Arendt and Sontag on Conservatism, Romanticism, and ‘Interesting’ Politics

Last week at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute‘s Spring 2012 Faculty Study Group met to discuss Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, which aims to identify substantive theses central to that political tradition by way of an intellectual history of conservatism; more precisely, by close readings of some central works of the conservative canon. (The Faculty Study Group is organized by the Wolfe Institute every semester to read and discuss an academic work of interest; this semester’s selection of The Reactionary Mind had already generated some pre-discussion controversy.)

Our meeting last week was considerably enhanced by Corey Robin himself,  who joined our discussions of Chapters 6, 7, 8. I expected the discussion to not be restricted to these chapters, of course, and I was not disappointed. Over the course of our two-hour interaction, we were able to get Corey to describe the book’s central thesis–that conservatism is reactionary, counter-revolutionary politics, infused with romantic sentiment, responding vigorously to perceived threats –, clarify some theoretical points, and consider possible sharpenings and applications of his thesis. (One extension of great interest to me is to apply Corey’s central claims to conservatism beyond American and European shores.)

One of the most interesting clarifications of Robin’s thesis was the centrality of the romantic impulse in conservatism. Indeed, it seemed, after our discussions, that the romantic impulse is perhaps even more central than the reactionary, counter-revolutionary component of conservatism; it certainly explains conservative fascination with war, the attraction it presents to ‘outsiders,’ its glorification of strength and individual striving. (I intend to write a post very soon that explores the connection between the sentiments of the immigrant and the romantic imagination.)

There are some interesting theoretical resonances of this association of conservatism with romanticism.

First, here is Hannah Arendt (again!) in On Revolution, Penguin, 1990, page 197:

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century.[emphasis added]

Then, here is Susan Sontag, in ‘An Argument About Beauty’, (from At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007, page 9), where, after considering that works of art might be described as ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘beautiful’ in an attempt to make them ‘more inclusive’:

What is interesting? Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good). The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out. The wicked too. To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious. Connoisseurs of ‘the interesting’–whose antonym is ‘the boring’–appreciate clash, not harmony. Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political written in 1932. (The following year he joined the Nazi Party.) A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics–and war–are interesting. [links added]

13 thoughts on “Arendt and Sontag on Conservatism, Romanticism, and ‘Interesting’ Politics

  1. Is it your position that conservatism is inherently reactionary? If so, I would suggest, gently, that you must not be sufficiently familiar with the history of conservative thought, because the claim is demonstrably false (i.e. there are any number of prominent conservative thinkers who were/are not reactionaries).

    While I am not a big fan of the NAS–although years ago, in my more conservative days, I was a founding member of the CUNY chapter (along with Jim Landesman, who also was from our department, Samir)–I can understand why they are displeased, if indeed, this is your position.

    Would you mind clarifying?

    –Dan K.

    1. Dan,

      I certainly associate reactionary thought with conservatism but also a variation on it – preservation of existing orders (not necessarily reversions to previous historically antecedent status quos). I am more intrigued by the romanticism Robin associates with conservatism; to me, at least, as I say above, it seems to explains a great deal.

      By the way, which conservative thinkers do you have in mind as non-reactionaries and what are their central positions as you see them? (You don’t have to write chapter and verse on this!).

      And the NAS: well, they (or rather, Langbert) certainly didn’t distinguish themselves in this affair by getting upset about a decision by faculty members to read and discuss a book.

      1. Reactionaries do not believe in social and cultural change. Conservatives do, but they prefer that change be organic, rather than programmatic or otherwise theoretically driven.

        Burke was not a reactionary (he supported the American Revolution). Oakeshott was not a reactionary. T.S. Eliot was not a reactionary. Peter Vierick was not a reactionary. In fact, none of the important, credible conservatives were reactionaries.

        Maistre was a reactionary, as was Carl Schmitt. The first was a defender of Absolute Monarchy and the latter a promoter of Nazism. Neither was a conservative in any sense of the word.

