Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Disappointment of a Disciple

By T Storm Heter

(For Ralph)

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in our series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason. Previous installments, by Devin Zane Shaw and Caleb Heldt, can be found, respectively, here and here.

I have been a Sartrean for more than a decade.  I’ve written about Sartre’s works, taught him in courses, gabbed endlessly to colleagues and friends about his contributions; I’ve done all those things we are used to doing with the figures we love.   My orientation to the world has been Sartrean since long before I read Sartre.  In graduate school even when I turned against Sartre—becoming a critic of the ‘philosophy of the subject’ for instance—I would find myself six months later with a new interpretation of Sartre, with a “new” Sartre (as Nik Farrell Fox puts it). 

But I can recall with vivid clarity the first time anyone referred to me as “an existentialist.”  I was taken aback.  I was sure that I had never told this person—a close friend and fellow academic—that I was an existentialist; I had never introduced myself by saying, “I’m Storm and I’m an existentialist.”  On the other hand, I could not find it in me to deny that I was an existentialist. 

The friend who had called me an existentialist wasn’t a philosopher by trade, he was a professor of French who studied and taught at Yale in the 1980s.  He had been in the mix of intellectuals who did some of the most exciting work in America on Sartre, who had carved out a unique place for their work in Yale French Studies.  Our conversations would stretch for hours, and I would leave feeling like the world was my oyster; like there were a million books to read and perhaps just as many waiting to be written.  Ralph, who was my senior by ten or fifteen years, would inevitably end the conversation with, “Now Storm, you must prioritize your writing.”  The logistics of it were impossible: teaching four-four, developing a new course every term, having two young children, serving on every committee known to man and God.  But of course, Ralph was right. 

My conversations with Ralph revealed a contrast between my own dialectical thinking, and Ralph’s fluid, allegorical, piratical style.  I would seize upon opposites and try to break them down.  Ralph would paint images and explore their recesses and folds.  Ralph thought from the cracks and the seams and the frayed edges.  He turned texts into flesh and blood which he would squeeze until long repressed meanings would issue forth from hidden sores.     

We frequently talked about the nuances of Sartre’s style and his choice of language.  Why does Sartre use the term pédophile when talking about bad faith in Being and Nothingness?  Hazel Barnes translates this as ‘the homosexual,’ which carries a different weight than alternatives like ‘fag,’ ‘pedophile,’ or ‘queer.’  The question in those pages is whether we must identify with our past.  Ralph helped me see that the past is always mediated through language, through memory, through labels.  Labels are not fungible. Sartre thought labeling, gazing behavior was alienating, but also inevitable.  He insisted that the we acknowledge the gaze, even if we remain unable to identify its object as “me.”  Existential responsibility is truly terrifying: I must own what I cannot control, what I cannot love. 

I wonder to myself what would have happened had Sartre taken a surrealist turn with the idea of labels and existential responsibility.  Perhaps the desire for control is a pathology rather than an exercise of freedom. The existential notion of ambiguity found not only in Sartre but also in Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty is halfway to surrealism.  Ambiguity is a dialectical notion: we must not try to find one term of the dyad definitive, but to accept the mutuality of the terms.  Existence is a tension between freedom and facticity.  

Sartre famously hated labels, hated political parties, hated, in short, being pinned down by the freedom of others.  An anarchist to the end.  Was this not why he rejected the Nobel prize for literature?  A writer ought not become an institution.  A damning critique of institutionalization occupies most of the eight or nine hundred pages of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Ralph called me an existentialist as a way of introducing me to someone else, as a shorthand way of saying what I studied and who I was.  The label existentialist carried a very different weight than if Ralph had said, “Storm wrote his thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre.”  That judgment refers to a past action, with no particular obligation extending into the future.  There is no roll to play in these words.  Even had Ralph said, “Storm teaches existentialism,” there would have been much less gravity implied.  The teaching of a class, the writing of a book—these are events, situations, happenings, actions.  But ‘to be’ an existentialist is to bear a torch, to wear a uniform, to stake out a set of boundaries, to pledge allegiance.  Thus, what could be more existentialist than denying that one is an existentialist?  If I am what I am not, then I am not an existentialist. 

I have found that I am not alone.  Many philosophers who study the existentialists do not call themselves existentialists.  For some, it is simply because the noun deprives the adjective.  They are Sartrean existentialists, and prefer to be called Sartreans.  But for a good many others, I believe they are motivated by the rejection of essentialist language. 

But I wonder what is the communal effect of rejecting the essentialist language of identity?  In the first place, it makes community much more difficult.  The anarchistic rejection of labels means that you and I are not the same; we are not identical; we do not reciprocate.  We recognize each other through a negative reciprocity; through a rejection of each other, rather than through an appeal.  Ralph’s calling me an existentialist was meant to place me within the community; my denial of the label was a rejection of this community.

I raise this point about community because I believe that one of the important questions for scholars of Sartre these days is to articulate what if anything brings us together beyond our commitment to read and discuss the works of Sartre.

