Schapiro contra Heidegger: The controversy over a painting by Van Gogh

.
Below is republished the Latvian-Jewish art historian Meyer Schapiro’s epic troll of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which originally appeared in 1968. He takes aim at the primary example used by Heidegger in his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art”: a painting of a pair of shoes by the artist Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro contends that the artwork Heidegger examines, which is supposed to disclose an ageless truth about the relation of being to world, represents something entirely different from what he claims. Painstakingly reconstructing the exhibition Heidegger attended where he first saw the Van Gogh painting (gleaned from a letter in response to his inquiry), Schapiro pinpointed the precise work referred to in the essay.

Needless to say, Schapiro’s article cause quite the stir in aesthetic and philosophical circles. Jacques Derrida, the French theorist and longtime champion of Heidegger, responded to the controversy at length in his book The Truth in Painting, where he concludes: “Schapiro, insouciant, lays a trap for Heidegger. He already suspects the ‘error,’ ‘projection,’ ‘imagination’ in Heidegger’s text.”

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit jpg1 Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

The relevant works can be downloaded here:

  1. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) in Off the Beaten Track (1950)
  2. Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1968)
  3. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (1987)
  4. Meyer Schapiro, “A Further Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1994)
  5. Babette E. Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music, and Eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and, Heidegger (2006)

An orthodox Trotskyist living in New York during the 1930s, Schapiro was moreover an associate of the Frankfurters-in-exile Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In 1937, he even helped the pioneering critical theorists find an apartment near Columbia University. Much to Adorno’s surprise, Schapiro was already acquainted with Walter Benjamin’s writings on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Writing to Benjamin, who was then living in Paris, Adorno urged him to “establish contact with Schapiro, who is extremely familiar with your writings and in general is a well-informed and intellectually imaginative man…Politically speaking, Schapiro is an active Trotskyist. Here is his address: Prof. Meyer Schapiro, 279 West 4th Street, New York, N. Y. (he reads German fluently).”

Benjamin met with Schapiro in Paris in 1939, at the request of Adorno, who hoped his friend might be persuaded to move to New York. Tragically, Schapiro was unable to convince Benjamin to emigrate. He committed suicide near the Spanish border a year later.

Schapiro’s political involvement during that decade even led him to correspond with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The former Red Army leader clearly appreciated the gesture, writing: “You belong to the camp of friends who as yet are not too numerous but who are, fortunately, increasing.” Later Schapiro acted as an intermediary between Bronstein and the surrealist leader André Breton, setting up the meeting where they would co-write the manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.”

vincents_shoesVincent_van_Gogh_-_Still_life_with_Bible_-_Google_Art_Project

The still life as a personal object: A note on Heidegger and Van Gogh

Meyer Schapiro
.

.
In his essay on 
The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger interprets a painting by van Gogh to illustrate the nature of art as a disclosure of truth.[1]

He comes to this picture in the course of distinguishing three modes of being: of useful artifacts, of natural things, and of works of fine art. He proposes to describe first, “without any philosophical theory…a familiar sort of equipment — a pair of peasant shoes”; and “to facilitate the visual realization of them” he chooses “a well-known painting by van Gogh, who painted such shoes several times.” But to grasp “the equipmental being of equipment,” we must know “how shoes actually serve.” For the peasant woman they serve without her thinking about them or even looking at them. Standing and walking in the shoes, the peasant woman knows the serviceability in which “the equipmental being of equipment consists.” But we,

as long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the field or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet.

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind. On the leather there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety about the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the advent of birth and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-in-self.[2]

Professor Heidegger is aware that van Gogh painted such shoes several times, but he does not identify the picture he has in mind, as if the different versions are interchangeable, all disclosing the same truth. A reader who wishes to compare his account with the original picture or its photograph will have some difficulty in deciding which one to select. Eight paintings of shoes by van Gogh are recorded by de la Faille in his catalogue of all the canvasses by the artist that had been exhibited at the time Heidegger wrote his essay.[3] Of these, only three show the “dark openings of the worn insides” which speak so distinctly to the philosopher.[4] They are more likely pictures of the artist’s own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant. They might be shoes he had worn in Holland but the pictures were painted during van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886-87; one of them bears the date: ’87.[5] From the time before 1886 when he painted Dutch peasants are two pictures of shoes — a pair of clean wooden clogs set on a table beside other objects.[6] Later in Arles he painted, as he wrote in a letter of August 1888 to his brother, “une paire de vieux souliers” which are evidently his own.[7] A second still life of “vieux souliers de pay san” is mentioned in a letter of September 1888 to the painter Emile Bernard, but it lacks the characteristic worn surface and dark insides of Heidegger’s description.[8]

