Revenge or revival?
Daniel Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, trans. Gregory Elliott,
Verso, London and New York, 2002. xvii + 392 pp., £20.00 hb., 1 85984 712
The translation of Marx for Our Times presents to an Anglophone readership one of the more ambitious and, in many respects, more intriguing products of the recently fêted recovery and renewal of Marxist thought in France (see Conference Report in RP 115). As its title and ʻPreface to the English Editionʼ accentuate, Marx for Our Times is proposed as a disruptive intervention into the intellectual and political conjuncture of the present; an intervention claimed all the more forcefully now as the end to the dismal period that induced and attended the bookʼs composition. Bensaïd describes the very act of rereading and re-engaging with the ʻdead dogʼ that Marx had become from the late 1970s to the early 1990s as itself an ʻact of resistanceʼ against the ʻCounter-Reformationʼ or ʻRestorationʼ that he brands this period of anti-Marxism in France, a period symbolized by the nouveaux philosophes. Marx for Our Times is revenge. In fact, writing revenges on the nouveaux philosophes has become the main genre of contemporary French Marxism.
The year 1995 marked both the French publication of Marx for Our Times (entitled Marx lʼintempestif – Marx the Untimely) and, according to Bensaïd, the alignment of various conditions enabling a wider reformation of Marxism. Dominant among these was the percolating effect of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; more speciﬁcally, the dissolution of its overdetermination of the meaning of Marxism within the ideological struggle of the Cold War. This decisively broke the association that had been fundamental to the strategy of the nouveaux philosophes, thereby removing the generalized suspicion that had stiﬂed reconsiderations of Marx. Intellectually, there has been a resurgence of work on Marx. Among the celebrity highlights, Bensaïd cites the 1993 publication of Derridaʼs Specters of Marx and, in the same year, Deleuzeʼs tantalizing remarks to Le Nouvel Observateur that ʻMy next book – and it will be my last – will be called Grandeur de Marx.ʼ More punctually, he cites the ﬁrst ʻInternational Marx Conferenceʼ, organized by the journal Actuel Marx in 1995. And, more generally, he itemizes a wealth of contemporary international research on or relating to Marxism, which, in a refreshing lack of chauvinism, and a pointed depreciation of Althusserianism, he afﬁrms against any nostalgia for a ʻGolden Ageʼ of 1960s French Marxism.
But Bensaïd is also highly critical of the tendency to develop a purely academicized renewal of Marxism, a temptation he characterizes as a desire for Marx without communism. For Bensaïd, communism is distinguished radically from its Stalinist connotations and identiﬁed with the general practice of resistance to capital, a practice that acquires an urgent contemporaneity because of, rather than despite, capitalismʼs current hegemony. Again, 1995 is circled in Bensaïdʼs calendar. The winter of that year saw strikes and marches in defence of public services and social security in France and the intimations of a broad repost to a hegemonic neoliberalism – intimations of the emergence of ʻthe Left of the Leftʼ that has resonated in the actions of a global anticapitalist movement from Seattle to Genoa to Pôrto Alegre.
But 2002 was not 1995. It was marked by the ﬁasco of the French presidential elections and the irruption of the ʻWar Against Terrorismʼ. These are phenomena that conﬁrm a crisis for neoliberalism, but that also demand deep reconsideration for an emergent anticapitalist movement. Bensaïd does not reﬂect on this transformation. And in certain respects there is little need for him to do so. The immediacy claimed for the bookʼs historical self-consciousness is largely belied by the research constituting the body of the book, most of which concerns methodological and logical disputes that, despite being oriented towards a critique of the contingencies of the present, nonetheless remain merely gestural in this orientation. It is tempting to downplay this disjuncture as overzealous promotion. But this is insensitive to the desire of Marx for Our Times, as well as to the desire for a Marx for our times. For it is the condensation of these desires that reveals some of the bookʼs highest stakes.The book appears elegantly simple in structure.
Uniﬁed by the general characterization of Marxʼs theoretical practice as ʻcritiqueʼ, the three main parts of the book thematize according to deployments of critique attributed to Marx: the ʻCritique of Historical Reasonʼ, the ʻCritique of Sociological Reasonʼ and the ʻCritique of Scientiﬁc Positivismʼ. Appended to the last is also a ʻContribution to the Critique of Political Ecologyʼ. However, this conceals a collection of essays that scarcely constitutes a straightforward narrative. Eclectic, idiosyncratic and occasionally laboured, they read very much like the documents of an extended period of research undertaken with complex demands. Bensaïdʼs mode of presentation here is derived from Benjamin: ʻassembling and juxtaposing extracts make it possible to outline the constellation of an epoch, to awaken echoes under the impact of the presentʼ. And Adornoʼs criticisms can be cited again, in so far as Bensaïdʼs presentation of material tends as much towards positive exposition as critical juxtaposition. Furthermore, perhaps the most striking juxtaposition of the book is not quite intended as such: namely, that between Walter Benjamin and analytical Marxism. It informs much of its analysis.
With respect to the critique of historical reason, Bensaïd criticizes the normative and determinist theory of history developed by G.A. Cohen as a renewal of the conservatism of the Second International, and, via Benjaminʼs critique of the latter, proposes a radically disjunctive and politicized model of history, structured by ʻeventful singularitiesʼ. But in a confusion that is perhaps engendered by Bensaïdʼs eclecticism, the clariﬁcation of Benjaminʼs relation to the logic of singularities is left largely suspended. And when we return to the consideration of singularity in the critique of scientiﬁc positivism, it is inﬂected by a recourse to chaos theory that raises more questions that it answers. The second part of the book, on Marxʼs critique of sociological reason, is a defence of class struggle against its reduction to methodological individualism, in so far as the latter dissolves the central political category of Marxism in the name of explaining it. However, conceived in terms of a general renewal of Marxism, this choice of opponent seems anachronistic. There is no discussion of the post-Marxism developed by Laclau and Mouffe, which has been in many respects more inﬂuential in the present scepticism towards Marxist political philosophy. Their articulation of the challenge presented to the Marxian conception of class struggle by new social movements and the multiplication of political subjectivities would be an urgent task for a renewal of Marx today. It is also noticeable that, despite the debt to Benjamin, and passing nods to Bloch and Adorno, there is no sustained discussion of Habermasian Critical Theory, which would seem to offer the obvious target for a Marxian critique of sociological reason today.
Indeed, in many respects the discussion of analytical Marxism is anachronistic. At a time in Britain when it has lost most of its momentum, inﬂuence and credibility as a Marxist enterprise, we are offered an extensive conﬁrmation of this as a critical renewal of Marxism today. For all Bensaïdʼs insistence on the present, there is a deﬁnite time-lag here, a sense in which he has arrived too late. Paris in 1995, maybe, but in London and New York in 2002 it is so passé. And yet, much like a video time-delay, the effect is strangely revealing. The time passed has transformed the critique of analytical Marxism, from the suspicion of an insidious dismantling, into the preparatory ground-clearing for a radical renewal of Marxism.
A further surprising, but also confusing feature of the book is its relation to Hegel, who undergoes a peculiar odyssey as he bobs up and down at different points in the book. He is the principal target of Bensaïdʼs attempt to conceive the critique of historical reason non-teleologically and disruptively, and to apprehend history strategically and politically. However, in the critique of scientiﬁc reason Hegel is redeemed emphatically as the fundamental progenitor of the logic of Capital. But few of the historic disputes over Marxʼs relation to Hegel are articulated here, and the critique of teleology proposed in the ﬁrst part of the book is later transformed into an understanding of Hegelian dialectic as a fundamentally open and pluralistic form of totality; indeed, a dynamically indeterminate, probabilistic, and therefore strategically understood and negotiated logic of chaos. In characteristically rhetorical mode, Bensaïd writes: ʻRegarding capital as a dynamic social relation in chronic disequilibrium, Marx glimpsed “the footprints of chaos on the sands of time”, but was not yet able to decipher them.ʼ (The quotation is from Ian Stewartʼs Does God Play Dice?) Bensaïdʼs indifference to Althusserianism is more the pity here. The elaboration of the consequences of this reading of Hegel in relation to Althusser would have great resonance for a renewal of Marxism today, when Althusserʼs echo can still be heard in the work of a number of inﬂuential intellectuals on the Left. And in many ways the strategy of renewing Marx through the diagnosis of his blind anticipation of a subsequent scientiﬁc paradigm is very similar to Althusserʼs, only here it is chaos theory rather than structuralism.
