Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Undoing of Thought

If one is puzzled by “progressive” Western opinion’s nonchalance in the face of fascism with an Islamic face, with how racist its anti-racism so often seems to be, with its apparent indifference to the plight of Muslim women or Muslim gays, then read Alain Finkielkraut’s The Undoing of Thought and all is revealed.

Finkielkraut takes us through the intellectual history, and its underlying logic, whereby Enlightenment universalism became transmuted into its opposite.

In Part One—The Roots of the Human Mind—Finkielkraut starts, much like Benda (to whom the book is part homage and part continuation and updating), with Herder and de Maistre. A combination of German Romantics and French Theocrats who, by appealing to unconscious affinities against Enlightenment rationalism, were involuntary innovators who founded the human sciences (p.28).

Well except for, one notes, economics: but, like Benda, intellectual debate for Finkielkraut is a Franco-German affair. Apart from Franz Fanon and de Maistre—who both wrote in French—all the thinkers he cites are French or German. The Anglosphere—apart from, as with Benda, Shakespeare—is an intellectual no-go area.

Yet it is perverse to discuss modernity, even in terms of history of ideas, so utterly unconcerned with the Anglosphere. The Anglosphere creates modernity. Key Franco-German thinkers (such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Marx) are clearly reacting to—and deeply influenced by—their experience and understanding of the Anglosphere. The French Revolution itself—the archetypal “modern” political upheaval—is, in all sorts of ways, a consequence of, and reaction to, the American Revolution. (Even though, in crucial respects, both Revolutionaries and Counter-Revolutionaries fail to understand it—a continuing theme in European intellectual history.) The Continentals are so often much more parochial than they realise.

Like Benda, Finkielkraut sees the Alsace-Lorraine dispute as crucial in its influence on intellectual debate. In particular, by reawakening the debate between nation-as-contract and nation-as-spirit (p.30), which Finkielkraut regards as a crucial dichotomy.
He discusses the case of Goethe who, on reading a Chinese novel, was struck by how accessible the characters and their motivations were. Thereby completing his journey away from his earlier German Romanticism to seeing ideas and language as providing a more universal bridge across cultures (pp35ff). The artist (or thinker) may be born in a culture, but what they do should is to aspire to transcend it. Goethe had rejected Herder.

But, in German intellectual circles, Herder won. The acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine by the Gernan Reich helped make the cult of origins a patriotic duty. Nation-as-spirit won over nation-as-contract. With the later, brutal consequences that, as Finkielkraut notes, Benda predicted (p.46).

Part Two—Generous Betrayal—is about the intellectual reaction to the horrors of the Second World War and colonialism. Finkielkraut starts with the setting up of UNESCO which seemed to be motivated by the universalism of the philosophes. But this soon became very much not so. The reaction against the most brutal particularism of all was not a re-invigorating of universalism but an even more intense worship of particularism. The Second Death of Man (p.59) done in the name of A Dewesternized World (p.53). What began as a critique of fanaticism became a critique of Enlightenment thinking.

Finkielkraut takes a statement by Claude Levi-Strauss commissioned by UNESCO in 1951 to be a sign of the shift (pp55ff). The universalism of the Enlightenment was criticised as an instrument of imperialism, and thus oppression. It was, Levi-Strauss said, ethnocentric. The war against barbarism became a war against the concept of barbarian. With anthropologists leading the way:
Once [anthropologists] had flattered Europe’s vanity. They set about henceforth to nourish its guilty conscience. Savagery, barbarism and primitive man: these were just so many hateful and condescending stereotypes whose intellectual validity anthropology had undermined (p57)
The war against ethnocentrism pervaded the human sciences (again, economics is ignored). The discipline of History broke the notion of historical continuity, telling us not to see ourselves in the past (pp59ff), which became another country. Sociologists stressed the pluralism of our fleeting culture (pp60ff).

Finkielkraut lists the ways this new perspective meant agreeing with Herder. With a major divergence:
Herder had spoken above all for his own people; the philosophers of decolonisation speak for the Other. Compounding, as it were, for the sins of their own tradition … (p.65)
But mirroring the logic still replicates the logic. So we have, in A portrait of the Decolonised World the result that:
There has been no place for such a collective subject in the logic of colonialism; now, in the logic of cultural identity, there was no room for the individual (p.68).
With monotonous regularity these liberation movements have thrown up repressive regimes. This is because they have based themselves on the mystical notion of collective fusion rather than on the juridical conception of contract. They have drawn on political romanticism and conceived liberty as a collective attribute rather than as individual possession (p.70).
Now, one can well argue that ideas do not have such overwhelming causal primacy. But they can aid or resist trends.
Of the two European versions of what a nation is, the Third World has massively opted for the worse one, and done so with the active blessing of Western intellectuals (p.73).
... for culture as task … they substitute culture as origin (p.79)
part of
the great transformation of culture into cultural identity (p.81).
Finkielkraut considers the mixed role of Marxism in all this. Marx deplored nationalism but also denied any notion of social contract, insisting the key feature of society was conflict (p.71). Leninism (particularly under Stalin) resurrected national identity. But in Marxist terms—of something determined by the underlying processes of life, not something that was in anyway chosen. Having undermined the notion of nation-as-contract, Communism's death took with it the notion of a world common to all (pp 72-73). Which leaves nation-as-spirit free reign.