As a point of reference, compare existentialism to critical theory.  The commitments of the Frankfurt School intertwine soundly with Sartrean Marxism.  Search for a Method in particular, with its aim of creating a structural anthropology, a human science, a synthesis of psychology and sociology, is kindred in spirit to the aim of German critical theory. 

So why has critical theory had such a different trajectory than Sartreanism?  In particular, why has Marxist-existentialism not had the following that German critical theory enjoys? 

One difference is that the Frankfurt School conceived of itself as a movement.  It accepted institutionalization as part of its essence.  It had a director, a physical home, a newsletter, and a cohort. 

There are parallels in the existentialist world: Les Temps Modernes and “the family.” But Sartre’s anarchism and ego were two factors that made the existentialism less a movement than a moment.  Sartre explicitly rejected institutionalization.  It is clear that Sartre had a strong desire to be read, but his attempts at collaboration were always troubled.  Sartre was not associated with any university and was not an academic. 

A second difference is that there is no parallel to Habermas in the world of Sartrean existentialism. The question “Who are the most famous students of Sartre?” has no clear answer.  If we use student in the wide sense to refer to thinkers who absorbed Sartrean concepts and then developed their own voices, of course many 20th century intellectuals would have to be included, most prominently Franz Fanon. 

The anti-institutionalism of Sartre and the fact that he had no clear successor means that we have difficulty tracing any current movements of thought to Sartre in the way that we can trace contemporary critical theory to Habermas and back to the Frankfurt School. 

That said, there are many contemporary philosophers doing exciting, fresh work who are Sartreans in one sense or another.  Just to pick one example, the volume Race After Sartre: Antiracism, Africana Existentialism, Postcolonialism, edited by Jonathan Judaken (SUNY Press, 2008) is packed with essays that exhibit living, breathing Sartrean thinking.   

At the most recent meeting of the North American Sartre Society (held in 2009 in Memphis, TN) there was a strong sense that Sartrean thinking should not remain aloof from recent theoretical developments, especially postcolonial thinking.  This feeling was brought home by the keynote speaker Robert JC Young, who challenged us to bring Sartre into discussions of postcolonialism. 

While I’m not in a position to answer Robert Young’s question directly, it has me thinking about two tasks.  The first task involves making Sartre’s late work, especially his Critique of Dialectical Reason, more visible in answering contemporary questions of race, nationalism, gender, technology, poverty, liberalism, and colonialism.  The second task requires doing the opposite: allowing the man (Sartre) and the text (The Critique) to utterly fade into the background of thinking.  The idea that Sartre needs to be “defended” or even “updated” strikes me as unhelpful, indeed counterproductive.  Although I am not entirely sure how to weave these two threads together into a coherent garment, I think there is some sense in which intellectuals like Francis Jameson, and Black Existentialists like Lewis Gordon, have already shown how.  As Gordon notes in his essay “Sartre and Black Existentialism” (found in the Judaken volume cited above), many Black Existentialists—including Gordon himself—began their intellectual careers by working directly with Sartre’s texts.  These philosophers subsequently found a style and voice solely their own. 

Forty years later, what can we say we’ve learned from Sartre’s Critique and where should we set our sights for future study?  Iris M. Young’s masterful essay “Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective,” (Signs, 19:3, 1994) remains in my mind one of the best direct meditations on the Critique as a work of critical social theory.  Also, there is some sense in which we can say that Fanon’s work is a testament to the importance of Sartre’s Critique, but such a view diminishes the originality of Fanon.  Can’t we simply say now that Sartre is unreadable without Fanon?  Sartre was aware of the limitations of his particularity; he was a white man who wanted to flambé whiteness through a phenomenological psychoanalysis; but he knew very well that exposing whiteness from within is different from exposing whiteness from without.  The major Sartrean tools—bad faith, seriality, recognition, intelligibility, praxis, ambiguity—are not white or male or straight; but their queerness and their blackness have relatively little to do with Sartre and almost everything to do with us. 

The Critique is like a centrifuge; the deeper one reads the faster one spins and the further one is forced away from the apparent centers of Sartrean thinking.   Liquids begin separating: Sartre thought this, I think that; Sartre thought that, I think this.  The deepest Sartreanism throws one outward towards the world; it causes a direct engagement with the contemporary situation.  Little wonder, then, that Sartreanism does not conceive of itself as a social movement. 