In reply to my question, Professor Heidegger has kindly written me that the picture to which he referred is one that he saw in a show at Amsterdam in March 1930.[9] This is clearly de la Faille’s no. 255; there was also exhibited at the same time a painting with three pairs of shoes,[10] and it is possible that the exposed sole of a shoe in this picture, inspired the reference to the sole in the philosopher’s account. But from neither of these pictures, nor from any of the others, could one properly say that a painting of shoes by van Gogh expresses the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work. They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.

Heidegger has written: “The art-work told us what shoes are in truth. It would be the worst self-deception if we were to think that our description, as a subjective action, first imagined everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in contact with the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally. But above all, the work does not, as might first appear, serve merely for a better visualization of what a piece of equipment is. Rather, the equipmental being of equipment first arrives at its explicit appearance through and only in the artist’s work. What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant’s shoes, is in truth.”[11]

Alas for him, the philosopher has indeed deceived himself. He has retained from his encounter with van Gogh’s canvas a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil, which are not sustained by the picture itself. They are grounded rather in his own social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy. He has indeed “imagined everything and projected it into the painting.” He has experienced both too little and too much in his contact with the work.

The error lies not only in his projection, which replaces a close attention to the work of art. For even if he had seen a picture of a peasant woman’s shoes, as he describes them, it would be a mistake to suppose that the truth he uncovered in the painting — the being of the shoes — is something given here once and for all and is unavailable to our perception of shoes outside the painting. I find nothing in Heidegger’s fanciful description of the shoes pictured by van Gogh that could not have been imagined in looking at a real pair of peasants’ shoes. Though he credits to art the power of giving to a represented pair of shoes that explicit appearance in which their being is disclosed — indeed “the universal essence of things,”[12] “world and earth in their counterplay”[13] — this concept of the metaphysical power of art remains here a theoretical idea. The example on which he elaborates with strong conviction does not support that idea.

Is Heidegger’s mistake simply that he chose a wrong example? Let us imagine a painting of a peasant woman’s shoes by van Gogh. Would it not have made manifest just those qualities and that sphere of being described by Heidegger with such pathos?

Heidegger would still have missed an important aspect of the painting: the artist’s presence in the work. In his account of the picture he has overlooked the personal and physiognomic in the shoes that made them so persistent and absorbing a subject for the artist (not to speak of the intimate connection with the specific tones, forms, and brush-made surface of the picture as a painted work). When van Gogh depicted the peasant’s wooden sabots, he gave them a clear, unworn shape and surface like the smooth still-life objects he had set beside them on the same table: the bowl, the bottles, a cabbage, etc. In the later picture of a peasant’s leather slippers, he has turned them with their backs to the viewer.[14] His own shoes he has isolated on the ground; he has rendered them as if facing us, and so worn and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.

We come closer, I think, to van Gogh’s feeling for these shoes in a paragraph written by Knut Hamsun in the 1880s in his novel Hunger, describing his own shoes:

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self.[15]

In comparing van Gogh’s painting with Hamsun’s text, we are interpreting the painting in a different way than Heidegger. The philosopher finds in the picture of the shoes a truth about the world as it is lived by the peasant owner without reflection; Hamsun sees the real shoes as experienced by the self-conscious, contemplating wearer who is also the writer. Hamsun’s personage, a brooding, self-observant drifter, is closer to van Gogh’s situation than to the peasant’s. Yet van Gogh is in some ways like the peasant; as an artist he works, he is stubbornly occupied in a task that is for him his inescapable calling, his life.

Of course, van Gogh, like Hamsun, has also an exceptional gift of representation; he is able to transpose to the canvas with a singular power the forms and qualities of things; but they are things that have touched him deeply, in this case his own shoes — things inseparable from his body and memorable to his reacting self-awareness. They are not less objectively rendered for being seen as if endowed with his feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait, that part of the costume with which we tread the earth and in which we locate strains of movement, fatigue, pressure, heaviness — the burden of the erect body in its contact with the ground. They mark our inescapable position on the earth. To “be in someone’s shoes” is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For an artist to isolate his worn shoes as the subject of a picture is for him to convey a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not only the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as “a portion of the self ” (in Hamsun’s words) are van Gogh’s revealing theme.

