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How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 2


That this major American historian is writing in defense of his preferred version of empire has been so little remarked upon that it is probably worth pausing here to establish the point separately.[i] What bothers White is not empire per se, but empire in a certain mode—not the subtle remaking of native institutions to the benefit of the French, but the blunt assertion of sovereignty more typical of the other European powers, their wholesale replacement of indigenous institutions, and the easy recourse they took to coercion. The Middle Ground thus rehearses the familiar motifs of late twentieth-century anti-imperialism only to recommend to our attention an alternative program of colonization: empire with a light touch. The book is to that extent best read as an invitation to relax one’s pro-indigenous stringency, to saunter back from yes-the-white-nationalist-but-also-the-pan-Indian margins and to rejoin the political center, which is where temperate varieties of empire live. Some of his judgments in defense of empire are so forthright that it must have taken his early readers a certain effort to overlook them: On p. 143, he describes French hegemony in the Great Lakes region as “benevolent.” In the introduction, he invites us to think of the colonial frontier as a place where “diverse people adjust their differences.” (x) [ii] The French settlers’ willingness to “create a common world” with the Great Lakes Indians went hand in hand with their determination to “sustain the French empire rather than defy it.” (316) When White pensively describes war between Indians and Europeans as “a rejection of a common world,” what we need to hear is his determination to keep Europeans in the mix, his preemptive closing off of anti-colonial struggle as undesirable and not just as ill-omened. (388) One might worry, of course, that the adjective “anti-colonial” is my own Third-Worldist back-projection in this context, the remaking of Pittsburgh into Vietnam or Algeria. But other historians are confident they can show that Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley generated North America’s first systematically anti-European and even anti-white belief system, a millenarian and self-consciously indigenist revival movement that eventuated both in a region-wide Indian uprising against Anglo settlers and, after that uprising’s failure, persistent appeals to the British and US governments to set and enforce a fixed border, the wager being that by surrendering the East Coast, the native Americans would be able to secure the rest of the continent as a kind of greater Indiana. Historians of the Great Lakes region always have the option, at least, of centering their story on such a politics. It seems to have been a key feature of the historical scene. White, however, is nowhere closer to the Anglo settlers who are the nominal villains of his piece than in his undiscriminating dismissal of all such border talk. Racial hostility, he writes, “drew lines across which friendship could not pass”—and he makes this claim of a period in which the major Indian political demand was for the drawing of a line. (395) Later, White singles out for special praise one ethnically Irish trader and sometime squatter on Indian land as a man “to whom the boundaries meant nothing.” (393) The historian, having given every indication that he will side with the Indians against the Anglo-Americans determined to displace them, nonetheless embraces the Indian policy of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson: Boundaries mean nothing.[iii]

If White’s refurbished colonialism has been nonetheless easy to miss, then this has something to do with his writing style, which sometimes cops to its own imperialism, but mostly doesn’t. That The Middle Ground trades in geopolitical euphemism can be established in at least two different ways. First, one can read other historians of the eighteenth-century frontier, carefully logging the terms they use to describe relationships between Indians and their French governors, and then checking to see where White’s idiom falls on the spectrum of really existing rhetorical choices. The word to wonder about here is “allies,” which White favors: The French built an alliance in the Great Lakes region. A large and varied group of Indians became allies to the French. Turning to other books, one finds a major historian of the Seven Years’ War referring to “client communities” and “subordinated groups” (Anderson 2005: 17). An older historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to “the French-dominated Indians” (Peckham 1947: 32). One important historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to the Ottawa as “partners in empire,” a suggestively broken-backed term that simultaneously suggests French supremacy and rough parity for at least one group of Indians (Dowd 2002: 41). The Ottawa figure here either as coconspirators in their own subjugation or as comrades in the project to reduce other indigenous groups. One is thereby reminded that alliances with indigenous people, brokered by code-switching intermediaries, have been a regular feature of US expansion. The Americans recruited the Oneida and Tuscarora against the British; they recruited the Creek against the Seminole, the Pawnee and Crow against the Sioux; they recruited the Filipinos against the Spanish, and then recruited Spanish-trained Filipino soldiers against Filipino guerrillas and nationalists. Such alliances are not, as White would have it, the antithesis of Anglo-American empire—its alternative and eventual casualty. They have instead been one of that empire’s more persistent features (Grynaviski 2018).

But the most striking feature of White’s writing is not its penchant for euphemism, which, after all, is the coin in which imperial writing typically pays, but the latter’s tendency, in White’s hands, to de-euphemize, the tendency, I mean, for the flexible and multiracial liberalism that White posits to revert back to rigidly imperial poses. This brings us to the second way of sussing out euphemism in The Middle Ground. For that volume is often constrained to name its object in two different ways at once. It will be enough to cite the two most consequential instances:

1) What White typically names “alliance,” he sometimes calls “patriarchy”—a French patriarchy, that is, or at least a patriarchy with a French father—as when he describes the frontier as “the patriarchal union of empire and village.” (406) That he means this last as a term of praise, no less than “alliance” itself, is readily established: “Governor Duquesne … forgave [the Indians] in the manner of a stern but loving father, crediting his mercy to the intercession of his loyal children…” (232) Or there’s this, some two hundred pages later: “Patriarchy was in sad disrepair along the Wabash [River].” (424) It is the clash of these two categories, “patriarchy” and “alliance,” that sounds on those rare occasions when White uses them both in the same sentence: “the relationship of French fathers to their [Indian] children, that is, … relations of political and military alliance.” (96; see also, 104-5) What we won’t want to miss here is the flubbed synonymy, the unconvincing alignment of a horizantalist political register with the vocabulary of paternal authority and sociopolitical hierarchy. The autonomy and equality granted native people by the word “alliance” has been canceled in advance by the word “children,” which is to say, by the figuring of Indians as the Europeans’ juniors and wards, fantastic sons who will never become fathers in their own right, permanent minors in a patriarchy that has eliminated its otherwise defining principle of generational succession.

