeless values as its champion on the faculty of the University of Chicago has advertised. Given a choice between “deep wisdom” and “reason’s power fully to articulate,” we might do best to leave the ineffable to Oprah.
There is no serious alternative to remaining within the limits of reason. Which means argument, and indeed the valuing of argument -- however frustrating and inconclusive -- because even determining what the limits of reason themselves are tends to be very difficult.
Welcome to modernity. It’s like this pretty much all the time.
The account of Kass's speech in IHE -- and the text of it, also available online -- confirmed something that I would have been willing to wager my paycheck on, had there been a compulsive gambler around to take the bet. For I felt certain that Kass would claim, at some point, that the humanities are in bad shape because nobody reads the “great works” because everybody is too busy with the “deconstruction.”
It often seems like the culture wars are, in themselves, a particularly brainless form of mass culture. Some video game, perhaps, in which players keep shooting at the same zombies over and over, because they never change and just keep coming -- which is really good practice in case you ever have to shoot at zombies in real life, but otherwise is not particularly good exercise.
The reality is that you encounter actual deconstructionists nowadays only slightly more often than zombies. People who keep going on about them sound (to vary references a bit) like Grandpa Simpson ranting about the Beatles. Reading The New Criterion, you'd think that Derrida was still giving sold-out concerts at Che Stadium. Sadly, no.
But then it never makes any difference to point out that the center of gravity for argumentation has shifted quite a lot over the past 25 years. What matters is not actually knowing anything about the humanities in particular -- just that you dislike them in general.
The logic runs something like: “What I hate about the humanities is deconstructionism, because I have decided that everything I dislike should be called ‘deconstructionism.’ ” Q.E.D.!
Kass complained that people in the humanities fail to discuss the true, the good, and the beautiful; or the relationships between humanity, nature, and the divine; or the danger that comes from assuming that technical progress implies the growth of moral and civic virtue. Clearly this is a man who has not stopped at the new books shelf in a library since the elder George Bush was Vice President.
And so last week’s Jefferson lecture was, perhaps, an encouraging moment, in spite of everything. With it, Leon Kass was saying farewell to Washington for, with any luck, a good long while. Maybe now he can spend some time catching up with the range of work people in the humanities have actually been doing. At very least he could read some Martha Nussbaum.
Then he might even pause to reflect on his own role as hired philosopher for an administration that revived one of the interrogation techniques of the Khmer Rouge. The wisdom of repugnance begins at home.
OK, so, into a bar walk an Anglican priest, a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi and an atheist. Sounds like a ramp to punch line, right? No. That was my panel last month at the 20th anniversary of the Oxford Round Table, at the University of Oxford, England.
Apparently, a peek behind the veil of ORT is needed. Recent posts in the academic blogosphere about this invitation-only academic symposium feature adulation for the intelligencia it attracts and castigation of Oxford for trading on its name for summer business, like some sort of pedagogical Judas.
Fact is, they’re both right. Mind, matter and merger summarize why the event both enchanted and irritated me.
Mind Over Matter
Firstly, pundits need not dismiss its scholarly girth. Formidable participants do darken the doors. My symposium, “Religion and Science After Darwin -- Effects on Christians and Muslims” -- featured sessions with distinguished thinkers in physics, biology, religion and law from all the intellicrat schools you might imagine: Oxford, Harvard, Boston U., UNC-Chapel Hill, Rutgers, etc. It’s not every day you spend time with David Browning (icon for Christian-Islamic comity), Robert Neville (23 books and counting), Amedee Turner (European Parliament while the Euro was established), or the ardent atheist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).
Further stamps of legitimacy on the program include ORT Trustee Charles Mould, former secretary of Oxford’s 400-year-old, 11 million volume Bodleian Library, and a 16-member advisory committee of university presidents and rectors from eight countries. Also, the manuscripts in its blind reviewed journal, Forum on Public Policy, bear characteristics of quality.