Gauguin, who shared van Gogh’s quarters in Arles in 1888, sensed a personal history behind his friend’s painting of a pair of shoes. He has told in his reminiscences of van Gogh a deeply affecting story linked with van Gogh’s shoes.

In the studio was a pair of big hob-nailed shoes, all worn and spotted with mud; he made of it a remarkable still life painting. I do not know why I sensed that there was a story behind this old relic, and I ventured one day to ask him if he had some reason for preserving with respect what one ordinarily throws out for the rag-picker’s basket.

“My father,” he said, “was a pastor, and at his urging I pursued theological studies in order to prepare for my future vocation. As a young pastor I left for Belgium one fine morning, without telling my family, to preach the gospel in the factories, not as I had been taught but as I understood it myself. These shoes, as you see, have bravely endured the fatigue of that trip.”

Preaching to the miners in the Borinage, Vincent undertook to nurse a victim of a fire in the mine. The man was so badly burned and mutilated that the doctor had no hope for his recovery. Only a miracle, he thought, could save him. Van Gogh tended him forty days with loving care and saved the miner’s life.

Before leaving Belgium I had, in the presence of this man who bore on his brow a series of scars, a vision of the crown of thorns, a vision of the resurrected Christ.

Gauguin continues:

And Vincent took up his palette again; silently he worked. Beside him was a white canvas. I began his portrait. I too had the vision of a Jesus preaching kindness and humility.[16]

It is not certain which of the paintings with a single pair of shoes Gauguin had seen at Arles. He described it as violet in tone in contrast to the yellow walls of the studio. It does not matter. Though written some years later, and with some literary affectations, Gauguin’s story confirms the essential fact that for van Gogh the shoes were a memorable piece of his own life, a sacred relic.

Notes


[1] Martin Heidegger, «Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes», in Holzwege (Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1950), 7-68. Reprinted separately, in paperback, with an introduction by H.-G. Gadamer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1962). Trans. by A. Hofstadter, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York: Random House, 1964), 649-701. All quotations are from the excellent Hofstadter translation and are reprinted by permission of Harper Row, Publishers, Inc., New York. It was Kurt Goldstein who first called my attention to Heidegger’s essay, presented originally as a lecture in 1935 and 1936.
[2] Origins of the Work of Art, 662-63. Heidegger refers again to van Gogh’s picture in a revised letter of 1935, printed in M. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by R. Manheim (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). Speaking of Dasein (being-there, or “essent”) he points to a painting by van Gogh: “A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing. But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here? The canvas? The brushstrokes? The spots of color?” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 29).
[3] J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh (Paris: 1939): no. 54, fig. 60; no. 63, fig. 64; no. 225, fig. 248; no. 331, fig. 249; no. 332, fig. 250; no. 333, fig. 251; no. 461, fig. 488; no. 607, fig. 597.
[4] La Faille, op. cit., nos. 255, 332, 333.
[5] La Faille, op cit., no. 333; it is signed “Vincent ’87.”
[6] La Faille, op cit., nos. 54 and 63.
[7] La Faille, op. cit., no. 461. Vincent van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh (Amsterdam: 1952-64), III, 291, letter no. 529.
[8] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607. Van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven, IV, 227.
[9] Personal communication, letter of May 6, 1965.
[10] La Faille, op. cit., no. 332, fig. 250.
[11] Origins of the Work of Art, 664.
[12] Origins of the Work of Art, 665.
[13] “Truth happens in van Gogh’s painting. This does not mean that something is rightly portrayed, but rather that in the revelation of the equipmental being of the shoes that which is as a whole world and earth in their counterplay — attains to unconcealment…The more simply and essentially the shoes appear in their essence…the more directly and fascinatingly does all that is attain to a greater degree of being. (Origins oft he Work of Art, 680).
[14] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607, fig. 597.
[15] Knut Hamsun, Hunger, trans. by G. Egerton (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1941), 27.
[16] de Rotonchamp, Paul Gauguin 1848-1913, 2nd ed. (Paris: G. eres, 1925),33. There is an earlier version of the story in: Paul Gauguin, “Natures mortes,” Essais d’art libre, 1894, 4, 273-75. These two texts were kindly brought to my attention by Professor Mark Roskill.

Is all architecture truly political?

A response to Quilian Riano

.
Quilian Riano has written up a brief piece, “Design as a Political Act,” over at Quaderns in which he responds in passing to some critical remarks I made about his comments in a recent event review and further contextualizes what he meant by his contention that “all architecture is political.”

