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The Moral Imagination and the Common Law

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Philosophy on June 12, 2019 at 6:45 am

I thought I knew a lot until I had kids. One hot Sunday summer afternoon in Alabama, when I was driving my family home from church, my son, Noah, then five, asked about the origin of roads. From a father’s perspective, this curiosity was a sweet, welcome alternative to questions about where babies come from. I explained with resolute immodesty how road construction operated, under what timelines and conditions, and using which tools and implements. I smiled, thinking the matter settled, and turned up the radio.

Then my son, in his little-boy manner and vocabulary, objected that his inquiry was, in effect, less about the technicalities of engineering or labor and more taxonomical or definitional in concern. Why wasn’t the trail near our home, trodden beneath innumerable feet, a road?  Why weren’t the sidewalks in downtown Auburn roads? What made a road a road? How did construction workers know where to build roads? From whom did they take orders and derive their authority? Could he, Noah, build a road if he wanted to? How could anyone build a road from here to there if the property along the way belonged to someone else, even multiple owners?

I turned down the radio.

This perplexing interrogation led Noah—who, again, possessed merely the lexicon and sophistication of a child—to more grating appeals for clarity and qualification. What, he wondered, empowered governments to authorize the creation and maintenance of roads? Were there roads beyond government control? What was the difference between public and private? What was government? Where did it come from? Why did we have it?

The moment I caught myself trying to explain social contract theory to a five-year-old, I realized I had been not only humbled and humiliated but overmatched, not by Noah necessarily but by the impressive sum of human ignorance about everyday experience and activity.

Though not impulsively so, I’m reflectively Hayekian and thus managed to articulate to Noah my abiding belief in the limitations of human knowledge, the selectivity of human memory, and the fallibility of human intuition, and to emphasize the importance of subjecting our most cherished principles to continued testing so they may be corrected or refined as we mature in our understanding. Roads could not be the inevitable product of one man’s awesome imagination working in isolation; rather they were the concrete product of aggregated, uncountable ideas, applied variously depending on local circumstances. This fancy way of saying “I don’t know” seemed to satisfy Noah, who grew quiet about his objections and marvels and turned his attention elsewhere.

I, however, couldn’t quiet my restless urge for the kind of comforting certitude that ultimately cannot be achieved. It wasn’t roads but knowledge itself and its embodiment or expression in the law—in particular in our Anglo-American common-law tradition—that suddenly bothered and intrigued me. Noah’s inquisitiveness had reminded me of the opening lines to a learned book on the common law:

Legal history is a story which cannot be begun at the beginning. However remote the date at which we start, it will always be necessary to admit that much of the still remoter past that lies behind it will have to be considered as directly bearing upon the later history. […] [T]he further back we push our investigations, the scantier become our sources, and the more controversial and doubtful their interpretation.[1]

The common law is not just an historical and governmental system for resolving disputes through courts and case precedents, traceable to eleventh-century England and adopted by the United States and nearly half of the countries on earth, but also a mode of preserving and transmitting knowledge about the human condition that develops out of ascertainable facts rather than abstract speculation. It’s bottom-up, reflecting the embedded norms and values of the community as against executive command or legislative fiat.

To continue reading about the common law and the moral imagination, please download the remaining essay here at SSRN.

 

[1] Theodore F. T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 3 (1956) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010).

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El marxismo cultural es real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, The Academy, Western Philosophy on May 1, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Mises Institute. 

Samuel Moyn, un profesor de derecho de Yale, preguntórecientemente: “¿Qué es el “marxismo cultural?””. Su respuesta: “Nada de eso existe en realidad”. Moyn atribuye el término marxismo cultural a la “imaginación desenfrenada de la derecha”, afirmando que implica locas teorías de conspiración y se ha estado “filtrando durante años a través de las alcantarillas globales del odio”.

Alexander Zubatov, un abogado que escribió en Tabletrespondió que el marxismo cultural, “algo confuso y controvertido”, “ha estado en circulación durante más de cuarenta años”. Tiene, además, “usos perfectamente respetables fuera de la oscuridad, silos húmedos de la lejana derecha”. Concluyó que el marxismo cultural no es ni una “conspiración” ni una “fantasmagoría” de la mera derecha, sino un “programa intelectual coherente, una constelación de ideas peligrosas”.

En este debate, me pongo del lado de Zubatov. Este es el por qué.

A pesar de la desconcertante gama de controversias y significados que se le atribuyen, el marxismo cultural (el término y el movimiento) tiene una historia profunda y compleja en la teoría. La palabra “Teoría” (con una T mayúscula) es el encabezado general de la investigación dentro de las ramas interpretativas de las humanidades conocidas como estudios culturales y críticos, crítica literaria y teoría literaria, cada una de las cuales incluye una variedad de enfoques desde lo fenomenológico hasta el psicoanalítico. En los Estados Unidos, la Teoría se enseña y aplica comúnmente en los departamentos de inglés, aunque su influencia es perceptible en todas las humanidades.

Una breve genealogía de diferentes escuelas de Teoría, que se originó fuera de los departamentos de inglés, entre filósofos y sociólogos, por ejemplo, pero que se convirtió en parte del plan de estudios básico de los departamentos de inglés, muestra no solo que el marxismo cultural es un fenómeno identificable, sino que prolifera más allá de la academia.

Los estudiosos versados ​​en Teoría son razonablemente desconfiados de las representaciones crudas y tendenciosas de su campo. Sin embargo, estos campos conservan elementos del marxismo que, en mi opinión, requieren un mayor y sostenido escrutinio. Dadas las estimaciones de que el comunismo mató a más de 100 millones de personas, debemos discutir abierta y honestamente las corrientes del marxismo que atraviesan diferentes modos de interpretación y escuelas de pensamiento. Además, para evitar la complicidad, debemos preguntarnos si y por qué las ideas marxistas, aunque sean atenuadas, siguen motivando a los principales académicos y difundiéndose en la cultura más amplia.

