Cowper & The Missing Literature of the 1780s, Part 2




            Let’s grapple with this squarely. To begin by saying that Cowper wrote a georgic is to emphasize that the poem takes as its starting point conventions that have been laid down in advance—set procedures or narrative habits that will shape how it is able to make sense of the war. Looking hard at Cowper, then, and setting the poem alongside the accounts of the American Revolution that historians typically produce, should help us understand what kind of devices poetry possesses to bring into view planetary systems or world histories—devices, I mean, that prose fiction mostly lacks; and it also should enable us to say that current attempts by scholars to retell the Revolution as something other than a Myth of National Origins and to plumb instead the continental, hemispheric, Atlantic or global dimensions of the Event are not entirely anachronistic. The cultural historians argue that the late eighteenth century produced a nationalist turn within poetry and fiction—that it did much to fashion our now commonplace notion of national literatures, or our notion, indeed, that nations have literatures (e.g., Trumpener 1997, Kramnick 1999, Hawes 2005)—but the techniques of eighteenth-century poetry are largely out of keeping with this observation, and not the innovative techniques, but precisely the dowdy orthodoxies, whose frameworks are rarely “English” or “French” or “Spanish.” There are reasons to read poetry even if fine language does not make you sigh. If, you scan the long poems of the 1780s, you might be able to say how it is that even contemporaries conceived of the American Revolution as something other than American.

The other point to be made in advance about The Task is that there is a standard line about the poem and that this line is demonstrably wrong. The poem, again, is about a man hiking, thinking a lot about his life, about how much he loves nature, about God. This characterization immediately poses a problem, which is that none of this sounds all that global. If you look at old-fashioned literary history, it will credit Cowper with a few different innovations (Sitter 1982, King 1986). First, it will credit him with introducing into English poetry precise landscape descriptions of a minutely particularized place; then it will applaud him for his new emphasis on interior states, on the poet’s self or mind. The usual line about the poem, in other words, is that it begins someplace entirely bounded—a minor market town which to this day boasts barely six thousand people and is famous mostly for its annual pancake race—and then strikes out for someplace even more bounded, which is the brain’s concavity. The Task, this is all to say, is typically read as a document of withdrawal, enacting a pious man’s retreat from history—into the hills and into his head. Shame about the empire, but I was just headed out for a walk. It has been the tendency of critics to read The Task as the first real verse autobiography, a distended lyric, the prelude to The Prelude. Underpinning this interpretation is the simple fact that Cowper was, in fact, mad: a by all accounts decent man who was given to hallucinations and regular suicide bids; a never-marrying moralist who either was a hermaphrodite or took himself to be one; a curious mirror-world Calvinist who was entirely convinced by the doctrine of predestination and equally sure that he hadn’t made the cut—that God had ordained for all time that quiet, inoffensive William Cowper should suffer and die and then suffer on.[i] For many readers, the peculiar appeal of Cowper’s writing has been the opportunity to watch psychosis flare up from within the sedate regularities of neoclassical verse, and so to sense that aesthetic straining against its limit or facing its negation from within.[ii]

But to read Cowper’s poetry only as psychodrama is very much to miss the point. Against the tendencies of modern readers to celebrate The Task as a basically private utterance, or to slink into it like some kind of lyric hidey-hole, our errand is to insist on this long poem’s public and political valences, most of which are dictated by its form anyway, since the georgic is a species of countryside poetry, and it will always take a certain dumb ingenuity to look upon a historical landscape or agrarian economy and see only personhood, contorting these Big Objects so that they yield nothing but Subject. One of the oldest distinctions in poetic form—and it’s helpful as far as it goes—is between the georgic and the pastoral, where the first emphasizes rural work, a poetry of hoeing and weeding and threshing, and the second emphasizes rural leisure, a poetry of singing songs under shade trees while your friends eat pears they didn’t have to pick, on the understanding now that the other variants of rustic poetry, the country house poem, say, or the topographical poem, themselves come in relatively more pastoral or relatively more georgic forms depending on whether or not they draw attention to the working of the land. Mostly they don’t.

The georgic, in short, is farm poetry, verse that tends to describe Britain as a bustling nation of peasants and planters. It is also a form that we have lost the ability to read well, not least because it is entirely at odds with our own basically aestheticist and Heideggerian notions of poetic language. Dubbing itself “didactic verse,” the georgic has no interest in rejuvenating language by freeing it from its commonplace functions and petrified meanings. Poems like The Task make a big show of being useful to their readers, instructing them—or pretending to instruct them—on how to prune a diseased cherry tree or drain a soggy meadow. They are to this extent perfectly content to instrumentalize the world rather than lyrically disclose it. Even wastelands—this is Virgil—“Yield each a special product—pine wood that’s used in shipyards, / Cedar and cypress wood that go to the building of houses. … Willows provide our withes, elms leaf-fodder for cattle, / But myrtle bears tough spear-shafts, cornel your cavalry lances” (Virgil 1940: 2-442-443, 446-447). Set a georgic poet loose in a field full of daffodils, and he will figure out how to burn them for fuel. What is all the odder about the form, then, is that it isn’t actually useful; it is merely miming utility, weaving in enough sensible information, pilfered from actual farm manuals, to jostle readers from their arcadian reveries or spots of time, but never going into enough detail to amount to a genuine pedagogy. No-one ever discovered corn blight in his fields and marched back to the main house to consult James Thomson. Read alongside Hölderlin, georgics are going to sound pedestrian and scythe-minded: The poet watches a farmer hay his cattle or spots cold chickens huddling on a January morning. But read alongside, say, a poultry management guide, such verse will again seem fully poetic, interested less in communicating plain and practical facts then in linguistically embroidering such data and thereby generating a dense set of associations around farm work. A georgic poem will tell you a little something about how to rotate your crops, but it will drape its instructions in figurative language and thereby activate poetry’s full range of literary, mythic, and historical allusion, and this so as to transform agriculture into a libidinal-ideological object for readers who may or may not own farms. A georgic poem will make farming yield meanings that a seed catalog would not insist upon.

Cowper’s meanings will become clearer if you have a sense of what it is actually like to read this poem. Another thing that Cowper often gets credit for is the creation of a distinctive and personal-seeming lyric voice, an almost conversational intimacy, but to my ear The Tasks reads like a patchwork of older poetic styles and political idioms. Cowper was theologically a revivalist; he wanted to go back to what he saw as seventeenth-century forms of piety. And what’s true of his Protestantism is also true of his poetics: Long sections of the poem sound like Renaissance devotional poetry, like Donne or even more like Herbert. Sometimes he shifts over to the insolent republicanism of an Algernon Sidney. He does a pretty good Milton impression. And whole half-books read like the Tory satire of the early eighteenth century. The poem, I’m trying to say, can almost sound like automatic writing or the chatter of dead voices—a hundred years’ worth of English poetry, from maybe 1620 to 1720, conjured back to life in order to pass judgment on the 1780s. And I do mean pass judgment, because that combination of devotional poetry, republicanism, and satire yields pretty much what you would expect it to: the familiar sense that a once free and Christian England has been ruined by commerce and luxury. And Cowper, again, isn’t doing anything all that unusual on this front. If you go back and read Virgil’s Georgics, you’ll see that they already ask us to think about farming as a path to national rejuvenation. The barren world can be remade. And this is one of the ways in which the georgic was least like the pastoral: The arcadian vision of the latter tended to motivate a decline narrative, a world that had fallen away from some golden age of bounty and ease. The georgic, by contrast, was often at the center of a progress narrative, a historical vision of redemption through work.

So that’s a first important point right there: Countryside poetry is by definition a meditation on some social order and will have trouble sustaining meanings that are essentially private or personal or psychologized. And yet that point will only get us so far, since whatever sociality a market town and its outlying villages produce is going to be a sociality in miniature. The problem here is one of scale and scope. It is tempting to think that the georgic goes in for a minute localism; and this localism, despite older claims to the contrary, was decidedly not Cowper’s innovation. John Philips, in 1708, wrote 1400 lines on the West Midlands; John Grainger, in 1764, managed twice that on the sixty-eight square miles of St. Kitts (Philips 1708, Grainger 2000). This emphasis on the specificities of place proceeds directly from the genre’s agrarianist ethos: Farmers can improve or lightly modify their terrain, but they cannot fight it outright—or at least do so at their peril. No-one plants defiantly. Landforms, in other words, can only be standardized to a certain degree, at least in any historical period lacking bulldozers and explosives, and climates can be standardized almost not at all, which means that any farmer is going to have to develop a keen sense of geographical singularity, and it is this ethos—this close attention to the land’s shifting minutiae—that the georgic often seems to communicate. Each plot has its “peculiar cultivation and character” and will require “different crops” for “different parts”; “this ground with Bacchus, that with Ceres suits” (1.50-53).[iii] Formulations such as these put the georgic peculiarly out of step with the universalizing and regularizing tendencies we expect to find in neoclassical poems: the tick-tock of heroic meter, the endless recycling of a given writer’s pet rhymes, couplets compressing the poet’s every thought into the same ten-beat length, as though the language had ditched all sentence structures but one, every local observation ginned up into aphorism and abstraction. The georgic, simply by pointing out that you can’t grow pomegranates in Denmark, would seem to safeguard some sense of the world’s polymorphism against this poetry’s rote Latinity. Even Virgil writes mostly about some few crops—about wheat and grapes and not about, for instance, hops and apples—and is careful in that same spirit to include a hymn to Rome’s native peninsula, some fifty lines in Dryden’s version, which give to his Augustan verses specifically Italian and cisalpine qualities (Virgil 1697: 2-187-246).

We are on the verge, then, of declaring the georgic proto-nationalist. “England,” Cowper whispers, “with all thy faults, I love thee still” (Cowper 1968: 2.206). And yet these localizing tendencies are undercut by some other of the poems’ persistent features. Grain fields and vineyards do boast a certain centrality in Virgil, but his poem nonetheless hops cheerfully from growing zone to growing zone, often letting the agricultural regions of Europe and beyond pass in review: Austria, southern Bulgaria, Ethiopia briefly, India more than once. The very emphasis on the earth’s geographical variation encourages readers to think of provinces in terms of their distinctive products, monocrops destined for export—variety, yes, but imperial variety, barely distinguishable from tribute: western Turkey “gives us” perfume; Georgia “sends from afar” the groins of beavers (Virgil 1940: 1.56; Virgil 1697, 1.87). The poem’s method is less localizing than it is encyclopedic and comparative, and this commits it to a language that is flexible and unspecified, even when it is enjoining readers to tend to the earth’s specificities: the language, that is, of “sundry places”—various places, no particular places (1.93). “The nature of the several soils now see, / Their strength, their colour, their fertility” (2.247-248). One might wonder, in fact, how extensive your landholdings have to be before you need to worry about “the nature of their several soils.” The georgic, that is, does not submerge us in some lexical byway, in the manner of later dialect poetry or regionalist fiction. Instead, it imagines as its ideal reader the kind of person who is able to shuttle between localities, precisely not a smallholder, but a traveler or imperial administrator. Poet and reader are joined together instead as explorer-colonizers, itinerant prefects surveying the agrarian empire in tandem. Virgil’s geopolitical aesthetic is to that extent not really agricultural at all, nor even terrestrial, but maritime, in a manner that cannot help but recall the epic: “Embark with me, while I new tracts explore, / With flying sails and breezes from the shore.” The georgic isn’t so much the epic’s competitor genre or land-lubbing opposite number as it is the latter’s amphibious extension: “coasting along the shore in sight of land” (2-57-8, 64).

For Cowper we can just repeat the point: It makes no sense to see The Task as four thousand lines of ardently recollected feeling, and just because the poem is rooted in Buckinghamshire, it is not thereby closed off to the rest of the world. This should be entirely evident from the passage in Book 4 in which the poet describes tucking in on a winter’s night to read a newspaper. What immediately jumps out about these lines is that their register is not, in fact, journalistic, not even by eighteenth-century standards, but is high-flying and, again, epic. The entry into the poem of some provincial ledger or gazette is marked by an unexpected eruption of Dantean language: The argument at the head of the book calls this passage “The world contemplated at a distance,” as though every time we leafed through the morning edition we were out in the Beyond or the All, skimming towards the earth alongside Milton’s bad angel. If you turn to the politics section, you will see statesmen perched on the “mountainous and craggy ridge” of their ambition. If you read the reports from the floor of Parliament, your ears will ring with “cataracts of declamation.” If you so much as peruse the advertisements, you will find “Heav’n, earth and ocean plunder’d of their sweets” (Cowper 1968: 4.82) A newspaper, we read, is a “map,” its scope “vast,” its every article a landmass (4.50-100). And the poet, while he reads the newspaper, is in the position of the epic hero at the top of a summit: He is “peeping at the world … sitting and surveying [while] at ease / The globe and its concerns.” Cowper, in sum, has declared the newspaper—and not the novel, and nothing in couplets—to be the eighteenth century’s distinctive reinvention of the epic; or if you prefer, he has actively converted the one into the other by synthesizing its fragments into a vision of what the poem itself calls “the globe.” And if you notice this, then suddenly there will light up, throughout the poem, meditations on various un-English places: The poet describes the Bastille; he thinks out loud about India; he imagines himself as a native walking along a beach on a Pacific island. And most important for our purposes, he looks west into the Atlantic: “Yes, we have lost an empire—let it pass” (2.263). And, at the very end of the poem’s first book, hence in a highly stressed position: Behold “our arch of empire”—“a mutilated structure, soon to fall” (1.773-774).

The poem, in other words, has a sharp sense of political crisis; the American war is at least the most obvious symptom of that crisis. What we have to see now is that the georgic—the poetry of rural labor—is a way of imagining a way out of the disaster. One of the many things that puzzles me about the scholarship on Cowper is how seldom it bothers to account for the poem’s title, which, after all, is “the task”—as in, the chore, the job, the business at hand. Yes, we have lost an empire; now here is the task. I think this is the conception with which the poem is best read. But Cowper’s achievement here is actually rather hard to name. Much about his procedure is pedestrian or genre-bound: We can’t exactly congratulate Cowper for having produced detailed descriptions of rural work or for teaching us to prefer the working countryside to the consuming and imperial city, since this is in some sense simply what georgics do. That a georgic ethos of toil should be a regenerating alternative to the corruptions of empire is not in the least surprising. The best thing about the countryside in February is that all nabobs have left for London. But Cowper has nonetheless written one weird georgic, since this poet was not a farmer and does not even pose as one. Where Cowper is most interesting is in the deviations he introduces to the form. His georgic remains a poem of rural work, but what those words mean has now changed rather drastically, as Cowper devises a way to anchor the form in other country types—not quite the farmer—but the hiker and the gardener, who will function now as the former’s cousins or utopian proxies.

That a hiker could claim membership in utopia should be clear to anyone who has ever donated money to the Sierra Club. The Task begins with a teasing history of Things You Sit On: rocks, rough stools, chairs, cushions, and eventually, in the eighteenth-century present, couches, which Cowper turns into the emblem of a corrupt consumer economy, a symptom of “pamper’d appetite obscene,” furniture’s equivalent of the gout (1.104). Hiking, then, enters the poem as one term in an organizing antithesis, as the anti-consumerist option, the opposite of upholstered recumbence. You pack into the uplands because they take you further away from the balls and the card tables and the rococo rotundas of urban pleasure gardens. As soon as the poet sets off on his ramble, then, The Task begins working in two historical modes at once. A contemporary antithesis—the choice between consumer culture and rural virtue—comes in to supplement what up until that point had been a historical succession (of economic stages as reflected in their representative  movables). The image of the weather-hardened, pillow-hating rustic obviously activates a familiar republican critique of luxury—and, in 1785, would have easily called to mind the home-spinning and import-boycotting Americans—though perhaps the more precise way to conceive of the matter is to say that Cowper is grafting a contemporary antithesis onto a historical progression. The poet’s walks keep alive some earlier period in history, before luxury. Indeed, his own biography replays the Story of the Ages. I used to hike a lot when I was a boy, the poem says. “No SOFA then awaited my return, / Nor SOFA then I needed” (1.126-127). Both his childhood and the pre-capitalist epochs were the ages of no-sofa, and he time-travels back to these days every time he treks across his neighbors’ fields.

This all seems plain enough, and yet it is really quite puzzling. The georgic typically comes to us as the poetry of work; work is thought to be its defining feature, the engine of its own anti-consumerist energies, and the service that this ancient form rendered to England’s rural party in the eighteenth century’s running battles between Country and City or Country and Court. The georgic view of history is basically Hegelian or Baconian or Stakhanovite, describing as it does how early, post-Arcadian humanity established its toiling dominion over the earth. The genre’s major poems are clangorous with what Dryden was as early as the 1690s already calling “industry” (Virgil 1697: 1.207) which names both human diligence and a certain power over the earth’s resources. Georgic humanity works and puts everything else to work, these geroii truda of the Neolithic, who devise “toils for beasts,” and make trees “swim,” and who would, given the chance, teach horses to hammer their own shoes (1.211). Here’s Virgil in a twentieth-century translation: “Yes, unremitting labor / And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything” (Virgil 1940 1.145-146). Dryden calls this labor “endless” (Virgil 1697 1.218).

Judged by these standards, the rambler is a peculiar figure around which to launch a critique of luxury or consumption, because he is not a worker, not productive, which means that once you’ve spotted hiking’s centrality to The Task, you might wonder whether the poem is really a georgic at all. The poet may be walking across other people’s farms—and so retain some kind of sentimental attachment to or even physical connection with them—he may have in some entirely elective sense aligned himself with a rural social order and its culture—but he is the non-working term within them. He is not saying to the consumer-elite: You neglect your duties while I work. He is saying: I prefer a more strenuous form of leisure. At one point he boasts that, though old, he remains energetic. He can walk fast and climb steep hills, and this effort is “no toil to me” (Cowper 1968: 1.139) But that line is of course unintentionally literal. He really isn’t working. Getting winded is his play.

Here’s one way to solve the puzzle: It would be possible, at least, to see the figure of the hiker as a platform from which to launch a radicalized critique of consumption, in which case we could think of The Task as a kind of georgic in extremis. Hegel, when introducing his “System of the Individual Arts,” tries to explain why the appealing idea that each sense produces its own art form is in fact wrong: Only some senses manage to produce art. There is no taste-art, for instance, and no smell-art either, the claims of chefs and perfumiers notwithstanding. The distinction for Hegel is a straightforward matter of consumption: Nothing that you stick in your mouth could be art, since to eat an object is to destroy it, and Hegel declares such violence to be incompatible with the aesthetic attitude. Smell, too, is a kind of unhurried consumption; it involves the object’s decay, the gradual detachment of its molecules, their noseward wafting. You snuffle an aromatic object at its slow expense. Sight, in these terms—in terms, that is, that we ordinarily associate not at all with Hegel—is the one fully utopian sense, the one that does not negate its object, that takes in the world and still leaves it lovingly inviolate (Hegel 1975:2.621-622).

It is this claim that we find Cowper making on behalf of his rambler, a claim that both allows for a political reading even of the eighteenth-century picturesque and readmits historical considerations into Hegel’s uncharacteristically ahistorical divvying up of the body. Cowper says that he is allowed to hike on properties that are off-limits to other townspeople:

“The guiltless eye”: There’s a lot to be said about this, since the passage preemptively situates Hegel’s claim within the history of enclosure and by extension the battle over the commons. The hiker-aesthete is welcome where the cottager or smallholder, pursuing some customary right, can no longer go. The aesthete is to that extent a substitute for the peasant—he occupies roughly the spot where we would expect to find a peasant in a georgic poem—and yet he does not simply replicate the peasant’s position; the aesthete (in proper Heideggerian or Adornian terms) has a non-extractive, non-instrumental relationship to the land, and so is no competitor to the enclosing landlord. These lines insert a language of ease where a georgic is otherwise obliged to discover toil,  but it makes that leisure redemptive, if also unthreatening, generating a notion of Gelassenheit or aesthetic appreciation in opposition to work and consumption both, which become just two forms of “wasting.”

Still, there is one way in which production returns even into the poem’s hiking passages: As a boy, Cowper writes, he liked to root around for food while he was hiking—crabapples, say, or plums—“hard fare,” he calls it, in ways that make the memory visible as a variant of the poem’s anti-consumerism: honest vittles rather than the sugary tea of the double Indies (1.123). If the hiker isn’t a farmer, then, if he doesn’t seem properly a part of England’s agrarian economy, then he might instead be an echo of some earlier history or alternate present: of gathering and foraging economies, as witnessed by English settlers in the Americas, or of commoning economies as they survived in England well into the period of enclosure. He remembers as a boy doing what commoners and Indians did (or continued to do): collecting berries and mushrooms and puffballs and nuts.

So what can be described as arduous play can also be described as the kind of agreeably light work suited to boys and aesthetes. It is one of the signatures of Cowper’s poem that it is drawn to such intermediate categories: “industry enjoy’d at home” or—the most telling phrase, this one—“laborious ease” (3.356, 361). This is all rather interesting, and dialectically entertaining, but none of it is clean, since it is the fate of such medial categories to be messy and unstable, and it is Cowper’s plight that other figures can plausibly be included under these headings, alongside the hiker: gypsies, whom he doesn’t like, because they “prefer / … squalid sloth to honorable toil” (1.578-579); or Tahitians, whom he does like, because they make do with “simple fare” and “plain delights” (1.646); or a crazy, homeless woman, who is The Task’s other designated hiker and as such the poet’s most conspicuous double: “There often wanders one,” who “roams / The dreary waste” (1.535, 546-547) It’s worse than that: Cowper often seems to be attacking the gentry, sometimes on behalf of what he himself calls “the poor and the despised” (3.286-287). But sometimes he writes unmistakably from the position of a landholder: It’s good to get up, have your woman feed you, read a book, sometimes out loud. Or you can work outside—except he doesn’t really mean work outside. A man can go into the garden “conscious how much the hand / Of lubbard labor needs his watchful eye, / Oft loit’ring lazily if not o’erseen” (3.399-401). Cowper, in other words, is fond of that intermediate category—whatever is neither leisure nor work. And to anyone who is drawn intuitively to the liminal, this is going to smack pleasantly of the dialectic. But one of those things that is cheerfully in-between—that is neither leisure nor work—is the management of other people’s labor. Cowper gives us the poet-aesthete as overseer; the work of the eye, which we were earlier asked to understand as the fond gaze of aesthetes, now turns out to be the boss’s humorless squint. Maybe we can take the point further still. The poem’s many picturesque passages communicate a certain mild Spinozism, but they also suggest a stance of delectation, which we can’t quite call a consumer relationship to the landscape, but which is nonetheless haunted by its similarity to consumption and ease. One of the earliest things the poet tells us, upon first attempting a landscape description, is that he has kept his “relish of fair prospect,” at which point the hiking boy-savage who has been spared the corrupting ease of Sofa England comes dangerously close to reversing into his world-devouring opposite (1.141). A reader thinks the poem is setting up a distinction between consumer luxury and yeomanly toil; this turns out to be a distinction between indolent play and more strenuous play, which in some ways resembles work; but then that latter stops even resembling work and becomes simply an elevated form of indolence.

