The other night viewed from Red Hook. The massive sky turned the water into bright, dark pink
The other night viewed from Red Hook. The massive sky turned the water into bright, dark pink
“Everyone knows how it goes–a disgust with the present, a craving to make fundamental changes, uncontrolled anger, a scorn for poverty–these affects lead men to wickedness.”
(Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Chapter XVII)
(thank you, Julie Klein for posting this on FB)
The distinctly unkind pleasure reading through Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics belongs to liberal skeptics who would concur with Lilla that the combination of philosophy and politics would seem, at least in the twentieth century, to be invariably a botched relation. But handle this book with a certain care. Not intended for specialists, like its 2016 companion The Shipwrecked Mind, this is an easy quick read. Published in 2003, The Reckless Mind is a New York Review of Books book assembled mostly from individual essays published in that august journal of intellectual opinion. While each individual stands on its own relative merits and considerable insight, it’s not clear if all the philosophers assembled in this rogue’s gallery represent the same thing to the same extent –i.e. the recklessness of philosophers in the politics of the last century.
With separate chapters for each, Martin Heidegger (along with Arendt and Jaspers) gets the ball rolling along with other Weimar catastrophists, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. The French connection is established by Kojève, Foucault and Derrida. These three reflections are followed by “The Lure of Syracuse” and “Sola Fide,” being an epilogue and an afterword.
A great deal commends attention to these essays in the form of its outline of taxa. What constitutes “the reckless philosophical mind” are chalked up to anti-humanism, the uncompromising revolt against liberal society and culture, and the play of religion, myth, and mysticism (the fascination with limit experience like violence and death) as a form of intellectual habit that lends itself to what Lilla calls “philo-tyranny,” a toxic combination of ideas and passion (pp.208-216). Does everyone fit the bill and do they do so to the same order? Heidegger and Schmitt align obviously with Nazism, the engaged intellectual with Sartre and after with communist totalitarianism and then, with Foucault tellingly but, to this reader, ultimately inconsequential flirtations with revolutionary violence in 1968, and then briefly in response to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Rightly or wrongly, Derridean political philosophy is reduced to something of a non-serious and desperate joke (cf. p.189).
Is Lilla right? Can anyone take any of this seriously? Lilla writes abouth the challenge of teaching this material to students today who simply do not know the traumatic memory of mass death in the twentieth century. This being a blogpost, I’ll allow myself the confession that I like the animus directed at this particular grouping of thinkers, the impossibility for politics of thinkers who celebrate impossibility itself as a first, ontological principle. It’s not my intention here to suss out the degree to which Lilla’s punch either lands or misses its mark. I say this despite my own sympathy for the suspicion that philosophy, whose ultimate stock and trade is a mix of skepticism and ideas, does not mix well with the cynical arts of politics, which operate within while pushing the limits of conventional thinking.
I will submit that, making a brief appearance, Raymond Aron, the author of L’Opium des intellectuels (1955) is the hero of The Reckless Mind for understanding in Lilla’s view the distinction and proper boundary between politics and philosophy. “In his view, the real responsibility of European intellectuals after the war was to bring whatever expertise they had to bear on liberal-democratic politics and to maintain a sense of moral proportion in judging the relative injustices of different political systems –in short, to be independent spectators with a modest sense of their roles as citizens and opinion-makers. Sartre and his follower accepted no such responsibilities” (p.204, emphasis added).
I am tempted to agree that Lilla is right, that Aron was right, as Lilla says he was (ibid.). Ideally, the position outlined here makes a certain amount of limited sense about which one can agree or disagree. But as an intellectual historian, Lilla should have known better, namely that the experience of the twentieth century, a century of mass death and murder, and disruptive moral dislocations was not going to be conducive to the philosophical equanimity, the aesthetic values of right and proportion, recommended by Lilla, as if from some privileged political height or habitat.
There is reason enough to be cautious and critical about the “blurring of boundaries between pure philosophical inquiry, political philosophy, and political engagement” (pp.161, 187). Indeed, one might reasonably suspect that philosophers bring no extraordinary capacities by nature of their peculiar genius to the practical genius of political judgment in actual situations. Philosophy on a soapbox can cut a foolish figure. But the problem might not have anything to do with the relationship between philosophy and politics tout court when it might rather be the case that the philosophy was somewhat rancid in the first place or that there was something amiss about the philosopher’s political capacity to begin with.
More generally, the confusion might relate to problems concerning imagination and empathy. Not getting this right is a basic human incapacity to which philosophers might be especially prone, inclined as they tend to be towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, as opposed to a hermeneutics of charity. Skepticism may go only so far, but that would have to include the liberal skepticism shared by this particular reader with Mark Lilla.
In the wake of the murder of Philando Castile, who did nothing but obey the law, I asked over at Aryeh Cohen’s wall on FB about police training. This article from the Washington Post was posted there about Dave Grossman who runs popular courses for police officers teaching, extolling the use of deadly force. You can find it here. What stands out is the collusion of the state and non-state actors employed by the state to train state actors in policing a “population.”