However, since the program began in 1989 with ministers of education from 20 countries, an internalized invitation system eroded to include mid-level researchers or engaged academics like me from teaching institutions -- from ministers of education to an educator with ministerial credentials (and a few relevant publications). Try to tame the jokes for Darwinian devolution.
The intellectual temperature was warm, not hot. This is where I’m supposed to say, “but all were meaningful contributors.” Truth is, some members of our panel were alien to the work, sending more than one head scratching. The good news is that neither title, institution type, or academic discipline were the indicators. Candid confrontation carried the day, based on the quality of ideas. I’m the better for hearing it all. (I’m supposed to say that, too).
As for how aliens gather, one candid comment by an event organizer confessed that the University of Oxford bills the ORT organization heavily for use, and like most universities in modern economy Oxford depends on summer conference “hotel” business to get by.
The ORT itself is, of course, a business (albeit nonprofit), which explains why they folded two smaller symposia into one fumbling theme. That irked me. It was like bringing a fruitcake to a wine and cheese party. I was dressed for interfaith democracy since 9/11. Others came with erudite philosophies of science.
Most organizations can’t get away with last minute theme mergers, but the collective transfixion over a week at the world’s first English speaking university seems to place otherwise central concerns, like the event purpose (!), out of mind for most participants.
Matter Over Mind: Pub and Pulpit
Oh, but the place is intoxicating, and place matters. If space inspires thought or ambition, the ORT venue should produce the most luminous luminaries on the planet. I’ll spare you predictable fawning over this medieval city, where every castle and cathedral issues such artisan care the place is fabled “the city of dreaming spires.” The point: ORT wouldn’t work in Albuquerque.
It’s not intention that the American Southwest lacks, but history, deep academic history, and the continuity one feels holding forth at an ancient lectern presided over by 800 years of political, scientific and religious savants.
Both pubs and pulpits nurtured greatness here for centuries. Their understated, six-inch plaques tagged across the city commemorate landmarks in a prevalence of meaning only Oxford could afford.
To the pub: on one side of town is a tiny booth in The Eagle and Child tavern where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met every Tuesday for 25 years -- “the conversations that have taken place here," its plaque reads, "have profoundly influenced the development of 20th century literature,” from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Lord of the Rings.
And to the pulpit: across town is an unassuming though well-crafted podium in a Gothic cathedral from which John Wesley preached his conversion story and launched the Methodist Movement that, in part, propelled my own institution into being. There brother Charles penned hymns now sung in every Christian church on the planet. In a word, cool.
The significance of location fits ORT, as described by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: Certain places reduce us to silence. They contain more than their objectivity. Sometimes you feel “inside an essential impression seeking expression.” And recall of such spaces, as I perform for you now, become not history -- “I was there” -- but a kind of poetry that memorializes moments. Bachelard says, “The great function of poetry is to shelter dreams.”
For too many academics, the dreams of significance are extinguished in a chemical bath of routine responsibilities (e.g. recommendation letters, grading, meetings). But such dreams require opportunities to perform. The University of Oxford’s space holds sufficient cachet to revive academic dreams, requiting love for elevated and sublime learning.
Mind and Matter Merger: Leaving in Tension
Alas, learning without tension is entertainment. Mind and matter merged for me during one session in the centuries-old Victorian Oxford Union Debate Chamber -- affectionately called “the last bastion of free speech in the world.” Recently, the Holocaust-denier David Irving and “sex-positive” community builder Joani Blank spun yarns. The likes of Yasser Arafat, Desmond Tutu, and a Kennedy or two are tossed in here and there. In that space all the tensions of the Oxford Round Table, real and symbolic, came together for me.
Standing at the podium was Dawkins. I’ve never been insulted with such kindness. He artfully delivered wink-and-smile sarcasm against bald jabs of theist stupidity, and appeared to relish the provocation. Had I not read some of his work, I would’ve thought it mere gamesmanship, superficial wordplay for positions not fully held.
Yet there’s a likability in him somehow, a most unexpected thing for me to feel as an evangelical Christian. I wished I had more time with him, but not in the way that morphed middle-aged scientists into giddy children after the Q & A, lining up hurriedly with the front flaps of their Dawkins books in one hand and autograph pen in another. Here was an orgy of secularism, loud and proud, baby.
