“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2005

saint sartre

The ultrachic grad student who writes Infinite Thought has been writing some nice things about Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason – which is the world’s greatest monument to speed (runner up is Dylan’s Blond on Blond).

We are happy about that. Last week there was one of those thought infections that hit the big blogs. There was a David Brooks column about the difference between the left and right in the good old U.S.A. Brooks made the point that the lefties no longer have a philosopher – he called up some lefty think tanker and asked him, hey, who is your philosopher, and the think tanker evidently couldn’t think of anybody. This got commented upon all over the place. Matt Yglesias wrote a post claiming that liberals are all about policy, nowadays, and have dispensed with the superstitious retention of philosophical mascots.

Now the standard Crooked Timber reaction to Brooks challenge is to reach for “A theory of justice.” Rawls, it is true, does codify a certain dimension of liberal thinking. But if there were one thinker who encoded the fundamental difference between classical and contemporary liberalism, that thinker has to be Sartre.

Sartre? Mr. Cockeyed French supporter of the soviet invasion of Hungary? Yeah, that guy. Contemporary liberalism – post New Deal liberalism – depends on a philosophic anthropology that departs radically from the old contractual myth of the relation of the individual to society. For the classical liberal, the contract – whether construed by Locke or by Rousseau – was the warrant for a political order founded on individual liberty that still maintained a hierarchical order. For the contemporary liberal, however, freedom has another dimension – a dimension of human identity – from which the contract is distantly derived. If, that is, one wants to continue to think in terms of that hoary myth. The dimension of human identity is revealed by human situations. The philosopher who put this all together – sloppily, with massive misreadings of Heidegger thrown in to add some spice, and those bennies to keep him awake at night – is Sartre. Like Freud, whose vocabulary so permeates the way we talk about consciousness that even his critics talk blandly about “repression” and the “unconscious,” that freedom is defined by action, and that it is a measure of situations preceding any economic measure – the Sartrean contention – has become part of folk anthropology. The triad at the end of Being and Nothingness – to have, to do, to be – is the basic triad of contemporary liberalism. This is why the separation of politics and culture is conceptually impossible for contemporary liberalism – that separation reflects the older, contractual view of the individual. Situations cut across the segregated zones of the socius, ultimately putting in question the justification of those segregations. In this, of course, Sartrean existentialism joins the classical Marxist critique of ideology – but without endorsing class struggle as the motor of those segregations and their uses.

The engrossment of such as Yglesias in policy issues, at the moment, reflects the dearth of movement politics on the left side of the ledger, and the dominance of a class of political parasites – the party apparatchik. The party – Labor in the U.K., the Socialists in France, the Democrats in the U.S. – are a sort of institutionalized death drive, sucking out the libidinal energies of the true left and turning them into terms of office for white male non-entities with expensive hair or hair transplants. It isn't that these people aren't going to be there, regardless. The point is to have some gun to point at their heads -- a variety of movements that push them.

Unfortunately, the direction of momentum is backasswards. The mark of this is the way in which the defense of liberal issues is now conducted entirely in terms of economic cost benefit – ultimately, a very silly and defeatist way of looking at the issues involved. The larger demands should be put in terms of a larger definition of freedom – the iron rule of necessity has long been lifted in the West, and its continued effect is wholly the result of preserving, like some saint’s relic, an absurdly archaic slaveholding structure, with the wealthy holding down the role of our Simon Legrees, and the natural producers of wealth being alloted an insanely small portion of it.

Remember -- no slave revolt has ever succeeded by pennypushing.


Anonymous said...

If a sartrean model of freedom as defined by subjective actions holds, why not choose to be Raskalinikovs instead of, say, ethicists. As some of us liberal petite-bourgeois types unfortunate enough to have been subjected to some of Being and Nothingness always yawped, isn't JPS mostly nihilism--or entailing nihilism---with some phenomenological wanking and freudian overtones.....Deriving some notion of duty or politics from existentialism--which seems to insist that all decisions are valid, except for those based on self-delusion--seems quite absurd.

roger said...