The Task, in sum, seems to give us the rambler as utopian figure, but is finally more interested in the oscillations that creep into the gap between the hiker and the farmer, as the hiker tries, and fails, to ward off his sundry semi-industrious doubles. The poem is to this extent less an early exercise in eco-consciousness or the ideology of the backwoods trail than it is an examination, perhaps unwittingly, of that ideology’s instability. A poem that seems to be organized around a clear antithesis—the corrupt, commercial, and imperial metropolis vs. the plebian countryside, where nature still harbors the power of renewal—turns out to be a work that marks the near impossibility of this pantheist position, preemptively blocking the very Wordsworthian stances which Cowper is generally regarded as having made possible.

Here, at last, we might think we’ve found something distinctive in Cowper—that he makes the georgic wavery and self-interrogating. But then it turns out that these qualities, too, were there in the genre all along. At its most overtly political, the georgic often goes in for legends of the rural golden age: in the beginning, the world was all an orchard, and there was no war, and god himself lived on earth, and even he was vegetarian. A recent anthology of Virgil in English reproduces from Book 2 of The Georgics only that volume’s famous glimpse of paradise, but this it gives in four different translations (Virgil 1996). These lines are plainly describing something more than the remote past; it can come as no surprise to find the poet claiming that the Augustan-era countryside still retains something of its primal blessedness, that it is, compared to the imperial metropolis, a less lapsed place, spared the pathologies of the city, relatively calm, austerely content. What should surprise the reader, however, is that The Georgics’ figurative language, in the balance of the poem and there pervasively, is impossible to square with this vision of the countryside as peace-loving and serene. Virgil often wants to describe his Italian farm country as the anti-imperial term within the empire, and yet he habitually describes the farmer as an emperor—as a war leader or strongman or colonizer, and all the more so in Dryden’s landmark translations from the 1690s. If a farmer’s plantings are growing too quickly, he can bring in his sheep and goats “to invade / The rising bulk of the luxuriant blade” (Virgil 1697: 1.165-166). He will need, in fact, to be permanently on his guard, since “sundry foes the rural realm surround” (1.264). A herdsman, meanwhile, will have to play cop or sovereign to his fighting bulls: “The stooping warriors, aiming head to head, / Engage their clashing horns: with dreadful sound / The forest rattles, and the rocks rebound. / They fence, they push, and pushing, loudly roar: / Their dewlaps and their sides are bathed in gore” (3.340-344). A beekeeper, for his part, presides over a “nation” made up mostly of “trading citizens”; if he establishes a new hive, he can be said to have planted a “colony” (4.10-28). And a farmer moving into wastelands can make oaks and elms, the “tribes of trees in forest” “change their savage mind / Their wildness lose … / Obey the rules and discipline of art” (2.72-74). You can think of The Georgics as an ongoing meditation on the ways in which the backcountry was and wasn’t part of Rome’s militarized trading empire. Officially, they had nothing to do with one another, but every simile confesses their continuity.

This opens up into a larger observation. We might want to think that the epic and the georgic are competitor genres, and sometimes, indeed, they are, not least of all in the epics themselves. Homer’s imitators, from Virgil onwards, have almost always said that they would rather be writing about farms or landscapes. I had been hoping to sing a song about goatherds, but I have to talk instead about war and rage and the flight of refugees. If we simply assimilate the georgic to the epic, which is the contrary temptation, we are likely to read right past this stance of reluctance. Most epic poets, even as they push unenthusiastically out to sea, are haunted by a rustic wish. What is at stake in the choice between epic and georgic is—or can be—two fundamentally different ways of understanding the land: who owns it, who should own it, how it should be used. Wordsworth’s “Female Vagrant” (1798), which is another rare work on the American war, turns on that distinction. The poem tells of an English peasant woman whose father loses his customary rights to fish in certain waters and is then forced off his land; she heads off and marries a worker; he can’t feed the family and so joins the army; and she joins him when he is sent to fight in North America, where he dies; the rest of the poem she spends wandering the Atlantic, spectral and catatonic. What is perhaps most intriguing about the poem is the way in which Wordsworth pulls from earlier English writers in order to mark the changes in his wanderer’s life; it’s as though the stages of her biography corresponded to moments in literary history, which in turn corresponded to major period’s in the progression of the English economy. When she describes the customary economy at the moment of its historical eclipse, the economy her father belonged to before he was expropriated, when she was a child, Wordsworth adopts a pastoral-georgic idiom borrowed unmistakably from Robert Herrick. But when she describes her life in the Atlantic, the poem starts citing Milton instead, and at a clip. From smallholding to oceanic exile; from Herrick to Milton; from rural poetry to epic: The important point is that these shifts are at once ingenious and completely typical of the century. The poetic genres themselves seem to insinuate a social history or a periodization, where country poetry describes a pre-Atlantic farm economy and the epic describes the commercialized and militarized ocean. The two genres seem to encode different ways of making sense of the British social order, which means that modern scholars are themselves forced to choose between literary forms, though they almost never conceive of their writing in these terms. The social historians, after all, have never settled on a term to describe whatever it is that preceded industrial capitalism. If you prefer terms like “mercantilism” and “empire” and the “fiscal-military state,” then you are writing history as epic. If, however, you prefer a term like “agrarian capitalism”—or if you write about the American colonies’ imperfectly capitalist western back settlers—then you are writing history as prose-georgic.[iv]

And yet what Cowper and Virgil and indeed most of the other major poems in the genre all demonstrate is that the georgic and the epic need not compete; that they are easily intergrafted; or, at the very least, that the epic will tend to endure in the georgic, as a persistent and globalizing instability within the form’s poetic sheepfolds and willow stands. The Virgilian collapse of the georgic into epic is an event that the genre undergoes time after time and as it were compulsively. There are at least three different ways the two muses can coincide: Often in an epic, some character, usually in the company of a guide, will summit a peak or tall hill and survey the territories stretched out below; at moments like this, the epic mutates into something like a higher-order topographic poem, in which modes of lyric description usually reserved for single valleys or river bends open up to encompass entire continents and hemispheres. Alternately, one form can absorb the other. When Joel Barlow wrote The Vision of Columbus, he incorporated the georgic as a way of describing advanced agricultural society in the Americas. Other poetic modes describe other modes of production: The pastoral describes hunting-gathering Indians; the epic in its martial and heroic guise describes both the Spanish and the British; but the georgic describes the English and German settlers and helps the reader feel why colonization has been necessary: because it brought to the new world people willing to improve the land. Barlow’s is something like a georgic epic, a vision of world farming.[v] But then equally, nearly all the long georgic poems contain passages, as in Virgil, where they shift into an epic register—and that’s because they nearly all have their imperial moment, where they imagine Britain’s farm economy exporting some agricultural commodity or, more vaguely, envision Britain’s farms as the source of the nation’s naval might. The English will export cider around the world, and it will replace wine. Or as Philips has it: “to the utmost bounds of this / Wide universe, Silurian cider borne / Shall please all tastes” (Philips 1708: 2.668-669). The poetry in question adds up to a kind of imperial georgic, and it is rampant, one of the dominant idioms of early eighteenth-century verse: at once heroic and yeomanly, countrified and earth-spanning (O’Brien 1999).

Knowing this should allow us to say why it is important that Cowper has in large part taken the georgic away from the figure of the farmer and reassigned it to the gardener, because the latter—the man who actively and individually tends his fragile plants—enables The Task to rebuild the accustomed joint between the georgic and the epic to new specifications. If I tell you now that Cowper’s solution to the American crisis is to grow cucumbers, you’re going to think I’m being silly, but I’m not. We need first to reckon with one more fundamental fact about Cowper. He has written a winter poem. It’s a georgic, but it’s a winter georgic, which is itself a little unusual, because winter is the season least hospitable to the georgic as a form; winter is the farmer’s imposed downtime. And if you know the literature of winter, and you spot early on that Cowper’s poem is about winter—the books mostly have names like “The Winter Evening,” “The Winter Morning Walk”—then you’re likely to begin the poem with certain expectations. When the poet James Thomson describes winter, some half century or so before Cowper, he makes the season sound like an annual dose of Armageddon. Every winter rehearses in advance the coming ruin of Europe; the land is laid waste; storms and wolves attack the farms like Indians or Goths; the cosmos itself seem to degenerate into strife or chaos, as though there were no God. It’s a remarkable poem in its own right, and an ingenious one. To the observation that in winter no-one can farm, Thomson appends the observation that savages also don’t farm, and sums these together into the idea that winter turns Englishmen into Mohawks, with the further consequence, therefore, that spring repeats the history of colonization every year, by turning winter’s savages back into farmers.

A person picking up Cowper for the first time could reasonably expect Cowper to have absorbed some of this language: It is winter. We have lost an empire. It is England’s winter, a blow to settled life. But here’s the thing: What most stands out about Cowper, when we compare him to Thomson, who is his proximate model, is that he does not describe winter as the end of civilization, which would have been easy to do given the sense of imperial crisis that prevailed in Britain in 1785. The most sustained georgic passage in the poem describes the poet’s efforts to grow winter cucumbers by planting them in manure under glass—lines, that is, that will teach you how “To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd / So grateful to the palate” (Cowper 1968: 3.446-447). There are at least two different ways to read the passage:

If we follow the poem’s literal and referential meanings—and there’s good reason to; the language is close and detailed and not, in these lines, much given to allegorical overlay—then we can take it seriously as a description of farm work, in a manner beloved of Marxist literary critics, who, indeed, have often liked such poems because they seem to de-fetishize agricultural commodities. They remind readers that even seemingly natural objects require human labor, and to that extent are the opposite of all those old pastoral poems about fruit that flings itself from the trees into the open mouths of passing dukes.

But then so much of the poem up until this point has been historical and moralizing that it is impossible not to carry the political concerns of the rest of the poem over to these descriptions. The greenhouse becomes the key image of reform. Cowper will show you how to make something grow in down time, in the period of death, winter or two years after Yorktown, teaching “th’ expedients and the shifts / Which he that fights a season so severe / Devises” (3.559-561). The winter farmer—like the Calvinist evangelical—is the one who can make something valuable grow in a dung-heap. There is, of course, one type of farm-work that does get done in the winter, and that’s pruning, which Cowper describes like this:

I just want to point out that it is overt allegory of lines such as these which prompt a political reading of the entire passage on gardening. England will get through its imperial winter if it finds new ways to grow and also if it gets out what Cowper calls “the knife.”

We can connect the two—the poem’s literal meanings and the allegorical overlay—since the political reform the poem is implicitly recommending is, as ever in the georgic, agrarianist, an England returned to honest agricultural labor. But here we have to ask: What, other than cucumbers, does Cowper want a reformed, post-imperial England to grow? Cowper, we still have to keep in mind, is describing a gardener and not a farmer. More to the point, he is describing a green-house—he actually uses the term—and at times, he seems to be laying out a poetic program of import substitution. A green-house, after all, will not only allow a winter farmer to grow summer crops. It will allow an English farmer to grow tropical fruit, as well. It is thus a way of contracting the economy without giving in to a cultural nativism, of dealing with the loss of empire and turning that crisis into its own solution. The greenhouse, often enough outside of poetry turned into a permanent imperial shop window, will now substitute for the colonies.

These lines, and the glassed-in cornucopia they describe, overturn a half dozen settled views at once. They call into question literary history’s portrait of Cowper as the period’s premier headcase and literary gloom-smith, modeling as they do, in the middle of the official emergency of the 1780s, after Britain’s worst military defeat in generations and the collapse of three successive ministries, a buoyant disregard for bitter winds or bad circumstance—a “not needing to fear.” The passage will not on its own invalidate our sense that British nationalism ramped up in the eighteenth century under this or that Pitt, and yet Cowper’s unlikely and antithetical image of an internationalized boondocks, not cosmopolitan but cosmoagrarian, does make clear that English writers were at the very least capable of imagining a different Britain, even while most were busy wave-ruling and not-being-slaves, a hospitable island open to “foreigners from many lands.” More: If, a generation back, you had examined the historiography of the American Revolution—if, I mean, you had read extensively around in the career-summarizing monographs produced by major scholars—a certain divide would have obtained: American historians, at least before the Atlanticizing and trans-nationalizing turn, have almost always thought in nationalist terms and have usually competed to tell the most saleable origin story. And it is the British historians who, less drawn to the event anyway, were until recently more likely to think of the Revolution as an imperial occurrence, or even as a world war, inserting the American struggle into a global perspective.[vi] But in the 1780s, it was the Americans who were writing epics—there were those two important ones—and these both foretell, in that genre’s accustomed prophetic mode, the rise of US global power: the founding not of a nation but of a world order. Collectively, then the long poems of the decade reverse our current expectations, and the result, to most readers, will sound more like 1960 than 1785: Britain has lost an empire and will need to re-ground itself as a polity. America, henceforth, will rule the world. But then even Cowper’s regionalist Anglo-georgic is evidently not a poem of retreat or of nationalism-on-the-backfoot. It is a poem of localization and containment, which is something rather different—a poem that describes a new way, in the wake of imperial crisis, to get the globe into an English locality—and this is true simultaneously at several different levels: pineapples in the greenhouse; the newspaper in the country cottage; the epic in the georgic, but now in an anti- or at least post-imperialist mode, rather than an expansionist one. “The Azores send their jasmine”: That’s Virgil’s language, for sure, and yet Cowper has nonetheless devised a way to get his epic roll-call of the world’s plant life to model an openness to the globe and not a Cyclops-blinding hostility to it. Cowper undertakes the familiar articulation of the epic with the georgic, but via an unfamiliar revision: not the georgic’s imperial apotheosis, which leads to the world dominion of marchland apple juice, but just the opposite, which is empire-and-epic’s knee-capping diminution, its shrinking back to uncolonial proportions. If you build enough greenhouses, then South Africa need send only a single shrub or specimen, and the English, like a country poet in a snowstorm, can stay home.

[i] Cowper’s madness is the central concern of all the biographies. In addition to King 1986, see esp. Cecil 1930.

[ii] See, for instance, King 198: 115: “In many ways, Cowper is a lyric poet … who strayed into narrative poetry. The Task’s finest moments are in brief, intense passages where the poet speaks directly of his finest subject: himself.”

[iii] See also Dryden’s translation of the same passage, at 1.81 (Dryden ????).

[iv] Military and colonial history borrow so routinely from epic poetry for their stock formulas and scenes that no handful of examples could document the debt. Anyone wanting to follow out this point, though, should inspect the work of Arthur Quinn, who attempted, in the early 1990s, to translate the scholarship back into a prose epic (Quinn 1994). The ideology of the eighteenth-century English georgic is agrarianist almost by definition and often yeomanly. The stock scenes that carry these doctrines—of farmers clearing land, figuring out new crops, &c—recur in almost any popular treatment of colonial America and even flare up in a book like Changes in the Land (Cronon 1983).

[v] For the Native American pastoral, see, for instance, 2.19-28; for the British military epic, see 5.211-222; the white settler georgic runs throughout, but is especially conspicuous at 4.383-386.

[vi] For the latter, see Mackesy 1964 or Bayly 1989. And against them we can almost shout a roll call of American revolutionary historians: Beard, Jensen, Main, Young, Wood, Middlekauf, Breen, Nash.

William Cowper, The Georgic, and the Unwritten Literature of the 1780s



This essay original appeared in boundary 2 (August 2017).


Here are some titles that literary historians will not find in their databases and library catalogues: They will not find British Literature and the American Revolution Crisis. There is no monograph on The English Anti-Federalist Novel. John Adams and English Romanticism has yet to be written.[i] These missing volumes point, in turn, to some novels and poems that never appeared: works like Charlotte Smith’s Ellery; or The Rebel (1786), a novel about an English republican who leaves for Pennsylvania in 1773. Over the course of a decade, he sends letters home defending the conduct of the Americans against their British governors; he has a lot to say about the management of farms in the mid-Atlantic, though he also, in the novel’s mooniest pages, describes cascades on the outskirts of Philadelphia; in Delaware once he stares down a panther; the entire time he is trying to woo a young English woman away from her monarchist family, former Dissenters who have returned to the Church of England and grown rich by selling sauerkraut to the Royal Navy. In the final volume, he is captured by Clinton’s soldiers and delivered over to a prison ship anchored off of Long Island, from which he nonetheless continues to send letters; these finally dislodge Fanny-best-of-women from her crooked family; she makes the hard passage across the Atlantic, secures Ellery’s release from British custody, and nurses him back from starvation. With the war winding down, the two marry and move to a Washington County homestead.

That novel was never written, though it probably should have been. Its nonoccurrence, like the stubborn nihility of all the other long works on American themes, presents a real puzzle to the scholar. Where is the missing literature of the 1780s? Anyone studying the fall of the French monarchy doesn’t have this problem. To say that “English Romanticism was about the French Revolution” is as good a way as any to start thinking about it. It’s what a teacher might tell the students on the first day of a seminar: that innovative English poetry in the 1790s was a response to 1789, a cross-Channel heralding of the Great Event, maybe even an attempt to re-do it in verse.[ii] But then where are all the titles to flatter an American? If Southey and Coleridge eventually decided not to establish a communist utopia on the Susquehanna, couldn’t they have at least gotten a few major poems out of the idea? Couldn’t Wordsworth have fathered a bastard in Virginia? Literary historians have discovered the French Revolution all over British letters in the 1790s, right down to the children’s books. Partisans of the American war, meanwhile, hoping to discover their revolution in print, are stuck scouring the minor works of Samuel Johnson, or reverting back to reliably forthright political pamphlets, or discussing novels so forgotten you need a travel grant to Yale to so much as read them (Giles 2009). Eliga Gould has recently confirmed an old point about the American Revolution, which is that it had remarkably little effect on British politics; it didn’t much change the way that Britain’s political class thought about its empire; a basically depoliticized British populace did eventually register a certain war weariness, but defeat did not harden them against their own institutions; and crown and Parliament dusted themselves off by simply consolidating their power over Britain’s remaining holdings (in India and Canada and the Caribbean) (Gould 2000; see also Dickinson 1998). Wanting to read what the British poets had to say about the American Revolution, and finding ourselves in front of an all but empty desk, we might venture a properly literary version of Gould’s point: It was always going to be hard to find a rhyme for “Saratoga”; apparently no-one thought it important enough to try.

If you’re part of the transatlantic or globalizing turn in eighteenth-century studies, you might find such observations petty, smacking as they do of nationalist jealousies, the resentment of one writing from Vermont and wanting something more to read than Blake’s belated America (1793). But the cosmopolitans have it even worse than the literary patriots, since hard though it is to find long poems and fictions from the eighteenth century that take the American Revolution as their object or even their backdrop, it is harder still to find ones that describe the Revolution as a global event. This, in turn, opens up to a more general point: There are lots of compelling reasons one can give to study eighteenth-century literature from a transnational vantage. Early American writers obviously didn’t start from scratch, devising entirely new literary genres and forms to consecrate the nation. They mostly adopted British models. We know that Brockden Brown was William Godwin’s biggest fan and that the Connecticut Wits had studied their Pope, which suggests that we can study the circumatlantic pathways of poetic forms as we would those of Quakerism or salt cod. Similarly, we can find a certain Americanism, in Britain, among republican writers in the generation after 1776, hitching a ride on their French enthusiasms and perhaps half-hidden by them; this is best thought of as a geopolitical mutation in older traditions of radical English dissent—Milton by way of Massachusetts. Alternately, literary internationalists can lay out the ways that godly writers in early New England began puzzling out their relation to Atlantic capitalism. Or they can point out that the local situations that American fictions describe themselves had transnational or global determinants (Giles 2009, Shapiro 2008, Burnham 2007).

But what the Atlanticists will almost never find are fictions that actively and obstrusively de-localize their own narratives, following concurrent events in (or on) multiple colonies, states, and continents. It is a hallmark of the new Atlantic history that it crosses old borders in unexpected ways—that it excitedly discovers Scots living in seventeenth-century Panama and Basques on the coast of Newfoundland. But the period’s own novels and romances almost never cross such borders. Historians, it turns out, are much better than fiction writers at reconstructing spider-web diasporas. Even the most obvious candidates for the title of Atlantic novel resist that description: Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is precisely not a novel about the globe. Its hero is first offered various forms of provincial success—he could set up as small merchant or farmer in northern England; he could become a tobacco planter in Brazil—and in each case he rejects such landedness in favor of the new forms of global aspiration: he wants to make his fortune by adventuring at sea and around the colonies. And yet the novel ends up punishing this maritime Crusoe, which is to say that it ends up rejecting his planetary adventurism, both ideologically and narratively, and it does this by as it were grounding him, confining the would-be epic wanderer to some pinprick of Caribbean earth. A novel that on the face of it looks like a global story turns out to be resolutely anti-global, especially in the long middle section for which it is most famous: artisanal—Crusoe learns how to make pottery, Crusoe learns how to bake bread; minutely territorial; among the most geographically circumscribed novels in the English canon. The historians of empire argue that the American colonies were commonly seen as simple extensions of Britain in the eighteenth century, a Fringe more-than-Celtic, the Outermost Hebrides.[iii] They have a lot of evidence for this, but then we are still obliged to point out that there were in the period almost no fictions that depicted a fused Atlantic, an interlocking but multi-territorial British nation. Our erudition allows us to spot the transatlantic borrowings in eighteenth-century American letters, but the works in question do not flag those borrowings qua borrowings or encourage us to see them as oceanic. They silently transplant whatever conventions they have imported: Godwin masquerades as Pennsylvania-born. Twickenham rebuilds itself in the Litchfield Hills. An Atlantic history of literature imposes its frame on a body of writing that is itself almost never transatlantic.

