I’ve had an odd aversion to blogging these past few months. A malaise that I cannot name—and can only partly blame on my back/sciatica problems. More a deep fatigue with the predictable channels in which my own thoughts run; nary a new thought to ponder or pursue. And also a deep disgust with the nation’s obsession with Trump. All eyes turned toward that clown, reporting his every twitch, and neglecting all other events, possibilities, and interests. Like every child who is acting out, he needs to be sent to his room, placed in isolation and ignored for however long it takes for us to regain our own life since I have no delusion that anything at this point can change his behavior. It’s our sanity that is at stake here, not his.
In any case, there have been some feeble stirrings of life in me lately. I went up to New York for the annual meeting of my political theory reading group. What a delight to spend a day talking with ten very thoughtful and intelligent people. Our common reading this year was Melville’s The Confidence Man, a dizzying text that pulls every rug from under the reader’s feet, providing nowhere to stand.
I may write more about the meeting later. But for now, two takeaways:
George Shulman noted that, if all appeals to transcendent and/or foundational grounds are taken away, then only comparative analysis is left. To which someone (I am sorry I can’t remember who) in the group added: “there is also the solidity of objects.”
I am still trying to decide if this is right. I think I understand the question: what can thought do, what resources does it have at its disposal, if it cannot locate/posit/affirm some indisputable ground or some transcendent standard for judgment? The two contenders seem to be Johnson’s “thus I refute Berkeley” (i.e. the solidity of objects) and a rough-and-ready ability to judge one of two states of affairs as preferable to the other (a favorite move of Rorty’s). The comparative mood can articulate the criteria along which it makes the comparative judgment; what it cannot do is claim those criteria must and will hold for all judgers. It can only “woo the consent”(to use Arendt’s translation of Kant on judgment) of those to whom its comparative judgment is addressed.
On the solidity of objects, we might go to Arendt on truth. There are facts beyond which we cannot get. We can argue about the causes of World War I forever, but if you say Belgium invaded Germany in 1914, we have no conversation at all. Facts are stubborn, even compelling in the strongest sense of the word “compelling.”
But is that it? I need to think more about whether that’s all.
Point number two was Jason Frank’s insistence that populism requires an enemy. Put that into dialogue with this comment from The Guardian about the British election.
“As someone pithier than me once said, you don’t win a culture war with facts. Heroes wanted. Conflict wanted. Goals wanted. Dreams wanted. Tell me a story I want to be part of.”
I like the story bit (of course)—and have been focused for some time on how we can tell an inclusive story. That’s why I resist the enemies notion, the idea that a “conflict is wanted.” Which may mean also wanting to find an alternative to a “culture war”—or any other kind of war. I don’t mean not having a choice. What I want is a choice between a conflictual tale and a non-violent, embracing story.
Classic weak-kneed liberal, in one way. Denial of fundamental divergence of interests and of the fact that the powerful and wealthy will not surrender their power and wealth without the fight that forces them to do so. But the idea is to have that fight at the ballot box and for the powerful and wealthy to accept their defeat as legitimate when it is enacted through democratic means. Don’t be naïve, the radical responds. There is no democratic process; the game is rigged in favors of the haves. And, in addition, there is no political passion, no motive strong enough to move people to action, without antagonism, without a “them” to fight against.
Let be fully naïve then. That position (with its Schmittian insistence on the necessity of “an enemy”) seems to me akin to saying the strongest political passion is hate—and only a politics that mobilizes hate will succeed. Whereas I am in search of a politics of love.