Los departamentos ingleses surgieron en los Estados Unidos a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX, lo que dio paso a estudios cada vez más profesionalizados de literatura y otras formas de expresión estética. A medida que el inglés se convirtió en una disciplina universitaria distinta con su propio plan de estudios, se alejó del estudio de la literatura británica y de las obras canónicas de la tradición occidental en la traducción, y hacia las filosofías que guían la interpretación textual.

Aunque una breve encuesta general de lo que se sigue puede no satisfacer a los que están en el campo, proporciona a los demás los antecedentes pertinentes.

La nueva crítica

La primera escuela importante que se estableció en los departamentos ingleses fue la Nueva Crítica. Su contraparte fue el formalismo ruso, caracterizado por figuras como Victor Shklovsky y Roman Jakobson, que intentaron distinguir los textos literarios de otros textos, examinando qué cualidades hacían que las representaciones escritas fueran poéticas, convincentes, originales o conmovedoras en lugar de meramente prácticas o utilitarias.

Una de esas cualidades fue la familiarización. La literatura, en otras palabras, desfamiliariza el lenguaje mediante el uso de sonido, sintaxis, metáfora, aliteración, asonancia y otros dispositivos retóricos.

La Nueva Crítica, que era principalmente pedagógica, enfatizaba la lectura atenta, manteniendo que los lectores que buscan un significado deben aislar el texto que se está considerando de las externalidades como la intención del autor, la biografía o el contexto histórico. Este método es similar al textualismo legal mediante el cual los jueces examinan estrictamente el lenguaje de un estatuto, no el historial o la intención legislativa, para interpretar la importancia o el significado de ese estatuto. Los “Nuevos Críticos” acuñaron el término “falacia intencional” para referirse a la búsqueda del significado de un texto en cualquier parte, excepto en el texto mismo. La Nueva Crítica está asociada con John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards y T. S. Eliot. En cierto modo, todas las escuelas de teoría posteriores son respuestas o reacciones a la Nueva Crítica.

Estructuralismo y postestructuralismo

El estructuralismo impregnó los círculos intelectuales franceses en los años sesenta. A través del estructuralismo, pensadores como Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva y Louis Althusser importaron la política izquierdista en el estudio de los textos literarios. El estructuralismo está arraigado en la lingüística de Ferdinand de Saussure, un lingüista suizo que observó cómo los signos lingüísticos se diferencian dentro de un sistema de lenguaje. Cuando decimos o escribimos algo, lo hacemos de acuerdo con las reglas y convenciones en las que también opera nuestra audiencia anticipada. El orden implícito que utilizamos y comunicamos es la “estructura” a la que se hace referencia en el estructuralismo.

El antropólogo francés Claude Levi-Strauss extendió las ideas de Saussure sobre el signo lingüístico a la cultura, argumentando que las creencias, los valores y los rasgos característicos de un grupo social funcionan de acuerdo con un conjunto de reglas tácitamente conocidas. Estas estructuras son el “discurso”, un término que abarca las normas culturales y no solo las prácticas lingüísticas.

Del estructuralismo y el postestructuralismo surgió el marxismo estructural, una escuela de pensamiento vinculada a Althusser que analiza el papel del estado para perpetuar el dominio de la clase dominante, los capitalistas.

El marxismo y el neomarxismo

En las décadas de 1930 y 1940, la Escuela de Frankfurt popularizó el tipo de trabajo generalmente etiquetado como “marxismo cultural”. Las figuras involucradas o asociadas con esta escuela incluyen a Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse y Walter Benjamin. Estos hombres revisaron, replantearon y extendieron el marxismo clásico al enfatizar la cultura y la ideología, incorporando ideas de campos emergentes como el psicoanálisis e investigando el auge de los medios de comunicación y la cultura de masas.

Insatisfechos con el determinismo económico y la coherencia ilusoria del materialismo histórico, y hartados por los fracasos de los gobiernos socialistas y comunistas, estos pensadores reformularon las tácticas y las premisas marxistas a su manera, sin repudiar por completo los diseños o ambiciones marxistas.

A partir de los años sesenta y setenta, académicos como Terry Eagleton y Fredric Jameson fueron explícitos al abrazar el marxismo. Rechazaron los enfoques de la Nueva Crítica que separaban la literatura de la cultura, enfatizando que la literatura reflejaba los intereses económicos y de clase, las estructuras políticas y sociales y el poder. En consecuencia, consideraron cómo los textos literarios reproducían (o socavaban) las estructuras y condiciones culturales o económicas.

Slavoj Žižek podría decirse que ha hecho más que cualquier miembro de la Escuela de Frankfurt para integrar el psicoanálisis en las variantes marxistas. “La erudición de Žižek ocupa un lugar particularmente alto dentro de la crítica cultural que busca explicar las intersecciones entre el psicoanálisis y el marxismo”, escribió la erudita Erin Labbie.1 Agregó que “los escritos prolíficos de Žižek sobre ideología, que revelan las relaciones entre psicoanálisis y marxismo, han modificó la forma en que se aborda y se logra la crítica literaria y cultural en la medida en que la mayoría de los estudiosos ya no pueden mantener firmemente la idea anterior de que los dos campos están en desacuerdo”.2 Žižek es solo uno entre muchos filósofos continentales cuyos pronósticos de marxistas y marxistas flexionados llaman la atención de los académicos estadounidenses.

