Hello again, crooked timber of humanity! I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long. It feels like I’m always saying that, but then, that’s what happens when you move to the once-every-Jovian-year posting schedule.
Anyway, I’ve been perpetually preoccupied. Not long after Janet’s surgery we decided to build an innovative light rail system in front of our house, as you can see here. (See, I wasn’t kidding when I promised to do this all those years ago. Right on schedule for 2009, too!) Actually, we had a series of nasty sewer backups that culminated in a few inches of unpleasant water that just happened to pool in two key areas of the basement: the corner where I keep my drums and the corner where I keep my hockey equipment. So we basically had to get ourselves a brand new set o’ pipes if we wanted the house to do that fancy “indoor plumbing” stuff we’ve heard so much about. And I had to get a lot of new hockey equipment.
Oh, sure, I managed to post a bloggy thing or two here and there along the way. But then, in more recent months, I disappeared into real space altogether, more or less for the following reasons:
May: finishing my spring semester and then driving out to St. Louis
to see Phyllis Schlafly to attend my firstborn’s college graduation and to begin the initial stages of moving him to New Haven for his first job (just as soon as he recovered from his surgery in July);
June: taking care of Nick and Jamie while Janet taught in Ireland (hey! some of you are from around there! I hope you saw Janet in June. She was the one who wasn’t carrying any bags, because of the neck surgery and all);
July: completing the very and completely finalmost (for now) revisions of The Left At War to respond to readers’ reports and friends’ extended commentaries, and to make sure the book lives up to its advance reputation as a very serious thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care;
August: moving Nick to New Haven, hauling all his stuff up three flights of stairs and buying every piece of furniture that Ikea sells and then carrying that up three flights of stairs the next day, and then taking two weeks’ vacation in remote northwestern Maine, far from civilization and its internets;
September: returning home to find that John McCain has asked Harriet Miers 2.0 to be his running mate. Except that this version can speak in tongues and believes that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can overcome their crisis by praying to God, getting married, and keeping the child. And America loves her! Hell, why wouldn’t we? She smiles a lot, she has maverickiness and pluck, and she’s from a good-hearted small town in America’s heartland, not some alien faraway exotic Muslim place like Hawai’i.
But that’s not why I’m back. I’m back because as I was scribbling away in July, I discovered a couple of interesting things I’d like to run by you, the dedicated (and gentle) readers of this fine blog. And, truth be told, it was sometimes fun, this reading and rewriting. For example: I happened to come across the passage below while traveling with Jamie to Las Vegas, where I took him to see the Cirque du Soleil show “Love,” based on the music of the Beatles. (I started to tell the story of this trip on another fine blog but then got derailed by in-real-space life. I’ll finish that story soon, I promise.) Jamie did not respond well to the Nevada heat; watching him stagger around in 108-degree weather (114 at Hoover Dam!), I could practically see his body’s vital fluids evaporating into the desert air. So I made sure to dunk him in the hotel pool at regular intervals (he’s the guy at right center, with the black goggles). And what was I doing while he was keepin’ cool Vegas style? I was reading these two pages from John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11. Here, Brenkman tries to explain the emergence of the Agamben Phenomenon, and along the way, offers an account of the fate of Western Marxism:
Agamben’s mode of argument is provocative in large part because, reflecting a recent trend in political commentary, it extracts certain concepts from thinkers associated with the extreme right and uses them for ostensibly progressive or radical democratic purposes. Against this trend it is often remarked, usually in histrionic tones of astonishment, that any philosophical claim made on the basis of concepts from a devoted Nazi like Carl Schmitt at best is tainted and at worst perpetuates fascist thinking. Such an attitude is woefully ill-founded, and it misses the mark when it comes to the intriguing question of why a thinker like Schmitt has become a point of reference for leftist thinkers.
The answer lies in the vicissitudes of Western Marxism, which came of age and thrived during the Cold War and then succumbed to crisis in its reactions to the fall of communism in 1989. The key to its crisis lay in its response to the Cold War divide of Soviet totalitarianism and Western capitalism. Why did Marxism have the ground cut from beneath it with the collapse of Soviet communism even though it had lent little or no support to the Soviet Union? All during the Cold War, Western Marxism forged a two-pronged discourse in search of a socialist vision that repudiated both American-led capitalism and Soviet-dominated totalitarianism. One prong criticized capitalism and the excesses of Western anticommunism lying behind repressive domestic policies (from McCarthyism in the 1950s to West Germany’s antiterrorist campaign in the late ‘70s) and neo-imperialist foreign policies (Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua). Democracy per se was simply taken for granted, all the more so because of its reassuring stability and security in most Western countries, while the anticommunist excesses were blamed for inhibiting the creation of a more egalitarian society. The other prong denounced state socialism and imagined that every revolt in the Soviet bloc (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland) was, despite its inevitable brutal repression by the Soviets, the harbinger of the eventual transformation of state socialism into something democratic. The two prongs complemented one another, as mutual alibis, so to speak: anti-anticommunism presupposed democracy while rejecting capitalism; antitotalitarianism presupposed socialism while rejecting bureaucracy and one-party rule. The rejection of capitalism, bureaucracy, and one-party rule seemed then to confirm the presupposition that socialism and democracy belong together. Meanwhile, the standoff of the Cold War itself deferred the crucial unanswered question: by what path could liberal democracy become socialist or state socialism democratic? When the Soviet system collapsed and the Cold War ended, Western Marxism had to face two uncomfortable truths: state socialism had never been reformable, and democracy has no intrinsic affinity with socialism or even social justice conceived in egalitarian terms.
New intellectual models were sought to link anew democracy and socialism, anticapitalism and expanded rights. While Agamben has essentially discarded the Marxist paradigm, he remains loyal to the aspiration that Marx gave to theory, namely, according to his oft-cited dictum, to be radical in the etymological sense of getting to the root, that is, the root of society, of politics, of history. How to live up to this aspiration after having long ago abandoned, or never held, the idea that the struggle between classes or the labor theory of value was the explanatory root of society, politics, and history? Enter Carl Schmitt. The sovereignty theorem is nothing less than a substitute root-thesis. The modern state – at bottom, at its origin, at heart, at the root – rests on arbitrary decision and violence. Schmitt celebrates decisionism, while Agamben turns it into the perfect tool for denouncing whatever aspect or action one might want to criticize in the modern state by tracing it implacably, logically, back to the root in violent arbitary will.
There’s more, of course, but perhaps that will do for now. I don’t want to blog too much all at once after a long layoff and injure myself. But I’m curious to know what you all make of this.