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?
In the recently announced results of the new American Council of Learned Societies “New Faculty Fellows” program, 53 recent Ph.D.s in the humanities were awarded post-doctoral fellowships. None of the initial list of winners held a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is only the most recent insult to the oldest of disciplines. Most American humanists are unclear about how the debates of philosophers are supposed to fit into the overall project of the humanities. We are ignored at dinner parties, and considered arrogant and perhaps uncouth. To add insult to injury, the name of our profession is liberally bestowed on those teaching in completely different departments. The great figures of American philosophy, lauded the world over, are passed over within American academy, in favor of lesser known lights. For example, in January, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy article praising two rather unknown philosophy professors, which concluded with the grandiose sentence, “They became philosophers in the grand sense that still draws young people to the subject today, until the phony logic choppers drive them away.”
Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities. In so doing, we seek to advance a more sympathetic understanding of the differing veils humans adopt. The decades have taught us sensitivity to the risks of colonialist methodologies. Therefore, many humanists are members of the communities they seek to understand. The work of the humanities has also become ever more important, as we are brought in closer connection with once-unfamiliar groups. Confrontation with the other has become a necessity of modernity, and humanists have settled into playing a role as our arbiter with the unfamiliar.
Philosophy stands apart from this emerging consensus about the purpose of the humanities. Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity that plague and inspire the contemporary world. Its pedantic methodology seems designed to alienate rather than absorb. Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.
That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other. In his grand volume on the subject, Jonathan Israel argues that Baruch Spinoza was largely responsible for the intellectual framework that led to the enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech and thought.
Nor was it exclusively the political writings of the philosophers of the modern era that led to the drastic rethinking of human relations that has enabled science and modern forms of government to flourish. Descartes never had any political writings – it was rather the “sweeping reverence for philosophical reason,” Israel writes, that pervaded the intricate metaphysics of his Meditations on First Philosophy that was considered so threatening that the Pope banned his work in 1663. However, appealing to past effect is no help in understanding current importance. Maybe the fact that we now occupy modernity, and no longer need to establish it, has made the discipline of Philosophy otiose. There is perhaps a place for the history of Philosophy – investigation into how abstract reflection on grand concepts led to the modern world – but no more use for the abstract theorizing of a Descartes, Kant, or Spinoza.
The activity of philosophy is also foreign to many American humanists. Fiction writers, artists, and directors create works generally outside of the academy, for audiences outside its walls. That work is studied inside the academy by humanists seeking to gain an understanding of the period, place, or identity it reflects. Like the fiction writer or the artist, and unlike her fellow humanists, the philosopher is focused on creating her own body of work, ideally a novel attempt at a solution to the on-going philosophical problems. But unlike the fiction writer or the artist, there is hardly an audience anymore for philosophy outside of the academy. Few bankers care to hear about the latest views on rational agency or vagueness. Humanists are used to studying cultural works created outside the academy for audiences outside the academy. Philosophical work is cultural creation formed inside the academy for an audience that is now largely inside the academy.
Philosophical problems also have a childlike grandiosity. When a philosopher announces that she is working on the nature of truth, she sounds like a teenager discovering the world of ideas for the first time. The notion that someone could come up with a new way to show that (say) we know that we are not brains in vats must seem infantile, even more so when the methods seem so dry and dilettantish. As the philosopher David Hill has described the discipline, it is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers."
The view that there is no proper place anymore in the academy for the theorizing of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant is well-reflected in the relative success philosophers achieve in competition with fellow humanists for various fellowships. To take a representative example, there are 17 American historians who have won the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. In contrast to this subfield of history, there are six philosophers who have won MacArthur awards, and they are an odd group. None of the great American metaphysicians or epistemologists of the last 40 years are among them, despite their world-wide influence and acclaim.
Perhaps philosophy has fallen into disfavor among humanists because philosophy has not been true to its roots. According to one sort of myth of this sort, traditional philosophers were commentators on culture. In the 1920s, philosophy was then ruined by the Logical Positivists, who created a new, dry, vision of philosophy. In their quest to declare the traditional questions of metaphysics meaningless, they divorced philosophy from the broader connections with culture and politics that give it life. The Positivists lost favor on the continent, and obtained posts in the barren intellectual wastelands of Chicago and New Haven, bringing their dry, logical methodology with them from Vienna.
This story is false in every detail. Logical Positivists prized the deliverances of mathematics and science (as did Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant). But nothing follows about a lack of political and cultural presence. Core members of the Vienna Circle, such as Carnap, Feigl, and Neurath, all lectured at the Dessau Bauhaus. As Peter Galison has emphasized (“Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 4), what united the Logical Positivists and the members of Bauhaus was a desire to create an alternative vision of social relations than the one promulgated by Volkisch thought – the intellectual representative of National Socialism.