Deconstrucción

Jacques Derrida es reconocido como el fundador de la deconstrucción. Tomó prestado de la teoría de Saussure que el significado de un signo lingüístico depende de su relación con su opuesto, o de las cosas de las que se diferencia. Por ejemplo, el significado de hombre depende del significado de mujer; el significado de feliz depende del significado de triste; etcétera. Así, la diferencia teórica entre dos términos opuestos, o binarios, los une en nuestra conciencia. Y un binario es privilegiado mientras que el otro es devaluado. Por ejemplo, “hermoso” es privilegiado sobre “feo” y “bueno” sobre “malo”.

El resultado es una jerarquía de binarios que son dependientes del contexto o arbitrariamente, según Derrida, y no pueden ser fijos o definidos en el tiempo y el espacio. Esto se debe a que el significado existe en un estado de flujo, y nunca se convierte en parte de un objeto o idea.

El mismo Derrida, habiendo releído el Manifiesto comunista, reconoció el avance “espectral” de un “espíritu” de Marx y el marxismo.3 Aunque la llamada “hauntología” de Derrida excluye las meta-narrativas mesiánicas del marxismo no cumplido, los comentaristas han salvado Derrida es un marxismo modificado para el clima del “capitalismo tardío” actual.

Derrida usó el término diffèrance para describir el proceso difícil de alcanzar que usan los humanos para asignar significado a signos arbitrarios, incluso si los signos (los códigos y las estructuras gramaticales de la comunicación) no pueden representar adecuadamente un objeto o idea real en la realidad. Las teorías de Derrida tuvieron un amplio impacto que le permitió a él y sus seguidores considerar los signos lingüísticos y los conceptos creados por esos signos, muchos de los cuales eran fundamentales para la tradición occidental y la cultura occidental. Por ejemplo, la crítica de Derrida al logocentrismo cuestiona casi todos los fundamentos filosóficos que se derivan de Atenas y Jerusalén.

Nuevo historicismo

El Nuevo historicismo, una empresa multifacética, está asociado con el erudito de Shakespeare Stephen Greenblatt. Observa las fuerzas y condiciones históricas con un ojo estructuralista y postestructuralista, y trata los textos literarios como productos y contribuyentes al discurso y las comunidades discursivas. Se basa en la idea de que la literatura y el arte circulan a través del discurso e informan y desestabilizan las normas e instituciones culturales.

Los nuevos historicistas exploran cómo las representaciones literarias refuerzan las estructuras de poder o trabajan contra el privilegio arraigado, extrapolando la paradoja de Foucault de que el poder crece cuando se subvierte porque es capaz de reafirmarse sobre la persona subversiva o actuar en una demostración de poder. El marxismo y el materialismo a menudo surgen cuando los nuevos historicistas buscan resaltar textos y autores (o escenas y personajes literarios) en términos de sus efectos sobre la cultura, la clase y el poder. Los nuevos historicistas se centran en figuras de clase baja o marginadas, dándoles voz o agencia y prestándoles atención atrasada. Este reclamo político, aunque pretende proporcionar un contexto, sin embargo, se arriesga a proyectar inquietudes contemporáneas en obras situadas en una cultura y momento histórico particulares.

En palabras del crítico literario Paul Cantor, “existe una diferencia entre los enfoques políticos de la literatura y los enfoques politizados, es decir, entre los que tienen en cuenta la centralidad de las preocupaciones políticas en muchos clásicos literarios y los que intentan intencionalmente reinterpretar y recrear virtualmente las obras de clase a la luz de las agendas políticas contemporáneas.”4

El marxismo cultural es real

Gran parte de la protesta sobre el marxismo cultural es indignante, desinformada y conspirativa. Parte de esto simplifica, ignora o minimiza las fisuras y tensiones entre los grupos e ideas de izquierda. El marxismo cultural no se puede reducir, por ejemplo, a “corrección política” o “política identitaria”. (Recomiendo el breve artículo de Andrew Lynn “Marxismo cultural” en la edición de otoño de 2018 de The Hedgehog Review para una crítica concisa de los tratamientos descuidados y paranoicos de marxismo cultural)

Sin embargo, el marxismo impregna la Teoría, a pesar de la competencia entre las varias ideas bajo esa etiqueta amplia. A veces este marxismo es evidente por sí mismo; en otras ocasiones, es residual e implícito. En cualquier caso, ha alcanzado un carácter distinto pero en evolución, ya que los estudiosos literarios han reelaborado el marxismo clásico para dar cuenta de la relación de la literatura y la cultura con la clase, el poder y el discurso.

El feminismo, los estudios de género, la teoría crítica de la raza, el poscolonialismo, los estudios sobre la discapacidad, estas y otras disciplinas se pasan por alto uno o más de los paradigmas teóricos que he descrito. Sin embargo, el hecho de que se guíen por el marxismo o adopte términos y conceptos marxistas no los hace prohibidos o indignos de atención.

Lo que me lleva a una advertencia: condenar estas ideas como prohibidas, ya que los peligros que corrompen a las mentes jóvenes pueden tener consecuencias imprevistas. Las derivaciones marxistas deben estudiarse para ser comprendidas de manera integral. No los elimines del currículum: contextualízalos, desafíalos y pregúntalos. No reifiques su poder ignorándolos o descuidándolos.

Las iteraciones populares del marxismo cultural se revelan en el uso casual de términos como “privilegio”, “alienación”, “mercantilización”, “fetichismo”, “materialismo”, “hegemonía” o “superestructura”. Como escribió Zubatov para Tablet, “Es un paso corto desde la “hegemonía” de Gramsci hasta los memes tóxicos ahora ubicuos de “patriarcado”, “heteronormatividad”, “supremacía blanca”, “privilegio blanco”, “fragilidad blanca” y “blancura”“. Añade “Es un paso corto de la premisa marxista y marxista cultural de que las ideas son, en su esencia, expresiones de poder para una política de identidad desenfrenada y divisoria y el juicio rutinario de las personas y sus contribuciones culturales basadas en su raza, género, sexualidad y religión.”