There are many desires for a Marx for our times that Marx for Our Times does not serve. It is not an analysis of the contemporary political possibility of communism. It is a pedagogical introduction to Marx in only a very peculiar form. Many of the crises of Marxist thought on the Left are broached only indirectly, if at all. Marx for Our Times is in many respects best understood according to its most modest self-understanding, as the document of a particular period of critical research into the renewal of Marxism in a particular context. In this, it remains true to its original French title, untimely. However, this does not diminish what gradually emerges as the unifying horizon of the book, but which is ironically absent from its structuring themes: namely, a Marxian critique of political reason. This is the secret passage that links the assumption of Benjaminʼs political transformation of historiography to the antagonistic structure of class struggle and, ﬁnally, to the elaboration of its ontology as the strategic negotiation of open systems of determination. The development of this critique of political reason is the implicit but pervasive labour of Marx for Our Times. Buried in the immanent critique of its own critiques, it emerges only indistinctly. But its critical self-reﬂection demands more than conceptual clariﬁcation. It demands, as Bensaïd himself insists, ʻan organic relationship with the revived practice of social movements – in particular, the resistance to imperialist globalizationʼ. These social movements are to be excused if they donʼt immediately recognize this call as their revival.
Sex changeWendy Cealey Harrison and John Hood-Williams, Beyond Sex and Gender, Sage, London, 2002. 258 pp., £55.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 0 7619 5599 2 hb., 0 7619 5600 X pb.
Her criticism is twofold. First, what amounts to the separation of the natural (biological sex) from the social (gender) results either in the insuperable difﬁculty of explaining their relation, or, if some relation is posited, the separation is ipso facto denied. Second (leading on from this), despite its delimitation of biological explanation, the distinction conﬁrms the irreducible facticity of biological sex, which then cannot but function foundationally (cannot but be thought as that which ʻcomes ﬁrstʼ), acting as the ʻlodestoneʼ on gender, ultimately displacing the latterʼs explanatory power. Sex, in other words, will always remain the ﬁnal court of appeal when contrasted with gender in this way – the very claim against which Oakleyʼs book argued.
In the same chapter Cealey Harrison then examines Christine Delphyʼs attempt to overcome this problem with her claim that ʻsexʼ marks a social division that is the product of the hierarchy of gender (that is, patriarchy), working in its service. The criticism here focuses on the fact that Delphyʼs analysis forces us, albeit unwillingly, into the question of the origins of patriarchy, and to a presumption of the quasicausal role of patriarchy in the sex/gender (or now, better, sex–gender) conﬁguration. Within this, although Delphy may deﬁne men and women as agents occupying certain social positions (such that ʻmenʼ in the commonsensical sense of the term can be women in Delphyʼs sense), Delphy cannot help but also presume the existence of men and women, in the ʻsexedʼ sense of male and female, in the justiﬁcation of the theoretical role of patriarchy in her analysis. Sex thus creeps back in, as the presumption behind the concept of patriarchy, and once again functions as the ground of gender, inverting Delphyʼs apparently progressive intention.
Further chapters discuss, among other things, Bob Connellʼs Gender and Power, Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKennaʼs ethnomethodology of sex and gender, and Erving Goffmanʼs work on gender as display. The point of these chapters is often hard to see without considerable retrospective reconstruction and speculation on the part of the reader. There are also serious problems in the details of some of the analyses. The criticisms of Kessler and McKenna, for Wendy Cealey Harrison would like to say thanks and goodbye to the sex/gender distinction. (John HoodWilliams, Cealey Harrisonʼs intellectual partner in previous publications and at the conception of this book, died before very much of it was complete. The ascription of joint authorship is a generous expression of the intellectual debt.) Her bookʼs main thesis is that the continued deployment of the sex/gender distinction as an analytical tool is doomed to perpetuate the very thing that it was designed to avoid or overcome. In particular, in the use of the distinction, feminists ﬁnd themselves occupying the same conceptual terrain as their opponents, unwittingly ceding to the latterʼs presumptions, whilst attacking them.
Several chapters attempt to demonstrate this through detailed and often critically incisive analyses of speciﬁc texts or oeuvres which have played an important role in the analysis of gender or of the relationship between sex and gender, across a variety of disciplines, but primarily in Cealey Harrisonʼs own: sociology. The intellectual history in question here is one in which, as a category referring to patterns of socio-culturally determined behaviour, conformity with or resistance to ideological and normative demands, gender has been deployed to bear the weight previously accorded to sex, understood as a biological or even zoological category, in the explanation and justiﬁcation or criticism of social, familial and psychological structures. (The implication being that where ʻsexʼ had tended to justify the patriarchal status quo, ʻgenderʼ would criticize it.) An early chapter focuses on Ann Oakleyʼs Sex, Gender and Society (1972). Oakleyʼs book is a much-copied example of the sort of feminist analysis that, tired of stupid claims about womenʼs nature and the biological imperatives to which we were subject, scrutinized the biological claims about sexual difference, contrasted them with evidence of cultural variation, and found a vastly reduced ﬁeld of ʻwhat really can be established and conﬁrmed … with the result that the [explanatory] ﬁeld commanded by biology shrinks in favour of genderʼ. An analysis of a text from 1972 may seem belated, but Cealey Harrisonʼs point is that Oakleyʼs basic presumption about the sex/gender distinction is still prevalent, and its alleged deleterious effects thus still operate.example, are fatally compromised by the claim that phenomenological reduction entails ʻepistemological agnosticismʼ. And claims elsewhere that ʻepistemological conceptionsʼ (whatever they are) ʻconceive of knowledge in terms of a distinction and correlation between two self-enclosed realmsʼ of knowledge and the objects to which knowledge refers reveal a characteristic confusion about philosophical terms. Yet in so far as they are successful, these chapters tend towards the same critical conclusion: wherever the conceptual opposition of sex and gender is found to operate – even surreptitiously – at the basis of any attempt to displace the former in favour of the latter, the same ʻontological orderʼ is reasserted in which sex, ultimately, must be foundational. The basic point, then, is that the sex/gender distinction just does not work. The logic of the distinction is such that the intention behind it is immanently stymied: gender is conceptually tethered, and effectively weighed down, by sex in the very attempt to give it an independent life of its own.
To some extent, this conclusion functions as a problematizing criticism (and one which is really very troubling, if we take it seriously) of a whole range of cross-disciplinary research based on the category of gender, given that that category is semantically (at the very least) dependent on its distinction from sex. But how do things stand with the use of the concept of gender in the theoretical ﬁeld in which the conceptual genealogy or the deconstruction of the function of the category of sex is an overt theme, or even its raison dʼêtre? Furthermore, if the sex/gender distinction has outlived its usefulness, with what should it be replaced? Rather than answer these questions, the book asks a few others, askance, and offers us the Foucauldian category of discourse to make other ones go away.
Cealey Harrison claims, for example, that in Making Sex (1990) Thomas Laqueur remains caught within the conceptual duality, the origin of which he himself describes: ʻsimultaneously placing the social and political imperatives that produce the markers of difference [and thus produce ʻsexʼ] outside the terms of the empirical investigation and … denying that externalityʼ. Laqueur, that is, implicitly retains the distinction between sex and the social world (by insisting on the separation of the ʻrealʼ body from its representations) although the main argument of his book is meant to demonstrate its untenability. This happens, according to Cealey Harrison, because Laqueur falls into the common error of construing discourse as a linguistic ﬁeld of representation, into which extra-linguistic ʻrealityʼ must not be allowed to collapse, theoretically.
Fear of a constructionist idealism has Laqueur running for biological sex after all. Cealey Harrison suggests that a Foucauldian concept of discourse is the answer to this fear, although construing it as a phenomenologically reduced, ontologically agnostic methodological concept (which Foucault, as a good Heideggerian, did not) and claiming its virtue to be the ability to ʻcut across epistemological ways of framing human knowledgeʼ obviates its usefulness.
In any case, Cealey Harrisonʼs criticism avoids a bigger question. She may have identiﬁed Laqueurʼs slip back into the traditional conception of the sex/gender distinction, her criticisms of which are compelling, but what if he had kept his footing? Committed to the thesis of the historicality of both the concepts of sex and gender and their referents, it would be contradictory for Cealey Harrison to claim that the meaning of the sex/gender distinction and its discursive function is somehow immutable. Granted the criticisms of the traditional understanding of the sex/gender distinction, what do ʻsexʼ and ʻgenderʼ mean now? Any answer to this question obviously has to deal ﬁrst and foremost with the work of Judith Butler, which is why it is so odd to ﬁnd the treatment of this speciﬁc issue in Butler sidelined, at best, in Cealey Harrisonʼs book.
