TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 145 (Winter 2008): Dissidents and Community

“Community” has long been a companion of Critical Theory, but it has always pointed in two diametrically opposed directions. One path leads us to communitarian dreams of a genuine sociability and a full life. Romantic sensibility, anxious about the modern experience of cold rationality and mechanical organization, elaborates counter-models of authentic living, embedded in organic communities deemed genuine. While the Enlightenment legacy appears to abandon us to alienated isolation—no matter how much it proclaims the importance of public discourse—the romantic community provides an existential alternative, an opportunity to reclaim a human authenticity. Ferdinand Tönnies’s famous conceptual binary named this drama: the opposite of the impersonality of the modern Gesellschaft is the communal warmth of the Gemeinschaft. At stake is a choice between formal rationality and emotive solidarity, between organization and affection, between logic and love. In the envisioned community, distance can melt away, to be replaced by forms of living that are genuinely worthy of human beings.

Yet while Critical Theory has a history of appealing to community as a corrective to liberal isolation, it also understands how, along another dangerous path, this communalism can grow brutally repressive. The countercultural pipe dreams of Gemeinschaft can easily morph into the self-destructive violence of a Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, with a universal degradation of freedom. Community solidarity takes on the character of organized discipline, eliminating internal differentiation and the very suppleness and flexibility that had been touted as the comparative advantage of community over mechanical rationality. Instead of human warmth, the repressive community only offers sadistic ardor. It is the ambiguous point where an ecstatic “Yes, we can” resounds into the imperative “Now, you must,” since the community named by the plural first person requires state power to issue commands in the name of the people. The landscape of the twentieth century is covered with examples, extreme and less than extreme, of heroic communities, with vaunted world-changing agendas, that insisted on uniformity and loyalty. In the face of repressive conformism, Critical Theory regards the insistence on this sort of community and its indeterminate appeals as nothing more than ideology. The romanticism of the commune is stalked by its own evil twin, the rationality of 1984. Given such managed community of socialized control, the totally administered society, the mission of Critical Theory is to seek out the possibilities of dissent.

One could write a history of twentieth-century Critical Theory that begins in August 1914: not only because of the horrors of the war but because of the sudden experience of mass mobilization. Overnight, whole societies began to march in lockstep. The civilian world of the liberal past disappeared into the thorough organization of wartime society: the repressive apparatus of government intertwined with a centralized management of the economy and a monolithic thinking that vilified disagreement, as much in Wilhelm’s Germany as in Wilson’s America. Oppositional voices crumbled under the pressure of a mobilized mass patriotism. This uniformity was particularly awkward in the context of the European socialist parties: their traditional insistence on the priority of internationalism gave way under the onslaught of nationalist sentiments in all countries. For thoughtful intellectuals, the moment was a defining trauma, and while thinkers would try to project their opposition onto new imagined communities, in order to pretend to themselves that they had a popular base, the underlying problem remained: the isolation of the thoughtful critic in the face of mobilized opinion. During the next decades, Georg Lukács would eventually try to camouflage his painful isolation through imaginative efforts to redefine communism, just as Walter Benjamin endeavored to escape that same critical solitude by willfully misunderstanding cinema and its popular audience. But the isolation of thought in 1914 is ultimately the point where the “intellectual”—who only a decade before, in the Dreyfus affair, pretended to lead a nation—turns into the dissident, infinitely vulnerable. The heroic past of Zola gives way to the marginality of a new type of conscience: Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, Havel.

Fast-forward nearly a century to the United States, pausing after the election, retrieving its community. As of this writing, it is difficult to predict how the Obama administration will rule. Will he follow the leftist policies from the primaries or the centrism of the general election? Will his multilateralism give into the West European eagerness to appease Russia or will he defend the new democracies? Will he be the peace president, withdrawing troops from Iraq where the war is already won, or will he be as bellicose as he has promised in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Will he withstand the temptations to extend state control over ever greater spheres of the economy or will he expand the sweep of government with Democratic gusto? The campaign has left us knowing very little about the president-elect, although we have learned a great deal about our culture. In this wait-and-see moment, it is hard not to discern a step-up in repressive social organization. It is no longer even controversial to claim a massive media bias in the election, but this can only lead to the conclusion that a free press will offer little constraint on the new administration. Nor is this just a failing of the national dailies; on the contrary, the new media too have become terrains of politicized organization. Old-fashioned retail politics has been replaced by networked mobilization: the Democratic Party has caught up with Benjamin in its ability to use new technologies to organize a movement. Add to this the extraordinary rapidity with which an individual’s claim on personal privacy can be surrendered to political expediency, as evidenced in the public pillorying of poor plumber Wurzelbacher: if you ask an uncomfortable question, expect to be punished, and certainly do not expect the state to protect your records in its data bank. The abuse was outrageous. That there was no outrage over the abuse is a measure of the cultural change afoot in the course of the campaign, a change that goes hand in hand with what even Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas has called a “slightly creepy cult of personality.” Given this new community of repression, do we have the capacity for dissent?