The point is especially true of novels. Indeed, one of the many surprises of eighteenth-century writing is how much easier a time poetry has talking about global affairs, mostly, I think, because poetry remained comfortable with forms of linguistic compression or abstraction that prose fiction had already, for the most part, given up on: “With what an awful world-revolving power / Were first the unwieldy planets launched along / The illimitable void” (Kaul 2000; Thomson 1727: 32-4). This is perhaps reason enough to be interested in a long poem published in 1785: a poem that lots of people once loved, by William Cowper, called The Task, which basically records a set of meditations entertained by the poet while hiking around Buckinghamshire. The poem was published less than two years after peace was announced between Britain and the United States; it addresses the war directly; it was, in fact, one of the first long poems to do so. Among British poets, Cowper is pretty much what we’ve got by way of literary first-responders. More curious, The Task is an oddball instance of what’s usually called the georgic, which is species of countryside poetry, designed for describing local landscapes, which means it seems singularly ill-suited for reckoning with global events. A quick comparison will underscore the problem: When American authors began drafting long poems after the revolution, they took to writing epics, not georgics: Joel Barlow published the Vision of Columbus in 1787; Timothy Dwight published The Conquest of Canaan in 1785, the same year as The Task.[iv] And epics, of course, can seem ready-made for recounting war and the founding of nations; if you’re going to write a poem about a revolution, the epic is the go-to genre, which makes a person wonder what Cowper thought he was doing writing landscape verse.

More: Cowper was a fervent evangelical; he saw himself as trying to revive the seventeenth-century modes of piety that we used to call Puritan; and he came from a prominent Whig family and himself spoke in the accents of a radicalized Whiggery, the kind of idiom that was central to revolutionary politics in North America. A neo-Puritan and Commonwealth man: to speak crudely, Cowper can easily seem like an American figure, fully part of the Atlantic constellation in a way that not all Britons were. Indeed, Cowper was, by the standards of Warburton-era evangelism, unusually republican, unwilling to follow eighteenth-century Puritanism’s royalist and authoritarian turn. The point is: If you want to figure out what is distinctive about Cowper’s poem, it’s not much use looking at his biography or his stated convictions, because a man of his cast could easily write in other poetic modes. Cowper and his American allies held similar beliefs, but they had different ways of telling a story, which means different ways of making sense of history or of making the recent past intelligible. They came to the American war with different temporal schemes. The Americans made the easy choice; they each wrote an American Aeneid, a kind of Carolina Liberata, which means we can put them to one side so as to ask the harder question: Do poems others than epics have ways of making sense of planetary events? How exactly did the globe enter into British poetry in the years of imperial crisis? And how can you even talk about a distant revolution in a poem that seems to be mostly about gardening?



[i] Here are some titles a scholar will find: America in English Fiction, 1760-1800: The Influences of the American Revolution (Heilman 1937); Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature (Giles 2009);  Americans in British Literature, 1770-1832: A Breed Apart (Flynn 2008); and perhaps most saliently, Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790 (Quinn 2011), which is a kind of The War for America and the London Stage.

[ii] For a comprehensive bibliography on this subject, see Grenby 2006.

[iii] For one important account of this British America, as seen from its western shores, see Greene 1988.

[iv] Modern editions of all three poems are available: The Task in Cowper 1968, but in many other places besides; The Conquest of Canaan in Dwight 1969; and The Columbiad in Barlow 1970. I discuss Barlow at length in Thorne 2006.

The Old Adam, After All

A review of The Other Adam Smith by Mike Hill and Warren Montag (Stanford University Press 2014)

This review first appeared in Historical Materialism 26. 3 (2018)


A book promises The Other Adam Smith, and the title is already something of a puzzle. Scholars writing about much read philosophers have, after all, a few established ways of declaring their revisionism. If the line you are taking is programmatically modernist and decontextualizing and perhaps even contraindicated, you can signal this by saying you have made your philosopher “new”: the new Nietzsche, the new Hume, Montag’s own New Spinoza, published in 1997. If, conversely, you are resolved to scrape away decades worth of interpretive accretions and polemical anachronisms—if you have just about had it, I mean, with the neo-Kantians and not-really-quite Marxists—you can choose from a few different options: X in Context, What X Really Said, The Authentic X, as in The Authentic Adam Smith, published by James Buchan in 2006. By these standards, a book calling itself The Other X can seem hard to parse, lackadaisical and itemizing. The adjective announces a lateral move, a secret life, maybe another person altogether. A Harley Davidson dealer in Texas? A cryptographer at Penn State?  An ecologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden? You know—the other Adam Smith.

So who exactly do Hill and Montag mean to put before us? Have they written a New Perspectives on Adam Smith? An Adam Smith Reloaded? Or have they given us Adam Smith in the Eighteenth Century? Other to what?, in other words. Part of the problem is that it is no longer clear what counts as Smith’s received image. I announce the other Adam Smith, but no-one can be sure with what settled perceptions this double is being asked to share the room. Outside the academy, Smith is still widely regarded as the preeminent theorist of an austere and deregulated capitalism, the house philosopher of the IMF, Ayn Rand’s Scottish uncle. But this is precisely the view that the last forty years of Smith scholarship have been out to defeat. A person gains entry into contemporary Smith studies by offering to identify one more way in which he disagreed with Friedrich Hayek. You can begin by pointing out that Smith propounded a moral psychology of considerable scope and complexity, discerning in social actors a wide variety of motivations, ethically charged feelings, and modes of judgment. Rational utility-maximizers barely feature. You might go on to point out that when Smith defends deregulated markets, he typically does so on the grounds that they will help the poor, generating plenty and higher wages and the equitable allotment of scarce goods. The anti-capitalists might scoff that Smith has been wrong about this, but the modest point remains that his framework of justification for that error is more or less Rawlsian—that Smith is not the Malthusian or social Darwinist we have been led to expect. Next, a person goes on to read The Wealth of Nations and is surprised to discover how hostile it is to merchants and manufacturers; far from modeling the bourgeois takeover of the state, Smith’s most famous work issues an unmistakable call to roll back the power of the commercial classes. That there were identifiable Left Smithians by the time of the philosopher’s death in 1790 is now well established—proven critics of the eighteenth-century state who greeted Smith as a brother radical, an anatomist of corruption and aristocratic privilege and colonial misrule. Nor were these last some negligible eddy in the crosscurrents of Georgian politics. There were Smithians in the French revolutionary assembly for one, deregulators who considered free markets wholly compatible with famine relief and social insurance schemes, best understood in this context as innovative proposals for protecting artisans, farmers, and workers without falling back on late-feudal modes of market manipulation. One occasionally still runs into radical Smithians of this vintage. As recently as 2007, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing was making the case that it was wrong to think of Smith as the theorist of “capitalism,” which a Scot who died before 1800 could not have had access to (either as concept or mature social formation). Nonsense, you think, except if you’re the kind of person who insists that Marx was not a Stalinist, nor even much of a Bolshevik, you might want to grant the point. Reading Smith alongside Marx should teach us, indeed, to tell the difference between “capitalism” and “commercial society,” on the understanding that the latter is not the utopian misdescription of the former, but a historical rival in its own right, no less than the socialism whose vacated place it might now assume. Adam Smith should help us discern the underconsidered possibility of a market society without colonization or rule-by-investment-bankers or the de-skilling and devaluation of labor. Such, at least, was Arrighi’s pitch. Among intellectual historians, regular reminders that Marx had a lot to say in defense of capitalism are now matched by explanations that Smith had a lot to say against it.

It is this Adam Smith that Hill and Montag’s book is out to sideline—the Left-libertarian Smith, the social-democratic Smith, the anti-capitalist Smith. It will be hard for readers to appreciate what the authors are up to, then, unless they are willing to correct what is most misleading in the volume’s prefatory material—that word “other,” for a start, since the book’s chief aim is in fact to vindicate the textbook image of Smith as the ideologue of market society. The Other Adam Smith summons the philosopher back from Beijing and relocates him instead in the accustomed precincts of Vienna and Chicago. This Smith is the pensioned intellectual willing to let the poor starve, a philosopher at one with von Mises, himself discussed at length in Hill and Montag’s Chapter 4 (312 – 41); an ontological individualist who thinks the most pressing purpose of government is to protect the market from the intemperate demands of the starving; the originator, therefore, of a now dominant politics of abandonment. Hill and Montag’s alterna-Smith is the old Adam, after all.

But then the words “Adam Smith” are hardly less misleading than the word “other” and will need correcting in their own right, since Hill and Montag are interested in Smith only intermittently and mostly as the member of a movement or a scene. The authors boast early on that they have consulted all of Smith, and not just the two big books on which his reputation rests, and indeed, one important part of their case is that nothing you can read of Smith will adjust your accustomed sense of him as the arch-bourgeois philosopher: not the lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence, not the early essay on Newtonianism, certainly not The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hill and Montag might return the reader to an orthodox understanding of Smith, but their trick is to reach that point by less familiar routes. There’s no reason to believe them, then, when they promise not to impose an artificial coherence on Smith’s corpus, offering contrariwise to identify those passages where his writing is most multiple and unsettled. They pay tribute, it’s true, to the philosopher’s “complexity and contradiction” (3), and yet their Smith is fully of a piece, as witness this typical sentence: “The virtues of self-command so important in The Theory of Moral Sentiments ground Smith’s condemnation of prodigality in The Wealth of Nations” (235). And that underlying boast (to have read the complete Smith) is in its own way rather timid, since Hill and Montag have read much else besides: Henry Home, David Hume, University of Edinburgh principal William Robertson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding. The book contains extensive commentary on each, its implicit claim being that the continuity that runs across Smith’s un-varied writings extends to these several figures, as well. Smith, Hume, and the others all speak in one voice or are engaged in the same project, albeit a many-sided one—the project of “moderate Enlightenment,” premised on the love of harmony, order, and consensus, backed by repression, discipline, and “liberal indifference,” content to “pacify particularity” and build safeguards against “disruption” (75, 54, 63).

Adam Smith stands accused, in other words, of loving system too much, which is the charge automatically leveled by critical theory against any eighteenth-century philosopher. Such, indeed, might be the small innovation of Hill and Montag’s book—that rather than making Smith the apologist of liberal capitalism, they cast him instead as just another enlightener and thus trade in the perhaps overfamiliar Marxist positions on The Wealth of Nations for the stances of a barely less familiar Enlightenment critique. Sometimes the shift from one theoretical vantage to the other is rhetorical, an ornamental swapping of idioms, as when Hill and Montag propose that Smith’s economic writings, like those of his twentieth-century followers, are haunted by a certain human type, a new, quasi-legal category of person they name le malheureux, and whom they define as “the one, the many, who may, with impunity and without consequences, be exposed to starvation and allowed to die, slowly or quickly, in the name of the rationality and equilibrium of the market” (307). This Unfortunate Man is plainly a cousin to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer and is to that extent the translation of some old Marxist claims into the language of biopolitics. One can credit the elegance of the repackaging and still note that the substance of the underlying argument hasn’t much changed. The point remains that laisser faire mostly means “let ‘em die” and that Smith was the sort of philosopher who dismissed persistent malnutrition as an “inconvenience” to the hungry (302).

And yet Hill and Montag do have a case to make, as their low-key reliance on the dialectic of Enlightenment manages to flush out some under-remarked aspects of Smith’s output. Most readers, for instance, wouldn’t think to consult Smith on the topic of aesthetics, even though he had a lot to say on the subject, or at least on the subject of sublimity, whose escalations and upsurges were central to eighteenth-century conceptions of the field. As surprising as Smith’s aestheticism is, though, even more surprising is its popping up in an essay called the “History of Astronomy.” A philosophy of art intrudes itself upon the domain of science—is that what anyone associates with Adam Smith? But it’s true: When you read his reflections on Newtonianism, you will find that Smith was not interested in physics qua physics. He was interested, rather, in how the mind responds to “surprise” and “wonder”—and, indeed, in the defense mechanisms the mind possesses to cope with these latter, which Smith urges the reader to treat as threats. Smith is emphatic that we confront astonishment as a menace. Granted, this argument won’t make much of sense until one realizes that Smith’s philosophical skepticism goes much deeper than casual readers ever suspect. In the astronomy essay, he says openly that “all philosophical systems” are “mere inventions of the imagination to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature.” It is when philosophy fails us that we briefly encounter the authentically disorganized world. Sometimes we perceive a traumatic gap in the cosmos or are made to contemplate a glitch in our experiential timelines. “Surprise” and “wonder” are the anodyne names we give to these small shocks, and philosophical explanation, some more or less contrived argument to order, is how we cope. Wonder unmitigated, by contrast, can easily kill us or drive us mad. This last is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Smith’s essay—that it is making the case against sublimity. Prolonged exposure to novelty and the unexplained will destroy us, and it is the task of thought—in this case, of astronomy—to “invent connections” where none are evident. Philosophical system is the shock-absorbing fiction of balance and pattern.

It is this argument that Hill and Smith have seized upon as the key to decoding Smith in toto. Their book’s most ingenious stroke is simply to take Smith’s word on this front and so to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as producing not systems, but fantasy systems—make-believe non-structures whose unreality has been conceded to the attentive reader in advance. Three arguments follow on from here, and together these make for a nifty refinement of Enlightenment critique in its Adornian and Foucauldian modes:

  • If Smith holds that intellectual systems are inventions, then the critique of system widely regarded as the central plank of Counter-Enlightenment thought has to some degree been anticipated by Enlightenment philosophy itself. Smith is no doubt promoting system, and yet he doesn’t in any ordinary sense of the word believe in it. This is bound to be a problem for the skeptics and anti-systematizers, who will never get much leverage over Smith by insisting that system is a permanent intellectual lure, the mind’s built-in tendency towards metaphysical overreach, its preference for order, even when deceptive, over the world’s inevitable mess and shifting difficulty, for the simple reason that the philosopher has already granted the point. More important, the status of system in Smith’s most famous writings will henceforth be in doubt. Do the ethical sensibilities of my fellows and me really merge in equilibrium and consensus, as described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or are these, too, nothing more than fabricated connections? And what of capitalism’s “system of perfect liberty”? That’s Smith’s own lustering gloss on the free market, but by the time he wrote that sentence, he had already committed to the idea that “system” was a (salutary) “invention of the imagination.” So when Smith speaks of the system of perfect liberty, don’t we have to bracket the word “system”? Does Smith himself take deregulated markets to be make-believe?
  • Hill and Montag are also eager to catalogue the many terms that Smith’s commitment to imaginary system compels him to repress. The list is rather extensive: tumult, “corporeal labor,” sedition, writing, “the noise of numbers,” “material infinity,” and the multitude (104, 147, 87). What we won’t want to miss is the binary, zero-and-one character of this operation. The authors argue that there are only two positions in Smith, System and Anti-System, at which point that entire incommensurate list (tumult &c.) gets shunted into the second slot.
  • There is a name from the philosophy of history that gets to stand in for these many anti-systemic others: Spinoza. Hill and Montag’s final complaint against Adam Smith is that he was neither a materialist nor a monist—or worse, that his addiction to fake system could only bury the period’s Spinozist wisdom. One good way to read The Other Adam Smith, then, is as forcing Spinozism into a showdown with some of its eighteenth-century rivals. For us, meanwhile, it presents an opportunity to reckon with Left Spinozism in its early twenty-first century guise, to measure it against its current rivals, and in the process to consider how illuminating it is to project back into the late Enlightenment a neo-vitalist philosopheme like “the multitude.”

Much of Hill and Montag’s accomplishment on this front is appealingly odd. You can figure out whether you should read The Other Adam Smith by asking yourself right now whether you’re willing to entertain a fondly Deleuzian apology for eighteenth-century Jacobitism, the movement, if that’s what it was, to restore the exiled House of Stuart to the throne by overthrowing some sitting George or another. According to Hill and Montag, Jacobitism involved “a complex intra-dependency among multiple political players, … ‘mixed multitudes,’ who [were] not subject to traditional ideological borders” (212). Where a more conventional political historian might labor to work out why some regions went Jacobite and others didn’t, to separate out the multiple constituencies in the loose Jacobite coalition, to identify who had the authority to mobilize others into rebellion even when these latter were not committed anti-Hanoverians, to reconstruct what the Jacobites said they wanted and how they might have remade Britain had they prevailed, Hill and Montag content themselves with the claim that the Stuart party were a rhizome, the Young Pretender a sprouting potato eye.

The Jacobites were a multitudinous and borderless mixture. Even readers able to appreciate the larky quality of that claim are likely to be put off by the Manichean grind of the authors’ broader case. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, they tell us over and over again, were “divided into two opposing camps” (240). In this corner, Spinoza, novels, rioters, and the body’s barely processed stimuli. In that corner, Scotland’s urban gentry, philosophy, stadial history, and doctrines of Providence. The problem is this: Hill and Montag do not hide their distaste when summarizing Adam Smith’s account of concept formation, which holds that the mind has an innate talent for producing genera—a knack, that is, for making categories. No-one particularly needs an education on this front; the mind is the Great Sorter. Hill and Montag’s eye-rolling over this argument is one of the more obvious ways that they perpetuate an older line of Enlightenment critique. Adam Smith, they want us to know, was yet another of schematism’s dupes. But the book they have written is itself one big sorting mechanism. Their writing, it’s true, is aswarm with hard-to-follow detail, and yet all this shimmering data eventually gets subjected to an A-B coding. One balks a bit at being conscripted into this antithesis, and especially at being asked to watch as Spinoza puts a beatdown on Adam Smith. Can Spinozists consistently frame their Spinozism in these terms? Hill and Montag never ask us to think of Spinozism and the Scottish Enlightenment as eighteenth-century assemblages in their own right, complexly living ensembles capable of recombining unpredictably with other such ensembles, including, one presumes, with each other. If Hill and Montag are right, “Spinoza” and “Smith” are names for mere positions, between which the reader is expected to choose. Spinoza was right, Adam Smith rather a dummy. The Spinozism that Hill and Montag endorse as a matter of doctrine is thereby abandoned as a matter of method. Around its Spinozism, The Other Adam Smith generates a series of increasingly expansive abstractions, all of which name the multitude without having to tally its number—“popular contention,” “the mixed and the multiple,” “life”—just so many brisk flattenings of profusion. “Popular contention” is a formal category that asks us to disregard the politics of any particular movement or event, indiscriminately encompassing the Porteous Riots, the Gordon Riots, the Wilkes Riots, the ’45, “the vulgar, Jacobites, Puritans, republicans, savages and barbarians, alike” (155). “Life,” meanwhile, is Spinozism’s only agent, hence the secret subject of Hill and Montag’s every sentence: “That which resists … is perhaps nothing other than life itself” (342). Artisans and factory workers don’t (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances) resist. Peasants don’t resist (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances). Women don’t resist (sometimes, &c). The colonized don’t resist. Only life resists, and these others are at most its avatars and transient objectifications. “Network” is the word favored by those who don’t have patience enough to plot the points.



Buchan, James 2008, The Authentic Adam Smith, New York: Norton.

Montag, Warren and Stolze, Ted (eds.) 1997, The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rothschild, Emma 2002, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Stedman Jones, Gareth, An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Smith, Adam 1980 [1795], “The History of Astronomy”, in Essays on Philosophical Subjects, edited by W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Marx’s Philosophical Context

 The short essay that follows is due to appear in the Bloomsbury Companion to Marx in 2018.

            There are four things one needs to know about Marx’s relationship to his immediate philosophical context.

1. In Germany in the 1840s, many people thought of philosophy as an intrinsically revolutionary endeavor. It is, of course, easy to derive revolutionary stances from even the most conventional philosophical starting-points. Philosophy begins by asking the student provisionally to set aside all of her uninspected beliefs, everything she has taken on trust, everything she thinks she knows just because she heard it from her parents or the priest or the neighborhood. The young philosopher who prorogues her views in this fashion may not be promising never to believe anything again, but she is pledging to re-admit only those beliefs she can rigorously justify. And really, how many of her old and merely habitual opinions does she expect will survive such a strictness? Philosophy for her is likely to be a remaking, a putting-out-of-play of all rival sources of belief—religious authority, the creedal bylaws of this or that institution, culture. If generalized across a population, philosophy would amount to the destruction of these latter. This point would hold for most philosophies, but to that classically heterodox profile, philosophers in the two generations before Marx added what we might call the German Idea—the idea, namely, that the mind is active and creative (and not just a screen or empty box). Other positions follow on from there: If the mind is creative and likely to insist on its creativity, it can never stand pat with what it has already created. The mind creates something, fashioning an argument or engineering an object for the building, but immediately turns against these achievements, against its own positions and designs, which it must henceforth regard as obstacles to further creation. The inherently active mind is always moving past what already exists. At any point in time, many people will be beyond, experiencing available social forms mostly as constriction, for which the mind without prompting will begin to devise alternatives, exercising its transformative freedom until such day as the mind’s freedom itself becomes the stuff of social life. The only institutions that the active mind would not feel compelled to move beyond would be ones that themselves affirmed and cultivated the mind’s activity—institutions, that is, that took the creative mind to be their very point. The German Idea thus issues in a distinctive political goal, a demand for institutions that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly. The notion was once widespread that the French Revolution had been a uniquely philosophical event, but that notion is just the start of it. Nor is it enough to remark that Kant, Fichte, and Hegel had all supported the revolution, though this is true. The point is, rather, that by the time Marx started writing in the early 1840s, the younger philosophers most associated with the German Idea, thinkers ten or fifteen years older than him, had fashioned the doctrine of the active and creative mind into an openly anti-clerical and neo-Jacobin position. Philosophy could convincingly pose as the revolution re-done in thought.

2. Marx, who held a PhD in philosophy and who for a time foresaw a career for himself teaching philosophy in Bonn, arrived at many of his core positions by adapting arguments made by older philosophers in the radical cohort. The critique of political economy began as the philosophical critique of religion. Anyone can tell you that their job sucks or that most people are unhappy at work. When Marx first writes about the economy, he immediately makes claims quite a bit more extravagant than these. Chief among them is the idea that in capitalist societies, people relate to capital in the same distorted way that church-goers relate to God. There are three related claims that a radical critic of monotheism might make in this regard:

a) Humans invented God (and HaShem and the Almighty). God has always been a human creation.

b) Having invented God, humans then assigned to Him their own powers of creation. Some devout people act as though they lacked the powers to make and sustain the world, and yet when people worship God, they are actually worshiping their own capacities for thoughtful activity, reverencing the thinking human aggregate—what the Germans call Geist, which translates as both Mind and Spirit (and sometimes as Ghost—Germans talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Geist). There does indeed exist a supremely powerful force in the world, capable of marvels, a force both unseen and in a sense everywhere. It is not wrong to think that there exists an omnipresent spirit. But that force (spirit, Geist, mind) is just thought. Thought spans the world. When Christians go to church, then, they are worshipping thought as though it were something outside of them, a separate entity, and not their own innermost being and accomplishment.

c) Having projected thought onto a non-human and invented entity, humans then subordinate themselves to it. Endowing their own creation with a specious authority, they take themselves to be lesser than it.

