I used to think that scholars and students of Philosophy should be reticent about divulging their autobiographies, and I still do, to a degree. While is important to know facts about the lives of the philosophers you study – that, for example, Kant never left the confines of Königsburg or that three of Wittgenstein’s siblings committed suicide – it is far less important for you as a reader to wonder whether your own happy or unhappy childhood or your own tough or tender mindedness facilitates or interferes with figuring out what their work means. Self-absorption makes for bad philosophical readership: really, it’s not all about you.
Moreover, how other philosophers lived and died is not the most important thing about them either: while life and work are inseparable, the latter takes pride of place. Heidegger went too far in saying that all one needs to know about Aristotle, for philosophical purposes, was that he lived, then wrote, and then died, but he points philosophical readers in the right general direction. It is the thought that counts most — for both you and those you read and consider. (This turns out to be very good news for Heidegger himself, given that his political and personal life ranged from strikingly obtuse to utterly repellent. His considerable skill as a phenomenologist and hermeneutician of philosophy’s history is pretty much the only reason why he is worth taking seriously at all.)
I believed in this heuristic of personal impersonality until recently. I have been struggling to make sense of certain philosophers – Slavoj Žižek in particular – and having a difficult time of it, for reasons I find hard to parse through. It is not as if their work is particularly opaque or intricate – it is, but nothing I should not be able to handle, and it is far less daunting than other thinkers and theorists I have encountered and been able to absorb. I have been struggling, also, with the philosophical ramifications of events in the world, both local and global. I have been finding it hard to contextualize them, articulate them, and grasp them. I have, lately, and as much out of exasperation as of insight, concluded that this frustrating malaise is a function, for good or ill, of the way in which my own philosophical and personal autobiographies have both enabled and constrained me in coming to understand others and the wider world. In other words, this time, it’s not them. It’s me.
So here is my own autobiographical context:
I grew up a child of the New York Suburbs in the 1960s, an age of “normal nihilism” if there ever was one. “Why” was a question to be answered by “because”, which is not an answer. Hungry for answers, I turned in freshman year of high school to the still canonical anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre edited by Walter Kaufmann. The essay that resonated most deeply with me was Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”, which seemed to me a way around both the normal, passive nihilism of the day as well as Nietzsche’s more Promethean active nihilism: by rolling his rock up the hill only to watch it reverse and roll down, and then to repeat ad infinitum, Camus’s Sisyphus was no consumer of popular opiates deadening the pain of a pointless existence, but not exactly an Übermensch either. He was simply interested in his work, humbly and earnestly, keeping his humanity intact while doing it. Whatever this was, even if it ultimately was nihilism, it did not feel like nihilism – it was calm. (The great philosopher “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski puts it exactly right: “Nihilism? Sounds exhausting.”) But philosophically minded peers were telling me that Camus was not a “real” philosopher, so I had to wait a few years for a more “official” introduction to the discipline that shaped my life so profoundly.
I really started to cut my philosophical teeth in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a graduate student at Fordham, which in the academic philosophical cultural wars that raged then “leaned continental” rather than analytic, but was primarily devoted to unpacking the Plato-to-Hegel historical canon, placing the likes of both Foucault and Gadamer as well as Quine and Carnap on the margins. While this foursquare historically-oriented education shaped me immeasurably, and occasions my deepest gratitude, its antiquarianism could be stifling, and it also provoked a pinch of rebelliousness.
My philosophical breakout arrived punctually in 1979 with the publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Rorty’s own position ran (and still runs) hot-and-cold with me, especially as it matured (or regressed) with his less-satisfying follow-up work Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. But from the start I was taken with what I thought, and still think, were three major accomplishments of Rorty’s. First, his total indifference to the Analytic/Continental split: Rorty cited Sellars and Derrida, or Davidson and Nietzsche, as partners in a single, enormously complicated conversational task, moving between both camps with ease and panache, shutting out the noise of the aforementioned philosophical culture wars. Second, Rorty made a solid case for proclaiming Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey the three most important philosophers of the 20th century; he generated my continuing fascination with this unlikely philosophical troika, and while I have come to reject much of Rorty’s own reading of the three (especially Dewey), his judgment about their historical stature and philosophical accomplishment still strikes me as quite sound. And third: Rorty’s style was like a breath of fresh air. Lacking both the tendency of analytic philosophers to get tangled in minute and trivial detail, and the parallel tendency of continentals to get lost in jargon-infused portentous obscurity, Rorty did a better job than most adherents of either camp in explaining what they were up to and why it mattered.