Seated next to him in poetic paradox was the head-in-hand, the veteran Vicar Brian Mountford of millennia-aged University Church of St. Mary’s, original site for Oxford coursework, and the physical and spiritual hub of a city and campus with 40 chaplains. Twice per term, in fact, the “university sermon” is delivered here, dignitaries in tow.
Not only does this priest share the platform with Dawkins, shepherding souls in a landscape of logical positivism, but imagine this: He’s also Dawkins’s neighbor. What a delicious irony! That’s better than McDonalds and Burger King on the same corner.
Mountford reconciles this tension, in part, through self-described liberal theology. Our talk, his Spring sermons, and his book, Perfect Freedom: Why Liberal Christianity Might Be The Faith You’re Looking For, express: a “low view of the church” (it institutionalizes discipleship, stripping salvation of its freedoms); an “embrace of the secular” (the Church should not assume society is ethically less sophisticated than itself); soft judgment (“God would not condemn his creatures to eternal torment”); and the “championing of doubting Thomases on the fringe.” He sees this as being “more evangelical than the evangelicals” -- courting scoffers almost Socratically while provoking believers (“sermons send us to sleep because they are totally uncontroversial”).
But for me, a theological conservative, here strikes another strand of tension, beyond the ridiculing atheist “neighbor” we’re charged to love. Here is faith diverging between two likable people -- a theological gap Mountford once described as “chalk and cheese,” things that just don’t go well together.
Such was ORT for me: enchantment and irritation, the merger of chalk and cheese.
En route to the airport were two books under wing, Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Anthony Flew’s There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
Agitations get me thinking. I’m the better for it, remember?
Gregg Chenoweth is vice president for academic affairs at Olivet Nazarene University, and practicing journalist for a variety of magazines and newspapers.
Over the weekend came word that the poet and memoirist Jim Carroll died in New York at the age of 59. In the late 1970s, he went from reading his work aloud to performing with a punk band -- a transition later followed, with less memorable results, by his friend Allen Ginsberg. And while by no means the best cut on his debut album Catholic Boy (1980), his song "The People Who Died" has become a lasting part of American popular culture -- a catalog of friends lost to suicide, overdose, disease, and misadventure.
A whole generation got its first glimpse of the figure of the poète maudit from The Basketball Diaries, a film based on Carroll's memoir of being a teenage junkie and prostitute. But Carroll himself lived much closer to the source – that is, to literature, since a wild life itself is not sufficient to make anyone into a writer. T.S. Eliot once said that anyone who intends to continue to develop as a poet beyond the age of 25 must have a firm sense of literary tradition. And this Carroll definitely possessed. A friend who met him says they ended up discussing William Blake and Frank O’Hara; and I suspect “The People Who Died” owes something to Francois Villon, who was a punk rocker five hundred years before the fact.
The legend Carroll left behind is somewhat misleading. He once sniffed glue and loitered at the gates of abjection, but that isn't what made him a poet. A better clue is to be found in the note put up on the author's Web site a few days ago: "He was at his desk working when he passed away."
As it happens, the news about Carroll arrived while I was in the midst of taking notes on Paul Ricoeur’s book Living Up to Death, published in April by the University of Chicago Press. This is one of those coincidences in which fate seems to be laying things on a bit thick.
It is not clear that calling this a “book” by the philosopher makes a lot of sense -- at least beyond the most pedestrian acknowledgment that it exists between covers. Rather, it is a folder of notes left when Ricoeur died in 2005. (See this obituary, in two parts.) The folder consists of a very rough preliminary sketch for an essay, along with several pages of brief and occasionally oblique notes. The editors have accompanied these texts with commentary and memoirs that situate the writings with respect to Ricoeur’s final period of work on history, memory, and ethics.