Such is the core of the Hegelian account of alienation. What we’ll want to see now is that all three of these points carry over to Marx’s critique of capitalism.

a) People make capital. Everything that counts as capital is a human creation. This is true in at least two different senses. The institutions of capitalism are not inevitable or permanent or a geologically enduring feature of the natural landscape. People have built the institutions of capitalism: stock markets and commodity exchanges, the banking system, the factory system. They’ve invented double-entry bookkeeping. Workers also construct everything that counts as capital in the present. For a start, they make what economists call capital goods—the tangible items that get used in the production of goods and services. They make the machines (that the capitalist owns); they build the buildings (that the capitalist owns); they gather and do the initial processing on the not-really raw materials (that the capitalist buys and temporarily owns). And they obviously make the commodities that the capitalist owns—the finished goods waiting for sale that represent his investment at a certain stage in the economic cycle, although at any given moment not all capital will be invested in capital goods or sitting un-liquidly in a warehouse. One of Marx’s more searching points is that the wealth that is housed in financial assets (stocks, bonds, interest-bearing bank accounts) can also be traced back to work that someone had to do somewhere at some point—mostly someone other than the owner of that asset.

b) Having created capital, people then assign to it the powers of creation. This is true in several senses at once. People think that capital is productive—or that capital sets the entire economy in motion. Or: People think that the machines “are doing the work.” Or: People think that capital is “money making money”—or “putting money to work.” For Marx, these are all mystifications. Capital can’t produce anything. It certainly cannot “make money”—workers somewhere have to be creating something, have to be taking the stuff of the world and making it better, more useful, more conducive to human need and desire. Nor does money work. Only workers work. And yet, from a certain perspective, from a certain position within the social system, it can indeed look like my money is “making money,” magically, without anyone having had to work, though I can think this only because the person working wasn’t me. People in capitalist societies assign to capital the powers of creation that in fact belong to work alone.

c) Once the creative powers of work get misassigned to capital, actual workers are made subordinate to it. A created thing that lacks the powers to create is taken to be the all-creative thing and so allowed to lord it over the real creators.

What stands out from the perspective of 1844 is that this last sentence could serve equally well for the radical critique of God and the Marxist critique of capitalism. At this point, it becomes possible to adapt to the spheres of production and distribution the politics of the German Idea: We demand an economy that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly.

3. Even as Marx adapts the positions of his philosophical friends and mentors, he cautions against the perils of philosophy itself. Philosophy turns out to be one more thing, like capitalism and the state, that the self-organizing working class is going to have to overcome. In the later sections of The Holy Family, when Marx decides to show off his philosophical education, he takes it upon himself to correct the Left Idealist account of eighteenth-century intellectual history, offering to counter the attacks mounted by some radical intellectuals on the “materialism” of the “French Enlightenment.” It is a telling moment. Marx does not call himself a “materialist” nearly as often as the subsequent history of Marxism would lead one to think. The Holy Family thus yields some valuable references for anyone who wants to show not only that Marx was a materialist, but that he regarded himself as such. One of the great surprises of that book, then, is that it is in these very paragraphs that Marx most clearly aligns himself, not with materialism as conventionally understood, but with a classical, anti-philosophical skepticism. This has some far-reaching consequences: He says first that the “materialism” he is promoting is not an ontology in its own right, though he recognizes that there is no single materialism, only miscellaneous and rival ontologies that are made to share that name. Rather than add to the list of contending materialisms, Marx would like to convince his readers to stop caring about ontology, to stop getting bogged down in ontological argument. “Materialism,” he says, is not a system, but a mode of attention, a giving-of-priority to the present and the onrushing future—a theory of practice, one might add on Marx’s behalf, ergo a bracketing of the metaphysics. On the basis of this passage alone, it would be advisable to substitute the word “pragmatism” every time Marx writes the word “materialism,” which silent amendment would head off one persistent misreading of Marx and return our attention to activity, which is where he wants it.  Skepticism or even something rather like Pyrrhonism enters the argument when Marx writes that the person who taught eighteenth-century thinkers how to exit metaphysics was Pierre Bayle, the exiled French Huguenot who, from his perch in Rotterdam in the 1690s, systematically exposed the folly and error of one thinker after another, doggedly taking on the already established mainstays of the late seventeenth-century philosophical scene (Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz), and then roasting, one by one, the European scene’s trending intellectual novelties (Newtonianism, Lockeanism). Marx’s way of praising Ludwig Feuerbach is to say that he is a second Bayle—Bayle, whose “weapon was skepticism.”

Another consequence, then: That Marx enrolls himself among the anti-philosophers is, among other things, a heavy blow to the Red Spinozists. He says more than once in The Holy Family: Not Spinoza! The monist ends up first on a list of thinkers from whom we should disassociate the “materialism” he is sticking up for. And then he says that Bayle “refuted chiefly Spinoza and Leibniz”—the implication being that we should follow Bayle and not these others. Anyone rejecting philosophy in some comprehensive way would, of course, at the same time be rejecting Hegel, who is typically thought of as the other candidate vying for Marx’s metaphysical allegiance. The point, then, would be that the entire Hegel vs. Spinoza debate, so recurrent a feature of Marxist philosophy, is misguided, because Marx openly points to a third contender. This, then, is the Marx who argues that communism is not a philosophy, that it does not trade in “ideas and principles”; that communism will not presume to “shape or mould” the thinking of the working classes; that communists will not be teachers; that philosophers always ask the wrong questions because they have inserted themselves into the world in the wrong way.

4. Marx borrowed the attack on philosophy from other thinkers in the radical philosophical scene, indeed, from the very thinkers against whom he wields his skepticism most bitingly. Skepticism was not only an alternative to Hegelianism, but also one of its more distinctive products. Marx got into a race with other Hegelians to see who could exit philosophy the fastest. There is a small difficulty here. When Marx was in his 20s, Hegelian philosophy produced not one but two competing anti-philosophies—opposing programs for talking people out of making philosophical arguments. The German Idea holds that the mind is active and creative. What’s at issue is whether you think that philosophers, just by virtue of practicing philosophy, are liable to overstate or understate that creativity. We can consider each possibility in turn. In the 1840s, that first position—the one that holds that philosophers are likely to exaggerate the powers of thought—was associated with the name Feuerbach. Hegel had already demanded that we naturalize God—that we recognize all claims about God to be claims about Geist, itself to be understood in naturalized and this-worldly terms (which is one good reason to translate Geist as mind rather than as spirit). Hegel had also emphasized what he called realization: Concepts are only worth positing to the extent that they can also be made real. It is one thing to argue, in the spirit of philosophical anthropology or during the last week of an existentialism seminar, that human beings are necessarily and always free. It is another thing to build the institutions that will house that freedom—actualize it, extend it, make it practicable. Hegel, in other words, had already initiated the critique of mere thought, asking his readers to shift their attention from skull-trapped ideation to thought-in-practice.

Feuerbach contends that Hegel’s emphasis on the Infinite or Unbounded is unlikely to survive this translation. Human beings are the bearers of mind, and to emphasize their mindedness is to call attention to their freedom, the fact that they can, for reasons of their own, fashion the world in an infinitely extendable list of different ways. But human beings are not only mind, and this means that the beings who incarnate unbounded mind are also limited and that our theory of creation-without-limit is going to have to be accompanied by an account of need and dependency. Hegelianism does, in fact, tend to produce theories of the God-man, in which a self-exalting humanity promotes itself to the position of Creator. Feuerbach argues in response that this putatively divine and all-making humanity is in fact rather encumbered—that its members are often hungry or vulnerable or aroused, and that they can only think and create from amidst these constraints. The philosophers’ error is to underscore at every turn the achievements of thought while saying almost nothing about my need to eat every five or six hours. Philosophy, then, is best grasped as the specious transfiguration of thinking activity, as the abstraction of thought from out of its mundane and bodily circumstance. One exercise facing the student of philosophy would be, via acts of speculative reconstruction, to restore to abstract thought its origins in practice, to make any canonical philosophical doctrine legible as a way of being in the world. That done, the next assignment would be to go ahead and dispense with philosophy, to quit asking philosophical questions, to avoid framing the problems that arise in one’s life as philosophical puzzles, and to cultivate instead a militant orientation to the stuff of this world, a non-philosophical will to concretion.

The second skepticism, meanwhile, is a forthright adaptation of the German Idea’s great political demand—the demand, that is, for institutions that we have made, that we know ourselves to have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly. The Hegelian, of course, is determined to utter this formulation not only about institutions in general, but severally about each particular thing. We demand a state / a legal system / a language / an x that we have made, that we know &c. Repetition of that kind comes easy, but the slogan is at its most challenging when it turns reflexive, plugging thought into x’s open slot, and so subjecting Geist itself to the politics of Geist: We demand a philosophy that we have made, that we &c. No sooner is this demand spoken than it will generate a misgiving, since I am likely to regard the concepts at the center of my philosophy as true or right—as discovered and not as made. The ideas that I take to be guiding my political conduct are thus rather like the Christian God and will need to be demystified in turn. We create the idea of equality (or freedom or solidarity or the commonwealth or Geist), treat it as uncreated and not of us, and then subordinate ourselves to it. The doctrine of the active, creative mind, followed consequently to its conclusion, turns on itself as thought’s last uncreated term.

Knowing about these conflicting anti-philosophies should make it possible to specify one of Marx’s more important innovations. His trick is to deploy these two skeptical positions against each other, identifying the moment of dogmatism in each and then countering it with arguments drawn from the other. To the ultra-idealist creed of the mind’s endless invention, he counterposes a doctrine of need and material constraint as chastened as any Catholic conservatism. I do not liberate myself by thinking myself liberated. But to any philosophical account of such constraints he responds by restating the precepts of geistliche creativity: Our dependencies are themselves created, and so, too, is any account of human nature that claims to comprehend human constraint once and for all.  There is no human endowment whose historical variations we can safely ignore or whose persistence we can confidently predict. Marxism comes into being not as a philosophical system and not as a new science, but as an ensemble of coordinated and mutually contemptuous skepticisms—as philosophy abandoned … and then re-abandoned for good measure.


Fulfilling the Fascist Lie

Late Reflections on The Authoritarian Personality


The essay that follows is a response to a seventy-year-old book. If you need a crash course on The Authoritarian Personality, first published by Adorno and a team of University of California psychologists in 1950, you could skim the Wiki entry or, better, have a look at this essay by Robert Gordon, available on the boundary 2 website. 

The essay is scheduled to appear in South Atlantic Quarterly in 2018.


       The Authoritarian Personality—I want to use the following paragraphs to explain why I find this admittedly remarkable book to be unpersuasive, why, in fact, it is a matter of some urgency that we not accept its arguments. I’m not sure how to come at the point directly, so permit me to note, by way of introduction, that anyone who reads widely in the history of fascism is likely to spot, sooner or later, a series of antitheses—oppositions, I mean, that were native to fascism itself and that historians return to again and again. If we want to be able to think clearly about The Authoritarian Personality, it will be enough for us to know about two of them. First, historians have made the point that fascism proceeded through stages, that, in other words, it wasn’t a single static position, that it was a dynamic entity, rather, tending to mutate over time. What, one might ask, were those stages? Broadly, the scholarship calls attention to fascism as an idea and an imagining, as an ideological current, therefore, cultivated by intellectuals—a fascism of the book, in other words—which was then succeeded by fascism as a mass movement. We need to be able to distinguish between those two. But then we also need to be able to distinguish between fascism as a movement and fascism as a regime—which is to say, as a successful movement, one that had achieved power or taken hold of the state—a fascism that governed. The point most commonly made is that fascism in its early stages—a still ideational fascism—was in certain respects more radical than what came later, or that it was more avant gardist, more likely to strike anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois poses. The fascists, this is to say, became more conventionally conservative over time, more recognizably a party of the Right, once they felt compelled to make their case to the non-bohemian many and once forced by their very success to make concessions to existing institutions and coalition partners. The stages thus yield an antithesis—at one pole, fascism-as-dissident-counterculture; at the other, fascism as the mainstream run amok, the establishment’s protracted revenge against its critics and rivals.

This same antithesis now becomes available in a geographical form, via the single, uncomplicated observation that Mussolini’s government, unlike Hitler’s, did not attempt to monopolize the entire sphere of thought and culture. Historians are keen to point out that there was no Italian Gleichschaltung—no effort to bring everyone into line. Within certain parameters, independent intellectuals continued to publish in Italy, which means not that there were still socialists or communists or liberals expressing themselves freely in Florence and Rome—those people really were shut down—but that there remained an outer circle of freelance fascists, the half-fascists or the merely unenrolled, the shirts not of black, but of charcoal and onyx and taupe, who continued to propose hypothetical other fascisms, in a scatterplot around the fascism that was actually being implemented. An aestheticist and nonconformist fascism thus remained more visible in Italy throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, never wholly subsumed into fascism-as-revanchist-orthodoxy. Early vs. late; Italy vs. Germany—two antitheses that are really one, a fascism with anti-bourgeois features vs. its snarlingly bourgeois rival.

This compounded antithesis matters because there are a hundred different claims you might wish to make about fascism that will run aground upon it. Arguments about fascism routinely invert or negate themselves, and the reason for this is surprisingly easy to identify. Histories of fascism often posit an A fascism and a B fascism, and even if you think that “A vs. B” sounds too schematic, as it doubtless does, that second term will suffice to undermine one’s accustomed sense that fascism was a uniform position—or indeed that it was, to a singular degree, a politics of uniformity, a uniform movement in the pursuit of uniformity. The problem for those of us needing to theorize fascism is that a great many things we will want to say about the B fascism will not be true of the A fascism. Worse, if we mean to fashion our historical analysis into a politics, then we run the permanent risk of pegging our anti-fascism to one pole or another of the fascist antithesis, such that by opposing one fascism, we will end up endorsing the other, if only unwittingly, because we have failed to so much as recognize this latter as fascist. Our anti-fascism will be stalked by its fascist twin.

Anyone wanting to come to grips with The Authoritarian Personality, then, will need to understand first how basic these transpositions are to the study of fascism. The movement’s nearest synonym has always been “national socialism,” in a manner that predates the renaming of the German Workers’ Party in 1920. So was national socialism national? Manifestly, you say, nothing is better established than that. Theorists of fascism are fond of the term “ultranationalism”—that’s a nationalism made super- and hyper- and arch-. But then what do we say about the swastika, that most recognizable of fascist emblems, incomparably more iconic than any bundle of wooden rods?—the swastika, this hermetic counter-crucifix, which, as of 1917, was still associated above all with sites in India and Baluchistan and western Turkey. The point that overfamiliarity makes hard to grasp is that every official building in Nazi Germany was adorned with an Orientalist hex sign. German troops marched under an ankh or dream-catcher, an Aryavartic pentacle that derived its talismanic charisma not from its Germanness—not, that is, from its being indigenous to Silesia or Brandenburg, which it wasn’t—but from its near-ubiquity across four continents.

The word “Aryan,” meanwhile, is not and never was an apt equivalent for “Teutonic” or “Nordic.” Even as a white-supremacist term of art, the word has always meant something like “Indo-Germanic.” It’s that hyphen we’ll want to pay attention to, informing us as it does that doctrines of the Aryan were not premised on yet another nineteenth-century sundering of the West from the non-West, but precisely on their fusing. Of all the ways of naming white people, “Aryan” has got to be the most peculiar—though “Caucasian” is plenty strange and “white” itself mere misdescription. Aryan, however, is the only entry on that list that could be suspected of negating whiteness even while exalting it. Aryan—the Eur-asian or Occi-oriental.

National socialism, then, was not straightforwardly nationalist. But was it socialist? The historians have a ready answer for that one, which is that even though some Nazi officials were willing to deploy a modified socialist rhetoric, the Nazi regime was quick to dismantle the institutions of the independent and organized working classes; to round up Leftists; and to close ranks with IG Farben and Siemens and IBM. National socialism was a capitalism dreaming of two continents.

At this point, there is a question that any anti-fascist is going to have to ask: What claims can we make about fascism that will escape transposition of this kind? That challenge gives us a few good reasons for endorsing the approach taken by Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality. The f-scale, in particular, could be grasped as a solution to this problem. But it’s more than that. Anyone still needing to be convinced of the achievements of Freudianism as a mode of political analysis could do worse than read this book, which turns to psychoanalysis in order to overcome the difficulties that have always weakened other theories, and especially to fix what has been least convincing about attempts to explain fascism in intellectual or ideological terms. To turn to psychoanalysis is to insist that there is no philosophical or merely doctrinal path to fascism—that fascism has never been a matter of the substance of one’s beliefs. It is akin to a syndrome, hence a way of inhabiting whatever creed or identification a person might have cathected to. There may not be a Protestant path to fascism, which is simply to say that some Protestants turned fascist and some didn’t, but there is a fascist way of inhabiting your Protestantism. There may not even be a nationalist path to fascism, but there is a fascist way of libidinizing your nationalism. If that point seems plausible, then the next step is simply to extend it to social history, whose results are similarly inconclusive about such matters. There is no particular social path to fascism, no economic or demographic niche that opens chute-like onto the far Right—the National Socialists were a mass party and recruited successfully from across the regions and classes and professions—but there might be a fascist way of being attached to your social position, any social position.

So that’s the achievement of the f-scale, and it’s worth sticking up for. And yet the theory fails to convinces all the same. The f-scale, too, comes apart upon the fascist antitheses. Maybe the problem is already apparent: Adorno and his colleagues have proposed a series of fixed attributes that they think makes up the fascist personality. Here’s Adorno summarizing the book’s findings at a YMCA in 1948: The proto-fascist personality type involves “mechanical acceptance of conventional values, blind submission to authority combined with a violently aggressive attitude towards all those who don’t belong, anti-introspectiveness, rigid stereotypical thinking, a penchant for superstition, a vilification of human nature, and the habit to ascribe to the out-group the wishes and behavior patterns which one has to deny in oneself.” Anyone alerted to the reversals that occur in the passage from fascism to fascism prime has got to suspect that we could just as well flip each of these character traits—name its opposite—and still find ourselves sitting across from a fascist. The f-scale describes the personality of a fascist, but then so does the anti-f scale. Handed an anti-fascist checklist by the Californians, we should be able to go through and negate each of its terms and thereby find not a non-fascism (the low scorers!), but an alternate path to fascism. Shall we just do it?

1. Conventionalism: Fascists, Adorno tells us, are deeply conformist, the prim creatures of conventional morality, quick to punish anyone who offends against a stupid decency—Victorians in leather trenchcoats. This observation might be right as far as it goes, but what it omits is that the Babbit-Nazis of Adorno’s description shared the movement with fascist revolutionaries and world remakers and proclaimers of a New Europe, with those who wanted to de-Christianize Germany, to revive a pre-Frankish religion of runes and Wotan or to forge a grossdeutscher Buddhism. Here’s Robert Brasillach, writing near the end of the war, not long before he was executed for being one of the most outspoken French Nazis: “Fascism was a spirit. For us it was not a political doctrine, nor was it an economic doctrine…. It was first of all an anticonformist, antibourgeois spirit, in which disrespect played its part.”

2. Authoritarian submission: The notion that fascists are typically submissive and obedient, meanwhile, is difficult to square with the movement’s reliance on mass mobilization—its determination to agitate and unleash the public rather than pacify it. This is often taken to be the characteristic that most obviously distinguishes fascism from a generic authoritarianism. Energy and the deed counter docility and ductility. Enthusiasm counts for as much as compliance.

3. Authoritarian aggression: The troubling sentence is this one: In fascist societies, “hostility that was originally aroused by and directed toward ingroup authorities is displaced onto outgroups.” The claim that fascists are aggressive or violence-prone is as close to a consensus position as one is likely to find. And yet to say additionally that fascists are the ones who channel their aggression towards an outgroup is drastically to understate the vehemence of their attack on existing institutions (and to skip over the very minor role that anti-Semitism played in fascist Italy for most of its duration). The problem is best grasped as a conceptual one: The fascists came to power only by declaring illegitimate the up-and-sort-of-running institutions of government and by anathematizing entire sectors of German and Italian society hitherto regarded as normal. They were wholly capable of waging war on the ingroup—or of reclassifying in- as out-. To say that aggression targets the outgroup is to skip all the urgent questions about how the social field gets cleaved and re-cleaved. Here’s another French fascist, Drieu la Rochelle, writing in 1934: “We are against everyone. We fight against everyone. That is what fascism is.”

4. Superstition and stereotypy: Superstition and stereotyping have been paired by the Berkeley authors because they both point to the inability of proto-fascists to think clearly about what is happening in the world at large and why it is happening. People susceptible to fascism are alienated in some properly Left Hegelian sense of the term—unsure of how events and institutions are produced, mired in the opacity of the social, cognitively thwarted by the complexity of networked causes. But then we have names for people who have been trained, contrariwise, to think carefully about such causes. Some of them we call “historians”; others we call “scientists.” To say that fascism thrives where causal understanding collapses is to suggest that there was no proto-fascist history-writing, in the manner, for instance, of Ernst Kantorowicz’s biography of Frederick the Second, and no fascist science either. But then, of course, we now have decades of scholarship, much of it Adornian in spirit, documenting the scientific orientation of National Socialism. That fascism requires superstition as its provender can only be maintained by someone who has never heard the term “biopolitics.”

5. Anti-intraception: The Berkeley authors make it hard to so much as register the existence of a fascist science—and then they do the same thing for fascist poetry. Proto-fascists, we are told, are uncomfortable with inwardness. They would gladly put a taboo on reflection or on the display of inner life or on psychoanalysis itself. But then are we to say nothing about Stefan George and Ezra Pound and D’Annunzio and Yeats? Was there no such thing as a fascist lyric, hence a fascist inwardness? Were the fascist and near-fascist poets not fascist when they wrote poetry? Did they only become fascist again upon putting down their pens? Are lyric poems written by fascists less lyric than ones written by liberals or socialists? Less inward? Not at all inward? But then what makes them lyric? Did Yeats not write lyric?