Rorty was not just a philosopher with style – with wit and clarity and passion – but one of substance as well. Along with his contemporaries Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Bernstein, Hilary Putnam, and Charles Taylor, he defined, for me and many of my own contemporaries, what good philosophy not only was but sounded like. You could be charmed by Rorty, but you could also disagree with him, sometimes vehemently. His charm left room for criticism and doubt. His writing was charming indeed, but not why you kept reading him.
Having come to terms with this autobiography, I can see why I am having the difficulties I am having making sense of someone like Žižek and things like, well, the world as it is, circa 2016. My philosophical temperament was shaped by forces that eluded the standard Jamesian categories of “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” – I think it is important to be both, at the right time and in the proper measure. What is important, however, is
1) A willingness to take philosophy as a tradition of practice, a way of life, with a history and many different ways to tell and retell its narrative, and not just a collection of texts, or arguments, or a “professional career”;
2) The ability to hold rigor and significance together in each single act of thought – to read and interpret well and to argue well, and not neglect one for the other;
3) A keen awareness of the timeliness of the discipline: that it is not just intellectually fascinating but morally and politically urgent; and finally
4) An appreciation of wit (in its original sense), but a deep suspicion of “charm” – at least the kind of charm that dulls one’s critical reflexes.
None of the above would register as indispensable to philosophy for me had it not been for the twists and turns of my own philosophical and personal autobiography. I doubt that 2) would seem crucial to me had I been educated at Princeton or UCLA, or at the other extreme, the Sorbonne or Heidelberg. I also doubt that 1) would hold such sway over me had my initial interest in philosophy not been fed by suburban American anomie, or a desire to escape the dilemma of either capitulating to nihilism or embracing a false but comforting evasion of it.
But 4), interestingly, is the most important thing for me at present, not the least because we live in an age that is awash in “charm”, of a sort, but which is curiously empty of, and indifferent to, genuine “wit”.
Take Žižek as one example. There is no doubt he is not just clever but intelligent and learned (not the same things). His erudition is dazzling. But there is a certain kind of dangerous charm at work in him that, I think, accounts for my ability to comprehend and fairly evaluate him. There is something endearing about someone who, in Terry Eagleton’s words, is “interested in everything”, something that resembles Aristotle’s “sense of wonder” that is said to be the beginning of philosophy.
But resemblances can be deceiving. What is most questionable to me is the aim of all this charm – actually, its ultimate aimlessness. Reading a Žižek tome one gets used to digression, digressions within digressions, meta-digressions that do not uniformly zero back in on the original topic, at least not in a way that satisfies the requirements of “both rigor and significance” that loom so large in my own philosophical autobiography. The dazzling performance can charm one sufficiently to overlook – or more precisely, to underreact to – fragments of thought that are quite questionable at best, positively monstrous at worst.
For example: in On Belief, Žižek quarrels with religious liberals who soft-pedal the idea of Truth, and its relevance to the economy of salvation and a salvific politics, on the grounds that Belief (with a capital-B) matters to a radical critique of the existing neoliberal socio-political order. Fair enough, and not unfamiliar: similar sentiments have been expressed by otherwise very different figures like Eagleton and Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. And Žižek seems to be taking aim at opponents of neoliberalism who embrace a form of postmodern crypto-skepticism about capital-B Belief, such as Derrida and Foucault, figures who, for probably too long, got a bit of a free pass on their claim to radicalism. His charm mesmerizes the reader who is exasperated with the world wrought by Rupert Murdoch, Angela Merkel, and the Koch Brothers, and this can lead said reader to ignore what comes next, which is a full-throated defense of Lenin, whom he sees as the one figure who takes the radical transformation of the liberal capitalist order seriously. Lenin makes omelets and is unafraid to break eggs: he “violently displaces Marx” by inserting him into a different context (from political economy to the actual Bolshevik revolution), seizes control of the state, and ruthlessly uses its power to transform the world for the sake of an end to alienation and the birth of free human community.
