A gender lens to the centurySheila Rowbotham, A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States, Viking,
London and New York, 1997. xiv + 753 pp., £20.00 hb., 0 670 87420 5.
The briefest reﬂection on the scale of this undertaking is enough to produce vertigo, induced not so much by the challenge of twinning twentieth-century British and US history, as by the enormity of the conceptual and thematic issues attendant upon specifying ʻwomenʼ as the object of inquiry. ʻHowʼ, Sheila Rowbotham asks in her introduction, ʻcan the multitude of events which become daily news, decade after decade, along with all those submerged personal experiences which womenʼs history has sought out – births, betrayals, ecstasy or even the washing day – be encompassed between two covers?ʼ Her answer is that the writing of history is an act of compromise, born of ʻa grappling between evidence and consciousnessʼ.
Among the many fascinations on the empirical side of this equation, we encounter New York shirt-waist makers on strike in 1909; Marie Lloyd, English musichall idol; Theda Bara, ʻthe Vampʼ, early sex symbol of the silent screen, born Theodosia Goodman, daughter of a Jewish tailor from Cincinnati; Ruth Thompson, hanged in England in 1923 for allegedly compelling her lover, the lodger, to kill her husband. We learn in passing that half a million single women under thirty entered the USA between 1912 and 1917, including the Japanese ʻpicture bridesʼ chosen by working men; that the only anti-perspirant available in 1930s Britain, Odo-ro-no, took twenty minutes to dry and lasted a week; that one reason for American GIsʼ popularity with women in wartime England was that they earned £750 a year while British squaddies got less than £100; that the FBI opened a ﬁle on Marilyn Monroe following her involvement with Arthur Miller; that ʻHound Dogʼ was recorded by the black blues singer Willie Mae Thornton three years before Elvis Presleyʼs version. Stories of injustice and exploitation proliferate: Alice Wheeldon, imprisoned for her paciﬁst views in England during the First World War; a semi-literate working womanʼs appeal in a Chicago black weekly paper for ʻhealp … to get out of this land of suffringʼ; lobotomy proposed by some US surgeons in 1956 as a solution to ʻthe mad housewife syndromeʼ; the female employees of the ﬁrm American Cynamid, which, when reproductive hazards were revealed in the workplace in 1984, demanded that they ʻbe sterilized and then ﬁred them anywayʼ.
But if the volume of evidence which Rowbotham has drawn upon is considerable (the corpus of feminist-inspired British and American womenʼs history produced over the last quarter-century, of which Rowbotham is both pioneer and practitioner, supplemented by general histories and original source material), and amenable to a variety of interpretations, it is to the ʻconsciousnessʼ side of Rowbothamʼs equation that we must turn for insight into the central concerns of this work.
Rowbotham declares two personal perspectives.
First, there is her conception of the century as two lifespans, exempliﬁed by her own and that of her mother. Second, she invokes her ʻcomplex affair with the USʼ, rooted in 1950sʼ popular culture but then sustained by internationalism and her links with US feminists. A third consideration is Rowbothamʼs involvement with ʻwomenʼs historyʼ. Since the 1970s, she explains, womenʼs history, like labour history and black history, has been active in a ʻrecasting of historical “knowledge”ʼ. In ʻapplying a gender lensʼ to the past, it has documented ʻeveryday life and cultureʼ, and raised new questions about the organization of work, the structure of the family, and attitudes towards sexuality. Its most general starting point is that ʻwomenʼs lives matterʼ and should not be excluded from the historical record. But in seeking to redress that balance, the experience of women must be integrated: women, Rowbotham insists, do not exist apart ʻfrom life, from society and thus from historyʼ.
At the most basic level, this text provides two wideranging narrative histories of the lives of British and American women. Although Rowbotham is clearly fascinated by differences, similarities and interactions, she recognizes that the two countries are not ʻhomologous entities with synchronized impulsesʼ; latitudinal and longitudinal thematic analyses are eschewed in the interests of an accessible, chronological structure which divides the century into decades, each dealt with in a chapter which looks ﬁrst at Britain and then at the USA, subdivided into sections on ʻPoliticsʼ, ʻWorkʼ, ʻEveryday Lifeʼ and ʻSexʼ, with particular attention to the two world wars. The recognition that women cannot be dealt with in isolation means that each of these sections – Politics and Work especially – has to treat the wider political and economic forces pressing on the ʻdestinies of womenʼ.
This structure, peppered with short essays on period-speciﬁc topics, a well-researched selection of illustrations, and bibliographical summaries, makes the book eminently user-friendly for random sampling by a general reader well-disposed towards the subject matter but unlikely to plough through 600-odd pages of detailed narrative. What this kind of grazing yields is a kaleidoscopic picture of twentieth-century womanhood. There are ordinary women and famous women, poor women and rich women, women on assembly lines and women in the home, women hunger marchers and fascist women, pro-choice women and anti-abortion women, women against pit closures and women cheering Margaret Thatcher.
There are two kinds of stories to be told about this diversity. From a liberal-feminist perspective there is undoubtedly evidence of growing sexual equality. In Britain and the USA the century has brought unprecedented opportunities. And of all the decades in history to choose from, a wise woman would do well to have been born in the 1950s. Whatever her social status and ethnic identity, there would have been favourable odds on her beneﬁting not only from the economic boom of the immediate postwar decades, and from the expanded health, welfare and educational services, but also, as she came to maturity, from the mass availability of contraception, and from the deﬁnite, if unquantiﬁable, diffusion of feminist values from the active core of the 1970sʼ womenʼs liberation movement. As a result of these developments, Anglophone culture moved, and was pushed, closer to a condition in which many – possibly a majority of – women in those societies might begin, two hundred years after Wollstonecraft staked the claim, to live lives governed by their reason rather than their sex; to achieve, in other words, full membership of the human race.