But how this slender posthumous volume on death fits within the larger structure of Ricoeur’s work is only just so interesting to the nonspecialist reader. Its power comes precisely from the circumstances making it so disjointed and unfinished. He began writing it as his wife of more than 60 years was succumbing to a degenerative disease. He added pages to it some years following her death, in the final months of his own life, as his health was rapidly worsening. These are pages written, not while gazing into an abyss, but while being swallowed up by it.
“He decided to continue to write,” one of the editors says, “but now what he called ‘fragments.' These did not make many material demands – some sheets of paper on a clipboard and a pencil accompanied him everywhere; the suppleness and brevity of short texts where he could present his reactions to the reader, add to his reflections on the themes dear to him and to those commitments that had marked his life: ‘to become capable of dying’ was his present concern.”
To philosophize means learning how to die, as Montaigne put it, borrowing in turn from Cicero. But in Ricoeur’s case, it was not just a matter of trying to accept the inevitable. In ordinary circumstances, the thought of death tends "to disturb, confront, insult the insolence of our appetite for an invulnerable life,” writes Ricoeur. But reality -- the death of his spouse, and his own end approaching fast, with no mistake about it -- had shaken him too much for that appetite to dominate his thoughts. The notes are not for the most part introspective, and Ricoeur was averse to the idea that the greatest wisdom available comes from insisting on the uniqueness, solitude, and essential incommunicability of the experience of dying. Instead, he tries to think through the question of how an individual’s death echoes in the memory of others.
In the richest of the fragments, he distinguishes between two kinds of time. One is the kind covered by the dates of the birth and death of an individual. The other temporality is “the time of the work, the transhistorical time of the reception of the work by other living beings who have their own time.” These registers are superimposed, but ultimately they are “disjoined” by mortality. And so the dying thinker, growing weaker each day, is conscious of that gap and finds himself falling into it. It is “the time of disappearance”-- and necessarily one of saying farewell to people who will, in turn, themselves one day pass.
“This is the time I’m in,” he writes in a stunning passage. “I still participate in the torments and joys of creation, like a twilight end of season; but I feel in my flesh and mind the scission between the time of the work and the time of life; I am moving away from the immortal time of the work, and I withdraw into the mortal time of life: this moving away is a kind of dispossession, a laying bare of mortal time in the sadness of having-to-die....”
Ricoeur was a Christian, albeit one who exhibits doubt about any literal afterlife or resurrection. His notion of immortality seems to turn on a belief in service to others -- sharing in a community that survives each of its members. "I am wary," he writes, "of the immediate, the fusional, the intuitive, the mystical. There is one exception, the grace of a certain dying."
What would that "grace" look like? I think Ricoeur manifests it in terms that may be understood even by those of us who do not believe. It can be found in a short note he sent to a friend who was also in her final days.
"From the depths of life," he writes, "a power suddenly appears which says that being is being against death. Believe this with me.”
Shortly after last week’s column appeared, I headed out to Iowa City to attend -- and, as the occasion required, to pontificate at -- a gathering called Platforms for Public Scholars. Sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa, it drew somewhere between 100 and 150 participants over three days.
This was the latest round in an ongoing conversation within academe about how to bring work in the humanities into civic life, and vice versa. The discussion goes back almost a decade now, to the emergence of the Imagining America consortium, which fosters collaboration between faculty at research universities and partners in community groups and nonprofit organizations.
That effort often runs up against institutional inertia. You sense this from reading "Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University" (the report of the consortium's Tenure Team Initiative, released last year). Clearly there is a long way to go before people in the humanities can undertake collaborative, interdisciplinary, and civic-minded work without fearing that they are taking a risk.
Even so, the presentations delivered in Iowa City reported on a variety of public-scholarship initiatives -- local history projects, digital archives, a festival of lectures and discussions on Victorian literature, and much else besides. Rather than synopsize, let me recommend a running account of the sessions live-blogged by Bridget Draxler, a graduate student in English at the University of Iowa. It is available at the Web site of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (better known as HASTAC, usually pronounced “haystack”).
