How often it transpires that the interesting thinkers were monsters. Heidegger was a Nazi. Schmitt was a Nazi. De Man was a collaborator, a thief, a liar and – to cap it off – a bigamist. Or, case of a different kind: Althusser strangled his wife, and was probably none too kind to her on a good day.

Lest Anglo-centric thinkers get too complacent about these untrustworthy continentals, let’s not forget that Ezra Pound was a collaborator too. Eliot, bless him, was merely anti-Semitic. How big a crime can that be? The sheer quality of the thought or poetry is then raised, and all objections waved away.

If you want a model of an honorable life, look to your neighbors. They are probably all around. People who give up their subway seat for the elderly. As Kierkegaard said, the ‘knight of the faith’ looks like anybody else, walking down the high street on a Sunday, respectably dressed. But they probably don’t have interesting ideas for you.

Lives fall short of thought. That’s how it is with praxis, with the relation of thought to life. There is always a gap, a disjuncture. There’s no magical passage from one to the other. The very quality of thought that matters about it is its capacity to overshoot and exceed not even the probable but even the possible.

But I don’t want to let Heidegger et al off the hook quite that easily. There’s a tendency for such questions to oscillate between poles. Thinkers are damned by their actions or exonerated of them. Only the life matters, or only the text matters.

Or, perhaps the least interesting solution: well, the life is a poor one, but the thinking is important, central, unavoidable, etc. How could one teach English poetry without Pound? Or continental philosophy without Heidegger, etc?

It would appear that we forgot how to ask questions about where canons come from. How were Pound and Heidegger made so central? Why were certain reactionary relations to the modern project considered so vital, so necessary? Are those reactions still vital now?

In the study of literature, there has been quite a bit of attention to where canons come from. In continental philosophy, not so much. If you come from literature, philosophy seems stuck in the ‘50s on this.

Note, for example, that the criteria by which Pound or Heidegger are held to matter, to be so central or important, are reasons that arise after them, not before. They are central for reasons that are made central reasons — by Pound and Heidegger. The argument is at least in part circular. They are in canons of which they are themselves makers, and remain in it for reasons that they made.

And its not as if this procedure happens in a vacuum. Pound and Heidegger, whatever their ‘flaws’, had one virtue in postwar America and Germany respectively. They were never communists or Marxists.

A case like Althusser complicates this a bit, but remember the context is postwar France, not Germany or America. Communists were one of the few legitimate centers of cultural authority left after the occupation. They had their bases in the public sphere. But Althusser is interesting because while in the party his thought in a way wasn’t of it. He quietly but firmly shifted intellectual authority away from the party and towards professional philosophy.

Of course he was obliged to recant some of this, but its curious how what was most influential about Althusser was an architecture of thought that could claim to be Marxist but which was not thereby subordinated to the authority of the party. Even if, paradoxically, doing this while a party member gave this procedure – by no means unique to him – a certain raffish prestige and influence.

In short, only one of the criteria for canonization is a work’s quality. There are certain institutional constraints. Its striking how rapidly these fall away, and one is left with the Great Names to be passed on to graduate students, if they were an Apostolic succession. As if Apostolic successions were not themselves the products of just such a politics of orthodoxies, heresies, and excommunications.

Let’s even concede the hysterical claim that defenders canonic Nazis and misogynists repeat and repeat – one assumes mostly for their own benefit: “but you can’t ignore Heidegger (or whoever)! He is IMPORTANT! He was a GENIUS! The whole of subsequent work in the field depends on him!” OK, let’s concede that, what then?

One is confronted with this choice: “When I look at the past of thought, I find comrades and I find enemies. It appears that my enemies were the stronger thinkers. Therefore I follow my enemies.” When is this choice ever questioned? Its remarkable how many supposedly ‘radical’ thinkers there are who, on this question, settled immediately and without question for the most moderate reformism. A long march through the institution of philosophy, where if one masters the enemy’s though, one might one day acquire the authority to speak, in his language, in the institution he made. Then we can reform it!

And they became what they beheld…. Not Nazis of course, but Authorities. Master Thinkers merely repeating the same institutional logics. The sheer poverty of ‘radical’ philosophy on this point is surely obvious.

Two more actually radical paths suggest themselves.

One might be to ask: who has been buried and forgotten? On what silences is such a canon composed? Could we, for example, undo the exclusions and silences of the cold war?

Let me give just one example: J. D. Bernal was both a communist, a scientist, and the author of a four volume history of science. He was one of the first people to take up Bukharin’s challenge to construct a Marxist theory (and practice) of science.

And to be clear about one thing: as far as Communists go, he was the most irredeemable Stalinist, what we call a ‘tank’. And on gender he’s no better. Bernal famously considered women equal participants in his laboratory – so long as he could fuck them.

But if one reads, say Perry Anderson’s version of what matters in Western Marxism, Bernal is reduced to a footnote. If one reads science studies, his name does not appear at all. He is a non-person, despite being a Fellow of the Royal Society, an excellent if not top-tier physicist, who did extraordinary things during the war against the Nazis, and wrote probably the first comprehensive critical history of science.

But somehow, none of that is of any interest!

What would that period, both murderous and vital, that stretches through the 30s to the 50s look like if we read Bernal rather than Heidegger?

Well, one might have a few clues as to what extraordinary technical and scientific changes actually happened in that period, and how they materially shaped our own times. Bernal is present at the creation of computing, genetics and operations research.

If one is to work in the spirit of Marx in the twenty-first century, then a critical relation to those three kinds of knowledge and power might tell one a bit more about the present than a critique of ‘western metaphysics’.

