Thursday, January 28, 2016

Nothing Actual

Clement Knox:

Far from being a Vernichtungskrieg waged without mercy upon the hallowed figures of the left-wing intellectual canon, this is a remarkably evenhanded hatchet job, with Scruton staying true to the promise made in the foreword “to explain what is good in the authors I review as well as what is bad.” This commendable sense of fairness might leave some readers who came expecting blood somewhat peeved.

...Whatever one’s politics, one cannot help but admire Scruton’s willingness to subject himself to tome after tome of New Left verbiage. Some of the passages he quotes from Lacan and Deleuze are astonishingly abstruse. However, he does not excerpt them merely in order to hold them up to ridicule, but so that he can translate them, consider their merits, and then deliver his verdict. Many conservative critics would skip the first two stages; most, I imagine, would not even bother to read Lacan in the first place.

I read Scruton's book last week, and I concur. Not only was it impressively informative, the man has such a delightfully poetic way with a simile, a metaphor, a flowing paragraph. Here's my favorite examples:

"The promise of full communism is a noumenal promise, a ghostly beckoning from the Kingdom of Ends."

"(Habermas) has continued to receive accolades for books that have achieved a rare prestige in Germany, and which are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of those who have read them remember what they say. Nevertheless, with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey's typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas's prose..."

"It is true that the metaphysical idiom of 'subject' and 'object' revitalized the rhetoric of socialism — to such an extent that 'reification' became an important cult word during May 1968 in Paris. But the subsequent discussions of the term in the New Left Review added nothing to the rhetoric except pseudo-theory: a morose prowling of the intellect around an inexplicable shrine."

"Lukács here displays the Stalinist method in its essential vacuity. With the stupid allusion to de Sade he is able to dismiss all Western political institutions in a single gesture, and to return to his favored terrain of brutalizing dichotomies: capitalism versus socialism, reaction versus revolution, bourgeois versus proletarian, Lukács versus the enemy. Safe behind such tangled barbed wire, Lukács continued to ruminate..."

"At this point a certain liturgical quality enters the writings of the Frankfurters. Incantations are uttered against the 'bourgeois' order and the thinking that stems from it, but in a changed tone of voice, indicating the proximity of mystery. Language changes character from the voice of critical theory to the exorcist's spell."

"Tedium is the vehicle of an abstract authority, and the reader waits in the corridors of Habermas's prose like a petitioner to whom truth has been promised, albeit only abstractly, on a document that is perhaps already out of date."

"As is surely apparent from that instance, the scientific idiom is no more than a twitch: a new rubber stamp which Habermas has not quite got the hang of and which he applies upside down."

"The ritual deference to Marxism is not a conclusion of the argument, which has no real conclusion, although it wheezes at a certain point to a halt."

"The axioms of Marxist theory appear in Althusser's prose like blinding flashes of total darkness, within clouds of grey on grey. This 'darkness visible' is like a photographic negative, and Althusser intimates that there is a process that will reverse it, changing light into dark and nonsense into sense. Read Capital, he insists, look on this text, look intently at it, hold it upside down, sideways, high in the air, but don't let your eyes stray from it. Then, and only then, will the great reversal occur."

"This passage indicates the ponderous, suspicion-laden circularity of Althusser's prose, which goes round and round monotonously on its own heels, like a lunatic trapped in an imaginary cage."

"It is a well-known difficulty for the materialist theory of history that, taken seriously, it seems to deny the efficacy of intellectual labor, to dismiss it as a mere epiphenomenon, a nebulous offshoot of processes over which it asserts no real influence. It is of the first importance, therefore, to give a role to 'intellectual labor' in the 'material conditions' of existence, so making it a genuine 'motive force' in history, unlike the mere 'ideology' of the bourgeois enemy. Hence the distinction between science and ideology: my thought is science, yours is ideology; my thought is Marxist (since only Marxism penetrates the veil of ideology), yours is 'idealist'; my thought is proletarian (Lukács), yours is bourgeois; my thought belongs to the 'material conditions' of production, and can be called 'theoretical praxis', your thought belongs to the false consciousness that arises like a cloud above the place where history is made. My thought is at work in the factory; yours is puffed from the chimney and dissolves into air."

