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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, June 17, 2004

When LI was in a graduate school in philosophy, one of the philosophers we didn’t read was Leo Strauss. We did read, and we continue to read, a lot of the great conservative writers. There’s no better tonic for a lefty. But Strauss never struck us as an essential figure.
Well, he struck others as one – notably conservatives. So we should have paid more attention. And we have, in a scattered fashion, tried to get some idea of Strauss.
This is why we were interested by a link on Eric Alterman’s blog to this exposition of Strauss by Nicholas Xenos, on . It is an unrelievedly hostile assessment of Strauss from an unapologetically liberal viewpoint. We have nothing against this. Xenos knows his sources, obviously, and is familiar with the “Straussians.” Yet Xenos seems not to understand, or to willfully misunderstand, the ways and customs of conservative thought in the post World War I period in which Strauss came to maturity as a thinker. His root fault is to confuse fascism with any form of opposition to democracy. True, right wing thought since, probably, the period of the Dreyfus trial overlaps the crystallization of fascist thought, and shares certain characteristics. But it would be a mistake to think that fascism succeeded in monopolizing the conservative ‘conceptual space’ of the period.

In Strauss’ case, Xenos’ most damning evidence is a letter that Strauss sent Karl Lowith , after Hitler’s takeover of Germany. Here is Xenos’ translation of a passage in that letter:

“Just because Germany has turned to the right and has expelled us,” meaning Jews, “it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected. To the contrary, only on the basis of principles of the right—fascist, authoritarian, imperial [emphasis in original]—is it possible in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to ‘the inalienable rights of man’ to protest against the mean nonentity,” the mean nonentity being the Nazi party. In other words, he [Strauss] is attacking the Nazis from the right in this letter. He wrote that he had been reading Caesar’s Commentaries, and valued Virgil’s judgment that, “under imperial rule the subjected are spared and the proud are subdued.” And he concluded, “there is no reason to crawl to the cross, even to the cross of liberalism, as long as anywhere in the world the spark glimmers of Roman thinking. And moreover, better than any cross is the ghetto.”

However, Strauss, by this time, was developing a conservatism that was the antithesis of fascism. Xenos doesn’t see this, partly because of the way he interprets Strauss’ Hobbes book:

“Also in 1932, he wrote an extended review of a book by the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt entitled The Concept of the Political, in which Schmitt articulated his notion that the core of the political problem is the distinction between friends and enemies. Schmitt later became a member of the Nazi party and a leading figure in the main legal organization of the Third Reich. In Strauss’s review, he criticized Schmitt from the political right. He argued that “the critique introduced by Schmitt against liberalism can . . . be completed only if one succeeds in gaining a horizon beyond liberalism. In such a horizon Hobbes completed the foundation of liberalism. A radical critique of liberalism is thus possible only on the basis of an adequate understanding of Hobbes.” His point was that Schmitt was, in his criticisms of liberalism, working within the bounds of liberal society because liberalism had become so dominant that it was difficult see beyond it anymore, and it was thus necessary to go back to Hobbes to see what was there before. What was there before was a very strong sense of the absolute dichotomies of good and evil. For Strauss, Hobbes represents the foundation of liberalism and modernism in the claim that these notions of good and evil are nominalist; they simply do not exist in anything other than our judgment about them. So Strauss was suggesting that you had to go back before liberalism to reconnect with the sort of absolutist distinctions upon which Schmitt was attempting to ground the political.”

Xenos, we think, misses the point. Hobbes was a revelation to Strauss not because of some notion of the relativity of good and evil that he saw in Hobbes. Rather, it was because Strauss believed that Hobbes was the first political thinker to shape his philosophy consistently on the notion of Will. It was Will – whether the Will of the People, in Rousseau, or the Will of the Leader, in Fascism, that Strauss felt had to be resisted; and the state and law gains legitimacy only insofar as it resists the temptation to represent it, or, rather, to give him his due, transforms it through those processes that make for natural order. Far from being a fascist, Strauss’ conservatism objected to the first and pretty much only principle of fascism: the Fuhrerprinzip. Hence, the references to the imperial in that letter have to be read in the context of the Nazi contempt for imperial Germany – the Wilhelmine society and its aristocracy that Hitler abhorred. One can think – I think – that Strauss’ nostalgia here is crazy, but it is certainly not nostalgia for a charismatic leader, but for the world before the Bolshies and the Nazis..

Xenos submerges Strauss’s texts with his own language, which is so full of the language of absolutes and cultural relativisms – so full, that is, of the language in which contemporary Straussians like to fire their popguns and charge – that it is easy to confuse with Strauss’ own. But I would suggest another language to understand what is going on with Strauss in the thirties. It is from Max Weber. Weber’s distinction between three ideal types of domination seems particularly apposite both to Strauss’ objection to Hitler and to liberalism. In fact, as odd as it might seem to Xenos, in the 30s there were many conservatives who thought that Hitler was the deviant endpoint of liberalism, with his all embracing state planning, and his way of intruding the state into the private economic affairs of the individual. If I were to make a grand typological generalization about conservatism, or at least the European variety, I would explain in terms of two moments: one is the synthesis, from the conservative’s viewpoint, of the charismatic mode of domination – in the modern era, the will – with what Weber called the rational, or legal mode of domination. The other is the anxiety this arouses. For other conservatives, there is, ultimately, only the pitting of varieties of two modes of domination. One consists of varieties of order, or tradition, the other consists of varieties of charisma, or the will. The conservative – and in this, Strauss is typical – fears the world becoming all too human. He seeks a hedge – nature or God – a limit to the human. He seeks the in-human. One can see this a bit even in a fundamentally liberal thinker like Hayek, with his emphasis on self-organization – that organization that is emergent, rather than planned.

I am no expert on Strauss, and don’t know how he carried through on his program in America. From the little I’ve read, Strauss seemed to suffer from the same adolescent nostalgia as Heidegger. Adolescent nostalgia is for what I have missed; middle aged nostalgia is for what I have done. You can’t have missed something as absolutely as the Golden age of Greek philosophy – hence the dislike for the modern, hardening sclerotically into a dogma.

Thinking about Xenos’ piece, I thought about other conservative writers of the twenties and thirties. In particular, about Bernanos. So I went back and read a 49 memorial elegy on the great Georges, by a man named Ernst Erich Noth. At the same time Strauss was seeking a way to meet Maurras, Bernanos was breaking with him – a break completed by the howl of anguish about Franco’s atrocities in Spain, Les grandes cimetieres sous la lune. Noth doesn’t bother to disguise Bernanos’ place in a line of French thinkers who were “prophetic”, but also anti-semitic, beginning with the odious Drumont. But Bernanos was closer to Bloy – the weirdest of all anti-semites, who seemed to actually believe that persecuting the Jews made the Jews holier – and hence, it was the gentile duty to persecute them. Or something like that. What Bernanos had that Strauss never had was a belief in prophecy. A belief, ultimately, that the in-human really is God. Here’s a quote from Bernanos, via Noth:

Oh, we are not exactly a race of prophets, like the Jews, we do not utter prophecies, but we fulfill them very well. We are not a race of prophets, to such a degree that our prophets themselves are scarcely distinguishable from other citizens, and we perform miracles only at the last minute, when there is no way of doing anything else…

Wednesday, June 16, 2004


What is an elite, and how does it differ from, say, any group?