Yet it is also the case that the range of womenʼs experiences exhibited in this text is subversive of womenʼs history as ʻan unproblematic unityʼ. As Rowbotham makes plain, the history of women is ʻno more cut and dried than the circumstances of womenʼ. The situation and the consciousness of many women who appear here reﬂect not so much their sex as their ethnicity or their poverty or their work or their property. Rowbotham is alert to privilege in these differences; and in teasing out the gendered dimensions of such right-wingers as Phyllis Schlaﬂy or Margaret Thatcher, she shows that to be a woman does not automatically imply disadvantage. Yet it is her sensitivity to the interests of the oppressed which ensures that any tendency towards a smooth-surfaced tale of womenʼs advancement through the century is constantly interrupted by a sharp-edged critical awareness of the contradictions inherent in such a perspective.
This critical edge stems from the surviving conviction that any womenʼs emancipation worth the name is only possible as part of wider social transformation. Rowbothamʼs conception of womenʼs history is cast in the mould of a 1970sʼ feminism, inspired by a vision not of equal rights but of socialism reshaped to service feminism. Like the US socialist-feminist Crystal Eastman, writing in 1920, Rowbotham ponders ʻhow to arrange the world so that women can be human beings with a chance to exercise their inﬁnitely varied gifts in inﬁnitely varied waysʼ. Seeking to ʻreveal suppressed possibilitiesʼ, she traces the gains and setbacks of social movements capable of eradicating not just sexual and racial discrimination but class inequality.
Running through this detailed account of cultural and social change for women, there is a political analysis of the rise of progressive movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and their subsequent defeat and dissolution. Not of least interest is the convergence and divergence between the British and the US experience. In both countries there are neatly symmetrical periods of intense socialist and radical activity before the First World War, and again in the 1960s and 1970s, framing so-called ﬁrstand second-wave feminism. In both countries, ﬁrst-wave feminism overlapped with labour agitation, socialism and opposition to the First World War. Yet for the greater part, it is the contrasts that are most in evidence. The contradictions of capitalism and modernity have always been writ larger in the USA. Britain did not, for example, experience the dire social consequences of the Depression or the dynamism of the New Deal, the extremes of McCarthyism or the high degree of postwar consumer afﬂuence. More speciﬁcally, American socialism and working-class politics sustained a near-fatal blow at the end of the First World War; and while the USA has remained ʻa seed bed of vigorous social movementsʼ, radical democratic traditions have been far stronger there than collectivist strategies for change, and the sustained resistance to arguments about redistributive justice and social provision has blocked the emergence of a welfare state on anything like the scale of postwar Britain.
These factors all conditioned the character of second-wave feminism. The womenʼs liberation groups that emerged in the USA from 1967, and soon spread to Britain, were closely interwoven with the civil rights movement, student protest, and opposition to the Vietnam war. Yet American feminism faced entrenched conservatism, and in the absence of a strong national labour movement its mainstream gravitated towards the pursuit of formal rather than substantial rights. The aim was equality in the world as it was. In contrast, liberal feminism made little impact in Britain, where the womenʼs movementʼs close ties with trade unionism and the Left entailed a more general challenge to ʻinjustice and inequality of all kindsʼ, and where the welfare state created many more openings for progress through social reform.
Rowbotham vividly recreates the energy and sense of potential of womenʼs liberation in its heyday, drawing on her own experience as well as on other sources to describe involvement in strikes, community protests, campaigns for reproductive rights, and attempts to create new kinds of sexual relations. ʻLiving the perfect, nurturing, non-possessive, non-hierarchical fuckʼ, she recalls, ʻbecame a terrible strain.ʼ But her most powerful writing is reserved for the human wreckage visited by Thatcher, Reagan and their ilk on the lives of those who had most to gain from social progress. Here the transatlantic interaction consists not so much of the USA as the font of radical social movements as of the British tendency to ape American reaction. The new enterprise culture of economic liberalism was predictably ʻfull of contradictions for women, both ideologically and practicallyʼ. While competitive individualism created new levels of female achievement, its cost in Britain was borne ʻby a shadowy host of homeworkers, hotel chambermaids, lavatory attendants and fast-food workers whose destinies were shrouded in the elusive statistics of government agenciesʼ. Poverty ʻhad become shamefulʼ. In the USA, poor people ʻfought for basic needs – for housing, health-care and an unpolluted environment – and in the process came up against the arbitrary power of the marketʼ. In Britain, as in the USA, it was usual to ʻblame the poorʼ, especially ʻyoung, poor, single mothersʼ, rather than ʻto challenge the distribution of economic and social resourcesʼ.
Against this polarized backdrop, feminism – not exactly burned out but no longer a cohesive social movement – suffered in Britain from the ʻisolation and powerlessness of trade unions and the leftʼ, and in the USA from an explicit anti-feminist backlash. In both cases there were divisions and a turning inward. Separatist feminists attributed all social ills to patriarchy and, in their ʻequation of male sexuality with violenceʼ, foreclosed any solidarity with heterosexual women. And one might search in vain for any sign that the relatively successful female achievers, banging their heads on the ʻglass ceilingsʼ protecting the last masculine redouts, identiﬁed themselves as part of a sisterhood that could also promote the interests of low-paid, part-time and casual women workers. As the century comes to a close, we have reached a point which precisely exposes the limitations of any feminism that is not aligned with wider movements for social justice. That is the context of this book, and one whose key features are sharply picked out by it: on the one hand, the value of critical womenʼs history that transcends the mere recording of womenʼs lives; on the other, the continuing and urgent need for social movements capable of mobilizing the category of women as an axis against oppression.
The extraordinariness of the ordinarySimon Critchley, Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature, Routledge, London and New York, 1997. xi + 216 pp., £45.00 hb., £14.99 pb., 0 415 12821 8 hb., 0 415 12822 6 pb.cannot be said to address this sort of question in an adequate manner.