The Positivist repudiation of metaphysics must be understood in a cultural context in which the self-described “metaphysical” philosophers were arguing that the German Volk were ontologically prior to the members of the Volk. In the face of the anti-enlightenment ideology of the National Socialists, the positivists, together with allies in the art world, sought to articulate a progressive, rationalist vision of society that transcended ethnic and national divisions. The Positivists, like Descartes and Spinoza before them, played the role that philosophers are supposed to be play in society – challenging powerful social forces that appeal to mysticism and faith for support.
Logical Positivism, in its embrace of the transformational power of science and reason, does not mark a break with traditional philosophy. Rather, it is a continuation of it. Nevertheless, while contemporary philosophy shares positivist enlightenment values, the positivist anti-metaphysical program has fallen into disfavor. Many leading contemporary philosophers have achieved their status precisely because of defenses of metaphysical views. When the Wykeham Chair of Logic at Oxford University is writing a book defending the view that everything necessarily exists, it is safe to say that grand metaphysics is back in vogue.
In short, philosophy has not changed. David Lewis writes very differently than Nietzsche. But the unusual figure was Nietzsche, and not Lewis. The great philosophical works have always been difficult technical tomes, pursuing arcane arguments in the service of grand metaphysical and epistemological conclusions. None are easy reading for laypersons, and few base their arguments on anthropology or sociology. The conclusions they draw, and the methods they employ, are the same that one finds in the work of philosophers today. There are many philosophers working today who embrace and argue for Hume’s skeptical conclusions, just as there are many philosophers today arguing for Descartes’ view about the relation between the body and the soul in the Meditations. It is Slavoj Zizek who is markedly out of place in this tradition, and not Saul Kripke.
But given the role that the Humanities have adopted in modern civilization, what role does philosophy have to play? A thoroughgoing defense of science and reason is perhaps not now needed, and in any case it is quite clear that current philosophers are not engaged in this project. Rather, they have returned to the traditional philosophical questions one finds in classical philosophy – the nature of persons and rational agency, the status of free will, the nature and reality of material objects. Is addressing these questions now a defunct and pointless enterprise, in an era in which issues of group identity have leapt to the forefront?
Most humanists challenge preconceptions by confronting students with alternative cultural identities. The philosopher instead focuses on the beliefs that constitute a religious or cultural identity. Instead of teaching Christians about Hinduism, the philosopher addresses the abstract structure of the problem of evil, thereby confronting the Christian student with some of the consequences of her system of beliefs. Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective.
A typical humanist might be somewhat interested in the philosophical views of a certain group, but is probably more interested in the identity that results. The philosopher is interested in the logical consequences of the basic doctrines. Hence, many humanists find the discipline of philosophy baffling – the very project of investigating philosophical questions in isolation from historical context seems odd, like doing the mathematics of religious belief. Nevertheless, if the purpose of the humanities is to challenge preconceptions and basic beliefs, in the service of forming a better and more tolerant citizen of a diverse and globalized world, the methods of the philosopher and the methods of the historian are equally necessary.
Jason Stanley is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.
The past three weeks have seen an international outcry at the decision by the administration of Middlesex University in London to close its small but very highly regarded philosophy program. Why were so many American academics, many of them besieged by budget crises at their own universities, so upset at this decision made so far away? Why did Middlesex matter to those thousands who so quickly became involved, and why should it matter to all American academics, even those who are only just now hearing of it?
First, it matters because the administration’s decision wasn’t just meekly accepted. The resistance to it by faculty and students at Middlesex is remarkable, and their courage and organizing skill serve as an inspiring model to academics here suffering from years of the "death by a thousand cuts" of reduced hiring and operating budgets, larger classes, increased teaching loads, and more use of precarious adjunct labor – all delivered with top-down administrative arrogance more or less fig-leafed with talk of "shared governance."
Let me sketch the outline of events at Middlesex. The decision was communicated to the philosophy faculty at a meeting on Monday, April 26. Early reports of the decision quoted the dean of arts and education, Ed Esche, as saying that the decision was "simply financial." The Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign was launched the next day. A meeting between students and university officials was scheduled for Tuesday May 4, but when the students showed up for the meeting, the officials were nowhere to be found; the meeting had been postponed. The students, many of whom had not heard of the postponement, then occupied the building and stayed until a court ordered them out this weekend. The students created a "Transversal Space" in the occupied building, in which they studied, read papers, invited speakers, discussed film and poetry, and in general went about educating themselves despite the administration. Any academic who has dreamed of having self-motivated students was green with envy and realized that whatever the Middlesex philosophers had been doing to attract and develop this kind of student – well, that deserves support!
Word of the decision and subsequent occupation spread quickly. By Monday May 10, two weeks after the decision, over 14,000 people had signed an online protest petition. Letters of protest and supportive Web posts came pouring in from national and specialist philosophical associations: a joint letter from the British Philosophical Association (BPA), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP); the Société Française de Philosophie; the Canadian Philosophical Association; and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP) circulated a link to the petition to all member societies. (A remarkable point about the national associations’ support is that Middlesex is known for specializing in modern European or "continental" philosophy, which we can safely say is not exactly at the center of the APA’s concern. But I think we should be heartened by this show of solidarity: philosophers may be notorious for squabbling about philosophical method and aims, but one thing that can unite us is resistance to administrative overreach!)
Many individual and group letters were sent and/or published, including a notable one in Times Higher Education, signed by some 30 prominent intellectual figures, among them Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Gayatri Spivak, and Slavoj Zizek. The blogosphere sprang into action, with Brian Leiter’s influential philosophy blog Leiter Reports helping spread the word and taking a strong stance against the decision; Facebook networks fired rapidly, with the Save Middlesex Philosophy group page quickly soaring to over 10,000 members.
But is there any real content to this response? Is it just boomer nostalgia (hey, a student occupation, cool!), the power of memes gone viral (once it gets on Facebook, there’s no resisting the wave!)? No. It’s not just bandwagon jumping, nor is it just admiration for the students and staff who are resisting. It’s also disgust at the venality and short-sightedness of the administration.
Philosophy at Middlesex received the highest rating of any program in the university in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a periodic exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which determines disbursement of government funds for research. Middlesex Philosophy had 65 percent of its research activity rated "world-leading" or "internationally renowned." This put Middlesex philosophy 13th of 41 programs in the UK, at the top of all the other ex-polytechnics or "post-1992 universities," and ahead of established heavyweights such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham, and Glasgow. To cut such a program, while bragging on its Web site about its commitment to research excellence – that was just too much administrative hypocrisy for even many hardened American academics to bear.
When word got out that at Middlesex from 2008 to 2009 academic staff had fallen from 748 to 733, while administration had risen from 888 to 890; that the number of senior staff with total compensation above £100,000 increased from 7 to 13; and that total compensation for the VC increased from £223,000 to £246,000 – all these facts rang an all-too-familiar note with American academics as well. And it certainly didn’t help the administration’s image when people learned that consultant fees increased from £2,321,000 to £3,122,000 in that time period. (Details on these figures may be found here, in the university's financial statement.)
Another outrage was learning that philosophy produced a yearly revenue of some £173,260 for the university from its excellent results in the 2008 RAE. Incredibly, the university will continue to receive that sum yearly until the next RAE, to be held in 2014 or perhaps even 2016, even if it has closed the philosophy program! This was an all too blatant case of ripping off the labor of the philosophers. Then it came out that the "subject group" composed of philosophy (six faculty members) and religious studies (one member) contributed 53 percent of its revenue to central administration in 2009-10 and was projected to contribute 59 percent in 2010-11. The central administration requires 55 percent, so it is willing to cut its most highly rated research program for a temporary 2 percentage point shortfall. Veterans of penny-pinching, short-sighted, and arbitrary administrations winced with sympathetic familiarity at this sort of "reasoning."
Those are the immediately resonating factors for American academics. There are some differences, of course, the lack of an American version of the RAE being the most important. But that just made the situation all the more galling. After all, Middlesex philosophy was not just teaching the full-time equivalent (FTE) in 2009-10 of 112.5 undergraduate and graduate students, it was also bringing in the holy grail of "outside funding" – besides the RAE money, another grant, from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, had brought in £230,000 in 2006-9. In light of these figures, the administration’s position came to seem more like extortion than anything else: “[more of] your money or your program.”
Here American academics had a clear case of what we had been complaining about for years. For all the talk about how humanities programs cost money, the reality is that through teaching so many tuition-paying students (and/or providing cheap labor teaching assistants in the form of graduate students), humanities programs contribute significantly to the overall financial well being of their institutions. Not just breaking even, but sending money to the central administration – just not enough for the Middlesex administration’s acquired taste for spending millions in consulting fees! When a philosophy program that not only generates tuition but also brings in considerable outside funding – something that is like unto a dream for many American humanities scholars – can be pushed over the edge like this, then here we had a case of administrative greed that even the most blinkered academic couldn’t ignore.
Having laid out these immediately resonating factors, let’s pull back a little and consider the less immediate, but no doubt influential, factors that have led the Middlesex situation to be a "perfect storm" of academic resistance.
Adapting some of the points that the University of Southern Maine's Jason Read makes in his well-argued commentary, we can see that underlying the reaction to Middlesex are three fundamental factors.