Mi breve resumen es simplemente la versión simplificada y aproximada de una historia mucho más grande y compleja, pero orienta a los lectores curiosos que desean aprender más sobre el marxismo cultural en los estudios literarios. Hoy en día, los departamentos de inglés sufren la falta de una misión, propósito e identidad claramente definidos. Al haber perdido el rigor en favor de la política de izquierda como su principal objetivo de estudio, los departamentos de inglés en muchas universidades están en peligro por el énfasis renovado en las habilidades prácticas y la capacitación laboral. Así como los departamentos de inglés reemplazaron a los departamentos de religión y clásicos como los principales lugares para estudiar cultura, también los departamentos o escuelas del futuro podrían reemplazar a los departamentos de inglés.

Y esos lugares pueden no tolerar las agitaciones políticas que se plantean como técnica pedagógica.

El punto, sin embargo, es que el marxismo cultural existe. Tiene una historia, seguidores, adeptos y dejó una marca perceptible en temas académicos y líneas de investigación. Moyn puede desear que desaparezca, o descartarlo como un fantasma, pero es real. Debemos conocer sus efectos en la sociedad, y en qué formas se materializa en nuestra cultura. La polémica intemperada de Moyn demuestra, de hecho, la urgencia y la importancia de examinar el marxismo cultural, en lugar de cerrar los ojos a su significado, propiedades y significado.

Nota del editor: la reciente entrevista en video de Allen Mendenhall con el Centro Martin incluye temas de este artículo.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente por el Centro Martin.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on April 24, 2019 at 6:45 am

What Is Magna Carta?

In Britain, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law on April 17, 2019 at 6:45 am

Cultural Marxism is Real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently asked, “What is ‘cultural Marxism?’” His answer: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” Moyn attributes the term cultural Marxism to the “runaway alt-right imagination,” claiming that it implicates zany conspiracy theories and has been “percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.”

Alexander Zubatov, an attorney writing in Tabletcountered that the “somewhat unclear and contested” term cultural Marxism “has been in circulation for over forty years.” It has, moreover, “perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.” He concluded that cultural Marxism is neither a “conspiracy” nor a “mere right-wing ‘phantasmagoria,’” but a “coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas.”

In this debate, I side with Zubatov.  Here’s why.

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory. The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general heading for research within the interpretative branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory—each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic. In the United States, Theory is commonly taught and applied in English departments, although its influence is discernable throughout the humanities.

A brief genealogy of different schools of Theory—which originated outside English departments, among philosophers and sociologists for example, but became part of English departments’ core curricula—shows not only that cultural Marxism is a nameable, describable phenomenon, but also that it proliferates beyond the academy.

Scholars versed in Theory are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field. Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny. Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought. To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and spread into the broader culture.

English departments sprang up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, ushering in increasingly professionalized studies of literature and other forms of aesthetic expression. As English became a distinct university discipline with its own curriculum, it moved away from the study of British literature and canonical works of the Western tradition in translation, and toward the philosophies that guide textual interpretation.

Although a short, sweeping survey of what followed may not satisfy those in the field, it provides others with the relevant background.

The New Criticism

The first major school to establish itself in English departments was the New Criticism. Its counterpart was Russian formalism, characterized by figures like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, who attempted to distinguish literary texts from other texts, examining what qualities made written representations poetic, compelling, original, or moving rather than merely practical or utilitarian.

One such quality was defamiliarization. Literature, in other words, defamiliarizes language by using sound, syntax, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical devices.

The New Criticism, which was chiefly pedagogical, emphasized close reading, maintaining that readers searching for meaning must isolate the text under consideration from externalities like authorial intent, biography, or historical context. This method is similar to legal textualism whereby judges look strictly at the language of a statute, not to legislative history or intent, to interpret the import or meaning of that statute. The New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to the search for the meaning of a text anywhere but in the text itself. The New Criticism is associated with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot. In a way, all subsequent schools of Theory are responses or reactions to the New Criticism.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism permeated French intellectual circles in the 1960s. Through structuralism, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Louis Althusser imported leftist politics into the study of literary texts. Structuralism is rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who observed how linguistic signs become differentiated within a system of language. When we say or write something, we do it according to rules and conventions in which our anticipated audience also operates. The implied order we use and communicate in is the “structure” referred to in structuralism.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss extended Saussure’s ideas about the linguistic sign to culture, arguing that the beliefs, values, and characteristic features of a social group function according to a set of tacitly known rules. These structures are “discourse,” a term that encompasses cultural norms and not just language practices.

Out of structuralism and post-structuralism emerged Structural Marxism, a school of thought linked to Althusser that analyzes the role of the state in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class, the capitalists.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frankfurt School popularized the type of work usually labeled as “cultural Marxism.” Figures involved or associated with this school include Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. These men revised, repurposed, and extended classical Marxism by emphasizing culture and ideology, incorporating insights from emerging fields such as psychoanalysis, and researching the rise of mass media and mass culture.

Dissatisfied with economic determinism and the illusory coherence of historical materialism—and jaded by the failures of socialist and communist governments—these thinkers retooled Marxist tactics and premises in their own ways without entirely repudiating Marxist designs or ambitions.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were explicit in embracing Marxism. They rejected the New Critical approaches that divorced literature from culture, stressing that literature reflected class and economic interest, social and political structures, and power. Accordingly, they considered how literary texts reproduced (or undermined) cultural or economic structures and conditions.

Slavoj Žižek arguably has done more than any member of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis into Marxist variants. “Žižek’s scholarship holds a particularly high place within cultural criticism that seeks to account for the intersections between psychoanalysis and Marxism,” wrote the scholar Erin Labbie.[1] She added, “Žižek’s prolific writings about ideology, revealing the relationships between psychoanalysis and Marxism, have altered the way in which literary and cultural criticism is approached and accomplished to the extent that most scholars can no longer hold tightly to the former notion that the two fields are at odds.”[2] Žižek is just one among many continental philosophers whose Marxist and Marxist-inflected prognostications command the attention of American academics. 