6 & 7. Power and “Toughness” + Sex: Then of course there’s the idea that proto-fascists are tough guys with hang-ups about sex. That idea can be dismissed by pointing to a particular person. One of Stefan George’s closest associates for a time was Alfred Schuler, a freak classicist of sub-Nietzschean caliber, who wanted nothing more than to resurrect a pagan antiquity and who thought he could do this mostly by throwing toga parties. Schuler wrote almost nothing; he was more of a counter-culture guru than an intellectual; but his central idea seems to have been that European culture was all-but permanently rent by a conflict between the male principle and the female principle, to be understood, presumably, along orthodox lines as rationality vs. irrationality, logos vs desire, activity vs. passivity, &c. Schuler thought that Europe might yet be redeemed if Westerners could agree collectively to abandon settled gender roles and embrace instead a universal androgyny. The Greeks and Romans would point the way in this regard, because they had practiced boy-love; they had been wise enough to worship the she-male. Schuler thought, in other words, that pederasty, by offering a fragile synthesis of male and female or mind and body, might just keep Europe’s primal gender conflict in check. This idea had as its extension the idea that everyday life in Europe had been thrown permanently off kilter when Roman culture went into eclipse; the Roman world had promoted androgyny; the early medieval world had reestablished rigid gender roles. And the culprits behind this almost millennial crime were, of course, the Jews, since they were one of the very few eastern Mediterranean cultures to prohibit male love, which makes of any Christianity that will not spill its seed nothing but a generalized and evangelical Judaism. Christianity, in other words, had merely propagated and enforced the homophobia of the ancient Jews. When love between men thus became taboo, so this line of reasoning ran, the Jewish spirit and its gender orthodoxies went into the ascendancy, and it was this world-historical shift that a sibylline and modernist poetry might yet undo. It matters, then, that Schuler is known to historians mostly as the person who re-introduced into modern European culture the swastika, which was to be the emblem of the Future and Genderless Age. Indeed, Schuler for a time wanted to change his name to the Hakenkreuz, a symbol with no spoken equivalent. His reasoning here was roughly like Prince’s: The dingbat under which ‘90s-era Prince released his CDs combined the classic, bathroom-door sign for Mars—hard-on north-north-east—with the classic, incongruously dangling sign for Venus, which makes his just one of several recent transgender riffs on those old gender symbols. The revived swastika, in this sense, was one of the earliest instances of the typesetter’s hermaphroditic astrology.

This leaves (8) projectivity, as the one item from the f-scale we still need to consider. I would offer that its status is special for us. It will require extra attention. The claim that Adorno and colleagues make is fairly straightforward: that anyone “ready to think about and to believe in the existence of such phenomena as wild erotic excesses, plots and conspiracies, and danger from natural catastrophes” must have a rowdy Id—they have to believe such things are likely, they must themselves feel the pull of sex and destruction. Proto-fascists are the ones ready to see in the world their own most malign impulses. The theory of projection has always been of particular interest because it is psychoanalysis’s most obviously dialectical figure, this parody of Hegelian reconciliation, in which the subject rediscovers himself in some other and then, offered the chance for self-communion, declares war on this Other-Self instead, trading in the bei sich for a fatuous gegen sich. Projection matters to us because it is via its mechanisms that fascism and anti-fascism are most directly conjoined. The American anti-democrat is alarmed by how anti-democratic everything has become. The Tea Partier circa 2011 attacks Obama by drawing a Hitler mustache on his portrait. It is at this moment, upon discovering that the people we were pretty sure were proto-fascists have adopted an anti-fascist accent, that caution recommends itself. We will want to pause, to at least wonder about the possibility of projection in our own anti-fascism, and not just in theirs. Are we sure that projection isn’t involved in our willingness to believe that other people are fascists, our finding that plausible? Is there projection in the f-scale itself? Couldn’t our diagnosis that other people are given to projection itself involve projection? And if not, why not? Under what conditions can anti-fascism itself carry a fascism?

It’s at this moment that we’ll need to look up from The Authoritarian Personality and go back to The Dialectic of Enlightenment. It used to be taken as given that fascism was a movement of the counter-enlightenment; no book has done more to alter that perception than Adorno and Horkheimer’s. It can come as a surprise, then, to realize that Adorno and Horkheimer weren’t actually disagreeing with that earlier claim. New readers are going to understand The Dialectic of Enlightenment better if they can see that it takes that other, prior point as read. The word that we usually omit when summarizing the book is “also.” Adorno and Horkheimer thought they could show that fascism was also an Enlightenment project, that fascism had a disastrous way of getting the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment to coincide—or that any organized enlightenment eventually reached a point where it could no longer be distinguished from counter-enlightenment. That’s the dialectic in the title—without the word also there is no dialectic. The title always has to be heard as The Dialectic of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, which they mostly call myth.

The problem, then, is that the book almost only gets read as “Enlightenment critique”—indeed, it is often held out as the twentieth century’s single greatest entry in that genre. But maybe it’s time to admit that “Enlightenment critique” is an intemperate simplification and pretty much a mistake, in which most of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument gets shorn away. Enlightenment critique is The Dialectic of Enlightenment de-dialecticized. One forgets the starting point, which was that fascism had presented itself above all as counter-enlightenment. Not in the Dialectic of Enlightenment itself, but among its readers, and on the syllabi in which it is excerpted, the counter-enlightenment that is the closest thing that fascism had to an official ideology gets held out as the authentically anti-fascist option. In this form, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, far from being the centerpiece of anti-fascist philosophy that we need it to be, becomes the vehicle by which a certain proto-fascist sensibility has been kept alive in the extended postwar era, in which one important version of the fascist temptation survives because disguised as its opposite.

Recognizing as much should help us see at last why it is important that we not accept the framework offered by the Berkeley team in The Authoritarian Personality—because it is in the pages on the f-scale that Adorno signs his name to the non-dialectical version of his own dialectical argument. It is in this volume that dialectic gets truncated back to diagnosis. It is finally hard to agree with the West Coast Adorno if we accept that the f-scale was meant to identify proto-fascists and not just company men. The mind pauses and reflects. Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes. Two American thinkers share credit for coining the term alternative right: 1) the elderly intellectual historian who gave a speech in 2008 commending a movement less egalitarian than Fox News, the Republican Party, and the Heritage Foundation, welcoming a conservatism willing once again to embrace scientific racism and to stop pretending it admires Martin Luther King; and 2) the young intellectual historian who edited that speech for publication online. In the 1980s, the older man wrote a book cataloging all the philosophical prizes that Hegelian-Marxist apostates bring with them when they convert to anti-communism. Twenty years later, his fond reminiscences of taking a class with Herbert Marcuse in the early 1960s are matched by the tributes he writes to Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance. First one reads this: “There were … Frankfurt School texts that I found instructive, particularly Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics.” And then one reads this: “Which American party stands for the white counterinsurgency? … Significantly, the white solidarity that Jared advocates has never really developed in Western history outside of colonial settlements and in the American South.” At least one early member of the Frankfurt School spent his later career refunctioning a concept of Marx’s, the Asiatic mode of production, into a bludgeon with which to thump the Reds. Frankfurt School accounts of the administered society are joined by neo-Confederates who define the enemy as “the managerial society” or borderline fascists who can tell you all about the “therapeutic managerial state.” The day you first read Guy Debord was the day you should have realized not only that you could practice détournement, but also that it could be practiced upon you, that the cultures susceptible to jamming include your anti-fascist own. In November 2016, that younger intellectual historian addressed a room full of white nationalists. “Hail our people!” he said. “Hail victory!” He wrote his master’s thesis on Adorno.


A few notes:


•The book that argues most openly for fascism-as-process-and-sequence (idea, movement, regime) is Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism. The French fascists are quoted in Zeev Sternhell’s Birth of Fascist Ideology. Jack Jacobs quotes Adorno speaking at the YMCA in his Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Anti-Semitism. The material on Schuler I owe to Robert Norton’s Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle.

•I talked this argument through with friends and co-thinkers at a roundtable at Hunter College in November 2016. Special thanks are due Robyn Marasco for organizing “The Authoritarian Personality, Revisited.” Thanks, too, to Eric Kurlander.

A South Wind Blowing from the East

An essay from boundary 2 online

What comes to mind when a writer says that he means to comment upon “the South”? Anyone sitting in North America is likely to hear that term, if not further specified, as referring to the southern United States, what we might for now call “Alabama etcetera,” though this is hardly the phrase’s only possible designatum. The other region now routinely denominated “the South”—the other region, I mean, that routinely earns that otherwise ungrammatical capital S—isn’t actually a region at all, but a name for what used to be called “the Third World” or “the developing countries” or “the colonies”: the Global South. The American South, the Global South—as soon as one sees those two terms in the same paragraph, questions start humming. Why does the former Third World bear the same name as Georgia and the Carolinas? Do these have anything to do with one another, conceptually or concretely? Do our perceptions of one bleed into our perceptions of the other? In what sense are they all southern? What are we attributing to a region when we call it southern? Is there such a thing as southness?

With these questions in front of us, I’d like to state a few propositions forthrightly—propositions, in the first instance, about the US South, which might or might not open up to include the global South, too. There are two propositions that I suspect I can get a person to agree with directly, without coaxing, and then a third that will in all likelihood require further elaboration and reflection. I’m going to share a few observations about “the South,” but with the proviso that I mean the phrase and not the place. What I’m wondering is what it means to call some expanse of territory “the South.”

What I need us to see first is that the word “South” is, in the US context and probably most others besides, entirely optional. You might imagine yourself reading these words in Tennessee somewhere, west of the Appalachians. We often refer to that patch of the planet as “the South,” but we could and do call it other things. A person might for instance, feel a certain attachment to the region marked out in burnt orange here…

The full essay is here.

We Thinkers from the Gilt-Edged Margins

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A critical theory that has gotten serious about politics has only one question left to answer. Having convinced another semester’s worth of young philosophers to grant a conceptual priority to non-identity or Becoming, how are these now to become real in the world? What kind of institutions are needed to safeguard non-identity, and not just in thought? Does Becoming recommend some practices over others? Who are that concept’s proper bearers? Critical theory in the US has largely been a fight over this last—over who gets to count as devenir’s chosen agents and avatars—over which identity position can most convincingly pose as its antithesis, as non-identitarian. Queer people? Black people? Diaspora Jews? All migrants? And yet the candidates proposed by radical philosophy’s master thinkers have generally been rather different from these. Their stated preferences have been not for this or that group, but for certain institutions—for free markets or for empire and often for both; the empire of Becoming will help install the non-identity market. The pied noir philosopher sends an old classmate a nineteen-page letter defending French colonial society in Algeria and then publishes a landmark attack on anti-imperial anthropology—an attack which counts among its core claims the notion that indigenous people are fully as violent as the Europeans who have subjugated them. That book’s most famous accomplishment is to declare a certain civilizational technology, unevenly distributed across the planet, a universal term and thereby to render strictly unnameable non-civilizational and decolonized alternatives to it. The theorists of the rootstock, meanwhile, write a jubilant prose in praise of, first, those English nomads who know how to inhabit the whole world by “pitching their tents over the sea”; second, any social formation able to “expand, conquer, capture”; third, Africans who fantasize about being beaten by French settlers. Hardt and Negri, for their part, have simply ejected peasants and the indigenous from the ranks of the multitude; the universal, in their hands, becomes the universal-minus-two. Derrida says that people attached to their localities are conceptually “primitive” and asks on these grounds that we not criticize the mass media, since with any luck the phantasmatic abstraction that these generate will produce “dislocation” in people too attached to place. Hollywood and television will displace the natives. A question thus becomes poseable: Should you still speak of “Western metaphysics” if those you consider most duped by it live outside the West? In “White Mythology,” Derrida says that language has as its corollary or nearest equivalent the (market) economy. Nothing escapes the market; nothing ever has; nothing ever will. Everything is subject to “the general law of value”; such was the great insight of Saussure, as presumably of Jevons before him. We have to think of words as a kind of currency, then, always in motion, always fluctuating, constantly assigned new meanings or values. Attempts to think positions outside of the marketplace are doomed either because markets are entire and comprehensive or because the principles of the market are embedded in language itself, even in those regions that lack commodity exchange. Look backwards: Near the beginning of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida objects to the king who thinks he can set prices, offering in his place a writing that cannot help but circulate freely, beyond all possibility of regulation. Look forward: Derrida finishes Given Time by arguing against the Aristotelians who think that economies should be ordered according to some non-economic conception of the good. We should pledge ourselves instead to the not-really “bad infinity” of “chrematistics”—the ungoverned accumulation of wealth—because commerce, like writing, is what “opens” the household; it is the “threshold” that teaches us to look beyond the family. International trade is therefore just another version of the gift or “hospitality,” of welcoming into the home something that wasn’t originally there: a high-tea cake stand handmade in India; a fringed shoulder bag whose kaleidoscope-and-bearded-iris print was woven by widows in Guatemala; a batik wall hanging. This Levinasian neoliberalism finds its counterpart in the Harvard professor who, having helped introduce Totality and Infinity to the study of Latin American literature, recommends to the keepers of alterity that they “consider medieval England, where Normans were wise enough to know that they ruled a nation of foreigners”; or to consider the “Moslem empires,” who have “traditionally been hosts to the cultural differences that Christendom does not abide.” Critical theory names itself here as the expertise of invaders, a program for the wise rule of foreigners—not as the fresh round of decolonization you were taught to expect, but as an alternate imperialism. But then who didn’t know this already? Critical theory has long been characterized by a vocabulary of openness, plurality, globalizing flows, and flexible networks that we would have easily recognized as neoliberal and Americanizing in any context other than our own. Anyone surprised to find Foucault arguing that no-one has a right to health care simply wasn’t paying attention. The other name for neoclassical economics is “marginalism.”


The ideological valences of critical theory are routinely inverted. This is often to be welcomed. There is nothing discreditable about those old Marxist glosses on Roland Barthes or anti-colonial deployments of Derrida, as oblivious to their source texts as such rejiggings inevitably are. It is a kind of hygiene to be able to read Nietzsche and not see a single-minded neo-aristocrat or to read Heidegger and think only that you should switch to free-range eggs. Rare is the philosophy that cannot be improved by inattention. But why would we believe that arguments only get flipped in one direction, further on down the road towards emancipation and equity? It is fairly easy, after all, to show how specific theoretical schools become what they claim to negate. Any new concept that allows people to speak hitherto unspoken claims—to write fresh sentences and form fresh sets—will become available, automatically, for purposes other than the ones to which it was first put. Manifestos against consumer capitalism furnish pretexts for less consumerist modes of capitalism or, more often, for un-massified modes of consumption. Queer theory mutates into sex discourse the same day we teach it—back in the dorm, that very afternoon. Postcolonial theorists can only convince themselves that they are carrying on the work of Fanon and Cabral as long as they don’t read their counterparts in history, whose most successful tactic these last twenty years now has been to recycle the arguments of Bhabha, Chakrabarty, and others as liberal justifications for European expansion. Postcolonial theory has summoned as its twin an apologetics in which every incursion is an “encounter,” every confiscation a “new opportunity,” every colony a distended “border”—a zone of “cultural contact,” all membrane, no cell. One historian refers to invasion as “armed immigration.” An introductory course on postcolonial writing begins in an anti-political mode, by recommending that its students set aside “the blunt tools of violence and political rabble rousing” in favor of the “complex identities” on display in literature. But not just in literature: A historian at Vassar, two-time winner of the Bancroft Prize, sets out to overturn the anti-imperial history-writing of the 1960s and ‘70s by showing how “polyphonic” the North American colonies were and offers a few complex identities as evidence: the British baronet who directed the Irish overseer to dress his African chattel in Iroquois drag. A Cambridge anthropologist, meanwhile, director of that university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, wants you to know that Pacific islanders have always been “cosmopolitan” and offers as his second example of their sophistication three men who were kidnapped by the Spanish near Papua New Guinea in the early 1500s—three non-Europeans, that is, who became world-travelers only because they were abducted. The just society is a multiethnic slave plantation. Worldliness is a good even at swordpoint. Any institutional description of critical theory in the academy would have to flag the predictability with which such transpositions occur. It is no use, at this moment, thinking back to your mentor and knowing her to be righteous. The vocabulary we devise to describe the redeemed society will furnish others with the language they need to justify afresh the protocols of the administered world. This is the service critical theory provides. Every Foucault gets his Ewald.


It has become common for intellectual historians to point out that Marxists give a distorted picture of the long seventeenth century. Almost no-one in that period, they say, was sticking up for commerce or what we would call capitalism. Inherited political discourses simply provided no language with which to justify commercial life, which means that there was no “bourgeois ideology” in early modern England, and the Marxists are wrong to see it there, hiding under every republican rock. There may have been capitalism, but there was no system of capitalist belief. That point seems right as far as it goes, but is misleading all the same, because it badly misunderstands how ideology usually works. Ideology typically has the structure of a disowning, and not just in the seventeenth century. Capitalism-without-strong-capitalist-beliefs names the ordinary condition of modern societies. Only in exceptional cases has ideology ever offered a full-throated defense of the marketplace. Indeed, most of what we think of as “bourgeois culture” names the middle class’s distinctive ways of protecting itself from capitalism—its commitment to family and home; a certain way of enjoying the arts—which quickly leads one to the conclusion that not even the historical bourgeoisie has embraced capitalism or thought of the market as a place one could happily live. It does not much matter, then, that commodity exchange is Derrida’s uncamouflaged druthers or that A Thousand Plateaus reads like it was co-authored by Kipling. Nor does it matter that critical theory is full of conceptual displacements and dignifying proxies, verbal sublimations that, when parsed back to their real-world and institutional coordinates, mostly end up meaning “expanding markets” all over again, though if you already know that “freedom” and “democracy” and “human rights” are neoliberalism-by-another-name, then you are well placed to see that “dissemination” and “deterritorialization” and “the rhizome” are, too. Critical theory’s most significant ideological work has not been to enforce a set of basically metropolitan commitments, entrepreneurial and buccaneering, but to license a set of false disidentifications from same. The problem is not that we read Derrida and thereby become neoliberals, but that we take our reading of Derrida—or Rancière or José Muñoz—as sufficient evidence that we aren’t. One of the forms that power takes in a mature capitalist society is the professional class’s ability to build bulwarks against capital itself: respites and pseudo-negations. A history of bourgeois disavowal is underway; the challenge is to name its changing forms, from domesticity to aestheticism to … critique.


What if we started from the simple fact that critical theory is now a predictable part of a college education for twenty-year-olds who aspire to be professionals, that the works of Agamben and Badiou are mostly housed in (protected and subsidized by) institutions of the state and of status? The first thing a sociologist will tell you about the professions is that they are much larger than they were a century ago. There are more professions—more ways to be a professional, more lines that count as professional—and there are many more people in them, even in relative numbers, more people, that is, whose station involves being highly educated, whose work requires them to showcase that education, and who have at best limited patience with bosses. Even in the administered society, one mode of unadministered labor has continued to grow, and Adornian attacks on administration, mostly silent on the professions anyway, are perhaps best understood as the spontaneous ideology of self-directed work, a further blessing bestowed upon the favored and the exempt—on the understanding, however, that “the exempt” make up an expanding class fraction, and not, as the ideology itself requires, a declining one. The proponents of a creative capitalism, meanwhile—those professors of management who advise rust-belt cities to use gay people as economic bait—write a prose that is sometimes hard to distinguish from Adorno’s own. If you want to understand the current state of critical theory, you could do worse than ask which of the following sentences I’ve taken from Minima Moralia and which from management consulting: “Capitalism has also expanded its reach to capture the talents of heretofore excluded groups of eccentrics and nonconformists. … The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He … is the new mainstream.” “New structures for systematically eliciting and applying creativity … have become ingrained features of our economic life.” “We insist that all our workers contribute their minds.” You can object that the work of Richard Florida and others is ideology—that it is out to instrumentalize fugitive thought—and you’d be right. But it is this objection that is the more thoroughly ideological position, refusing as it does to face the existence of a post-managerial capitalism as a social fact in its own right, as all the evidence one needs, in fact, that fugitive thought is instrumentalizable. Florida is right in a way that most of his critics are not—the ones who think that the alternative and interdisciplinary humanities exist at Princeton but outside of exchange society, the ones who think that because they are not interested in capital, capital is not interested in them.

But then are the anti-capitalists really not interested in capital? The most consequential mistake that casual readers of Bourdieu ever made was to consider him a theorist of high culture in some settled sense of that term, mandarin and European, a theorist, that is, of the concert hall and the sculpture garden, of the art novel and the opera cape. But Bourdieu’s argument, however keyed to the empirie of France in the 1960s, holds only that culture tends to stratify, that social actors will usually elevate some cultural modes (and forms of intellection) at the expense of others. It does not say that the elevated term has to be Chopin. Indeed, there is zero reason to think that eliminating mazurkas (or piano lessons or Henry James or even literature as a category) would overturn cultural capital, any more than eliminating the franc has overturned money. One might, it’s true, wonder how cultural capital has survived the last half century’s apotheosis of pop, the rollback of the old patrician-bourgeois culture of the West, postmodernism’s putative muddling of low and high. But the sociologists have gone and checked, and the answers are not hard to find: Fancy people are now more likely to consume culture indiscriminately, that is, to congratulate themselves on the expansiveness of their tastes; indistinction has become distinction. They are more likely to prefer foreign culture to their own, at least in some who-wants-takeout? kind of way. And they are more likely to enjoy culture analytically and ironically, belligerently positing a naïve consumer whose imagined immersion in the object will set off everything in their own approach that is suavely arms-length and slaunchwise. Such, point for point, is the ethos of the new-model English department: of cultural studies, new media, the expanded canon, of theory-courses-without-objects. To bring new types of artifacts into literature departments is not to destroy cultural capital. It is merely to allow new things to start functioning as wealth. Even here, the claim to novelty can be overstated, since it is enough to read Bourdieu to know that the claim to interpret and demystify has always been an especially heady form of symbolic power. The ingenious reading confers distinction, as do sundry bids to fix the meanings of the social. Critical theory is cultural capital. Citing Judith Butler is one of the ways in which professional people outside the academy understand and justify their own elevation. Bickering recreationally about the politics of zombie movies is just what lawyers and engineers now do.