        As for NAS, much of their concern is with bias in the academy. It is hard to deny that such bias exists, given the statistical data concerning the political affiliations of professors. I find it hilarious that the same people who will use statistical disparities to allege racism and sexism in American institutions, suddenly lose all interest in such disparities when they point in their direction. As I said, I am no longer a fan of NAS, nor do I count myself a conservative any more, but I certainly understand where they are coming from.

        –Dan K.

  2. Dan, here’s a book you might want to read that challenges some of your basic points:

    And if you’re not inclined to read a whole book, here’s a blog post, which takes on the claim that Burke was not a reactionary — and also takes on the claim that reactionaries “do not believe in social and cultural change” and that conservatives only believe in organic, non-programmatic change. Nothing could be further from the truth:

    And some other posts you might find of interest:

    1. My views on this subject are a result of a career’s worth of reading the primary sources. Burke was a Whig and a supporter of the American Revolution. To describe such a person as a reactionary is to adopt the Humpty Dumpty Theory of Language: i.e. “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

      T.S. Eliot, in his “The Idea of a Christian Society,” wrote, “In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellant: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrification. We are always faced with the question “what must be preserved?” and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.”

      Hardly a reactionary.

      Accusing conservatives of being Reactionaries is like accusing liberals of being Communists. Such talk belongs to the realm of political demagoguery and should be anathema to scholars, whichever side they find themselves on.

      –Dan K.

      1. If you’ve truly made a career of reading primary sources — amateur that I am, I only just published a book on the topic (and many articles) based on primary sources — then all I can suggest to you is: read more. You can start with the links I provide above, move to my book, then re-read (or as I suspect is the case, read for the first time) the primary texts I cite there, and then come back to me. I’m not having a discussion with a student who hasn’t done the reading.

      2. Corey Robin:

        I am a Professor of Philosophy, not a student.

        I suspected you wouldn’t want to reply to the actual points. And given that part of the point of my reply to Samir was to contest the kind of position you are taking, to respond by citing yourself seems…well…we all know what it seems like.

        Incidentally, there are plenty of rubbish books published. That you have published some yourself is not, in itself, an argument for anything. (Just last year, I refereed Joseph Margolis’ latest book for Columbia University press and it was utter shite…they printed it anyway.) And the idea that a person cannot have an informal discussion with you on a blog, without first reading your books…you can’t be serious. (Jeez, maybe you are. Yikes.)


        –Dan K.

  3. Corey Robin:

    One more thing. If Burke is a reactionary, then what word would you use to describe a Tory of his day, who had *opposed* the American revolution? There’s nowhere more “right” to go.

    Such problems are just one of the embarrassments of political hyperbole.


  4. Sorry, dude, I was merely mocking you for your opening gambit about having made a career of reading primary texts; it was so pompous and silly I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to respond in kind. In any event, you’ve made a series of conventional and commonplace claims here, which I’ve dealt with at length in various forums. I’m not going to rehash those discussions here. If you’re interested in reading something new, you can follow them up. If not, well, there’s not much more to say.

  5. Oh, I just saw that you said you were a professor of philosophy! Oh my! I guess that means I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.

    Honestly, what kind of fool’s paradise do you play in? First, you say you’ve “made a career” out of reading primary texts. Then you say you’re a professor of philosophy, not a student. And yet you have the gall to suggest there’s something untoward about citing myself? At least I cite books and articles I’ve written, which make particular claims backed up by textual evidence. You just cite your CV. Actually, not even that: the fact that you have a CV. Sorry, dude, we’re all professors here. Not impressed.

  6. Corey Robin: It wasn’t an opening gambit. It was a relatively mild way of responding to your citing yourself, by way of response to substantive points, made in the context of a blog. You say you have nothing more to say, but that’s exactly the point. You haven’t *said* anything. You’ve just waved your hand in the direction of stuff you’ve published.

    It is also worth noting that it is not uncommon for claims to become common and conventional, because they are true.

    Best, –DK

  7. Corey Robin: The “fools paradise” is an informal blog where people are chatting about various subjects.

    As for the rest, I’m wondering who peed in your Cheerios this morning. You’re quite grumpy.


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