Riano explains that this remark is not only intended as a statement of fact (though he goes on to maintain its factuality, with a few minor qualifications) but also as a corrective to the formalistic (mis)education most architects receive in the course of their training. He lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the architect Peter Eisenman, whose post-functionalist perspective disavows any possible political role for design. In this, Riano is doubtless on the right track in his skepticism toward Eisenman’s views. The oldest ideology on the books, after all, is that which most adamantly insists on its apolitical or non-ideological character.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that Riano overcompensates in issuing this corrective. To claim that all design is political is no more accurate than to claim that design isn’t political at all. In either case, the counterclaim expresses an abstract, contentless universality — almost in the same manner that, for Hegel in his Science of Logic, an ontological plenum (where everything’s filled in) and an ontological void (where nothing’s filled in) are conceptually identical. Žižek, whose interview with Vice magazine Riano cites, would probably appreciate this analogy. Seemingly opposite claims, by remaining at this level of abstraction, are equidistant from reality. Clearly, Riano has “bent the stick too far in the other direction,” as the saying goes.

Model, Tribune for a Leninist (the podium-balcony is empty, the placard reads "Glasnost")

Model, Tribune for a Leninist (the podium
sits empty, the placard reads “Glasnost”)

It’s an odd position to be in, coming to the defense of a figure one generally finds unsympathetic, but whose work is being criticized unjustly. So it is with someone like Eisenman. Here I’m reminded of something Douglas Murphy said to me a couple months back. Murphy, who was unsparingly critical of Eisenman in his debut, The Architecture of Failure, told me he’d recently “found [him]self…defending Peter Eisenman, reactionary old windbag though he is, against charges that he (and he alone!) ruined architectural education in the last 30 years.” Eisenman is not so much the cause as the effect of the depoliticization of architecture. Continue reading

NYC book release: Architecture and capitalism (2013)

Storefront for Art
and Architecture
November 5, 2013

7:00-10:00 pm

.
Sammy Medina and I will be attending this event tonight at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan, on two of subjects of which we never tire of talking: architecture and capitalism. Check it out if you’re in town, and hope to see you there. The event description and details about the book are reproduced below.
.

Architecture and/or capitalism

.

Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theaters show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom — war on terror and so on — falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.

— Slavoj Žižek, Sept 17, 2011
Liberty Square, New York

Over the last few decades, capitalism has entered every single aspect of culture. If we fantasized about postmodernism being the end of capitalism in its lateness, it seems that today, on the contrary, capitalism is as agile as ever. As Žižek argues in his joke about the red ink, we do not have the tools to start imagining alternatives.

Faced with this impossibility, on the occasion of the book launch of Architecture and Capitalism edited by Peggy Deamer, Storefront presents a forum where some of the book contributors and other leading figures in the discourse around politics, economy, architecture and the city present and discuss some historical and contemporary references on how alternatives have been articulated in the past and how we might be able to articulate them today.

Participants include:
Thomas Angotti,
Peggy Deamer,
Quilian Riano
and Michael Sorkin,
among others.

If you are a Storefront member and would like to reserve a seat at the event, please send your RSVP. Not a member? Join now. Also, tell your friends and RSVP on Facebook.
.

About the book

Architecture and Capitalism:
1845 to the Present
Edited by Peggy Deamer

.
Architecture and Capitalism
tells a story of the relationship between the economy and architectural design. Eleven historians each discuss in brand new essays the time period they know best, looking at cultural and economic issues, which in light of current economic crises you will find have dealt with diverse but surprisingly familiar economic issues. Told through case studies, the narrative begins in the mid-nineteenth century and ends with 2011, with introductions by editor Peggy Deamer to pull the main themes together so that you can see how other architects in different times and in different countries have dealt with similar economic conditions. By focusing on what previous architects experienced, you have the opportunity to avoid repeating the past.

With new essays by Pier Vittorio Aureli, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Keller Easterling, Lauren Kogod, Robert Hewison, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Robin Schuldenfrei, Deborah Gans, Simon Sadler, Nathan Rich, and Michael Sorkin.

Peggy Deamer is a professor of architecture at Yale University, New Haven, USA.

Publisher: Routledge
NYC, English, 2013 
Paperback: $40
ISBN: 978-0-415-53488-8 
Hardback: $150.00
ISBN: 978-0-415-53487-1 

Limited copies will be available
for purchase at the event. Continue reading

Advice for critics

Walter Benjamin, Virginia
Woolf, & Roland Barthes

.
Image: Raoul Hausmann,
The Art Critic (1919-1920),

Walter Benjamin

“The critic’s technique in thirteen theses” (1928)

.