“Qualities and extensities, forms and matters, species and parts are not primary; they are imprisoned in individuals as though in a crystal, Moreover, the entire world may be read, as though in a crystal ball, in the moving depth of individuating differences or differenees in intensity.” Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, p. 247
Not a knockout intellectual blow, Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction packs a tough little liberal punch nevertheless. But to what effect? Meant for a broad readership, The Shipwrecked Mind appeared in 2016 as a New York Review Book publication, assembled largely from essays by him from that journal. There will be readers of religion, Jewish philosophy, and critical theory who will note without necessarily appreciating the place played by Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Strauss in this little history of reactionary ideas set alongside Badiou, Schmitt, Houellebecq, and the specter of Political Islam. It might seem strange for some to see Rosenzweig in this company. He was, after all, a mostly apolitical religious thinker; and Lilla never explicitly calls him a reactionary. His inclusion among these other intellectual shipwrecks shows that Lilla counts among those intellectual historians at work today who take religion very seriously. Among Lilla’s merits as an intellectual historian lies in the effort to guide political thought through the Scylla and Charybdi of religion and politics. His inability to get modern religion right coupled with what Nitzan Lebovic, whom you can read here, has called his nostalgic liberalism might constitute his primary challenge making it through those treacherous shoals.
Whatever faults of the book as a project, the anatomy of political reaction in The Shipwrecked Mind remains clear-cut and very much to the point, particularly as a reflection on historical time and its passage, especially in relation to the religious imagination.
What bridges conservative and radical expressions of political reaction are identified as:
 nostalgia (for the ancient and medieval past, and even, paradoxically, nostalgia for the future in the case of radical reactionaries) (for the lost shape of community that one wants to recoup) (for a justice to come),
 declinism and cultural pessimism (regarding late liberal modernity and the failure of revolution in the twentieth century),
 political theology (that mixes up the political, especially decisionism, with magical, mythical, messianic, apocalyptic thinking).
Taking my cue from Lilla, the conclusion is that thinkers and their thought (such as Rosenzweig and Strauss along with Schmitt and Benjamin) would have to share at least two of these family resemblances to count as reactionary. I would submit that a great many of my colleagues in Jewish thought and philosophy have not quite worked through their own attraction to topoi of such sort.
As a necessary corrective to the shipwreck represented by strict decisionism and other forms of theo-political posturing, Lilla’s liberal alternative is a politics defined in terms of “deliberation, consultation, compromise” (p.100). In relation to religion and against St. Paul and his radical contemporary inheritors, St. Augustine stands out, it seems to me, as the hero of religion in The Shipwrecked Mind. With Augustine, Lilla turns religion away from “the flow of history” towards an eschatological vision of end-times, projected safely out into the distant future. The religion that recommends itself to Lilla is epistemologically modest. No claims are made to know the exact relationship between God, catastrophe, and redemption, or even the relation between God and power. Religion is hedged in by rational religion, teaching the Gospel, moral righteousness and faith (p.70). After the rise of rightwing political religion in this country and abroad and after all the blather about messianism and the political, there is some relief to this more simple structure. Religion and politics represent different social phenomena. To collapse the two into one single form can only sustain damage to both.
But is any of this sufficient? Does Lilla’s liberal Augustinianism (if that’s what it is) speak to religion as a known historical phenomenon? This goes well and beyond the separation of church and state. Based on the separation of religion and history, this orientation towards what Lilla commends as a remote and silent God is not political, a notion which some will reject, and does not pretend to be political, which others will welcome (p.129). One suspects on Lilla’s part a deliberate and bad-faith move intended to exclude parties from coming to the table where the political gets hashed out. The move is similar to the one made by Lessing in Nathan the Wise where the genuinely spiritual figures (the friar, Brother Bonafides and al-Havi, the Derwish) conveniently enough leave the political arena (the polis, figured as Jerusalem under the rule of Saladin) to join more comprehensive religious orders out in the countryside.
The Shipwrecked Mind is a fine polemic against reactionary thought and the comfortable place it finds among certain circles in the western academy. But there’s something not quite right regarding religion. Even for those of us in Religious Studies who want to maintain some “distinction” between religion and the political might nevertheless want to resist the contention that these are completely “separable” spheres. Left by Lilla to its own devices, religion has lost its worldly, historical structure, and all the attendant relations to the political that come with that structure and that have constituted religion as, in his words for the political, a “deliberative, consulting, and compromised” social formation, always at work with or against dominant power.
For all its close attention on the afterlife, the art in Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220) reflects pure state power, without an iota of religion and religious apologetic. Five of the famous figures from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty, along with other terra-cotta warriors, horses, groomsmen, courtesan musicians and dancers, and livestock are brought together into a rich assemblage. Even the standing figures aren’t really still. These earthenware, porous and fired bodies are primed to move. Especially the dancers, all the figures express the dynamic motion of the violence of empire. In the exhibition space of the museum galleries, a darkness envelops the lively life of the tomb art.