Deconstruction

Jacques Derrida is recognized as the founder of deconstruction. He borrowed from Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on its relation to its opposite, or to things from which it differs. For instance, the meaning of male depends on the meaning of female; the meaning of happy depends on the meaning of sad; and so forth. Thus, the theoretical difference between two opposing terms, or binaries, unites them in our consciousness. And one binary is privileged while the other is devalued. For example, “beautiful” is privileged over “ugly,” and “good” over “bad.”

The result is a hierarchy of binaries that are contextually or arbitrarily dependent, according to Derrida, and cannot be fixed or definite across time and space. That is because meaning exists in a state of flux, never becoming part of an object or idea.

Derrida himself, having re-read The Communist Manifesto, recognized the “spectral” furtherance of a “spirit” of Marx and Marxism.[3] Although Derrida’s so-called “hauntology” precludes the messianic meta-narratives of unfulfilled Marxism, commentators have salvaged from Derrida a modified Marxism for the climate of today’s “late capitalism.”

Derrida used the term diffèrance to describe the elusive process humans use to attach meaning to arbitrary signs, even if signs—the codes and grammatical structures of communication—cannot adequately represent an actual object or idea in reality. Derrida’s theories had a broad impact that enabled him and his followers to consider linguistic signs and the concepts created by those signs, many of which were central to the Western tradition and Western culture. For example, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism contests nearly all philosophical foundations deriving from Athens and Jerusalem. 

New Historicism

New Historicism, a multifaceted enterprise, is associated with Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It looks at historical forces and conditions with a structuralist and post-structuralist eye, treating literary texts as both products of and contributors to discourse and discursive communities. It is founded on the idea that literature and art circulate through discourse and inform and destabilize cultural norms and institutions.

New historicists explore how literary representations reinforce power structures or work against entrenched privilege, extrapolating from Foucault’s paradox that power grows when it is subverted because it is able to reassert itself over the subversive person or act in a show of power. Marxism and materialism often surface when new historicists seek to highlight texts and authors (or literary scenes and characters) in terms of their effects on culture, class, and power. New historicists focus on low-class or marginalized figures, supplying them with a voice or agency and giving them overdue attention. This political reclamation, while purporting to provide context, nevertheless risks projecting contemporary concerns onto works that are situated in a particular culture and historical moment.

In the words of literary critic Paul Cantor, “There is a difference between political approaches to literature and politicized approaches, that is, between those that rightly take into account the centrality of political concerns in many literary classics and those that willfully seek to reinterpret and virtually recreate class works in light of contemporary political agendas.”[4]

Cultural Marxism Is Real

Much of the outcry about cultural Marxism is outrageous, uninformed, and conspiratorial. Some of it simplifies, ignores, or downplays the fissures and tensions among leftist groups and ideas. Cultural Marxism cannot be reduced, for instance, to “political correctness” or “identity politics.” (I recommend Andrew Lynn’s short piece “Cultural Marxism” in the Fall 2018 issue of The Hedgehog Review for a concise critique of sloppy and paranoid treatments of cultural Marxism.)

Nevertheless, Marxism pervades Theory, despite the competition among the several ideas under that broad label. Sometimes this Marxism is self-evident; at other times, it’s residual and implied. At any rate, it has attained a distinct but evolving character as literary scholars have reworked classical Marxism to account for the relation of literature and culture to class, power, and discourse.

Feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, disability studies—these and other disciplines routinely get pulled through one or more of the theoretical paradigms I’ve outlined. The fact that they’re guided by Marxism or adopt Marxist terms and concepts, however, does not make them off-limits or unworthy of attention.

Which brings me to a warning: Condemning these ideas as forbidden, as dangers that corrupt young minds, might have unintended consequences. Marxist spinoffs must be studied to be comprehensively understood. Don’t remove them from the curriculum: contextualize them, challenge them, and question them. Don’t reify their power by ignoring or neglecting them.

Popular iterations of cultural Marxism reveal themselves in the casual use of terms like “privilege,” “alienation,” “commodification,” “fetishism,” “materialism,” “hegemony,” or “superstructure.” As Zubatov wrote for Tablet, “It is a short step from Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of ‘patriarchy,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘and whiteness.’” He adds, “It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

My brief summary is merely the simplified, approximate version of a much larger and more complex story, but it orients curious readers who wish to learn more about cultural Marxism in literary studies. Today, English departments suffer from the lack of a clearly defined mission, purpose, and identity. Having lost rigor in favor of leftist politics as their chief end of study, English departments at many universities are jeopardized by the renewed emphasis on practical skills and jobs training. Just as English departments replaced religion and classics departments as the principal places to study culture, so too could future departments or schools replace English departments.

And those places may not tolerate political agitations posturing as pedagogical technique.

The point, however, is that cultural Marxism exists. It has a history, followers, adherents, and left a perceptible mark on academic subjects and lines of inquiry. Moyn may wish it out of existence, or dismiss it as a bogeyman, but it is real. We must know its effects on society, and in what forms it materializes in our culture. Moyn’s intemperate polemic demonstrates, in fact, the urgency and importance of examining cultural Marxism, rather than closing our eyes to its meaning, properties, and significance.

 

[1] Erin F. Labbie, “Žižek Avec Lacan: Splitting the Dialectics of Desire,” Slovene Studies, Vol. 25 (2003), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (Peggy Kamuf, trans.) (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 3-4.

[4] Paul Cantor, “Shakespeare—‘For all time’?” The Public Interest, Issue 110 (1993), p. 35.