The main criticism centres on Butlerʼs claim that gender is melancholic because the identiﬁcations of which it is born are rooted in the (unavowable, ungrievable) loss of same-sex attachments prohibited in the ʻresolutionʼ of the Oedipus complex. Cealey Harrison objects to the description of pre-Oedipal attachments as ʻhomosexualʼ, because in psychoanalytic theory heteroor homosexuality are achievements, or the (necessarily unstable) result, of later stages of psychic development. Further, describing the childʼs pre-Oedipal attachments to its same-sex parent as homosexual entails an admission of the place of sex as a given, prior to the construction of gender as the melancholic loss of this attachment, a position that appears to contradict Butlerʼs well-known thesis that ʻsexʼ is produced as an effect of gender, and to fall back into the traditional sex/gender distinction.
I suspect that Butlerʼs theory of melancholic gender (which she herself describes as ʻhyperbolicʼ) will not turn out to be the most enduring part of her intellectual legacy, but Cealey Harrisonʼs criticism here suffers from a psychoanalytical deﬁcit, failing to acknowledge the peculiar form of psychical temporality and causality (Freudʼs ʻafterwardsnessʼ, Nachträglichkeit). Her broader criticism, however, concerns the importation of the category of ʻgenderʼ into psychoanalysis in the ﬁrst place, arguing that it sociologizes the psyche and – in theories of ʻgender identityʼ especially – blunts the sharp instruments of psychoanalysis. It seems to me that this argument is worth considering in relation to speciﬁc instances, but in general and as a critique of Butler it is multiply displaced. First, while it may be true that gender was not a category Freud used, its subsequent use in psychoanalysis constitutes a transformation of both the discipline and the category itself, although Cealey Harrisonʼs criticisms always presume that it is the same old ʻgenderʼ of the traditional sex/gender distinction at work. Second, far more worrying than the use of the category of gender in psychoanalysis is the covert reliance of some (speciﬁcally Lacanian) theories of sexual difference on an utterly conventional conception of sex as biological sex difference – a conception, moreover, which Butler, perhaps more than anyone else, has done much to problematize. Finally, in focusing her criticisms on gender melancholia, Cealey Harrisonʼs treatment of Butler avoids what is surely the much more important part of Butlerʼs deconstructive ontology of sex and its discursive ʻconstructionʼ through the iterative performance of gender. (If the theory of gender melancholia contradicts this, so much the worse for that theory.)This avoidance is symptomatic. This is a very good book in so far as it correctly identiﬁes the various conceptual problems attached inseparably to the traditional sex/gender distinction and tracks the re-emergence of the distinction, in its traditional form, in various attempts to avoid precisely those problems. But it reaches a profound impasse on the question of what should replace it. ʻIdeallyʼ, Cealey Harrison says, the concepts of sex and gender ʻwill be replaced by concepts of an equivalent level of generalityʼ, and the current lack of such concepts sometimes explains the difﬁculty in escaping the old distinction (Laqueur, for example ʻlocates[s] himself within the very distinction whose origins he has tracedʼ because the ʻnew discursive spaceʼ that would be necessary for the full accomplishment of his criticism of the distinction does not yet exist.) The book ends with the demand that we think beyond ʻsexʼ and ʻgenderʼ, but there is no indication of how that might be accomplished. (It is ʻbeyond the scope of this bookʼ.)How is this theoretical impasse linked to the bookʼs philosophical deﬁciencies? The enquiry works within what Cealey Harrison calls the ʻsex/gender problematicʼ, a possible set of questions with ʻa constraining and regulatory characterʼ. Her overarching position is that it is now necessary to do away with this problematic; that is, she anticipates an ʻepistemological breakʼ and a transition to a new problematic including the new concepts mentioned above. But it is indeed very hard to imagine how we could do away with these concepts.
The impasse here is a consequence of an idealist conception of ʻproblematicʼ which seems unable to acknowledge the immanent transformation of the meaning and function of concepts within the ﬁeld. The structure of Cealey Harrisonʼs critical analyses is equally applicable to her own book: tracking the historical and theoretical transformation of ʻsexʼ and ʻgenderʼ (and the book is worth reading for this), she nevertheless insists on the impossibility of this very transformation and thus fails to see the radical theoretical possibilities in Butler, especially. Cealey Harrisonʼs book may help keep us on our toes in the enormous task of rethinking sex and gender, but it fails to acknowledge the ways in which some theoretical work has already gone beyond sex and gender, traditionally understood. Things ainʼt what they used to be.
Earth othersVal Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, London and New York, 2002. 304 pp., £50.00 hb., £14.99 pb., 0 415 17877 0 hb., 0 415 17878 9 pb.
This is a philosophy book for our time. Val Plumwood takes it as given that the current dynamic of global capitalist culture is leading inexorably to extinction. For her, this is the most powerfully threatening of the consequences of the domination of a particular form of rationality, and its associated dualistic oppositions: reason versus the emotions, culture versus nature, human versus animal, objectivity versus subjectivity, and the gendered ʻcodingʼ of these oppositions. The ecological crisis is, at root, a crisis of rationality – a ʻmasculinistʼ instrumental form of rationality, characteristically Western, which objectiﬁes and instrumentalizes its ʻothersʼ, whether these others are women, colonized peoples, or non-human beings of all kinds. This form of reason is at work in the division of the world into ʻsubjectsʼ, worthy of respect, and ʻobjectsʼ, ﬁt to be ʻstudied downʼ as topics for reductionist science, to be used and possessed. The historical working through of the consequences of this form of rationality has produced our contemporary world of globalizing capitalism, with its subjection of women, indigenous cultures and nature itself to its relentless logic.
In its neoliberal expression the destructive power of this economic culture is greatly enhanced by its disembedding from earlier forms of social and political regulation. The hopes that capitalist modernization will correct its malign trajectory by some inner logic of technological innovation, or that well-meaning political reforms will ﬁx the problem, are misplaced. They fail to grasp the full depth and scope of the crisis. The situation requires nothing less than a wholesale critique of the most fundamental frames of thought and practice governing modern capitalist culture, combined with a counter-hegemonic struggle to transform radically both our relations to one another and to the rest of nature.
Plumwoodʼs critique draws on feminist, postcolonial and ecological literatures, and her prime target is the cultural form of ʻrationalismʼ. This is an ideology which effects a radical separation of consciousness from the embodiment upon which it depends, and elevates formal, abstract reasoning as the prime source and repository of value. Associated with masculinity, objectivity and science, it opposes itself to and devalues the female-coded subjective, emotional and ethical dimensions of experience. In relation to nature, scientiﬁc objectivity licences an ethically and emotionally evacuated project of mastery. The politics of the ʻtechnical ﬁxʼ, without profound transformation of this overriding dynamic, can only take us further on the route to catastrophe.
However, to reject rationalism is not, for Plumwood, to reject reason, nor indeed science. A profoundly maladapted form of reason has acquired hegemonic status, but it can only be challenged by alternative rationalities: ones which are self-reﬂective, conscious of dependence and interconnection, context-sensitive and both receptive and attentive to the voices of others. Substantive rationalities, including ʻcriticalʼ and ʻorganismicʼ forms, are endorsed, but related to the more fundamental requirements of ecological rationality, which entails the corrective capacity to ensure viability of ecosystems, and the coordination of them with forms of social organization.
It is in her development of positive alternatives to the dominant cultural forms that the distinctiveless of Plumwoodʼs position is revealed. Her critique of the ʻremotenessʼ and ʻhyper-separationʼ between currently dominant elites and the consequences of their decisions for subordinated humans and for nature yields an imperative for a transformation of democratic institutions. Against Ulrich Beck, she argues that social inequality and various forms of remoteness ensure that the worst consequences of ecological degradation fall on the poor and marginalized. The essential capacity for corrective feedback therefore depends on the openness of political deliberation to the voices from below and from nature. Both markets and liberal-democratic institutions are poorly adapted to hear such ʻbad news from belowʼ. Liberal democracy needs to be deepened in a deliberative and participatory direction, but even this will not be enough unless it is accompanied by a radical programme of redistribution to eliminate class exclusions. The drift of the argument is towards some form of egalitarian ecological socialism.