I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.
V. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.
VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Hölder­lin and Kleist, Beethoven, and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault. [One can hear echoes of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in this passage].
VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.
VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.
IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studied the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.
X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.
XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the artwork is the shining sword in the battle of minds.
XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.
XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

Man Ray, photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Man Ray, Photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Virginia Woolf

“The decay of essay-writing” (1905)

.
The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum — how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger — come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them. Continue reading

Architecture and politics

“Architecture as politics is by now such an exhausted myth that it is pointless to waste anymore words on it,” sighed Manfredo Tafuri at the outset of his magnum opus, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (1980). Despite Tafuri’s dismissive gesture, many today still insist that architecture possesses considerable political agency. Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with Tafuri. While it would be mistaken to regard architecture and politics as totally unrelated, the precise nature of their interconnection is not at all what most advocates of architecture’s political role seem to think.

And so, without reopening this discussion wholesale, I think there are some basic clarifications that must be made before issuing any judgment about their relationship to architecture. Continue reading

Fragments

by Reid Kane Kotlas 

Untitled.
Image: Georges Braques,
Bottles and Fish (1909)

untitled2

.
Originally posted on Reid Kane’s tumblog.

To have a system and to have none

Contrary to Hegel, who sought to consummate in theory the system that emerged as humanity rendered itself the necessary product of history, Marx is thought to have definitively indicted this system, or at least what it became. Marx’s critique is understood as a ‘systemic’ critique, a critique not of the actions of individuals or groups but of the whole social structure within which individuals and groups are bound to adopt the social roles that give them actuality. Marx offered no alternative system however, and that alternative which was eventually offered in his name ended in calamity.

Yet Marx did not offer such a critique. Rather, he recognized that the system had already become self-critical, and that this criticism was now advancing in the form of the struggles of the proletariat. It was with this struggle that Marx identified his criticism, a criticism which is nothing if not a critical participation in the political struggle, and thus a struggle to transform the ‘system’ on its own basis. “By raising the representative system from its political form to the universal form and by bringing out the true significance underlying this system, the critic at the same time compels this party to go beyond its own confines, for its victory is at the same time its defeat.” Continue reading

Disclaimer

Untitled.
Image: Grigorii Zinov’ev in 1936,
mugshot taken after his confession
untitled2

.
Just to clear up some recent confusion surrounding my blog, responsibility for the views contained therein, and so on. Some reconsideration and reevaluation of formerly-held opinions — some good old-fashioned самокритика — may well be in order.

The opinions expressed on my blog are mine alone, unless otherwise indicated. (I have occasionally reposted articles and interviews from various other sources). In any case, they do not necessarily reflect the views of any other group or organization. No one else is responsible for them.

Moreover, having maintained this blog for several years now, some of the positions taken in pieces I’ve posted in the past may no longer even reflect my current opinion on a given issue. This doesn’t exonerate me for having written them, of course, but hopefully it will alert the reader to the relative fluidity of my perspective over time.

All of this being said, however, any comments, questions, and criticisms would be welcomed.

A rather disheartening (if predictable) exchange between Corey Robin, Doug Henwood, and myself on Christopher Hitchens and the post-9/11 Left (from Facebook)

A younger Christopher Hitchens

A younger Christopher Hitchens

Ross Wolfe:

I think I tried posting this entire thing on your recent blog post on Hitchens, but here’s a link to the article by Spencer Leonard that I feel actually provides the most adequate leftist appraisal of Hitchens’ legacy.

Corey Robin:

Sorry, tried to read this a few weeks ago when someone posted it on Doug Henwood’s site.  Couldn’t make it past the second paragraph: so God-awfully written, filled with windy claims about “History,” and even windier claims about Hitchens’ role in either shattering the left or announcing the shattering of the left. Couldn’t tell from those two paragraphs whom the writer was more intoxicated with: Hitchens or himself.  I don’t know who this author is, but you might want to tell him: the one — and perhaps only — thing he should or could learn from Hitchens is how to write a clear, clean sentence.  That first sentence alone — it has more stops and starts, herks and jerks, than the 7 train on during rush hour on a bad day.  Don’t these people believe in editors?

Doug Henwood:

Adequate? Pure gasbaggery.

Corey Robin:

Ross Wolfe: If you do want to post this to the blog, that’s fine. Just post a link with perhaps a paragraph-long teaser. But please don’t post the whole thing; it takes up way too much space and makes it hard for people to figure out where things are in the comment-thread.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: Sadly, you yourself succumb to the same shallow moralism that was Hitchens’ greatest weakness. To psychologize an author’s alleged shortcomings — whether it’s Hitchens or Spencer — as mere “narcissism” or simple “self-intoxication” is a glib, facile, and ultimately dishonest procedure. It’s all too easy to evade the real difficulties posed by a figure like Hitchens by attributing motives in this fashion.

If you’re able to make it past your objections to his writing style, Spencer aptly notes this moralistic tendency in Hitchens’ own writings (which is, oddly, replicated in your articles on him):

The insights Hitchens develops respecting the history of the Left with reference to Orwell are valuable and, in many instances, merit further elucidation. The difficulty arises in trying to address such matters in the moral terms on which Hitchens bases his analysis, as for instance when Hitchens attempts to characterize the European fascism of the 1930s and ’40s in terms of “arrogance,” “bullying,” “greed,” “wickedness,” and “stupidity” [WOM, 7]. Such moral and intellectual flaws have, after all, plagued humankind throughout its history, and for this reason they provide an inadequate basis for conceptualizing something so distinctly and exclusively modern as fascism.  Similarly, leftist politics, while it may be rooted at the individual level in a certain moral impulse, can never be guided by that impulse alone.  While Hitchens’ expressions of moral disapproval are in themselves unobjectionable and indeed often rhetorically powerful, they hardly suffice as categories of political analysis.

The most horrifying aspect of fascism is that it does not admit of explanation on the basis of mere moral faults.  As problematic as Arendt’s analysis of “the banality of evil” in her reflections on the Eichmann trial may have been, at least it was able to move beyond the shallow attribution of the Nazi’s “evil” to some underlying diabolism.  Certainly, a number of the members of the Nazi leadership were thuggish goons, and many of the guards at the concentration camps were confirmed sociopaths, but this by itself does not explain the industrialized murder of European Jews, gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and so on.

Similarly, to try and dismiss Hitchens’ arguments and apologia for the war by reducing them to mere symptoms of his own personal vanity is insufficient.  The more troublesome question is to ask why this former leftist, in siding with naked U.S. aggression and militarism against the undeniably despotic Ba’athist regime, eventually succumbed to the same “lesser-evilism” of which he had earlier accused supporters of Bill Clinton.

Sure, everyone knows Hitchens was an arrogant prick.  But is this fact alone enough to account for what later “led Hitchens to shill for the American warmongers,” as Spencer put it?

Corey Robin:

Wow, I should wade through all that heavy-breathing in order to find out that Hitchens’s insights are “valuable”? Yet limited b/c he thinks fascism is reducible to bullying and wickedness? Sorry, dude, you’re not making that piece any more enticing. Now, I recognize that the notion that politics is about more than easy moralism must seem like some kind of blinding insight to you, but for many of us, it’s just one of many and obvious rules of the road.  If we don’t apply it to the Case of Christopher Hitchens — in the way, say, Adorno applied it to his analysis of Beethoven or Lukács did when he discussed Walter Scott — it’s b/c we don’t see Hitchens as a symptom of world-historical importance.  He was, in the end, a symptom of himself, which is why I thought a brief blog post was sufficient to the topic at hand.

I will add, because you seem so interested in these questions of History, that there is a long history of liberal-ish/left-ish intellectuals, at moments of political retreat, taking precisely the route Hitchens did.  It actually goes back to the French Revolution — read up on the Girondins’ decision to declare war on Austro-Hungary — and is a fairly familiar story to anyone who knows that history.  So I guess if there’s a second reason I didn’t feel the need to get myself all worked up about the man’s trajectory, it’s because it’s such a tried and true path.  Again, not of interest to anyone interested in History, but fairly familiar to anyone who knows some history.

Ross Wolfe:

Gasbaggery, Doug? As you were someone who so astutely helped point out some of the most shallow and theatrical aspects of the anti-war “activistism” of the ’oughts, I find it surprising that you would not be more sympathetic to the angle Spencer’s article takes.  Because it by no means tries to mount a defense for Hitchens’ tasteless and one-sided apologia for U.S. military aggression, but rather tries to frame these as the products of his disillusionment with the same degenerate Left that you yourself described in “Action will be Taken.”

