Gillian Rose’s critique of violence

RP 197 () / Article

The crisis of the legitimacy of the liberal democratic state is being posed today with an urgency and acuity not seen since the debates over the legitimacy of Weimar parliamentary democracy. Its constitutive claim to be able to satisfy both the values of justice and pluralism appears to be coming apart at the seams. Far Right movements are on the rise, and it is likely that they will become stronger, more vociferous and more violent in the future. These developments would have come as no surprise to Gillian Rose. In the Preface to The Broken Middle, published in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the very height of liberal triumphalism, she refused to join in the chorus. The dismantling of Soviet- style socialism, Rose confidently pronounced, will neither destroy Marxism nor resolve the antinomies of modern state and society. It would, however, open ‘the opportunity to resume examination of the connection between liberalism and Fascism’. [1]

It is against this background that I return to examine Rose’s works, with a view to finding answers to two specific questions. How does Rose understand the connection between liberalism and fascism? What resources does Rose’s political theology provide for developing an effective anti-fascist strategy? However, in pursuing these questions, I have had cause to revise some of my previous assumptions about Rose’s work, particularly with respect to her interpretation of the genesis of modernity and her understanding of modern subjectivity. In short, my previous essays overestimated the importance of Hegel and underestimated the influence of Walter Benjamin (and Nietzsche). [2] Hegel Contra Sociology appears to present a Left-Hegelian–Marxist interpretation of Hegel’s social and political philosophy. On this reading, there is a mismatch between the rational modern subject, conceived in broadly Kantian terms, as a free, rational, independent, reflexive and self-determining agent, and the non-rational institutions of the modern state. This opens the space for a politics aimed at overcoming this incongruity. However, Rose’s Nietzschean conception of the moral will as a disguised form of egoism undercuts this notion of a Hegelian political praxis, in both its reformist and its Marxist derivations. From this point of view, it follows that the moral subject is a hindrance, not a stepping stone, to the accomplishment of universal mutual recognition. Indeed, for Rose, the unmasked moral will is revealed to be essentially fascistic in nature. Hence, it must be dismantled and reconstructed before it can become capable of recognizing other subjects in their universality and singularity. Furthermore, this work of destruction will take the form of exposing the violence of the modern subject to itself.

This Nietzschean dimension of Rose’s project is much more salient in her late works, in which the concept of violence plays a more dominant role than in her earlier writings. It receives its most concentrated expression in both its psychological and its political dimensions in Love’s Work. One might say that Love’s Work combines a ‘therapy of desire’ with a potted genealogy of modernity. The result is a deeply traumatized concept of the subject, which Rose takes to be the truth, or, one could say, the ‘untruth’ of modern subjectivity in general. However, I shall contend that this is a distorted view of the modern subject, based on a one-sided view of the history of modernity; that is, one which largely ignores its emancipatory dimension.

‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.’ Rose adopts this dictum in Love’s Work as a rule for dealing with her illness. However, it could equally be interpreted as her rule for life in modernity. Despite the fact that Rose’s account of modern subjectivity is almost unremittingly pessimistic, she still enjoins us to be ‘yea-sayers’, to stay with the world and to remain politically engaged. Rose provides two grounds for not despairing – noticeably she never uses the word ‘hope’. First, work, by which she primarily means the intellectual work of speculative critique and genealogical reconstruction. Second, faith, taken over from Kierkegaard, which allows for a ‘suspension of the ethical’, a way of comprehending the oppositions of modernity without being comprehended by them, and which opens up a space for ethics. Speculative …