Scholarship is possible only because learned people need not fight the fights that criss-cross whatever patch of the world they study and because they are not in competition for that field’s distinctive goods. The biggest advantage they possess is that they can come and go as they please. The ecologist will leave the cloud forest before the semester starts. The anthropologist was in Brazil for rather less long than you had imagined. The sociologist won’t even spend the night in Cabrini Green. Likewise, the ethnographer determined to figure out how a particular cluster of villages distributes its yams needn’t amass any, any more than the botanist counting tamarisks is tempted to divert their CO2 for her own personal use. One wonders whether critical theory—this committed thinking, this liberation philosophy—is any different on this score. Is there, in addition to the scholastic point of view, a critical one? Critical theory is perfectly capable, of course, of neutralizing situations in conventionally scholastic ways. Derrida’s differance and deferral, Deleuze’s virtual, Agamben’s potentiality—these all demand that I withdraw from context and conjuncture, that I cognitively bracket any entanglement I might have with this actuality or with this organization of the social, in a manner that presumes leisure and distance—ie, that I can afford so to withdraw. The same could be said of the utopian, the messianic, the open horizon of the future, or the not-yet—and that list could doubtless be extended. Any critical theorist who offers to liberate you via play is confident that you don’t have more pressing business.

Non-involvement, however, is what critical theory most shares with ordinary scholarship. What makes critical theory distinctive is its determination to pantomime the involvement that its scholasticism has already precluded. The critical point of view is the scholastic view that doesn’t take itself to be scholastic, that strikes a set of anti-academic poses while preserving all the core features of academic vision. If the scholar is the one who renders a field legible by suspending its interests and stakes, the critical theorist is the one who pretends that all stakes enter his thinking intact. The critical point of view is what induces us to habitually misdescribe a given colleague’s attitudes and expressed judgments as her “politics” or to write about Spinoza and think that we are thereby writing about matter. The critical theorist, indeed, renovates all the old idealist arguments by translating them into a speciously materialist idiom—materiality, yes, but “of language”; politics, yes, but “of representation”; violence, yes, but “of the concept.” We know now to write the word “bodies” where twenty years ago we would have written “subjects”—and then we go ahead and make all the old arguments about subjects anyway. The wholly accurate insight into the interestedness of philosophy—that all philosophy has a politics—reverses itself into the sluggish conviction that writing philosophy is all the politics one needs. Some scholars, the critical ones, make a claim and think it’s a gesture. They retire to their writing carrels and call it an intervention. It is one kind of prerogative to be able to write about a discourse or culture or social scene and not be bound by its rules, not to have to get something done in it—to not be in the game. It is a second prerogative, derived from this first, to be able electively to treat that deactivated field as though it were still running on live current.


The answer to a theory this uncritical would be an un-critical theory.

A Very German Story



A few thoughts about Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000, edited by Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)


Here is as straightforward an argument as Adorno ever made: If you wish to find an art that is adequate to mass death—an art, that is, that can do right by the Apache in the 1880s and the Armenians in the 1910s and the Palestinians now—you have a few different options. You might consider a documentary and testimonial art, one that gets the word out, peeling back blankets of denial and obfuscation and palm-bearing oblivion—a “photograph of the disaster” was Adorno’s name for such a thing. That might do, but better would be an art capable of giving voice to anguish and not just of tabulating it—an art that rather than producing a set of paraphrasable propositions about suffering actually made its audience ache, a sorrowing art, then, literature as paid mourner. Better still would be an art of “incomprehensible horror”—this is still Adorno—and on the simple grounds that a tale of terror is more likely to rattle you than an exposé or maudlin vignette. Nothing will go as far to dent our perception of Adorno as fussy Brahmin than his embrace of Gothic literature, this one precious genre that puts violence on display and allows it to be horrible. The enormities of empire and a capitalism-without-pretenses do not in fact require that we abandon all of our storytelling conventions, that we start art over again from gory scratch, since we already have at our disposal a narrative form that forces us to say who is dying and how and at whose hands: scary movies and the weird menace of the pulps. Such is the art due Guatemala in the 1980s or the biped chattel of a former Alabama. They keep telling you that you can’t write poetry after Auschwitz, but no-one ever said you couldn’t re-make Blood Feast.

But then perhaps Adorno’s argument is after all not so very straightforward. It has always been possible to think of horror stories as an exercise in truth-telling and consciousness-raising, with fear functioning as the bearer of moral judgments, usurping the role that sentimental fiction more typically reserves for tears. Sometimes you cry in the face of something you know to be wrong, something whose wrongness does not need to be argumentatively demonstrated to you. And sometimes, equally, you blench or panic, and you do so, when watching a film, not because you fear for yourself, but because you fear for another; at such moments, yours is an ethical fear, not panic, but companic. Slasher movies simply make more sense if you approach them as stunned enquiries into male violence, rather than as grisly cheerings of same. And yet the horror art that Adorno is proposing as commensurate with fascism and occupation and your administered life does not, in fact, work that way; it is no longer on the continuum with activist journalism or moral sense theory. The “radically darkened art” that Adorno is proposing must do something more “than merely protest”; we need an art, rather, that “has taken the disaster into itself” and that “identifies with it,” an art, indeed, that “has defected to the enemy”—not horror, but gonzo horror. If we follow this line, we will actually have to relinquish most ghost stories and vampire movies for being plain-vanilla Gothic. Horror fiction, which respectable readers usually think of as out-there and round-the-bend, now stands accused of having never gone far enough. The Gothic is itself scared of something, permanently recoiling from its own dismal consequence.

A counter-intuitive argument, no doubt. So why might a person come to this conclusion about the Gothic? In what aberrant circumstances does horror fiction itself seem squeamish? Such is the utility of one collection of recent scholarly articles about weird fiction in Germany; the dozen contributors to Popular Revenants make clear just how much timorous philosophizing the rubric of the Gothic makes possible. This dispersed volume’s uniting arguments are threefold: that horror fiction is cosmopolitan; that it broadcasts enlightenment (and not the demonic counter-enlightenment you might have expected); and that it does so in perpetuity, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and so not just in the decades of a flourishing and self-conscious Romanticism). Let’s take each of these claims in turn.

The Gothic is cosmopolitan. The volume is subtitled “The German Gothic and its International Reception,” and its biggest innovation is right there after the colon. It has to be said: “The German Gothic” is a puzzling term, though not much more so than the designator “Gothic” by itself, since this last was originally an ethnic and geographical term (a name for the Germanic tribes of central and eastern Europe in the period of the Roman Empire), which then mutated into a periodizing term naming not peoples but centuries (a name for the Middle Ages almost anywhere in Europe), before mutating again to describe a group of eerie, late eighteenth-century novels whose most famous examples are set in neither the Middle Ages nor Germany. The problem in the present case is that “Gothic” is a word that some English readers once used to describe fictions that struck them as in some ill-defined sense “Germanic,” but then this last word is one that no German writer (or literary historian) can meaningfully self-apply, since one rather expects German writing to come across as Germanic. All German literature is Gothic, and the term “German Gothic” thus becomes a redundancy, akin to calling a novel “Teutono-Allemanic.” But then German literary history has for that very reason never really taken to the term, preferring to speak of Schauerliteratur or Räuberromane or more recently of Horrorliteratur. There is no gotische Literatur, or if there is, it involves twig-writing on amulets and might have been invented by Odin. And yet from out of this muddle, the editors of Popular Revenants have managed to extract an argument or affirmative program. They know that the term “German Gothic” is largely their own creation, and they know, too, what a casual reader is likely to miss—that the term “Gothic” makes this literature in some sense less German and not more so, flagging the affiliations between uncanny writing in German and such writing in other languages, especially English. E. T. A. Hoffmann becomes in the uptake more of a French writer than a German one. In 1786, a German novelist translates from the English an extravagantly plotted historical romance and goes on to write a few novels of her own in that acquired vein. In the 1790s, these are translated into English in turn, by which point they get to count as echt deutsch. Popular Revenants is never more convincing than when establishing the Gothic as a pan-European mode and when establishing the brief centrality of Germany to a literature that you might have remembered as being set mostly in Spain and Italy. For a few decades in the early nineteenth century, when readers were eagerly buying “tales of the northern nations,” it was not uncommon for an English novelist to claim that a novel was hers when it was actually translated from the German or to claim that it was a translation from the German when it was actually hers: “A Very German Story.” The term “Gothic” might be ethnic-tribal, but a nationalist account of Gothic literature will not do. Victor Frankenstein travels to Bavaria and Scotland and the Arctic; the Transylvanian noble stows away on a ship bound for the Yorkshire coast; nineteenth-century Gothic novels were themselves on the move, widely translated and written in many languages anyway. The most famous thing the ancient Goths ever did was cross the Danube.

The Gothic is enlightened. This claim is also true and might even be truer than you think. Nearly the first lesson that any student of the Gothic learns is that the genre comes in two forms: the supernatural kind, in which the bogeys and demons are real, and the demystifying kind, in which the goblins all turn out to be Jesuits. We know to call that second kind of Gothic enlightened, but the first is hardly less so, and both wobble with paradox. The villains of the demystifying Gothic are those who use terror to shore up their authority—priests, political operatives, gaslighting Machiavels—but then the ranks of such fear-preachers would have to include Gothic novelists themselves, who find themselves saying both that there is nothing to be scared of and that one should stand aghast at anyone who tells you different. That you should fear those who try to instill fear into you is a sentiment that will always indict its speaker. The supernatural Gothic, meanwhile, might seem irrational or anti-scientific, in that it asks its readers to credit a still occult world, and yet the heroes of such fictions are typically out to defeat everything magical, to reduce the paranormal back to the normal, and whenever they succeed the enchanted Gothic outs itself as disenchantment by other means. Protestants and liberals and London lawyers learn just enough Church Latin to make the vampire go away. Even counter-enlightenment is made to serve the purposes of the enlighteners.

For current purposes, the important point is that this last sentence could serve equally well as a summary of Popular Revenants, whose authors tell us more than once that Schauerromane were products of “the late Enlightenment” or that the Gothic was “firmly rooted in a dominant strand of [the] late Enlightenment.” It’s just that the wisdom that the literary critics have extrapolated from these strange fictions still sounds a lot like counter-Enlightenment: that the “supposedly solid enlightened subject” is easily “deranged”; that humans have difficulties “thinking of themselves as coherent subjects”; that the Enlightenment itself needs “testing out.” One of the volume’s major aims is thus to undo the distinction between Enlightenment and Enlightenment critique, simply by reassigning to the former the insights of the latter. Adorno and Horkheimer took something rather like this to be one of enlightenment’s most alarming features—that rational argument would be impossible to outrun, that even opposition to enlightenment would be obliged henceforth to offer itself as enlightenment. Popular Revenants takes this obligation to be a virtue, and the Gothic of its making comes to us as a basically Kantian exercise—that’s the “late” in “late Enlightenment”—an enlightened culture’s candid reflection on its own limits and failures. Kafka and Poe cordially request that you not overdo it with the Diderot.

The Gothic is not a period in literary history, but an enduring strand that runs throughout modern storytelling. Nearly half the volume’s contributions have been arranged in service of this point, demonstrating the persistence of the macabre in the German realism of Wilhelm Raabe or Theodor Fontane; in the German modernism of early twentieth-century Prague or Weimar cinema; in postmodern novels of German reunification (by Christa Wolf and Irina Liebmann). It is perhaps confounding that the editors would think it needful to relitigate a case already made by sundry historians of supernatural fiction. Indeed, an English-speaking reader is more likely to have been told at some point that it was realism, and not the Gothic, that has been strangely absent from German literary history—that what the German nineteenth century lacked was an Austen or a Dickens or a Balzac or a Zola, some realist so formidable that I can count on your knowing their name. Anyone reading in translation might even get the impression that German literature has only ever been fantastic, an unbroken sequence of plays about the devil, stories about robot women, and novellas about bug-men, with the not-quite-literary, but wholly Gothic, figures of Wagner and Nietzsche occupying the late nineteenth-century slots where one might have expected to find Flaubert and Tolstoy.

So why tell us all over again that the Gothic has never gone away? The collection’s three main claims have to be considered together: The German Gothic has been cosmopolitan, enlightened, and perpetual. Taken singly, none of these observations is wrong, but conjoined they present an image of the Gothic as accommodating and ecumenical, at home in every literary style and period, mediating an accord between enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, itinerant across Europe to ensure the peace of nations. What the editors have done, then, is crafted a Gothic wholly without conflict or adversary, a horror fiction that wants to be everybody’s friend. And then that, tailored to our prejudices, is the squeamish Gothic that Adorno was trying to identify and surpass. It is also a Gothic remodeled on the example of critical theory itself, an international conversation about the impasses and injuries of the rationalized world—international, but with Germans taking the lead. It’s just that this confluence both confirms many of Adorno’s core arguments and oddly robs them of their force. In Popular Revenants, we read that the Gothic is amenable to “transfer,” like money into a bank account or executives reposted to Singapore. We are told that other Europeans have always undertaken a “commerce with German letters.” A Gothic commodity of this kind has precisely not gone over to the enemy, but is obligingly doing the work of the neo-Kantian angels. German monsters cross borders, but only in the manner of Berlin philosophers guest-lecturing at American universities. A horror fiction this worldly and liberal-minded betrays its own anxieties and above all its fear of the provincial: the dialect tale, the hatchet-waving redneck, the untranslated book. Here, then, is my proposal, a general one, a learnable method, not confined to Popular Revenants: Whenever someone offers you a definition of the Gothic, invert it—say clearly what this version of the Gothic is not, what it is rejecting or cannot accommodate. Strip the Gothic of what a given critic thinks makes it respectable and in that negation you will find a second Gothic, a horror prime secreted in its spooky base. If someone tells you that the Gothic is cosmopolitan and enlightened, it’s not so hard to figure out that they are scared of something, which is that it is neither. But then of course the idea of a multinational and semi-illuminated Gothic is not simply an error. Sometimes the cosmopolitans who wear their enlightenment lightly really are the scary ones. In British West Africa, colonial administrators thought it was their job to protect indigenous societies from precipitate modernization and ruled them tenaciously to that end. The team-leaders of a bohemianized capitalism don’t like the old corporate managers any more than Adorno himself did; they will speak to you of “flexibility” and “creativity,” and what they will mean is that you are going to have to be accommodating, adaptable; that you can never say no; that you will never stop working. If you make horror fiction sound like a measured version of critical theory, as this book does, then it is only a matter of time before readers will think to ask where critical theory has been most horrifying. Somebody, somewhere feels stalked by ghastly Habermasians.

Against Joy, Part 3

Deleuze Lamennais 4-A


But as ever in such matters, a philosophy, once disavowed, leaves only its worst features behind, its intellectual sludge. Let us take the tally of two important passages from Empire, just to see what they yield. First, there is a passage early in Empire where Hardt and Negri take up a salutary distance from Marx and an old-fashioned Marxist stagism. In particular, they want to do away with any Marxist defense of imperialism, as in: It’s a good thing after all that the British are colonizing India, because colonialism, brutal though it may be, is rooting out Oriental despotism and thus establishing the preconditions for communism. Second, there is the following oddly discursive exclamation: “How hollow the rhetoric of the [early U.S.] Federalists would have been and how inadequate their own ‘new political science’ had they not presupposed [the] vast and mobile threshold of the frontier!” Hardt and Negri, it is important to understand, are sticking up for the idea of the frontier. This sentence comes as part of a long description of the first phase of American constitutionalism, from the Revolution to the Civil War, the Jeffersonian moment, the collective self-making of a frontier society, and the thread that runs through these pages is that whatever has been best about the American experiment depends on the frontier. It is what lends early American politics credibility. Hardt and Negri celebrate the young United States because it was “constantly open to new lines of flight.”

It is necessary, I think, to read these two passages together because in concert they will seem strange and symptomatic where individually each might get overlooked. Hardt and Negri accuse Marx of a certain Eurocentrism and then go off and emulate the master on just this unfortunate point, in precisely the same form. What does it mean to celebrate the frontier? Hardt and Negri make much of the unbounded and open territory of North America:

From the perspective of the new United States, the obstacles to human development are posed by nature, not history—and nature does not present insuperable antagonisms or fixed social relationships. It is a terrain to transform and traverse.

Here, then, is the Marxist defense of colonization, preemptively recanted but unscathed for all that. Need it even be pointed out any longer that the notion of the American continent as “nature,” a wilderness without history, is little more than a murderous cliché, a mental smallpox? Hardt and Negri are claiming that it was the business of colonialism to bring the multitude to the Americas, to unleash its creative potentials in a way that housebound Europeans—but also Indians—could not; “to transform and traverse” nature, where tribal society had merely made an accommodation with it. There’s more in this vein:

The frontier is a frontier of liberty. … Across the great open spaces the constituent tendency wins out over the constitutional decree, the tendency of the immanence of the principle over regulative reflection, and the initiative of the multitude over the centralization of power.

It is the notion of “great open spaces” that is hard to read past. Hardt and Negri turn on its head one of the commonplaces of Marxist history-writing by preferring the American Revolution to the French, holding it out as the Left’s proper spur and model. The problem is that their entire account of the United States depends on this notion of open space, which they sometimes hedge—“empty (or emptied)”—but which they usually just repeat. It has to be said: The notion of “open space” is simply a lie, and I’m not sure what we gain from treating it any differently. Or rather, I think I know what we gain, but the gain itself is disheartening. What we gain is the Deleuzian world of the multitude, the smooth, open world of flows and unconstricted movement. But then what Hardt and Negri are secretly conceding in those parentheses is that the world is never smooth; it must be made smooth. The world is not open, it must be opened, which is to say evacuated. This is where their covert Hegelianism does its scariest work. What Deleuze tends to describe as though it were an ontological guarantee is actually the outcome of contingent and lethal historical processes—or maybe Hardt and Negri would say that they are not contingent, but then they really have written a Philosophy of History. The multitude—and not just empire (or Empire)—has mass death as its historical precondition. In order for Hardt and Negri’s philosophical argument to be true—in order for it to come true in the really-existing world—Indian removal has to happen first.

One might say in Hardt and Negri’s defense that they don’t shrug off mass death; they point right to it. The indigenous, they note, “existed outside the Constitution as its negative foundation”; republicanism in practice was actually pretty bruising. But then, of course, Marx makes the same concession for India. The problem is that they don’t let this admission exert any pressure on the lines of their argument. They include a few sentences on the American holocaust as though merely mentioning demonstrated due historical diligence and then go on to write sentences that seem predicated on its not having happened after all. If you want to face up to the history of colonization, however, you have at least two options: You might say, as Hardt and Negri’s scheme seems to require, that the Indians were the necessary victims of a Hegelian world history of the multitude, which began its highest stage in the Americas, where the (European) multitude-in-itself became the multitude-for-itself, the self-producing subject/object of history. Even Lukács would blush.

Alternately, you can get used to the idea that the material history of the extermination unmasks American republicanism as self-deceiving. Hardt and Negri’s embrace of the Machiavellian or Jeffersonian republican is their philosophy’s weakest strut, depending as it does on an utterly untenable antithesis between republicanism and sovereignty. Hardt and Negri have a lot riding on classical republicanism, the republicanism of Florence and the revolutionary Atlantic; it is supposed to provide autonomia with the dignity of historical precedence, which is also to say that it is supposed to wean today’s social-democratic Left of its fatal attachment to the state.  But this republicanism was itself never anything less than imperialist, a republicanism of dispossession and the plantation. Early English republicanism was a species of political economy. Its most distinctive feature was a theory of agrarian virtue, which argued that a flourishing polity would draw on the capacities of all its citizens. In order for those capacities to remain intact, however, citizens would have to cling to their autonomy, to steer clear of the corrupting ties of commercial and political dependence. And if citizens were to remain autonomous, each would need a plot of land to cultivate; crops and livestock would be the guarantee of economic and thus political independence. This means that republicanism thought of itself from the very beginning as expansive, as requiring ever more land to produce ever greater numbers of virtuous citizens, and when we consult the history books on this score, we find many different versions of the republican land-grab: we find England’s seventeenth-century radicals taking refuge from Cromwell in Ireland, where they dreamt of expropriating the natives; we find England’s revolutionary government engineering a dreadful new organization of labor around the entire Atlantic basin; we find both Machiavelli and Harrington calling for free and democratic republics to conquer other nations. Nothing is easier to undo than the distinction between republic and empire. It is a gross simplification to chalk the entire history of political crime up to Hobbes.

So what does gay science want from you? Among other things, it wants you not to be an Indian. It wants you, in fact, to stop talking about Indians. We can turn, at this point, to a defense of Nietzsche that Michael Hardt wrote some years before Empire. The continuing importance of Nietzsche, he offers, is that he is not Hegel. Nietzsche points the way out of the dialectic, to a non-dialectical form of negation, “an absolutely destructive negation that spares nothing from its force and recuperates nothing from its enemy; it must be an absolute aggression that offers no pardons, takes no prisoners, pillages no goods; it must mark the death of the enemy, with no resurrection.” It is hard to know how to respond to the exterminationist fantasy set loose in these lines, except to point out that this, too, is gay science: Nietzsche is to be preferred to Hegel because he is Hiroshima. The only passage in the pages of Deleuzian Marxism more dumbfounding than this is Eugene Holland’s defense of the enclosure movement—the centuries-long expropriation and immiseration of Europe’s peasantry—as deterritorialization, as the peasantry’s liberation, in other words, a kind of historical free jazz improvised on the bodies of the poor. Hardt and Negri, in turn, offer a defense of the poor that is at once Deleuzian and Franciscan, and it is one of their loveliest passages: “The poor itself is power. There is World Poverty, but there is above all World Possibility, and only the poor are capable of this. … The dominant stream of the Marxist tradition, however, has always hated the poor, precisely for their being ‘free as birds’”—in context, this key Marxist epithet takes on overtones of Francesco preaching to the sparrows. But even this splendid argument has as it grim corollary the insinuated case that only the destitute can be properly militant, that anyone with any patch of land, no matter how meager, is to be written off as a kulak, still waiting for the deterritorialization that will set him free. In Multitude, their follow-up to Empire, Hardt and Negri spell it out: “The figure of the peasant may pose the greatest challenge for the concept of the multitude.” The dissolution of peasant societies, the converging of all life on advanced capitalist forms of production, “is one condition that makes possible the existence of the multitude.” Peasants die so that the multitude may live.