Furthermore, incorporating a capacity for ʻcorrectivenessʼ into an ecologically rational polity requires the voice of nature itself to be heard. This in turn implies (among other things) a different understanding and practice of science. Plumwood draws on a range of well-established eco-feminist and feminist epistemological critiques of ʻreductiveʼ and mechanistic science (Merchant, Fox Keller, Harding) to suggest that the form of reason favoured in the dominant traditions of epistemology renders science open to appropriation by big capital and the state–military complex. An alternative practice of science, ethically committed, receptive to and respectful of those it studies, is needed. Such a ʻdialogicʼ science will overcome the dualistic separation of the conscious, rational subject from the inert, passive object of knowledge central to both rationalist and empiricist philosophies of science.
Equally challenging are Plumwoodʼs commentaries on other concepts and traditions in environmental philosophy and politics. Her treatment of the muchdisputed concept of ʻanthropocentrismʼ is particularly insightful. She distinguishes between a ʻcosmicʼ concept, according to which avoidance of anthropocentrism would require an Olympian universalism and detachment from all trace of human interest, and a ʻliberationʼ concept, rooted in the experience and ideas of other liberation movements. She accepts that the ʻcosmicʼ concept is an impossibility (and would, if possible, be undesirable), but defends the idea and practice of non-anthropocentrism in the liberation sense. Just as feminist thought ʻdecentresʼ a masculinist perspective on the world, and antiracist and postcolonial thought decentre hegemonic white-imperialist modes of appropriation, so anti-anthropocentrism in the liberation sense decentres the human species, situating it ecologically and recognizing interdependence with ʻearth-othersʼ. Unlike cosmic non-anthropocentrism, this involves acknowledging the inescapably embodied and situated character of the self, but overcomes the dualistic separation of self and other through a recognition of the non-human other as a similarly located source of agency and a possible partner in dialogue. This way of understanding the idea of anthropocentrism retains its critical power in relation to hegemonic ʻcentristʼ ideology, and also makes links between the ecological critique and the work of other liberation movements.
So, overcoming the dominant rationality involves both resituating humans in their ecological context and, at the same time, opening a space for the ethical recognition of non-human (Plumwood says ʻmore-thanhumanʼ) beings. Here she engages with other philosophies that have, more or less successfully, attempted to do this. First, the philosophies of animal rights and liberation. She recognizes that these have extended the circle of ethical concern beyond the boundaries of the human species, but this is only a ﬁrst step towards a full philosophical engagement with the ethical questions which arise once the human/animal boundary fence is breached. Both utilitarian and rights-based approaches are, she argues, forms of extensionism: extending ethical concern to non-humans in so far as, and only in so far as, they share abilities – consciousness, sentience, subjectivity – which confer ethical status on humans. These neo-Cartesian philosophies represent a minimal displacement of the hegemonic framework, assigning honorary human status to a narrow circle of human-like animals, at the cost of reasserting the dualist exclusion of the rest of nature at one remove.
There is also a measured critique of deep ecology, particularly in its ʻtranspersonalʼ versions, according to which personal cultural transformation leads to a fusion of the individual self with a totalizing, cosmic ʻSelfʼ. Recognition of the intrinsic value of non-human nature rests on a notion of a higher metaphysical unity of self with nature. Plumwood is clear that, at least in Naessʼs pioneering vision, there is much in common between her proposals and those of deep ecology. However, she differs in putting the emphasis on recognition of the independent agency of others, rather than on merely recognizing them as bearers of value: recognition of agency is an opening to the possibilities of communication and cooperation. More fundamentally, however, the notion of ʻunityʼ runs the risk of reactionary appropriations of deep ecological ideas by authoritarian political projects and an associated loss of recognition of the autonomy and ʻdifferenceʼ of earth-others. She proposes an ethic of solidarity, recognizing both continuity and difference, as preferable to one of identity.
Implicit in the argument so far is a proposal for quite radically alternative ethical, ontological and epistemological groundings for our relationship to the rest of nature. To be rejected are not just those exclusionary moves which conﬁne moral worth to the human species or its close relatives, but also hierarchical views of the natural order. What Plumwood calls ʻnon-rankingʼ, a stance which recognizes difference and even incommensurability among species, is her interpretation of interspecies egalitarianism. This avoids the extensionist logic of applying abstract principles indifferently across the diversity of species, but allows for a context-sensitive acknowledgement of the claims of non-human others. This in turn implies (as does the alternative practice of science outlined above) a stance of openness to the independent status of non-human others as intentional agents and possible partners in communication and cooperation.
The criticism that this implies an unjustiﬁed anthropomorphism if extended beyond a relatively limited category of other animals is countered by advocacy of a much more differentiated view of mind and intentionality than the dominant Cartesian model allows. In the human case, we rely on bodily cues to interpret meaning and often give them priority over verbal evidence. Similarly, attention to the activity of other living beings reveals the many ways they communicate with each other and is a source for enhancing and deepening our own understanding of their needs. Of course, there are limits and risks of misunderstanding, just as there are in any activity of translation, such as that between different human cultures. But this is no reason to abandon the effort.
This is an immensely rich and rewarding book, full of arresting insights and engaging arguments. If it poses at least as many questions as it answers, that is the mark of a work that is true to its own ideals of dialogue in ethics and science. Some readers will not be persuaded of its underlying premiss that our world of globalizing capitalism is on course for global catastrophe. This is more asserted than argued for, but that would have required another book. As far as this reader is concerned, the case has already been made. However, there are two issues I would like to raise. One concerns the advocacy of a dialogic ethic in our relation to other beings. I ﬁnd the arguments for ʻother kinds of mindʼ and for openness to intentionality entirely convincing. I also recognize that Plumwood acknowledges and guards against a possible anthropocentric reading of her vision: as assigning value to others on the basis of an attribute shared (albeit much more widely shared) with humans. However, I am not sure that she entirely succeeds in this. Perhaps we have sources for a stance of respect and wonder, even for beings – living or non-living – with which we may not be able to communicate in any substantial sense. And if the emphasis on communication has to do with allowing the voice of non-human beings to be heard in our democratic decision-making, then this voice cannot be heard directly, but only by way of receptive human mediators. This is a very important difference between a liberation ethic for nature and the other liberation movements. Here, perhaps, the ethic of solidarity dominates over an ethic of democratic inclusion.
My second worry has to do with the central role accorded in the argument to the concept of ʻcultureʼ. Plumwood rightly seeks to avoid economic determinism, which she (wrongly, in my opinion) attributes to Marxism, and conceptualizations of culture are a common way of doing this. Iʼm reminded of Weberʼs classic work on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was quite explicit about the importance of the economic, legal and political conditions for capitalism, and about his desire to avoid a ʻone-sided idealistʼ account. Nevertheless, his argument gives so central a place to the religious and ethical dimension that we are left with the impression that he views culture as an autonomous ʻprime moverʼ in historical change. Sometimes one has a similar impression in reading Plumwoodʼs argument. It is as if the cultural form of rationalism were the prime mover in the generation of our ecological crisis, with global capitalism and its various oppressions, exclusions and devastations mere material effects. This runs entirely counter to her own critique of the ontological primacy assigned to ʻreasonʼ in the rationalist tradition. It is unclear just what causal role is being assigned to the cultural form of ʻrationalismʼ in Plumwoodʼs argument. What sorts of institutional structures and power relations favour one form of rationality as against another? Where might we look for social and economic sources of cultures of resistance and opposition? Given the centrality of globalizing capital accumulation and commodiﬁcation to her diagnosis of our contemporary crisis, perhaps the explanatory relevance of the Marxian heritage should not be dismissed so readily.
Lack without lackConor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology, Routledge, London and New York, 2002. 336 pp., £55.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 0 415 27693 4 hb., 0 415 27694 2 pb.
One trillion years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have plunged the cosmos into absolute darkness. Every star in the universe will have burnt out, leaving behind spent husks of collapsed matter. All free matter, whether on planetary surfaces or in interstellar space, will have decayed, terminating any remnants of life based in protons and chemistry. Every trace of sentience – irrespective of its physical base – will have been erased. Finally, in a state called ʻasymptopiaʼ, the dark stellar corpses littering the empty universe will evaporate into a brief hailstorm of elementary particles. Atoms themselves will cease to exist. Only the implacable expansion will continue, pushing the dead universe deeper and deeper into an eternal and unfathomable blackness.
The asymptopic death of the cosmos provides an interesting benchmark in terms of which to gauge the ambit of nihilism and the ultimate insigniﬁcance of what we call ʻbeingʼ, for, as Lyotard once astutely put it, it marks the death of that death which, since Hegel, has functioned as the life of philosophical thought. The death of thought rather than the death of thought.