The series is a basic concept of the Critique.  Developed as an account of sociality in mass society, the concept helps us today to think through phenomena like multiculturalism.  Multiculturalism is sometimes the name for an authentic project of democratically negotiating difference, but there is also what I call “Pier 1 multiculturalism.”  Pier 1 Imports is perhaps the oldest and most prominent chain import store in the United States.  Its customers are white middle class suburbanites who come to feed on a smorgasbord of world tchotchkies.  The store has all the sterility and charm of a strip mall gone on safari.  Perhaps most distinctive is the smell of the store: a sort of nag champa light, lightened and sweetened for the American palate.  The goods proclaim a sense of Otherness, but true otherness is reduced to that which is safe, consumable, and most importantly cheap.  There is seriality at multiple levels, beginning with the selection of goods that are marketable to the dulled taste buds of American interior design.  We want something cool and different, but not truly threatening.  We want to feel connected to the rest of the world, but without confronting the reality of market exploitation.  We want to “help” the poor of the “third-world” through “fair trade.”  We want to “save” the rainforests by stuffing a dollar into a can at the checkout lane. Pier 1 multiculturalism is an inscription of ourselves into a narcissistic narrative of tolerance, openness, good taste, of love for our brethren.  We are not consuming chairs and pillows and rugs; we are consuming ourselves.  We are paying buckets for an image of ourselves that we desperately desire to become.  The economic relationship to those who produce the goods is serial because, just as one would expect, Pier 1 has a nasty record on labor issues.  (See the “Sweatshop Hall of Shame 2010,” put out by the International Labor Rights Forum.)  Pier 1 multiculturalism serializes along many axes: consumers who shallowly recognize themselves in each other’s exotic purchases become a series; the exploited laborers behind the products become a series; and the relationship between the series of consumers and producers (“we” purchase “you”) is a serial relationship mediated by the praxis of the Pier 1 corporation. 

The Sartrean approach to multiculturalism would be based on the notion of the series, which is also to say that it would be a politics of recognition.  It is no coincidence that one of the more interesting and influential theoretical defenses of multiculturalism has come from Charles Taylor.  As the title indicates, Taylor’s seminal essay Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (1994) views multiculturalism as a politics of serial recognition. 

Sartreanism can also approach multiculturalism through the lens of the “fraternity-terror thesis” of the Critique.  The fraternity-terror thesis claims that group solidarity is possible only through the threat of exclusion, of othering.  The group defines itself by policing its boundaries with other groups, by differentiated its members from outsiders.  The clearest example from the American experience is the story of the whiteness of American citizenship; we are a “nation of immigrants” only to the extent that “we” define ourselves though one a particular story: the story of the European immigrant who fled religious oppression and material poverty to start afresh with nothing but chutzpah, a can-do spirit, and a plot of “unspoiled” land.  As John Locke says, “in the beginning all the world was America.”  Our dominant national narrative treats citizenship as an enlightened category of pure love, pure solidarity, pure universality. Taylor’s work is motivated by the Hegelian hope that universality can be attained through progressive social inclusion of marginalized groups.  Taylor frames his discussion within the history of social groups that have articulated their desire to receive equal social esteem.  Taylor’s historical approach is important because it challenges the notion that we can develop critical social norms by meditating on timeless categories such as “democracy-in-itself;” the real political work is in the murky here and now.  In my view, the murkiness of American political thought is not to be avoided but engaged directly through acts of national psychotherapy.  We are a nation that needs therapy.  Nationalism is our coping strategy, but it has long been breaking down under its own weight. 

Sartreanism shows us one way out; the way out begins by attending to a particular desire, the desire to have a multiculturalism of pure love, love without terror.  The attempted bombing of Times Square just a few days ago, on May Day, 2010, is only the latest of many manifestations of fraternity-terror.  Faisal Shahzad points to a failure of American multiculturalism; news commentators seemed endlessly fascinated with why a naturalized American, with a family, and American education, and an American home (recently lost) would take such a turn.  One of the failures of American multiculturalism is its inability to make intelligible the domestic and international violence of US politics; we prefer to repress the of American-ness of violence.  Our major theatres of military combat are 7,000 miles away.  Our televisions do not show dead American soldiers.  Our psychic geography plots a gulf between the open arms of American pluralism and the hegemony of American military might.  We stand mystified, in fact in disbelieve about the statistics of the murder rate within the US, which is an order of magnitude higher than almost any other comparable country.  Sartre’s extended discussion of the boxing match in Volume 2 of the Critique gives us the vocabulary to discuss the incarnation and internalization of violence we find in America today. 

My friend Ralph couldn’t stop talking about Sartre’s work on Flaubert, which he believed was a watershed for French Studies, marking a new orientation that was still in the process of being absorbed long after the publication of The Family Idiot.  My own anti-theoretical tendencies prevent me from viewing the Critique as a sacred text, and I could never turn to Sartre as a messiah.  If there is a Holy of Holies, I doubt that it is deep within the bowels of the Critique.

I won’t deny the human-ness of the desire to be a disciple.  And I won’t disown personal responsibility for the desire.  But I find delirious pleasure in the thought that wanting to be a disciple of Sartre creates the conditions for disappointment. 

The disappointment of a disciple does not always lead to futility; it can be the germ of a productive melancholy, a mood expressed beautifully by the painter Arshile Gorky who wrote to his family in 1938 that,
“…Nowadays an extremely melancholy mood has seized me and I can concentrate on nothing except my work.  Dearest one, lately I have been well and am working excessively and am changing my painting style.  Therefore, this constantly gives me extreme mental anguish.  I am not satisfied and from now on I will never be satisfied a single day about my works.  I desire to create deeper and purer work.” 

T Storm Heter is author of Sartre's Ethics of Engagement (Continuum, 2006) and professor at East Stroudsburg University.

1 comment:

Devin Zane Shaw said...

Compared to the Frankfurt School, Sartre might be in luck that there is no 'Habermas' to 'carry on' his work.