The tamagochi and the objet petit aSlavoj Žižek, The Žižek Reader, edited by Elizabeth and Edmond Wright, Blackwell, Oxford, 1999. xii + 332 pp., £55.00 hb., £15.99 pb., ISBN 0 631 21200 0 hb., 0 631 21201 9 pb.
This is all delivered with such good humour that the critic stands disarmed. Anyone wishing to remind Žižek that Marxʼs thought actually began with a critique of religion – and cannot be understood except as an assault on fraudulent universality – may suddenly seem too sensible to be admitted to the discussion. Perhaps Žižekʼs Marxism is only a postmodern tease, another feint in a discourse driven by competitive novelty rather than love of truth. Not so much repressive desublimation as terroristic stand-up by (and for) the intellectually perverse.
The Reader falls into three sections: culture, woman and philosophy. Samples of Žižek as cultural critic gradually give way to more explicit philosophical declarations. Under the title ʻBurning the Bridgesʼ, Žižek claims to have severed any connections with ʻthe hegemonic trends of todayʼs academiaʼ. However, it is hard to see where else his writings could resonate, since – as commercial editors advise postgraduate contributors – discovering ʻhigh theoryʼ in pop culture hardly constitutes effective journalism. For example, Žižek says a game played by the gang of youths in Ruth Rendellʼs novel Talking To Strange Men ʻembodies the great Other, the symbolic universe of codes and cyphersʼ. This may speak volumes to Lacanians, but others may be less impressed.
Those who dismiss Lacan completely, though, miss something. His lectures were extraordinary performances, pitched at the very edge of credibility. The tension between philosophical profundity and the abjectly absurd was ﬁnely judged, forcing reassessment of fundamental intellectual tenets. He woke his students to the here-and-now of the power relations of pedagogy, the sheer oddness of evolved apes mouthing symbols. However, like Tristan Tzaraʼs manifestoes, Lorcaʼs statement of duende, or the aesthetic coups achieved by Free Improvisation, such species of Dada art attack are notoriously difﬁcult to translate into stable genre or philosophical doctrine.
In the Reader, Žižek hardly comes across as a Jacques Lacan. His absurdities are squibs decorating a stable and assured philosophy that becomes clearer The question with Slavoj Žižek is: how seriously should we take him? In its wrestle with the limits of consciousness, psychoanalytic theory has often used jokes and narcissism, but with Žižek itʼs taken to an extreme. Extreme enough to become a sales point: the blurb promises ﬂamboyance, scandal and dazzle. To have been a dissident in Communist Yugoslavia, to have developed a ludic psychoanalysis in opposition to what Žižek calls state-sponsored Frankfurt School Marxism, to have stood as a Liberal Democratic Party candidate in the ﬁrst election for the ﬁve-member presidential body in 1989 – all these imply a sense of engagement belied by the ʻisnʼt he outrageous!ʼ giggles that greet his public lectures.Žižek is alert to the ambivalence of his position, and in a preface explains that his jokes, poor taste and allusions to pop culture are a ʻlureʼ, a compulsive wittiness, which conceal a ʻfundamental coldnessʼ, ʻan utter indifference towards the pathology of so-called human considerationsʼ. Such anti-humanism is familiar rhetoric from structuralists as they promise to burn off the cuddly ﬂeece of liberal common sense and expose the machinic terminator beneath.
In a British context, Žižek does have novelty value.
His treatments of Kant, Schelling and Hegel are ﬁltered through the terminology of Jacques Lacan. In England, Lacanʼs reception was bound up with that of Louis Althusser, who made a ﬁerce distinction between the ʻmysticalʼ dialectics of German idealism and the scientiﬁc, ʻstructuralistʼ Marx of Capital. Indeed, Žižekʼs blend of Lacan and Hegel appears sufﬁciently outlandish to deserve the term ʻpostmodernistʼ. His use of the term ʻworn-outʼ to dismiss certain concepts also implies postmodernist self-consciousness about theory as novelty and commodity. In his preface, however, Žižek rebuts the charge of postmodernism, going so far as to claim that ʻthe Marxist critique of political economy is crucial for my projectʼ. However, this is tempered by an interest in the legacy of Christianity – not for its messianic promise, but for its dogma and institutions. Žižek achieves an oxymoronic climax by calling himself ʻa Paulinian materialistʼ.and clearer as the volume proceeds. Unlike, say, references to Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop in Benjamin or Adorno, Žižekʼs subcultural motifs always ʻpreciselyʼ illustrate his schema, blocking any investigation of provenance, suggesting no readjustment of the doxa. The whole game seems locked-in and rule-bound: calling James Joyceʼs Finnegans Wake ʻunreadableʼ is sure indication of a categorical mentality. A paragraph from Lacan is quoted, and – despite the ellipses – the sense of someone improvising their thought is palpable. In contrast, Žižekʼs licks are woodshedded – the Wynton Marsalis of radical theory.
The basic philosophy here is idealist: ʻonly what is symbolized can be said to existʼ. Despite much noise about Lacanʼs objet petit a – ʻsome annoying, messy, disturbing surplus, a piece of leftover or “excrement”ʼ (which a typographical error on page 28 renders appropriately as ʻsmell aʼ), the irreducible residue left behind by concepts – Lacanʼs terms are deployed as a mantra to resist any grappling with the untheorized. The celebrated citations of low culture – the tamagochi, Jaws, Monty Python – are raided from the larder of collusive reference rather than materialist investigations. Far from calming the hysterical idealism of deconstruction and cyber-theory, Žižekʼs ironic-ﬂares structuralism becomes yet another polemic against common sense.
Despite declaring that ideology-critique should ʻdiscern the hidden necessity in what appears as a mere contingencyʼ, Žižekʼs materialism is easily distracted. He adopts Wolfgang Haugʼs thesis of the ʻmaterial effectsʼ of Nazi ideology – parades, sport, charity-drives – ignoring how Volksgemein-schaft masked massively increased extraction of surplus value from a defeated working class. Postmodernist crowing that – contrary to Adornoʼs critique – the Nazis in power ʻperformatively produced the effect of Volksgemeinschaftʼ is not a materialist analysis of economic relations but pragmatic recognition of domination. By omitting war and imperialism from the picture, the material limits of national Volksgemein-schaft are left undiscerned.Žižek compares Marx to Heidegger. After quoting Marx, he cites John L. Austin and Oswald Ducrot on language, and then says ʻthis, perhaps, offers another way of considering Heideggerʼs “ontological difference”ʼ. It is indicative of the reactionary nature of the Readerʼs packaging that these loose and playful homologies become – in one of the editorial summaries printed before each selection – Heideggerʼs ontological denunciation of Marxʼs ʻtaking production to be the foundational principleʼ. One does not expect a reborn Marxist to allow his editors to recast his words into such familiar – and facile – ʻrefutationsʼ of the Leftʼs greatest thinker.Žižekʼs ability to discern homologies between disparate entities – Hitchcock and Hegel, Einstein and Lévi-Strauss, Stalin and Robert Altman – is certainly funny, but less because it transgresses hidebound concepts of high and low culture than because his pattern-recognition is compulsive and neurotic, an intellectual repetition-syndrome. A scene from Titanic or The Crying Game is always a ʻpreciseʼ illustration of Lacanʼs concept of the Other. But the precision arrives because Žižek is not really interested in the ﬁlms, only in Lacanʼs concept.
Despite a desire to upset the smug pragmatism of his academic colleagues, Žižek fails to become a materialist because he is not a dialectician: for him, ʻHegel remains within Kantʼs fundamental frameworkʼ. The unknowable Thing-in-itself is the Lacanian Real – what we really desire – beyond the reach of linguistic or descriptive systems. A radical dualism between mind and matter lurks behind each Žižekian formulation, alternately comic and hysterical. You expect a diabolical cackle at every turn. Žižek ﬁnds proofs for his dogma everywhere he looks – in the cinema, on television, in bed. We cannot experience the Real because we only ever ﬁnd our concepts (a.k.a. ʻchain of signiﬁersʼ): ʻDesire is non-articulable precisely as always-already articulated in a signifying chain.ʼ
In his impatience to strike a novel posture within post-structuralism, Žižek raises the ghost of Marx. However, deep-dyed idealism guarantees that his reading will be a caricature. He claims that, ʻin his dialectics of the commodity formʼ, Marx ʻstarts from the need of the abstract universal Value to embody itself in a contingent use-value, to “put-on” a use-value dressʼ. A glance at the ﬁrst pages of Capital shows the opposite: Marx did not start from an abstract universal (value) and then seek a carrier (the commodity); he started from concrete values (wealth) and then found out who produced it (labour). The idea of an abstraction ʻneedingʼ a carrier is theological, more speciﬁcally Christian (God needed to embody himself on earth, then found the Virgin Mary as a ʻcarrierʼ…). Žižekʼs enthusiasm for the opening words of the Gospel according to St John (ʻIn the Beginning was the Wordʼ) shows how tempting scholasticism is to academic structuralists – and how much they are in need of the bracing vandalism of Goetheʼs Faust: ʻIn the beginning was the Deed.ʼŽižek goes on to say that ʻat least two use-values (commodities) are needed if a Value is to express itselfʼ. He is doubtless thinking of the famous pages in Capital where Marx discusses exchanging twenty yards of linen for a coat. Žižekʼs way of putting it shows how structuralism – with its doctrine that meaning is only ever the product of a synchronic symbolic order – inevitably vaporizes Marxʼs materialism. Marx actually points out that a use value is the property of the object itself. Once Iʼve got hold of an orange, its refreshing quality is a material feature quite outside any symbolic order. Even a non-signifying monkey knows that! What Marx does argue is that if value is to be quantiﬁed it must be exchanged, this being the fundamental social relation – the ʻcellʼ – of the capitalist order, and one he wished to criticize and hopefully supersede. Žižekʼs formulation sees no way out of capitalism, and so confuses Marxʼs critique with prescription.
Itʼs certainly amusing to hear about the Japanese neologism chindogu (it means a uselessly overfunctional object, like binoculars with windscreen wipers), but to call language itself a chindogu – ʻan entity … which … can only be deﬁned from within the horizon of language itselfʼ – is to restage Platoʼs Symposium, where wealthy, slave-owning Athenians lay on couches and expounded the doctrine that their discourse is supreme and there is nothing outside it. The whole history of science and civilization – founded on an experimental dialectic with nature and the testing of ideas against materials – refutes this idealism.
If we do not like the ʻcivilizationʼ that this dialectic has produced, it is not going to be altered by uniting the disaffected under the intricately woven black drape of post-structuralism. To maintain that power depends on ʻthe anonymous structure of the symbolic Lawʼ blinds us to the material antagonisms that rend the social fabric. Like the boss who says he regrets what he is doing, but nevertheless must sack his workers according to the anonymous pressure of market forces, Žižekʼs unitary concept of Law justiﬁes the current order. Tragic recognition of the corruption of all power turns into the ironic smile of the politician politely swallowing a post-prandial gag. If Žižek wants to be a revolutionary, he is going to have to smash his structuralism for Real.
‘The Germans’Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, edited by Henry Hardy, Chatto & Windus, London, 1999. 171 pp., £20.00 hb., 0 7011 6868 4.
This book is the transcript of the late Isaiah Berlinʼs ʻmost famous lecture seriesʼ, presented unscripted in 1965 in Washington, and it includes a recording on CD of the last lecture. Given their authorʼs almost canonical status in British intellectual life, the publication of the lectures is obviously a notable event, though perhaps not quite as notable as some of his more enthusiastic advocates might suggest. Berlinʼs lectures do add signiﬁcantly to the changing image of Romanticism which is now playing a role in many areas of contemporary intellectual and cultural life, despite the objections detailed below. His conception of Romanticism matters not least because, unlike so many English-language writers, he does not see Romanticism as the product of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and other major English-language literary ﬁgures. Romanticism is instead primarily the product of – as he repeatedly (and rather irritatingly) insists – ʻthe Germansʼ: Herder, Hamann, Kant, Fichte, Schiller, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling.
Berlinʼs version of Romanticism has the further virtue of not giving up in the face of the innumerable ways of deﬁning Romanticism that exist in the literature on the topic. Romanticism is, quite simply, the greatest recent ʻshift in the consciousness of the Westʼ, whose key aspect is the rejection of the Enlightenment certainty that the universe has an inherent, pre-existing structure which science and philosophy could eventually discover. Berlinʼs highlighting of the presence in Romanticism of the kind of anti-representationalism which has formed the basis of some of the most signiﬁcant developments in philosophy in the last thirty years is in some ways quite prescient for one whose intellectual home was Oxford. At a time when more and more links are becoming apparent between the work of Rorty (who has recently begun to see his own project in terms of a ʻRomantic polytheismʼ), Davidson and Putnam – let alone Derrida and other post-structuralists – to the post-Kantian Romantic tradition, the book offers a lively introduction to that tradition, which conveys some of its excitement and novelty.
Berlinʼs account is, though, by no means without its problems. The editor, Henry Hardy, sees Berlinʼs tendency to inaccurate quotation as generally involving ʻimprovements on the originalʼ which rarely distort the authorʼs meaning – Hardy himself does some helpful editorial work to supply references to the correct text. Now it is clear, as Berlin was himself good at showing, that intellectual movements generally catch on more in terms of what people think is being said by those who initiate them than through what they actually say. However, in the case of Romanticism, it is these days important to get right what was actually said, if the enduring conceptual potential of the major texts is not to be lost, as it largely was in the period between the demise of Hegelianism and today. It is also important to get right what was said, because Romanticism has a notorious capacity for giving rise to hyperbole, to which Berlin all too often succumbs by making the major authors say what he wants them to, instead of carefully analysing their often extremely precise formulations. At times this book makes one understand why the history of ideas can get such a bad name among philosophers: instead of analysing the real arguments, it merely tells us what their supposed consequences were.
One of the most obvious examples of this basic problem in Berlinʼs approach occurs at the beginning of the chapter on ʻUnbridled Romanticismʼ. Berlin paraphrases a famous remark he attributes to August Wilhelm Schlegel on the three factors which supposedly had the greatest inﬂuence upon the ʻentire movementʼ of Romanticism: namely, ʻFichteʼs theory of knowledge, the French Revolution, and Goetheʼs famous novel Wilhelm Meisterʼ. The trouble is that the supposed remark was not in fact made by A.W. Schlegel at all, but by his brother Friedrich, who lived on a different intellectual planet. A.W. had little time for philosophy; Friedrich, on the other hand, was a truly exceptional philosophical talent. In the passage in question Friedrich is actually referring in deliberately outrageous manner to the ʻgreatest tendencies of the ageʼ, though he does put the French Revolution ﬁrst. Had Berlin referred to Schlegelʼs own splendid subsequent commentary on his Athenaeum fragment in the essay ʻOn Incomprehensibilityʼ, where Schlegel insists the fragment was ʻwritten with the most honest intention and almost without any irony at allʼ, or to much of the work by Schlegel already available in 1965, he would not have taken the remark so literally (and would have got its author right). He might also have characterized Romantic irony correctly: Berlinʼs account here is frankly ﬁctional. The result of this failure is that, like most commentators on the early German Romantics, Berlin regards them as ʻFichteanʼ subjectivists, who think in the most extreme way conceivable that the world is a product of the activity of the I. This, though, is not even fair to Fichte, if one troubles to read his texts, as people are now thankfully beginning to do. Despite what Berlin says, Fichte was always enough of a Kantian to insist on the extent to which much of our thought about the world was constrained by aspects of the world over which our will had no power.
The fact is – and this is pretty worrying for the overall thesis of the lectures – that the key aspect of philosophical Romanticism was, as Walter Benjamin showed in 1919, actually its rejection of Fichte, precisely because of his subjectivism and idealist foundationalism. Far from being idealists, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel and Schleiermacher, after some initial interest in Fichte, moved to a position which tried, as many pragmatists these days also do, to have done with the ʻrealism/idealismʼ division. Schlegel explicitly rejected the idea of truth as ʻcorrespondence of subjective and objectiveʼ in 1800 because ʻreality … cannot be called either subject or objectʼ, and he did so by often very acute philosophical argument, of a kind one would think, on the basis of Berlinʼs woolly characterization, inconceivable for a Romantic. In another mistaken quotation, whose source is the same assumption about the connection of Romanticism to a crudely characterized Fichte, Berlin cites Friedrich Schlegel as saying that the ʻﬁrst lawʼ of Romantic art is ʻthe will of the creator, the will of the creator that knows no lawʼ. What Schlegel in fact says is that Romantic poetry ʻrecognizes as its ﬁrst law that the caprice (Willkür) of the poet will not submit to any law above itselfʼ. The correct text therefore obviates the idea that the passage relies on a Fichtean notion of ʻwillʼ, does not use the term ʻcreatorʼ, and shows that Schlegel is really referring to what Kant addressed in his notion of ʻgeniusʼ: namely, the fact that great art does not result from submission to rules, but rather from a play of the imagination which transcends existing rules.
The underlying problem suggested by these examples is also apparent in the bookʼs tendentious interpretations of some major literary texts. Berlin claims that Büchnerʼs Dantonʼs Death suggests that Robespierre ʻwas perfectly rightʼ to put Danton to death, something which it really is impossible to support from the text. He sees Goetheʼs Werther as involving tragic inevitability, when it is clear from the text that the framing of Wertherʼs letters by a ﬁctional editor makes the novel as a whole into a warning against the dangers of Wertherʼs rampant solipsism. Goethe, after all, wrote it as a kind of therapy, in order to avoid the fate to which he had recently seen others disappointed by love succumb. Too many of the other texts referred to are also distorted by Berlinʼs reductive claims about Romanticism, when speciﬁc reference to the texts would have revealed – to take a ﬁnal example – that far from being a vitalist, as Berlin claims, Schelling speciﬁcally attacked the then current notion of vitalism as philosophically incoherent. It is almost as if Berlin is relying on the ignorance of his English-speaking audience, which, as so much English-language work on the Romantics shows, he was pretty safe in doing.
In the last chapter Berlin makes the very ʻOxfordʼ claim that the German Romantics were ʻa remarkably unworldly body of men. They were poor, they were bookish, they were very awkward in society.ʼ Besides being unworthy of the better parts of his account of the political signiﬁcance of Romanticism, this remark is very hard to reconcile with the fact that one of the Romantics – Schleiermacher – both helped found the ﬁrst modern university and was regularly in political trouble for his liberalism; or that Friedrich Schlegel ended up as a politically active supporter of Metternich, and, despite his later reactionary Catholicism, still had things to say about European politics which have contemporary resonances. Probably the oddest of the major early Romantics, Novalis, was, of course, a mining engineer, as well as being a remarkable philosopher, which Berlin does not mention. At the level of generality which reigns in these lectures, too much important detail gets lost or blurred.
However, despite these objections – and they are in some respects pretty fundamental – one still has to say that the book is worthwhile. It is certainly not boring, it ranges widely and not always inaccurately, and at its best, such as in the demonstration of Kantʼs unintended help in creating Romanticism, it actually gets to the heart of the matter most lucidly. Whether the book as a whole can really be said to add to its authorʼs reputation as a major world scholar and intellect is another matter.
The salon savantMichael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Chatto & Windus, London, 1998. 356 pp., £20.00 hb., 0 7011 6325 9.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM, CH, who died in November 1997 at the age of eighty-eight, was much honoured in his life by both the political and the academic establishments, and continues to be much praised posthumously. The blurb to Michael Ignatieffʼs biography of Berlin describes him as ʻthe greatest and most humane of modern liberal philosophersʼ, and, while hyperbole is the natural mode of such puffery, that is probably the current consensus judgement on Berlin. His scattered writings and lectures are still being devotedly collected and edited by Henry Hardy, and are received by most reviewers with respect and, very often, enthusiasm.
I must admit to never having shared this uncritical attitude to Berlin and his work. The often indiscriminate spraying around of names and references in his writing sometimes conceals some rather careless or casual scholarship, while his thinking – his particular version of liberalism – has always struck me as being too deeply tainted by anti-Communism and Cold War assumptions to achieve the classic status of Mill, or de Tocqueville or Condorcet. Berlin, who was, I think, a genuinely modest man, never claimed any such status for himself as others have conferred on him. The signs are that he possessed self-knowledge to a striking degree.
Ignatieffʼs biography is, by intention, in some ways the autobiography that Berlin always refused to write. It is based primarily on a series of conversations which took place during the last ten years of his life, and from which Ignatieff obviously obtained a good deal of important information about Berlinʼs early life. Given this, and given Ignatieffʼs obvious admiration for his subject, his biography might easily have degenerated into hagiography – uncritical and consistently defensive.
And Ignatieff is, for the most part, defensive, as most biographers tend to be. There are episodes on which he puts an unduly favourable gloss. There are others, unﬂattering to Berlin, which he does not mention at all (Christopher Hitchens pointed out some of these in his review in the London Review of Books, 26 November 1998). But on the whole he acknowledges the criticisms that were regularly made of Berlin, and also gives us the materials on which we can base our own conclusions. Berlinʼs reputation is not altogether enhanced by the outcome.
Isaiah Berlin was born to a Jewish family in Riga in 1909. Fleeing the impact of World War I, the family spent nearly ﬁve years in Petrograd, from 1916 to late 1920, when they left the new Soviet state for Britain. Berlin went to Oxford as a student in 1928, and Oxford remained his home and base for the next sixty years. It was something of a paradox that this Latvian Jew should have become, for so many, what William Waldegrave called ʻthe ideal of Englishnessʼ. It was something of a paradox for Berlin himself, who was keenly aware of the traps of assimilationism, and who never wished to renounce or conceal his Jewish identity. He was a lifelong Zionist who was at one time very close to Chaim Weizmann. And British antiSemitism also reminded him of his ʻoutsiderʼ identity from time to time. The Bishop of Gloucester objected when he became the ﬁrst Jewish Fellow of All Souls College in 1934, and he was kept out of the St Jamesʼs Club in London in 1950 for the same reason.
Given all this, it is curious that his responses to the Holocaust were so ambiguous and inadequate. When news of the extermination process began to reach the Allies during the war, Berlin was among those who underestimated the scale and signiﬁcance of what was happening, and he endorsed the evasive ofﬁcial Anglo-American view that the Jews would be best aided by a rapid Allied victory. Ignatieff tells us that ʻhe actively despised the Holocaust industryʼ and was very hostile to Hannah Arendtʼs commentary on the Eichmann case.
What is the explanation for this? Ignatieff says that ʻIt was Stalinʼs crimes, not Hitlerʼs, that roused his most intense imaginative responseʼ, and there is no reason to disbelieve him. As a person and writer Berlin belongs to, and was deﬁnitively shaped by, the post-1945 Cold War. Like many liberal writers of that period, he presents his arguments as being directed against ʻtotalitarianismʼ, ʻfanaticismʼ, ʻmonismʼ, etc. of any kind; but it is Communism rather than Nazism or fascism that he has in mind, and intends us to have in mind.
On this key issue Ignatieff sends out mixed signals.
On the one hand he tells us that Berlin ʻhad no difﬁculty, then or later, in thinking of himself as a Cold War intellectualʼ or ʻa liberal defender of the capitalist world and its freedomsʼ. But on the other hand he refers to Berlinʼs ʻaloofness from the intense intellectual and emotional conﬂicts of the Cold Warʼ, and even describes this one-time professor of political theory as ʻthis least political of menʼ. In fact, as Hitchens pointed out, this supposedly ʻscepticalʼ and ʻdispassionateʼ thinker was a positive supporter of the American war in Vietnam – something which Ignatieff ignores and, indeed, misrepresents. He was always ﬁercely anti-Communist, to the extent that he refused to believe that Khrushchevʼs post-Stalin thaw represented any real change in the Soviet regime. His response to the anti-Communist – in fact anti-Leftist – witch-hunts of the period, in both the USA and Britain, was not to his credit or that of the Cold War liberalism he represented. His inﬂuence was decisive in preventing the distinguished Marxist biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, Isaac Deutscher, from getting a chair at Sussex University in 1963.
Part of the interest of Berlinʼs life lies in its unrepresentativeness. He was not a conventional academic. He hugely enjoyed social life, and after his period of wartime service in the British Embassy in Washington he began to move in the smarter reaches of London society – to the dismay of some of his friends. Ignatieff suggests that Berlin was ʻmore comfortable socially among Conservativesʼ, which may explain why he was happy to accept Mrs Thatcherʼs invitations to Downing Street in the 1980s. Rather paradoxically, Ignatieff says that he was ʻnot interested in enjoying or cultivating active political inﬂuenceʼ, and that ʻHe was not drawn towards the ﬂame of powerʼ, but his evident enjoyment of the company of political leaders and opinion-makers makes this implausible.
This taste for life at the top interfered with his intellectual commitments: ʻhe loved company too much to spend the best years of his life in the libraryʼ. Ignatieff tells us that he ʻhated writingʼ, and he dictated everything, and, more damagingly, that he was ʻnever a rigorous scholar: many of Berlinʼs “quotations” were paraphrases of the originalʼ. I think it is clear that much of Berlinʼs work is weakened by this rather sloppy approach. There are too many unsupported claims and assertions, and the famous long sentences are too often designed to be spoken rather than read. On the page they often come across as clumsy and clotted. His collected essays and lectures are far more variable in quality than his admirers have been willing to recognize.
On the other hand, Ignatieff is quite right to stress his importance and originality as a pioneer in the historical study of ideas, a discipline which ʻbarely existed at Oxfordʼ when Berlin began to break away from the purely philosophical interests of his contemporaries such as J.L. Austin and Stuart Hampshire, in favour of a more historically oriented approach in which synthesis rather than analysis was the essential aim.
Berlin was in many ways – not all of them admirable – a signiﬁcant and important intellectual ﬁgure of the mid-twentieth century. Michael Ignatieffʼs vivid and sophisticated account of his life will certainly help us to form a more balanced view of his achievements and their limitations.
Mind the gapMaria Pia Lara, Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998. ix + 229 pp., £45.00 hb., £13.95 pb., ISBN 0 7456 2042 6 hb., 0 7456 2043 4 pb.
Social theory during the last quarter of a century has strained between two competing paradigms. The mantle of the Frankfurt School has been taken over by Habermas, whose analysis of discourse ethics has long dominated both German and American debates in social theory. Yet theories inspired by French poststructuralism have encroached on areas of debate concerning power and resistance that previously had been the province of Marxist intellectuals.
Feminist theorists have aligned themselves with one or the other of these competing paradigms, or sought some sort of compromise position. For example, Seyla Benhabib avowedly carries on and reworks key issues in the Frankfurt School of critical theory; while Judith Butler aligns herself with strategies initiated by Lacan, Derrida and Foucault. For feminist theorists, as for many of their male colleagues, at issue are questions of critique, universality, normativity, resistance, and emancipation. Feminist critical theorists ask: how can social theory (including feminist theory) develop a critique of social relations, unless it justiﬁes the universality of its normative principles? And how can it intervene in political life, unless it is inspired by some, albeit utopian, vision of emancipation? The questions for post-structuralist feminists are different: how are so-called universal categories (including the category of ʻwomenʼ) themselves based on exclusion? And how can one elaborate a theory of resistance, without succumbing to the naive vision of a world emancipated from strategies of power?
Maria Pia Laraʼs book, Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere, is located within the ﬁrst of these paradigms, presupposing the need for universal norms and focusing on the emancipatory potential of womenʼs narratives. She argues for the mutually beneﬁcial relation between Habermasian critical theory and feminist theory. Lara adopts Habermasʼs concept of ʻillocutionary forceʼ, which refers to speech-acts that aim to achieve a consensus based on mutual understanding. She seeks to take Habermasʼs theory beyond itself, however, in pointing to the aesthetic dimension of communication. Imaginative speech, she argues, not only attracts the attention of the other to participate in communicative acts, but opens up ʻpossibilities for creating different kinds of recognition and solidarity between both partiesʼ. Lara makes a special claim on behalf of womenʼs narratives: all womenʼs narratives have an ʻemancipatory contentʼ. That is, they implicitly include an account of marginalization and oppression, as well as aim for a consensus that requires a reconceptualization of justice. These emancipatory narratives mediate between group identities and universal moral claims, by allowing those who are not members of the group to gain access to a new framework for thinking about self and civil society. Womenʼs narratives achieve this reordering of values and concepts by building a bridge between aesthetics and morality. Historically, women have needed the expressive sphere of aesthetics in order to present new experiences that both enabled a transformation in womenʼs self-conception, and could engender new concepts of justice. Womenʼs example of linking aesthetic and moral spheres, Lara argues, provides a new approach to understanding the nature of moral subjects.
In exploring the relation between aesthetic expression and moral understanding, Lara draws on Albrecht Wellmerʼs writings on aesthetics and Hannah Arendtʼs work on narrativity. Wellmer focuses on art as a form of expressive rationality, while Arendt brings into focus the relation between normative and aesthetic elements in narratives. Thus, Lara seeks to move away from the thin proceduralism of Habermasʼs theory towards a recognition of the complex ʻstrategies of deconstructing, retelling and reconﬁguring the symbolic orderʼ.
The originality of Laraʼs contribution lies in her attempt to deepen a theory of communication in order to acknowledge the interplay of aesthetic and moral aspects. For example, she argues that ʻrecognitionʼ and ʻsolidarityʼ can only be attained through imaginative speech which opens up the possibility of creating different kinds of recognition and solidarity. Thus she addresses a crucial problem both for Frankfurt School theory and for Foucaultʼs analysis of power and resistance: how can change in the ʻagencyʼ of individuals and social groups actually take place? Laraʼs answer is to focus on how narratives transform the ʻpublicʼ imagination and hence concepts of justice and the good life. In focusing on the link between imaginative and moral transformation, she seeks to preserve the ʻemancipatoryʼ content of resistance which disappears in Foucaultʼs account. Nonetheless, Lara does not clarify crucial terms in her analysis, such as ʻnarrativeʼ. She points to both Jane Austen and Judith Butler as important examples of womenʼs narratives that become ʻillocutionary forcesʼ in the public sphere. But these authors have a rather different relation to what one might consider the aesthetic realm. Her concept of narrativity risks becoming so broad that its links to imagination, emotion and art become tenuous.
Even more problematic, in my view, is Laraʼs relation to debates within feminist theory. She makes strong claims about the emancipatory, non-exclusionary character of womenʼs narratives, and the need for a ʻfeminist universal modelʼ. Yet she fails to engage in the critical debates among feminists about these terms. A decade ago Denise Riley and Judith Butler argued that the concept of ʻwomenʼ is normative and exclusionary (i.e. based on particular racial, class and sexual identities). How, then, can Lara simply assert that womenʼs narratives are implicitly non-exclusionary? Moreover, Laraʼs view that womenʼs narratives are emancipatory ʻwhatever their particular viewpointsʼ is contradicted by accounts of womenʼs historical and contemporary role in social life. Historians have documented the complicity of many Southern white women with the system of slavery in pre-civil war America, and the complicity of many German women with the fascist policies of the Third Reich; studies of rightwing women in America point to the highly visible role of women activists in the anti-abortion movement in the United States. Would Lara argue nonetheless that narratives by these women are emancipatory and non-exclusionary?