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta identifies the common law as a central feature of the jurisprudence of former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes treated the common law as if it were an epistemology or a reliable mode for knowledge transmission over successive generations. Against the grand notion that the common law reflected a priori principles consistent with the natural law, Holmes detected that the common law was historical, aggregated, and evolutionary, the sum of the concrete facts and operative principles of innumerable cases with reasonable solutions to complex problems. This view of the common law is both conservative and pragmatic.

Vannatta’s analysis of Holmes opens new directions for the study of conservatism and pragmatism—and pragmatic conservatism—demonstrating that common-law processes and practices have much in common with the form of communal inquiry championed by C.S. Peirce. For more on this subject, download “Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes,” which appeared in the journal Contemporary Pragmatism in the fall of 2018.

Hayek’s Case for Decentralized Communities

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Philosophy on January 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

My talk today is about decentralization and epistemology. At the outset I wish to disclaim any specialized expertise in this subject. I’m a lawyer by training who loves literature and earned a doctorate in English. It would be a stretch to call me a philosopher or a political theorist, hence this anchoring disclaimer to prevent me from sailing too deep into philosophical seas.

I have divided my argument, such as it is, into two parts: the impersonal and the personal. The former is a philosophical case for decentralization; the latter involves private considerations about intimate human relationships around which communities of common purpose organize and conduct themselves. In the end, the two approaches are mutually reinforcing, yielding, I hope, benevolent and humane considerations. Presenting them as separate, however, signals to different audiences whose tolerance for appeals to feeling may vary.

The Impersonal

The impersonal argument boils down to this: decentralized systems of order are more efficient, and hence more desirable, because they better account for and respond to dispersed knowledge across diverse communities with unique customs, ambitions, and values. Heterogeneous, bottom-up systems governed by local institutions that reflect native knowledge, talent, and choices more effectually serve humanity writ large than centralized, top-down systems that are unaccountable to local norms and mores.

Polycentric law, or polycentrism,is the term I use to describe this organizational arrangement. Other names that suggest themselves fail to express the dynamism of polycentrism. Federalism, for example, confounds because of its association with the early American Federalists. It presupposes, moreover, even in its articulation by the inaptly named Anti-Federalists, too strong of a central authority, in my view, beneath which local authorities contend as coequal subordinates. Localism, for its part, suffers from associations with protectionist, anticompetitive economic policies. Other names such as confederation, city state, or anarcho-capitalism likewise have their drawbacks.

So I’m stuck with polycentrism as the operative label for the working system of small and plural authorities that I seek to describe. The chief value of this system is its propensity to temper and check the natural ambition and pride that lead humans not only to aspirations of power and greatness, but also to the coercive institutions and machinations that inhibit the voluntary organization of individuals around shared norms and customs. An optimal polycentric order consists of multiple, competing jurisdictions of humane and reasonable scale, each with their own divided powers that prevent the consolidation of authority in the form of a supreme ruler or tyrant (or, more likely in our age, of a managerial, administrative, and bureaucratic state) and each with a written document outlining governing rules and institutions while affirming a core commitment to common goals and a guiding mission. To speak of an optimal polycentric order, however, is problematic, because polycentric orders enable distinct communities to select and define for themselves the operative assemblage of rules and institutions that fulfills their chief ideals and favored principles.

F. A. Hayek’s price theory provides a useful starting point for discussing the benefits of bottom-up, decentralized modes of human ordering that represent polycentrism. This theory holds that knowledge is dispersed throughout society and incapable of being comprehensively understood by any one person or group of people; therefore, centralized economic planning inevitably fails because it cannot accurately assess or calculate the felt needs and coordinated activities of faraway people in disparate communities; only in a market economy where consumers freely buy and sell according to their unique preferences will reliable pricing gradually reveal itself.

Hayek’s theory of knowledge is predicated on the fallibility and limitations of human intelligence. Because the complexity of human behavior and interaction exceeds the capacity of one mind or group of minds fully to comprehend it, human coordination requires deference to emergent or spontaneous orders, rooted in custom, that adapt to the dynamic, evolving needs and preferences of everyday consumers. Hayek’s articulation of price theory contemplates collective and aggregated wisdom—i.e., disembodied or embedded knowledge—and cautions against grand designs based on the alleged expertise of a select class of people.

Michael Polanyi, another polymath and an ardent anti-Marxist, exposited related theories about polycentricity, spontaneous order, central planning, and knowledge, but he focused less on economic theory and more on scientific discovery, independent inquiry, and the free, systematic exchange of research and ideas. Scientific advancement, in his view, did not proceed as the construction of a house proceeds, namely according to a fixed plan or design, but rather by a process analogous to, in his words, “the ordered arrangement of living cells which constitute a polycellular organism.”1 “Throughout the process of embryonic development,” he explained, “each cell pursues its own life, and yet each so adjusts its growth to that of its neighbors that a harmonious structure of the aggregate emerges.”2 “This”, he concluded, “is exactly how scientists co-operate: by continually adjusting their line of research to the results achieved up to date by their fellow-scientists.”3

Polanyi labored to show that “the central planning of production” was “strictly impossible”4 and that “the operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.”5 He described the inefficiencies of purely hierarchical organizational structures within which information rises upward from the base, mediated successively by subsequent, higher tiers of authority, arriving ultimately at the top of a pyramid, at some supreme authority, which then centrally directs the entire system, commanding orders down to the base. This convoluted process, besides being inefficient, is susceptible to disinformation and misinformation, and to a lack of reliable, on-the-ground knowledge of relevant circumstances.

While Polanyi points to mundane instances of spontaneous ordering, such as passengers at train stations, without central direction, standing on platforms and filling seats on the trains,6 he also examines more complex forms of behavioral adaptation to interpersonal interactions that, over time and through repetition, emerge as tacitly understood habits and rules that gain acceptance by the larger corporate body.