2) The Middle Ground is also fond of the word “mediator,” which is both implicit in its title and central to its argument. We thus read in the opening pages that the French gained a foothold amidst the Great Lakes only once they “became the mediators of a regional [Indian] alliance” (23)—by offering themselves as intermediaries between native groups, settling outstanding disputes, devising a shared political project, &c. The book also recommends to our attention a sequence of key figures over the course of the long eighteenth century—indigenophile Europeans, Europhile Indians, a half dozen mixed-race men—mediators of a second kind, then, the brokers who combatted the tendency of the frontier to polarize into distrust and recrimination, the go-betweens capable of discerning and need be inventing common interests between Indians and Europeans, mitigating cultural conflict, explaining each group to the other, and so on. Such people are plainly the architects and custodians of the middle ground. And yet a second term sneaks in behind “mediation” to challenge its claims. Late in the book, White praises the British for finally getting their Indian policy right during the later stages of the American Revolution: “The alliance the British had forged by the end of the Revolution was as close to the [Indian] conception of an alliance as they had thus far come.” (402) In these pages, White is especially interested in Alexander McKee, a half-Scots-Irish, half white-Shawnee trader who eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the British Indian Department and who functioned as liaison between Indians and the British in the area that would become Michigan. White calls him one of “the skilled Tory chiefs.” He also says this: “McKee, in particular, could manage ‘the Indians to a charm.’” (402) Anyone who has read enough Adorno was going to suspect all along that “mediation” really meant “management.” And yet this is a point that the critical theorist does not have to make on his own apodictic authority. White says as much: The mediator is the skilled manager of Indians. “Without the French,” Indian villages in the upper Midwest “became planets without a sun. There was nothing to keep them in their orbits, and they collided and clashed.” (274) This is how the history of the American West gets rewritten to accommodate contemporary preoccupations: Gone are the hunters and trappers and wrestlers of Arkansas bear. Into their place step culturally adroit administrators—the HR coordinators and freelance diversity consultants of the backcountry—who now become the heroes of an American epic. The result is a book that celebrates the patient recruiting of native people to European policies and priorities. Against conquest, The Middle Ground celebrates the negotiated takeover of Indian life.


[i] Historians have been busy revising and in some cases rejecting White’s account on empirical grounds. See especially the forum on “The Middle Ground Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly, 63.1 (2006), pp. 3 – 96. One might also consult Havard 2003 and Rushforth 2012. I would like to thank Guillaume Aubert for these references.

[ii] Fantasies of a more humane imperialism recur across the literature on colonial North America. Here’s Neal Salisbury (2000: 679), reviewing a book—Michael Oberg’s Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1586 – 1685 (2003)—that takes itself to be documenting the fragility and failure of biracial society in the seventeenth century: “Michael Oberg reminds us that, from the beginning, imagined possibilities of coexistence with native peoples were as fully a part of Anglo-American public discourse as their less humane alternatives.”

[iii] That White was recommending the Middle Ground as a political model was recognized by at least one early reviewer. See James Clifton (1993: 283 – 284): “Underlying the author’s account of this Golden Age of Indian-European relationships in the Great Lakes area is an idealized, normative implication. Here may be the moral text he extracts as a lesson for our own, present consideration.” On the anti-colonial politics of many Ohio Valley Indians, see Gregory Evans Down 2002.  It is worth noting that variants of White’s position are now so common as to constitute the dominant position among imperial historians. They are more or less the Official Liberal Line on the history of empire. Tristram Hunt (2014: 9), an academic historian and Labour politician with a biography of Friedrich Engels under his belt, has remarked that the British should get out of the habit of renouncing the Empire as oppressive. Empire did more than visit slavery and famine upon vulnerable peoples; it involved “exchange, interaction, and adaptation.” John Darwin (2013: 11), senior historian of empire at Oxford, writes that imperial history is “not just a story of domination and subjection but something more complicated: the creation of novel or hybrid societies in which notions of governance, economic assumptions, religious values, and morals, ideas about property, and conceptions of justice, conflicted and mingled, to be reinvented, refashioned, tried out or abandoned.” This is the Raj as think tank or pilot program.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 1

This essay will also appear in boundary 2 later this year.

How much can a reader guess about a book just from its title? I place on your desk a volume whose title reads, in part, Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815, and wonder what sort of expectations it raises in you, before you’ve even flipped it open.[i] There is already much that you’ll be able to anticipate, just by reading those nine words—or there will be if your old American history courses have stuck: that the book will offer an account of the French colonial Midwest, surveying the further reaches of the French sphere of influence in North America, in the regions we now call Wisconsin and Michigan and Illinois and Ohio, though perhaps you’ll have noticed that the book has already pledged to accord the native peoples a certain primacy and to make the Europeans go second: Indians, then empires. The Huron, Delaware, and Iroquois come first. French Canadians and their British rivals will have to wait their turn. The dates, meanwhile, should lead you to expect a chronicle of the long eighteenth century, and this might be enough to suggest a sequence of events: French and then British settlement in the American interior, beyond the Appalachians; the Seven Years’ War; Pontiac’s Rebellion; post-revolutionary wrangling over the British-held forts at Detroit and Niagara; the making of the Northwest Territory; early US campaigns to subdue the Indians of the Ohio Valley and beyond. Those events are no sooner listed than they suggest a classic imperial series: from the uninvaded and indigenous Midwest to the French-imperial Midwest to the British-imperial Midwest to the US Midwest, this last terminal because held in apparent perpetuity.

But what if the book in question is actually called The Middle Ground, as, indeed, it is, before the subtitle that your eyes happened upon first? The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815 (White 2010). This is, of course, a book that one might well know about, first published in 1991, a widely acknowledged classic in the field of ethnohistory, written by the historian Richard White, then at the University of Washington, later at Stanford. White has made a career out of writing detailed, methodologically innovative books about how the US ruined its West—more precisely, about the effects of the centralized state (“the federal government”), corporate capitalism, and reckless white settlement on the old landscapes and peoples of Arizona and the Plains and the Pacific Coast. This is a story that White has told at least eight times, five times in duodecimo (in a short book recounting the eco-history of two islands in the Puget Sound, in a second book doing the same for the Columbia River, as well as in extended case studies of the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo), and three times in folio (in a 700-page takedown of nineteenth-century railroad capitalism and in two wide-angle textbooks, A New History of the American West and the volume on the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States) (White 1979, 1996, 1983, 2011, 1991, 2017). Generically, then, White is of abiding interest as a writer of anti-Westerns, the scholar who has figured out how to re-do Arthur Penn movies in abundantly footnoted prose.

By these standards—by the benchmark, I mean, furnished by his own work—The Middle Ground stands out as something a little different. For it is the sole entry in White’s bibliography to present an account of the American West—here the Midwest, the first West, the old Northwest—that is not programmatically demystified and downhearted. Here, for once, amidst the clear-cut forests and the buffalo carcasses, is an American social formation that seems to have gotten something right—and not a strictly aboriginal formation either, but a colonial formation, with Europeans in positions of dominance and Native Americans in positions of submission. The book’s most enticing suggestion—and this, one suspects, has been the secret to its longevity as an academic monograph—is that North America might have been colonized otherwise, or, indeed, that it was for a period so colonized. What most interests White is how the French, in the late seventeenth century, forged a successful alliance out of the otherwise hard-pressed Indians of the Great Lakes region—a looser version of the Iroquois Confederation, if you like, made up of the Iroquois’s traditional enemies to the west, and sustained by ongoing diplomatic improvisation, with the French in the role of leading tribe, hence with Montreal or Quebec City in the place of Onondaga. White means us to grasp that the French were not, under these circumstances, performing what the casual student of history assumes is the ordinary labor of colonization. They were not building Francophone courts in Indian country to enforce French-style laws issued in France. Nor were they enclosing the forests and fields of aboriginal Michigan in order to transfer that land, tract-wise and as private property, to French owners. Nor were they building the schoolhouses in which Ojibwa and Potawatomi children were expected to read Molière. Instead, the French placed themselves at the head of something that very much resembled an indigenous political formation, which they then put to French-imperial purposes, with mixed and temporary success. In the process, they introduced to the shores of the big lakes European goods and European warfare and a more or less modified version of Catholicism, and these each to be sure induced innovations in native society. But at the same time, the French leadership had to adjust to Indian understandings of justice (no trials!) and to Indian understandings of the economy (trade involves giving lots of stuff away!). The French, in other words, quickly realized they had no chance of remaking Indian villages into Little Gasconies and so learned to adapt, with the European governor of Canada functioning not as imperial sovereign, but merely as a kind of super-chief. From this baseline, the rest of White’s story is quickly told: The British eventually claimed control over the region, but didn’t have the same knack for accommodation and cultural reinvention. The Anglo-Americans, when making states out of Michigan and Illinois, rejected this mode altogether.

