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Telos 179 (Summer 2017): A New Regime?

Telos 179 (Summer 2017) is now available for purchase in our store.

When the historian Ken Burns spoke at the Stanford University commencement last June, he delivered an exceptionally political address, including an attack on what he labeled the “Vichy Republicans.” Those Republican leaders who had not distanced themselves from candidate Trump, so Burns, were the equivalent of the Vichy French who collaborated with Hitler. That master metaphor, comparing 2016 to 1933, has continued into the new administration, with the anti-Trump camp labeling itself as “the resistance.” Despite Burns’s historiographical authority, one might question the validity of the underlying equation. No doubt the policies of the Trump administration are more conservative than those of Obama—hardly surprising—but the paradigms of the totalitarianism of the twentieth century are not necessarily the most adequate theoretical tools to analyze early twenty-first-century political phenomena. As emotionally satisfying as it may be for some to try to relive battles of earlier decades, Critical Theory ought to try to do better. We may very well be entering a different political era, a new regime, and not only in the United States. Can we describe it more effectively?

The fascism that Burns and so many others trot out characteristically involved an increasingly centralized and propagandistic mass media, the age of Joseph Goebbels. One thinks of the loudspeakers in public spaces for the live dissemination of the Führer’s speeches, as well as the proliferation of radios so that a single voice could command attention everywhere. That technology allowed for a particular mode of identification between the ruler and the ruled, a sort of acclamatory democracy in Carl Schmitt’s sense. All that seems so dated now, however. Therefore, in the lead article in this issue of Telos, Mitchell Dean reflects on some comments in Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory, but rather than dwelling on the experiences of the past, he interprets them for the culture of the internet. In the 2016 election, mass opinion was formed (and, we have learned retrospectively, carefully targeted by the campaigns) via social media, where, in Dean’s words, “it is possible to ‘follow’ and be followed, to ‘friend’ and ‘unfriend,’ like and dislike, and express opinions in a virtual public domain at almost any time and anywhere. Here the practice of acclamation produces what we shall call ‘public mood.’ . . . Schmitt had already foreseen something . . . that marks a radical caesura in contemporary liberal democracies, rendering inoperative the previous public opinion dispositive, and leading to the situation where the mass media, its commentariat, and national opinion polls were uniformly wrong with reference to the 2016 presidential campaign and general election in the United States.” Instead of a public opinion formed by influential newspapers (a.k.a. the “mainstream press”), the context of the social media generates a “public mood,” characterized by affect more than rational argument and, as Dean argues, with a significant experience of the sacred. U.S. politics has long been characterized by a civic religion, but now it plays out in the catacombs of the internet rather than in the high church of the New York Times.

A similar displacement away from conventional reason has been evident for a while in the domain of science. Institutionalized science has faced critics who have been calling into question the professional consensus on various issues, especially climate change, although there are analogous controversies around topics such as vaccinations that are similarly structured. In an essay translated and introduced by Rita Laszlo, Ágnes Heller explores the problem of gullibility and the challenge that the public faces when it is asked to decide between science and pseudoscience. The problem is partly a result of excessive claims in the name of science: Marxism-Leninism once called itself science, as did Nazi race science. It also results from overstatements about the reliability of expertise: the failure of expert economists to predict 2008 was a prelude to the failure of political scientists to predict 2016. Public skepticism toward scientific experts is therefore hardly implausible. Furthermore the doubts about science are also intimately tied to the legacy of late twentieth-century postmodernism and its programmatic rejection of truth claims. The result: the suspicion that all news may be fake. People are gullible not out of willful ignorance but because they in fact seek knowledge; yet they may do so without good judgment. For Heller, “Faith, desire for knowledge, and gullibility emerge from the same source: all people naturally strive to know. People want to know and understand not only themselves and their destiny, but also the world they live in and their fellow citizens. People do not live in merely one world but in multiple worlds. One world defines the other. Thus, heaven defines earth, fiction defines prose, and metaphysics defines physics. The world of science is one of many that define other worlds—even if not all of them.” The experts or the advocates of rational expertise deceive themselves if they believe that there is some proper state of affairs in which the public will passively accept the verdicts of authorities without following the temptations of other accounts and alternative hypotheses. “In certain cases there is a remedy for gullibility, but since people naturally strive to know, against the nature of gullibility as such, there is none. There exists hard knowledge and soft knowledge. Soft knowledge is for the gullible, independent of whether the subject of gullibility is a presently canonized scientific truth, a sort of borrowed experience, or the unique brainchild of a deceiver. However, what makes us think that people will always choose the difficult route? In any case, well-founded knowledge that is also reliable does not confirm the former. In short, those scientists and scholars who think people will generally choose the difficult way lack knowledge from personal experience and a sense of judgment; thus, they are certainly quite gullible.”

