‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well,Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.
Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.
I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).
The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.
Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.
Early in the book, in the second chapter, he quotes from the slightly unorthodox conservative, Andrew Sulivan, from his book, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right:
All conservatism begins with loss.
(Of course, I tend to think of Sullivan as rather a wannabe Hitchens, but lacking that better writer’s adventurous spirit and mordant wit. Of course they both did quit national magazines on account of feelings of ostracization stemming from more liberal colleagues disapproval of some of their positions.)
As a rhetorical tool, Corey Robin’s best move is to quickly go after Edmund Burke and place him squarely in the lineage of modern conservatism. ‘The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,’ he writes. Burke, by virtue of his commitment to keeping Westminster in narrow, elite hands, even as he believed in gifting a degree of economic security, falls under that rubric, the author argues. There is much more on Burke, early on, which makes me want to read more of Burke because I have an instinct to want to defend him (perhaps on account of my own elitism). But I cannot deny the efficiency of placing Burke in a lineage that leads directly to Trump, because otherwise, that esteemed eighteenth century thinker is the there to be pointed to, as an example of noble, intellectual conservative thought, implying that the current crudeness is an aberration. Robin seems to point at Burke’s thought and say, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’
But to go back to that idea of loss… Buckley stands athwart history and shouts stop because something is being taken away from him. Race certainly being part of it, as desegregation and civil rights took a certain dominion from white men. While not his purpose, he gives a beautifully succinct explanation for why the Civil War could be about slavery (it was) even though most white men in the South did not own slaves. Under slavery, every white man was an aristocrat. With emancipation, man white men became merely poor and wanted their aristocratic privilege back.
Always though, he rows ceaselessly back to Burke. He take a trip earlier to visit Hobbes (the conservative as counterrevolutionary), but Burke is always there. He is what Thomas Jefferson is to me, I think: an admired figure who he knows is also dangerous and deeply unadmirable. To paraphrase a movie, he just can’t quit him.
He enjoys long, discursive, excerpt heavy footnotes… especially about Burke. I think he understands that Burke is figure at the beginning who no one (including, arguably, me) can accept as truly being part of the lineage of Trump. And he can’t let that (or him) go. Burke, you might say, is living rent-free in his head.
He’s now living in mine, too. I’ll have to find my copy of his selected writings and revisit. Especially his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity which sounds like a fascinating (and, yes, deeply conservative) defense of the rich and their capital against the needs of working people, disguised as an economic treatise.
The takedown of Rand (intertwined, somewhat inexplicably, with Nietzsche) was delicious. The author was incredulous as to how a writer of such ridiculous prose and philosopher of such shallow depths (who seems not to have read much philosophy) could be have become so… influential. In the end, I don’t think we know. I blame Paul Ryan.
Similarly, his critique of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s frankly rank hypocrisy (hint: he only adopted his textual originalism when it was useful to buttressing his decision, rather than always letting his originalism lead him to the decision) was nice to hear, because paeans to his supposedly principled legal stance have always rankled. Like so many leading 20th century (and now, 21st century) conservatives, his politics and philosophy were rooted in a culture of victimhood.
So, did this book, as a blurb attests, predict Trump? There is a chapter on Trump, clearly written post-election. But it feels understandably tacked on. Yes, he appealed to the sense of aggrievement, of victimhood, that is chronicled throughout as a key factor in conservatism. But Trump himself is so vacuous (he makes Ayn Rand look like Hannah Arendt) that the chapter is jarring. He’s a cipher, but in no way a thinker who added anything to the conservative movement beyond, perhaps, a little daylight (which has not proved to be as a good disinfectant as one might like).
Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.
I borrowed this from the library (after a reassuringly long wait; people wanted to read it) partly because I like Hong’s poetry and partly because my daughter may experience some of what would be discussed.
First of all, a great book, beautifully, painfully written. Some remarks that delivered some deeply personal pain (some paragraph about how white men date Asian women because they can find Asian women who are much more attractive than the white women who would consider them and how Asian women, because of low self-esteem, will date a white man that no white woman would consider; as a white man with an Asian wife… yikes… but let’s just say, not without truth and move on).
The meditation on the erasure of the violence done to the writer Theresa Has Kyung Cha was devastating, but what I really kept coming back was something not in the book, but relevant.
My better half spoke about wanting me to take our daughter to school and to pick her up and be present whenever possible so that the roost-ruling white children and white families would see her white father and accept her as not being othered by race. Trying to make her safe and accepted by blessing her with my whiteness.
Such a brief book must, necessarily, be swift in its progress. But there is, as always, such a thing, as too much. Amply endnoted, it nonetheless feels shallow. The Enlightenment influenced thought behind America’s founding is dealt with in less than twenty pages. An opening chapter, which subtitled itself ‘Precontact-1740,’ managed to make most of what was said about indigenous people’s thought about Europeans proselytizing to them, which feels more than a little icky.
Transcendentalism, the second most interesting moment in American intellectual history, to my mind, after the Founding period, actually subsumed in a chapter about first half of the nineteenth century, so that an alien who magically read English, but knew nothing about American history, would think that Ralph Waldo Emerson, rather than being a towering figure in the creation of a American intellectual tradition, was more of just a guy who was around and maybe wrote one or two essays that are pretty good.
I would say that the author has a conservative bent (even though she completely fails to give any details about conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and William Buckley believed, despite spending several pages on them), and perhaps because many of America’s most important thinkers were liberal (or even radical) in some way: William James, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc.).
The most egregious sin, I think, is that it’s just an assemblage. The book advances no thesis, it just breaks up American intellectual into some distinct time period and gives a breezily brief description of each. Without that, how can you claim these ideas made America?
