Prophecy And Propaganda As Compensatory Fantasy

In a footnote in his chapter on Herder in Three Critics of The Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p. 231), Isaiah Berlin writes:

Like other passionate propagandists, Herder pleaded for that which he himself conspicuously lacked. As sometimes happens, what the prophet saw  before him was a great compensatory fantasy. The vision of the unity of the human personality and its integration into the social organism by ‘natural’ means was the polar opposite of Herder’s own character and conduct….It has frequently been remarked that it is tormented and unbalanced personalities–Rousseau, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence–who celebrate with particular passion physical beauty, strength, generosity, spontaneity, above all unbroken unity, harmony and serenity, qualities for which they had an insatiable craving.

Great artists (writers) are very often ‘passionate propagandists’ and ‘prophets,’ and Berlin is right to note that their creative urges often manifest themselves in their theorizing–by the creation of alternative worlds that are decked out in the colors they find lacking in the ones they currently inhabit.

The prophet in particular, sustains his vision of the world he has seen by underwriting it with his own desires and imaginings; the world he describes is the world he would like realized; it is visible to him because  his longings make it come alive. The more acutely sensed the absence of a particular quality in the present world, the more vividly is its presence articulated in the dreamed of world, the more unambiguous the revelation. Berlin does not mention Freud here, but he might well have by his invocation of a ‘compensatory fantasy.’ The prophet’s visions and revelations are wish fulfillments; they make concrete, in relatively unambiguous form, his hitherto unconscious (or not) fantasies and desires and longings.

The propagandist, similarly, finds his pen and prose animated by these as yet unrequited longings; they bring his polemics to life; they make them stir and summon others to action. The successful propagandist is able to enlist and recruit others to help realize his desired for vision; the success of this task depends on how successfully he is able to transmute the force of his need into the clarity and beauty of his depiction of the desired state. Through his claims he can create a need where none had existed before; he is able to convince his ‘followers’ that his needs are theirs now; the desired for world is one whose absence they sense in their own lives.

Our theoretical frameworks are not just autobiographies, as Nietzsche had suggested, they are also fantasies of the way we would like the world to be. What we find lacking in our lives, we find instead in the theoretical claims we make, in the arguments we adduce in their favor. When we defend our theories and our arguments, we are not engaging in idle academic speculation (or should not be); we are (or should be) engaged in attempting to bring to life a hoped-for world whose presence we can dimly sense in thought and dream and fantasy.

Studying the Social

This coming fall semester, I will teach, ostensibly for the second time, a class titled Social Philosophy. I say ‘ostensibly’ because, though I have taught the Class Formerly Known as Social Philosophy, this is most assuredly not your grandfather’s Social Philosophy.

Brooklyn College’s philosophy department offers a pair of related classes: one titled Political Philosophy, and the other, the above-named Social Philosophy. For as long as I’ve been a member of the department (and even before), these two classes for a variety of reasons have been informally understood as Classical Social and Political Philosophy and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy. That is, the former assigned students the material they would expect in a historically oriented version of the classic social and philosophy class, and the latter, more contemporary material. The historical origins–and motivations for the titling–of classes are always shrouded in mystery, thus it was no surprise to me that my querying into why we simply didn’t offer a pair of classes with these titles was met with–what I remember as–a blank stare. At the very least, it had seemed to me we would be absolved of the charge of Confusing and Possibly False Advertising.

When I did teach Social Philosophy for the first time, though, a few years ago, I faithfully followed the unofficial imprimatur to teach it as Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy, and so, did a mix of topics including feminism, Marxism, nationalism, anarchism, globalization, political disobedience etc. My reading list was a little too ambitious and a little too dense (some of the selections on it were clearly uninspired); the classes were too long (they met once a week for three hours).

Now, I have a chance to put things right. First, I intend to broaden the ambit of the class to include more of what might be termed social theory. Besides the usual suspects like Mill, Marx, Rousseau, Hobbes, there will be Weber, Durkheim, Horkheimer et all. Second, as these names indicate, I will straddle the Enlightenment and the modern period, updating our look at social theory to make it as current as possible.

This treatment will, I think, afford several advantages. The most straightforwardly selfish one is that with a new syllabus and a new stable of authors, my teaching will be invigorated.  The straddling of the classical and the contemporary within one semester will lead to a slightly skimpier treatment of some of the topics I intend to cover, but it does have the virtue of tracking the development of theoretical concerns over time. Most importantly, my students too, will be served better with a broader, eclectic take–offered by philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, novelists–on the often intractable problems of the social. They will come to see that the concerns of philosophers and sociologists, folks who are taken to inhabit two departments on campus, are often similar, even if approached with a different theoretical or applied focus; they will, hopefully, come to see that the problems of the ‘social’ are best understood when studied under a variety of lenses and perspectives.