Word went around of plans to publish a collection of papers from the gathering. I asked Teresa Mangum, a professor of English at U of I, who organized and directed the event, if that was in the cards. She “built the platform,” as someone put it, and presided over all three days with considerable charm -- intervening in the discussion in ways that were incisive while also tending to foster the collegiality that can be elusive when people come from such different disciplinary and professional backgrounds.
“My goal is to have some kind of ‘artifact’ of the conference,” she told me, “but I'm trying to think more imaginatively what it might be ... possibly a collection of essays with a Web site. We definitely want to produce a online bibliography but maybe trying to use the Zotero exhibition approach there.”
It was a symposium in the strict sense, in that food was involved. Also, beverages. On the final day, a roundtable assessment of the whole event was the last item on the agenda -- only for this discussion to be bumped into the farewell dinner when things ran long.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend, for fear that a persistent hacking cough was turning me into a pandemic vector. Instead, I retired to the hotel to scribble out some thoughts that might have been worth taking up at the roundtable. Here they are -- afterthoughts, a little late for the discussion.
Most people who attended were members of the academic community, whether from Iowa or elsewhere, and most of the sessions took place in university lecture halls. But the first event on the first day was held at the Iowa City Public Library. This was a panel on new ways of discussing books in the age of digital media -- recounted here by Meena Kandasamy, a young Tamil writer and translator whose speech that evening rather stole the show.
Holding the event at the public library opened the proceedings up somewhat beyond the usual professorial demographic. At one point, members of the panel watched as a woman entered with her guide dog, stretched out on the ground at the back of the room, and closed her eyes to listen. At least we hoped she was listening. I think there is an allegory here about the sometimes ambiguous relationship between public scholarship and its audience.
In any case, the venue for this opening session was important. Public libraries were once called “the people’s universities.” The populist impulse has fallen on some scurvy times, but this trope has interesting implications. The public library is an institution that nobody would be able to start now. A place where you can read brand-new books and magazines for free? The intellectual property lawyers would be suing before you finished the thought.
So while musing on collaborative and civic-minded research, it is worth remembering the actually existing public infrastructure that is still around. Strengthening that infrastructure needs to be a priority for public scholarship -- at least as much, arguably, as "the production of knowledge." (This phrase, repeated incessantly in some quarters of the humanities, has long since slipped its original moorings, and owes more to American corporate lingo than to Althusser.)
Institutions can be narcissistic; and one symptom of this is a certain narrowly gauged conception of professionalism. often indistinguishable in demeanor from garden-variety snobbery. Any real progress in consolidating the practice of public scholarship has to involve a strengthening of ties with people in the public sector -- especially librarians and teachers.
It is not that scholars exist over here while something called “the public” is over there -- off in the distance. Rather, people are constituted as a public in particular spaces and activities. The university is one such site, at least sometimes. But it isn’t the only one, and public scholarship needs to have moorings in as many such venues as possible.
The problem being that it is often hard enough to drop an anchor in academe, let alone in the wide Sargasso Sea of civil society. I am not a professor and have no advice to give on that score. But it seems important to pass along the comments of someone attending Platforms for Public Scholars who confided some thoughts to me during some downtime. I will pass them along by permission, but without giving away anything about this person's identity.
During one panel, a couple of tenured professors mentioned being concerned that their civically engaged scholarship might not count for promotion. One even noted that people who had done collaborative work in the humanities tended to discount it as part of a tenure file -- saying, “Well I did my mine without getting credit for it, so why should you?”
At the time, I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t really think much about it. Later, though, someone referred back to the session in tones that suggested chagrin and longstanding doubts about having a career in the humanities.
“These are people who actually are established, who have some power in their institutions," this individual told me. "I don’t have that. I don’t even have a job yet. And I want them to show some courage. If you really have a conviction that collaboration and public engagement are important, then do it without worrying so much. And support it. Make it possible for someone like me to make doing public work part of my scholarship. Otherwise, what are we even talking about?”