The other thing to know about The Middle Ground is that it was a sensation when it was first published, at least in the corner of the academy where its arguments most mattered, passed around by graduate students, the immediate occasion for conference panels and redesigned syllabi. It went on to win four major awards—including, maliciously, the Francis Parkman Prize—and was nominated for a Pulitzer. In 2010, it was accorded a twentieth-anniversary edition. But none of this can be gleaned from its title alone. The list of awards you would have to look up. Just by itself, however, the phrase “middle ground,” communicates three meanings, which it thereby conjoins.[ii]

First, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the Midwest, even though that designator has been officially banished from the book as an Americanizing anachronism. Detroit didn’t use to lie in the Midwest, a term that becomes intelligible only once there are more remote American Wests to set it off against, after the US has raised its flag over Colorado and Oregon. The term “middle ground” gets close to “Midwest” but doesn’t use the word and is thus how White insinuates a certain proleptic Americanism without committing an outright gaffe. If I recall now that the term Middle West used to co-exist with Midwest, as variant, then we can see just how clearly White is flirting with twentieth-century nomenclature, though it is doubtless striking that it is the second word—the compass point—that this great historian of the West has elected to drop. This, of course, is a function of his making native Americans central to his story—of his needing us to grasp what it was that drove some people, indigenous people, to enter eastwards into Ohio—though it may also reflect the exasperation of a professor on the Pacific Coast weary of reminding his students that most of the Midwest lies east of the Mississippi.

Second, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the frontier, though this term, too, appears nowhere in the book, expunged, one assumes, for its unshakeable associations with Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and cowboy lore. The term frontier, near-Gallicism though it is, beating out words like borderlands and marches to name territories once claimed by the French, has come to mean “the advance guard of Anglo-Saxon civilization” and so gets struck from this otherwise Francophile book. Such, at any rate, has been the polemically revisionist appeal of White’s title, which promises to teach readers how to conceive of the pioneer zones of white settlement, especially those regions where indigenous people continued to outnumber Europeans, as something other than “the frontier,” though one is obliged to note that for this substitution to take, the term “middle ground” has to preserve core features of the concept it is claiming to negate. “The middle ground,” whatever its nifty trick of turning edge into center, has to be enough like “the frontier” to fit into the slots vacated by the now superseded term. In the American context, after all, “the frontier” has always meant “regions where European-style institutions are present but weak,” and this remains one of the most salient features of Richard White’s account. The phrase “middle ground” both overwrites the word “frontier” and compulsively restates its claims. Anyone unable to appreciate this quandary might pause here to consider how the term middle ground renders its two geographical flanks, whatever is not middle—on the one side, the Indian country of Minnesota, Iowa, and points further west, on the other side, the Europeanized territories of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, &c. What we’ll want to note first is that the term “middle ground” tends to render equivalent these two outlying regions, as though white settlers occupied the Atlantic Coast on roughly the same terms that Native Americans occupied the trans-Mississippi. Each group then exited what we are encouraged to think of as its home base and entered a third space, a neutral tranche belonging to neither of them, like a family from New Jersey and a family from southern Virginia agreeing to meet for a weekend in Washington, DC. This, to say the least, is a tendentious way of conceptualizing the arrival of Europeans in the aboriginal American interior. We’ll want to note, for a start, how much the notion of “the middle ground” cedes to the Europeans, not least by conceptually giving away the East Coast, which no longer counts as “middle” and so barely even registers as colonized, even though White’s chosen period also includes King Philip’s War, the re-settlement of the Mohicans in Berkshire County, MA, colonial border wars in New Hampshire and Maine, and the creation, on Martha’s Vineyard and in New Jersey, of the northern continent’s first Native American reservations. What “the middle ground” takes away from white settlers in Ohio and Michigan, it gives back to them in Connecticut and the Carolinas.[iii]

Third, the term “middle ground” is the figure of speech most associated with political moderation—with triangulation and the Third Way and (paradigmatically Midwestern) swing voters. This gets us to the remarkable point that readers might be able to guess before they’ve even opened the book: that Richard White has produced an account of the frontier designed to make it attractive to centrist liberals. The title alone tells you as much, though the rest of the book bears the hunch out. This is a bit odd, naturally, because we can be sure that, if our subject is Lake Erie circa 1690, there were no liberals on the scene. That the task of White’s book is nonetheless to turn the frontier into the home of a certain liberalism is confirmed by dozens of formulations: “Compromise,” we read, was both “typical of” and “intrinsic in” “the middle ground.” (112, 518) When historians and anthropologists first reviewed White’s book in the early 1990s, it was the analgesic pluralism of his argument that they tended to emphasize, a pluralism that they typically framed in cultural terms: the book documents “interchange” among “the melding societies of Europe and America,” a “continual process of discovery, learning, and adaptation” or, again, a world of “intercultural experimentation and adaptation.” There was a period in the late twentieth century when a person could make his career as a historian by applying to the earliest stages of white settlement language manifestly borrowed from study-abroad recruitment literature. Even so, we can be sure that the political idiom is not foreign to White’s purposes, because he speaks openly of the “political [and not just the cultural] middle ground.” (224) The territorial middle ground hosts the ideological middle ground; the colonial periphery produces tolerance and political reasonableness. The book functions accordingly as one big sorting mechanism for dividing the imperialists who pursued what it calls a “moderate course” (the French most of the time, the British sometimes) from those who didn’t. (203) Eventually, White will conclude that the French lost their empire in North America because they “abandoned the politics of the middle ground.” (227) And with that observation, the historian discreetly delivers his communiqué to the contemporary reader. The via media is how a great power hangs on to its overseas possessions. Moderation is the imperial virtue. One is thereby reminded just how often the language of moderation coincides with the language of empire and westward expansion. A “concession” is a British trading enclave in China. If you and I have negotiated our way out of a dispute, then we have reached a “settlement.” One of the words that most often modifies “compromise” is “Missouri.”



[i] I would like to thank the essay’s first readers: Alicia Maggard, Richard King, Vivasvan Soni, and the editors of boundary 2.