So, a “new regime” in the modalities of politics and in the relationship of the public to science? If there are tectonic shifts underway, then they may show up in forms of aesthetic expression as well, in particular, a reconfiguration of the relationships among aesthetic pleasure, imaginative invention, and informational substance. If the current political moment involves the impact of social media and the credibility of (fake) news reports, and if the science debate centers on the public credibility of expertise and an interrogation of validity, art forms appear to explore the proximity and distance to informational moments of different sorts: documentary cinema, fiction on the cusp of counter-history and philosophy, and the temporality of photographic identity. Three essays follow, each taking up one of these genres.

Kfir Cohen investigates Stephanie Black’s essayistic documentary Life and Debt (2001), which treats the impact of International Monetary Fund policies on Jamaica. After a discussion of concepts of globalization and building on Hegel and on Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping, Cohen develops the notion of “global pedagogy,” an artistic-conceptual form that “reinserts the individual subject into the networks that condition his or her world” and thus relates appearance and conditions: “Grounded to a certain degree on Aristotelian poiesis, over and against a Kantian aesthetic, such political art highlights the pedagogic, that is, it makes explicit the relation between individuals and systems, and this very learning becomes a source of pleasure. As it brings to light the conditions of possibility of our experience, such an art form has an affinity with Kant’s definition of critique and as such challenges the received tradition that art and conceptual discourses are distinct. Such an art form and its attendant implications thus open up a common horizon for conceptual and artistic languages whose institutional application might allow the humanities and the social sciences to advance a shared inquiry.” Life and Debt serves as an example of this art form.

Juan Carlos Donado takes us to the fiction of Roberto Bolaño, in order to highlight its particular philosophical dimension. “Starting with Bolaño’s own admissions concerning the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the essay sketches the backbones of a philosophical reading of two of Bolaño’s novels: Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star. The intention is to trace and situate deep philosophical issues that arise in Bolaño’s fiction, related to his unrelenting search to construct a literary image of radical evil. Such a search can be said to permeate his entire corpus, up to the point of determining his voluminous, unfinished, and posthumous novel 2666. Given that Distant Star consists in a reworking of an episode included in Nazi Literature in the Americas, this article examines an essential difference between both accounts, a difference that could be crucially articulated in terms of Wittgenstein’s influence. The host of philosophical problems that spring up with such analysis situates Bolaño within a literary and philosophical tradition that grapples with the representation of evil after Auschwitz.”

In the following article, Ruth Jackson “puts a traditional theological portrayal of a created, dependent humanity—represented here by Friedrich Schleiermacher’s work—into dialogue with the portrait work of a present-day German photographer, Volker Gerling.” Jackson suggests that “due to their ability to foreground the motifs of creaturely finitude and human becoming, Gerling’s flip-books (or Daumenkinos, a word rendered literally as ‘thumb cinema’) are an interesting form of media for modern theologians preoccupied with the issue of how humans should understand, portray, and speak about themselves, as well as the nature of their humanity. Schleiermacher’s theological anthropology forms the counterpoint for the discussion, however the article begins with Walter Benjamin’s account of photography as a limited medium for capturing reality, and indeed the nature of the human self. For Benjamin, this limitation stems not least from the static form of photographic representation—that is, its inability to portray people as beings who are formed through the passage of time. By juxtaposing the sequential nature of Gerling’s flip-book portraits with the still, photographic portraits upon which modern individuals tend to rely,” Jackson argues that “it is the former that provide a more fruitful way of depicting temporal human creatures.”

Three further essays bring new perspectives on thinkers and philosophical problems that have traditionally concerned Telos. Roger Foster takes a fresh look at Adorno and Wittgenstein, particularly with regard to what he calls the “therapeutic task of philosophy”—can it presume to undertake corrections, can it pursue an ethical agenda, or can it (with Adorno) at least diagnose failings as the precondition to amelioration? This requires a rethinking of Wittgenstein’s agenda, so that Foster’s view “rests on the claim that, in order to properly explain and account for the illness that, according to Wittgenstein, is the object of the philosopher’s therapeutic treatment (PI § 255), we will have to take account of the dependence of the origin and development of philosophical problems on practices, institutions, and historical constellations of thought that are extrinsic to philosophical inquiry, as ordinarily conceived.” If one does so, Foster claims, following Gottfried Gabriel, one can recognize Wittgenstein’s ethical goal, which Foster lines up next to a position he imputes to Adorno, “that the response to the corrosion of ethical life must take the form of the rational interrogation of the social logic that is responsible for the disappearance of the ethical substance of practice. This means, for Adorno, taking seriously the claim to comprise a rational ordering of experience that is implicit within the concepts of our language.”