Whether Hitchens’ radical enlightenment opposition to “every form of tyranny over the mind of Man” — namely, religion and superstition — served simply to mask some form of deep-seated Islamophobia is a matter of interpretation.  In my personal opinion, nearly all religion at this point in history is hideously reactionary, sexist, and homophobic.  It is only able to survive as a severe anachronism.  Religion, along with all forms of occultism and superstition, should by all rights be eradicated from the earth, no matter where it originated — so that humanity can be free from ignorance and irrationality.

By shamelessly siding with the aggressor in the U.S.’ and the U.K.’s invasion of Iraq (along with the host of other countries in the “Coalition of the Willing,” who they’d bought), Hitchens fell beneath his own threshold of criticism. Both sides of the conflict were miserable and worthy of contempt.  But Lenin, who is so often mindlessly invoked when it comes to conversations of imperialism, was himself far more balanced when it came to such matters.  For example, from chapter five of his 1916 work, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism:

Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism.  That is so.  No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism.  Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support.  We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), [Kievskii] also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

Or later, if Lenin didn’t make himself clear enough on this score here, he spelled it out even more explicitly in 1920 in his “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions”:

With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;

second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: If you’re half as familiar with Adorno’s work as your casual aside would suggest, you’d know that Adorno’s critical engagements of contemporary figures were not limited to figures who represented “symptom[s] of world-historical importance.”  Hitchens was easily a more important public figure and thinker in the last couple decades than, say, the anti-Semitic radio preacher Martin Luther Thomas, to whom Adorno devoted more than a hundred pages of analysis, was in his day.

Hitchens was indeed symptomatic of the widespread tendency of former leftists to devolve into empty moralism and hawkish apologia for U.S. militarism. Of all the moralizing pro-war leftists who spoke out or signed the deplorable and misguided Euston Manifesto, Hitchens was easily the most visible. If not Hitchens, then indeed who would qualify as sufficiently emblematic or “symptomatic” of this tendency? Nick Cohen? “Harry Hatchet”?

Adorno, as you’ll no doubt recall, found some things of merit in the writings of the archconservative Oswald Spengler, and found plenty to criticize in the writings of ostensibly leftist figures like Bertolt Brecht or Thorstein Veblen [in Prisms].  Things are not so clear-cut as one would imagine.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: Hitchens is easily a more interesting subject of analysis than someone so straightforwardly vacuous as Sarah Palin, a figure you deemed worthy of consideration for your study on “the reactionary mind” (even appearing on the cover of your book [The Reactionary Mind]). So I’m not really sure what you’re objecting to in Spencer’s book review.

Doug Henwood:

Yeah, gasbaggery.  I was sadder about Hitchens’ death than many on the left, but his apologetics for imperial war over the last decade of his life were revolting.  I found them tragic and depressing compared to his earlier work, which was part of the sadness.  But I don’t need to read any elaborate fantasies about how there was something radically progressive about his mancrush on Paul Wolfowitz.

Ross Wolfe:

Doug: There was nothing “radically” (or even remotely) progressive about Hitchens’ justifications for the invasion of Iraq — his mancrush on Wolfowitz notwithstanding (this was, by contrast, an irreproachably revolutionary position).  If you’d bother to read the article, you’d know that Spencer makes no such claims.

In fact, we also take Hitchens’ post-9/11 trajectory to be tragic.  We see it as indicative of a deeper despair with the recent state of politics on the Left and the practical impossibility of revolutionary transformation in the immediate future.  The Left was in such a sorry state in the opening decade of the twenty-first century that many so-called “radical” celebrities had resorted to third-worldist support for backwards, repressive dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, or reactionary groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  These figures and groups were celebrated simply in the name of anti-imperialism or anti-Zionism.  They fell into the simplistic sophistry of the old “enemy of my enemy” logic.

Regardless, what do you make of statements by Lenin, the Ur-theorist of the Marxist account of modern imperialism, such as the following:

No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support.  We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Spencer A. Leonard:

‎@Doug – What’s more telling is that after 2 years you still can’t bring yourself to articulate this piece’s theme, however well or poorly expressed: That Hitchens’ break with the “left” was at least instructive of the wretched condition (not just weakness!) of that left.  I placed that decline in a historical frame stretching back to the 1960s at the very least. Doug’s invocation of what’s “progressive” persuades me that I ought to have pushed it back to the original draft of the 1960s, namely the 1930s, since we have the New Left (and Doug Henwood) to thank for extending the currency (as more than just words) of such Stalinoid concepts as “progressive.”  The only thing different is that, at this point, these faint echoes of a Left that was are scarcely sufficient anymore to provoke anyone to such much as interest themselves in investigating that history, much less to discover how and why it keeps happening to them.