There are weighty philosophical matters at issue here. One of the stock charges filed against Hegel is that he functionalizes negation; that is, he sees all negativity as having functions—philosophically, for a start, but also historically—in a manner that justifies all mass-killing as progress, redescribes every invasion as an encounter and every conquest as a fusion. Negation becomes the path through history. The alternative to such high-minded apologetics might seem to be a Deleuzian or Nietzschean philosophy without negativity. But it turns out to be remarkably hard, at this level, to tell the difference between the Hegelian approach and the Nietzschean. Consider Book IV of the Gay Science, which contains some of the most Deleuzian, yea-saying passages that Nietzsche ever wrote. It is in these pages that Nietzsche raises the bar on the notion of a philosophy without negativity. I will have to learn, Nietzsche writes, to make do without critique of any kind. I do not want to accuse; I will not even accuse the accusers; I will so distance myself from ressentiment that not even ressentiment will vex me. Then, scattered about the next two books, we find a whole series of passages in which Nietzsche goes out of his way to praise all those things we normally think of him as seething against: Religion is a dynamic force in history; it serves life. Morality is a dynamic and creative force in history; it, too, serves life. These passages are all offered as lessons in what it means not to accuse the accusers. And then at 307, Nietzsche makes a crucial argument: Negativity itself is not negative; it is creative and life-serving. Nietzsche has lain bare the very mechanism by which negativity gets functionalized. Anti-Hegelianism, as the negation of the negation, becomes indistinguishable from its antithesis, just as Hegelianism is easily understood as a Deleuzian philosophy without negativity, if Hegel’s point is that negation (contradiction or the limit) always yields some new, positive term. Everything is positive: Massacres are positive, subjugation is positive. “We do not intend here to weep over the destruction and expropriation that capitalism continually operates across the world…”

It is, finally, one of the strangest features of Hardt and Negri’s writing that an argument whose historical horizon is largely medieval should at the same time be so progressivist, calling for “new barbarians” on one page and glossing over the near-extermination of Native America on the next. Hardt and Negri may be the new Goths, but they are also the new Whigs—odd, no doubt, but there is all manner of precedent for this unlikely combination. In its earliest seventeenth- and eighteenth-century formulations, radical Whig ideology was medievalizing through and through. The notion here was that the ancient Saxons had practiced a rough and spontaneous republicanism, which had been terminated only by the Norman Conquest and the imposition of French tyrannies—monarchy, aristocracy, sovereignty. The original program of Whig radicalism, then, was directed at the progressive recovery of the primal liberties of Mercia and Wessex. England was to be at last decolonized, made Gothic again—you might think of this as an English-republican version of primitive (African or Latin American) communism and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Hardt and Negri’s medievalist fantasies are actually of a piece with their conspicuous attachment to early modern political theory, which entertained medievalist fantasies of its own. This attachment is so pronounced, in fact, that Hardt and Negri sometimes seem to think of the present as part of some very long seventeenth century: In order to make sense of the present, they instruct us in Multitude, we will need to understand Hobbes, the English Interregnum, the enclosure movement, the battle between absolutism and aristocracy, the Baroque, and curiosity cabinets. But then what is the upshot of this seventeenth-century short course? For this we can look to Negri, who is fond of a formulation that he has borrowed from the following century’s Edmund Burke. Again and again, Negri praises the early North American colonists as “English Tartars,” praises their “Tartar sense of freedom.” The still Deleuzian claim here is that it is the English colonists who were the continent’s real nomads, its real tribesmen or better Indians, its glorious, rampaging savages. One is permitted to wonder whether any of this is much of an advance for a communism—to unseat Lenin only to put Leatherstocking in his place.

One important question remains: Does a Deleuzian politics bear some exceptional animus towards peasants and indigenous peoples? Does the multitude become universal only when these two classes are no longer around to exclude? Or is there some broader process by which the multitude can expel various groups, and not just Burundian subsistence farmers and the Hopi, from its not-so-general assembly? It’s hard to say. The important thing to know about Commonwealth, the third volume in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, is that it is largely an exercise in auto-critique, full of qualifications and concessions and takebacks—full of claims, I mean, that we don’t much associate with Hardt and Negri: that the Left needs to stop talking so much about sovereignty and to start thinking about capitalism again; that vitalism is a politically ambiguous ontology booby-trapped with openings to authoritarianism; that often it will not be enough to flee the scene of one’s oppression, that sometimes one will have to fight. It is in this spirit of revision that Hardt and Negri undertake in Commonwealth to clear some space in the multitude for native people after all, sticking up, via Mariátegui, for the indigenous commons and the figure of the emancipated Indian, provided, however, that an Andean communism is not understood as authentically precolonial but appears instead as resistance to colonization, hence as an act of self-modernization. They even call out “liberal oligarchies throughout Latin America” for “mobilizing a … ‘race-blind’ ideology, attempting to Hispanicize the indigenous population with the goal of eradicating the ‘Indian’—through education, intermarriage, and migration.” The problem even here, though, is that Hardt and Negri have already in the same volume said that they also favor indigenous people when they have been in large part de-indigenized, and this predilection will now squat incoherently alongside their attack on neoliberalism. The Oneida and the Spokane are always going to have a hard time joining the multitude, for the simple reason that I can name them as such; those names—rival identifications, really, and imperfectly transferable to regions outside the eastern Great Lakes or inland Washington—will retard the entry of the indigenous into the universal non-class. Preferable, then, are “mestizas/mestizos, Black Indians, ‘half-breeds,’ Indians excluded from their tribes and other hybrid figures, constantly moving across borders through the desert.” The issue isn’t just that this list is the American Southwest transparently re-described as Glissant’s Caribbean. The issue is that even on the evidence of Hardt and Negri’s own rhetoric the program of the multitude coincides with the neoliberalism that it claims to oppose: Neoliberals should be chided for encouraging Indians to intermarry, but the multitude deserves praise for preferring breeds to bloods. Latin American elites harry indigenous populations by forcing them to migrate, but an ontology of becoming requires its Indians to be in perpetual motion anyway. What on one page Hardt and Negri call “becoming-multitude” they before long rename “eradication.”

So a Deleuzian Marxism has special problems comprehending native people. Even its most direct overtures to the indigenous end up misdelivered. But then it’s not clear whether any of us, native or otherwise, were ever going to make it into the multitude anyway, whatever its putative universalism. This is the issue that anyone who refuses to talk about Deleuze’s Hegelianism will be unable to face squarely. But then Deleuze’s debt to Hegel is so naked that it should be difficult not to talk about: Nothing is more central to Deleuze’s thinking than the idea that philosophy is a project of de-reification. To the philosopher’s gaze, “the actual object dissolves.” Metaphysics should help us discern the processes that “reconvert object into subject,” and it is important not to read this last word—“subject”—as meaning “the human,” since any such dereifying process “has only the virtual as its subject.” Ontology, then, will direct our attention towards the virtual as cosmic Master Subject; I might recommend that we go ahead and call this cosmic subject Geist, but then it turns out Deleuze already has, in the second Cinema book: “Subjectivity is never ours, it is time’s, that is, soul, spirit, the virtual.” If we follow the route of philosophy and learn to think from the position of this more-than-human spirit-subject—from what Deleuze calls the position of the “the virtual Whole”—then we will undergo the “becoming-God of the human, a becoming infinite of the finite.” This particular becoming is what Deleuze and Guattari call their “eschatology,” “the apocalypse,” la fin. To help history achieve its proper endpoint, one will have to assist in the world’s derealization; philosophically educated people, in other words, will have to become “the manservants of the abstract”—will have to develop a “passion for abstraction.” That so many readers have nonetheless declared Deleuze and Guattari  materialists goes back, I think, to a nifty rhetorical trick, whereby they seem again and again to affirm the materiality of the worldly terms that they actually mean to liquidate, simply be retaining the corporeal names for such terms even in their liquidated form, such that the negated body becomes “the body without organs,” negated space becomes “perfectly smooth space,” and so on. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari don’t think of such liquidated terms as in any sense outside of the world, but what we’ll want to note all the same is that once translated back into a materialist frame—once declared immanent—such abstractions, which Deluze sometimes calls “the Idea,” are to be preferred to any of their more determinate rivals. The becoming world aspires to the condition of the sloshing sea, or of desert light, or indeed of thought itself, which is after all of non-things the most glabrous. “When people are asked to apprehend some concept, they often complain that they do not know what they have to think. … The mind, denied the use of its familiar ideas, feels the ground where it once stood firm and at home taken away from beneath it, and, when transported into the region of pure thought, cannot tell where in the world it is.” Philosophy as liberating groundlessness, disorientation, abduction—that’s paragraph 3 in Hegel’s shorter Logic.

It is in this context that we must evaluate the key role that Hardt and Negri assign to “the immaterial.” That word gets us, indeed, to one of their most oft-repeated claims: that “immaterial labor” and the making of intangible goods are the present’s big opening onto communism, which will accordingly be an immaterial communism, an ethereal politics for a derealized socius. It might be hard, at first, to know what Hardt and Negri mean by this work-without-matter, but all you have to do to grasp their meaning is gather together the near-synonyms that typically, in Empire and its sequels, appear alongside the word “immaterial”: “linguistic,” “communicational,” “intellectual,” “cognitive,” “affective.” At its baldest, Hardt and Negri’s account of “immaterial labor” amounts to the claim that we are all culture workers now—that we are all producers of text and image and saleable experience—and that all work on the planet has come to resemble, more or less, a media job. From this claim follows two others: that intellectual labor has a special knack for eluding the old modes of industrial labor discipline (which is good news, since all labor now tends towards the condition of intellectual labor); and that immaterial goods make communism possible because they can easily become common—because, that is, ideas, images, and the like are directly shareable and so exempt from logics of scarcity. The argument, we’ll want to note, is implausible at every point: No-one with knowledge of Korean animation factories—or of Barry Gordon’s Motown, for that matter—could claim that culture-work has ever been impervious to Taylorization. Nor are those who drive UPS trucks likely to agree that all work in the present involves novel degrees of thought and art. More important, it is difficult to see how Hardt and Negri’s claims about immaterial production could ever be generalized. When they claim that communism is at hand because mp3’s and jpeg’s can by copied without limit, one wishes naturally to ask whether they also have plans for the sharing out of things that are not in the same sense copyable: rain boots, ethambutol, rice. And when they have repeated the bit about the mp3’s for the sixth or seventh time, one simply concludes that they have no idea what to do about the rice—that communism, in other words, will be immaterial or it will be nothing. A communism thus de-realized loses its will to propagate material things, and the multitude that is this communism’s group-subject has no need of the people still fated to make and service such things. Go back to those adjectives: Your place in the multitude depends to some large degree on your being able to describe your job as “intellectual,” communicative,” or “cognitive”—to your producing “images, codes, knowledges, affects.” A communism for the creative classes wriggles free of its dependence on the old European proletariat; such is doubtless a large part of its appeal. It also does without Chinese garment workers, Amazon warehouse wallahs, and Turkish strawberry pickers.

At this point, it becomes important to hold apart two distinct arguments we might make about transversal philosophy and schizo-Marxism. We can hail Deleuzian thought, in eulogy, as one of the great emancipatory projects of its generation and still want to explain our disappointment with its course. We know that Anti-Oedipus took 1968 as its prompt, because its authors tell as much; and we know that the most important sections of A Thousand Plateaus were first published in the lead-up to the Italian Movement of 1977 and the Bologna uprising, which huzzah’d Guattari as one of its teachers and heroes. We will need the intellectual historians and sociologists of knowledge to explain to us, then, how such books have ended up in the appreciative hands of the Israeli Defense Forces and the dot-com philosophers of the utopian-but-profitable Internet. It will not be enough to say that the Israeli military is “abusing” Deleuze by “taking his ideas out of context”—or that the paid poets of web and wire are “appropriating” schizoanalysis by putting it to non-Deleuzian ends. A theory that expects thought to be divvied up, composted, and recycled—a theory that, indeed, prefers thought when it is mobile, beyond itself, and out of context—confers no authority on those who would object to its repurposing. Anyone who says that Deleuze and Guattari need to be “reclaimed”—that they need to be retrieved and led back to their proper place—is defending his masters in terms they would not recognize. So we might instead frame our disappointment with Deleuze as a simple matter of theory and practice, and this in some classical sense: Deleuze and Guattari recommended rhizomes to us; we have tried them out at some length, typically in the form of “networks”; and we can say now upon reflection that they just aren’t working out, that they have never been as smooth as promised, never as horizontal in their growth. Networks continue to generate winners and losers. Our yams all have lumps. We might not have known in 1980 that a world of maximally deregulated flows—the Deleuzian pure economy uncontaminated by power—wasn’t much more than the left-wing path to neoliberalism, but there is no excuse for not knowing that now.

So that’s one way to refresh your thinking about Deleuze: You can chart who has been reading him in the generation since his death, and this ecumenically, taking care to expand the list beyond the people you went to graduate school with; you can note who sounds most like Deleuze even when they don’t cite him; and you can identify their institutional affiliations and the audiences they seem to be addressing. At that point, you will likely be forced to conclude that the ostensibly dissident Deleuze bubble inside the academy has coincided with a not-at-all dissident network bubble outside of it—with, I mean, the inflation of the word “network” to one of our generation’s master terms. What I would like to suggest now, though, is that we could also just go back and read Deleuze and Guattari again, paying careful attention to their political rhetoric, bringing forward their many historical claims, taking seriously their notion that some polities—some types of polity and not others—have been the proper vehicle of the élan vital. And if we do that, then we will see that we needn’t have been all that surprised by the emergence of what some future intellectual historian is bound to call Right Deleuzianism. It would have been enough to read the books, since the core Deleuzians all verbally champion versions of the administered society; they have been imaginatively invested in such systems, persistently and throughout their writings. Saying as much also means that we will have to get the periodization right, and here, too, the task is to avoid a certain belatedness. For we didn’t have to wait for an advanced post-Fordism to discover that Deleuze had been hijacked (because every Stanford grad now thinks he’s a silicon nomad, &c). It wasn’t a hijacking. All the Deleuzian theorists ask, if sometimes only in passing, which forms of government—or perhaps non-government—are in keeping with the rhizome or horizontal network of becoming. It is wholly misleading, in this context, to talk about Deleuzian “anarchism,” as most readers casually do, since the polity that Deleuze and Guattari themselves most often advert to is not autonomia, but its opposite, which is empire.

We need to proceed slowly here. Hardt and Negri are nakedly urban and indeed “metropolitan” in their political preferences: “The metropolis might be considered … the skeleton and spinal cord of the multitude. … The metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class.” Not the reservation, village, or town; not even the regional city or small-nation capital; the metropolis. There are few passages in which the Empire trilogy so gracelessly abrogates its own universalism. To be part of the multitude you actually have to live in a particular kind of place. There will be no communism on the periphery, or at best a weedier version of it. But Deleuze and Guattari argue nothing of the sort. Indeed, this is where Hardt and Negri might seem to be least like their forebears, whose geographical imaginations tend rather towards the pastoral and the outlying—towards Berbers and deserts and the steppe. If we’re tracking intellectual debts, we can say that Deleuze and Guattari often draw on political anthropology and especially on those anarchist anthropologists who have helped us all understand how it is that societies can thrive even in the absence of formalized government. Some tribal societies, we read in A Thousand Plateaus, have been wholly knowing about their headlessness, embarked on a political project to resist the state—not just pre-state, by the ticking of some some civilizational and evolutionary timeline, and so fated to pass from big man to chief to king, but actively anti-state. They also repeat the claims of sexual anthropology in the mode of Malinowski, Mead, and Reich, to the effect that tribal people have been spared repression, sexual constriction, and neurosis: “in the primitive socius desire is not yet trapped.” Mostly, though, their non-metropolitan bent appears not as a set of borrowed ethnographic claims, which one might ask an anthropologist colleague to confirm or disconfirm, but as a pervasive idiom or ethnically ecstatic prose style. If you feel that Hardt and Negri’s position smacks too much of Paris-London-Berlin, you might find that you prefer Deleuze and Negri’s version of what are after all mostly the same arguments, though this will depend largely on your tolerance for Euro-primitivism and philo-Orientalism. Here are some claims from Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

-“There is much of the East in Kleist.”

-All things open to the world, capable of self-organization and self-transformation, are “like Arabs or Indians.”

-“The Orient” is a name for any smooth space. So is “the Sahara.”

-Central African “medicine men” already perform schizoanalysis on village neurotics.

-This Id is “peopled” with “races and tribes,” “swarming, teeming, ferment, intensities.” This makes black people and Kalmyks akin to what “passes through the veins of a drug addict.”

-“I am a beast, a nigger”—that’s Rimbaud, quoted to vigorous nodding.

-Asia is to be preferred to Europe because “the East” has no trees. Or perhaps there are some trees in Asia, but Asians themselves act as if there weren’t, shunning trunk and branch, unseduced by arborescence. And the people of the East neither cultivate stemmy plants (no upward-growing crops for the Khmer!), nor keep livestock in their villages.

-“I return from my tribes. As of today, I am the adoptive son of fifteen tribes, no more, no less. And they in turn are my adopted tribes, for I love each of them more than if I had been born into it.”

Perhaps you’ve already decided that this list isn’t all that interesting, that it’s all just so much standard-issue négritude blanche. You’d have a point, but even so you might want to linger over that last entry long enough to register, first, that those sentences make most sense if spoken by a metropolitan and non-native: I return from Indian country (and to France or Britain or Boston); and second, that its attitude is oddly possessive: MY tribes—the stance, then, of an adventurer and collector and ethno-tourist. And once you’ve spotted this, it becomes harder to say that Negri is metropolitan and Deleuze isn’t. Indeed, what is distinctive about schizoanalysis or rhizomatic thought—what distinguishes these latter from a generic French Third Worldism—is that Deleuze so often lets his enthusiasm for tribes and nomads slide into an enthusiasm for empire itself. By some transitive property, the colonizers take on the virtues of the colonized; the French and British empires take on the virtues of stateless societies. I’ll let Deleuze and Guattari tell it:

-“The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.”

-“In one way or the other, the animal is more a fleer than a fighter, but its flights are also conquests, creations.”

-Europeans must learn to adopt “the American meaning of frontiers: something to go beyond, limits to cross over, flows to set in motion, noncoded spaces to enter.”

-“Kipling understood the call of the wolves, their libidinal meaning, better than Freud.”

-“England … is Germany’s obsession, for the English are precisely those nomads who treat the plane of immanence as a movable and moving ground, a field of radical experience, an archipelagian world where they are happy to pitch their tents from island to island and over the sea. The English nomadize over the old Greek earth, broken up, fractalized, and extended to the universe. … The English inhabit. For them a tent is all that is needed.”

-The French colonies in Africa were an “open social field” in which black people demonstrated how sexually liberated they were by dreaming about “being beaten by a white man.”

-Anti-imperialism was a neurotic condition. Left to their own devices, that is, tribal people were not neurotic. Under colonial conditions, however, some of them became neurotic: “the elders who curse the White man, the young people who enter into a political struggle.”

To this list I need to add two observations that cannot be discretely quoted:

-The third chapter of A Thousand Plateaus is presented as a lecture by a fictional character, whom the authors present as their great Edwardian predecessor, the one who “invented a discipline he referred to by various names: rhizomatics, stratoanalysis, schizoanalysis, nomadology, micropolitics, pragmatics, the science of multiplicities.” But this character, Professor Challenger, is not Deleuze and Guattari’s invention; he’s been borrowed rather from Arthur Conan Doyle, whose most famous Challenger story recounts how the professor defeated a horde of “ape-men” with the help of a “devoted negro.” Forget Spinoza, in other words: Deleuze and Guattari appoint as their own tutor and co-author one of the heroes of imperial adventure fiction.

-Deleuze dedicated an entire, standalone essay to a British-imperial war planner, a spy in lands that the British would later colonize and re-settle, a colonel in the British Army and advisor to Winston Churchill in that country’s Colonial Office. This figure is held out to the reader as a model to be emulated, one of history’s great schizos, “making Spinoza’s formula his own,” an avatar of creative becoming, a creature of “pure intensity” with “a dissolved ego” and a “gift for making entities live passionately in the desert, alongside people and things, in the jerking rhythm of a camel’s gait.” T. E. Lawrence possessed a “disposition” towards non-identity “which led him far from his own country.”

What we’ll have to say at this point is that colonialism was always Deleuze’s preferred rhizome. This could, I realize, seem perplexing. His followers certainly write in denial and disbelief. “He made only occasional passing remarks about colonization,” observes one of his translators—of a philosopher who seems in fact to have written about little else. But let’s grant the Deleuzians their turmoil. From some angles, the coincidence of anarchy and colonization will be the biggest puzzle in all of rhizomatic thought. But that coincidence is, in fact, anchored in arguments that Deleuze and Guattari make and is thus not just a fluke of their rhetoric. The treatise on nomadology begins by arguing, on the authority of Pierre Clastres, that war is radically opposed to the state: War and the state are opposed principles or antitheses. You probably consider war to be one of those few activities that governments strictly reserve for themselves, but you’d be wrong. War is, properly considered, outside of the state. At first you might think that this claim, on the face of it absurd, is just one more instance of Deleuzian pataphysics, something on the order of in-Asia-there-are-no-trees. But there is actually a case to be made here, a case in some respects quite astute. The point is most clearly grasped in terms of political philosophy, for what Deleuze and Guattari have done is identify a weakness in Hobbesean accounts of sovereignty, one of whose more widely accepted claims is that states should (and do) establish a monopoly on force. But what does one ever mean by “monopoly on force”? What could one ever mean? What we usually mean is that the only members of a society who are licensed to use violence against others have been authorized to do so by government, that they tackle and clobber only in the state’s name. But as soon as we say this, we have already made a big concession, which is that the sovereign does not, in fact, possess a monopoly on force—the king or president does not sit in chamber holstering the nation’s only gun—but requires miscellaneous armed proxies and deputies: cops, sheriffs, marshals, soldiers. The monopoly on force inevitably involves the extensive sharing-out of force and is thus never a monopoly. To this argument, Deleuze and Guattari append an observation borrowed from historical sociology, to the effect that in tribal societies, war is what puts adult men in motion, preventing them from sinking back into stasis and statehood and bourgeois inertia; that’s an argument whose medievalizing versions get attached to names like Lancelot and Sir Gawain. It is during war that a nation’s citizens, armed and abroad, are least under sovereign review. This reasoning, at any rate, is what produces the distinctively Deleuzian defense of empire, since if you hold that warfare is antithetical to government, then you might be justified in arguing that colonization was not the extension of the European states; it was their antithesis and negation—in some literal and liberated sense outside of them. Anarchism is one name for a politics against the state, and it is mentioned in Capitalism and Schizophrenia basically not at all. Its other, less familiar name is empire, and it, unlike Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, appears on nearly every page.

