David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: conservatism (page 3 of 4)

The Basic Conservatism of Hegel

The final message of Hegelianism, therefore, is not the opposition
between Reason and an unreasonable world, but contemplation of the
world as a priori reasonable. We do not know what parts of the
existing world are or are not true instruments of Mind: we cannot be
sure, for example, that it has ceased to use criminals for its
purposes. The individual has no rules of morality which he can oppose
to the supremacy of the historical process. In Hegel’s system,
rebellion against the existing world may be justified in a
particular case, but we have no means of telling whether it is or not
until its destiny is accomplished. If it proves successful, this shows
that it was historically right; if crushed, it will evidently have
been only a sterile reaction of ‘what ought to have been.’ The
vanquished are always wrong.

Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (p. 66 in the new ed.)

As the saying goes,
The Nation is read by people who think the country should be
run by the powerless.” This is, I guess, the liberal position that
gets attacked so much by aggressive leftists who believe that simply
negating political power is no recipe for a revolution.

But I don’t believe that Hegel’s position merely provides
tautological ex post facto justification for whatever has happened. It
would be were it constrained merely to a despondent fatalism, as with
Schopenhauer, but since Hegel is after far bigger game, he must
fundamentally reify the whole of history up to the present day and
present it as all the ingredients in his in-progress stew for a
perfect, complete world. Yet even if some dialectical process negates
the current state of affairs and declares it to be lousy (which, to be
sure, Hegel doesn’t really seem to anticipate), it can only negate it
as an end and not as a processual step. The revolutionary can never be
purely revolutionary, because the
revolutionary is still acting out within the confines of a historical

This sounds to me like Burke; no matter what you do, you are
building on the work of the generations before you. To believe in this
paradigm and see one’s self as part of a historical consciousness is
to be fundamentally conservative. Hegel is capable of justifying the
French Revolution where Burke would not because he’s more progressive,
but because the conservative ideology is more flexible. It leaves no
room for those fundamental tenets of genuine revolutionary movements:
(colloquial) idealism and the probable futility of it all. Hegel
demands praxis because there simply can be nothing else;
History reigns supreme.

Kierkegaard, who proposes an unincorporable personal otherness, and
especially the antifoundationalist Max Stirner, don’t offer a Hegelian
progression so much as tearing up the whole framework. (The
alternative interpretation, which is that every little detail, no
matter how inconsequential and futile, is somehow important to
History’s progress, is tenable but pretty lame.)


Those who live in the present but who harbour no doubts about the structure of authority, about the extreme dangers of our society, including the estrangement of man and nature, those whose anger does not drive them to delve into the essentials, and those whose approach to their art raises no questions, all of these must renounce their status as artists.

Masayuki Takayanagi (tr. Alan Cummings)

For a long time, the local library would give me old copies of the Times Literary Supplement. For years, I used to read it at night when I could sleep with a mixed fascination. Culture, intellectual life – all this was marvellous. But I was disturbed by the steadiness of its tone and the tranquility of its judgements. So, at least, it seemed to me then. Gradually, I saw in it an old enemy: culture itself, the old culture, whose conservatism was clear when it came to reviewing works of philosophy. My judgement was simplistic, unsubtle, but one day I took hundreds of editions of the TLS to the dump and felt lifted.

What was it I disliked? Simply that a metaphysic was not allowed to lift itself from literature. Or that the approach to literature was in some way obvious, or transparent, and that judgements could be made. But I asked myself – I still ask – whether this is because I lack something, something quality of judgement; that I am not far enough from what I read – and that, perhaps, others like me also lack. But then I also asked – and ask today – whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.

Lars, Spurious

It was Lars’s quote that provoked me, and the anger in the Takayanagi quote that gave me the words and moved me to write (because anger is such a kinetic emotion). An attack on my beloved TLS! And not even on the hyper-Tory issues of early this year that seemed to be begging Rupert Murdoch not to sell them.

I think Lars is probably right if you look at any individual article in the TLS. Unlike the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, which both review books under the aegis of a particular cultural orientation set by the editors, the TLS has always been far more ecumenical. Nonfiction tends to be reviewed by experts in the field of the book under discussion, and correspondingly, the instances of axe-grinding tend to be intradisciplinary rather than cross-disciplinary. This tends to result in a greater plurality of critical apparati, since reading Philip Payne on Carl Corino’s biography of Robert Musil is a lot more enlightening and involving than reading Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop.