This is the question that any artist has to ask himself about his audience. There is a disconcerting habit, in this country, to confuse the scale of one’s audience with the issue of elitism, as though only those works of art that extend to the largest scale – the movie Titanic, for instance – are truly “popular.” In one sense, this idea is sheer nonsense – we know that the manipulation of the audience actually produces less popular art, insofar as that art then gets run through a bureaucracy of ‘experts’ in public taste. The result is that a smaller set of themes and variations, and a smaller set of makers, gets chosen to produce the supposedly more ‘popular’ works or art. This leads, too, to thinner and thinner responses – art that doesn’t please immediately is selected out, in favor of art that does. The immediacy of effect and the popularity of the artwork are malignly coupled – deadending in the MTV video, the 30 second advertisement, the celebrity. In fact, as that immediacy becomes more compulsive, it becomes more “mine-able” by the artist – which is why, for instance, Andy Warhol’s Jackie Kennedys and Elvis Presleys still have an undeniable power.

In another sense, however, this idea, grotesque from the viewpoint in the above paragraph, is, from another viewpoint, absolutely correct. The audience for an artwork is not contingent to the artwork, but necessary to its internal structure. The audience is inseparable, in other words, from the making. The process of selection is already encoded in the artwork, exists there rather like Mephistopheles in Faust – as the necessary demon of art. And insofar as elitism is about some process of selection, there is no getting away from the question on the aesthetic plane. While morality is burdened down with the Universal – there is no process of selection going on, ideally, in, say, speaking the truth or not killing – the aesthetic only exists by way of various processes of selection. Which is why the ethical so often stands in a relation of envy to the aesthetic.

Chaouli’s essay about Schlegel displays the confusions surrounding the notion of elitism. Before, much to my friend T.’s chagrin, we quoted Chaouli’s thesis that the romantic art might be taken to found, not a political art, but art as an autonomous structure. Art for art’s sake, T. says. Here’s Chaouli talking about Schlegel’s lectures about Greek tragedy, given in Paris around 1805. First, we have to understand that Schlegel is moving from an earlier, much more revolutionary stance, which Chaouli claims for a perhaps unacknowledged predecessor of certain leading themes in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

“Such a judgment would find corroboration in the young Schlegel's sympathetic view of the French Revolution, his engagement for the emancipation of women, and his violation of erotic taboos (for example in Lucinde), which have led some readers to celebrate his kind of romanticism as "a continuation of the bourgeois revolution in the field of ideology." (16) That Schlegel at this point supports the French Revolution is well-documented (17): when reflecting on letters from Caroline Bohmer, a fierce supporter of both the Revolution and the short-lived Mainz Republic (who would marry, first, Schlegel's older brother, August Wilhelm, and later Schelling), the twenty-one-year-old Friedrich Schlegel confesses to be "drunk" with "this enthusiasm for a great public matter." (18) A few years later, in 1796, he writes the deeply anti-republican August Wilhelm: "I don't want to deny that republicanism is still a bit closer to my heart than divine criticism and the most divine poetry."

In that state of drunkenness, appropriately enough, Schegel formulated a ‘republican’ theory of Greek tragedy against which Nietzsche reacted later:

“One important element of what he calls the "republicanism of tragedy" (28) is the fact that the chorus constitutes the "representation of the people." (29) But crossing the barrier of the proscenium and placing the people on both its sides--as members of the audience, as members of the chorus--can become problematic in unfavorable political conditions:
“ The boundaries of the dramatic sphere are determined by the
strongest will of the mass of the audience which necessarily dominates and
guides dramatic representation. When for example higher estates or
the will of the Few rules, then they will establish as law their
conventional and accidental concepts; their pettiness becomes the boundary
of art. Limits of this kind would then be decency etc. These limits
disturb the freedom of art. But if the will were really public and if there
were only the law that the representations should be civil,
republican, public: that really imposes no limits on the poet. (30)”
So much for Chaouli, who has selected some very key citations. Schlegel’s last sentence has been repeated, with little variation, since Schlegel’s time by every artistic movement that has tried to move away from some, as it perceived it, hegemonic and sterile predecessor. Interestingly, this gesture parallels one spotted by Strauss in Hobbes as the characteristic move of the modern era – the move towards a Politics of Will. Just as the politician represents, somehow, the will of the people, so, too, the new artwork, the new way of making art, represents the will of the people in its own way – infinitely explained in the various manifestos that have marked art movements since 1900.
We will end this post with a long quote from Chaouli, and return to the theme of elitism and irony later.
“Schlegel provides us--or, more precisely, the four lone members of his audience at his lectures on The History of European Literature--with his own derivation of the trope of parabasis, which is worth attending to:
The only difference [between Greek comedy and tragedy]
consists in parabasis, a speech that in the midst of the play was held by
the chorus in the name of the poet to the people. Yes, it was a complete
interruption and dissolution of the play, during which (just as in the
play itself) the greatest licentiousness reigned and the chorus, which had
stepped out to the outer limits of the proscenium, said the grossest
vulgarities to the people. The name is derived from this stepping out
(ekbasis) (39)
Schlegel does not consider this "complete interruption and dissolution" of the performance to have harmed the unity of the comedy. It lies in the very form of comedy, as "pure comedy," to "dissolve in itself all ends and all intention"; in comedy "nonform itself is ... the highest art."
… Chaouli goes on to quote the rest of Schlegel’s passage:
“…then wit must be boundlessly free. This freedom is to be permitted
when it is meant for a small audience which has the right to take
part in such freedom. Under no circumstances is this for the mixed
crowd which is entirely unworthy of this freedom, where the most
unpleasant, the most pernicious consequences could be feared. (42)”
About which, Chaouli gives us a dense and stimulating reading. LI fears we are quoting too much of his essay, but this passage is absolutely crucial, so please excuse us.
“Athens, where the highest form of comedy was available, is an example of such abuse. "The magistrate was really forced," Schlegel notes, "to ban both the personal satire and the chorus with parabasis. But this coincides with the decline of republicanism and democracy." (43) The point is not whether at the time and place that he utters these sentences--Paris, 1803-04--Schlegel supports or condemns republicanism. What is crucial is that this line of reasoning reproduces the logic of the arguments from 1795 about the dependence of poetry for its freedom on democracy that I quoted earlier. While its evaluation may have changed, the basic point remains that a tight, indeed causal, link is assumed between political freedom (promoted by republicanism and democracy) and the boundless freedom required for the operations of parabasis and Witz, required, in short, for unrestrained irony.
To understand its exact political consequences, we need to look more closely at the trope of parabasis. Elsewhere I have proposed reading Schlegel's experimental poetics together with the language of late eighteenth-century chemistry, which furnishes Schlegel with countless metaphors and images. (44) I have argued that the very precariousness of chemistry--a field perched between the phlogiston and oxygen theories, between magical and rational explanations, between the machine-like logic of combinatorics and the anthropomorphic theory of affinity--makes it into a particularly fitting allegory of the poetical model Schlegel develops. The chemical model has the further virtue of allowing him--and us--to think about poetic entities without immediately pinning them to particular psychic or historical referents. We can thus avoid the temptation to think of the textual irony in mental terms, which would provide us with a second, "higher" consciousness "staging" the irony (even if permanent irony) for our benefit. Permanent parabasis is, so to speak, the inverse of the process of combinatorial coupling that yields poetic forms, for a recombination is only thinkable if we assume a momentary state of pure potential in which all valences are open and anything can happen. This chaotic state, in which substances are thrown into disarray (recall, in the Elective Affinities, the Captain's talk of A "flinging" itself at D) needs to occur before a new combination can form. Interruption is not an intrusion from outside (not a second voice), but rather a defining feature of the progression of the process itself. As Blanchot puts it, "[i]nterupted, it goes on." (45)
In such a state, distinguishing process from interruption is no trivial task. We could turn the usual understanding on its head and say that the chemical process consists of a long series of fluctuating states interrupted by the occasional stable compound. As in Wittgenstein's and Escher's famous drawings of Gestalt switches, we can flip the interruptions from the foreground into the background. In this precise sense, they are permanent, a series of uninterrupted interruptions.
When Schlegel writes that the poetry of Witz is "meant for a small audience" worthy of such boundless freedom, we are likely to frown upon such elitism. This gesture would certainly have the advantage of permitting us to congratulate ourselves on our great courage in standing on the side of republicanism and democracy and against the limitations of freedom. It may, however, have the disadvantage of obscuring our view to the pitfalls of transferring the poetic project to the political realm, and hence of missing the most advanced features of the poetic theory.”