First, for some there is frustration that administrators seem stubbornly not to accept (well-documented) evidence that humanities study in general and philosophy study in particular really does make economic sense, that it does contribute to producing the “ideas” people of the future that business, government, and nonprofits do in fact want, that philosophy grads get good-paying jobs and become good taxpayers, etc. A 2008 New York Timespiece about the popularity of the philosophy major and the employability of philosophy graduates enjoyed wide publicity in American academe; why didn’t administrations seem to know it was a whole new ballgame when it came to the “real world” applicability of philosophy study?
Not everyone shares this “accommodationist” viewpoint though. Among the traditionalists, then, we find the second aspect, anger that administrators want to have their cake and to eat it too when it comes to the name "university." They are happy to use the centuries of association, dating to the 13th century founding of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, of philosophy study and the name "university," but it seems they only want the prestige of the title, and not the content of the course of study. They want access to the market niche, but are happy to cut the philosophers loose once their "brand name" is assured. In the face of this rank hypocrisy many protest letters to Middlesex officials proclaimed that "a university without philosophy study isn’t worthy of the name."
Third, among the more radicalized faculty, there’s awareness that more is at stake in the Middlesex struggle than meets the eye. We've been told for many years – by administrators in fact more so than by leftists – that we have to tear down the ivory tower, that we have to acknowledge the integration of the university into the economy. "Accountability" to taxpayers demands no less. Well then, Read argues, let’s take them at their word: "[I]f we are living through a knowledge economy then there is no separation between the struggle over knowledge, who gets to learn, who benefits, etc., and the general struggle for the economy, for the production and circulation of wealth. To put it briefly the contemporary university is an object lesson in the inseparability of the economic and the political."
So part of the reason for the international resistance is that Middlesex has come to symbolize a high stakes battle over not "merely" education, but over the very real world of political economy. With Middlesex, we have seen to the heart of the present university – fat cat administrators, who, ironically enough, embody a top-heavy 1950s corporate structure while using 21st century slogans of "flexibility" and "relevance" to gut the humanities – and we won’t accept it. Another university, another future is there for us to build, not outside political economy, but at the center, where we find ourselves whether we like it or even realize it. Read’s piece is entitled “De te fabula narratur”: “the story is about you, my friend.” I like the demotic version: "You might say you’re not interested in politics, but you can be damn sure politics is interested in you."
Taking that to heart, let us work together so that the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign and its superb "Transversal Space" is only the beginning of a new university, a new university we can build when faculty and students strongly resist and imaginatively organize on an international scale and in full awareness of all the stakes involved. Let’s make “Middlesex” be the name for the end of the corporate university and the beginning of the democratic university.
John Protevi is professor of French studies at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.
Call it a revival, of sorts. In recent years, anyone interested in contemporary European philosophy has noticed a tendency variously called the religious or theological "turn" (adapting a formulation previously used to describe the "linguistic turn" of the 1960s and '70s). Thinkers have revisited scriptural texts, for example, or traced the logic of seemingly secular concepts, such as political sovereignty, back to their moorings in theology. The list of figures involved would include Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Gianni Vattimo, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Jürgen Habermas -- to give a list no longer or more heterogenous than that.
A sampling of recent work done in the wake of this turn can be found in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, a collection just issued by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. One of the editors, Anthony Paul Smith, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nottingham and also a research fellow at the Institute for Nature and Culture at DePaul University. The other, Daniel Whistler, is a tutor at the University of Oxford, where he just submitted a dissertation on F.W.J. Schelling's theology of language. I interviewed them about their book by e-mail. A transcript of the discussion follows.
Q: Let’s start with one word in your title -- "postsecular." What do you mean by this? People used to spend an awful lot of energy trying to determine just when modernity ended and postmodernity began. Does “postsecularity” imply any periodization?
APS: In the book we talk about the postsecular event, an obvious nod to the philosophy of Alain Badiou. For a long time in Europe and through its colonial activities our frame of discourse, the way we understood the relationship of politics and religion, was determined by the notion that there is a split between public politics and private religion. This frame of reference broke down. We can locate that break, for the sake of simplicity, in the anti-colonial struggles of the latter half of the 20th century. The most famous example is, of course, the initial thrust of the Iranian Revolution.
It took some time before the implications of this were thought through, and it is difficult to pin down when “postsecularity” came to prominence in the academy, but in the 1990s a number of Christian theologians like John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas, along with non-Christian thinkers like Talal Asad, began to question the typical assumption of philosophy of religion: that religious traditions and religious discourses need to be mediated through a neutral secular discourse in order to make sense. Their critique was simple: the secular is not neutral. Philosophy is intrinsically biased towards the secular. If you follow people like Asad and Tomoko Masuzawa, this means it is biased toward a Christian conception of the secular, and this hinders it from appreciating the thought structures at work in particular religions.
