Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

Set­backs would oc­cur along the way. Marx made clear that his vis­ion of his­tory was not some in­eluct­able lin­ear path to­ward pro­gress, as en­vi­sioned by En­lightened re­volu­tion­ar­ies such as Con­dor­cet: “Bour­geois re­volu­tions such as those of the eight­eenth cen­tury storm swiftly from suc­cess to suc­cess, their dra­mat­ic ef­fects outdo each oth­er, but their res­ults are short-lived… On the oth­er hand, pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tions of the those of the nine­teenth cen­tury, con­stantly cri­ti­cize them­selves, in­ter­rupt­ing them­selves in their own course, re­turn­ing to the ap­par­ently ac­com­plished, in or­der to be­gin anew. They de­ride with cruel thor­ough­ness the half-meas­ures, weak­nesses, and pal­tri­ness of their first at­tempts un­til a situ­ation is cre­ated which makes all turn­ing back im­pos­sible and con­di­tions them­selves call out: Hic Rho­dus, hic salta!” Rosa Lux­em­burg quoted these lines some sixty years later, adding: “The mod­ern pro­let­ari­at comes out of his­tor­ic­al tests dif­fer­ently [than the bour­geois­ie]. Its tasks and its er­rors are both gi­gant­ic: no pre­scrip­tion, no schema val­id for every case, no in­fal­lible lead­er to show it the path to fol­low. His­tor­ic­al ex­per­i­en­ce is its only school­mis­tress, its thorny way to self-eman­cip­a­tion paved not only with im­meas­ur­able suf­fer­ing but also with count­less er­rors… Its eman­cip­a­tion de­pends on wheth­er the it can learn from its own er­rors. Self-cri­ti­cism, re­morse­less, cruel, and go­ing to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the pro­let­ari­an move­ment.”

To­ward the end of his life, in 1965, Isaac Deutscher pro­fessed his con­tin­ued be­lief in “the Marxi­an Weltan­schauung.” He asked: “Is [ours] an age of the as­cend­ancy of Marx­ism or its de­cline?” Des­pite everything, the great bio­graph­er of Trot­sky main­tained that “Marx­ism is not an in­tel­lec­tu­al, aes­thet­ic, or philo­soph­ic­al fash­ion, no mat­ter what the fash­ion-mon­gers ima­gine. After hav­ing been in­fatu­ated with it for a sea­son or two, some might de­clare it to be ob­sol­ete. Marx­ism is a way of think­ing, however, a gen­er­al­iz­a­tion grow­ing out of an im­mense his­tor­ic­al de­vel­op­ment. So long as this his­tor­ic phase in which we live has not been left far be­hind us, the doc­trine may prove to be mis­taken on points of de­tail or sec­ond­ary points. But in its es­sence noth­ing has de­prived it of its rel­ev­ance, val­id­ity, and vital im­port­ance for the fu­ture.” Nev­er­the­less, Deutscher could sense the de­cay all around him, the de­gen­er­a­tion and vul­gar­iza­tion of Marx­ist thought. Vic­tory no longer seemed as­sured. Con­di­tions were by then over­ripe; the pro­pi­tious mo­ment had passed. It was pre­cisely the col­lapse of Marx­ism’s “grand metanar­rat­ive” dur­ing the 1970s that led an ex-Marx­ist like Lyo­tard to her­ald the on­set of the post­mod­ern age: “Grand nar­rat­ives have lost their cred­ib­il­ity, re­gard­less of wheth­er it is a spec­u­lat­ive [Hegel­i­an] nar­rat­ive or a [Marx­ist] nar­rat­ive of eman­cip­a­tion… We no longer have re­course to the grand nar­rat­ives. Neither the dia­lectic of Spir­it nor even the eman­cip­a­tion of hu­man­ity can serve as val­id­a­tion for post­mod­ern dis­course.”