Ten years ago, in the final pages of a collection of his selected writings, Cornel West gave readers a look at the work he had in progress, or at least in mind, for the years ahead. One would be “a major treatment of African-American literature and modern Greek literature.” Another was “a meditation on Chekhov and Coltrane that delves into the distinctive conceptions of the tragic in American civilization and of the comic in Russian civilization.” He would be writing an intellectual autobiography “modeled on black musical forms.” Nor had he given up on plans to complete a study of David Hume. There would also be a book on Josiah Royce.
West described his projects as “bold,” “challenging” and “exciting.” These are adjectives, it must be said, better left in someone else’s hands. But the books did sound interesting, and I looked forward to them – especially the one on Royce. In recent years, whenever West released an album of vocal stylings or appeared in a sequel to The Matrix, I would think, “Maybe he’s finally gotten that out of his system and will go back to work on The Spirit of Modern Philosophy.” (Royce was stressing the importance of Hegel's Phenomenology back when Kojève was just a gleam in his daddy's eye.)
I have been following West since the early 1980s, when his papers were appearing in journals such as Social Text, Boundary 2, and Cultural Critique, as well as the occasional issue of The Village Voice. His first three monographs were interesting if not definitive. More appealing in a lot of ways are the two volumes called Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, published by Common Courage in 1993, which I have turned to a few times over the years for a shot of energy; the lectures and essays reprinted there are West at his best, shifting between theoretical and vernacular vocabularies in a way that suggests a fusion of Dialectic of Enlightenment and Democratic Vistas by way of Run DMC.
Cornel West’s work was once bold, challenging, exciting. The past tense here is unavoidable. His critical edge and creative powers might yet be reborn (he is 56). But in the wake of his latest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, this hope requires a considerable leap of faith. Published by Hay House, the book also bears a second subtitle: “A Memoir.” It is the most disappointing thing I have read in at least a year.
This is not the intellectual autobiography West promised a decade ago. In essence it is a fawning celebrity profile -- one in which reporter and superstar have somehow fused into a single first-person voice. And in fact that turns out to be quite literally true. In the final pages, West pays tribute to David Ritz, his collaborator, who has undertaken similar projects with Marvin Gaye and Grandmaster Flash, among others.
“David Ritz and I have worked together to sculpt a voice that I hear as my own,” explains West, or someone trying to sound like him. “Many of my other books were written in what I consider an ‘academic voice.’ Brother West is rendered in a ‘conversational’ voice.”
In this respect, of course, the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University is following the lead of David Hume – who, after writing A Treatise of Human Nature, published numerous very popular essays with the help of a writer from Entertainment Weekly.
The problem, to be clear, is not that this is meant to be is a popular book, or even that West himself could not be bothered to write it. Brother West offers much evidence that amour propre and self-knowledge are not the same thing. One tends to be in conflict with the other. A memoir will often show traces of the struggle between them.
Not so here. That battle is plainly over. Self-knowledge has been taken hostage, and amour propre curdled into self-infatuation.
One whole page at the start of the book reads as follows:
I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas. -- Cornel West
It will not be the reader’s last encounter with this sentiment. West repeats it at least a few dozen more times -- never with any variation or development. (Clearly this is minimalist jazz: West plays one note, then goes up half a step, then back again.) The rich history of writing by African-American intellectuals -- the essays by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Amiri Baraka, to make the list no longer than that -- has left no discernible trace on this book. Some of West's own work from the 1980s suggests he has thoughts on that tradition, as well as capacity to contribute to it. But here we are just reminded every so often that he likes to think of himself as a performer. This is not enlightening.
The broad outlines of West's life are interesting enough. His family lived in California, along the edge between the ghetto and the lower middle class. As a teenager in the 1960s he had one foot planted in the church and the other at Black Panther Party headquarters. His academic career started with getting his B.A. from Harvard in three years, then picked up speed. He has had bestsellers. His love life sounds complicated enough to merit an HBO mini-series.