For theologian Conor Cunningham, philosophical nihilism is the logic of the ʻsomething as nothingʼ and of the ʻnothing as somethingʼ. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of cosmological extinction plays no role in Cunninghamʼs ambitious study, for asymptopic nothingness ﬁgures ʻsomethingʼ altogether more viscerally upsetting for Christian theology than ʻnothingnessʼ as a toothless conceptual abstraction. Nevertheless, Cunninghamʼs book is compelling in its remarkable synoptic breadth and conceptual audacity. Its title is slightly misleading, for this is not a philosophical genealogy in the now-familiar Nietzschean–Foucauldian sense. Instead, Cunningham adopts an explicitly ahistorical methodology: in his analysis, the equivocal logic of the nothing as something and the something as nothing is a structural invariant running through Plotinus, Avicenna, Scotus, Ockham, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan and Badiou. Thus, interestingly enough, for Cunningham, atheism is a consequence rather than a condition of nihilism. And the logic of nihilism which Cunningham discerns in premodern thinkers like Plotinus, Avicenna, Scotus and Ockham is a condition, not a consequence, of that secular atheism which has apparently (only apparently) become the norm in post-Kantian philosophical discourse.
To his credit, Cunningham never shies from engaging with the more radical aspects of the conceptual challenge nihilism presents for theology. He tries hard to resist the theological temptation to ascribe a merely privative status to the nihil in nihilism: [N]ihilism … does not lack anything, or more accurately, it does not ʻlack in lackingʼ.… [N]ihilism may lack God but it also lacks this lack of God.… If we are to speak seriously of nihilism we must, it seems, understand nihilism precisely to be an absence of nihilism: nihilism is not nihilistic. Indeed, it may well be best to characterize nihilism in plenitudinal, rather than negative, terms. If we realize that nihilism can be understood as negative plenitude – what has been referred to throughout as the nothing as something – then we can realize that nihilism will not fail to provide what it is usually supposed to preclude.
But clearly, the possibility of distinguishing between positive and negative plenitude still requires a transcendent guarantor of the distinction between positive and negative, plenitude and lack. For the enthusiastic nihilist (by which I mean myself) will continue to insist that the nihil in nihilism is positively insigniﬁcant rather than reductively meaningless. If the death of God wipes away every transcendent horizon of signiﬁcance to which humanity could appeal as an ultimate guarantor of the distinction between the meaningful and the meaningless, then nihilism as that which reveals the insigniﬁcance of meaning cannot be condemned as a loss of meaning. Thus, as Cunningham argues, what theology must reinstate is a transcendent guarantor of ʻthe signiﬁcance of meaningʼ.
This is the point at which Cunningham delivers his most impressive bout of argumentative subtlety. By depriving us of the capacity to distinguish between meaninglessness and insigniﬁcance, nihilism generates an ʻexcessive intelligibilityʼ (Cunninghamʼs phrase) that renders the possibility of choosing between something and nothing (or faith and philosophy) unintelligible, thereby depriving us of the capacity to choose between signiﬁcance and insigniﬁcance, belief and nihilism. Thus, according to Cunningham, what nihilismʼs ʻuniversal provisionʼ fails to provide is the capacity to choose between choosing and not-choosing:
If nihilism cannot provide something then it can be found lacking and so a space for a critique arises, precisely because it then appears as a choice, a possibility, an intellectual stance.… Nihilism is not a choice but all choices. It endeavours to be so in an attempt to avoid lack.… It must be understood that for nihilism it is nothing to provide something, just as being is nothing, or it is nothing to be.… How then are we to critique nihilism? The answer may lie in rendering nihilism possible, viz., after all a choice, rather than all choices. In being a choice (the etymology of heresy stems from the word for choice, hairesis), then it will be a reality. In being ʻaʼ reality it will be but a reactive discourse which is better referred to as ʻsinʼ.
So for Cunningham the situation is as follows: since theology is obliged to acknowledge the full force of philosophical nihilism on pain of dogmatism, the most it can accomplish is to render the possibility of not choosing nihilism intelligible again. The nihilistic equivalence of all choice can be outﬂanked by showing that the difference between choosing and not-choosing harbours a signiﬁcance irreducible to the excessive intelligibility of the universal provision whereby meaning is rendered insigniﬁcant. In other words, the decision to choose (the nihilist heresy) must be shown to presuppose the irreducible signiﬁcance of the difference between choosing and not choosing.
Thus, by way of contrast to nihilismʼs ʻmeontological (in)-differenceʼ wherein nothing remains indistinguishable from something and transcendence and immanence are perpetually collapsing into one another, Cunningham strives to articulate a radical ʻtheological differenceʼ between immanence and transcendence. Theology becomes possible again on the basis of a transcendent analogical difference between immanence and transcendence: ʻFor only through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be.ʼ This mediating transcendence is the irreducibly signiﬁcant difference between nihilist insigniﬁcance (the immanent indifference between choosing and not choosing) and theological meaningfulness (the transcendent difference between choosing and not choosing).
The trouble with this ingenious move is that it involves an appeal to transcendence that can only strike the philosopher as exorbitantly dogmatic. According to Cunningham, it is Christian faith that harbours the irreducible guarantor of signiﬁcance. Moreover, this irreducible signiﬁcance which is supposed to underwrite meaning remains rooted in the kind of equally dogmatic phenomenological empiricism for which gross molar unities remain the ultimate, non-decomposable units of meaning. As ever, phenomenology is the handmaid of theology. Thus, for Cunningham, the meaningfulness guaranteed by transcendence is invariably the meaning of this tree, this ﬂower, this human being. And the analogical guarantor for the signiﬁcance of the meaning of this ﬂower, tree, or human being is its inﬁnite eidos in the divine mind. Accordingly, Cunningham acknowledges that for theology there is a sense in which ʻonly God sees, knows, does, and we, by way of analogous participation, receive the gifts of knowing in partʼ. But in the absence of any independent, which is to say non-theological, access to God, Cunningham might as well say that only we see, know or do, and God is merely a transcendent analogue of our partial knowing.
Cunninghamʼs analogical isomorphy between divine eidos and ﬁnite phenomenon turns the most wearyingly familiar furnishings of everyday phenomenological experience into irreducible ontological absolutes. The notion that phenom-enology may not provide the onto-logical measure of all things, that there may be more things in heaven and earth than are accessible to human phenomenology, is not even entertained. Christianityʼs lasc-ivious appetite for mundanity, which is merely the obverse of its contempt for philosophical ascetic-ism, has never been more trans-parent than it is here. When coupled with Cunninghamʼs facetious jabs at the nihilism of ʻotherworldly ascetismʼ, this theological lubriciousness reminds us of just how debauched Christian spirituality becomes when it decides to wallow in worldliness.
Nevertheless, even if Cunninghamʼs attempt to reinstate a transcendent guarantor for the signiﬁcance of the difference between somethingness and nothingness remains unconvincing, this adventurous book does perform one indispensable service for the philosophical debate about nihilism. Cunningham has quite correctly seen that this is a debate about the ontological status of meaning. More precisely, it is a debate about whether there is some ultimate, transcendent guarantor underwriting the signiﬁcance of meaning. Because it anchors the debate about nihilism so ﬁrmly in this question, and insists that any appeal to the transcendent or irreducible signiﬁcance of meaning must ultimately be theological, Cunninghamʼs stance allows us to see the extent to which all those putatively secular philosophies that continue to insist on the irreducibility or givenness of meaning remain in thrall to the prejudices of theology. By insisting that the alternative must be that between the radical difference of theological signiﬁcance or the radical indifference of nihilist insigniﬁcance, Cunningham has helped narrow the middle ground of philosophical compromise hitherto occupied by phenomenologists, hermeneuticists and other lay theologians. All that remains now is for we nihilists to narrow it still further by carrying out a deﬁnitive assault on the signiﬁcance of meaning.