But then what of the home front? Does the Deleuzian account of Europe and North America seem any more credible than the Deleuzian account of Senegal or Lebanon? Not really. Ultimately, the various versions of gay science all go back to a puzzling misdiagnosis of capitalism—our capitalism, Northern and consumer capitalism—as ascetic. It is only in the face of renunciation that joy seems like a political program in its own right. But the Weberian account of an austere and Puritanical capitalism was always a partial observation and has long since been rendered historically obsolete. The better life will require of us more than that we moon Benjamin Franklin. Of course, there is a special sense in which even consumer capitalism really is ascetic. The pleasures that it offers are secretly a form of work, just so much recapitulated labor, an administered leisure characterized by routine and command—“must-see TV,” they call it. But then this is a trick that consumer capitalism actually shares with Deleuzian thought and especially with Deleuze and Guattari’s own prose—this ecstasy that is really effort. Anti-Oedipal prose wants to register as delirious, but most casual readers find the style exhausting, a buffeting, disoriented prose of parataxis and unelucidated concepts. Deleuze’s defenders call it a writing experiment and ask that we acclimate to it in small doses. But the prose signals, I think, a properly political dilemma. Deleuzian politics is an endless orgasm of irrepressible creativity and productivity and wandering; it grants no calm or sanctuary, and the prose merely rehearses in advance this particular punishment, which does not know how to distinguish between the nomad and the refugee, between a line of flight and a death march. The reader tossing aside A Thousand Plateaus in frustration is already rejecting the Deleuzian dystopia, this coerced restlessness, this constant coupling of organs, this jumble of part-objects in indiscriminate connection, this drubbing that calls itself joy.

Boy scouts



-Deleuze and Guattari’s biographer quotes the former, speaking in 1988: “We, Félix and I, always fancied a universal history, which he [Foucault] hated.”

-If you have any doubts about what it took for North America to appear as “empty,” have a look at David Stannard’s American Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

-To get a handle on the colonial dimensions of English republicanism, you might begin with Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (London: Verso 2003); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon, 2000).

-On the trajectory of Deleuzian thought since the philosopher’s death, see Alex Galloway’s “Forget Deleuze.”

-All my Hegel-talk risks being a bit misleading. The differences between Hegel and Deleuze would in most contexts be more important than their similarities, since Hegel points our attention towards achieved complexity and does not use “abstract” as a term of praise. A kind of hyperdetermination,  the coexistence in a single order of all the determinations and potentialities-now-made-real, is to be preferred to the lack of determination. When all is said and done, the Deleuzian eschatology owes more to Schlegel or the 1790s Fichte; what is rhetorically curious is that Deleuze, in order to communicate Schlegelian positions, compulsively poaches so many motifs from a textbook French Hegel that he claims to have surpassed.

-Eugene Holland says that the expropriation of the English peasants was their deterritorialization. In this, he has merely found a historically more proximate instance of a claim that Deleuze and Guattari make about the Roman Empire in Anti-Oedipus, that it “decoded the producers through expropriation.”

-On Whig medievalism, see Christopher Hill’s “The Norman Yoke,” in Puritanism and Revolution (pp. 50-122); Samuel Kliger, The Goths in England (New York: Octagon, 1972); J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, rev. ed.); R.J. Smith, The Gothic Bequest: Medieval Institutions in British Thought, 1688-1863 (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1987).

-Anarchists have long been prone to imagine themselves as white Indians, Indian fighters, and Davy Crocketts. In the late 1970s, some Italian autonomists took to calling themselves the Indiani Metropolitani. And ere’s Bakunin writing to the Russian tsar: “In my nature … there has always been a basic flaw…. Most men seek tranquility; in me, however, it produces only despair. My spirit is in constant turmoil, demanding action, movement, and life. I should have been born somewhere in the American forests, among the settlers of the West, where civilization has hardly begun to blossom and where life is an endless struggle against untamed people, against untamed nature—and not in an organized civic society.” (qtd in Gornick’s Goldman bio, p. 44)

-One might “conclude that the ostensibly dissident Deleuze bubble inside the academy has coincided with a not-at-all dissident network bubble outside of it—with, I mean, the inflation of the word ‘network’ to one of our generation’s master terms.” The person I have hear say this most clearly is Alexander Galloway. Ask to see his unpublished “Forget Deleuze.”

Against Joy, Part 2

X privatization

This is the moment to return to Empire and “the joy of being communist.” Nietzsche, as the sole author of The Gay Science, is something of an anomaly. All great comic acts work in pairs: Deleuze and Guattarí, Hardt and Negri—these are our Gay Scientists, the zanies of this generation’s theoretical vaudeville. If you want to figure out what gay science wants for you, you will have to reckon with Deleuze and company, because it is in their writing that gay science gets round to advancing an actual political program, though that last phrase may, in fact, be off the mark. Deleuzian thought, and especially the Deleuzian brand of Marxism, is perhaps the grandest utopian philosophy of its time, and this makes its political status unusually hard to parse. Deleuzian thought works by taking the preoccupations of the twentieth century’s great critical theories—the Frankfurt School or deconstruction—and shifting them into an improbably affirmative mode. Everything that Adorno most wanted and thought he could not have—everything that he mourned for as historically foreclosed and philosophically pie-in-the-sky—Deleuze declares to be already at hand. Deleuze will teach us to think multiplicity, will show us that thought is after all fully adequate to the singular and the heterogeneous and the non-identical, that reification was never the problem we took it to be. He will teach us to think the union of subject and object—will teach us, in fact, that they were never really apart. And he will teach us to think the union of desire and labor; what capitalism has put asunder, ontology will reunite. This utopianism, moreover, is frankly avowed. Deleuzian philosophy offers itself in the service of “a new earth and a people that does not yet exist”—that’s Deleuze writing alongside Guattari. And Negri continues in the same vein: In any proper understanding of politics is “implicit the idea that the past no longer explains the present, and that only the future will be able to do so.” Any philosophy of the State—and most philosophy, from this perspective, turns out to be philosophy of the State—“is a juridical doctrine that knows only the past: it is continually referring to time past, to consolidated strengths and to their inertia, to the tamed spirit.” Radical thinking, by contrast, “always refers to the future.” To these remarks we might finally add the familiar observation that Hardt and Negri’s Empire refuses Left nostalgia in all its forms, all that downcast social-democratic hankering for the nation-state or the trade union or other institutions of a not-yet globalized world. It beckons to us from the communist yet-to-come.

The great surprise of Deleuzian thought, then, is that it is completely fixated on the past. This is perhaps clearest in Deleuze’s efforts to build a philosophical counter-canon: Spinoza, Hume, Sade, Nietzsche, Bergson; Negri has added Machiavelli and Marx to the list. When all is said and done, Deleuzians are unusually concerned with pedigree; they want us to know that their metaphysics comes with papers. But this historical fixation takes other, more complex forms, as well, and in order to make this point clear, it would help here to work out the modes of historicity that operate in Empire, still the central and indispensable text of Deleuzian Marxism. I say “modes,” in the plural, because Hardt and Negri’s arguments unfold in several different historical registers at once, and there is no obvious way to bring these registers together.

We can begin with the notion of historical repetition or the cycle. This is tricky: Marxist history-writing usually has more cycles than a washing machine, but Hardt and Negri’s Deleuzian framework officially prohibits any such perceptions, the reason being that Deleuzian history is supposed to be an aleatory affair, mutation-prone, directionless, rambunctious. In his book Insurgencies, then, Negri makes a point of washing his hands of historical recurrence: “the times of history are not those of a sentence, of an empty, suicidal repetition”; and Empire, likewise, devotes an entire sub-chapter to the polemic against cycles. It’s just that Hardt and Negri’s declared commitments on this score are mostly at odds with the substance of their historical account. This is already apparent in the book’s title, Empire, which is pregnant with the weight of historical repetition, the sinking realization that our postcolonial world has defaulted on its prefix, that the imperial dead are walking again. And yet whatever cycles make themselves felt in Empire, they aren’t, finally, the familiar Marxist ones; there are no waves of boom-and-bust here, no rounds of uneven development, no long centuries. What Hardt and Negri have done, in effect, is borrowed a notion of history from Nietzsche and Heidegger: The past, on this scheme, is a matter of some single event—some single catastrophe—happening over and over again, but amplified each time, ramified through repetition. For Heidegger, history’s key events have been the rise of Platonic philosophy, the rise of Latin Rome, the rise of Christianity, and the rise of industrial technology—except these aren’t really different events, but versions of the same event, the forgetting of Being. Nietzsche’s roster reads much like Heidegger’s—history turns on the rise of philosophy, the rise of Christianity, the rise of the court nobility, the rise of the bourgeoisie—and the one event or historical type that these all reduce back to is what we might call the negation of life.

At this point it becomes necessary to have a look at “the multitude,” which is Hardt and Negri’s central concept. Roughly, “the multitude” is Hardt and Negri’s version of “the proletariat” or simply “the people”; it is the keyword for a democratic and communist politics. As such, it would seem yawningly remote from Nietzsche’s writing or from Heidegger’s. But “the multitude” actually marks a novel attempt to combine Marx and Nietzsche. The most familiar attempts to absorb Nietzschean and Heideggerian arguments into Marxism—I’m thinking again of Adorno—generally begin by jettisoning the proletariat as the subject of history; such is their overture to Nietzsche, their sacrifice. They work, if you like, by giving Marxist answers to Nietzschean and Heideggerian questions. (Who killed the free and creative individual? Capitalism did. What makes it impossible for us to care for, rather than to dominate, objects in the world? Capitalism does.) Hardt and Negri, in these terms, find an unlooked-for way of bringing the proletariat back into Marxist theory: They resurrect the working class via Nietzsche (and others), by making the proletariat the avatar of a vitalist ontology—“the plural multitude of productive, creative subjectivities,” Hardt and Negri call them, “the real productive force of our social world,” united only its “desire for creativity and freedom,” “the real ontological referent of philosophy” even. In this Spinozist and Nietzschean guise, the proletariat can now resume its once hallowed position as the universal class—not in the old Marxist sense in which the proletariat represented, or perhaps even messianically incarnated, the collective interests of humanity—but in some new sense, for the simple reason that the multitude really is universal, as a matter of stipulation: Nobody is excluded from it. “The multitude,” as a term, accomplishes conceptually what the classical proletariat was supposed to accomplish historically: It expands to swallow up all the other classes, leaving it a class without antitheses or others, without lumpens and peasants and bourgeoisies high and petty. The multitude is the human aggregate, but seen from a certain perspective, as dynamically producing the entirety of the social world, as the power that continually brings the world into being. Empire, in this light, often reads like history-from-below raised to the level of metaphysics. It does not claim, in the manner of English Marxism, that if you look at the historical record, you will happen to notice that workers and women and the poor have helped make history. It gives an ontological version of that argument—that the only way of properly understanding the world is to conceive of it as made and continually re-made by the combined efforts of its myriad inhabitants. And so anything that oppresses the multitude, anything that restricts its vitality or stifles its endless resourcefulness, is a negation of life, even a form of Seinsvergessenheit. Exploitation and oppression are reclassified as ontological (and not just economic or political) transgressions. And that thing—that agent of ontological oblivion—is, as Hardt and Negri have it, identifiable: It is sovereignty, the founding of state institutions at the expense of the multitude. Sovereignty, understood now as the multitude’s betrayal, is history’s single event, its recurring disaster. Sovereignty came to pass when the absolutist state triumphed over Machiavellian humanism and has taken root again in each of the various great revolutions, in their failures as in their miscarried successes, and is taking form still at the World Bank and IMF. History is one long Thermidor, ever and again.

Such, then, is one version of historical repetition as it shows up in Empire, but there is another, this one connected to the half-familiar figure of Polybius, the ancient Greek historian of Rome. Hardt and Negri draw heavily on Polybius; he gets five indexed entries, several more unindexed references, a chapter heading and then again a sub-chapter heading—all to himself. Polybius’ signature argument was a theory of the mixed constitution, the notion that the best government would be one that combined all three of the classical constitutional forms—government by the One, by the Few, and by the Many—and it is for this idea that Hardt and Negri turn to him. But the theory of the mixed constitution strongly presupposes a theory of historical cycles, as well. Polybius held that any unmixed polity was fated to pass through a rondel of constitutional forms in both their benign and wicked versions: from the One to the Few to the Many, from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to anarchy, and then again, please, one more time from the top. The mixed constitution, in these terms, was meant to mobilize the political energies of all its members and thus to counter the entropy inherent in each unadulterated constitutional form. It offered itself as a path out of history, or at least a path out of the constitutional cycle, the one way of bringing stability to polities whose organic impulse was towards degeneration. The crucial point for our purposes is that nearly all of the canonical writing on empire—I mean Gibbon and such, but now also Niall Ferguson and Hardt and Negri themselves—is at least tacitly Polybian, activating a set of historical analogies or allusions or full-scale allegories, in which one empire, usually Rome, is meant to stand in for another, Britain or the U.S. or the global non-state that Hardt and Negri describe. Like Rome, Hardt and Negri write, the “Empire we find ourselves faced with today is also—mutatis mutandis—constituted by a functional equilibrium among…three forms of power.” What matters here is not the substance of the claim; I’m really only interested in the word “also,” which indicates the form of the argument, its historical parallelism. In a sentence whose terms are entirely Polybian (the “three forms of power”), that “also” cannot help but trigger a perception of historical cycles, whose business it is to generate resemblances. “We are once again in a genetic phase of power and its accumulation….”

At this point, a question poses itself. Hardt and Negri summon us against or beyond Empire. They want us to imagine Empire’s end. So if empire, with or without its capital letter, is subject to historical repetition, then is the resistance to empire similarly cycle-bound? Are there historical models that anti-imperialists and communists can look to? Does communism have its own also’s and once-again’s? Hardt and Negri’s answer is dictated by their Polybian frame. If Empire is Rome redux, then life after Empire will be a new Middle Age: “a new nomad horde, a new race of barbarians, will arise to invade or evacuate Empire.” Here, then, is a discovery: Hardt and Negri’s writing is medievalist, no less than Nietzsche’s, though theirs is a medievalism with the Christianity put back in: Empire’s very last paragraph holds out Francis of Assisi as the model of the communist militant. Nowhere is the connection between gay science and medievalism more striking than in this passage. What does gay science want from you? The “joy of being communist”—that phrase occurs in the last paragraph alongside Francis—wants you to be a thirteenth-century monk. And these analogies are anything but slapdash or opportunistic; they have an elaborate conceptual underpinning. Reduced to its essentials, Hardt and Negri’s writing is medievalist because of its hostility to sovereignty, to the state and state-like institutions. They are envisioning a society thoroughly decentralized, a sovereignty so scattered as no longer to deserve the name, and for European writers, the chief historical image of this society without sovereignty, whether avowed or not, is feudalism, though Empire’s most distinctive formulations, as above, push back beyond feudalism, looking for some zero degree of statelessness, a Europe of pre-feudal tribes. Hardt and Negri are the new Goths.

There are other places we could look in the Deleuzian corpus for evidence of this medievalism—to Deleuze’s predilection for scholastic philosophy, for instance, which was made clear to you the day you had to look up the word “haecceity”; or to Eugene Holland’s description of shizoanalysis as “a return to alliance-based rather than filiation-based social relations”; or to Hardt and Negri’s general emphasis on exodus or escape—what they call “savage mobility”—which is redolent of medieval city air, the kind that sets peasants free. This last might seem like Deleuzian boilerplate, but is actual quite remarkable. Again and again throughout their trilogy, Hardt and Negri take their cues from E.P. Thompson and the early subaltern studies historians. That is, they seem to embrace a certain politicist version of Marxism for which all history turns on the balance of class forces (rather than on the magisterial unfolding of some ineluctable structural logic). But unlike these historians, Hardt and Negri mostly lack a concept of class struggle or conflict or contradiction. This is one of the most distinctive features of their philosophy, the way they revise those thinkers to whom they claim a debt. The multitude does not fight. It flees. The multitude remains the agent of history, to be sure, but only in its capacity for flight. Smack at the heart of Hardt and Negri’s autonomia is the notion that the struggle for communism cannot be a fight against capitalism; it must be rather a simple getting-on with the business of living a different life—though sooner or later someone is going to have to work out how Hardt and Negri’s politics of escape is to be reconciled with their insistent claim that capitalism has completed its conquest of the globe, that “there is no more outside,” since the possibility of mass exodus would seem to depend on the notion of inside-outside in a way that class struggle does not. Is desertion really desertion if, like the hapless cartoon convict who misdigs his tunnel, you merely end up in the next cell block over, one more version of the same place, just another of capitalism’s antechambers?

So much, at any rate, on the subject of historical cycles. What we must see now is that there is a second mode of historicity at work in Empire, a progressive and even Hegelian theory of history, which is even more surprising than the cycles, since Deleuzian thought is, on the main, almost hysterically anti-Hegelian. The Deleuzian caricature of Hegel is quickly sketched: The Hegelian dialectic is incapable of accommodating genuine multiplicity; it is engineered, in fact, to reduce the manifold to sameness, which makes Hegel the homogenizing, speciously unifying philosopher of the state. More: Hegel is the philosopher of contradiction and negation, and gay science demands that we adopt instead a programmatically positive philosophy. And yet Empire is Hegelian not despite Deleuze but because of him. Hardt and Negri’s philosophy of history is not some deplorable lapse from Deleuze’s anti-dialectical ontology, but that ontology’s necessary outcome. Under the cover of a frantic anti-Hegelianism, the gay scientists smuggle back in everything that the critique of Hegel nominally seeks to abolish.

This is going to take some explaining. Deleuzian philosophy involves a basic confusion of ontology and politics. It claims that all its arguments derive from an ontology of non-identity—that multiplicity, in other words, is the basic stuff of world, that the way of the world is to be no particular way. We needn’t get hung up on the details here; given enough time in the library, you can scissor-and-paste yourself any ontology you like. It is enough for us to know that the ontology of non-identity is supposed to yield an ethics or a politics; the notion here is that to hand yourself over to multiplicity is the only way to be in tune with the world’s deepest ground, to vibrate with the sources of existence. This may seem straightforward enough, but only because I have been phrasing the matter casually. A moment’s reflection uncovers only wreckage. Here’s the sticking point: How exactly does Deleuzian thought pass from ontology to politics? How does it get from one to the other? If multiplicity and change are the most basic features of existence itself, then how are sameness and inertia even possible? And if sameness and inertia are not just undesirable but ontologically excluded, will it ever make sense to describe multiplicity as a political imperative or ethical norm? You cannot be said to defend something that was never in danger. Once you opt for an ontology of multiplicity, you give up the possibility of a politics of multiplicity. Multiplicity stops being something longed for but denied and becomes instead a simple existential datum, which need merely be harvested. An ontology of multiplicity betrays the principle of non-identity that it claims to promote, rendering the world identical with the philosopher’s best description of it.

An example will help. Consider again that slogan “There Is No More Outside,” which turns out, in Empire, to have a sub-chapter of its own. The argument here is one with which their project has become much associated: The opponents of capitalism must stop trying to imagine someplace outside of capitalism to which they can return. Capitalism has completed its conquest of the globe. There are no more backwaters or pre-capitalist Brigadoons. There may be something beyond capitalism—past it, out the other side—but there is no longer and never again will be anything untransformed by it. The philosophical reference points are familiar here: Spinoza, mostly—a theory of pure ontological immanence, to the effect that it has always been a philosophical mistake to think of the world as having an outside. The main business of these pages, in other words, is to extend Hardt and Negri’s attack on sovereignty to an attack on the very concept of the outside, since sovereignty’s evils all go back to that basic couplet of inside and outside, such that any talk of “outsides” merely replicates everything that is worst about the state, its establishment of institutions that transcend (or claim to transcend) the productive life of the multitude. But then, in these same pages, Hardt and Negri cite Fredric Jameson to the effect that postmodernity is the new condition of not having an outside. But how can you have Spinoza and Jameson side by side? It doesn’t work, because one of them is making an ontological claim and the other is making a historical claim, and clearly we have to choose between the two. Something that is ontologically in the bag—multiplicity, immanence—cannot also be the product of history.

Or perhaps it can—but then that’s where Hegel comes in. Deleuzian thought requires a marvelously old-fashioned theory of alienation; it depends on the notion that it is possible to be estranged from ontology, that what is most fundamental to the world can still be haphazardly at work within it. Hence Eugene Holland: “Difference and multiplicity are what is given ontologically; they then get betrayed and distorted by operations…that result in identity.” Or Hardt and Negri: The society of control inflicts “alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity”; it terminates in “the privation of being and production.” We don’t normally think of the Left Spinozists as having much patience for the young Marx, but on this point Hardt and Negri are content to defy Althusser: “We find ourselves being pulled back from exploitation to alienation, reversing the trajectory of Marx’s thought.” There is not much to take issue with here; it is pleasing, in fact, to see the ban lifted on a still useful concept, though the theory of alienation does call sharp attention to everything that is strangest about the Deleuzian account of the state, this singular, occult institution that is able to disrupt ontology itself, to deprive us of being or rend the very fabric of time.

But Hardt and Negri’s real path out of the Deleuzian conflation of ontology and politics is a Hegelian philosophy of history, in which what has latently been true of the world all along has nonetheless to become true in history, has to achieve its truth. The big surprise awaiting readers of Empire’s first sequel is Hardt and Negri’s announcement that the multitude doesn’t exist yet, that “the multitude needs a political project to bring it into existence,” that we have to “investigate what kind of political project can bring the multitude into being.” One might have misheard them as saying that the multitude simply is or that it is the proper way of understanding all human aggregates. But the multitude is, in fact, only “implicit, … existing as a real potential.” When his political program begins to collapse, the Spinozist helps himself to Aristotle after all. “The multitude … has a strange, double temporality: always-already and not-yet.” Other instances of Deleuzian progressivism are easy enough to spot: in Hardt and Negri’s notion of history as a one-way street—a “march of freedom and equality,” no less—in which the multitude, whose desire for liberation has already brought Empire into being, “must [now] push through Empire to come out the other side”; in their Smithian celebration of capitalism as an enrichment of human capacities; or in Deleuze and Guattarí’s own periodizing scheme, which divides historical societies up into “savagery,” “despotism,” “capitalism”—and which would have seemed cutting-edge in Edinburgh in 1780. But the Hegelian philosophy of history, for which no single passage from Empire can be adduced, is the book’s secret and most powerful frame. Hegelian history cannot stand accused of being insufficiently Deleuzian. It is the culmination of Deleuzian thought—or at least its rescue.

But as ever in such matters, a philosophy, once disavowed, leaves only its worst features behind, its intellectual sludge….


Cell colony