Except for the occasional creeping Toryism (happy, Rupert?) and an evident bias towards analytic philosophy, Lars is right to observe the lack of an emergent metaphysic and to say that the engagement tends to be on the books’ own terms. It is precisely this provincialism, which in combination with ecumenicality, allows for much more open-ended speculation. For there is an implicit set of metaphysics in each discipline and review, and to their honest credit, the TLS is open about letting the contradictions sit next to one another. Marxism sits next to neo-liberalism, post-colonialism next to the saner half of evolutionary biology, and Fredric Jameson next to Charles Taylor.

This plurality of habits of being, as it were, provides me (at least) with a constant deferral of finitude. When I read Alastair Fowler shredding Stephen Greenblatt, I don’t see a transparency but a vicious questioning, done on Fowler’s terms but nonetheless insidiously non-final. Moving on to an article comparing various parodies of Bacon, I take not the harsh judgment of Greenblatt (satisfying as it may be), but the sheer partiality of it all. It is this lesson that I take with me in life, and it’s why I hesitate to ever settle on a single field of expertise.

Authors like Beckett, Bernhard, Blanchot, Josipovici, and Davis attempt to effect an erasure of that traditional cultural baggage, that which makes us feel comfortably situtated when reading. They succeed in varying degrees (I vote for Beckett myself), but I admire their project in every way. It is not enough, however. The role of those authors and critics–“fans,” you could call them–that are obsessed with consuming, regurgitating, and mutilating culture is to remind us of the fluidity of such things: that we should not damn it but synthesize it genealogically. Joyce in Finnegans Wake, as I said in many previous entries, constitutes a pinnacle of this all-consuming methodology, but so does the TLS. They give us the evidence.

There are those who selectively pick from that evidence and fall in line; they fall under Takayanagi’s accusation. But one does not cure one’s susceptibility by avoidance alone. Engage impartially and ecumenically and your intentions will be progressive, not conservative.

A Note on Peter Cook

Mark Kaplan writes of Peter Cook:

This stare is like an empty demand to laugh appended to whatever content Cook happens to light upon: laugh, or be a prude; laugh or be subject to the ignominy of “not getting it”. The stare says, defiantly prior to any utterance: “I’m in on the joke–how about you?”

As Kaplan implies with his Adorno quote, the insecurity and ultimate conservatism of the satirist, who depends on the object of his ridicule, has been the downfall of writers from Gogol to Mencken to Harvey Kurtzman. It reminds me of Ian Penman’s precision demolition of Frank Zappa:

He had long hair but sneered at longhairs; he made a long and lucrative career out of endless guitar solos but sneered at other rock musicians; he constantly bumped his little tugboatful of ‘compositions’ up against the prows of the classical establishment, but he lambasted that, too. In stuff like “The Torture Never Stops” and “Dancing Fool” he got some of his biggest audiences by exploiting the very idea of exploitation he was supposedly upbraiding. He sneered at people who took drugs; he sneered at their parents who didn’t. Most of all, he sneered at women; girls trying to get by in a world of hateful, mastery-obsessed fools like himself. He sneered at anything which represented the mess and fun and confusion of life. He sneered, in short, at anything/everything that wasn’t Frank Zappa.

Although Zappa built a career on purporting to despise the facades of Western consumer culture, he could never actually tear himself away from its value system (he just recycled it, reflected it back in myriad ‘negative’ forms); he could never step out of his circus-master role and plunge into the world of the Other.

(The whole article is like this.)

Penman is dead-on when he says that Zappa was wholly unable to transcend the zeitgeist; most of his stuff sounds incredibly dated, often to a specific year. Like Cook, he got the good stuff out of the way early, when there was still a bit of celebration and joy (in a 60’s Southern California kind of way) in the music of his little band. Likewise, Cook’s best work with Beyond the Fringe is less satirical than absurdist, with jokes like “One Leg Too Few” and “The Great Train Robbery” (“a misnomer, since it involved no loss of train”) dispatched brilliantly. (Alan Bennett always seemed to me to be doing the heavy lifting on the satire.) Bedazzled is comparatively limp, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spare myself most of the Derek and Clive material.