[ii] Daniel Richter describes the buzz around the book’s publication in his review in the William and Mary Quarterly (Richter 1992: 715). The prizes were: The Francis Parkman Prize, the Albert J. Beveridge Award, the Albert B. Corey Prize, and the James A. Rawley Prize.

[iii] On indigenous New England in the period, see, among many others: Mandell 2010, Frazier 1994, Clark 1970, Railton 2012.

Immanuel Kant’s Manifesto for Dad Rock, Part 3



A Marxist quandary, a Kantian path out—that’s Autonomy. If I say now that the path out is poorly blazed, and maybe even a trick, then you needn’t be disappointed, because it will also turn out that the quandary wasn’t one and that it didn’t need solving. You needn’t worry, I mean, that Brown’s account of art is unconvincing, and indeed disheartening, because the situation to which this art putatively responds is a non-problem. I’ll explain each in turn:

The non-problem: “The work of art is not like a commodity,” Brown writes. “It is one” (34). That sentence is admirably hard-headed—but is it also correct? Are music and film and such available to us only as commodities? Do we never encounter art without having bought it first? It will be enough to consult your own experience to see that you are, in fact, surrounded by non-commodified art. Works of art are the only items that governments still routinely take out of the marketplace, amassing large collections of books, movies, and symphonies that citizens can access for free. Public libraries make of the arts the only remaining occasion for the otherwise atrophied traditions of municipal socialism. But when we start surveying our contemporary reserves of non-commodified art, we are talking about rather more than some picturesque Fabian survival. There was a period around the year 2000 when the new technologies more or less destroyed the market for recorded music. Even neoliberals concede that markets are not natural or spontaneous—that they have to be created and politically sustained. For the market in recorded music to have survived the rise of digital media, the governments of the capitalist states would have had to intervene massively to counter the wave of illegal downloading—the Moment of the MP3—when in fact they were largely content to let that market stop functioning. Brown is telling a story about the ever-intensifying logic of commodification, even though he has lived through the near decommodification of an entire art form, its remaking as a free good. If we are no longer talking much about media piracy, then this is only because filesharing has since been nudged back into a drastically redesigned marketplace, in the form of streaming and subscription services, which are the Aufhebung of the commodity form and its opposite: the non-market of free goods, available for a fee: Napster + the reassurance that you won’t get sued. But then is the Spotify playlist a commodity? It might be, though it seems wrong to say that I have bought such a thing, and we still lack a proper account of the new political economy of culture and its retailoring of the commodity form: Art in the Age of the Platform and the Deep Catalog. There is, of course, one position on the Left that has become totally contemptuous of the new technologies and especially of social media. The claim here is that we are gullibly creating free content for the new monopolies; we are writers and filmmakers and photographers—and we upload our work: our labor! our creativity!—and the companies make money (via advertising and the hawking of our data), and we don’t get a cut.[1] We are thus all in the position of the ‘90s-era pop star who has seen her royalties tank; against every expectation, Shania Twain has become the representative figure of our universal exploitation. This argument is worth hearing out, but it remains important even so to recall the situation that gives rise to this misgiving in the first place, which is that the creative Internet involves much more than people Instagramming their dinners. It produces Twitter essays, Ivy League professors anatomizing authoritarianism, lots of short movies, 15-second TikTok masterpieces, and song—everywhere song. To the anti-corporate line that calls me a chump for posting a video of myself playing Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” on the ukulele, the necessary Marxist rejoinder is that an arts communism is already in view—or at least that we have all the evidence we will ever need that people given the opportunity will gather without pay to fashion a culture together. Our snowballing insights into surveillance capitalism co-exist with the unforeclosed possibility that social media is the opening to socialist media. But then one wonders how new any of this is—wonders, indeed, whether the culture industry was ever tethered to the commodity form, since network television and pop radio in their canonical, postwar incarnations were already free goods, generating one of the great unremarked contradictions of twentieth-century arts commentary. Already in 1980, the art forms that a Left criticism excoriated under names like “corporate rock” and “consumer culture” were the ones that you could readily watch or hear without buying them. Before the advent of the full-scale Internet, it was alternative culture that existed only as a commodity, like that Sonic Youth CD I was once desperate to buy because I knew I was never going to hear it during morning drive time. (Only as a commodity? Almost only? Surely a friend might have hooked me up with a dub. Was I nowhere near a college radio station?) Indie used to be our name for music more-than-ordinarily dependent on the market, for art that one encountered mostly as commodity.

That’s one way of understanding why Autonomy is trying, in vain, to solve a non-problem: The commodification of art is by no means complete. The relation of music, image, and story to the commodity form remains inconsistent and contradictory. But there’s a second way of getting at this point, and it goes back to the book’s fundamental misunderstanding of Marx and the commodity form. Brown’s promise, again, is that even in an era when we can no longer posit a distinction between the commodity and the non-commodity, we can still learn the subtler business of telling the mere commodity from the commodity-plus. Contemporary art might be a commodity, but it isn’t just a commodity. But in Marx, there is no such thing as the mere commodity. The very first point that Marx makes in Capital Volume 1 is that commodities have a dual character; it is, in fact, this dualness that makes them commodities: Objects “are only commodities because they have a dual nature”—they are simultaneously objects of use and objects of exchange, themselves as well as their fungible selves.[2] Brown seems to hold that this condition is the special accomplishment of the neo-modernist artwork—its ability to escape commodification by being twofold. But that simply is the structure of the commodity. A Thomas McCarthy novel has no advantages in this regard over a tube sock or a travel mug, and Brown can only believe that it does by arguing repeatedly, contra Marx, that it is usefulness, and not doubleness, that makes something a commodity: “An experience is immediately a use value, and therefore in a society such as ours immediately entails the logic of the commodity…” (49). “Since the display value of a picture is a use value, there is nothing in the picture as an object that separates it from its being as a commodity” (68). This error is baffling, since twenty minutes spent reading Capital would have been enough to correct it, but it is also the predictable outcome of trying to get Marx and Kant to speak in the same voice. Marx’s argument has two steps: 1) It is exchange that makes something a commodity, and not use; useful objects obviously predated market society and will outlive it. 2) But then equally, use is not negated by exchange; the exchangeability of the object coexists with its usability, even though these require contradictory standpoints. It is thus impossible to understand why Brown thinks that art would stop functioning as art just because it’s for sale. Brown’s way of claiming this is to say that “the structure of the commodity excludes the attribute of interpretability” (22). If a movie comes to me as a commodity, I shouldn’t be able to interpret it, and if I am against all expectation able to discern meaning in it, I can congratulate it for having slipped free of its commodity shackles. But why would that be the case? A commodified rice cooker doesn’t stop functioning as a rice cooker. Commodified soap doesn’t stop cleaning your face. Why would artworks alone lose their particular qualities when commodified, such that we would wish to solemnize those putatively rare examples that achieve the doubleness that is in fact the commodity’s universal form?