Oddly enough, although Lara is committed to providing cultural content to the theoretical debates about language in Habermasian circles, her empirical references to womenʼs narratives are extremely limited (and she provides only passing reference to narratives by Latin American women, though she is professor of philosophy at Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico). Her assertion that feminism is ʻthe most relevantʼ twentieth-century revolution seems a bit optimistic in the face of the uneven gains for womenʼs rights. For some depressing examples of recent developments I refer the reader to Katha Pollittʼs commentary ʻWomenʼs Rights: As the World Turnsʼ (The Nation, 29 March 1999): an Italian judge recently ruled that women wearing blue jeans canʼt be raped, because it takes two to pull them off; El Salvador enacted a law which rejects abortion even to save the motherʼs life; and the new global economy has thrown millions of women and girls into prostitution and sex slavery.
Laraʼs book gives interesting proposals for reworking the concepts of communication in Habermasʼs theory to include an account of imagination, conﬂict and transformation. But her attempt to anchor this contribution in a theory of womenʼs narratives is weak. Perhaps the difﬁculties Lara has in reconciling the latest work in critical theory with that in feminist theory manifest deeper difﬁculties with such a project? These difﬁculties may be testimony to how little feminist debates have made an impact on the ʻpublic sphereʼ in which critical social theory is debated.
Robin may schott
The gift of thingsMaurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift, trans.
Nora Scott, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999. 256 pp., £49.50 hb., £14.99 pb., ISBN 0 7456 1964 9 hb., 0 7456 2151 2 pb.
One of the recurrent questions of our time is whether or not there is, or could be, anything outside relationships based on exchange – apart from the non-relationship of master and slave where the slave is conceived not as a human but as a thing (and thus as incapable of entering into exchange other than as an object). The material and ideological dominance of the market economy is such that it has become hard for thinkers to conceptualize any other kind. When we discuss giftgiving we often fall into a vocabulary of gift-exchange which suggests a (perhaps mystiﬁed) form of barter in which the giver gets (and calculates) a return on his investment. The characterization of the giver as he, whether explicit or not, is of course symptomatic. However, while many philosophers and anthropologists (never mind economists) are eager to embrace what they present as a rational and objective demystiﬁcation of the gift, there is another camp which still pursues what Godelier terms the engima of the gift: that within gift-giving, and within the overlapping domain of our relationship to things, which somehow escapes the logic of the market.
For Godelier, what deﬁnes the gift is social obligation; commercial exchange leaves each party free of obligation, and the goods wholly alienated, at the conclusion of the transaction. But even if a gift is immediately reciprocated by a counter-gift of an identical object (most common in non-agonistic giftexchange), the counter-gift does not annul the gift – a relationship of reciprocal dependence and reciprocal inequality has been set up. Godelierʼs work combines two useful aspects. On the one hand it is a careful and patient account of previous anthropological work on the gift – in particular Mauss and, via Mauss, LéviStrauss. It is Lévi-Straussʼs famous Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) which has shaped our reception of the subtle and complicated Essay on the Gift (1923–24) as a work which really presents the gift as a form of exchange. Godelierʼs account is respectful and sympathetic to Mauss, and yet scrupulous in following up any perceived problems. On the other hand, drawing on his own ﬁeldwork investigations in New Guinea, Godelier formulates a number of original theories in the area of gift-exchange.
Godelier challenges a reductively exchangist account of society both by re-analysing Maussʼs most famous examples of agonistic gift-exchange (potlatch and kula), and by focusing on non-agonistic gift-exchange, as a precursor to the agonistic forms. With respect to agonistic gift-exchange, Lévi-Strauss famously critiques Maussʼs acceptance of the native informantsʼ theory that hau explains the giverʼs continuing bond with his gift (which obliges recipients to reciprocate). Godelier accepts that hau is not an explanation, but refuses to reject it as false; he argues that this kind of indigenous ʻknowledgeʼ has a content which ʻconsists of the practices in which they are involved, those of gift-exchange, and of creating lasting, sacred obligations, those of marking differences, hierarchies and so onʼ. Hau is thus not so much the spirit of the thing as the power of the original donor – thus the inalienability of the gift is less a question of (spiritual) beliefs (and thus false, for Lévi-Strauss) than of social realities. In agonistic gift-exchange there is a fear that the gift might be cancelled out; hence there is often a deferral of the counter-gift, and always a need to outdo the last gift. Godelier speciﬁes that agonistic gift-exchange only arises where there is a competition for social rank; otherwise non-agonistic gift-exchange may continue to be the norm.
Godelierʼs other main line of argument, which draws on the work of Annette Weiner, is that anthropologists in the wake of Mauss have underestimated the importance of things which are kept rather than given or exchanged. This entails an analysis of the sacred, and here Godelier wants to challenge the overarching importance bestowed on the symbolic realm (fostered by Lévi-Strauss and, more generally, Lacan). For him the imaginary is equally, if not more, important. He deﬁnes the imaginary as everything mentally added to, or subtracted from, our real capacities. Godelierʼs interest in the role of sacred objects – things which are kept rather than entering into any kind of exchange – leads him to look at processes not directly governed by the laws of the human mind. He writes:
we are dealing with a certain type of relations between man and himself, relationships which are therefore at the same time social, intellectual, and affective, and which are materialized as objects.And he goes on to argue:
the sacred object brings us to the extreme point at which the opacity necessary for the production of society is fully realized, where the misapprehension necessary to the preservation of society runs no further risk of recognition. One aspect of the book left me a little disappointed:
Godelier mentions the general exclusion of women from studies of gift-exchange, in which they largely feature, if at all, as objects to be given. He does hint at the role of women in certain societies as owners of valuable goods rather than as goods themselves. However, very little of his own work does more than hint at ways in which women might be included. I wondered, for example, whether his deployment of the imaginary might have a link with the work of Luce Irigaray – however, she does not feature in his bibliography. In the New Guinea case studies, women feature largely as victims – the men legitimize real violence against women by imaginary myths of violence against them in which sacred objects (power) were stolen from them. Homosocial male bonding even goes as far as gifts of semen from older men to adolescent boys.
Godelier is self-reﬂexive about the work of the anthropologist up to a point. His close relationship with Lévi-Strauss enables a foregrounding of questions such as why anthropologists choose to study certain aspects of a given culture rather than others; for example, why focus on the ʻsymbolicʼ as opposed to the material conditions of production? However, there is limited analysis of the (surely necessarily dialectical) relationship between anthropologist and informants – and perhaps this is justiﬁable in so far as this is not the issue on which he chooses to focus. However, the apparent transparency of information about societies so distant from our own may leave the more suspicious, or simply cautious, reader feeling she should borrow the strategy of the theatre spectator and simply suspend disbelief.
Godelier does see a signiﬁcant gap between our own society, in which the (capitalist) economy deﬁnes social existence and excludes many individuals from that existence, and societies in which it is gift-exchange which produces and reproduces fundamental social existence (common to all members of those societies). In our own society, he argues, the gift has largely been reduced to two forms: the gift imposed by the state (ʻsolidarity taxesʼ) and charity, in particular the potlatch of the telethon. It seems to me, however, that the gift survives in more forms (both agonistic and non-agonistic) than he suggests. For instance, gifts exchanged without calculation between friends and relatives remain a major part of social existence for many of us – mothers, for example, can ﬁnd very large parts of their lives constructed by ʻunthinkingʼ giving. Perhaps Godelierʼs (and other anthropologistsʼ) interest in the gift of things – at the expense of the gift of services – has a somewhat skewing effect. Perhaps a focus on ʻfeminineʼ domains would suggest an even broader sphere in which the ʻobligationʼ to give still nurtures our sense of our social selves.
Alessandra Tanesini, An Introduction to Feminist Epistemologies, Blackwell, Oxford, 1998. viii + 288 pp., £50.00 hb., £14.99 pb., 0 631 20013 4 hb., 0 631 20012 6 pb.