One of the reasons the title of the book reads, “after the postsecular” is that we felt philosophy of religion had yet to take the postsecular event seriously enough; it was ignoring the intellectual importance of this political event and still clinging to old paradigms for philosophizing about religion, when they had in fact been put into question by the above critique. So, the question is: What does philosophy of religion do now, after the postsecular critique?
DJW: There are two other reasons we speak of this volume being situated after the postsecular. First, in our “Introduction” we distinguish between a genuine postsecular critique of the kind Anthony mentions and a problematic theological appropriation of this critique. The former results in a pluralization of discourses about religion, because the secular is no longer the overarching master-narrative, but one more particular tradition. The latter, however, has tried to replace the secular master-narrative with a Christian one, and so has perversely impeded this process of pluralization.
Yet it is precisely this theological move (exemplified by Radical Orthodoxy) which is more often than not associated with the postsecular. Thus, one of the aims of the volume is to move beyond (hence, “after”) this theological appropriation of the postsecular.
Second, we also conjecture in the Introduction that postsecularity has ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater – that is, everything from the secular tradition, even what is still valuable. So, in Part One of the volume, especially, the contributors return to the modern, secular tradition to test what is of value in it and what can be reappropriated for contemporary philosophy of religion. In this sense, "after the postsecular" means a mediated return to the secular.
Q: You mentioned Radical Orthodoxy, of which the leader is John Milbank. His rereading of the history of European philosophy and social theory tries to claim a central place for Christian theology as "queen of the sciences." As an agnostic, I tend to think of this as sort of the intellectual equivalent of the Society for Creative Anachronism. But clearly it's been an agenda-setting program in some sectors of theology and philosophy of religion. In counterposing your notion of the postsecular to Radical Orthodoxy, are you implying that the latter is exhausted? Or does that mean that Radical Orthodoxy is still a force to be reckoned with?
APS: On the one hand Radical Orthodoxy, as a particular movement or tendency, is probably exhausted in terms of the creativity and energy that attracted a lot of younger scholars who were working mostly in Christian theology but also in Continental philosophy of religion.
In a way, those of us in this field know what Radical Orthodoxy is now -- whereas before its anachronism seemed to be opening genuinely interesting lines of intellectual inquiry, perhaps encouraging interesting changes in the structure of institutional religious life. Now its major figures have aligned themselves with the thought of the current Pope in his attempt at “Re-Christianizing Europe,” with its nefarious narrative of a Christian Europe needing to be defended against Islam and secularism. They are also aligned with the policies of the present-day UK Tory Party via Phillip Blond and his trendy ResPublica think-tank.
So, on the other hand, while its creative power is probably on the wane, it is still something that must be reckoned with -- precisely because of this newfound institutional power, and because we know that its research program ends in old answers to new questions. We have to move beyond mere criticism, though, to offering a better positive understanding of religion, philosophy, and politics, and this volume begins to do that. This means going far beyond addressing Radical Orthodoxy as such, though, and to addressing the reactionary and obfuscatory form of thought that lies beneath Radical Orthodoxy and which persists in other thinkers who don’t identity with this particular movement.
DJW: Yes, it is something broader that troubles continental philosophy of religion now – not merely Radical Orthodoxy as such, but what we try to articulate in our Introduction as the more general tendency to theologize philosophy of religion. Many philosophers of religion – even when they see themselves as opponents of Radical Orthodoxy – ultimately treat their discipline as an extension of theology. It is quite normal to attend a keynote lecture at a Continental philosophy of religion conference and end up listening to a theology lecture! This is the reason that questions concerning the specificity of philosophy of religion (what sets it structurally apart from theology) dominate After the Postsecular and the Postmodern. Such questions are not meant solely as attacks on Radical Orthodoxy, but aim to interrogate the whole zeitgeist in which Radical Orthodoxy participates.
Q: I'm struck by how your book reflects a revival of interest in certain thinkers -- Schelling, Bergson, Rosenzweig. Or rather, perhaps, their transformation from the focus of more or less historical interest to inspiration for contemporary speculation. How much of this is a matter of following in the footsteps of Deleuze or Å½iÅ¾ek?
DJW: Deleuze and Å½iÅ¾ek are exemplary figures for many of the contributors to this volume. We philosophize in their shadow – and, you’re right, in particular it is their perverse readings of Bergson, Schelling etc which have taught us how to relate to the history of philosophy in new, heterodox ways.
“Experiment” is one of the key words in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: all of us who contributed wanted to see what new potential could be opened up within philosophy of religion by mutating its traditions and canons through the lens of contemporary speculation. Having said that, I think both terms of your distinction (“inspiration for contemporary speculation” and “historical interest”) are important at the present moment.