Fluss and Frim seek to beat back this scourge by ap­peal­ing to the ghost of En­light­en­ment, or else by con­jur­ing up its ideal premises. As­ad Haid­er’s re­sponse in View­point keys in on this cent­ral weak­ness in their ex­pos­i­tion, all the more glar­ing in the work of the his­tor­i­an Jonath­an Is­rael (whose in­flu­en­ce on Fluss and Frim is ob­vi­ous, if un­ac­know­ledged). In their ar­gu­ments, the “En­light­en­ment prin­ciples of uni­ver­sal reas­on and equal­ity” they cham­pi­on seem to flow from the minds of philo­soph­ers rather than the so­cial and his­tor­ic con­di­tions that sur­roun­ded them. Haid­er re­peatedly cri­ti­cizes the man­ner in which Is­rael, Fluss, and Frim as­sign caus­al ef­fic­acy to ideas, quip­ping that “for lib­er­al and even so­cial­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als today with a high opin­ion of their own ideas, ideal­ist his­tory serves as a sooth­ing man­tra.” Still, the ap­par­ent “para­dox of an ideal­ist his­tory of ma­ter­i­al­ism,” a phrase Haid­er bor­rows from Ant­oine Lilti, is any­thing but. Per­haps the most renowned Ge­schich­te des Ma­ter­i­al­is­mus was the one com­piled by Friedrich Al­bert Lange in 1866, in just such an ideal­ist (spe­cif­ic­ally neo-Kan­tian) vein. Lange’s ac­count of ma­ter­i­al­ism may be symp­to­mat­ic of the tend­ency to dis­count the philo­soph­ic­al con­tent of Marx­ism, but there’s noth­ing para­dox­ic­al about it. There are plenty of elisions in Fluss and Frim’s piece that could be eas­ily un­covered: for ex­ample, the naïve con­trast they set up between Counter­en­light­en­ment fig­ures like Jac­obi and Ham­a­nn on the one hand — both of them “found something sus­pi­ciously Jew­ish about European ra­tion­al­ism” — and Hegel on the oth­er. Jac­obi and Hegel en­gaged in bit­ter po­lem­ics back in 1802, but were re­con­ciled after the lat­ter fa­vor­ably re­viewed volume three of the former’s col­lec­ted works in 1816 (around the time Hegel ap­pre­ci­at­ively re­vis­ited the works of Ham­a­nn in sev­er­al art­icles). None of these examples are raised by Haid­er, though to be fair he has Oth­er fish to fry.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, moreover, Haid­er is oth­er­wise con­tent to re­hash the post­mod­ern­ist in­ter­lude of the last thirty or so odd years (as well as the “ma­ter­i­al­ist” im­pulse to sal­vage it, for some un­known reas­on). Michel Fou­cault’s an­swer to the ques­tion “What is En­light­en­ment?” is trot­ted out as some­how suf­fi­cient to re­solve the whole de­bate, along with pree­mpt­ive sideswipes against any­one who would ques­tion his an­ti­cap­it­al­ist cre­den­tials or com­pat­ib­il­ity with Marx­ism. I’m not sure why Heider thinks the fact Fou­cault was “a fel­low trav­el­er of sev­en­ties French Mao­ism” in any way re­com­mends him. All the same, Haid­er’s point about the his­tor­ic­al ideal­ism of Is­rael, Fluss, and Frim stands. Even Ideo­lo­gie­kri­tik ought to be groun­ded in something more sol­id than Fou­cauldean dis­course ana­lys­is or Der­ridean tex­tu­al mar­ginalia. What, then, is the ma­ter­i­al basis of En­light­en­ment? Or post­mod­ern­ism, for that mat­ter? For Marx, the emer­gence of this new leg­al and polit­ic­al su­per­struc­ture cor­res­pon­ded to an his­tor­ic shift in the so­cial and eco­nom­ic base. Uni­ver­sal egal­it­ari­an­ism didn’t just ex­press the class in­terests of the as­cend­ant bour­geois­ie, though it did this as well; it was also an ideal re­flec­tion of the real ab­stract equi­val­ence of the com­mod­ity-form. Yet this fact re­mained ob­scure to the Auf­klä­rers, who un­wit­tingly as­sim­il­ated the ob­jectiv­ity of ex­change to the ar­bit­rar­i­ness of ar­cha­ic in­sti­tu­tions. “This was the kind of ex­plan­a­tion favored by the eight­eenth cen­tury,” Marx ex­plains in Cap­it­al. “In this way the En­light­en­ment en­deavored, at least tem­por­ar­ily, to re­move the ap­pear­ance of strange­ness from the mys­ter­i­ous shapes as­sumed by hu­man re­la­tions whose ori­gins they were un­able to de­cipher.”