Critchley begins with an examination of the situation where ʻthe possibility of a belief in God or some Godequivalent, whether vindicable through faith or reason, has decisively broken downʼ (p. 2), which he equates with ʻmodernityʼ. The central question in modernity is, then, the question of nihilism, whose history Critchley rather carelessly outlines, giving credit to F.H. Jacobi for ﬁrst using the notion philosophically in 1799 (in fact it was Jacob Hermann Obereit in 1787); and citing the central role of the ʻPantheism controversyʼ in the 1780s between Jacobi and Herder (in fact, it was, at least initially, Moses Mendelssohn), before moving, via Turgenev, to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno and others. Critchley makes his view of the implications of the history of nihilism very clear: ʻneither philosophy, nor art, nor politics alone can be relied upon to redeem the world, but the task of thinking consists in a historical confrontation with nihilism that does not give up on the demand that things might be otherwiseʼ (p. 12) – a position of ʻHope against hope. Austere messianism. Very littleʼ (p. 24), which will involve Wallace Stevensʼ ʻreturn to the plain sense of thingsʼ (p. 28).
The obvious question is posed: ʻif death (and consequently life) is meaningless, then how does one avoid moving from this claim into the cynical conformism and sheer resignation of passive nihilism?ʼ (p. 27). Critchleyʼs answer lies in the ʻconcrete reconstruction of the meaning of meaninglessnessʼ (ibid.), which he will see as achieved in the work of Samuel Beckett. The ʻLecturesʼ begin with Maurice Blanchot and his idea of ʻliterature, or, more precisely, writing outside philosophyʼ, which ʻescapes the moment of comprehension, or philosophyʼs obsession with meaning: the desire to master death and ﬁnd a fulﬁlment for human ﬁnitudeʼ (p. 33). The central claim, then, is that if death cannot be represented or comprehended, a form of articulation which itself confronts what is unrepresentable is the only proper response to the radical contingency of what we are. Rather than redeem our ﬁnitude by the Hegelian ʻphilosophicalʼ demonstration that ﬁnitude requires the inﬁnite as its condition of possibility, we need articulations which no longer claim, by trying to show how it can be transcended, to make meaning out of the meaningless.
The story about the Oxford philosopher who offered lectures on ʻThe Meaning of Lifeʼ, only to spend all his time on the semantics of the word ʻlifeʼ, may be apocryphal, but its truth is evident in the failure of a large part of the dominant philosophical tradition in the English-speaking world to take much responsibility for the ʻbigʼ philosophical questions nearly everybody asks at some time in their life. Just looking within the analytical tradition for answers to Kantʼs question about what I can hope for would often sufﬁce to persuade one of the ubiquity in modernity of the ʻnihilismʼ which forms the initial focus of Simon Critchleyʼs book. Critchley himself could hardly be much further away from the assumptions of the Oxford philosopher: his book is an often beautifully written philosophical act of mourning, a meditation on mortality occasioned by his fatherʼs death from cancer. This fact alone ought to be enough to make one respect it, but it also commands respect because it obliges one to examine the ﬁctions one employs to avoid really doing philosophy. Furthermore, in the light of contemporary attempts to revive dead theology as a means of ﬁlling the existential gap left by so much modern philosophy, Critchleyʼs steadfastly post-Kantian rejection of theological answers to the questions he asks is very welcome. At the same time, any book which dares to step onto this exacting terrain must be subjected to serious scrutiny: the existential questions it asks have a vital political dimension that the Left has too often wanted to ignore.
How, though, does one validate philosophical contentions about lifeʼs lack of meaning or its meaningfulness, when the meaning of a life may in fact be irreducibly individual? Perhaps in this respect philosophical talk about mortality is itself the problem, because in attempting to articulate general truths it fails to confront the fundamental contingency of what is at issue. Awareness of this problem is what gives rise to Critchleyʼs linking of death and philosophy to literature. On the other hand, the individualʼs relationship, not just to dying, but to death itself, is clearly affected by the perceived nature of dying in particular societies. This is both an individual and a socio-political issue, and it is inﬂuenced by policies on culture, employment, health-spending, poverty and exclusion, as well as by a whole host of other matters relating to the ethics of that community. Critchleyʼs book Why, though, should ʻliteratureʼ be so central to this enterprise? Critchley rejects the putatively ʻRomanticʼ idea that the Absolute appears in the work of art. The weight of his own case rests on Blanchotʼs claim that ʻthe possibility of literature is found in the radical impossibility of creating the complete workʼ (p. 36) – the work that would comprehend everything, including death. Because the generality of the word cannot attain the particularity of what it tries to designate, ʻHuman speechʼ is supposed to be ʻthe annihilation of things qua thingsʼ (p. 53). ʻLiteratureʼ must therefore be ʻconcerned with the presence of things before consciousness and the writer exist; it seeks to retrieve the reality and anonymity of existence prior to the dialectico-Sadist death drive of the writerʼ (p. 55). Clearly, what is demanded is impossible – if it is even intelligible – and ʻliteratureʼ is suspended between the two impossibilities of Blanchotʼs ʻdayʼ, in which the subjectʼs use of designative language would negate the irreducible materiality of things, and his ʻnightʼ, in which that materiality would somehow be attained. This is actually a very problematic version of Schellingʼs philosophy of the Ages of the World, which is later ʻborrowedʼ by Heidegger in the conﬂict of ʻworldʼ and ʻearthʼ in the Origin of the Work of Art. Schelling saw existence – and language as part of existence – as reliant upon a tension between never ﬁnally present, and ultimately identical poles of ʻpredicativeʼ expansion and light, and ʻpronominalʼ contraction and darkness. Missing from Critchleyʼs version of such a conception, though, is any sense that predicative language can also enable things to ʻbeʼ by disclosing them in new ways, rather than merely ʻannihilateʼ their uniqueness.