And so the strange convolutions of “anti-racism”.
The word racism, in fact, is deceptive. It brackets under the same label two sorts of outlook whose genesis, logic and motivation are completely dissimilar … The former holds that civilisation is unitary: the latter maintains that there are multiple ethnicities that cannot be compared. It may be true that the first outlook leads to colonialism; but the second culminates in Hitler (p.75).
With the substitution of the cultural for the biological conception of the collectivity, racism has not been abolished: it has simply returned to its starting point (p.77).
the annihilation of the individual is called “liberty”; and the word “culture” serves as a humanist standard for the division of the human race into collective, inaccessible and irreducible entities (p.83).
Where Benda was more inclined to see material interest and status-seeking, Finkielkraut is more concerned with the logic of ideas and more intellectual motives. But they are not incompatible perspectives—patterns of ideas, for whatever reason they are adopted, do have inherent logics to them. Finkielkraut discusses the effect on education and notes the irony in Claude Levi-Strauss, having helped set the trend off, then causing offence in a later lecture (to UNESCO in 1971) because he fails to shift his ground (p.78). For:
The more the anti-racism of today resembles the racism of yesterday, the more the word “race” itself become sacrilegious (p.81).
Either way, the pattern of modern intellectuals displaying their moral and intellectual superiority by proclaiming their critical distance from their own culture, and then displaying their moral and intellectual superiority by extolling other people’s attachment to their cultures, is certainly dissected in highly informative way. Since the universal really is inherent in serious intellectual activity, but universalism itself is denied, one gets this Janus-like shifting of ground whereby one's own culture is critiqued in the name of universal principles but other cultures are endorsed in the name of the denial of universalism. Particularism as a universal principle. So criticising Muslims is Islamophobia while criticising Christians is just what sensible folk do.

Despite having been written in 1988, Finkielkraut’s essay is greatly illuminating about the apparent blindness of so many intellectuals in the West to fascism with an Islamic face. Particularly the puzzle of why, among progressivists, derivatives of Hitler’s ideas (studiously repackaged—such as shifting from the Jewish people being the world’s most problematic folk to the Jewish state being the world’s most problematic state) seem to have more sway than derivatives of Lenin’s. Such as insisting on the primacy of identity and culture; romanticising nature; particularising science—contemporary “anti-capitalism”, is much more like Hitler’s than Lenin’s. Indeed, Lenin’s ideas mainly still have influence where his and Hitler’s overlap—such as the notion of a vanguard, the most obvious area where Lenin’s ideas still have influence (and, indeed, greatly influenced Hitler), or contempt for Christianity. But Hitler understood modernity a lot better than Lenin did, since he had to grapple with it much more complexly.

Part Three—Towards a Multi-Cultural Society—extends the critique to multiculturalism. Finkielkraut’s headings summarise his argument rather well: The Disappearance of the Dreyfusards (p.90)—i.e. those who decried xenophobic particularism in favour of chosen allegiance and individual dignity—A Pedagogy of Relativism (p.93), Culture in Pieces (p.99), The Right to Servitude (p.102).

Part Four—We are the World. We are the Children—extends the critique to postmodernism. The thesis, as his first heading says, that A Pair of Boots is a Good as Shakespeare (p.111). Where multiculturalists are about cultural fixity, the postmodernists are about cultural fluidity: a mix-and-match consumerist cosmopolitanism. But with no sense of anything universal, we are left with His Majesty the Consumer (p.118) and “A Society Which Has Finally Become Adolescent” (p.123), one engaged in the worship of youth (pp 125ff). Finkielkraut quotes Fellini:
Only a collective delirium could have led us to regard fifteen-year olds as embodying all the master virtues (p.128).
But if the past has no authority, why not worship the ignorant energy of youth?

Surely Finkielkraut is correct to note that those who decry consumerism have been most avid in undermining the supports for any genuine alternative. Ever since it arose out of the wreckage of Classical civilisation, the intellectual and cultural basis of Western civilisation has been structured around a shifting oscillation between Christianity and the Classical heritage. If both are rejected, what remains? A shifting parade of meretricious moralism, constantly repackaging itself as “cutting edge compassion”, the better to preside over status-seeking self-interest. A shallow intellectual consumerism that replicates and encourages what it professes to despise and has no serious sense of its own origins.

(There is certainly not any concept of Truth to appeal to: that is outmoded and oppressive.)

The final part is a single paragraph, entitled The Zombie and the Fanatic (p.133). The Fanatic being the person locked into their own culture under theories that refuse
access, under pain of high treason, to doubt, irony or reason—that is to say everything which would help him break free of the collective matrix.
The Zombie being the person who is also bereft of access to higher aspirations, but enjoys a leisure industry that reduces culture to the production of entertainment.

Intellectual activity giving way to a terrible and mocking encounter between those who refuse see their own culture and civilisation as having any claims, nor accept any universalism that might be appealed to, and those who insist on the primacy of their religious prescriptions sanctified as “culture”: a nice summary of Europe’s current predicament, written almost 20 years ago.

The Undoing of Thought is an essay that does give one most furiously to think.

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