In short, the first path here would be a radical refusal of the canon, a critique of its compromised origins, and the seeking out of other paths through the labyrinth of the archive. Let’s kick the Great Men off their pedestals. Let’s not put others in their place – and certainly not an unrepentant Stalinist skirt-chaser like Bernal. He might, however, be a doorway into the collaborative practice of knowledge production – so much better understood in the sciences – of which his famous lab was an exemplar.

The other path is to ask some questions about the kinds of textual relations are allowed between past and present. Does it have to be a relation of citation? Of course, some of us spend many, many hours trying to get undergrads – even grad students – to understand citation. Text is always someone’s property. If you use that property, the minimum rent you have to pay is the citation. You have to say whose property a bit of text is.

The whole problem of the Nazi philosopher or Fascist poet stems from thinking that texts are the property of their authors. If the text belongs to Heidegger, then is its owner a fit and proper citizen? Property owners have rights, but also obligations. The unquestioned acknowledgement of the ownership of an idea gets caught up in questions about the propriety of the owner.

Are ideas really private property? One usually does not think of Wittgenstein as a major communist thinker, but his argument to the effect that their can be no private language pretty much undermines the idea of private property in thought. (As my friend Stephen Wright has pointed out – see, even I cannot live without citation!).

What if we considered all of culture not as private property but as a commons? Its what the Situationists called ‘literary communism.’ They co-joined Marx to the seemingly least likely of sources – the fringe romantic poet Lautréamont. “Poetry should be made by all,” Lautréamont said. “Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it.” It erases a false idea and replaces it with a correct one. Lautréamont’s poetic method took poetry to be a commons, and the poets task one of copying, combining and correcting.

Anybody who paid attention in high school French literature classes could see how he did this in his ‘Poesies’, where famous epigrams by Pascal or Vauvanargues are inverted. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was discovered that his major work, the ‘Song of Maldoror’, was also substantially plagiarized. A beautiful passage on a flock of starlings, which easily yields its lit-crit payload of symbol and mood – turns out to be lifted straight from the natural history writings of Buffon.

To some, this is a worse scandal than finding out that a philosopher was a Nazi.

The Situationists not only defended Lautréamont, they extended the method, into what they called détournement. Guy Debord’s masterpiece, The Society of the Spectacle, has whole passages lifted from Hegel, Marx, pop sociology, and even Lautréamont himself. Part of the charm of reading this text is the changes in tone, from classic 17th century French prose to modern French translations of Hegelese.

Détournement reframes the “my philosopher is a Nazi” problem in an interesting way. It doesn’t absolve Heidegger. It makes him irrelevant. The collective labor of writing produces and reproduces the archive, churning and turning its phrases, erasing ideas, replacing them with others. A really radical approach to the Great Men would ask: how does this collective process come to be their property?

We live in a curious time, when a lot of people seem to want ‘radical’ ideas from the academy, but they want them in the most conservative way. There’s a desire for Master Thinkers, for Great Traditions, for Discipline. The demand is that the most hide-bound of disciplines somehow yield their opposite, without in any way raising questions about how such disciplinary knowledges are structured in the first place.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting a return to that ‘60s gesture of wishing the past away, of pretending to start completely anew. That all too often simply reproduced old ideas in all innocence of their genesis. The past is, indeed, not even past.

But one can ask critical questions about where this intellectual past came from. One can look for other pasts, which yield other relations to the present. And one can question the citational form of all of those relations to the past. Any of which might be more interesting than simply shrugging off the question of certain dubious ancestors.

The heroes of any discipline are the ones who renewed its reasons to exist. For that they will be forgiven anything. But if one’s commitment is to thought and life, rather than a discipline, one can take a more jaundiced view of this special pleading.

8 thoughts on “No More Master Thinkers

  1. What would have to excised from the texts of Pound and Heidegger to make them safe for… whomever it is that we make them safe for–ourselves, I guess. How do we save ourselves from being fascists? It is not merely that we read the texts. These texts–any texts–need us to read them and them. Pound was a far more generous soul and adventuresome soul than Heidegger. He wanted the Chinese to be a part of the unity. But when one starts taking things out one is not left with much but his remarkable control of the sound and movement of language. Can we take Odysseus as a hero? Do we want to be a consistent part of a Kultur that does not change fundamentally for three millennia (while denying that there was immense change)? Do we want forever to squint toward the neoPlatonic light? (Pound makes that seem like a reasonable thing to do). How can we use the powerful communication tools–such as the one I am using now–to pose the problems of meaning and action to our contemporaries, instead of accruing a history we are condemned to repeat?

    1. My understanding is that a philosophical work was always responding to ideas that were held at a particular time. I think you are suggesting of a different way of engaging with this model where texts may have no author but acronyms that reflect the multiplicity of thinkers. I think as an experiment is happening, various political groups work with this method and produce writings.

      The argument about life/work is much more complex. I am certain that nobody’s life is not tainted with some infliction of violence or cruelty to a fellow traveller. Could the problem be the somewhat uncritical relation we have with isms – especially the ones we have decided to give our time and thinking to?

    2. “Do we want forever to squint toward the neoPlatonic light?” A lovely phrase, and speaking for myself, let’s not.

  2. Some interesting ideas. But please learn that the contraction of it is takes an apostrophe, and work on the proper usage of there/their. Unless, of course, these reflect an outdated bourgeois commitment to elitist norms that must be overthrown.
    Pedantic Pete

  3. Nothing new in “Détournement”. Look at pre-modern historical writings; especially the “Sacred History” (Biblical and early Christianity) which started “universal histories” and kindred works was almost always copied from previous histories – this copying being done by serious and credible authors. It was, to them, necessary basis for their own work and also something shared to which they had a claim. One can easily move this idea to the realm of philosophy.

    1. I did not claim that détournement is new. It is actually how most cultural transmission has worked most of the time. Its writer as property and citiation that needs explaining as the exception.

Leave a Reply