But all of this is just penciled in. There is seldom much detail and never any depth. West makes a few references to academic mentors. He notes his intense interest in various philosophers or authors. Yet there is never a sustained effort to grapple with them as influences on his life and thinking. He mentions his own scholarly books on Marxism and pragmatism (for some odd reason forgetting that he also published one on African-American theology) but does not describe the process of thinking and writing that went into them.
That is not to say that Brother West fails to discuss authorship at all. You catch glimpses of its joys as rendered in the clunky prose of his collaborator: "I like seeing Race Matters translated into Japanese, Italian, and Portuguese. I like seeing The American Evasion of Philosophy translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Italian. I like that there are hundreds of thousands of copies of my book Democracy Matters translated into Spanish. There’s also an edition that’s selling in the French-speaking world. I like the fact that all nineteen of my books are still in print with the exception of the two that won the American Book Award in 1993.”
If sketchy in other regards, Brother West is never anything but expansive on how Cornel West feels about Cornel West. He is deeply committed to his committed-ness, and passionately passionate about being full of passion. Various works of art, literature, music, and philosophy remind West of himself. He finds Augustinian humility to be deeply meaningful. This is mentioned in one sentence. His taste for three-piece suits is full of subtle implications that require a couple of substantial paragraphs to elucidate.
As mentioned, his romantic life sounds complicated. Brother West is a reminder of Samuel Johnson’s description of remarriage as the triumph of hope over experience. One paragraph of musings following his third divorce obliged me to put the book down and think about things for a long while. Here it is:
“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”
No doubt this is meant to be inspirational. It is at any rate exemplary. Rendered more or less speechless, I pointed the passage out to my wife.
She looked it over and said, “Any woman who reads this needs to run in the opposite direction when she sees him coming.”
Returning to the book, I found, just a few pages later, that West was getting divorced for a fourth time. Seldom does reader response yield results that prove so empirically verifiable.
The longest episode narrated in Brother West is its account of the conflict with Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, starting in October 2001. West reports that Summers began their now-legendary meeting by indicating that they should join forces against the neoconservative Harvard prof Harvey Mansfield.
“Help me f___ him up,” said Summers (according to West, says his quasi-ghostwriter).
West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease. Not so. West says he made clear to Summers that his feeling for Mansfield was collegial.
With popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass now off the table, the exchange then took the form that has now become famous, culminating in Summers’ demand that West make himself available for fortnightly meetings to evaluate his grades and publication plans.
“If you think that I’m going to trot in here every two weeks to be monitored like a miscreant graduate student,” West says he said, “I’m afraid, my brother, that you’ve messed with the wrong brother.”
As the conflict continued to escalate -- ultimately leading to West’s departure for Princeton -- he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has been in treatment and is on the mend. Meanwhile, alas, West has not published a single one of the books he said he was working on 10 years ago. The last one before Brother West was a collection of inspirational passages that is usually shelved in the self-help section.
I would much prefer to think that all of this is a matter of his life being in turmoil throughout this decade, rather than Larry Summers being right about anything. But the painful truth is that West's work has grown ever less substantial over time. He has gone from being a public intellectual into a mere celebrity -- someone well-known for being well-known. Brother West marks the extremity of that process.
Legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson acquired his haunting style by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. West, as a “bluesman of the life of the mind,” has clearly also been to the crossroads. The devil gave him a team of publicists. I don't think this was a good bargain on West's part. It left him unable to recognize that self-respect is often the enemy of self-esteem.
But where there’s life, there’s hope. West might eventually tear up the contract. Perhaps the professorial bluesman should take his own trope seriously and undergo a long period of what jazz musicians call "woodshedding."
The woodshed is where you retire with your instrument. You practice and practice -- and then you practice some more -- and eventually something happens. You reconnect with the instrument. Your fingers shape the sound in a fresh way. In the woodshed you don’t think about the audience, because there isn’t one, apart from the crickets and termites, who don’t much care and aren’t going to be impressed in any case.
It is clearly time for Cornel West to take himself to the woodshed -- and not for a weekend either. He needs to perform for the crickets for a good long while, until he finds something new and meaningful to play. His greatest gift to the public and to himself might be to ignore both for as long as possible.