Rather than taking the view that we have come to the ʻendʼ of epistemology, in this book Alessandra Tanesini argues that the impact of feminist accounts of knowledge on the ﬁeld of epistemology has been, for the main part, invigorating and innovatory. Feminists may start their thinking about problems of knowledge from what she calls ʻunusual placesʼ, and this freshness of approach can enrich ongoing debates as well as producing critiques of more traditional approaches. Having set out the geographical terrain and geological (historical) strata of the main epistemological traditions, Tanesini gives cogent, clearly stated accounts of the ﬁner details of the feminist arguments which now constitute a signiﬁcant body of work in this area.
Tanesiniʼs reconstruction of traditional epistemological thinking identiﬁes three central tenets which have acted as provocations to feminist thinkers and which, she says, they should certainly question, if not reject. The ﬁrst is the notion that we can discern by philosophical reﬂection what the features of ʻrealʼ knowledge are and differentiate what is ʻrealʼ knowledge from what is not; the second is the notion that knowledge depends on a secure foundational base; and the third is the deﬁnition of knowledge as individual subjects representing their environment. She points out that not only does the solitary and autonomous individual enquirer have a speciﬁc history and context (from Descartes to Locke to Kant, for example, although individualistic assumptions also persist in more contemporary theories), but the nature of the representations change as well (for example, the notion of evidence only emerges in the early modern period along with probability, and this changes the signiﬁcance of observations and creates new epistemic practices). The reason for drawing attention to such characteristics is the charge that epistemological individualism tends to preserve notions of emotional detachment and value neutrality, which not only block broader investigations of the epistemic subject, but go hand in hand with claims for objectivism, realism and a rationalist internalist account of science. Furthermore, such characteristics may also occlude the extent to which knowledge as human practice is socially constituted and contextualized, inﬂuencing the nature of discoveries as well as the formulation of theories.
Thus far there may not appear to be anything speciﬁcally feminist about these kinds of objections since they do not uniquely concern the question of gender. However, picking up on the work of Alison Jagger, Evelyn Fox Keller, Lorraine Code and others, Tanesini indicates that an epistemic subject whose main characteristics are autonomy, emotional detachment and value-neutrality ﬁnds alignments with certain values of masculinity and that such alignments make it difﬁcult for science to claim it is free of all bias.
The recognition of possible bias does not necessarily invalidate scientiﬁc knowledge: it may just mean good science is less common than was thought. An internalist account of science could accommodate objections about its assumptions to preserve its credibility as value-neutral. Nevertheless, most feminists would take the view that this may not be enough to screen out all possible bias, and in any case the recognition of values and the social context of practice may even enhance science. Tanesini is careful to distinguish the different strands of feminist responses to these lines of thought, using the three broad headings of feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint theory and feminist post-modernism, under which more detailed points and differences may be worked out. Feminist empiricists such as Lynn Nelson and Louise Antony, inﬂuenced by Quine, develop a version of naturalized epistemology which can accommodate the situatedness of the knower. Feminist standpoint theory argues for the epistemic privilege of certain marginalized positions which offer a critical perspective on mainstream practices. Feminist post-modernist writers like Jane Flax broadly take a negative view of notions like the progress of history and the project of epistemology and, like Rorty, remain sceptical about philosophyʼs suitability for addressing questions of knowledge at all.
Tanesini maintains a broad range to her discussion, working across and between the ʻdivideʼ of analytic and continental philosophy to locate and critically assess the effectiveness of the arguments she considers. She shows how critical debates within analytic philosophy about, for example, the ontological issue of the nature of reality (Quine, Rouse) and the tendency of continental philosophy to acknowledge the sociohistorical character of knowledge and to raise questions about power, reason and objectivity (Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger), may ﬁnd common ground with the diverse work of contemporary feminists such as Sandra Harding, Lorraine Code, Helen Longino, Nancy Hartsock, Genevieve Lloyd and Luce Irigaray, among others.
One of the strengths of the book is Tanesiniʼs attention to detail in argument and her capacity to draw ﬁne distinctions between the positions she discusses. She refuses to homogenize the different philosophical implications of the feminist epistemologies under discussion. However, this is slightly at odds with her occasional references to ʻthe Heideggerian frameworkʼ which she suggests offers a viable alternative to the impasses of traditional epistemology and which she says may ﬁnd some resonance with feminist epistemologies. This may be the implicit background to some of the points she makes, as it would capture the aim of knowledge as a contextual social practice which begins in practical involvement and refuses to espouse value-neutrality, but the exact nature of the connections are not really spelt out and would need to be examined in greater detail.
From eudaimonia to me-daimoniaAlessandro Ferrara, Reﬂective Authenticity: Rethinking the Project of Modernity, Routledge, London and New York, 1998. xii + 187 pp. £14.99 pb., 0 415 1306 2.
Alessandro Ferrara has written a ﬁne book, which afﬁrms the project of modernity, but does so in an independent way. Ferrara follows Habermas in deﬁning the project of modernity as ʻthe project of grounding our validity claims in the transindividually objective and yet humanly “subjective” structures of subjectivityʼ. He is critical, like Habermas, of those philosophers, such as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Rorty, who abandon the aspiration to possess such validity. Yet Ferrara also has reservations about endorsing the project of modernity in the spirit of Habermas and Rawls because they fail to offer adequate accounts of the issue of ʻﬁrst-person validityʼ.
In attempting to ground ﬁrst-person validity,
Ferrara draws upon an impressive range of knowledge from philosophy, sociology, and psychoanalysis. His ambition, though, is hardly limited to sorting through such perspectives, endeavouring to contribute to a formal theory of the good that bases itself in subjective experience. Despite the rather modest self-evaluation of adding ʻone possible way of enriching our vocabulary about the goodʼ, Ferrara establishes a creative solution to the impasse that he discerns in contemporary ethical theory. This impasse is between conceptions of ethics that are exclusively concerned with justice, and thereby ignore the good, and those that see the good as having primacy, understanding it in terms of self-realization, and thereby ignore justice.
At the centre of the present work is the idea that validity can be located in the concept of authenticity. Ferrara compares authenticity to a number of related concepts. He argues, for example, that authenticity includes autonomy, but it is nonetheless distinct from it. Authenticity, in contrast to autonomy, ʻhas the quality of being somehow connected with, and expressive of, the core of the actorʼs personalityʼ. Yet it has neither essentialist, individualist, nor humanist connotations. Ferrara distances himself from viewing authenticity as a matter of rescuing subjectivity from the oppressive weight of society; he believes that authenticity should be construed as complementary to intersubjectivity, but he does not linger in showing how they are related or whether tension between them remains. It is fair to wonder about what role others have in the constitution of ﬁrst-person validity – to what extent could one say that ﬁrst-person validity is impossible without others?
Ferraraʼs sources are diverse: Aristotleʼs notions of phronesis and eudaimonia, Rousseauʼs introduction of authenticity as a matter of distinguishing amongst aspects of oneʼs inner world those that are crucial rather than expendable, Kantʼs notion of the sensus communis and his distinction between types of judgement, and Simmelʼs conception of singular or exemplary normativity. The Kantian distinction between determinative judgement, where the universal exists prior to and independent of particularity, and reﬂective judgement, where the universal is exempliﬁed through the particular, is key for Ferrara. It is the latter sense of judgement that Ferrara wishes to import to establish the validity of authenticity.
Yet Ferraraʼs argument about authenticity ultimately rests on his own theory. He delineates four factors that determine authenticity: coherence, vitality, depth and maturity. These factors are conceived not as criteria of identity, but as guidelines. They cannot dictate to us, and, as Ferrara appealingly puts it, we ought to think of them as seducing, rather than conquering us. Coherence has to do with a sense of identity that has cohesion, continuity and differentiation; vitality has to do with joyful empowerment that occurs through the fulﬁlment of oneʼs central needs; depth has to do with access to oneʼs own psychic dynamisms and the reﬂection of such awareness in the construction of oneʼs identity; and maturity has to do with oneʼs ability and willingness to come to terms with the facticity of the natural and social world – both acknowledging reality and enjoying illusion. Ferrara discusses these factors both in connection to individual identity and then moves on to suggest that they are applicable to collective identity as well.