And what of post­mod­ern­ism? Cer­tainly there has been no short­age of Marx­ist stud­ies de­voted to an ex­am­in­a­tion of its ma­ter­i­al basis. Perry An­der­son traced its the­or­iz­a­tion through the lit­er­ary es­says of Ihan Hassab, the ar­chi­tec­tur­al treat­ises of Charles Jencks, and the epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al re­ports of Jean-François Lyo­tard be­fore tri­an­gu­lat­ing its ori­gin in the de­cline of per­sist­ent hol­d­overs from the an­cien ré­gime (es­pe­cially the beaux-arts tra­di­tion with­in the academy), tech­no­lo­gic­al in­nov­a­tions (es­pe­cially tele­vi­sion), and polit­ic­al changes (es­pe­cially the dis­sol­u­tion of com­mun­ism). Dav­id Har­vey con­nec­ted the con­di­tion of post­mod­ern­ity with the neo­lib­er­al eco­nom­ics of “flex­ible ac­cu­mu­la­tion,” while Fre­dric Jameson dia­gnosed post­mod­ern­ism as “the cul­tur­al lo­gic of late cap­it­al­ism.” More sharply, Terry Eagleton dis­sip­ated its vari­ous “il­lu­sions” — its am­bi­val­ences, fal­la­cies, and con­tra­dic­tions — while Alex Call­ini­cos de­nounced it tout court. Gold­ner launched his own blis­ter­ing po­lem­ic against post­mod­ern­ism and de­con­struc­tion back when both had con­sid­er­ably great­er aca­dem­ic pull. He pin­pointed Heide­g­ger’s sup­port for Nazism and Fou­cault’s sup­port for Khomein­ism as de­riv­ing from their at­tempt to re­cast his­tor­ic­al non-iden­tity as on­to­lo­gic­al dif­fer­ence. But it is the crit­ic­al the­or­ist Moishe Po­stone who of­fers the most pro­found in­sight in­to post­mod­ern­ism’s ideo­lo­gic­al as­ser­tion of agency against the real­ity of struc­tur­al dom­in­a­tion. “The con­tem­por­ary hy­po­stat­iz­a­tion of dif­fer­ence, het­ero­gen­eity, and hy­brid­ity doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily point bey­ond cap­it­al­ism,” Po­stone points out, “and in­stead serves to veil and le­git­im­ate a new glob­al form that com­bines de­cent­ral­iz­a­tion and het­ero­gen­eity of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion with in­creas­ing cent­ral­iz­a­tion of con­trol and un­der­ly­ing ho­mo­gen­eity.”

“Re­turn­ing” to the En­light­en­ment may be a fool’s er­rand. Luck­ily, one does not have to ad­opt some false pos­ture in or­der to de­fend its leg­acy. Cru­cial to its de­fense, however, is the the re­cog­ni­tion that hu­man activ­ity can it­self be con­ceived as ob­ject­ive, as Marx put it in his Theses on Feuerbach. This is the spe­cif­ic dif­fer­ence, by the way, which sep­ar­ates clas­sic­al European En­light­en­ment thought from the “second En­light­en­ment” men­tioned by Men­and. Gold­ner ex­plains that “for the En­light­en­ment, an ob­ject was merely a thing; for Hegel and above all for Marx, an ob­ject is a re­la­tion­ship, me­di­ated by a thing.” Fluss and Frim are doubt­less right that the En­light­en­ment is presently un­der at­tack by a host of both an­ti­mod­ern­ist and post­mod­ern­ist ideo­logues, some even pur­port­ing to be from the Left (like the “un­re­pent­ant Marx­ist” Louis Proyect, who’s re­lin­quished his pre­vi­ous sup­port for Sokal in or­der to bet­ter cru­sade against the dast­ardly Vivek Chib­ber). A bril­li­ant re­but­tal to Proyect’s tenden­tious quo­ta­tion of Kant’s an­thro­po­logy, as well as the still more banal sur­vey of Di­derot, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Kant, and Hegel con­duc­ted over at Sub­urb­an Idiocies, is once again presen­ted by Gold­ner: “Polling En­light­en­ment fig­ures for their views on slavery and race is… is an ex­tremely lim­ited ap­proach to the ques­tion, sus­cept­ible to the worst kind of ana­chron­ism. What was re­mark­able about the En­light­en­ment, in a world con­text, was not that some of its dis­tin­guished fig­ures sup­por­ted slavery and white su­pr­em­acy but that sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers of them op­posed both. Slavery as an in­sti­tu­tion flour­ished in the col­orblind six­teenth-cen­tury Medi­ter­ranean slave pool. None of the par­ti­cip­at­ing so­ci­et­ies, Chris­ti­an or Muslim, European, Turk­ish, Ar­ab or Afric­an, ever ques­tioned it.”