So,I guess it’s a nice, short primer of some kind, but perhaps not useful for much beyond brushing up on a couple of things to drop in conversation to make yourself sound smart (but hopefully, you don’t encounter anyone who actually read the thinkers, because then you might be caught out, because you won’t have learned that much).
This is the sort of book that seemed like it should be right up my alley. After all, the three lives were a writer I enjoy, an opera singer, and an art connoisseur. But it nonetheless failed to properly grip me.
It was, dare I say, too bourgeois?
And the implied premise is that these three characters are deeply interesting, as well as being useful exemplars of Europe’s growing cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century. And they are (I believe) interesting figures (well, the writer and the singer definitely are), but more than sixty pages in, I had learned about the connection between the rise of railways and mass market literature and about how fear of buying forgeries led the nouveau riche to invest in (then) contemporary art, among other interesting things, but had not gotten anything close to an idea about the central figures (well, except perhaps for the connoisseur, Louis Viardot, whose primary personality traits are deeply positive in a partner, but maybe not engrossing reading; traits like patience, tolerance, and staidness).
I did, eventually, get a better idea of the three central figures but the premise… I don’t know. I feel that Baden-Baden would have been awesome in the 1860s (did you know they had a public building called the Conversation House [only, they naturally used the German]?), but the epilogue went on to suggest that, actually, their time (the mid nineteenth century) was less truly European and cosmopolitan than the early twentieth century.
So, should you read it? I guess. It’s interesting in many ways, but at the same time, never has a ménage a trois seemed so boring.
Thomas Jefferson has often been accused of dissembling in his political life. Two letters, in particular, that I came across while reading my Modern Library edition of The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson drove that home. Both, not coincidentally, written to John Adams, his great political rival in post-Articles America.
The first is Jefferson proclaiming a certain innocence in the controversy over his private correspondence praising Paine’s Rights of Man, praise which pointedly criticized the (comparatively) Anglophilicism of the Federalists and their political stances. While certainly true that he did not intend it to become public, much less published as a sort of introduction to the work, he writes as if nothing he said was not an implied attack on Adams.
Later, in the aftermath of what passed for presidential campaign in those days (the 1796 election), he protests too much to his (former, future) friend, writing:
In the retired canton where I am, I learn little of what is passing: pamphlets I never see: newspapers but few; and the fewer the happier.
Even the use of the pointedly pastoral term ‘canton’ (a word I can’t remember him using and a search using the tools of the National Archives reveals that, when used, it mostly used to refer to places in Europe, like the Swiss cantons or places or things actually named ‘Canton’) seems too… too much. After all, Jefferson did engage his supporters in a media war (using newspapers and pamphlets) on his behalf during the election. His failure to say something as simple as, it was a hard fought election and while we have our strong political differences, I remain your friend and admirer. Instead, he says he wasn’t paying attention and later says that he always assumed that Adams would end up the victor. Finally, he says:
No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself…
Gore Vidal’s portrayal of the third President as a conflict adverse, sneaky political operator seems apt. Jefferson later wrote to his friend James Madison, complaining that he despaired of convincing Adams of the truth of his professed sentiments. I’m not sure I would have trusted them either.
In his intro, Fleming explains that the ‘dark side’ of his title is a kind hearted pun, rather than a hint that reader is about to enter the gloomy, sordid, and evil underbelly of eighteenth century France.
Various figures who are almost part of a Counter Enlightenment (and appropriate phrase, considering how often he alludes to the Counter Reformation) drive the stories he tells. It’s not an overarching thesis which drives him, so much as curiosity about certain individuals and ideas who seem so different from our idea of what the Enlightenment was.
Most were new to me or provided new perspectives (I knew about the Port Royal movement as an intellectual school, but not about some of the spiritual healers and relic veneration around it). I was disappointed, I will admit, at how little space the Rosicrucians got. I used to be a reader in conspiracy theories of a certain sort (the sort mocked in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum) and would have liked to have seen it gone into a bit more. But a minor quibble, surely?
A larger quibble is what I hinted at a moment ago: how does this connect to the Enlightenment, beyond happening at roughly the same time? The occult strain within the Freemasons is real, but a chance to firmly connect them to the intellectual ferment of the age is sadly missed (just connecting it slightly to the gentleman’s club or the coffeehouse, the latter of which, predates modern Freemasonry, is not really doing it service).
In general, I confess to a general, though slight, feeling of disappointment. Disappointment because the book also feels a little slight. So many sections manage to feel undercooked (if always interesting). Alchemy is such a fascinating subject with a luxurious iconography and from this book I learned that… 18th century alchemy is a fascinating topic, with interesting iconography. Cagliostro is undoubtedly a fascinating and elusive figure and relevant to the topic… but did such a plurality of the pages theoretically devoted to him actually have to be an explanation of the history of L’affaire du collier (the infamous Affair of the Necklace)? I understand he was charged (and acquitted) in the matter, but is his distant involvement stupendously relevant to the history of spiritualism, occultism, alchemy, etc. in the Enlightenment? Similarly, there are two chapters on Julie de Krüdener, a writer who I confess to have never heard of before, and while her story is interesting and maybe relevant because she appears to be an early literary figure in the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism, but that’s kind of a stretch (though he attempts to bridge the gap by tendentiously connecting her to a series of semi-mystical writers who she… met? read? as well as to a later obsession with numerology which he also connects to Tolstoy and… wait for it… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy).
So, in conclusion (I sound Phillipa Chong now), I learned a lot, but a lot less than I would have expected about the supposed topic of the book.
My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.
Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).
It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.