The difﬁculty here lies in the notion of what the later Heidegger and Derrida term the ʻlanguage of metaphysicsʼ. This notion assumes that there is an inherent problem in the nature of designative language, which is supposed to be in the power of a dominating subject. Such language therefore needs to be escaped via something radically ʻotherʼ, which goes under the name of ʻliteratureʼ. The problem is that the concept of literature thereby becomes impossible to grasp at all, and it is even hard to say how the notional ʻotherʼ of designative language could be intelligibly identiﬁed, given that one presumably requires designative language to identify it. Such a conception would only be defensible if one could assume – as, incidentally, too much of the work of Walter Benjamin does – that language has fallen from being a pure ʻlanguage of namesʼ into being merely a means of instrumental control. Once this idea is seen as the piece of mythology it is, one can envisage a less fraught conception of the historically speciﬁc modern idea of ʻliteratureʼ, as the conﬁguration of language in ways which can undermine the ﬁxity of instrumental usage, in order either to reveal truths that would otherwise be hidden, or, in the manner of wordless music, to refuse to mean anything ﬁnally determinate at all. Strangely, music does not even appear in the index of the book, and all we get is one reference each to Mozart and the Sex Pistols. Modern ideas about literature in the sense at issue were the product of the early German Romanticism of Schlegel and Novalis, which is the subject of Critchleyʼs next ʻLectureʼ. The ideas of the Romantics are, though, inconceivable without the change in the relationship of music to language that is evident in the emergence of auto-nomous music at the end of the eighteenth century, precisely at the same time as the beginnings of nihilism.
Having stressed the im-portance of Blanchotʼs ʻambiguityʼ, ʻthe truth of literatureʼ, which results from the suspension between day and night, Critchley, after rejecting the problematic short-lived political ideals that resulted from early Romanticismʼs desire to unite philosophy and literature, acknowledges that the Romantics actually developed positions quite close to what he is himself seeking. Blan-chotʼs ʻambiguityʼ is not far from Schlegelʼs ʻironyʼ, the form of assertion which negates itself without leading to a deﬁnitive counter-assertion, rather in the manner in which music often gestures towards meaning while withholding any determinate meaning. As the seminal work of Manfred Frank – which, oddly, is not mentioned anywhere – has shown, the Romantics, far from being essentially an offshoot of the German Idealist attempt to ﬁnd new ways of grounding modern philosophy, were, albeit somewhat inconsistently, actually the ﬁrst serious anti-foundationalists. The ʻLectureʼ on Romanticism concludes with illuminating critical reﬂections on Cavellʼs Wittgensteinian Romanticism, which tries to come to terms with the suspension, already preﬁgured in Schlegel, between the ʻdemand for criteria and the sceptical disappointment of that demandʼ (p. 136). For Critchley this suspension deﬁnes our philosophical situation: the question, though, is how one is to respond to it.
It would obviously be mistaken to expect a heroic culmination in a book devoted to revealing the ideological nature of redemptive claims to ﬁnality: any disappointment is in one sense intended. However, the ﬁnal ʻLectureʼ on Beckett really is disappointing, even in Critchleyʼs own terms, spending too much time on rather academic ʻliteraryʼ debate with ʻthe criticsʼ. Some of the individual points made are excellent, particularly on Adornoʼs failure to understand Beckettʼs humour, but given the importance attached to Beckett one expected at least a bit more. Critchleyʼs conclusion is the following: ʻWhat passes for the ordinary is cluttered with illusory narratives of redemption that conceal the very extraordinariness of the ordinary … Beckettʼs work offers us … a radical de-creation of these salviﬁc narratives – an acknowledgement of the ﬁniteness of the ﬁniteʼ (p. 179). Having acknowledged this ﬁniteness – but how could we ever be sure we have really done so thoroughly enough, and do we really want to do so all the time? – the book enjoins us to ʻImagineʼ and to ʻKnowʼ (p. 180). Now this is either very little, or actually a great deal. However, Critchley gives us little real sense of why we should imagine and know, beyond the fact that we have no choice, because our species-being does it for us anyway. The vision here becomes disturbingly narrow. Even though non-human nature, for example, offers no ultimate redemption, the consequences of the failure to regard it as more than a resource for instrumental purposes are now very apparent, and have led to the need for new, imaginative ways of thinking about nature, of the kind adumbrated in Romanticism, which necessarily affect how we conceive of ﬁnitude. The book also too often fails to engage with the stubborn persistence in modernity of a sense of temporalized transcendence which makes many ʻordinaryʼ people continue to pursue cognitive, ethical and aesthetic ideals, even when they know they have no ultimate reason for doing so. The lack of such an engagement ultimately points to a serious failing in Critchleyʼs whole approach, which becomes evident, for example, when he refers dismissively to ʻwhat passes for life in suburbiaʼ (p. 99) – the bookʼs laudable and eloquent concern for the extraordinariness of the ordinary apparently does not extend to those inhabitants of suburbia who, despite all, put out the ﬁres and nurse the sick.
Incommensurable shards Karl Löwith, Nietzscheʼs Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, trans. J. Harvey Lomax,
University of California Press, Berkeley and London, 1997. xxviii + 276 pp., £29.95 hb., 0 520 06519 0.Nietzscheʼs Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same was ﬁrst published in 1935, in National Socialist Germany. Its publication was remarkable in that its author, an ex-pupil of Heideggerʼs, was Jewish and in semi-exile in Rome. Löwithʼs dissident reading of Nietzsche, and his forthright criticism of party hacks such as Baeumler, meant that his work was refused publication in journals such as Kantstudien, and its appendix had to be held back until the second edition. Now, some 62 years after its ﬁrst publication, Löwithʼs book is ﬁnally available to the English-speaking world. This is a study that is both inﬂuential and important in Nietzsche scholarship – though one that is not often mentioned.
Nietzscheʼs initial impact was largely in literary or political ﬁelds: Yeats, Gide, Hesse, Shaw and others all found inspiration in him, and the varied political uses he was put to before the Nazi appropriation are now well known. As Bernd Magnus states in his useful Foreword, Löwith stands with Jaspers and Heidegger as one of the ﬁrst to see Nietzsche as primarily a philosopher. For him, ʻNietzscheʼs philosophy is neither a uniﬁed, closed system nor a variety of disintegrating aphorisms, but rather a system in aphorismsʼ. To see it as the former is to fail to realize Nietzscheʼs critique of philosophical systems; as the latter is to reduce him to a literary author. Löwithʼs suggestion attempts to rec-ognize the interlinked nature of Nietzscheʼs thought, but also to accept the challenge that he throws down: the challenge of slow reading. In Nietzscheʼs work the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality best showcases this slow reading and detailed exposition: the whole essay serves as an interpretation of the aphorism that precedes it. As Löwith sensibly notes, of all Nietzscheʼs books ʻit is Zarathustra that demands this art of readingʼ.