Ignorance of the history of philosophy of religion is the academic norm, and our wager is that through straightforward history of philosophy one can excavate resources that have been neglected, so as to begin to see the discipline afresh. It is a matter of revitalizing our sense of what philosophy of religion can do. Therefore, while mutating the history of philosophy is crucial, so too is understanding what that history is. So little has been written about Bergson or Rosenzweig’s contributions in this regard that a relatively straight-laced understanding of them is one of the volume’s most pressing tasks.
APS: In France at the time that Deleuze was studying and writing his first books, there was hegemony in the study of philosophy by the "three H's” (Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger). He followed a different path in his own work, writing important studies on Hume, Bergson, and Nietzsche (amongst others). With the rise in Deleuze’s popularity these choices in figures have taken on the character of a canon, but at the time it was considered quite heretical and bold.
While the historical canon for mainstream Anglophone philosophy of religion tends to focuses on Locke, Hume, and Kant, we hope our volume helps to establish an alternative canon that draws on more speculative thinkers from the modern tradition, like Spinoza, Schelling, and Bergson. We think that not only will this help us to address the persistent questions of philosophy of religion but will allow us to reframe those very questions.
Q: The names of a few contributors are familiar to me from reading An und für sich and other blogs. Would you say something about how the sort of "floating seminar space" of online conversation shapes the emergence of a project like this one?
APS: Many people have noted the democratic nature of blogging, which can disrupt the usual hierarchies in the academic world. While that can lead to intensely antagonistic encounters -- especially in the early days when we were all still navigating this new social space -- it can also lead to incredible intellectual friendships. I started blogging when I was 19 in the hopes of being part of an intellectual community that I didn’t have at university. This lack of a community was partly because I was a commuter student traveling four hours round trip per day, which didn’t leave a lot of time to participate face-to-face, and partly because my own interests in religion were not shared by most of the other students in my philosophy department.
The group blogs I have been a part of, first The Weblog and then An und für sich, attracted people in similar situations -- people who existed in a liminal space between philosophy, theory, theology, and religious studies and wanted to discuss these issues, but for whatever reason couldn’t do so in their immediate communities.
I think it is safe to say that without the blogging community the volume wouldn’t have existed. It was because of the blog that Daniel first contacted me about participating in the postgraduate conference in philosophy of religion that he had set up in Oxford and it was this conference that ultimately led to the volume. We have tried to transfer the democratic spirit of blogging to the volume, so while we do have contributions from established academics in the volume, we also have included a number of graduate students, intellectuals outside the academy, and those still searching for a tenured position (if there are any!).
Even though we don’t have a “big name” like Å½iÅ¾ek or Vattimo in the volume, we have still been able to attract interest simply on the strength of the ideas in the book, which are talked about on AUFS and other blogs. The volume has even made its way onto a syllabus already! John Caputo, formerly professor of philosophy at Villanova and now professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse, has his students reading the Editors’ Introduction for his graduate course called "The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion," which we are really excited about.
Q: Sometimes the relationship of academic theological discourse to any creed or confession can be difficult to make out. With the philosophy of religion, obviously, such distance seems to be built right in. What are the stakes of your book – if any – for "people of faith," as the expression goes? That is, do you see this work as having consequences for what goes on at a church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever?
DJW: I tend to deploy a rather crude, form/content model on this issue: the material with which "people of faith," theologians, and philosophers of religion all deal is the same – "religion" in the broadest sense of the word. It is the operations of thought to which this material is subjected that differentiates them. What distinguishes philosophy of religion from theology or everyday religious practice is the specific kind of labor to which “religion” is here subjected. The question then becomes: Does "religion" after such transformations bear any resemblance to or (more importantly) have any relevance to the “religion” with which “people of faith” engage? And the answer is still very much open to dispute.
To take some examples: George Pattison (one of the contributors to the volume) is currently involved in a project on the phenomenology of religious life and it seems plausible that some form of this project could indeed be relevant to everyday religious practice – articulating its often implicit assumptions. On the other hand, I would be horrified if someone found a kernel of everyday relevance in my contribution on Schelling (in which I argue that names such as “Christ” or “Krishna” are literally the products of geological eruptions).
Personally (and here I am speaking very much for myself), I think there’s an element of smugness to the anti-“ivory tower” rhetoric that has emerged in the academy in the last century: the assertion that academics have something interesting or useful to say to the world imparts, in my mind, false value to what we say. In other words, I feel content to revel in the uselessness of my work.
APS: I love this answer! The militancy behind it stands against the pathetic “Theologian-Pope impulse” of so many theologians or the “Philosopher-King impulse” of so many philosophers that think the salvation for the world lies in our thought.