Doug Henwood:

I never thought I’d say this, but: Next to this stuff, give me Stalin.

Ross Wolfe:

Yeah, Doug, I also don’t know why you hold such a grudge against people like Hitchens when you’re close buddies with Louis Proyect, a self-described “solid supporter” of the miserable Venezuelan petro-dictatorship of Chávez — the “postmodern Bonapartist” — and the repressive regime of lifelong strongman Fidel Castro in Cuba.  Come to think of it, you’re also fairly chummy with Tariq Ali, another thinker who includes backwater authoritarian hellholes like Cuba and Venezuela (along with that third great bastion of proletarian revolution, Bolivia) as part of his “Axis of Hope.”  Castro and Chávez, outspoken supporters for Gaddafi to the bitter end.  If countries like these, along with Bolivia, are the only hope remaining for the Left, I think it’s fair to say that the it has failed in carrying out its revolutionary and world-historical mandate.

How you find these political beliefs somehow more justifiable, tolerable, or even understandable than Platypus’ critical position vis–à–vis the existing Left (to my knowledge, none of our members have at any time supported the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan) will always be a mystery to me.

Despite these unfortunate personal associations, however, I continue to admire your writing and certain of your contributions to the anti-war discourse of the past ten years or so.  It’s unfortunate that you still refuse to engage with Platypus, since it still seems to me that your own political beliefs are far closer to some of those entertained by our members than they are to, say, Proyect’s.

Ross Wolfe:

I never pegged you for a Stalinist, Doug.  But I suppose it makes sense.  Abandoning criticism, you fall back on the most plebian, garden-variety sort of dogmatism.

While I realize that you’ll probably say that you’re joking, the mere fact that you’re willing to peddle this schoolboy shit in order to avoid engaging in open political dialogue is telling.  I present you with an unambiguous statement from Lenin regarding the Left’s justified apathy when it comes to reactionary anti-imperialism, and you prefer to sidestep it because it doesn’t fit neatly into your prefabricated categories of heroic third-world “resistance” against U.S. military chauvinism (though I don’t deny for one moment that it is chauvinism).

Ray Brassier on the speculative realist “movement”

Including his reaction to my satiric
Manifesto of speculative realist/
object-oriented ontological blogging

Untitled.
Image: Ray Brassier

untitled2.

I first came across Dr. Brassier’s brutal excoriation of the Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological blogging “movement” after my own lighthearted sendup of the phenomenon was met with such disapproval by Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, and (seemingly) Nick Srnicek, although Srnicek was perhaps justifiably upset that I counterposed his e-mail to me to Bryant’s. In any case, I felt some sense of vindication upon seeing Ray Brassier’s own scathing commentary on SR movement in his interview with the Polish magazine Kronos:

The “speculative realist movement” exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.

Now, Brassier’s unsparing invective against this trend within the theory blogosphere has already been widely circulated, and I must admit that I was something of a latecomer in discovering the sentiments he expressed. Most have probably been aware of these statements for much longer than me. Nevertheless, I’ve been slowly working through his recent book, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, and must admit that I’ve enjoyed it so far more than anything I’ve read from Harman or Latour. I especially appreciate his engagement with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment; his interpretation is really quite good. So there’s a level of respect I had for him that preceded my stumbling upon this little snippet.

Anyway, following my recent publication of the satyric Manifesto of Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological Blogging and subsequent discovery of Brassier’s somewhat similar (though no doubt deeper) position on the matter, I e-mailed him with a link to the satyric piece. With the largely mixed response to the post that I’d received from the rest of the theory blogosphere, I was curious as to what Brassier might make of it. He responded this morning, rather promptly. The correspondence ran as follows.

Cover to the volume The speculative turn

Cover to the volume The speculative turn

Continue reading

Man and nature

.

Nature! We are encircled and enclasped by her — powerless to depart from her, and powerless to find our way more deeply into her being. Without invitation and without warning she involves us in the orbit of her dance, and drives us onward until we are exhausted and fall from her arm.

[…]

We live in the midst of her, and yet to her we are alien. She parleys incessantly with us, and to us she does not disclose her secret. We influence her perpetually, and yet we have no power over her.

— Goethe, Ode “To Nature”[1]

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature. The proper exposition of the problem requires a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into four separate sections, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.

After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations. So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified. The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format. It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical,[2] as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history. For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token there are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it. Continue reading