A few years ago, I had a telephone interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy, the photogenic “New Philosopher” who at the time was staying at his palace in Morocco. Or so the person who set up the interview told me. Subsequent inquiries confirmed that this was not a joke – that BHL, as he is also known, actually does own a small palace in Morocco. Somehow this called to mind a remark of the prominent American cultural critic Mel Brooks: “It is good to be the king.”
As the interview came to an end, I asked BHL what he was working on next. He had just published a book about the killing of Daniel Pearl. It was based on a great deal of travel to Pakistan, he said; now, to please his wife, he would be staying home to write a philosophical book. He explained that this had become his wont. He cycled between jet-setting journalism and the Descartes-like (if better-funded) retreat into rigorous contemplation. BHL noted his similarity to Jean-Paul Sartre. I made certain ambiguous noises in reply.
Now, it has been estimated that Sartre wrote an average of 25 manuscript pages every day; he once referred to his brain as a machine for grinding out analyses of concepts. Whatever else one may think of BHL, he is certainly prolific. This week, he published in France both a hefty volume of his reportage and commentary called Identity Papers and a theoretical opus appearing under the title Of War in Philosophy. The latter volume seems to have created the bigger stir. It is another bid for the Sartrean mantle.
In this, he faces a great challenge, for philosophers have seldom been kind to his work. Gilles Deleuze suggested that Lévy was interesting chiefly as a symptom of mass marketing's expansion into new realms. Cornelius Castoriadis once said that the New Philosophers had been named by an act of double antiphrasis. BHL has enjoyed media prominence for a third of a century, but each volume of his philosophical speculation now carries the burden of demonstrating the existence of some steak amidst all the well-amplified sizzle.
To judge by an early report, his new book continues BHL’s combat against Hegel and Marx as founding fathers of totalitarianism. But with it, he take another step -- pushing the fight deeper into philosophical history by attacking Kant. He draws on the scholarship of Jean-Baptiste Botul, whose lectures in Paraguay after World War II demonstrated that Kant, for all his talk of reason, was quite mad. Thanks to the courage of BHL in thinking through the implications of this analysis, we shall now be able to face reality with greater lucidity.
Or we might -- if Jean-Baptiste Botul actually existed.
In fact, Botul is the pen name used for several books composed by a satirist named Frédéric Pagès. One might have guessed as much, given that the very title of the work BHL draws upon, La vie sexuelle d’Emmanuel Kant, sounds like a joke. (The philosopher made Steve Carrell’s character in The Forty Year-Old Virgin look like a libertine.)
BHL has subsequently appeared on television to admit that, yes, he fell for what was, after all, a terribly elegant hoax. And in any case, the critique of Kant limned there was – whatever the author's intent – very close to his own analysis, ground out over decades of careful meditation.
Two or three conclusions follow from this episode. One is that a long career in the media spotlight -- whatever its effect on the life of the mind -- brings with it certain skills. Among them, how to brazen one's way through the worst of luck.
Another thought: There is bound to be a shake-up at the palace.
A friend who has read La vie sexuelle tells me that the author’s tongue is very conspicuously in his cheek. That BHL cited it as a serious work of scholarship would strongly suggest that he has an employee or two toiling in the erudition mines for him. If so, it is an interesting question whether the person who actually read Botul misunderstood the nature of the book -- or passed along the citation as an act of sabotage. Either way, it seems like a fireable offense. (Of course, nothing like that ever happens in the academic world.)
Finally,the incident poses an important question about intellectual history. Michel Foucault once said of Gilles Deleuze that his friend’s work was so important that one day the century might be known as Deleuzean. The convergence of judgments between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Jean-Baptiste Botul regarding Kant has important implication -- even in the United States, where BHL has, of late, been vigorously colonizing the media system. He is a regular guest on Charlie Rose, his articles appear at The Huffington Post, and Random House is publishing another of his books in a few months.
Doesn’t BHL’s prominence reveal something about the nature of the period? Are we not living, perhaps, in the age of Botulism?