From the perspective of a truly consequent nihilism, cosmic asymptopia illustrates the equivocity of the ʻsomething as nothingʼ and the ʻnothing as somethingʼ at least as well as any of the ʻphilosophies of nothingʼ analysed by Cunningham. Moreover, it does so in a way that clariﬁes the main lacuna in Cunninghamʼs analysis: the failure to specify the status of the equivocating ʻasʼ. Is this Heideggerʼs phenomenological ʻasʼ of apophantic disclosure so that nothingness is meaningfully disclosed as something? Which is to say, as a phenomenon? Clearly not, for in Cunninghamʼs analysis it seems to function as vanishing mediator between the ʻnothingʼ and the ʻsomethingʼ, in a manner exempliﬁed by the relation between substance and attribute in Spinoza, the relation between noumenon and phenomenon in Kant, as well as the relation between différance and presence in Derrida. Thus, this is an anti-phenomenological ʻasʼ: an operator of disappearance rather than disclosure – something Cunningham tacitly acknowledges when he contrasts the immanent equivocity of this annihilating ʻasʼ with the transcendent analogy between the Creator and his creatures.
So would it be too extravagant to suggest that there is no more perfect paradigm for this annihilating ʻasʼ than the asymptopic cosmic zero that cancels the very possibility of disclosure? That cosmic asymptopia furnishes an immanent but terminal guarantor of ontological insigniﬁcance? That, grasped as the proper name for the nihil in ʻnihilismʼ, this death of death effects an ultimate evacuation of sense far more vigorously than any prospect of extinction situated at the personal, civilizational or even species level?
Strange ﬁreHoward Caygill, Levinas and the Political, Routledge,
London and New York, 2002. x + 218 pp., £45.00 hb., £14.99 pb., 0 415 11248 6 hb., 0 415 11249 4 pb. Levinas and the Political can be seen as Howard Caygillʼs delivery of the promissory note with which he concluded his essay on Levinas in RP 104, on the ﬁve decades of Levinasʼs political writings for the French journal Esprit: ʻPerhaps before trying to ﬁnd a passage between Levinasʼs ethics and politics it is necessary ﬁrst to recover the speciﬁc political conditions to which his ethics was a response?ʼ The bookʼs painstaking reconstruction of these conditions takes the form of a textured cultural history of Levinasʼs intellectual and political milieu and a scouring, sometimes scathing, exegesis of his writings. Beginning with readings of Levinasʼs early Theory of Intuition in Husserlʼs Phenomenology and ʻReﬂections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ, moving through his major works Totality and Inﬁnity and Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, and ultimately targeting his late reﬂections on the politics of Zionism and Israeli statehood, Caygill traces the unfolding of Levinasʼs thought through his ʻpersonal proximity to the fault lines of twentieth-century political historyʼ.
Caygillʼs reading positions Levinasʼs early but ultimately lifelong preoccupation with the French Republican trinity (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – particularly his desire to think the trinity in terms of the last of these) against the fallout of the Dreyfus Affair, its eventual ʻjusticeʼ, and the politics of assimilation. It places his immersion in the work of Bergson, Husserl and the phenomenological tradition and its ʻculminationʼ in Heideggerʼs ontology (the engagement with which was also to be lifelong and equally ﬁerce) against the rise of Hitlerism and Heideggerʼs migration to National Socialism. It relates the building of the foundations for Existence and Existents and its critique of Heideggerʼs Dasein to the experience of exhaustion during years spent in the ʻparenthesisʼ of prison camp and the ʻmemory of the Nazi horrorʼ. The mobilizing of the full-scale critique of ontology and the interrogation of the relationship between war and peace, politics and ethics that emerged in intertwined projects of Totality and Inﬁnity and Otherwise Than Being are read against the Manichaean Cold War geopolitical landscape. Finally, the integration of Levinasʼs ethical, political and religious thought is presented as compelled by his commitment to think through the explosive interdependence of the holy mission of Israel (with its enduring commitment to the incessantly interruptive ʻwork of justiceʼ) and the State of Israel (with the opportunities for justice as well as the temptations of the idolatrous power of the state presented by the achievement of nationhood).
Caygillʼs study dispels the illusion that Levinasʼs ethical philosophy can be extricated from its political and religious dimensions. Such attention not merely to the possible implications of Levinasʼs ethics for contemporary political debates, but to the concrete and complex political realities that drove, nourished, and indeed occasionally captured his thinking – and to which his work responded not just obliquely but directly – has been conspicuously absent from recent treatments of Levinasʼs work. Caygillʼs consistent attention to ʻhow the question of the political consistently troubles Levinasʼs thoughtʼ permits the recovery of the richness, the scope, but crucially also the volatility of Levinasʼs philosophy.
It is with the foreshadowing of this volatility that the book begins. Speaking of Levinasʼs participation in a radio broadcast that followed the 1982 execution by Phalangist militias of refugees in the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatila, Caygill explains that it was precisely the unexpected ʻcoolness of political judgement that verged on the chilling, an unsentimental understanding of violence and power almost worthy of Machiavelliʼ proffered by Levinas, a thinker whom he ʻhad been taught to regard as the thinker of ethical alterity and the subject of a growing body of sentimental commentaryʼ, that gave birth to Levinas and the Political. The pages that follow marshal the resources necessary to judge Levinasʼs calculated political perspective with the adequacy, and indeed the justice, that it demands.
The results are brought to bear in a climactic ﬁnal chapter on Levinasʼs efforts at negotiating the challenges posed to Israel by its very statehood. Arguing that Levinasʼs response to the war crime at Sabra and Shatila has to be seen as ʻa touchstone for his ethical and political principles as well as his views on Israel and the State of Israelʼ, Caygill revisits this fateful radio broadcast. Here Levinas found himself face to face with the following point-blank question: ʻEmmanuel Levinas, you are the philosopher of the “other”. Isnʼt history, isnʼt politics, the very site of the encounter with the “other”, and for the Israeli, isnʼt the “other” above all the Palestinian?ʼ Levinasʼs evasive response, for Caygill, ʻopens a wound in his whole oeuvreʼ:
My deﬁnition of the other is completely different.
The other is the neighbour, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be. And in that sense, if youʼre for the other, youʼre for the neighbour. But if your neighbour attacks another neighbour or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can ﬁnd an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong.
Rather than judge this as a one-time wavering from an otherwise consistent and stable philosophy of ethical alterity, of grounded commitment to thinking and performing the responsibility for and the welcoming of the other, Caygill offers the radical (but methodically and comprehensively substantiated) assessment that Levinasʼs ʻclaim is rigorously consistent with his philosophy, which we have argued recognizes the inevitability of war. To describe the other as enemy at this point is thus entirely consistent with such a reading of Levinasʼs ethics.ʼ
While the ﬁve chapters of Levinas and the Political map the ambiguities and the openings to violence at the ethical and political conjunctions of Levinasʼs thought, the bookʼs afterword departs from the tone and style of the preceding pages in order to explore an alternative way into Levinasʼs volatility. Entitled ʻStrange Fireʼ, it traces the appearance throughout Levinasʼs writings of the complex biblical theme of the miraculously enduring light. It appears as the ﬂame of Hanukkah (ʻthe miracle of a light richer than the energies feeding itʼ), whose legacy, in the words of Levinas, ʻsustains the magniﬁcent combatants of the young State of Israelʼ; the burnt offering of the Temple and its incarnation in the ʻembers of the bookʼ that ʻprovoke ﬁre and light when breathed uponʼ in the act of reading; the ʻsparks of enlightenmentʼ that issue forth from the ʻdebate between individual readingsʼ and ʻcombine into a messianic blaze brighter than the sun that consumes historyʼ – the dangerous ʻﬁre that is beyond history and yet can carry identity through itʼ. Caygill presents a haunting evocation of this transmigrating ﬂame which for Levinas links teaching and learning, war and peace, ethics and politics; this strange ﬁre that ʻat the moment it seems most benign … may ignite into a terrible and uncontrollable force, not of nature but of spiritʼ. He concludes by hinting at the way out of this violence that is ʻthankfullyʼ offered by Levinasʼs essay ʻThe Light and the Darkʼ, with its embrace of ʻa withdrawal from the blaze of glory and its cycle of consuming, protecting and avenging ﬁre in order to ﬁnd the glory of the presence in an ember or “a little ﬂask of pure oil” that keeps alight “our failing memory” for the futureʼ.
It is almost as though the afterwordʼs departure (which in its style and intent provides for a recovery of Levinasʼs messianic light from the economy of violent light developed in Derridaʼs ʻViolence and Metaphysicsʼ) extends a sort of compassion to Levinasʼs complicity in the violence undertaken in the name of Israel. Indeed the tone and topic of this remarkable ending open onto a deeper current of Levinasʼs thought, one that could be said to ﬂow beneath the apology for the Israeli stateʼs war crimes, and the appearance of which in his work from his Strasbourg years onward now comes into stark relief: namely, Levinasʼs faith in this ineffable but inexhaustible ﬁre ʻthat traverses history without burningʼ.