But the man had raw talent until the end. The best thing I’ve heard of his besides Fringe was Why Bother?, a set of short, improvised dialogues with his most talented scion, Chris Morris:

I mean, I held out no great hopes that he wouldn’t be a boozy old sack of lard with his hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out, because he hadn’t given much evidence that that wouldn’t be the case. But, in fact, he stumbled in with a Safeways bag full of Kestrel lager and loads of fags and then proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper. Really quite extraordinary.

Morris was right. Eager to match wits with his hero, Morris repeatedly taunts and derails Cook, refusing to respond to Cook’s setups and repeatedly mentioning that Cook will die soon. Cook, relishing being challenged for once in his life, is damned sharp. I can’t imagine the partnership would have lasted had they been peers, but I think it shows that the old Cook had at least learned something about the emptiness of easy ridicule.

Thomas Frank: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Is there anything left to say about this book? Maybe not, but I wanted to try to provide some context for the book, both in Frank’s own background and his historical precedents.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is less a study than a memoir and a polemic smashed together. It’s not just a memoir the middle chapter, where he describes how he was a strident, Randian Republican as a teenager who turned into a liberal in college, but throughout the book. The first big tipoff comes early on, when he salutes the amazing Embarrassment for no real reason other than that they were from Kansas, then quotes “Sex Drive” (I think I would have picked “Wellsville”). They deserve every word of praise, but they don’t fit with the book: the Embarrassment were one hell of an anomaly. But Frank quotes them because he loves them, and the book is a disguised memoir of his childhood and adolescence. It’s not a polemic, it’s a travelogue.

And it works better as one, because when he’s dissecting the Great Plains, he overstates his case. Much of the evidence given is in the form of people he’s run into in his life, people he interviews on the street. I have no question they’re as bad as he paints them, but he paints in very broad strokes. He identifies large, abstract trends, such as white male resentment against minorities, and uses them to characterize Kansas and environs in toto.

Frank goes out of his way to paint Kansans as non-racists and non-fundamentalists. I believe him on this point, since Brown v. Board was provoked in Kansas precisely because the schools were “separate but equal.” Frank then argues for a chiefly economic (but also social) form of resentment that keeps Republicans in power.

That was what Frank’s childhood told him. Frank was raised a Republican of the libertarian Ayn Randian sort, but not as a social conservative or as a Christian. And this informs his take on so-called red America: Republicans are campaigning economically, not socially. So most of his arguments rely on Republicans’ anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state strategies.

The problem is that he paints this argument as exclusive and total. Frank does not talk about the South, and the economic view is clearly not true in the South. The South is deeply Republican at this point, but it is not reflective of any shift of views on Southerners part; in 1994, Southerners finally got over their resentment of the Republicans enough to realize that the ultra-conservative Democrats they had been electing had not been doing them any good.

Yet further west, things are less clear. Frank explains away the election of Kansas’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius as a trivial side effect of a fight between two sects of Republicans, moderate and ultra-conservative. Fine, but why has Montana been trending Democratic lately?

The answer is pluralism. The Republicans do not use anything close to a unified, monolithic strategy. They have built a tenuous coalition of voters by appealing to every voter they can scrape up in whatever way they can, which is why Bush could not have managed more than a narrow victory. American conservatism, as it stands today, is such a weird amalgam (compare it to Israel, England, etc.) that it seems unlikely to be an endemic phenomenon. It’s arisen through careful planning, and does not exist as a monolithically native sensibility. That’s why a uniting figure like Bush or Reagan is so important.

But in the face of a Bush win and a poisoned administration doing a power-grab, it’s tempting to see the end of the nation at hand, driven by 50% of the populace. None of the trends Frank mentions explains anywhere close to 50% of the nation. Each of them, from anti-regulatory capitalists to religious fundamentalists to angry white men, make up a 5-10% segment of the population amidst the great unwashed masses.

People like Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon have made careers out of blowing up these conservative population to appear larger than they really are, from the original “Emerging Republican Majority” to the “moral majority” onwards. And they have tricks up their sleeves to convince the media and other suckers that they wield great power, like mailing many identical copies of decency complaints to the FCC. I worry that Frank may help their cause by painting Kansas as having a single sensibility that is hostile to the better instincts of people. And he drastically undersells the more situational aspects of the last election, described expertly by Mark Danner in How Bush Really Won:

The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn’t like–particularly the President’s decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there–toward policies they approved of&#x97particularly his conduct of “the war on terror” (into which Iraq would be “folded”)&#x97and toward his personal qualities.