Centralization concentrates power in fewer people in smaller spaces, whereas decentralization divides and spreads power among vast networks of people across wider spaces. Under centralized government, good people who enjoy power may, in theory, quickly accomplish good, but evil people who enjoy power may quickly accomplish evil. Because of the inherent, apocryphal dangers of the latter possibility, centralized government must not be preferred. Our tendencies as humans are catastrophic, asserting themselves in the sinful behaviors we both choose and cannot help. There is, moreover, on a considerable range of issues, disagreement about what constitutes the bad and the good, the evil and the virtuous. If questions about badness or goodness, evil and virtuousness are simply or hastily resolved in favor of the central power, then resistant communities—threatened, marginalized, silenced, and coerced—will eventually exercise their political agency, mobilizing into insurrectionary alliances to undermine the central power. Centralized power therefore increases the probability of large-scale violence whereas decentralized government reduces conflicts to local levels where they tend to be minor and offsetting.

Polycentric orders produce self-constituting communities that regulate themselves through the mediating institutions they have voluntarily erected to align with their values, traditions, and priorities. Their practical scope and scale enable them to govern themselves according to binding rules that are generally agreeable to the majority within their jurisdiction.

A man alone in the wilderness is vulnerable to threats. When he enters into society, however, he combines with others who, with common interests, serve and protect each other from outside threats. If society grows large, materializing as vast states or governments, the people therein lose their sense of common purpose, their desire to unify for mutual benefit and protection. Factions and classes arise, each contending for power. The people in whom the sovereignty of the central power supposedly resides may become disempowered and marginalized as the network of bureaucratic functionaries proliferates. The people are displaced by arms and agencies of the central power. Although progress cannot be achieved without constructive competition among and between rival groups, societies cannot flourish when their inhabitants do not share a fundamental sense of common purpose and identity.

Centralized power may at first blush seem to be more efficient because its decision-making process is not complex, consisting as it does of top-down commands to subordinates. Theoretically, and only theoretically, ultimate efficiency could be achieved if all power were possessed by one person. But of course in reality no one person could protect his or her power from external threats or internal insubordination. In fact, the concentration of power in one person invites dissent and insurrection. It is easier, after all, to overthrow one person than to overthrow many. Therefore, in practice, centralized power requires the supreme authority to build bureaucracies of agents and functionaries loyally and dutifully to institute its top-down directive

But how does the central power generate a sense of loyalty and duty among and between these subordinates? Through patronage and political favors, pensions, rent seeking, influence peddling, immunities, cronyism, graft—in short, by strengthening the human urge for self-aggrandizement, elevating select people and groups to privileged positions at extraordinary expense to ordinary people or consumers. Accordingly, centralization as a form of human organization incentivizes corruption, malfeasance, and dishonesty while building convoluted networks of costly officials through whom information is mediated and distorted. The result is widespread corruption, misunderstanding, and inefficiency.

Even assuming arguendo that concentrated authority is more efficient, it would ease the ability to accomplish evil and mischief as well as good. The purported benefits of consolidated power presuppose a benevolent supreme authority with comprehensive knowledge of native circumstances. Whatever conceivable benefits may be obtained through hypothetically quick decision-making are outweighed by the potential harms resulting from the implementation of the decision as binding law. The limited and fallible knowledge on which the decision is based amplifies the resultant harm beyond what it might have been in a decentralized system that localized power and thereby diminished the capability of bad people to cause harm.

The efficiency, if any, of commanding orders and setting policy on a top-down model is therefore neutralized by the resulting inefficiencies and harmful consequences that could have been avoided had central planners not presupposed knowledge of local circumstances. Absent an offsetting authority, any centralized power may, without just cause, coerce and molest peaceful men and women in contravention of their distinct laws and customs. Naturally, these men and women, combined as resistant communities, will contest unwarranted, unwanted tyranny that threatens their way of life and understanding of community. Disturbance of social harmony and backlash against unjustified coercion render inefficient the allegedly efficient operations of the central power.

It becomes apparent, after long consideration, that centralized modes of power are not more efficient after all, that in fact they are inimical to liberty and virtue when compared to their decentralized alternatives. But that is not the only reason why the decentralized model is superior.

The Personal

You don’t enjoy fine wine merely by talking and thinking about it, but by actually drinking it, sniffing its aromas, swirling it in your glass, wetting your tongue and coating your mouth with it. A true appreciation of wine is experiential, based on the repeated pleasure of tasting and consuming different grape varieties with their distinctive flavor components. Most people develop their loves and priorities this way. They do not love abstractions, but they love their neighbors, families, and friends. They prioritize issues that are to them near and daily. They have done so from an early age. “It is within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighborhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time,” said Vincent Ostrom.7 “The first order of priority in learning the craft of citizenship as applied to public affairs,” he added, “needs to focus on how to cope with problems in the context of family, neighborhood, village, and community. This is where people acquire the rudiments for becoming self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others.”8

I learned to accept defeat, not from national election campaigns, foreign wars, or too-big-to-fail banks that nevertheless failed, but from little-league baseball, when my third-grade team, the Cardinals, lost in the semifinals, and when my freshman basketball team lost in the finals. I still dream about that championship basketball game. My coach had put me in the game for the sole purpose of shooting three-pointers, my specialty, but the defense double-teamed me. I was unable to get a clear shot. Every time I passed the ball away my coach yelled “no,” commanding me to shoot. Earlier in the season, before he knew my skill behind the three-point line, he shouted “no” whenever I took a shot.

I learned about injustice when my first-grade teacher punished me in a manner that was disproportionate to my alleged offense, which to this day I deny having committed, and about grace and mercy when my mother forgave me, without so much as a spank, for an offense that I had most definitely committed.