The fake solution: Brown’s argument gets itself into trouble by superimposing Kant on top of Marx, and yet its Kantianism is itself a mess. I should explain first why this matters. A critical theorist spots on the new arrivals shelf a book called Autonomy and can’t know at a glance what it is about, since its title exists in two registers at once. She might expect to find a book about the autonomy of art—a book, in other words, that belongs in the tradition of Gautier, Pater, Greenberg, and Rancière. But she might equally expect a book about the autonomy of workers, a book about autonomia, about the ability of workers to direct their own activity and set their own political goals without the superintendence of political parties and big trade unions. Anyone who notices that the book’s author is carrying a Duke-Literature PhD has got to expect this second autonomy, an Englishing of Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua; one might well be grateful for such a thing, since American Marxists still require the help of the Italians to make militant the cozily Jeffersonian program of “participatory democracy.” That Nicholas Brown holds no brief for the Italian Marxists is thus one of the book’s bigger surprises; if anything, the baldness of the book’s title seems designed to wrest the word autonomy away from the autonomists and to deliver it back to the aestheticism that historically predated Tronti and Virno. But the matter is more complicated than that. A certain workerism continues to inform Brown’s writing even so, if only because he so often makes about artworks arguments that we are used to hearing about proletarians. His biggest claim is that the artwork is wholly inserted into capitalism while also opposing it. “Art as such does not preexist capitalism and will not survive it; instead, art presents an unemphatic alterity to capitalism; art is not the before or after of capitalism but the deliberate suspension of its logic, its determinate other” (88-9). Or again: “The artwork is not an archaic holdover but the internal, unemphatic other to capitalist society (9). No Marxist should be surprised by this figure, though one might well marvel that it has taken the aesthetes so long to come round to it. It was the modernists, in this respect like the Third Worldists, who thought that the struggle against capitalism would have to come from some uncontaminated outside, from people who had wrenched free of the market or managed to avoid entering it in the first place. Brown’s project is to correct this bit of modernist doctrine by borrowing from Marxism its most basic dialectical motif, and in the process to get artworks to play the role formerly assigned to the working class. Brown’s artwork accordingly rumbles with otherwise diminished proletarian energies, and this has contradictory effects, for it is unclear in this scenario whether autonomous art comes to us as the ally of working people or as their rival. Brown is nowhere closer to a conventional Marxism than in his discussion of The Wire, where he offers some cogent remarks on the disappearance of the American working class, on casualization, the vanishing of jobs hitherto thought immune to mechanization, and the persistence of the category worker, as quasi-ethnic identity, even after work has disappeared. In this context, he has earmarked one line from the second season: “Modern robotics do much of the work” (qtd 174). But this last is a historical development that Brown’s argument emulates in the process of opposing, as his book palpably assigns to objects a set of historical tasks that were once thought proper for workers. Autonomy is accordingly stalked by automation, with the position of the working class—its superseded position? its only ever putative position?—now filled by quality television and smart novels. Robots do the work of capitalism; art does the work of “suspending” capitalism and is to that extent a second robot, the robot of negation: the nay-robot.

At the same time, however, the artwork will continue to serve as the anticipatory figure for a free and self-determining humanity. If I can’t figure out how to be autonomous, I can delegate art to be autonomous in my stead. This is the not-so-secret use of those special objects to which we do not assign uses. The autonomy that we ascribe to the artwork will therefore say a lot about the independence that we wish for ourselves, and it is for this reason that the book’s explanation of Kant’s aesthetics matters, since it is from his third Critique—and not from his moral philosophy, nor from his overtly political essays—that we are expected to extract this political criterion and aim.

The problem, then, is that Brown parses Kant’s theory of aesthetic autonomy in at least three different and incompatible ways.

1) Sometimes, though not often, Brown cites Kant’s most distinctive formulation. Some objects strike me as manifestly designed—organized, patterned, not random—even though I can’t tell what they are for or, indeed, whether they are for anything at all. This Autonomy knows to call “purposiveness without purpose,” design without function (12, 179). Anyone aspiring to this condition is aiming for a kind of idleness, or at least an un-work, a kind of busy leisure. If lack of purpose is how we recognize autonomy, then we will ourselves only gain independence once we have resolved never to achieve anything—to swear off goals and undertakings and weekend to-do lists.

2) But then Brown also praises some detective fiction for its ability to produce cognitive maps—for its “making connections” across “multiple milieux and classes,” and at that point one notices that he isn’t hostile to purpose after all (70). He has violated the Kantian stricture by assigning a purpose to Raymond Chandler and endorsing that purpose as worthy. The Big Sleep doesn’t just hum with needless pattern; it provides us with a service for which we might feel grateful (and for which we might pay Random House). What stands out at this point is that Brown has proposed a formulation of his own, which he prefers to “purposiveness without purpose”—namely, “immanent purposiveness,” a refusal, that is, of imposed or extrinsic ends (13). Sometimes he refers in this regard to “the self-legislating work”: “A work’s assertion of autonomy is the claim that its form is self-legislating. Nothing more” (182). For any Kantian, of course, autonomy is precisely something more—a rejection of all ends, and not just of “external” ones (31)—though the phrase “self-legislating” has a Kantian ring of its own, and we might soon conclude that Brown is silently correcting the third Critique by smuggling in a key concept from the second, in order to re-introduce purpose into a landscape forbiddingly devoid of it. He is putting the self-legislating subjects of Kantian moral philosophy in the place of the aimless objects of Kantian aesthetics.

3) But when is an end “immanent” to a work of art? And when is it “external”? Are we confident that we know the difference between inside and out? Early in Autonomy, Brown lists among his goals a defense of the category of “intention” (10-11): We won’t even be able to regard artworks as intelligible if we treat them as non-intentional—if, that is, we stop conceiving of them as somebody’s attempt to say something. This claim is plainly incompatible with a rigorous Kantianism, since whatever intention I ascribe to the artwork will be a purpose, and Kant’s whole point is that artworks have no such purposes. But Brown’s retrieval of intention is no less damaging to the loose Kantianism he prefers. He instructs us to think of autonomy as “self-legislating,” but he also wants us to consider the intentions that activate a work of art, and the latter generates all sorts of ambiguity around the former, simply by introducing the problems of authors and artists. Where before we had one term, the artwork, now we have two, the artwork and its intender, and now we have to wonder which of them gets to be self-legislating. If we allow the artist to give herself the law, then the artwork will presumably be secondary, the vehicle and working-out of the poet’s self-chosen code, the telegram of her intention. Sometimes, however, Brown sidelines the artist and lets the movies choose their own ends: It is the job of the viewer, he writes, “to figure out what [the artwork] is trying to do” (31). And from this second perspective, one is compelled to distrust the artist’s intention as an externality—just another imposed demand: The artwork, if it is to be autonomous, should get to do what it wants, where this desire is usually understood as an inherited formal project, requiring that all new artists solve hitherto unsolved formal problems or that they re-do old aesthetic experiments in radicalized form. But in this second scenario, the autonomy of the artwork plainly comes at the expense of my autonomy. The artwork that I had hoped would secure my independence instead ends up bossing me around. It was Adorno who observed that modernism, which we typically describe to undergraduates as an emancipated anti-traditionalism, a discarding of the old conventions, an experimental drive to make art otherwise, actually amounted to a “canon of prohibitions”: an ever-expanding list of Things You Could Not Do: paint figurally, compose with triads, end your novel with a marriage.[3]

But then do artworks really get to choose their own ends or give themselves the law? Brown sometimes writes as though they did, but mostly confesses that they don’t, preferring the following, thrice-repeated hedge:

  • “The novel presents itself as simply following a logic that is already present in the material, as though the novel were not written by an author” (99).
  • In the domain of art, all legitimate politics must “appear to emerge as if unbidden from the material on which these artists work” (38).
  • For an artist, one important skill is “the capacity to produce the conviction that what we are seeing belongs to the logic of the material rather than to some external, contingent compulsion” (59).