None of this is to say that Frank isn’t right about how Kansas and other states have gradually shifted from economic populism to libertarian corporatism in response to right-wing agitprop. But that’s not Frank’s ultimate message, though. He has an agenda to push: he wants the Democrats to embrace class warfare and become anti-corporate.

Yet to advocate an anti-corporate policy as a political platform based on these observations seems unjustified, simplistic, and insufficient. Frank constructs a narrative that appeals to the compelling and partially accurate prejudices of his target readership–the liberal intelligentsia–but just like those who trumpeted the narrative “moral values” as the deciding factor in the election, Frank exaggerates. The weakness in this approach becomes apparent when Frank goes after Ann Coulter. Now, Ann Coulter is truly horrible, but her constituency is not large enough for her to be an exemplar of a trend. She is more a product of the right-wing think tank machine, designed to put guests on political talk shows, than she is a popular phenomenon (as Rush Limbaugh distressingly is). But because her views are insane and frightening even by Limbaugh’s standards, Frank can alienate readers further from Kansans by quoting her.

Frank’s aggressive tactics become most clear at the very end of the book, where Frank turns prophet of doom:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world–for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness–blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge…Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one.

It was the corporations the whole time! Note how government falls out of the equation, reduced the role of a puppet of the big corporations’ huge plot to advance capitalism and screw the proletariat. And it is mass culture that is the culprit.

The chief antecedent for this mode of thinking is Thorstein Veblen, who attacked the products of luxury culture and its consumers in The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the demonstrative decadence of these people. Veblen’s dour, astringent philosophy left hardly anything untouched: one would have to be an ascetic to avoid the pollution of the culture industry. (In this, he also anticipated the sociological work of Erving Goffman, who paints society as a system in which we have no choice but to take on socially constricted, prescribed roles.) With Veblen, and with Frank, the economic origin and intent of a product is the indicator of its moral worth.

The journal Frank edits, The Baffler, I read in college. I haven’t read it for years, but a look at the contents doesn’t reveal much change. It focused nearly exclusively on cultural capitalism. It excoriated every cultural movement that came down the line (Edge City, Donna Tartt, Wired, etc) as a meaningless product of consumerist culture. That which was acceptable–Steve Albini, John Cassavetes, Weldon Kees– were those that were aggressively, polemically independent, but also curiously middlebrow, as though intellectual pursuit for its own sake was not valid, only that which served the greater struggle against corporatism.

I used to find these views terribly compelling, and I’m not sorry they’re out there. But people looking for a book on “Red America” get something quite different with Frank’s book: an emotional travelogue through his childhood and adolescence that ends with the angry cry of a detractor to tear it all down. I don’t think it’s a useful approach; cultural crap tailored to the lowest common denominator has always existed and will always exist, and the liberal struggle can accommodate it. And I no longer wish to sign on with cultural critics that seem eager to shred all that is corporate, because I’ll go down with it. To quote the Embarrassment:

A self-proclaimed master for my education You said it was for my own good Then lit up the matches I gave you And aimed at the ground where I stood

I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy. I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy.

The Embarrassment, “Careen”

Just kidding, Dr. Frank, but the Embarrassment were a great band.

Alasdair MacIntyre on Tradition

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (221)

This is a good encapsulation of MacIntyre‘s “conservative Marxism,” where he uses dialectical techniques to undermine liberal Enlightenment traditions and movement conservatism.

The idea of a thriving institution as always being in a state of becoming is appealing because it maintains the notion of an active, integral participation on the part of the players, not the meaningless repetition of desiccated institutions. This idea has been used in business theory to chart the life cycles of companies, and believe me, I’ve seen it in action.

One point to make clear, though: when MacIntyre speaks of argument over the traditions being established in an institution, I believe he means that this argument plays out through the different, conflicting practices of the participants, rather than in an explicit dispute over the definition of the purpose and methods of the institution. The definition is articulated by the acts, not the words, of the participants.

Ossification sets in when the people in a group begin arguing endlessly over definition, attempting to codify implicitly established but imprecise tradition. The most creative thinkers become bored and depart. Action is replaced by memorial enshrinement and a self-conscious glorification of the past that has led up to this crowning moment where the institution is fully defined–and dead.

This is not how it always plays out. The pressure to establish a working practice in the face of potential failure and annihilation often spurs the vital conflict that MacIntyre mentions. Without that urgency, the arguments often begin before the practice does.

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