And certainly you'd be right about the nihilism -- but Sartre's freedom isn't the Gidean acte gratuit. In my post I perhaps did not emphasize enough that Sartre embeds freedom in the situation -- so that the measure of freedom becomes the measure of the situation, and not the options abstractly opened by one's status as a contract holder. This is why the early Sartre ties who one is to how one became the way one is through an ethic of responsibility. Which, I think, is at the center of the contemporary ethos. Making the situation both a limit on freedom and the (transient) result of an indeterminate number of choices founds the contemporary left's notion of politics -- which isn't just about mechanisms, but about identities.

Anonymous said...

If who one is determines how one acts, again, why not an uebermensch, if not the prototypical anarcho-opportunist-- ok, I ask forgiveness for spouting the Walter Kaufmann cliches, but I have never understood how one obtains a duty from early Sartre, other than "be authentic," and if one chose to be, say, an authentic member of the Wehrmacht, fully aware of the lies and deceptions of the nazis, one would would have had JPS blessings....or is there for the "subject" in a particular situation some requirement that he must assess or value the freedoms and choices for all, so the more options and choices each has (real or apparent) the more palatable the situation? I don't recall much of any discussion of this but that would make Sartre seem more Rawlsian then initially supposed--not necessarily a drawback...

roger said...

Actually, the case you mention -- "if one chose to be, say, an authentic member of the Wehrmacht, fully aware of the lies and deceptions of the nazis, one would would have had JPS blessings" -- is more a case of bad faith. I don't really think that is a problem for JS -- I have been describing the formal conditions for freedom, which I think are outlined in Sartre, without describing the ethic -- the valuing of the possibility of those conditions. The case you describe is easier for JS than other cases, as for instance -- what if you are fighting against the colonialist oppressor and you receive a piece of information that would discredit the insurgent leader? Things of that type. in which bad faith collides with the praxis of freedom, are harder for him -- and for all of us.

Look, I'm not nominating JS as a god -- certainly, philosophically, I'm closer to Foucault or to Deleuze -- but I am saying that he produced the outlines of what has become identical to the presuppositions by which the left operates -- and the presumptions of the culture that the left has moved, in a certain direction, since the fifties. Don't look for too much in Being and Nothingness and Cr. of Dialectical Reason -- but don't use limit cases as invalidating, either. Sometimes they are, sometimes they simply point to repairs needed in a system of thinking.

Anonymous said...

I don't think JS or anyone can avoid at least tangentially addressing the more traditional ethical issues--i.e., at some point consequentialism enters the picture, even the existential or situational picture. Self deception is wrong not only because of psychological damage to the individual but because what happens when the self-deceived person (say a Schwarzenegger who believes he is bringing real reform to the masses while slashing away at education budgets) does within the social context. No? But it is true that the liberals too often think in Rawlsian or utilitarian terms of norms or rules applicable across the board: the lib. argues "let's organize to raise taxes," instead of "let's form small units of hackers and bank robbers and jack the financiers of America"

Anonymous said...

Drat. I was hoping to read more devastating critiques of my 2nd rate analysis of Sartrean "responsibility." Yet one might ask why isn't some synthesis of Rawlsian and existentialist approaches to responsibility and decision-making feasible? We may be condemned to choose about many things (though many basic human actions--having to do with sex, food, employment--are perhaps more determined than Sartre was willing to admit), yet the specific character of those choices--, motivations, relevant considerations, consequences--are not adequately described in the Sartrean accounts.

Anonymous said...

It is questionable as to whether or not mere "responsibility" is enough to link Sartre up with US lefties. The groundlessness of human existence is enough to interrupt the enthusiasm of most leftist demands for a grounded ethics. The only principles that emerge out of Sartre is the resistance of those historical practices that efface the ontological character of the human as always only articulable as always being what it is not and not being what it is. I.e., the impossiblity of stable identities destroys the possibility of identificatory schemas as operative grounds for solidarity. Nevertheless, the question of strategic identities does become a positive question...by the way, does anyone have any knowledge of Badiou's relation to Sartre?