It is perhaps only after pinpointing the violence in Levinasʼs thought that Caygillʼs reading could open to this faith that steadfastly refuses to give up its commitment to this prophetic light. This ending undermines the ease with which we might rush to condemn Levinasʼs complicities, or to convince ourselves that his failure to rise to the responsibility for the (Palestinian) other – a responsibility which everything in his work ought to have demanded of him – somehow compromises his philosophy. This failure certainly does, as Caygill notes, ʻopen a wound in his philosophyʼ, but it is one that permits, maybe even invites, this afterword to serve as healing salve: the recognition of a wound is a step towards recovery. What emerges from the convergence of the forces unleashed by his study upon this ﬁnal moment is the poetic notion that it is not some kink or ﬂaw or missing link in the architecture of Levinasʼs thinking, but rather Levinasʼs faith, that makes his philosophy vulnerable – and therefore gives it its ethical and political presence.
Perhaps this does indeed deliver Levinas to the quiet but nevertheless incandescent glory that Caygill ﬁnds at the close of his book. Perhaps this is what Caygill has in mind when, in introducing Totality and Inﬁnity, he raises the possibility of a dynamic peace that is something other than the mere absence or indeﬁnite deferral of war. There is certainly a measure of grace in an ending which shows that Levinasʼs philosophy is not impregnable, and which suggests that this is how, at its most visceral level, it ﬁnally succeeds in its refusal of totality. The book is, in this sense, an afﬁrmation of the risks of philosophical practice. It documents the risks embedded in Levinasʼs political, ethical and religious philosophy, and ventures quite a few of its own in bringing this dimension of Levinasʼs work to light.
A tale of two WaltersEsther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde, Verso, London and New York, 2002. 350 pp., £20.00 hb., 1 85984 612
Responding to the French Leftʼs criticism of Euro Disney in the early 1990s, Disneyʼs chief executive ofﬁcer Michael Eisner said ʻthe intellectual, and maybe even the Communist, when they bring their children to Euro Disney, will have a good timeʼ. Eisnerʼs statements invoke the dilemma surrounding Walt Disney – the avuncular studio head and the dream factory he helped to build – especially given the cottage industry in books detailing Disneyʼs fervent anti-Communist activism and almost-as-fervent anti-Semitism. Esther Leslieʼs Hollywood Flatlands doesnʼt shy away from the contradictions inherent in the not-so-wonderful world of Disney; she uses them as a starting point for a fascinating story about the relationship between cartoons, modernist theory and mass culture. The book is about much more than the House of Mouse, tracing with a deft hand the aesthetic precursors of ﬁlm animation in the work of Hans Richter, Walter Ruttman and Dziga Vertov. Hollywood Flatlands, however, centres around Disney the animation giant – and his diminutive mouse – and tells us why European intellectuals, even some erstwhile Communist ones, have been fascinated by Disney since its Steamboat Willie beginnings. Hollywood Flatlands follows Siegfried Kracauerʼs classic periodization of Disneyʼs animation styles. In Theory of Film, Kracauer called Disneyʼs shift away from the fantastic towards the naturalistic a ʻfalse devotion to the cinematic approachʼ which blunted an earlier fascination with drawing ʻthe impossible with a draftsmanʼs imaginationʼ. As Disney moved from slapstick shorts to feature-length narratives, Kracauer argued, the anarchism of the gag gave way to the moral recapitulation of the fable, and Disney features inched inexorably towards social conformism. Early Disney cartoons personiﬁed the anarchic spirit, ﬂouting the conventions of realism with absurd acts of transformation and physical spaces that turned the laws of physics on their head. Animation aesthetics changed in the 1930s, however, when new multiplane camera technology enabled the creation of naturalistic scenes while the older single-plane animation fell victim to a spatial orthodoxy dictated by cinematic realism. The later Disney work lavishly embraced the imitative naturalism afforded by colour, but in the process illustrated the limits of bland positivism, Malevichʼs ʻdead objectiveʼ. Hollywood Flatlands follows a similar critical trajectory in marking the shifts in Disneyʼs work, beginning with the deceptively simple black-and-white animation, moving through the pioneering use of sound and colour and ending with Disneyland: a spiralling degradation from ﬂatness to roundness, from fantasy to ﬁdelity, and from estrangement to a comfortable familiarity. With sound technology cementing the cartoonʼs emotional impact, Disneyʼs Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) signalled the rationalization of studio animation by training artists in the mechanics of animal motion. This ran counter to the logic of the early Disney work, Leslie suggests, which embodied the self-consciousness of the work of art that ʻconceded ﬂatness not the fakery of depthʼ. Clearly, Hollywood Flatlandsʼ preference for early Disney has antecedents in Adornoʼs preference for Schoenberg over Stravinsky and jazz and Greenbergʼs championing of abstraction over kitsch.
In Hollywood Flatlandsʼ ﬁrst chapter, the history of the 1920s European avant-garde is told through both the manifesto and the anecdote. Extended descriptive accounts of a number of animated classics proceed through breakneck sequences of clauses, hyphens and ellipses. There is some poetry in this: at its title suggests, this chapter on drawing and the avant-garde is all about ʻdots and dashesʼ. In a single paragraph on the representation of the city, for example, we move impressively, albeit frenetically, from Döblin, Bely, Joyce and Dos Passos, to Maholy-Nagy, Kracauer, Benjamin, Erwin Kisch then Baudelaire: a procession of names, linked through staccato bursts of biography, theory and chance encounter, embodying Benjaminʼs famous observation that history decays into images rather than stories. However, the reader is sometimes left with the wish that more stories be told.
Rooting her method in analogy, Leslie rehearses a familiar refrain, ﬁnding that animation is an unexpected metaphor for both Hegelian idealism and capitalist alienation: because it is about movement in time – the negation of one cell after another – animation embodies the movement of thought; because it gives life to the inanimate, animation follows the logic of commodity fetishism. It seems strange that she would chose analogy over allegory – of which Benjamin wrote so brilliantly – since her previous book, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (Pluto 2000), is an excellent primer on Benjaminʼs work. More importantly, Disney continues to fascinate because, in addition to innovation in animation design, the cartoons are allegorical engagements with mass culture and industrialization, memory and myth. When Leslie avoids summarizing different takes on the phenomenology of cinematic vision and focuses instead on the imbrication of cartoons and caricature within intellectual histories and social movements, Hollywood Flatlands really hits its stride. Like Disney itself, the book is at its best when it tells a good story.
Take Sergei Eisensteinʼs appreciation of the cellular nature of animation production, which readily illustrated his ideas on animism and montage. While his extensive interest in drawing certainly fuelled his appraisal, Eisenstein also voted for Three Little Pigs as 1935ʼs landmark ﬁlm at a cinema conference, partly as a protest against the plodding stodginess of socialist realism. Not surprisingly, though, Benjamin is the other Walter invoked by Hollywood Flatlands, and it is through the trajectory of his engagement with Disney that Leslie recounts the tremendous popularity of the cartoon icon in intellectual life in 1930s Germany. Part of his larger appreciation of a commercial culture declared off limits by the orthodoxies of art history at the time, Benjamin defended Mickey Mouse as the fun-loving antithesis of bourgeois rationality, with his comic antics signalling the redemptive spirit of destructiveness: the negativity of the off-kilter pratfall that shatters – as all absurdity does – the civilized manʼs tenuous hold on reason. At the same time, Brecht complained that his contemporaryʼs advocacy of the inanimate amounted to mere mysticism, while Adorno viliﬁed the laughter of the culture industryʼs audience as a ʻparody of humanityʼ, a position clariﬁed in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here, Adorno and Horkheimer saw the comic beatings of hapless Disney cartoon heroes as a ruse to anaesthetize mass audiences to the growing authoritarian brutality of fascism, allegories of conformity which signalled the collapse of individual resistance to industrialized society.