I learned about God and faith while having breakfast at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She kept a Bible on the table beside a bookshelf full of texts on Christian themes and teachings. At the middle of the table was a little jar of Bible verses. I recall reaching my hand into the jar and pulling out verses, one after another, weekend after weekend, reading them to her and then discussing with her what their meaning might be. This mode of learning was intimate and hands-on and prepared me to experience God for myself, to study His word and figure out my beliefs about Him when later I retired to places of solitude for silent contemplation. These experiences meant far more to me than the words of any faraway televangelist.

Whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would awaken early and start the coffee pot. My brother and I, hearing him downstairs, would rush to his side. He shared sections of the newspaper with us and allowed us to drink coffee with him. He made us feel like responsible adults, two little children with newspaper and coffee in hand, pondering current events and passing judgment on the latest political trends and scandals. This indispensable education did not come from public broadcasting or from some expensive civic literacy project orchestrated by the National Foundation for the Arts or the National Foundation for the Humanities. It came from family, in familiar spaces, in the warmth of a loving home.

Mrs. Stubbs taught me manners and decorum at cotillion, although she never succeeded in teaching me to dance. I learned etiquette on the golf course where I spent my childhood summers playing with groups of grown men, competing with them while learning how to ask questions about their careers and professions, staying silent as they swung or putted, not walking in their lines, holding the flagstick for them, giving them honors on the tee when they earned the lowest score on the previous hole, raking the bunkers, walking carefully to avoid leaving spike marks on the greens, fixing my ball marks, and so on.

I learned about death when a girl I carpooled with to church passed away from cancer. She was only four or five when she died. Then there was the death of my great-grandmother, then my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and so on down the line, which to this day approaches me. In the South we still open our caskets to display corpses and remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. This solemn ritual keeps us mindful of our purpose in life, draws us closer to our friends and family, and ensures that we contemplate the gravest and most important questions.

My two grandfathers meant the world to me. Both of them wore suits and ties to work every day. They dressed professionally and responsibly for every occasion. I copied them at an early age. In high school, while the other kids gave themselves over to the latest fads and fashions, I wore button-down shirts tucked neatly into slacks. I thought I wouldn’t score points with my peers by dressing up for class, but before long many of my friends adopted the practice as we began to think of ourselves as little men in pursuit of an education. Because we were athletes, our clothing was not just tolerated but eventually mimicked. When the other basketball teams showed up at our gym, we met them in coat and tie while they wore t-shirts that were too big and breakaway pants that sagged beneath their rear ends. Our team might have startled them by our formal attire. But we startled them even more after we removed to the locker room, put on our jerseys, stormed the court and then beat the living hell out of them.

I could go on. The point  is that felt experience defines who we are and shapes how we behave. As Justice Holmes remarked, “What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. I love granite rocks and barberry bushes, no doubt because with them were my earliest joys that reach back through the past eternity of my life.”9 What he says next is more important:

But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. And this again means skepticism. Not that one’s belief or love does not remain. Not that we would not fight and die for it if important—we all, whether we know it or not, are fighting to make the kind of a world that we should like—but that we have learned to recognize that others will fight and die to make a different world, with equal sincerity or belief. Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about—you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.10

I take these words as cautionary—as a stark reminder of the horrifying potential for violence that inheres in the attempt of one group of people formed by certain associations to impose by force their norms and practices on another group of people formed by different associations. It is the distinct virtue of polycentricity to accommodate these differences and to minimize the chances of violence by diffusing and dispersing power.

Conclusion

The polycentric order I advocate is not utopian; it’s concrete and practical and exemplified by the mediating institutions and subsidiary authorities such as churches, synagogues, clubs, little leagues, community associations, schools, and professional memberships through and with which we express ourselves, politically or otherwise, and to whose rules we voluntarily submit.

When we turn on our televisions in the evening, we are, many of us from this part of the country, disturbed by the increase of lewd conduct, divisive rhetoric, mischievous behavior, and institutionalized decadence that are contrary to our local norms yet systemically and vigorously forced upon us by foreign or outside powers. Turning off the television in protest seems like our only mode of resistance, our only manner of dissent. Disgusted by mounting evidence that our politicians have marshaled the apparatus of the mighty federal government to achieve personal fame and glory, many of us feel exploited and powerless. In the face of massive state bureaucracies, large corporations, biased media, tendentious journalists, and commanding militaries, we nevertheless exercise our agency, bringing joy and hope to our families, friends, and neighbors, tending to concrete circumstances that are under our direct control. The promise of community reinvigorates and refreshes us.

Recently I strolled around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a bright Sunday morning. Though the church bells rang through the streets, echoing off buildings and cobblestone sidewalks, silencing conversations, and startling some pigeons, the churches themselves remained empty. I saw no worshipers or worship services. Some of the churches had been repurposed as cafes and restaurants with waiters and waitresses but no pastors or priests; customers drank their wine and ate their bread at fine little tables, but there were no communion rituals or sacraments.

A month later, also on a Sunday, I flew into Montgomery, Alabama, from Dallas, Texas. As the plane slowly descended beneath the clouds, the little dollhouse figurines and model buildings beneath me snapped to life, becoming real people and structures. I gazed upon the dozens of churches dotting the flat, widening landscape, which grew nearer and bigger as we approached the airport. And I observed, sitting there, stock still yet propelled through space, that the parking lots of each church were full of cars, that there were, at this early hour, hundreds if not thousands of my people there before me, worshipping the same God I worshipped, the same God my parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents had worshipped; and I sensed, right then, deeply and profoundly, for the first time in years, a rare but unmistakable feeling: hope not just for my community, but for community.

 

Notes:

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), p. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid at 136.
  • 5.Ibid at 137.
  • 6.Ibid. at 141
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. x.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wenell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes at 41.

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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