He draws heavily from psychoanalysis. The practice of psychoanalysis holds open the prospect of selfunderstanding through dialogical self-reﬂection about the past with the aim of promoting greater honesty, ﬂexibility and awareness about oneself. The theory of psychoanalysis offers a detailed description of the inner lives of human beings; it provides an alternative conception to philosophical views of the mind, which dwell upon rationality and minimize the importance of other mental functions. But ought psychoanalysis to be understood as lending support to authenticity?
Consider Trilling, who traces the concept of authenticity as it replaces the earlier modern ideal of sincerity. Authenticity arises once it is realized that sincerity can be false; thus, as Trilling emphasizes, authenticity is a polemical concept that marks a space in which one faces oneself more intensely, and, it was originally averred, without the intrusion of society. This reading of authenticity can be understood as a Hegelian rejoinder to Ferraraʼs more Kantian reading: whereas Ferrara attempts to capture the conditions of authenticity, Trilling follows out the concrete, historical developments of how the concept came into existence and subsequently unfolded as the dialectical counterpart to the concept of sincerity.
Since psychoanalysis is critical to Ferraraʼs account of authenticity, he is obliged to contemplate Trillingʼs question of whether psychoanalysis ʻsubvertsʼ rather than ʻadvancesʼ authenticity: ʻMust we not say that Freudʼs theory of the mind and society has at its core ﬂagrant inauthenticity which it deplores but accepts as essential in the mental structure?ʼ Although Ferrara does acknowledge pathological varieties of authenticity, his main concern lies with the capacity for selfreﬂection that is at the heart of exemplary judgement. Yet this still does not absolve Ferrara from having to face the sense in which the unconscious represents an obstacle for the ideal of authenticity. All psychoanalytic orientations would concur here, regardless of whether one is partial to an upbeat ego-psychological perspective, a downbeat Lacanian perspective, or an object-relations perspective that can go either way.
Ferrara calls his own ethical theory ʻpostmodern eudaimoniaʼ. This is meant to hark back to Aristotle (but without accepting the kind of assumptions about tradition and community that attract MacIntyre) and to impel us to embrace the world today, armed with what we have learned about ﬁrst-person validity from Kant, but also Hegel and Heidegger. According to Ferrara, eudaimonia is predicated upon unifying oneʼs biography into a coherent narrative. It entails the assumption that each of us is unique and bears the responsibility of owning and embracing an identity. In contrast to Habermas and Rawls, Ferrara insists upon a psychological understanding of the good. Rationality is a necessary but insufﬁcient condition of being a fulﬁlled agent. At the same time, Ferrara resists the identiﬁcation of the good with pleasure. He makes a compelling case that an ethical theory which does not contend with coherence, vitality, depth and maturity cannot complete the project of modernity in a satisfying way.
In distancing himself from Habermas, one might expect Ferrara to register sympathy with ﬁrst-generation Critical Theorists, for whom psychoanalysis was also crucial. Ferrara mentions Adorno, but the ﬁgure of Marcuse is ignored, and Ferraraʼs acceptance of the project of modernity means that he does not seriously contemplate the danger of authentic conformism; his eudaimonism is not motivated by the wish to revalue bodily pleasures. Nonetheless, Ferraraʼs contribution has a debt to the wilder but more profound discourse that went by the name of ʻCritical Theoryʼ. I would have liked Ferrara to engage more radical critiques of authenticity, instead of simply rejecting them. After all, one does not have to indulge hyperbolic ideas about the authenticity of madness to worry about the limits of authenticity in modernity. Still, we can be grateful to Ferrara for offering us an original, uncompromising vision of modernity.
A morally pink complexionSiegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany, trans. Quintin Hoare,
Verso, London and New York, 1998. 122 pp., £12.00 pb., 1 85984 187 1.
My local radio station keeps playing a commercial featuring ʻMaryʼ, student of English literature by day, supervisor in a call centre by night. She earns a proper salary (amount unspeciﬁed) and, it goes without saying, loves her work. Call centres are one of the Northʼs growth industries, apparently because northern accents are perceived as friendly and trustworthy. Kracauerʼs salaried masses obviously did not work in call centres – he was writing in 1930 – but aspects of their lives would be familiar to Mary. The aptitude tests had been introduced, there was already great emphasis on ʻhuman and personal developmentʼ, and letters of application were already being studied by specialists in the voodoo science of graphology. Ageism had set in: a salesman of twenty-ﬁve came into the at-risk category of ʻolderʼ. One of Kracauerʼs informants was the personnel manager of a Berlin department store. He told him that sales and ofﬁce staff should have ʻa pleasant appearanceʼ. When pressed, he explained that a ʻpleasant appearanceʼ meant ʻa morally pink complexionʼ.
The salaried masses were the employees (Die Angestetellten) of Weimar Germany, a distinct sociological group with a curious status. Legislation adopted in 1911 gave the white-collar workers of the service industries – commerce, banking and transport – legal privileges including insurance, health schemes and job protection – denied the industrial working classes. In 1930, there were 3.5 million of them, including 1.2 million women, and they helped to form a human bulwark against the threat of socialism. Sports clubs were organized to help them keep their good pink complexions, and to promote what we would now call corporate loyalty. The salaried masses represented ʻthe newest Germanyʼ, and Kracauer studies them like an anthropologist confronted with a new culture. By the time he began his investigations, inﬂation had eroded their economic privileges, and rationalization and concentration their social status, but false consciousness is a force to be reckoned with. The shopgirl wanted to marry a metal worker, but her father – a court usher, no less – refused to countenance having a mere worker in the family. The skilled worker gave up his job and found a position as a lowly bank messenger. He lost money, became an employee and gained a ﬁancée.
Kracauer (1889–1966) is best known for his From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Film Theory (1960), both written in English long after he had left Germany for the usual reasons. They have never been well known in Germany, and little of the huge output of journalism he produced before 1933 has ever been translated into English. Journalism was his preferred medium, and The Salaried Masses was ﬁrst published in instalments in the daily Frankfurter Zeitung. Its appearance in a good translation and with an excellent introduction by Inka Mülder-Bach is very welcome. Although short, this is a rewarding work, but it becomes richer still when read in conjunction with the selected ʻWeimar essaysʼ published as The Mass Ornament (Yale University Press, 1995). The ʻmass ornamentʼ of the title is made up of the drilled bodies of the Tiller Girls dance troupe, and it says it all: mass entertainment for the salaried masses, the industrialization of entertainment and the industrialization of the body. Despite all their desperate attempts to enjoy themselves, these masses are ʻspiritually homelessʼ, seeking their pleasure in ʻshelters for the homelessʼ and the ʻpleasure barracksʼ, or in other words the giant cinemas, dance halls and cavernous taverns of Berlin where cheap popular songs drill themselves into the brain and stay there to deaden the critical faculties. Rationalization in the workplace goes hand in hand with the rationalization of pleasure.
Kracauer insists that his ethnographic study of everyday life in the newest Germany is not an exercise in reportage, or the random observation of facts. He also rejects the myopia of ʻexpert-cultureʼ, concentrating on ʻexemplary instances of realityʼ or inconspicuous surface-level expressions of normal life in all its ʻimperceptible dreadfulnessʼ. Kracauer was personally close to both Adorno and Benjamin, whose sympathetic review of The Salaried Masses is included as an appendix to the present edition, and the kinship is obvious. Much of Kracauerʼs Weimar work invokes a dialectic between Vernunft (understanding) and Ratio (abstract reason) which looks forward to Adorno and Horkheimerʼs dialectic of enlightenment. The comments on the mind-numbing effects of rationalized distraction sound like an early version of the critique of the culture industry, though there is an element of sympathy that is not in evidence in Adorno. The tone is one of wry and knowing empathy rather than mandarin contempt. Stylistically, the juxtaposition of ʻexemplary instances of realityʼ is worthy of the ʻthinking in picturesʼ of the Benjamin of One-Way Street. Whilst Kracauer is obviously applying a form of critical theory to the sociology of everyday life, another inﬂuence is also apparent. The references to ʻspiritual homelessnessʼ allude to Lukácsʼs Theory of the Novel, whilst the rejection of reportage in favour of a mosaic of signiﬁcant impressions is curiously similar to the Hungarianʼs critique of surface naturalism in the name of typical realism.