Of course, as Susan Buck-Morss has noted, Benjaminʼs appraisal of Disneyʼs progressive potential was ambivalent. In his notes to the ʻWork of Artʼ essay, Benjamin ponders the ʻapplicability of Disneyʼs methods for fascismʼ, and as Hollywood Flatlands points out, Benjamin found in Disney a ʻtherapeutic explosion of the unconsciousʼ which acted upon the ʻdangers occasioned by the repressions that endan-ger humanity and that civilization brings with itselfʼ. For Benjamin, Mickey Mouse was the representation of the very reiﬁcation that constitutes everyday industrialized life and Disneyʼs ﬁlms resonated with the public because they recognized their own brutal disempowerment at the hands of industrial capitalism, war and barbarism. Benjamin suggested that our fascination with the cartoon short and the animation of the object reverses reiﬁcation and through this negation returns the audience, innervated, back to life: Mickey is the alpha and omega of humanity, its inanimate opposite and the very possibility of reinvigoration. However, Benjamin remained conﬂicted, and Leslie recounts the drama of revision as Benjamin drafted supplemental, more pessimistic, takes on Disney urged by Adornoʼs reservations. Nevertheless, the published version of Benjaminʼs ʻWork of Artʼ essay cut references to Disney and Mickey Mouse alongside mention of Marxism – a consequence, ironically enough, of its commission by the Institute for Social Research, which feared the essayʼs uptake by its New York sponsors.Hollywood Flatlands also accounts for the appeal that Disney held for the Nazi culture industry. While the Nazis claimed that Disney contributed to the ʻJewish bamboozlement of the peopleʼ, Snow White was greatly to inﬂuence German animation and Disney shorts circulated in Germany through the early 1940s even though the ofﬁcial trading relationship was dissolved in early 1940. Indeed, Disney remained a favourite amongst the Nazi higher-ups, including Goebbels and the Führer himself, and a German ancestry for Walt Disney became part of the Nazi acknowledgement of the power of American commercial culture. Leslieʼs chapter on Leni Riefenstahl draws on Disneyʼs fascination with the German fairy-tale, an observation echoed by German ﬁlm journals of the time, which further piqued the Third Reichʼs interest in learning from Disney aesthetics. By focusing on Disneyʼs distribution efforts in the late 1930s, coupled with the studioʼs production of American war propaganda ﬁlms, Hollywood Flatlands complicates the metonymic association between Disney and Teutonic mastery, while acknowledging the work of Greenberg, Adorno, Susan Sontag and others who have outlined the connections between Nazi monumentalism, Teutonic classicism and Disneyʼs commercial aesthetic. It might have added even more to the debate by addressing Walt Disneyʼs links with American Nazism and the myriad rumours that he attended meetings of the American Nazi Party with his then legal counsel Gunther R. Lessing.
Despite its avowed interest in analogy, then, Hollywood Flatlands ultimately refuses to freeze Disneyʼs animation into a series of images and analogues for fascist barbarism, which do little to convey the tremendous allegorical impetus of the animated cartoon. One story that the book does not tell is that Disneyʼs virulent 1940s anti-unionism – which resulted in the venomous anti-Communism of his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities – occurred at the same time that his Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was praised by Peopleʼs World as propagating a ʻminiature Communist societyʼ. When it settles down to capturing the spirit of such contradictions, Hollywood Flatlands aspires to, and gains, a welcome third dimension.
Moving onCraig Brandist, The Bakhtin Circle: Philosophy, Culture, Politics, Pluto Press, London, 2002. 221 pp., £45.00 hb., £15.99 pb., 0 7453 1881 8 hb., 0 7453 1810 X pb.
ʻI hear voices in everything.ʼ If the speaker were anyone but Bakhtin, we would probably conclude they were delusional, but from him the utterance is a seemingly straightforward statement of the overriding condition of his practice. It also condenses some key features and difﬁculties in Bakhtinʼs writing: the focus on speech (for example, the early attempt to assert intonation as the process which individuates both utterance and speaker), the vexed relation between word and referent, the obsession with categorizing types of discourse and their relations – an obsession accompanied by a marked refusal to acknowledge intellectual debts and conﬁrm or deny authorship of disputed texts.
Craig Brandistʼs study engages with a number of these issues, and is a useful counter to versions of Bakhtin as poststructuralist literary critic avant le mot or simple student of the popular that still play inertially in some parts of literary and cultural studies. Bakhtin is almost always more interested in ʻliteraryʼ transformations of the popular than the popular itself, and, as Brandist shrewdly notes, has nothing to say about the quintessential mass form, cinema. Likewise, the insistent corporeality of Bakhtinʼs rhetoric has too often been celebrated as a theory which ʻturnsʼ culture, and language into particular, ʻmaterialʼ, with little critical attention to the alchemy that might be involved. This error is especially signiﬁcant for Brandist, one of an increasing number of critics who insist on Bakhtin as philosopher and place neo-Kantianism at the centre of their reading. Part of what is distinctive about the book is the attempt to bring this Bakhtin to a wider readership. Brandist is concerned with the dialogisms that shaped the Circleʼs work (in particular that of Voloshinov) and Bakhtinʼs later projects. Neo-Kantianism was just one of the philosophical varieties that shaped the Circle in the 1920s. Lebensphilosophie, in particular Simmelʼs account of the rift between life and culture in modernity, Gestalt theory and the work of the Munich phenomenologists, particularly Schelerʼs account of intersubjectivity, were also key references.
Brandist focuses on a set of contradictions which he sees as structuring Bakhtinʼs thought. Thus, he argues, the encounter with Cassirer in the 1930s transformed his thinking, which acquired a Hegelian inﬂection, making possible the various histories of discursive forms (the novelistic, the carnivalesque) for which he is best known. These ʻhistoriesʼ are, however, fundamentally compromised by a continuing commitment to a universal and autonomous sphere of values. But is the picture so straightforwardly contradictory? Ken Hirschkopʼs reading foregrounds a historicizing dimension in Marburg neo-Kantianism, where space and time were themselves conceived as scientiﬁc categories which should be subject to critique, and argues that for Bakhtin human history must always be a fundamental explanatory category once objects are dissolved into processes. Further, history is never a simple historicist registration of change, but is critically conceived in terms of its orientation to the future. Such a reading seems to make better sense of Bakhtinʼs many histories of cultural forms, where valorized categories both constitute actually existing traditions of discourse and embody future possibilities.
The similarities in many of the traditions that Bakhtin metabolizes might also repay closer scrutiny. Brandist intimates Bakhtinʼs connection with Kulturkritik, here and elsewhere (RP 102), and this might have been further developed. The account of the carnivalesque, the Bergsonian celebration of laughter against the mechanical, and the (ambivalent) attraction to Lebensphilosophie all inscribe an idealized moment of organic unity between culture and civilization and its severing by ʻmechanizationʼ. And while the categories that Bakhtin values are the realization of possibilities present in all discourse, his valorization of the literary and his ﬁguring of the novelistic writer as historian and philosopher armed with a distinctive knowledge are thrown into a familiar light by such comparisons. Likewise, Bakhtinʼs orientation to a transformed future becomes more interesting when contrasted with canonical Kulturkritik, where the future is conceived as more of the same, or worse.
Brandist also suggests ways in which the Bakhtin Circleʼs ʻprogrammeʼ might be revised and further developed, and his ﬁnal chapter sketches some of the possibilities. This short chapter is frustrating, often reading as an outline for another book. One prospective connection Brandist suggests is with cognitive science, in its current approach to the processes of knowledge and meaning. In the most general terms this argument is persuasive, but it seems odd that Brandist does not consider the critical force that a Bakhtinian concept of genre (however problematic) might bring to ﬁelds (cognitive linguistics, but particularly pragmatics) that routinely either deny the explanatory power of textual form or banalize it. Unleashing Bakhtin (and Voloshinov) into cognitive linguistics also requires care. There is too much in Bakhtinʼs thought that either chimes with inadequacies in most cognitive linguistics – a neglect of the institutional – or which can be comfortingly (if wrongly) appropriated to conﬁrm a liberal model of dialogue.
There is a further tension in Brandistʼs own relation to Bakhtin. This is clearest in the dual function that the Circle itself acquires within the book. In one mode, Brandist is an intellectual historian and his account of the Circle and its discursive engagements is part of a commitment to contextualizing Bakhtinʼs ideas. But in another, Brandist wants to redeem Bakhtin for a ʻproperlyʼ materialist cultural theory (the holy grail of a Marxist theory of language takes form on more than one occasion), despite his own sometimes seemingly unanswerable criticisms. In this perspective, the Circle functions as the legitimator of a Bakhtin that might have been: a set of contingencies authorizing the sketch of a critical future for Bakhtinian ideas. It may be that the problem begins in the philological conditions of the ﬁeld itself, where the difﬁculties of deﬁning and accessing the archive, the complex textual histories, and the comparative rarity of Russian language skills among relevant reading constituencies, call for investments which then make it very hard to ʻlet goʼ of Bakhtin. But do we need to rely on the authority of the conditional perfect? Is it not better to assess him as a resource and move on?