"For Althusser the enemies of theoretical practice are all 'empiricists', characterized by their belief in 'abstraction'. This accusation is fired at the rationalist Descartes, the absolute idealist Hegel, and Kant, the greatest critic of empiricism. All are gathered in a common grave."

"Within Althusser's linguistic redoubt the opponent does not exist except as the darkly defined enemy, whose identity can be guessed by the boundaries from which Althusser's thought recoils into itself, undefeated, because untried in combat."

"Deleuze sometimes comes down a notch or two, in order to explain himself to the ordinary reader. But he does so in an endless stream of abstractions, from which all reference to concrete reality and the flow of human life has been removed. He does not argue, but encloses his key words in fortified boxes, which he firmly locks against all questioning before throwing the key away."

"The reader is being granted brief glimpses of a store of hidden knowledge, to which the authors have the only key. The exultant tone, which one might read as a sign of a mental disorder, shows total confidence in the revelation, displayed like a tantalizing ankle beneath a burqa."

"The monsters of unmeaning that loom in this prose attract our attention because they are built from forgotten theories, forged together in weird and ghoulish shapes, like gargoyles made from the debris of a battlefield. And always the gargoyles are sticking out their tongues at the bourgeoisie."

"But (fascism and communism) resemble each other in all other aspects, and not least in their public art, which displays the same kind of bombast and kitsch — the same attempt to change reality by shouting at the top of the voice."

"Thus to the realist who asks how, in this society of the future, conflicts are to be accommodated or resolved, Gramsci has no reply. The communist shares with the fascist an overriding contempt for opposition. The purpose of politics is not to live with opposition, but to remove it — to achieve the condition in which opposition no longer exists. The question of opposition is, though, the single most important issue in politics. Conflicts between individuals lead, by free association, to conflicts between groups to rivalries and factions that will inevitably express themselves in competitions for power. How is that competition to be managed? In particular, how is the Communist Party to respond to opposition to its rule? The Leninist prediction is that there will be no opposition, and in a sense that prediction was verified when the opposition disappeared. What else was the Cheka for?"

"The jargon here is that of a writer who has imprisoned his thought in language over which he exerts no intellectual control. While we can all guess what follows from this — that the categories of 'art' and 'the aesthetic' belong integrally to capitalist modes of production, and that they come into prominence with the manufacture of commodities for exchange — it follows with the logic of ritual, and not with the logic of argument. Only the emotional tension of the prose reminds us of the writer, shaking his fist on a dwindling horizon, as the boat of history sails out to sea."

"To rewrite bourgeois history in Marxese, as Anderson has done, is like rewriting a Haydn sonata movement with a continuous drum-roll on the dominant, so that all is infected by a premonition of catastrophe and nothing quite resolves."

"If Thompson proved occasionally so disturbing to the New Left, it is partly because of his ability to clear away the ideological junk that had been piled against the doors where such facts might enter."

"The curious thing, however, is that this woolly-minded subjectivism goes with a vigorous censorship. Those who put consensus in the place of truth quickly find themselves distinguishing the true from the false consensus. And inevitably the consensus is 'on the left'. Just why that should be so is a question that I am trying in this book to answer."

"For a while it seemed as though the whole revolutionary program was at an end...But it was just at this moment, at the turn of the twenty-first century, that the monster began to stir in the depths. And when it rose from the sea of our complacency, it spoke as Marx and Sartre had spoken, in the language of metaphysics. It pushed aside the tinsel of the consumer culture, to appear in its primordial guise, intruding into the world of phenomena like Erda in Das Rheingold, as the voice of Being itself." (Thus begins the chapter on Badiou and Zizek.)

"They suck the being from whatever they latch upon, leaving only the withered forms of destroyed reality, as they rise on vulture wings toward their next assignment. At one point Badiou, having picked up the music of Dutilleux and dropped it writhing to the ground, refers to the 'terror of the matheme'. Maybe that is what he has in mind."

"Indeed, if there were no greater reason to regret the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the release of Zizek onto the world of Western scholarship would perhaps already be a sufficient one."

And here's the first page of the final chapter: