Frames /sing


Nostalgia + Kantianism = Revolution?

Narrating the Left: Residual Marxism

Dead Voles has a very nice paragraph on the problem of the Left and Critical Theory, in particular the seeming failure of Americans to hold the nostalgia that Europe does (more than a paragraph, but that is what I repeat here):

Europe is a couple of generations closer than we are to a real left. The critical theorists are hopelessly wrapped around their own fannies confined to dealing with Habermas’ Kantianism, but they still occasionally remember what it’s all supposed to be about. The residual Marxists are wandering around forlornly trying to make sense of themselves in the world of Merkle, Sarcoszy, and Berlusconi, but they still retain a nostalgic sense of loss that some of them can still connect. Here in the US there are no such memories (oh, the odd blog) and no such nostalgia; and more important, not a clue about connection. Sociology was the most obvious academic victim of the cold war. At Brandeis (read “exile from New York”) I was the beneficiary of the death struggle – the end of ideology or the triumph of the will, depending who you talk to. As you said, theory decoupled from practice is meaningless, and by the end of the sixties the decoupling was essentially complete. In its place came the hodgepodge of single issue special interests you’ve talked about so many times.

What is in a Name? Does The Rose Smell as Sweet?

Perhaps this points us toward the historical and DNA difference between Anarchism and Marxism: there was a time in the history of the early 20th century that both conceptual frameworks were providing political paths divergent from growing Industrialized Capitalism. This is the difference between the love of the author versus the love of practice. As David Graeber notes in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology [click here]:

Even if one compares the historical schools of Marxism, and anarchism, one can see we are dealing with a fundamentally different sort of project. Marxist schools have authors. Just as Marxism sprang from the mind of Marx, so we have Leninists, Maoists, Trotksyites, Gramscians, Althusserians… (Note how the list starts with heads of state and grades almost seamlessly into French professors.) Pierre Bourdieu once noted that, if the academic field is a game in which scholars strive for dominance, then you know you have won when other scholars start wondering how to make an adjective out of your name…

…Now consider the different schools of anarchism. There are Anarcho-Syndicalists, Anarcho- Communists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists… None are named after some Great Thinker; instead, they are invariably named either after some kind of practice, or most often, organizational principle. (Significantly, those Marxist tendencies which are not named after individuals, like Autonomism or Council Communism, are also the ones closest to anarchism.) Anarchists like to distinguish themselves by what they do, and how they organize themselves to go about doing it (4)

This tradition of naming, the emphasis on authors and therefore text once pointed out becomes jarring. I love these texts actually, because I am a writer, but one also has to take the content of these texts, their reported aims and ethical footing seriously, and ask oneself, who or what is one writing for? What processes and structures are actually being supported in this text-terminology production, and to what ends? It is interesting that Carl at Dead Voles comes to his rumination from a post of his tracing the 25 most influential authors on his life, not to mention that most readers of this kind of blog are necessarily logophiles, as I am. 

To divert into an important and repeated trope, must not every text connect to the textile of the body? Is that not philosophy’s greatest question, text vs. textile? Who makes it and what does it signify? And what are we weaving now? These are the threads, that is the loom…a powerful and lasting analogy.

It is not that we need to get away from books, but perhaps get into them. Into the strands of their fabrics. Into what they are made of. Into the pulp, ink and hand, and trace them out, beyond, into their materiality.

5 responses to “Nostalgia + Kantianism = Revolution?

  1. Mikhail Emelianov March 30, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I have to confess that I’ve read the post several times and I’m still at loss as to where the title comes from? Why is “nostalgia” and “kantianism” (what is it?) might produce “revolution” or equal to “revolution” with a question mark?

  2. kvond March 31, 2009 at 10:20 am


    The title comes from the selection from Carl’s post. The Left is struggling with Habermas’s Kantianism, (in my view, creating their own Kantian appropriations), and engaged in Nostalgia, something that does not really add up to “revolution”.

  3. Mikhail Emelianov March 31, 2009 at 10:42 am

    I see, I suppose I never really took Habermas’ Kantianism too seriously, probably because it’s sort of diluted…

  4. larvalsubjects April 1, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    I can’t say that I’ve noticed Habermas’ thought as being a very recognized or respected position within the Left. Of course, this depends on what you’re referring to by the Left. If you’re referring to the Left with respect to prevailing political theory in Continental philosophy circles characterized by people who are enthusiastic about thinkers such as Badiou, Zizek, Negri and Hardt, Deleuze and Guattari, Marx, Foucault, Agamben, etc., then here Habermas is almost entirely ignored. Moreover, the concept of “revolution” is almost entirely absent in Habermas’ work, and I think it’s only a subset of these political theorists that think of revolution or immediate and total overturning of capitalism is the way to go.

    If, by contrast, you’re referring to the Left as American liberals then your analysis might be more on mark. However, liberalism is essentially a moderate conservative position, not a leftist position. Here political thinkers like Rawls and Habermas are heroes. But the liberals don’t talk about revolution at all, nor even about overturning or transforming capitalism, but are instead focused on procedural politics that maintains “rights”. There’s not much in the way of a discourse of emancipation among the liberals.

  5. kvond April 2, 2009 at 7:12 am

    You are going to have to take the point up with Carl, for I was responding to what he wrote, which I quoted:

    “The critical theorists are hopelessly wrapped around their own fannies confined to dealing with Habermas’ Kantianism, but they still occasionally remember what it’s all supposed to be about.”

    Personally, though Habermas is “ignored” by the high-end theorists of ontologies, what is not ignored is the traction Habermas gets in wider society. If I read Carl correctly, the problem that Marxists have (and those generally nostalgic for ’68) is that aside from their little circle of highly elite, jargon-rich readership, they have very little place in the political discourse. Habermas is ignored by them, but not ignored as representing the philosophical engagement of left-of-center politics, on the whole. The entire point is that “talking about revolution” has become a pastime of a highly select sliver of University society, and as such probably has very little connection with any “real” revolution.

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