This issue of Telos, focusing on “Dissidents and Community,” begins with Robert Horvath’s extensive account of the legacy of Soviet dissidents facing the post-Soviet authoritarianism of the Putin regime. He cites Sergei Grigoryants of the Glasnost Foundation, who pointed out “a new political system without communist ideology but with all the communist repressive experience.” Anton Oleinik explores the dynamic of negative convergence: how Russia and America come to resemble each other more and more by sharing their worst features. A raw pursuit of power for its own sake, samovlastie, defines Putinist rule as much as it explains features like negative campaigning and officeholder entrenchment in the United States. Indeed, the argument points to an uncanny similarity that has emerged in the context of the financial market crisis: U.S. leaders are as eager as Putin has been to wage war on “oligarchs” or “Wall Street greed” in order to find scapegoats and mobilize political support. Joseph Grim Feinberg describes the disappointment that followed 1989 in Central Europe in dissident circles, while analyzing some of the dissidents’ own limitations: the adherence to an abstract notion of “civil society,” the lack of institutional connections to popular strata, and a tendency to self-heroization that betrayed a proximity to Leninist vanguardism. Michael Mack turns toward two philosophers who challenged the structure of traditional community with extensive ramifications for subsequent European identity: Spinoza and Kant. Despite a frequent assertion of a Kantian priority in contemporary European identity and political values, Mack insists that Spinoza’s description of the mind “as a plural, sustainable, and ever-changing unity could serve as a blueprint for an inclusive universalism that would be truly beneficial for the non-violent solving of problems that global societies are facing at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” Mack draws a sharp line of distinction between Spinozist plurality and Kant’s teleological and hierarchical descriptions of “a realm of freedom over and above the lowly sphere of nature.”

The heroism of dissent has also confronted repressive religious institutions and doctrines. “Nietzsche rightly asked questions,” states Afshin Ellian, “about the most sacred value the West still held in possession: the truth. Today, however, it is nearly unthinkable to write a polemic about Islam in the same style as Nietzsche did about Christianity and Christ in the Antichrist.” Ellian explores the political ramifications of monotheism, the different directions it took in Judaism and Christianity, as well as in Sassanid Persia, before focusing on an intrinsically political character to Islam, which disallows for the separation of religion and state: hence, a theologically motivated insistence on the priority of sharia. For a democratic Muslim community to develop, however, Ellian sees the need for a new generation of intellectuals (or dissidents): “Islamic intellectuals often show signs of narrow-mindedness, while succumbing to nationalistic tendencies. Even leftist intellectuals in the Islamic world have a weak spot for the religion and its traditions. A century of enlightenment is unachievable without the presence of brave intellectuals in the Islamic world. The Islamic world needs intellectuals like Nietzsche and Voltaire.” The section concludes with Chantal Bax’s bold but compelling reading of Wittgenstein against Nancy with regard to the nature of community, and Adam Kotsko’s demonstration of Agamben’s misreading of Benjamin and especially of Benjamin’s relationship to Schmitt.

This issue of Telos concludes with three essays that were presented in March 2007 at a conference on Phenomenology and Critical Theory at Duquesne University. Lambert Zuidervaart provides a magisterial treatment of Heidegger’s “On the Essence of Truth” read against Max Horkheimer’s “On the Problem of Truth.” The pairing is bold, but each text tries to demonstrate truth “as more comprehensive than what propositionally inflected accounts can notice.” Yet it is that propositionality that has come to dominate philosophy, against both Heidegger’s “critical metaphenomenology” and Horkheimer’s “metacritical phenomenology.” Cristina Lafont examines Habermas’s relationship to Heidegger, in particular their shared engagement with hermeneutics and the effort to overcome a philosophy of consciousness. Finally, David M. Rasmussen takes another look at the proximity of Critical Theory and phenomenology in the work of Paul Ricoeur. This special section on phenomenology may serve as a reminder that this is exactly where Telos began forty years ago, in efforts to read Husserl, especially The Crisis of the European Sciences, as a source for a critique of technocratic society. That Husserl reception converged with understandings of Dialectic of Enlightenment, bringing together phenomenology and Critical Theory. Both involve a recovery of a human dimension threatened by repressive logics, in the face of which the philosopher, far from any throne, can only speak as a dissident.

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