This last sentence makes Brown’s point with special force: The artwork cannot, in fact, achieve autonomy; its glory is not to negate command, but merely to mask it, to produce in us a belief that the artwork was self-generating even when it wasn’t. Autonomy begins by recommending to us art as the undiminished paradigm of self-determination and free activity, and ends up enrolling it in that list of calculated things we misapprehend as spontaneous—consumer choice, electoral democracy, Spinozist consciousness—and this it does without ever admitting how dolefully it has dickered down its offer: We search art for the possibility of our freedom and walk away persuaded only that some things expertly disguise their subservience. They step forward “as though” unbidden. Autonomy … as if.

[1] See for instance the writings of Cracker’s Davd Lowery, collected at The Trichordist, a collective of “artists for an ethical and sustainable Internet.”, last accessed November 12, 2019.

[2] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1 (1867), translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 138.

[3] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 36 -37.

Immanuel Kant’s Manifesto for Dad Rock, Part 2



Rather than summarize Brown’s findings, it might be more instructive to think of his book as having been constructed, modularly, out of four blocks:

1) A Marxist problem: The problem that drives Brown’s thinking arrives as a question: What is the condition of art in the era of the universal market? The very concept of art promises that there exists a special class of objects, objects that we intuitively set apart, that are exempt from our ordinary calculi, that indeed activate one of the mind’s more recondite and less Newtonian faculties. But it is the premise of the universal market that there exist no such objects. Art might thus seem to be one of the things that a cyclically expanding capitalism has had to eliminate, as rival and incompatibility, like late medieval guilds or Yugoslavia. And yet art plainly still exists. I swear I saw some last Sunday. What, then, is the status of art when it can no longer dwell, nor even pretend to dwell, outside of the market, when its claim to distinction can no longer plausibly be voiced, when we’ve all come to suspect that the work of art is just another luxury good? One way of thinking about Autonomy, then, is to read it as refurbishing the theory of postmodernism, thirty-five years after Jameson first put that theory in place.

2) A Kantian solution: Maybe “refurbish” is the wrong word, though. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Brown means to call off the theory of postmodernism, to soothe readers steeped in Jameson by explaining how art survives even once, in the latter’s words, “aesthetic production … has become integrated into commodity production generally.”[1] Autonomy amounts to a set of reassurances that aesthetic autonomy remains possible even within the market; that artworks can come to us with ISBN numbers and still elude the constraints of the commodity form. Brown’s book amounts to a list of the techniques available to contemporary artists for performing this feat. This is an argument that can be broadcast in different frequencies. Most often, it arrives in Kantian form, to the effect that there still exist non-instrumental objects, objects that, in some sense yet to be defined, display an anomalous relationship to purpose or use. At the same time, the argument can be modulated to carry a certain Marxist content. It was Marx’s claim, after all, that capitalism was bound to produce its own enemies, that bosses and investors were fated to produce a class of persons who would simultaneously serve and oppose them. One way of engineering the splice between Marxism and Kantian aesthetics is just to swap in the word objects where the last sentence had “persons.” Marx held that labor power was the commodity that did not behave like all the others. –Perhaps art is a second such. –And maybe work is the word that holds the two together. If we grant this point, postmodernism might reveal itself to have been a false problem all along. For which faithful Marxist ever thought we had to look outside of market society for solutions? Not Jameson, at any rate, whose mantra in the 1980s was that there was no advantage in opposing postmodernism, that the task for an emancipatory aesthetics was to pick its way through postmodernism and out the other side. Nicholas Brown, meanwhile, is more interested in what came before postmodernism than in what might come after it. In literary-historical terms, his argument is best understood as vouching for the survival of modernism within its successor form. Indeed, Brown is such a partisan of early twentieth-century art that he writes a chapter on The Wire, hailed by all and sundry as the great reinvention of Victorian social realism for the twenty-first century, and calls it “Modernism on TV” (152). The theorist’s attachment to the old modern is easiest to sense whenever the book’s readings reach their anti-utilitarian and aestheticist apotheoses. Brown thinks he can explain why, when presented with two versions of the same photograph, we should prefer the one with the class conflict left out (58-9). He also praises one white, Bush-era guitar band for negating the politics implicit in its blues rock, for achieving a pop formalism so pristine that it successfully brackets the question of race (145).

3) A high-middlebrow canon:  That the band in question is The White Stripes lights up the next important feature of Autonomy, which is that it has assembled a canon of high-middlebrow art from the last forty years: Caetano Veloso, Jeff Wall, Alejandro Iñarritu, Ben Lerner, David Simon, Jennifer Egan, Richard Linklater, Cindy Sherman. That Brown shares the last-named with Jameson’s postmodernism book is a reminder that this set of objects could be variously named. The mind swoops in to say that the high-middlebrow is nothing but postmodernism itself (EL Doctorow, Andy Warhol, Blade Runner)—that the book’s dexterity is therefore to redescribe as neo-modernist what we had previously known only as pomo—but then pauses. If we follow the classic account, then one of the foremost characteristics of postmodern art—the first box to tick if you’re in a museum carrying the checklist—is  the collapsing of high and low, or what Jameson often identifies as elite art’s unwonted interest in its downmarket rival, its willingness to mimic trash, pulp, schlock, or kitsch. But it’s never been obvious that the latter really and truly triggered the former—that the mere quoting of popular media was enough to abolish the class-boundedness of art or even to weaken our habituated sense that cultural goods sort out into a hierarchy of distinction. If I am sitting in a concert hall listening to a string quartet, then this setting alone will be enough to frame the music as high even when the composer briefly assigns the cello the bassline from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” One wishes to say, then, that the middlebrow—and not the citational—is the mode of art in which the distinction between high and low most fully collapses, which should make of Midcult the form of a perfected postmodernism, except that the doubling of the concept will now raise some puzzles of its own. For didn’t the middlebrow precede the postmodern? Wasn’t there middlebrow art before there was postmodern art? And if yes, then why wasn’t such art postmodern when it combined high and low in 1940? Were high and low commingling differently in 1980 than they had in The Old Man and the Sea? And doesn’t middlebrow art have its own, more or less direct way of reaching the median, its own styles and forms, without having to assemble itself afresh every time from pieces borrowed from high and low? So perhaps we would need after all to distinguish the middlebrow from the splicing-of-pop-and-art, for which we would continue to reserve the word postmodernism. At this point, watching those terms grow unwieldy, one casts about for new ones, and looking back over Brown’s list of autonomous artists, discerns the outlines of what until recently we were calling indie culture or alternative: small-label rock albums and small-studio features, supplemented by New Yorker fiction and the more accessible reaches of gallery art. If you are persuaded by Autonomy, you’re going to say that it is a thoughtful Gen X’ers riposte to Jameson, thirty-five years his senior, a careful explanation of why he has never experienced the art of his generation as all that broken. If you are unpersuaded by the book, you’re going to say that it is Immanuel Kant’s manifesto for dad rock.

