Telos 174 (Spring 2016): Philosophy, Literature, Theory is now available for purchase in our store.
In this issue, Telos turns to a diverse set of philosophers, contemporary and classical, and questions, concerning ethics and politics on the one hand, and literature and aesthetics on the other. More often than not, those distinctions turn out to be difficult to maintain. A case in point is the opening essay, which examines how statements by Levinas have been subjected to political readings in order to impute to him positions that he did not hold. What are the ethics of intentional misreadings? In their meticulously argued analysis, Oona Eisenstadt and Claire Elise Katz demonstrate how the philosopher’s comments in a 1982 radio interview, in the immediate aftermath of the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, have been subjected to increasing degrees of misrepresentation, culminating in false accusations that he justified the killings. These insinuations involved fabricating quotations to put words in his mouth. Eisenstadt and Katz expose the poor philology and tendentious politics implicit in such distortion.
Their argument proceeds carefully through several stages in the reception history of the interview, especially Judith Butler’s treatment in Parting Ways. At issue is her claim that Levinas stated that “the Palestinian has no face,” something he in fact never writes. When she was called out on this, she offered the risible response that her quotation marks were not intended to suggest a genuine quote: Eisenstadt and Katz try to follow her respectfully through these uncomfortable contortions. The key point is that the Levinasian subject should respond ethically to the other one faces, and that other is always a distinct individual, not the incarnation of a nationality. Butler’s invention however is meant to accuse Levinas of limiting ethical obligations. At stake ultimately is his effort to maintain a realm of ethical practice that is not immediately subsumed into the political loyalties that his critics project onto the scene of engagement, presumably because they view everything as political.
In the next essay, Peter Uwe Hohendahl tracks the Hegelian components in Adorno’s aesthetic theory: not only in the posthumous volume of that name but also in several earlier writings, which show how Adorno’s orientation toward Hegel gradually evolves. It is, as Hohendahl points out, not a matter of appropriating Hegel’s specific judgments on art (much of which Adorno rejects) but rather of adapting Hegelian method. This of course also includes Hegel’s critique of Kant. For Adorno, where Kant places limits on human judgment, Hegel insists on surpassing them, which opens up a space for historicization and effectively the realization, or externalization, of immanent processes.
Of particular note is Hohendahl’s exploration of the status of the genre categories of inherited poetic theory, many of which survive in Hegelian aesthetics: epic, lyric, drama, comedy, and tragedy. For the classicizing Hegelian, an expectation exists that the individual work accord to normative generic expectations. Not so for Adorno. On the contrary, the truth-content of the authentic work of art depends specifically on the rejection of convention. “Nothing could be further removed from Adorno’s criticism than the notion that a particular artwork could or should live up to the rules of a specific genre. Rather the opposite is true: the authenticity of an individual artwork is determined by the strength of its opposition to the conventional rules of the genre. . . . In this context Adorno speaks of the curse of classicism (Klassizismus), since the pressure of conventions and the lack of opposition result in emptiness (Leere). Where Adorno breaks with Hegel is the idea of an affirmative work of art. Even those that seem to be affirmative, like the compositions of Mozart, contain a decisive element of negation. That defines their aesthetic truth.”
This Adornian insistence on the anti-conventional autonomy of the singular work, resonant with the protest gesture of the historical avant-garde, simultaneously models the utopian possibility of human autonomy that can flourish in a difference without the fear of imposed collectivist identities. This argument in the aesthetic sphere echoes the central point from the ethical realm identified by Eisenstadt and Katz: against Levinas’s opponents who would prefer the identity-political imposition of generic definitions, reducing individual difference by projecting the priority of collective identities, Levinas looks for the face of specific human beings as the other, the interaction with whom is the realm of ethics. In contrast, it turns out that it is his critics, repeating the Foucauldian gesture of the end of The Order of Things, who erase the human, imposing facelessness onto the particular individual.
Such conformism is the defining feature of Kierkegaard’s thought as presented in Adorno’s late essay on the Danish philosopher, introduced here by its translator, Jensen Suther. Kierkegaard appears, of course, as the critic of Hegel, but even more the critic of the same recalcitrant world against which Adorno directed his own more dialectical protests. This essay is “Adorno’s last attempt to repurpose Kierkegaard’s impassioned, often raving, but ultimately impotent protests as a medium of expression for his own Marxist critique of the fundamental historical conditions the two thinkers shared: those of capitalist bourgeois society in crisis.” What Adorno describes as the “narrow and provincial relations” in Kierkegaard’s Denmark has plenty in common with Adorno’s own postwar Germany as well as with our own contemporary globalization. Notionally critical theories—Kierkegaard’s posthumous celebrations, Adorno’s integration into the academy, and self-advertised oppositional thinking today contribute affirmatively to the conditions they appear to resist, expressions of an intellectual class that depends on its separation from and elevation above a devalued public. For Adorno, Kierkegaard’s “thinking recommends itself as one that virtually cancels thinking.” The oppositional intellectuals who protest in the name of others never surpass their own particular interests, a classic example of ideologues: “a different position than that of the particular, which [Kierkegaard] occupied, primarily does not present itself today to those who protest; . . . every immediate identification with the collective is instantly the untruth to which the position of the particular unfailingly and primally becomes.”