Nietzscheʼs notion of the eternal recurrence of the same is both his strangest and most challenging idea. Arguably, it is also one of the most important to understanding him as a philosopher. The idea was ﬁrst mooted in The Gay Science, when Nietzsche asks how we would react if we were informed that ʻthis life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in itʼ. The whole of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is structured around this idea – as the lesson that Zarathustra must teach, but also as his greatest challenge. In the notes posthumously collected as The Will to Power Nietzsche hints at its cosmological signiﬁcance, calling it ʻthe most scientiﬁc of all possible hypothesesʼ.
Critical appreciations of Nietzsche have often either evaded the idea, or pronounced it a simple existential challenge to make your life worthy of being relived. Some have read it as working in parallel with the thoughts of the overman – annoyingly translated here as ʻsupermanʼ – and the will to power. Others have noted the impossibility of seeing these thoughts work in tandem. More recently, a great deal has been made of a split within Nietzscheʼs thought: the ʻyes-sayingʼ of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the ʻno-sayingʼ of works such as On the Genealogy of Morality and Beyond Good and Evil. The suggestion is that the ʻno-sayingʼ works, Nietzscheʼs critique of Western philosophy, can be taken seriously whilst the ideas of Zarathustra can be quietly dismissed.
Löwith allows none of this. For him all of Nietzscheʼs later books are commentaries on Zarathustra: he suggests that they contain nothing that has not already been introduced in the earlier work. The ʻnoʼ to modernity presupposes the ʻyesʼ to the eternal cycle of things. He is equally critical of Jaspers and Heidegger, not least for the intrusion of their own thought into their interpretation of Nietzsche. In contrast, Löwith attempts to be faithful to Nietzsche, quoting him at length and devoting much space to explication of ideas and passages. This close reading offers a series of interesting and challenging claims.
Notable among them is the suggestion that Nietzscheʼs encounter with Wagner was enormously important even after the split visible in Human, All Too Human. Löwith claims that Nietzscheʼs ʻringʼ of the eternal recurrence is his reply to Wagnerʼs The Ring of the Nibelung. Nietzsche, it is argued, went from admiring disciple to disillusioned ʻfree spiritʼ, and thence to teacher of the eternal recurrence. Such a development is persuasively argued to be linked to the wider picture. Löwith suggests that the death of God is, for Nietzsche, the death of the moral imperative ʻthou shaltʼ, which leads to the potential nihilism of the ʻI willʼ: the man who would rather will nothing than not will. The willing of the eternal recurrence, the escape from nihilism, leads to the rebirth of the ʻI amʼ. The shadow is liberated from the wanderer; the merely heroic Zarathustra is transformed into the divine Zarathustra-Dionysus. Nietzsche thus comes full circle, returning to the views of The Birth of Tragedy. As the last line of Ecce Homo asks: ʻHave I been understood? – Dionysus versus the Cruciﬁed.ʼ
This sympathetic reading does not mean that Löwith is a mere disciple. Far from it. The major claim of his reading is that Nietzscheʼs thought shatters into ʻincommensurable shardsʼ. Essentially, this boils down to the following chain of arguments. If the notion of the eternal recurrence is scientiﬁcally provable, it is a fact. Willing the eternal recurrence as a test of oneʼs character only makes sense if this is a choice, but one cannot choose to will a fact. If the eternal recurrence is not provable, knowing it to be a ﬁction undermines the point of struggling to will it.
The translation is of the third, 1978 edition, with the important appendix suppressed in the original edition. Löwithʼs attack on Alfred Baeumler, ofﬁcial advocate and editor of Nietzscheʼs works under the Third Reich, is that he removes the eternal recurrence from Nietzscheʼs thought, replacing it with a will to power misunderstood as ʻwill as powerʼ. This, Löwith suggests, is the ʻdubious foundation of Baeumlerʼs entire interpretation of Nietzscheʼs beheaded philosophyʼ. The appendix also includes incisive critiques of other key interpreters – Lou Andreas-Salomé, Jaspers and Heidegger among them. The translation itself appears to be excellent, with a host of useful notes clarifying the choice made for difﬁcult words, identifying the allusions Löwith appears to be making, and providing translations of words and passages in languages other than German.
There is much in Löwithʼs challenging reading that sent me back to Nietzscheʼs texts and those of his interpreters – notably Heideggerʼs immense study – in search of conﬁrmation, critical distance and new perspectives. It strikes me that there can be no higher accolade than that.
No answer Peter Wilkin, Noam Chomsky: On Power, Knowledge and Human Nature, Macmillan and St Martinʼs Press,
London and New York, 1997. viii + 203 pp., £40.00 hb., 0 333 66916
9. ^ Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1997. x + 228 pp., £17.50 hb., 0 262 02418 7.
Noam Chomsky has often referred to what he calls ʻPlatoʼs Problemʼ. Bertrand Russell described it as follows: ʻHow comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do?ʼ Given the limited and fragmentary information provided by an individualʼs life-experience, how is it that she or he can, by adulthood, nonetheless acquire rich systems of knowledge, such as a human language? Chomskyʼs answers form the bedrock of his work in linguistics and philosophy. One important test of any book which treats of his contributions is, then, how well it describes ʻPlatoʼs Problemʼ and ʻChomskyʼs Answersʼ. By this standard, two recent books by Robert Barsky and Peter Wilkin do not measure up well.
Barsky has written an intellectual and political biography of Chomsky which consciously attempts to avoid a ʻpersonalized frameworkʼ in dealing with Chomskyʼs life – something of a contradiction in terms. The result is a curious book, with very little sense of Chomsky as a person and rather hit-and-miss coverage of the people and institutions surrounding him. One expects of a biography that it will at least tell you what the subject has done in her or his life. Chomskyʼs trips to North Vietnam and Laos during the US onslaught, to the West Bank during the Intifada, to Nicaragua during the Sandinista period, receive no attention – perhaps as a result of Barskyʼs ʻdepersonalizationʼ of the biography.