Žižek goes on:
The contrast is here clear with regard to today’s Third Way “postpolitics”, which emphasizes the need to leave behing old ideological divisions and to confront new issues, armed with the necessary expert knowledge and free deliberation that tales into account concrete people’s needs and demands…As such, Lenin’s politics is the true counterpart not only to the Third Way pragmatic opportunism, but also to the marginal Leftist attitude of what Lacan has called le narcissisme de la chose perdue. What a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal Leftist “irresponsibility”…Like n authentic conservative, a true Leninist is not afraid to pass to the act, to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they are, of realizing his political project. (p. 3)
One might thus be easily charmed into signing the Leninist charter by Žižek’s vigorous case. If you have had it with the Clintons, are disgusted by the naïveté and self-satisfed self-righteousness of the leftist tyros of Occupy, and so on – then maybe the Leninist variant of “divine violence” is the sole attractive option left. Or so you might be charmed into believing.
Others have taken Žižek powerfully to task on precisely this point of his panegyric to revolutionary violence, most notably Simon Critchley and Richard Bernstein, and I will not rehearse their polemics here. Suffice it so say that, for those dismayed by the false starts and embarrassing stumbles of the Left and its capitulations to neoliberalism – and I count myself as one of them – the history of political movements that have flowed from Leninism (the projects of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot et. al.) should get one to think at least twice (actually, a hell of a lot more than twice) about a “return to Lenin” by way of Žižek’s Lacanian-Hegelian animadversions. But you might be snookered into believing that Leninism is the one authentic Left by one such as Žižek. He is, no doubt, as someone once put it to me, “a very smart guy.”
Charm, Albert Camus once quipped, is the ability to elicit an answer of “yes” before any clear question has been asked (The Fall). But the point of philosophy as a practice is precisely to ask questions. Sone questions I would like to ask Žižek include: is the fact that the neoliberal global order is disintegrating, and that the responses of liberals and leftists to this crisis have been less than electrifying, reason enough to conclude that Leninist revolutionary violence is the only workable option left? Is this kind of means-justifies-the-ends violence worthy of any moral seriousness? What about Gandhi (and no, he was not “more violent” than Hitler)? What about anarchism – is it the debilitated and debilitating evasion that Žižek takes it to be? What about Žižek’s throwaway use of the term “pragmatism”? Might not a serious, sustained reading of the American Pragmatist tradition – Emerson, Whitman, Dewey – provide us with resources for reformulating a genuinely transformational democratic politics, an alternative to both business-as-usual and Leninist terror? Do we simply need to wait for Žižek’s violent God to save us? And so on.
Žižek at least charms with competence – he knows his philosophy and history and psychoanalysis, but, I fear, puts it to the wrong kind of use. Most of our political and moral discourse has succumbed to a very different, far more pernicious kind of “charm” – the charm of the in-group, the elect, the charm of “knowingness.” It is a charm impervious to fallibilism, plurality, the unfinished state of Peirce’s “path of inquiry.” When Donald Trump claims he “knows” that Muslims celebrated in Jersey City on 9/11, or that torture is fine because “they would do the same to us” and “they deserve it”, he is floating his case not on argument or a patient sifting of the historical record. He is relying on a kind of charm. It does not charm me, but he charms those primed to hear it – a kind of self-replicating, meme-etic charm. When Hillary Clinton defends her close ties to Wall Street because, well, 9/11, or downplays her complicity in every false foreign policy blunder since that iconic date, she is relying on charm. Charm is everywhere, like Foucault’s “power”. In fact, it is Foucault’s “power” – or one “powerful” variant of it.
No one is immune to charm, nor is it intrinsically bad. Camus, who warned us of the dangers of charm, could himself be an immensely charming writer. But, like the philosophers who influenced me in my grad school “rebellion”, there was more to him than “charm.” I think that the practice of philosophy – philosophy as practice, as a living tradition of thought merged with action – is the best weapon we have to defend against the insidious effects of “charm” without wit, without rigor, without significance, without integration into the project of seizing one’s time in thought and integrating into one’s life and using it as a spearhead for action. At least this is how I have found it to be.
At which point…we can leave autobiography in the background where it belongs. For the moment…..