In “Ethics Without Substances: Foucault, Mishnaic Ethics, and Human Ontology,” Robbie Duschinsky and Daniel H. Weiss take up Foucault’s claims about ancient thought to argue however that the Mishnah runs counter to some of his key assumptions. According to Duschinsky and Weiss, the philosophical underpinnings of Mishnaic discourse complicate “Foucault’s presumption in volume two of the History of Sexuality that any ethical system will possess an ethical substance, while also showing the acuity of his fourfold classification of ethics as a means of comparing ethical systems. As such, the analysis of the Mishnah as presented here sets the stage for research into other ancient ethical systems that may also depart from Foucault’s framework, as well as further exploration of anti-ontological ethical tendencies in classical rabbinic literature more broadly. The Mishnah’s ‘ethics without substance’ can thus bridge the gap between the ethical concerns of antiquity and contemporary society, shedding new light on the meaning and possibilities of both.”

Damien Booth brings together questions of science and philosophy in “Hegel’s Philosophy of Physics and Kant’s Noumena,” an evaluation of Hegel’s criticism of Kant, especially through close attention to the “Force and the Understanding” section of the Phenomenology of the Spirit. Booth argues “that this section provides an interesting and insightful argument against transcendental idealism. . . . The overall argument . . . demonstrates that Hegel exposes fundamental contradictions at the very heart of Kant’s transcendental idealism.” Booth shows how Hegel replaces the need for the noumenal, which generated extensive problems for Kant, through the dynamic and dialectic process of the spirit, the narrative logic of the Phenomenology, which therefore can do without a transcendental dimension. Nonetheless, Booth concludes with the warning that modern physics has rendered much of Hegel’s account of force untenable. “The important point here is that when we take Hegel to be opposing transcendental idealism in ‘Force and the Understanding,’ there is a genuine and valuable argument. Taken as an account of scientific observation, it may not be quite so compelling to the modern reader.”

This issue continues with two short notes on classics of Critical Theory addressing contiguous themes of time and history. John-Patrick Schultz takes a close look at Bloch’s critique of Marx in Spirit of Utopia. At stake is, ultimately, the core binary of evolution and revolution in Marxist thought, particularly Marx’s own inclination toward a deterministic unfolding of history, which would become a key tenet of socialist materialism; the alternative involves envisioning a disruption of that putatively necessary course of history through a rethinking of time itself. Schultz pursues this inquiry by bringing together Marx, Bloch, and Benjamin. Meshing with this theme of temporality, Aaron Bell looks closely at Adorno’s 1932 address on “The Idea of Natural History,” where the young philosopher tried to develop a dialectical tension between “nature” and “history” as categories, a model that became foundational for Adorno’s later thought. Interestingly Bell gleans important ramifications for a critical-theoretical evaluation of certain environmentalist writers dependent on reified understandings of “nature.” He writes that “many environmentalists have merely reversed, rather than dialectically disrupted, the normative polarity of the nature–history, human–nature dichotomies. From Aldo Leopold, the folksy founding father of environmental ethics, to the pseudo-fascism of the Deep Ecology movement, praise of the natural leads to criticism of the human-historical ranging from earnest disappointment to outright misanthropy.”

As has become our regular practice, this issue of Telos concludes with a section on the Critical Theory of the Contemporary, which includes concise topical pieces on current issues relevant to the journal’s concerns. David Pan makes a case for the particular importance of the humanities in the context of the Trump administration. At stake is not only the threat to the National Endowment for the Humanities but the particular urgency of values and interpretation in this new regime. Tim Luke takes a look at the prospects for science and environmental regulation. He details aspects of the new administration’s policies, while also raising important questions about the inherited structures of governmental management of environmental needs. The following two pieces address, in different ways, the status of nation and nationhood, as it takes on new implications in the context of a weakening of the dynamic of globalization. Adrian Pabst comments on Theresa May’s call for early elections as a gateway to exploring prospects for Labour, for which he prescribes the need to rethink patriotism. Finally, Jeffrey Wasserstrom reflects on Hong Kong through comparisons with Shanghai, as well as on the prospects for continued democratic rule. As he concludes, “The irony of residents of a former colony finding themselves now in much the same position vis-à-vis Beijing as anti-colonialist activists often did in the past is by now a familiar one—and one that shows no sign of lessening or disappearing.”

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