On the other hand, Barsky relies on Chomskyʼs account of certain events (such as the critical 1958–59 academic conferences in the USA at which he established his brand of linguistics), without any independent veriﬁcation. It would be wrong to give the impression that there is nothing of value in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent; Barsky uncovers much of interest, particularly regarding the inﬂuence of ʻAvukahʼ, a small libertarian Jewish group which promoted an anti-state, anti-supremacist variety of Zionism. And he does cover many aspects of Chomskyʼs life, providing, for example, the most balanced and comprehensive account of the Faurisson affair that is readily accessible. Turning to ʻPlatoʼs Problemʼ, Barskyʼs only reference to the issue comes on page 157, when he reproduces the Russell quotation with which we began. There is no further elaboration.
While Barsky treats Chomskyʼs two spheres of activity – political and linguistic – from an external vantage point, Wilkin attempts to identify the internal connections between Chomskyʼs work in cognitive psychology and his social criticism. ʻPlatoʼs Problemʼ is discussed at the outset:
Chomsky has frequently raised the Platonic problem of attempting to account for the richness and depth of knowledge that we possess (in this case in the area of language) given the limitations of our experience. This is usually referred to as the ʻpoverty of stimulusʼ thesis. Such knowledge could not be explained away through empiricist accounts of induction, habit or learned response. This led Chomsky to believe that the alternative was to give some account of the innate structures of knowledge, which must exist within the mind-brain in order for us to acquire our knowledge of language.
Thatʼs it. The reader must fend for herself thereafter. By anyoneʼs standards, this is a rather abbreviated account.
Chomsky makes a number of points. First, almost every time someone speaks (or writes), they create a novel arrangement of words (new to them, or perhaps even new in human history). How can one learn to create such new arrangements of words by habit? Second, there are rules of grammar which one ʻknowsʼ without ever having been taught them. For example, in the sentence ʻJohn believes he is intelligentʼ, ʻheʼ could refer either to John or to another man; itʼs ambiguous. However, in the sentence ʻJohn believes him to be intelligentʼ, the pronoun cannot refer to John. Chomsky comments, ʻNow, did anyone teach us this peculiarity about English pronouns when we were children? It would be hard to even imagine a training procedure that would convey such information to a person. Nevertheless, everybody knows it – knows it without experience, without training, and at quite an early age.ʼ Many further examples can (and ought to be) provided.
We know things we have never been taught (and not merely in the domain of language, Chomsky suggests). There are forms of knowledge which are built into us, which in certain areas merely require exposure to some limited and fragmentary data in order to construct rich and complex systems of knowledge, such as the grammar of a human language. The notion that we have genetically inherited, species-speciﬁc, mental ʻorgansʼ, such as the ʻlanguage facultyʼ, which do not ʻlearnʼ in the usual sense, but ʻgrowʼ and ʻmatureʼ when placed in appropriate environments, is a modernized (and heavily modiﬁed) form of the ʻrationalismʼ of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers. It is also a picture of fundamental ʻhuman natureʼ.
A lecturer in politics and international relations,
Wilkin attempts to connect Chomskyʼs work on ʻhuman natureʼ in this sense with his political writings, which rest on a libertarian and (mildly) optimistic notion of ʻhuman natureʼ in the more usual sense. However, he fails to heed Chomskyʼs own warning that the linkages between these concepts are ʻspeculative and sketchyʼ. He appears to presume the empirical conﬁrmation of Chomskyʼs claims regarding the ʻlanguage facultyʼ strengthens the case for what Chomsky regards as an ʻinstinct for freedomʼ in human nature. This is an error in reasoning which Chomsky himself would strenuously disavow.
Neither Barsky nor Wilkin provides his readers with an adequate basis for further discussion of Chomskyʼs linguistic and philosophical ideas. This is a more severe problem for Wilkin, as his book is devoted to a deeper analysis of these ideas. His discussion is deeply confused, betraying a lack of understanding of many of Chomskyʼs positions (on the notion of ʻepistemic spaceʼ, for example); and riddled with some fundamental conceptual confusions between ʻrationalismʼ (in the sense described above) and ʻrationalityʼ, between ʻobjectivityʼ and a belief in ʻobjective realityʼ, and between the latter belief and ʻrationalityʼ. When such misunderstandings are mixed in with a soup of postmodern ʻdiscourseʼ (to which Wilkin has an ambivalent attitude), the result is interesting more as a tangled intellectual puzzle than as a contribution to our understanding either of Chomsky, or of the relationship between epistemology (concerned with the grounds for human knowledge) and political commitment (premissed on a certain notion of human nature and need).
By the preliminary test of how they deal with ʻPlatoʼs Problemʼ and ʻChomskyʼs Answersʼ, Barsky and Wilkin do not fare well. However, for those already familiar with Chomskyʼs work in either linguistics or politics, there is intriguing and thought-provoking material in both of these studies.
The best hope? Michael Walzer, On Toleration, Yale University Press,
New Haven and London, 1997. xii + 126 pp., £11.50 hb., 0 300 07019 5.
Michael Walzer is a writer who is poorly served by being straightforwardly assimilated to the camp of communitarian philosophers. He is in fact one of the most astute, sensible, compassionate and well informed theorists of the political currently writing. His work grows out of a deep familiarity with developments not just in political philosophy but also in history and the social sciences generally. It is at the same time always sensitive to the contingencies of time and place. This essay on toleration is no exception. It is a brief but elegant and clearly formulated meditation on the problem of multiculturalism. Its concision, directness and relevance are exemplary, providing a model which the authors of other more extended and laboured studies of the subject would do well to emulate. Above all, Walzer writes as someone aware of the extensive debate on ʻpluralismʼ, ʻmulticulturalismʼ, ʻthe politics of differenceʼ and ʻidentityʼ, but who will not merely recycle conventional pieties and recommend familiar nostra. He is realistic about the state of contemporary America, but cautiously hopeful that the end of the Republic is not yet nigh. He thus exempliﬁes the requirement of any intelligent commentator of our times that they be pessimists of the intellect and optimists of the will.