Without wishing to credit Kracauer with the gift of prophecy, some of what he describes is uncomfortably familiar. The pleasure barracks are still open for business, and they are getting bigger: one recentlyopened bar in Leeds boasts of being able to hold 1,500 people. Entry is controlled by doormen (you must not call them bouncers) and having a pleasant appearance no doubt helps if you wish to gain admission. Just as a friendly northern accent will help, should you wish to join Mary in the call centre until such time as it is downsized.
DecadenceDaniel W. Conway, Nietzsche and the Political, Routledge, London and New York, 1997. xii + 163 pp., £37.50 hb., £11.99 pb., 0 415 10068 2 hb., 0 415 10069 0 pb. Daniel W. Conway, Nietzscheʼs Dangerous Game: Philosophy in the Twilight of the Idols, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1997. xii + 267 pp., £37.50 hb., 0 521 57371
Conway is possibly the most perspicacious of Nietzsche critics, and arguably the most judiciously judgemental. Situating Nietzsche ﬁrmly within the decadent epoch that spawned him, Conway takes Nietzscheʼs selfproclaimed decadence as his point of departure and proceeds to examine the self-referential implications of Nietzscheʼs immanent critique of modernity.
In Nietzsche and the Political, Conway retrieves the moral perfectionism that lies at the heart of Nietzscheʼs philosophical project and that a decadent age inevitably precludes. It is, Conway argues, the realization that the depleted vitality of modernity can ill afford the luxury of a hierarchical moral pluralism, predicated on a morality of breeding, that precipitates Nietzscheʼs focal shift from the political macrosphere to the political microsphere. In the absence of such a (purportedly) morally invigorating ʻnatural aristocracyʼ, Nietzsche looks to the heroic exploits of exemplary individuals to expand the horizons of human perfectability.Nietzscheʼs Dangerous Game focuses on the selfreferentiality of Nietzscheʼs post-Zarathustran writings to which his retrospective prefaces of 1886 advert; and, by implication, on the manifest symptoms of Nietzscheʼs decadence to which his symptomatological critique of modernity provides the diagnostic key. As Conway argues, the ultimate goal of Nietzscheʼs postZarathustran work is ʻto found a tragic age in which a thoroughgoing naturalism will supplant the anti-affective animus of Christian moralityʼ. This naturalism, however, is grounded in vitalism, the deﬁciency or excess of which is determined by the regnant system of instincts to which the individual is subject: if the instinctual system is impaired (by Christian morality, say), then so too is the vital force. Vitalism, moreover, vanquishes voluntarism, and Conway goes on to demonstrate how in Nietzscheʼs post-Zarathustran writings individual agency is reduced to a mere conduit of an amoral, trans-individual will to power which further undermines an effectively affective naturalism.
Within Nietzscheʼs economy of decadence, this debased will to power manifests itself in a lack rather than a surfeit, a sacriﬁce rather than a squandering, in art, law, ethics, politics and philosophy; and, as Conway is at pains to point out, this sacriﬁce is in no greater evidence than in Nietzscheʼs philosophy. For, in a decadent age, this debilitated will to power will ultimately will its own destruction, and decadent souls such as Nietzscheʼs will be compelled to enact their constitutive chaos, ʻexpressing themselves creatively in their own self-destructionʼ. At once theorist and exemplar, physician and patient, Nietzsche bodies forth the very decadence he deplores: his experiments with vitalism and will to power cause him ʻto relapse recidivistically into metaphysical prejudices he so expertly debunkedʼ; his persistent appeals to truth ʻsuggest his “perspectivism” does not preclude his access to truthʼ; ʻhisʼ teaching of eternal recurrence, never stated by Nietzsche himself, ʻremains mysterious, occult, oblique – and therefore full of promiseʼ; his priestly resentment and brute prejudices ʻmotivate and vitiate his critique of Christianityʼ; and, most dangerous of all, his fatal decision to furnish the symptomatological tools necessary for the diagnosis of decadence, enables his more discerning readers, of whom Conway is one, ʻto plumb the murky depths of his lacerated soulʼ and to extract therefrom ʻhis personal confessionʼ.
Conwayʼs trenchant and withering critique of Nietzscheʼs paradoxical post-Zarathustran position is unequivocally the most dangerous challenge yet to Nietzscheʼs credibility as a critic (as opposed to an exemplar) of decadence, modernity and Christianity.
Purchasing powerHenry Tam, Communitarianism, Macmillan, London, 1998. £16.99 pb., ISBN 0 333 67483 9.
Whereas the communitarianism of Sandel and MacIntyre focuses on actually or once-upon-a-time existing ʻcommunitiesʼ marked by shared traditions and values, Henry Tamʼs communitarianism is largely a matter of practices and values that exhibit the value of ʻcommunityʼ. He examines, criticizes and proposes practices in terms of their answering to three cardinal communitarian principles. These Tam extracts from a selection of political philosophers from Aristotle to Habermas and from non-individualist political sociology and psychology. The upshot is a conception that is liberal, democratic and socialistic. Though an admirer of Etzioni, he is aware of the authoritarian and conservative spin Etzioni has given the communitarian movement, whose deeper roots he ﬁnds in English ethical socialist thinkers.
Both state and market ideologies, Tam urges, conceptualize social relations in terms of coercive and incentive pressures on individuals conceived in atomistic terms. The cultural communitarianism that has grabbed the headlines partakes of this outlook in so far as it conceives of the individual, especially the growing child, as a sort of target to be blitzed by normatively irresistible requirements. It displays a hermeneutics of mistrust for natural impulses, treated as animal, selﬁsh, or in other ways base. In this respect, although he makes no reference to Kropotkin, Tam shares much of the tradition of libertarian communism with its core notion of the spontaneous sociability, cooperativeness and mutuality of human nature. The communitarian society for Tam is one whose institutions foster such qualities while dampening their opposites.
Tamʼs ʻthree communitarian principlesʼ are:
cooperative enquiry, mutual responsibility and citizen participation. What Tam does, on the basis of wide research and practical experience (he chairs the UK Communitarian Forum and works in local government), is treat social-institutional areas with a reformist, sometimes restorative agenda based on these principles. Thus he considers: ʻEducationʼ, ʻWorkʼ, ʻProtectionʼ, ʻThe State Sectorʼ, ʻThe Business Sectorʼ and ʻThe Third Sectorʼ, before returning to deal with general criticisms in the light of his speciﬁc analyses and proposals. Towards the end, he addresses a variety of anti-communitarian positions.
Although in many ways a radical book, Communitarianism is unashamedly reformist in its project of bending existing structures in a communitarian direction. Sometimes this reformism is expressed in general ʻmustsʼ and ʻshouldsʼ whose responsive audience is unclear, given that the account of the dominant institutions would often lead one to a pessimism about the potential for movement in the direction advocated. Tamʼs suggestions might be helpful, but not always to the powers that be.
What from some points of view might be ʻtheoreticalʼ or ʻphilosophicalʼ weaknesses in the book are in other respects a strength. Tamʼs mind is a galaxy of bright ideas, at once general and pragmatically speciﬁc. He writes as one attuned to the pitfalls of communitarian thinking as much as to the disasters of capitalist-statist ideologies and practices. He plugs into current debates and grasps in remarkable detail the political options under discussion and, in particular, their impact on the prospects for ʻinclusive communitiesʼ. This holistic quality immunizes Tam from the seductiveness of bogus utilizations of communitarian values masking authoritarian disempowerments. The name Blair comes to mind here… Those studying contemporary political philosophy will be aware of the gap between academic abstraction and such political reality as may be connected with it. What Tamʼs book does is supply a context for such thinking to get some life and purchase.