4) The methods of the literature seminar: At this point, it becomes important to identify the first of two ways that Brown has modified the Kantian arguments that he makes often and by name. The third Critique is at pains to explain that you are doing something unusual every time you call something beautiful. First of all, you are judging without interest; when you experience something as beautiful, you stop caring what it is for, or what it can do for you, or what it is worth. And if you are judging without interest, then it follows directly that your judgment should hold universally, since all other people equally capable of bracketing their interests should judge as you do. And yet the universality in question will be a fractured one even so. When I call this painting beautiful, I demand that everyone agree with me while knowing in practice that not everyone will. My claim is thus universalizing but not genuinely universal. Beauty is the occasion for what Kant innocuously names our “subjective universality”—our failed and spectral commonality, which is, of course, the fate of all universalisms thus far, unusual here only because raised to consciousness.[2]

Brown follows this argument closely, but has nothing at all to say about beauty, which is the term one might have thought a Kantian aesthetics could not forego. His revision goes like this: I know I am in the presence of art not when I experience an object as beautiful, but when I know it to be meaningful, and I discern its meanings even having admitted that I can never know what it was that the artist meant. Deliberating about art, Brown says, has to involve the “public ascription of intention,” and it’s worth taking the time to extract the Kantian structure of this claim (13). Intention is merely ascribed, something that I have to posit. But this ascription is necessarily public; I posit meaning while expecting others to co-posit it alongside me. Meaning is subjective but not private and in this sense the successor to Kant’s beauty. Brown’s niftiest trick is thus to get meaning to do the work of the beautiful, and we can accordingly read Autonomy both as the making-hermeneutic of the philosophy of art and as the making-aesthetic of meaning, hence as philosophical aesthetics’ revenge upon semiotics for having once taught us to talk about art in de-aestheticized ways.

“The public ascription of meaning” is also Brown’s big proposal for authenticating an object as real art even when it comes to as us as commodity. It’s his bite test and dropper of nitric acid. Can I generate public meanings around x (Alison Bechdel, Gus Van Sant, Yeah Yeah Yeahs)? In practice, this is bound to mean: Can I teach a class on x (St. Vincent, Wes Anderson, Cormac McCarthy)? Will it work in seminar? We know something to be art, Brown says, when it “solicits close interpretative attention,” and Autonomy is most convincing when modeling such attention (22). Brown is a first-rate exegete, and his book tosses off one illuminating reading after another, repeatedly vindicating the program of an older criticism: why Boyhood isn’t really a coming-of-age movie; why the second season of The Wire is Greek rather than Shakespearean tragedy (and why that distinction matters); the particular way in which bossa nova bridges the divide between popular and art musics (and what this has to do with developmentalist politics in the global South). Readers might nonetheless be disappointed to learn that postmodern art’s paths to autonomy are the ones they already knew about. The book’s point, in fact, seems to be that the old paths still work, that new ones aren’t needed. Brown likes art when it displays a degree of self-consciousness about its own procedures and historical situation, and especially when an artwork includes a version of itself which it then subjects to critique. Simple self-referentiality is his most basic requirement: that art not reproduce without comment the inherited imperatives of its genre or medium, always glossed as market imperatives. He sticks up for “framing” and “citation” because of the meta-questions that these provoke; some guitars don’t just play rock songs, but get you to reflect on the condition of rock songs. All three of the novels he recommends are thus Künstlerromane, or at least readable as such, but these are only the clearest instance of Autonomy’s fundamentally didactic preference for literature when it interrupts our naïve attitude to fiction and instead makes us think afresh about same. The White Stripes are congratulated for having turned “fun” into an “inquiry” (149).

This position is no more perspicuous than it has ever been. A person might finish Autonomy still wondering how it is that irony in this accustomed mode is able to “suspend the logic of the commodity” (34). The question is difficult: When irony comes to us in the form of the commodity, can we be sure that the commodity always loses? What keeps the self-ironizing commodity from functioning as commodified irony? In order to be convinced of Brown’s position, do I have to believe first that irony is the one uncommodifiable thing? Or that a work that confesses its dependence on the market has thereby neutralized that dependence? In Autonomy, autonomy sometimes withers back to my ability to name my subordination. Brown, moreover, is altogether inured to one version of clientage, which is the continued dependence of art upon the critic, who, after all, is the only one who can ratify it as art, via that public ascription of meaning. Artists forward works to the marketplace without knowing whether they will even count as art, generating instead a kind of proto-art, obliged to wait for the critics who produce the aftermarket meanings that classify some works as not-just-commodities. If you are an artist, then  autonomy apparently means marking time until somebody else certifies that you have successfully described your heteronomy.


[1] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 4.

[2] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (1790), translation by Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987). See especially section 8: “In a judgment of taste the universality of the liking is presented only as subjective.”


Immanuel Kant’s Manifesto for Dad Rock


If there is one point that should be reasonably clear to anyone who has read “The Culture Industry,” it is that Adorno and Horkheimer do not reject popular culture. That essay, it’s true, gives us reasons to question any number of things that we typically hold dear: free time (for being unfree time, nearly as programmed as the work from which it nominally releases us), laughter (for being the consolation prize you get for not having a life worth living), style (for funneling all social and historical content into a pre-arranged matrix or inflexible scheme of aesthetic quirks and twitches; for holding out the promise of artistic individualism—the personal signature in literature or music—and then transposing this into its opposite, the iterative, unresponsive art-machine). Most of us remember “The Culture Industry” as anti-pop’s cahier de doléance, its encyclopedia of anathema, the night in which all bêtes sont noires. But alongside the essay’s admittedly austere bill of grievances, it is easy enough to compile a second list, an inventory of things that Adorno and Horkheimer say they like and suggest we might admire: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, the circus, old cartoons, Felix the Cat (maybe), Gertie the Dinosaur (perhaps), Betty Boop (for sure, because they name her). Just to be clear: “The Culture Industry,” Exhibit A in any case against critical theory’s Left elitism, is also the essay in which Adorno attacks Mozart while praising “stunt films,” which we might more idiomatically translate as “Jackie Chan.” One can thus cite authentically Adornian precedence for an attitude that distrusts classical music and celebrates kung fu movies, and this will be hard to believe only if you prefer a critical theory shorn of its dialectics, stripped of the contradictory judgments that thought renders upon contradictory material—only, that is, if you prefer the Adorno of joke Twitter feeds and scowling author photos: bald, moon-faced, a Central European frown emoji inexplicably mad at his own piano. One suspects that readers have generally refused to take seriously the essay’s central category. For the culture industry is neither an epithet nor a gratuitously Marxist synonym for popular culture, but rather a different concept, distorted every time we paraphrase it in that other, more comfortable idiom, as a calumny upon pop culture or pop. There is plenty of evidence, in the essay itself, that Adorno and Horkheimer were drawing distinctions between forms of popular culture, and not just pitting the Glenn Miller Orchestra against Alban Berg.[1]