Which brings us around again to the vexing question of what art is for. To which we will return in another post.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

My friend, the Brooding Person, publishes a rather hasty epistle from LI.


“It is manifest that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with problems which have had a long prehistory. So far is this true, that the discipline has already found its first historian, Ernst Gruenwald. As he properly indicates, some of its dominant conceptions are simply more systematic and more clearly formulated restatements of views which found expression in the writings of Francis Bacon (see his discussion of the Idola), to trace them no further back. In this same tradition, marking the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment in asmuch as it assumed that man is capable of acquiring valid knowledge concerning all problems but does not do so merely because of disturbing factors, is Voltaire’s doctrine of the priestly lie. From this view that man, who can know the truth, Is lead to conscious dissimulation by his interests (economic, the will to power, etc.), it is not a far cry to the doctrine that ideas are the outcome of profound interests which unwittingly tincture and distort every phase of man’s thought. Nietzsche starts out from this basis but adds a new facet: the fact that a judgment is false does not necessarily preclude its utility. This distinction between truth and utility finds further expression in the works of Vahihnger, Sorel, Pareto and G. Adler.” – Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Knowledge, 1937

Back to the ever diminishing returns of Friedrich Schlegel.
I will not tolerate groaning from the back row! You there, after class, I will want the floor mopped and the erasers cleaned!…

Merton’s famous essay introduced American audiences to continental controversies that have since made themselves home on the American campus. Rather like learning not to spit tobacco juice on the carpet, generations of American freshmen and sophomores have learned, at least temporarily, that there is more to the theory of truth than George Washington knew when he cut down that cherry tree. And they have put this knowledge merrily to use, producing a world of shabby advertisements, sham celebrities, and bogus political contests.

So it goes.

The early twentieth century American sociologists were bothered by the idea of the penetrative power of democracy. That is, they were worried that the governing class in all of its fields would have to contend with a public grown so recalcitrant as to refuse to obey.

The changes wrought on this theme by the New Deal were interesting. The image of the public was re-sentimentalized, and the image of the governing class was recast as the class of experts. This is still true today, with the word elite conjuring up a haughty, sniffing set of port drinkers ordering about the servants, while “experts” are standard copy in newspapers and magazines, to be quoted slavishly and questioned only by … other experts.

However, whether it was the worry that the elites were losing their coercive power or the worry that experts were being interfered with, the confidence that the truth could be discovered and communicated was still in the zone of G. Washington’s.

Merton’s essay was part of the gradual cultural undermining of this confidence. Merton used part of the essay to examine Mannheim’s very influential Ideology and Utopia. The idea that “ideology,” or a framework of assumptions and habits, could so distort the knowledge of ‘experts’ that it would close off the vivifying shock of reality was explored by Mannheim to the extent that it begins to play the role of Descartes’ malin genie – for couldn’t ideology distort every attempt at describing reality, or acting with reasonable expectations within it? Mannheim’s answer, according to Merton, can be recognized as an ancestor of the contemporary attempt, by some post-modernists, to find a place of ‘nomadic’ thought:

“Inasmuch as Mannheim has severely delimited, if not eliminated, the realm of valid thinking, he is compelled, as were his predecessors, to justify his own observations as true and not merely ideological. This he strives to accomplish by indicating that there is an “unanchored, relatively classless stratum, the socially unattached intelligentsia”, (sozialfreischewbende Intelligenz), who can, by virtue of their detachment, transcend class perspectives and attain valid thought, which integrates the various partial points of view.”

Well, we still haven’t gotten to Schlegel. No cheering in the back, by God I will have order in this classroom! We will, I promise, soon.