Walzer starts from a contrast – an ever more sharp and familiar one in political philosophy – between what he terms ʻproceduralistʼ and ʻcircumstantialʼ approaches. The ﬁrst derives general principles within a hypothetical position ideally characterized and abstracted from any particular set of social or historical circumstances. Those principles are then presumed to require realization within the actual world. This is political philosophy as applied moral theory. The second, ʻproperly circumstantialʼ approach offers a historical and contextual account of the different forms social and political co-operation have taken and presently assume. Its recommendations are tailored to the circumstances of each particular case: ʻThe best political arrangement is relative to the history and culture of the people whose lives it will arrangeʼ (p. 5).
The shortcomings of the ﬁrst approach are that it falsely assumes political choices to be uniquely and unequivocally determined by a single principle, or set of principles. It is insensitive to the particularities of a polity, its history, traditions, established customs, institutions and ways of life. But the second approach courts a different set of problems – those of relativism. Walzer accepts that any recommendations are relative in the fashion quoted. But he insists that such a relativism is a constrained one. It rules out the grossly unacceptable, such as totalitarian regimes; and rules in only whatever ʻprovides for some version of peaceful coexistence (and thereby upholds basic human rights)ʼ.
Walzer is probably right to insist that the issue is not whether there are limits to our political choices, but how wide they are. But some may feel his remarks here are merely gestural. It is hard to disagree with a robustly realist politics which also declares its humanist provenance. To insist, however, that ʻpeaceful coexistenceʼ alone (without the inferred commitment to rights) is a ʻsubstantive moral principleʼ may beg crucial questions. After all there are contemporary writers – Richard Rorty and John Gray spring to mind – who suggest that the achievements of liberalism, admirable as they may be, cannot be the object of a universally convincing, all-the-way-down justiﬁcation. Walzer, one suspects, rejects that view, but also chooses to oppose the ʻproceduralistsʼ who do seek to provide ﬁrm and general moral foundations for liberalism. It is a hard trick to combine a plausible account of the political which is both feasible and desirable. Walzer is magisterial in getting us to see what the trick is, without necessarily showing us how to carry it off.
Walzer offers ﬁve regimes of toleration. There is the multinational empire, exempliﬁed by the millet system of the Ottomans and the Soviet Union; international society; consociations such as Belgium and Switzerland; nation-states; and immigrant societies of which the USA is the most notable instance. Against the background of that broadly characterized typology Walzer considers the complicated cases of France, Israel and Canada. He devotes a chapter to the question of how toleration is further complicated by considerations of power, class, gender and religion. He examines what is required of education if a tolerant regime is to reproduce itself, and asks, in particular, what must be taught about the values and virtues of the state itself (the ʻcivil religionʼ). His remarks are nuanced, commonsensical and clear: ʻToleration is most likely to work well when the civil religion is least like a … religionʼ (p. 77).
It is, however, Walzerʼs concluding chapter on ʻModern and Postmodern Tolerationʼ which offers the most interesting and genuinely original insights into our (and most especially the North American) political condition. Here he suggests a development which cuts across the grain of the modernizing democratic project of toleration. The latter took individual assimilation and group recognition to be the terms of democratic inclusiveness. Yet what is increasingly salient is the fact that individuals are today marked by a simultaneous fragmentation and proliferation of identities. They are breaking free from old group identities (themselves changing), without simply assuming either a common or a new group identity. The following is a marvellous expression of that insight: ʻThere still are boundaries, but they are blurred by all the crossings. We still know ourselves to be this or that, but the knowledge is uncertain, for we are also this and thatʼ (p. 90).
An Epilogue reﬂects on the implications of this increasingly different, and differentiated, version of difference. And it does so with a wary eye on the apparent current effects of such social dissociation: familial breakdown, random violence, homelessness, high rates of geographical mobility, and a decline in membership of the associations of civil society. Walzerʼs view is that the conditions of toleration, civil peace and a common life are secured not by rugged individualism but by participation in groups, unions and associations. For even so modest an associationalism produces and sustains the individuals who can be both ʻstrongʼ and connected to others. He concludes by insisting that this mutual reinforcement of individuality and community in the service of a common interest requires effective political support – support which receives the name of ʻsocial democracyʼ and the subtitle of ʻleft liberalismʼ.
Here, in the very last words of the essay, is made explicit Walzerʼs commitment to a form of participatory democratic egalitarianism as the best hope for Americaʼs future. Here too a ʻcircumstantialʼ political philosophy conjoins with a vision of the common good. Walzer thinks the weakness of this complex creed explains why multiculturalism is, on balance, so threatening. But he defers an account of the creedʼs prospects to ʻanother, longer storyʼ. If he chooses to write it, it will be worth waiting for.
Holding back Herman Rapaport, Is There Truth in Art?, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1997. xviii + 222 pp., £35.50 hb., £13.95 pb., 0 8014 3275 8 hb., 0 8014 8353 0 pb.A criticism often made of aesthetics is that it discusses art purely as a concept, and makes few references to individual art works. This is a problem especially in the visual arts where, as a class, ʻartʼ now potentially includes every possible entity. In his new book, Rapaport, I am pleased to say, does not do this. He considers a number of art works and a variety of art forms. These include, among others, atonal music (Anton von Webernʼs ʻTwo Rilke Songsʼ); sculpture (the stone circles, walked lines, and documentary pieces made by Richard Long); and ﬁlm (Marguerite Durasʼs Aurelia Steiner trilogy). What is disappointing, however, is the way in which Rapaport brings philosophy to bear on these works.
The concept of truth which he develops is the Greek aletheia; this is in opposition to the Roman veritas. As Heidegger observes in the Parmenides, veritas is a disjunctive conception of truth, derived from the Romansʼ military imperative to determine what is and is not the case; and on this basis, art can be true only if it is a correct, mimetic representation. Aletheia is truth as disclosure. It does not take the presence or existence of an object for granted, but refers to the way an object comes into being, the way something is open to view.
It would seem that Rapaportʼs intention over seven chapters is to provide various demonstrations of how truth as aletheia can be manifest in art works, in ʻcomplex site-speciﬁc articulationsʼ. However, his excursions ʻinto the galleryʼ strike me as excuses for close, technical readings of a few chosen thinkers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Levinas). There is nothing wrong in this. In fact, these sections are the bookʼs high points. It is just that the art works appear to be doing nothing more than illustrating the philosophy.