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Ad­orno were also keenly aware of this “dia­lectic of en­light­en­ment,” as they called it. “Reas­on it­self has be­come merely an aid to the all-en­com­passing eco­nom­ic ap­par­at­us,” they wrote in their book of the same title, in 1944. Just a few years earli­er Trot­sky in­veighed against Wern­er Som­bart that, far from be­com­ing more tem­per­ate or reas­on­able, “aging cap­it­al­ism… is los­ing its last vestiges of reas­on.” In a so­ci­ety where con­sum­mately ra­tion­al means are used to pur­sue ul­ti­mately ir­ra­tion­al ends, Auf­klä­rung is sus­cept­ible to in­ver­sion, trans­form­ing in­to its op­pos­ite. Fluss and Frim de­ride Ad­orno and Horkheimer’s Dia­lect­ic of En­light­en­ment for hav­ing “re­tained a ten­sion between the En­light­en­ment ideas of eman­cip­a­tion, on the one hand, and the Ni­et­z­schean cri­tique of reas­on, on the oth­er” (a vir­tu­al para­phrase of Haber­mas’ cri­tique in Philo­soph­ic­al Dis­course of Mod­ern­ity of “Horkheimer and Ad­orno’s am­bigu­ous at­tempt to res­cue en­light­en­ment in a way that would sat­is­fy Ni­et­z­sche’s rad­ic­al cri­tique of reas­on”). But it is with­in this very apor­ia that they loc­ate the germ of mod­ern an­ti­semit­ism:

By as­sum­ing the unity of hu­man­ity to have been already real­ized in prin­ciple, the lib­er­al thes­is serves as an apo­logy for the ex­ist­ing or­der. The at­tempt to avert the direst threat by minor­ity policies and oth­er demo­crat­ic meas­ures is am­bigu­ous as is the de­fens­ive strategy of the last lib­er­al cit­izens. Their power­less­ness at­tracts the en­emy of power­less­ness. The mode of life and ap­pear­ance of the Jews com­prom­ise the ex­ist­ing uni­ver­sal by de­fi­cient ad­apt­a­tion. Their in­flex­ible ad­her­en­ce to their own or­der of life has placed them in an in­sec­ure re­la­tion­ship to the pre­vail­ing one. They ex­pec­ted to be sus­tained by that or­der without sub­scrib­ing to it. Their re­la­tion­ship to the dom­in­ant na­tions was one of greed and fear. Yet whenev­er they sac­ri­ficed their dif­fer­en­ce to the pre­vail­ing mode, the suc­cess­fully ad­ap­ted Jews took on in ex­change the cold, sto­ic­al char­ac­ter which ex­ist­ing so­ci­ety im­poses on hu­man be­ings. The dia­lect­ic­al in­ter­twine­ment of en­light­en­ment and power, the dual re­la­tion­ship of pro­gress to both cruelty and lib­er­a­tion, which has been brought home to the Jews no less by the great ex­po­nents of en­light­en­ment than by demo­crat­ic pop­u­lar move­ments, mani­fests it­self in the makeup of the as­sim­il­ated Jews them­selves. The en­lightened self-con­trol with which ad­ap­ted Jews ef­faced with­in them­selves the pain­ful scars of dom­in­a­tion by oth­ers, a kind of second cir­cum­cision, made them for­sake their own dilap­id­ated com­mu­nity and whole­heartedly em­brace the life of the mod­ern bour­geois­ie, which was already ad­van­cing in­eluct­ably to­ward a re­ver­sion to pure op­pres­sion and re­or­gan­iz­a­tion in­to an ex­clus­ively ra­cial en­tity. Race is not, as the ra­cial na­tion­al­ists claim, an im­me­di­ate, nat­ur­al pe­cu­li­ar­ity. Rather, it is a re­gres­sion to nature as mere vi­ol­en­ce, to the hide­bound par­tic­u­lar­ism which, in the ex­ist­ing or­der, con­sti­tu­tes pre­cisely the uni­ver­sal. Race today is the self-as­ser­tion of the bour­geois in­di­vidu­al, in­teg­rated in­to the bar­bar­ic col­lect­ive. The har­mo­ni­ous so­ci­ety to which the lib­er­al Jews de­clared their al­le­gi­ance has fi­nally been gran­ted to them in the form of the na­tion­al com­mu­nity. They be­lieved that only an­ti­semit­ism dis­figured this or­der, which in real­ity can­not ex­ist without dis­fig­ur­ing hu­man be­ings.