Such, then, is one way of taking the measure of Nicholas Brown’s Autonomy.[2] This is one of those books that you might have thought no-one could write anymore: four chapters that mean to restate the old, left-wing case for art, unapologetically named as such, as the artwork—and not as text or culture or cultural production—the idea being that art represents the survival of independent human activity under conditions hostile to such a thing. No longer homogenized under those master terms, art can again take as its rival entertainment, a word whose German equivalent derives from the verb unterhalten, which even English speakers can tell means “to hold under,” as though movies and TV shows existed to keep us down, as though R&B were a ducking or a swirlie. That the English word borrows the same roots from the French only confirms the point: entre + tenir, to keep amidst or hold in position. Entertain used to mean “to hire, as a servant.”

Autonomy is also the book in which a next-generation American Marxist out-Mandarins Adorno, who, after all, begins his essay by insisting that the cultural conservatives are wrong. There has been no decline of standards, no cultural anarchy let loose by the weakening of the churches and the vanishing of the old, agrarian societies, hence no permissive culture in which anything goes. Just the contrary: Magazines and radio and Hollywood form a system with its own rigidly enforced standards, a highly regulated domain in which almost nothing goes. Adorno’s way of saying this is that there is no “cultural chaos.”[3] But Nicholas Brown prefers the chaos thesis, endorsing the position that Adorno has preemptively rejected as both reactionary and implausible: “The culture industry,” Brown writes, couching in Frankfurtese his not-at-all Adornian point, is “the confusion in which everything worth saving is lost” (135).

Similarly, readers are usually surprised to find Adorno writing in defense of “mindlessness.” His hunch is that Kantian aesthetics might find its niche among the lowest art forms and not, as we more commonly expect, among the most elevated. Sometimes I encounter an object and find it beautiful, and in that moment of wonderment, my attitude towards the object is adjusted. I stop trying to discern what the thing is for or how to use it. Where a moment ago, I was still scanning its instruction manual, I am now glad for the thing just so. Perhaps I am even moved to disenroll the beautiful thing from the inventory of useful objects, or find myself doting on it even having ascertained that it’s not good for much. But then sometimes this purposiveness without a purpose is going to strike me not as beautiful, but as stupid, and Adorno’s point is that the stupid can do the work of the beautiful, that the beaux arts are If anything outmatched by the imbecile kind. The activities that we do for their own sake, for the idiot joy of our own capacities, are the ones that our pragmatic selves are likely to dismiss as dopey: someone you know can pay two recorders at once with her nose; a guy you once met could burp louder than a riding mower; you’ve heard about people who can vomit at will and recreationally. Kantian Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck enters the vernacular every time we mutter “That was pointless.” It is in this spirit that Adorno sticks up for “entertainment free of all restraint,” “pure entertainment,” “stubbornly purposeless expertise,” and “mindless artistry.” His claim, in fact, is that the culture industry is hostile to such “meaninglessness,” that Hollywood is “making meaninglessness disappear.”[4] It might be enough here to recall the difficulties that the major studios have in making comedies that are funny all the way through, preferring as they do to recruit their clowns from improv clubs and sketch shows, to promote them to the rank of movie star, and then to impound them in the regularities of the well-made plot, complete with third-act twists and character arcs, gracelessly telegraphed in the film’s final twenty-five minutes, to make up for all the time squandered on jokes, and tending to position the buffo’s comic persona as a pathology to be cured, scripting a return to normalcy whose hallmark is a neutralized mirthlessness. Hollywood’s comic plots model the supersession of comedy and not its vindication.

But Nicholas Brown is not on the side of meaninglessness. “In commercial culture,” he writes, “there are no works to critique and no meanings to be found”—and he does not mean this as praise (10). In Autonomy, there is no liberating nonsense, but only the English professor’s compulsion to discern meaning, his impatience with any art for which one could not readily devise an essay prompt. Whatever independence the book’s title is offering us, it is not the freedom to stop making sense. It feels bracing, in fact, to read a book so willing to discard the institutionalized anti-elitism of cultural studies and 200-level seminars offering to “introduce” 20-year-olds to horror movies. When Brown rolls his eyes over Avatar because of some dumb thing its director once said in an interview, or when he calls off a wholly promising reading of True Detective by announcing that it is “nothing more than an entertainment,” we need to see him as turning his back on the aging pseudo-Gramscians of the contemporary academy, all those populists without a movement, the media-studies scholars who imagine themselves as part of a Cultural Front that no-one else can see, a two-term alliance consisting entirely of Beyoncé fans and themselves; the shopping-mall Maoists of the 1990s who couldn’t tell the difference between aller au peuple and aller au cinema (71). Adorno, of course, was concerned that the desires and tastes of ordinary audiences could be manipulated or even in some sense produced. “The Culture Industry” prompts in its readers the still Kantian project to figure out which of the many pleasures they experience are authentically their own. Which are the pleasures that will survive your reflection upon them, and which are the ones that you might reject for having made you more object-like, for having come to you as mere stimulation or conditioning? The autonomy that Adorno is trying to imagine is therefore ours, in opposition to a mass media that muscles in to tell us what we want before we have had a chance to consider what else there is to want or how a person might want differently, to work out not just different objects of desire, but different modes of desiring and of seeking satisfaction. Brown, by contrast, complains repeatedly that artists more than ever have to make things that people like. The autonomy that he is after is thus not our autonomy from an insinuating system but the artist’s autonomy from us. It is no longer surprising for a tenured literature professor to disclose, in writing, that he’s been listening to early Bruno Mars records. The unusual bit comes when Brown says he doesn’t think they’re any good (24).


[1] See Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Culture Industry,” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 94 – 136. On free time, p. 104; on laughter, p. 112; on style, pp. 100ff; Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, p. 109; Greta Garbo, p. 106; the circus, p. 114; Betty Boop, p. 106.

[2] Nicholas Brown, Autonomy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); subsequent citations will be given by page number in parentheses.

[3] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 94.

[4] Ibid., p. 114.

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.