Adam Phillips on Self-Knowledge and the Unconscious

Adam Phillips, psychotherapist and essayist, can be a frustratingly elliptical writer. There are allusions, suggestions, shadings and hints in every passage. (I seem to dimly remember a frustrated reviewer in the New York or London Review of Books complaining about this characteristic slipperiness.) From these though, the diligent reader can often find a perspicuous insight, and perhaps even more interestingly and appropriately–given the very indirection of the prose–raw material for speculation of his own.  The following passage is an interesting sample: sometimes direct, sometimes suggestive, sometimes inclined to a mysterious universalization:

If the Enlightenment Freud instructs us in a new science of self-knowing–of familiarizing ourselves–the post-Freudian Freud suggests that the problem of self-knowledge is itself the problem, the symptom masquerading as the cure; as though we have turned the self into an object (the project of the Enlightenment Freud), even an idol, and psychoanalysis can now help us unlearn this modern religion of self-hood. The unconscious–whatever is strange, or seems foreign about ourselves–is exactly what makes our old habits of self, like knowing and understanding, sound irrelevant, off-key. An inner revisionist, it disarms our competence, like someone suddenly pointing out to us that we have been playing chess with the rules of draughts. The unconscious, in other words, is what stops self-knowledge turning, it always does, into self-caricature (self-definition  is always complicit with self-mockery). When we make a slip of the tongue, something in us speaks out of turn. It does not speak more truthfully, but it speaks as well. And at that moment, we don’t know where it came from. It gives us pause. In psychoanalysis, as the critic Mark Edmundson says of poetry, ‘one must affirm invention at the expense of argument.’

First, the mysteries: what does it mean to say that ‘self-knowledge always turns into self-caricature’ or that ‘self-definition is always complicit with self-mockery’? Perhaps that attempts at total self-knowledge runs the risk of constructing distorted images of ourselves? But why the ‘mockery’ and the ‘caricature’? Why not idealization and praise? Phillips goes no further than the bare statements he provides us. What makes them tantalizing–or frustrating, depending on your perspective–is that Phillips had the option of making a much weaker and more plausible claim but chose not to. We are left to puzzle this out.

Second, more interestingly, a  conception of the unconscious as the grab-bag term for whatever is unknown about ourselves. Though it is not clear what is meant by the unconscious being our ‘inner revisonist’ it is transparent what role it plays in our view of ourselves: where we find mystery or inexplicability in our understandings of ourselves, where are our attempts at self-knowledge come to a grinding halt, we point to the unconscious. It is a universal explanans of sorts, one that points to the uncomfortable fact that we are strangers to ourselves and will remain so. And as the closing quote suggests, it is the unconscious that gives us grounds for being inventive about ourselves, for imagining that within us lurks far more complexity than we might have imagined, many more selves than the one(s) immediately visible.

Excerpt fromTerrors and Experts, Faber and Faber, London, 1995.

Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

Having viewed the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love over the weekend, I’m struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers’ lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made–or rather, that I am aware of–haven’t exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman‘s Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.

What gives?  Have philosophers lived particularly dull lives–devoid of dramatic involvement in world affairs, the cultural history of their times, or matters of the heart? Does the philosopher’s life, supposedly all inwardly directed contemplation,  need plenty of faux external action to make it palatable for the screen? I don’t think so. Both the philosophers named above serve as immediate counterexamples to any such facile generalization. And certainly, movies on Enlightenment philosophers would make for some rather spectacular story-telling and serve as grand historical dramas as well. I suspect the problem lies elsewhere.

Most prominently, it seems to me the subject matter, while not intractably resistant to cinematic adaptation, does pose special challenges to directors, screenwriters and actors: the centerpieces of a philosopher’s life are philosophical doctrines after all, and if the movie is to do justice to that life, then the doctrines have to be woven skillfully into both the form and the content of the movie. By this I mean it is not enough that the philosopher merely mouth off a selection of the greatest lines from his oeuvre. This would be an utter disaster. The doctrines have to, instead, be shown in their historical context; the problems they tackle have to be shown to be relevant to ordinary mortals; their poetic content needs to be made visible; and their philosophical content made comprehensible by showing its resonance with larger human themes. This would be easier obviously in the case of those considered political or moral philosophers and much harder with those writing on metaphysical or epistemological themes. (I wonder how Leibnizian  or Hegelian metaphysics would be brought to the big screen; but Descartes‘ epistemological doctrines in the Meditations seem amenable to an adaptation featuring a dialog with fictional interlocutors.)

The screenwriter and director have to find a way too, to incorporate a didactic or expository flavor that doesn’t overpower the story-telling they have in mind. Jarman’s Wittgenstein was never intended as a guide to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing but the minor flirtations it engaged in in that dimension, were, I think, utter failures. In this regard, I’m curious whether Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club could serve as the basis for a cinematic introduction to the American pragmatists.

That last point leads me to cast a quick vote for a movie I’d love to see: the life and times of the brilliant, tortured and singularly unfortunate Charles Sanders Peirce. Any movie-maker willing to take that task on will have a sympathetic, thoughtful biography–that written by Joseph Brent–to draw on. I doubt any directors read this blog, but if you’re one, think about it. It’s a great story, one worth bringing to the screen.