For example, Chapter 3, ʻBrushed Path, Slate Line,
Stone Circleʼ, views the land art of Richard Long through Heidegger and Derrida. Truth as difference (in contrast to truth as imitation or correspondence), so it is claimed, emerges from the tension between the interventions which hint at Longʼs presence in the world and his ultimate absence from the photographs he takes as documents of his work. The observation that Long is physically absent from his photographs is, however, a trivial one. Even more disconcerting is the thought that a large part of this Derridean reading of Long (against the concept of truth as correspondence, remember) is based on a tenuous correspondence between ʻabsencesʼ in the two bodies of work.
I have to disagree with Gerald Bruns, who, on the back cover of the book, praises Rapaport for attending to the particularity of the art work. I ﬁnd instead that Rapaport displays the same disregard for particularity which he identiﬁes in other commentators. For example, in relation to Webernʼs ʻTwo Rilke Songsʼ, he quotes Walter Kolnederʼs observation that ʻthe voice dominates in long melodic lines, which are completely conditioned by the meaning of the textʼ. But, according to Rapaport, ʻthis statement is nowhere demonstrated by Kolneder, only asserted in an analytical vacuumʼ (p. 70). However, there seems equally to be a vacuum between the songs and Rapaportʼs interpretation of them. The following quotation indicates the kind of claim which he is making for the ʻTwo Rilke Songsʼ. A ʻholding backʼ occurs in Webernʼs music, he avers, where it treads the boundary between silence and audibility, and this ʻis nothing other than the overcoming of a human emotion that demands not only an appeal to an other but also mutual confession and consent, what a less constrained vocabulary would call consummation or the establishment of a passionate bondʼ (p. 72).
The aletheic property of the work, Rapaport argues, derives from the tension between silence and utterance in the songs. Yet while the signiﬁcance of these concepts for Heidegger and Derrida is explored in detail, the conclusions of this philosophical analysis are simply imposed on the songs. They themselves are not allowed to offer any resistance. The ʻvacuumʼ metaphor is ironically appropriate: it is as if there is no medium in or through which the songs can be heard.
Rapaport conducts some very impressive philosophical discussion. His engagement with Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Levinas is thorough and demanding. Anyone with an interest in these thinkers will gain a lot from this book. Unfortunately, it is also a good example of the difﬁculty philosophy has in talking about art. Art certainly ﬁgures prominently, but, given that Rapaportʼs truth is supposed to be ʻsite-speciﬁcʼ, the question of the truth of the featured works is not fully articulated.
Reading disordersElizabeth Telfer, Food for Thought: Philosophy and Food, Routledge, London and New York, 1996. x + 132 pp., £37.50 hb., £11.99 pb., 0 415 13381 5 hb., 0 415 13382 3 pb. ʻSo two cheers for food!ʼ concludes Elizabeth Telferʼs meditation on ʻphilosophy and foodʼ, in faint echo (I assume) of E.M. Forsterʼs Two Cheers for Democracy, that distillation of mid-century English liberalism. It is an apt conclusion for a book which modulates between ethical and aesthetic issues, and arrives at a commonsensical defence of ʻbalanced temperanceʼ which Forster would surely have found appealing.
Telfer afﬁrms that an interest in food can be ʻan element in a worthwhile lifeʼ, but the terms for consensus as to what is ʻa worthwhile lifeʼ are scarcely established in this brief study. The examples she provides tend to be derived from within narrowly middleclass horizons, and consequently seem tangential to the important issues involved. In her chapter on the ethical debate that surrounds the obligation to feed the hungry, she invites us to ʻsuppose that I am a wealthy businesswoman wondering whether to spend money on a donation to famine relief or on a sports car for my sonʼ. If this appears to be a red herring, then her discussion of the putative status of cooking as an art form must seem even more diversionary. We are invited to imagine her entering a gallery, encountering a pile of metal pipes, and wondering ʻwhether it is a work of art or some materials left behind by the central heating engineersʼ. The staleness of the example is indicative of a more general banality pervading the discussion.
Telfer makes a case for hospitableness as a moral virtue, and takes to task Dr Johnson, together with Jane Austenʼs Mrs Elton in Emma, for lacking appreciation of what she terms ʻGood Samaritan hospitalityʼ. Her literary examples are surely revealing of the context within which Telfer herself discovers the ʻworthwhile lifeʼ. Richard Adams and C.S. Lewis are other writers whose ﬁction provides examples for her case.
After endorsing ʻbalanced temperanceʼ, that fundamental value of the Classicist sensibility, Telferʼs conclusion launches into full-blown Romanticism, effectively undermining the conclusions arrived at in previous chapters. The shortcomings of an interest in food are encapsulated in its failure to serve ʻsolitudeʼ, ʻtimelessnessʼ and ʻtranscendenceʼ or ʻa sense of the sublimeʼ. Telfer has at this point left behind the clearly deﬁned social worlds of Johnson and Austen, and has declared her afﬁnity for the heady cosmology one ﬁnds in Wordsworthʼs Prelude. The shift from middle-class dining room to the lofty peaks of Romantic ideology comes as a dramatic and disconcerting surprise, and adds to the inescapable impression of conceptual and structural incoherence in this book. I suggest that Telfer might usefully have taken her literary paradigm from Virginia Woolfʼs To the Lighthouse. Mrs Ramsayʼs dinner party fuses Augustan sociability and Romantic egotism in a way that resolves the ostensible dilemma in Telferʼs argument. Woolfʼs modernism also amalgamates the ethical and aesthetic approaches adopted in Food for Thought, without the sense of disjunction that one ﬁnds here. Opting instead for a Forsterian set of values in the body of her study, and appending a Wordsworthian coda, Telfer denies us the possibility of the concerted critical response a high modernist position would invite.
The undoubted need remains for rigorous analysis of the ethical and ideological implications of current saturation of the media with programmes, books and magazines that deal with food and cooking.