However, I want to nuance it somewhat, as I do think some of what lies behind what we do as academics, the reasons we take up this work, can participate in political struggles or help to deal with the very serious problems we face without our thought being directly “useful” in some crude practice of meeting targets or productivity goals. Spinoza wouldn’t have been much use as the ruler of the Netherlands, I’m sure, but when his ideas were taken up by others, and thereby mutated, they did have a real effect, and much of it positive.
The same goes for most of our great philosophers. But what Dan called the "uselessness" of our work in some sense mirrors the uselessness of religion in general. This character that religion has, identified by philosophers like Bataille, Nietzsche, and contemporaries like Goodchild, is in many ways offensive to the shape of contemporary life, where everything has its proper price, where we have to be thrifty and austere. Religion seems like a magnificent waste of time and money, unless of course it can be put to use convincing people to go to war to kill or be good little boys and girls and not harm their potential market value as workers with too much unclean living.
The same is true of this kind of academic work we do. It is useless within the parameters of contemporary society, but when contemporary society produces things like the poor and middle-class paying for massive bank bailouts and ecological disasters in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Nigeria, then maybe uselessly thinking about things outside those parameters isn’t such a bad way to spend ones life.
Q: As I've been reading your book, Republican leader Newt Gingrich and others have been arguing idea that the imposition of Sharia law in the United States is an urgent danger that must be fought. From one perspective, this looks like pure cynicism; the notion that it’s a real issue in American political life is laughable. But what do you make of it? How does it fit in any narrative of the postsecular condition, or any analysis of the strains and fault lines of secularity?
APS: Right, there is about as much danger of Sharia law being imposed as there is of French becoming the national language! This is an example of what we call in our introduction the “obscure postsecular” (again drawing on Badiou). Out one side of their mouth these politicians tell us that we must defend our modern, secular values from the medieval barbarism of radical Islam, and out of the other side they are condemning secularists for not understanding the “power of religion.”
The power of this obscure postsecular, why it gets taken seriously, is because it latches on to a kernel of truth. Frankly, many in the public sphere don’t understand the power of religion! Hell, when it comes to Islam, many of them don’t even understand the basics, let alone that within Islam there is a cacophony of different spiritual practices and, as in most religions, an internal conflict between a law-bound Islam and an Islam of liberty. This is argued for very clearly in a number of French scholars of Islam, like Henry Corbin and Christian Jambet, though it doesn’t appear to have been a lesson the ruling class have learned going by the recent idiotic, racist and completely unsecular headscarf ban in France.
So, this lack of knowledge is behind both Gingrich’s call to resist Sharia law and the ruling, which Gingrich referenced, from the New Jersey judge that a Muslim man could forcibly rape his wife because it was a religious custom; I know of a number of Islamic feminists who I’m sure would like to speak with Judge Edith Payne! With both Gingrich and Payne we have an obscuring of the postsecular: they both recognize that something has changed, but they call on some transcendent identity of Islam or America that obscures any real confrontation with that change. Notice that neither one of them recognizes that there are elements within Islam -- mainstream Islam! -- that reject honor killings, abuse of women, the murder of civilians, and the like.
The situation becomes even more obscure in the UK, where I currently live. While in the U.S. all our money declares “In God We Trust”; in the UK all money bears the image of the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. Surely this, a divine right monarchy, is an example of the relic of medievalism that Gingrich mentions! Yet, on the other side of the bill, depending on the denomination, you will find Charles Darwin or Adam Smith. The very figures who ushered in the forms of thought that our old narratives tell us swept away medieval superstition.
Now, to my mind this means that all our conventional narratives of secularization are inherently flawed. The classic liberal narrative of a neutral secular has been undone by the postsecular event. The liberal secular was a weapon used in the expansion of European imperialism, which tried to deny those in the colonial world resources from their varied religious traditions.
At the same time the anti-liberal narrative that secularity is to be rejected because of this complicity is also false. It has a similar political function, by creating and exacerbating divisions within a particular class but along imaginary or unimportant differences, playing into a myopic Clash of Civilizations theory that actually engenders the reality of that clash. The volume offers resources towards constructing a very different theory of the secular, of a postsecular secular, what we call a “generic secular” that goes some way towards superseding these flawed, conventional narratives.
Practically that means both a straightforward understanding of particular religions as they present themselves in their complexity, suppressing as much as possible the imperialist tendencies of the liberal secular, and deploying the same kind of bold internal, immanent critique of these particular religions that we find in the modern thinkers covered in the volume. The answer to these political problems may partially be found by experimenting with ideas from Islam and Christianity from the position of the generic secular.
One of the turning points in my life came in 1988, upon discovery of the writings of C.L.R. James. The word “discovery” applies for a couple of reasons. Much of his work was difficult to find, for one thing. But more than that, it felt like exploring a new continent.