Gold­ner comes close to this for­mu­la­tion when he ex­plores the “conun­drum” posed by the fig­ure of race and En­light­en­ment. “The En­light­en­ment was, as such, neither ra­cist nor an ideo­logy of rel­ev­ance only to ‘white European males’,” he writes. “Nev­er­the­less, it presents the fol­low­ing conun­drum: On one hand, West­ern En­light­en­ment in its broad main­stream was in­dis­put­ably uni­ver­sal­ist and egal­it­ari­an, and there­fore cre­ated power­ful weapons for the at­tack on any doc­trine of ra­cial su­pr­em­acy; on the oth­er hand, the En­light­en­ment just as in­dis­put­ably gave birth to the very concept of race. Some of its il­lus­tri­ous rep­res­ent­at­ives be­lieved that whites were su­per­i­or to all oth­ers, a prob­lem that can­not be solved by lin­ing up En­light­en­ment fig­ures ac­cord­ing to their views on slavery and white su­pr­em­acy. Adam Smith, bet­ter known as the the­or­eti­cian of the free mar­ket and apo­lo­gist for the cap­it­al­ist di­vi­sion of labor, at­tacked both, where­as Hobbes and Locke jus­ti­fied slavery, while such em­in­en­ces as Thomas Jef­fer­son, who favored ab­ol­i­tion (however tep­idly) and de­fen­ded the French Re­volu­tion even in its Jac­obin phase, firmly be­lieved that blacks were bio­lo­gic­ally in­feri­or to whites.”

Else­where, he ex­plains that “the West­ern in­ven­tion of the idea of race in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, at the be­gin­ning of the En­light­en­ment, was not merely a de­grad­a­tion of the peoples of col­or to whom it was ap­plied. Such a de­grad­a­tion had to be pre­ceded, and ac­com­pan­ied, by a com­par­able de­grad­a­tion of the view of man with­in West­ern cul­ture it­self. A so­ci­ety that sees the ra­cial ‘Oth­er’ in terms of an­im­al­ity must first ex­per­i­en­ce that an­im­al­ity with­in it­self.” I would maybe quibble with his claim that ra­cial­iz­a­tion was a uniquely West­ern phe­nomen­on. There’s a book out in French by Tidi­ane N’Diaye pro­voc­at­ively titled The Veiled Gen­o­cide [Le gé­no­cide voi­lé]. He chron­icles the “Ar­ab-Muslim slave trade” [la traite né­grière ar­a­bo-mu­sul­mane], which las­ted roughly twelve cen­tur­ies and per­haps rep­res­en­ted the first ra­cial­ized sys­tem of slavery (i.e., with black Afric­ans con­gen­it­ally treated as chat­tel). What this shows, im­port­antly in my view, is that ra­cism is not the de­lib­er­ate in­ven­tion of some “white dev­il,” but rather a dy­nam­ic tied to a so­cial re­la­tion­ship un­fold­ing his­tor­ic­ally in the pro­cess of prim­it­ive ac­cu­mu­la­tion. Also, I’ve been as­sured by some who know Gold­ner per­son­ally that he’s since re­vised his low opin­ion of the Frank­furt School, so that’s good.

13 thoughts on “Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Race and the Enlightenment | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: A follow-up on the Enlightenment | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

  3. The ‘enlightenment’ gave us scientific racism via Gobineau, the exploitation of resources by land-grab (the control of property and whatever is below the ground), etc. It’s only enlightening if you happen to be benefitting from it.

    That’s why political-cultural theories and their debates are essentially meaningless at their worst, or completely subjective at their best.

    If one really wants to debate “ethnicism” and so called “racism”, then I suggest starting at bases like “The Ethnic Phenomenon” by van den Berghe, “The Anatomy of Bias” by Lauwereyns, and various papers about the neual basis for semantic cognition.

      • Incoherent.

        Gobineau was a radical within it and staunchly believed in parts of the movement enough to be a defender of it.

      • Gobineau was de Tocqueville’s secretary and close personal friend for years. He’s a central player in the Enlightenment. “Anti-Enlightenment”? Please read the history.

  4. The writing is atrocious, using many words to say not much that I certainly could not finish this tedious dross. Consider using an argumentative structure if you are truly to say something using such high [misguided] language. I’ve read works of elementary schoolers that make more profound and enchanting remarks within philosophic discourse. And place your body into world with whatever ideas you care to believe and see them work with you. If they do, you know that, somewhere in this mess, there is merit.

  5. I have near instant enlightenment pre-packaged in an overly long dissertation on a hidden language, one that pervades every single word. For instance you can see “den” in hidden, and in “Garden” just like you can see CITY in”Toxicity” … and with some reading and actual thought, that the “tox” key is really “to kiss” and the reason Britney Spears has a song about that word, and calling a reporter.

    It’s the Kiss of Judas, linked to the band KISS and to Taylor Momsen; showing us the design of a grand play dating ll the way back to the foundation of Hebrew and the word Kismet, which means fate.

    Here’s some recent writing about the world’s reaction, and a significant amount of censorship relating to this “obvious thing” in every word. that’s the latest chapter.

  6. Pingback: Materialismo, postmodernità e illuminismo [EN] – hookii

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