Thomas J. Millay scrutinizes Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic, in particular the treatment of Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit, in order to tease out fundamental claims concerning the relationship between Marxism and phenomenology, viewed under the sign of narrative. Human historicity belongs to all three; at stake is their relative priority, and Millay shows how Jameson structures their interrelationship. “There would be no naming of History as a phenomenon without phenomenology. And if History could not be grasped as a phenomenon, the persuasive force of Marxism as ‘the ultimate horizon of thought in our time’ [Jameson] would be greatly diminished.” So when Millay concludes that “Marxism thus asserts itself as the horizon of our time,” for Jameson at least, it is specifically the phenomenological horizon that is at stake.
A corollary to the claim of Marxism as the phenomenological horizon is, surely, Communism as historical experience. Katarzyna Bałżewska leads us through a review of Czesław Miłosz’s changing encounters with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the grand bildungsroman of modernism that has provided a map for the vicissitudes of twentieth-century intellectual life, including the catastrophic attraction of intellectuals to totalitarian movements. The dialectical sparring between the humanist Settembrini and the reactionary revolutionary Naphta repeatedly attracted Miłosz, leaving traces in his memoirs, his novels, and his poetry, as Bałżewska demonstrates. In his youth it was Naphta’s Jesuitic Communism that attracted him, as he commented from the great distance of a 1995 interview: “In the twentieth century it was communism that was a natural inclination of intellectuals. . . . as a young student, it was Naphta not Settembrini that I looked up to. And this is why I perceive the collapse of the myth of communist utopia as an upheaval, a shock. Western intellectuals are orphans. We live in the era of the orphanhood of intellectuals.” Bałżewska builds on Miłosz’s description to articulate a criticism of contemporary thinkers: “The ‘intellectual orphanhood’ signals a kind of dependence, helplessness, and peculiarly perceived loneliness with regard to ideological discussion, which mirrors the model of infantile attitudes promoted by today’s media-driven societies, usually poorly prepared or generally incapable of demanding anything of intellectual elites.” To Miłosz’s critique of Western intellectuals, one might add, two decades later, a particular unwillingness to articulate criticisms of challenges from outside the West, whether in the form of Putinism or Islamist radicalism.
This intellectual failure is related to the “impoverishment of our ethical language” that Jay Gupta discusses in his contrast of values and virtues. Contemporary discourse is dominated by a tyranny of values, whether in the form of multicultural relativism or—what is in some ways strangely the same—the implicit cultural diversity of a “clash of civilizations.” Against this paradigm, Gupta mounts a compelling case for Aristotelean virtue ethics. Virtues “are those qualities that allow us to be excellent at being human in the course of our characteristic human practices.” Yet in our (post)modern condition, “values discourse, and the abstract conception of selfhood that is tied to it, contribute to a profound imaginative deficiency that results in a hindered capacity to think clearly, critically, and meaningfully about the human good.”
The distinction, within ethical discourse, between values and virtues resembles a different binary that Sarah Vitale locates in the recent reception of Marx. Where Cornelius Castoriadis, for example, views Marx critically for having succumbed to the productivist logic of the same capitalism he claimed to reject, a different reception trajectory emphasizes Marx as the critic of alienation and proponent of human creativity. Vitale makes a strong case for the latter. Indeed the very notion of production, in contrast to the productivism that stands at the heart of the critical treatment of Marxism, lends itself, so she shows, to a very different understanding: “This notion of production, perhaps better called creativity, opens up the space necessary for thinking radical newness, which is closed off by productivism.” Just as productivism names an impoverishment of human possibilities, so too does, as Simon Ravenscroft shows through the work of Ivan Illich, the modern notion of abstract philanthropy represent a pale version of earlier understandings. Medieval Christian accounts of charity involved a reciprocal and mutual process of a gift economy, not a one-sided act, but the process of modernity flattens philanthropy out into a technical process, driven by bureaucracy devoid of the love at its original core. Ravenscroft makes his case especially through examinations of alternative readings of the Good Samaritan. This issue of Telos closes with Meili Steele’s discussion of “World Disclosure and Normativity,” which shows “the disclosive and normative power of everyday speech and the argumentative relevance of literary modes of writing.” The latter is pursued especially through a reading of Susan Glaspell’s 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers,” as an example of how literary writing can disclose social structures and make them available to normative judgments. The claim is that we do not act exclusively on the basis of constructed principles but “by tacking between accounts of our ontological background and the interpretive normative intervention that we make,” a good argument for the importance of literature and its interplay with philosophy and theory.