James was born in Trinidad in 1901, and he died in England in 1989. (I had barely worked up the nerve to consider writing him a letter.) He had started out as a man of letters, publishing short stories and a novel about life among the poorest West Indians. He went on to write what still stands as the definitive history of the Haitian slave revolt, The Black Jacobins (1938). His play based on research for that book starred Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture. In 1939, he went to Mexico to discuss politics with Leon Trotsky. A few years later -- and in part because of certain disagreements he'd had with Trotsky -- James and his associates in the United States brought out the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (By the early 1960s, there would be a sort of cottage industry in commentary on these texts, but James planted his flag in 1947.)
He was close friends with Richard Wright and spoke at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. At one point, the United States government imprisoned James on Ellis Island as a dangerous subversive. While so detained, he drafted a book about Herman Melville as prophet of 20th century totalitarianism -- with the clear implication that the U.S. was not immune to it.
Settled in Britain, he wrote a book on the history and meaning of cricket called Beyond a Boundary (1963). By all accounts it is one of the classics of sports writing. Being both strenuously unathletic and an American, I was prepared to take this on faith. But having read some of it out of curiosity, I found the book fascinating, even if the game itself remained incomprehensible.
This is, of course, an extremely abbreviated survey of his life and work. The man was a multitude. A few years ago, I tried to present a more comprehensive sketch in this short magazine article, and edited a selection of his hard-to-find writings for the University Press of Mississippi.
In the meantime, it has been good to see his name becoming much more widely known than it was at the time of his death more than two decades ago. This is particularly true among young people. They take much for granted that a literary or political figure can be, as James was, transnational in the strongest sense -- thinking and writing and acting "beyond the boundary" of any given national context. He lived and worked in the 20th century, of course, but James is among the authors the 21st century will make its own.
So it is appalling to learn that the C.L.R. James Library in Hackney (a borough of London) is going to be renamed the Dalston Library and Archives, after the neighborhood in which it is located. James was there when the library was christened in his honor in 1985. The authorities insist that, in spite of the proposed change, they will continue to honor James. But this seems half-hearted and unsatisfying. There is a petition against the name change, which I hope readers of this column will sign and help to circulate.
Some have denounced the name change as an insult, not just to James's memory, but to the community in which the library is located, since Hackney has a large black population. I don't know enough to judge whether any offense was intended. But the renaming has a significance going well beyond local politics in North London.
C.L.R. James was a revolutionary; that he ended up imprisoned for a while seems, all in all, par for the course. But he was also very much the product of the cultural tradition he liked to call Western Civilization. He used this expression without evident sarcasm -- a remarkable thing, given that he was a tireless anti-imperialist. Given his studies in the history of Africa and the Caribbean, he might well have responded as Gandhi did when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."
As a child, James reread Thackeray's satirical novel Vanity Fair until he had it almost memorized; this was, perhaps, his introduction to social criticism. He traced his ideas about politics back to ancient Greece. James treated the funeral oration of Pericles as a key to understanding Lenin’s State and Revolution. And there is a film clip that shows him speaking to an audience of British students on Shakespeare -- saying that he wrote "some of the finest plays I know about the impossibility of being a king.” As with James's interpretation of Captain Ahab as a prototype of Stalin, this is a case of criticism as transformative reading. It’s eccentric, but it sticks with you.
Harold Bloom might not approve of what James did with the canon. And Allan Bloom would have been horrified, no doubt about it. But it helps explain some of James's discomfort about the emergence of African-American studies as an academic discipline. He taught the subject for some time as a professor at Federal City College, now called the University of the District of Columbia -- but not without misgivings.
“For myself,” he said in a lecture in 1969, “I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies. There are studies in which black people and black history, so long neglected, can now get some of the attention they deserve. ... I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political setting, and, particularly, during the past two hundred years. It’s impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”
James’s argument here is perhaps too subtle for the Internet to propagate. (I type his words with mild dread at the likely consequences.) But the implications are important -- and they apply with particular force to the circumstance at hand, the move to rename the C.L.R. James Library in London.
People of Afro-Caribbean descent in England have every right to want James to be honored. But no less outspoken, were he still alive, would be Martin Glaberman -- a white factory worker in Detroit who later became a professor of social science at Wayne State University. (I think of him now because it was Marty who was keeping many of James's books in print when I first became interested in them.) James was the nexus between activists and intellectuals in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and his cosmopolitanism included a tireless effort to connect cultural tradition to modern politics.To quote from the translation he made of a poem by Aimé Cesaire: “No race holds the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.”
Having C.L.R. James’s name on the library is an honor -- to the library. To remove it is an act of vandalism. Please sign the petition.