‘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.

Aristotle And Other Platonists

An interesting work, though perhaps not more interesting than just going back and pulling some Plato and Aristotle off the shelves. Despite the author’s explicit claim that this is not a book about Neoplatonism… it kinda feels like a book about Neoplatonism. At the very least, a key argument for why we should not view Aristotle as being so much in conflict with his erstwhile teacher, Plato, is that, well, a lot of ancient and late ancient philosopher who wrote after Aristotle, viewed Aristotle as being part of Platonism. Especially the Neoplatonists. And no, calling them ‘harmonists’ (those who believe that Aristotle is, in some ultimate sense, in harmony with Plato, as opposed to the antiharmonists [no hyphen]) does not help and, in fact, that term needs to not become a ‘thing’ and should not be used in that context ever again, because it’s cloying.

His best argument for this actually came very early in the book and was the bit that my mind kept coming back to: he referenced a philosopher named Pierre Hadot (who I had never heard of before) who (he says) proposed that the philosophers of the ancient world and their schools should be viewed primarily as positing a way of life and only secondarily as positing philosophical doctrine. Under this rubric, it does become easier (for me, at least), to see the author’s point.

But Gerson rarely seems to speak for himself. Every time I think that he is offering his own interpretation, I read that sentence more carefully and see that he’s actually paraphrasing what he believes Porphyry or Plotinus or Simplicius or Iamblichus has said. But basically, the thesis is that Aristotle’s ontologies (and epistemology, especially and his and Plato’s are deeply informed by their onologies) are not so different from Plato’s after all.

To briefly give one example, Gerson both recognizes (yet also avoids, in many ways) what is usually taught as the basic and most important distinction between the teacher and his student: Plato’s theory of forms. Plato believed in their reality and Aristotle did not (though yeoman’s work is done to suggest that Aristotle’s theory of the intellect (I am being vague here, because there are several kinds of intellect and much back and forth over what in the name of all that is holy it all means and if you’d like to learn more, I recommend learning Medieval Latin, because a lot mainly, but not exclusively British monks spent several centuries arguing about this and you’re welcome to read it all, I’m sure) could be considered as being compatible with the forms). Plato, through the mouthpiece of Socrates, argues for knowledge as recollection Aristotle makes statements that support that epistemology. Since Plato’s theory knowledge as recollection emerges from the forms and Aristotle can be seen to accept Plato’s theory of knowledge, therefore he implicitly accepts, at least in part, the forms, if not in a so explicitly realist fashion.

My first impression after reading this is that I should brush up on my Plato and Aristotle. More so, Aristotle. I’ve been reading a bit of Plato recently (though no amount of references to it by Neoplatonic philosophers will convince me to read the Timeaus again), but have a copy of Aristotle’s Categories that I started but never finished.

The Reactionary Mind

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).

Jefferson On Hume

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.

Letter to Colonel William Duane, August 12, 1810

I Want To Be At That Party

My all time favorite fictional party is the one at Holly Golightly’s apartment in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I read the book, indeed, it is the only Capote novel that I have, as yet, read, but the movie made a more startling and powerful impression on me).

My new second favorite might be the one in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum or, On the Nature of the Gods. Intelligent men having deeply thought-out conversations on ideas passionately held. It’s like one of Plato’s dialogues, but not everyone gets railroaded by Socrates, which, let’s be honest, would probably not be that fun to experience. Just ask Gorgias.

The Anxiety Of Influence

This book has been on my list for years, but was almost impossible to find, but there it was at Solid State Books. Even more amazing, after I bought it, they replaced with another copy on the shelves!

For a critic famous for his defense of the traditional canon, the pre-post-colonial canon, as it were, The Anxiety of Influence is a brilliantly, desperately sincere text of postmodern play.

Is Romanticism after all only the waning out of the Enlightenment, and its prophetic poetry only an illusory therapy, not so much a saving fiction as an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of holding the middle ground between instinctual existence and all morality?

I was caught by the quote because the question of Enlightenment and its successor, Romanticism seems to keep coming up, though this answer seems inadequate in terms of history, if not literature.

If here were a poet, his bête noire (or perhaps, I should say daemon) would be Milton (he wants it to be Dante, but it’s Milton). While he praises and respects poets like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, his idea of poetry was forged between Milton and Keats. In the end, the whole book is about how the sublime is achieved by the great poets. While we can talk about the sublime today, he means it in a sense in which we rarely speak of it – the way Burke spoke about it.

I do not know if I ever will (my to be read stack is quite high), but the highest praise I can give this book is that I want to read it again. Not right away, but when I am older, to sit down in a comfy chair and read this dense, slim labor of love one more time.

The Ideas That Made America

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).

Reading ‘Crito’ To A Child At Bedtime

My little one was not in the mood for our usual bedtime reading (AmuletNarnia books, Lord of the Rings) and frankly, being a little cantankerous. So, I told her that we could either read Prince Caspian or daddy’s book. What’s daddy’s book. Plato, I said.

She was into it.

We had ‘met’ Plato in one of her Magic Treehouse Books and after that, I showed her a copy of some of Plato’s dialogues in the study. Now, I wasn’t reading that edition, but a slightly smaller one. I then grabbed a Dover Thrift Edition that contained Gorgias and Timaeus but that wasn’t it either. Finally, I found it. I showed her, written in neat cursive in black ink, was the name of her grandfather. I told her that meant this book was older than her father and once belonged her grandfather.

Then we read. Over two nights, we read Crito, a short dialogue between Socrates in his prison cell, awaiting execution and his friend Crito, who was encouraging him to escape (Crito and other friends of Socrates would bribe the guards and arrange travel).

The long and short of Socrates’ conclusion comes to something similar to favorite quote of mine from a fantastic adventure novel, The Prisoner of Zenda: ‘God doesn’t always make the right man king, but I am the king’s man and have eaten of the king’s bread.’

What I mean is that Socrates says that because he accepted his role as citizen of Athens, he must accept what comes with it, even when it’s justice comes to the wrong conclusion. Of course, by this time, she was asleep.

The Dark Side Of The Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, And Spiritual Seekers In The Age Of Reason

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.

img_5248The subtitle of this book was the title of an earlier book by Scruton and he describes this one as an attempt to wade back into the waters of demolishing the new new left (and also the same left as before, too).

His opening salvo acknowledges that Marx is not really, anymore, a lodestar for those on the left, but he still cannot help but engage with him, mostly because, like it or not, his philosophical writings are powerful and important.

But despite his protestations (doth the conservative protest too much?), he follows up his introductory chapter with a broadside (these are all, really, essays) on the Marxian historians Eric Hobsbawn (who I head read and love and to who Scruton gives appropriate credit for being a brilliant historian and man of letters) and E. P. Thompson (who I have heard of, but never read). Go figure.

Well, that’s not fair. Communism had far greater currency in England during the Cold War and had far more mainstream credibility than in America.

He even links Marxian ideas to John Kenneth Galbraith (though praising him as a stylist; the aestheticist in him is never far from the surface), which says more about the range of ideas Marx wrote about than it does about Galbraith (in case you’re interested, the linkage here is the Canadian economist’s  writings about want and desire in contemporary society being created by society’s output, which idea can, yes, be traced to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, but I could do the same so some of Ross Douthat’s more explicitly religious critiques of society, so this isn’t really a left/right thing).

What did surprise me was his praise for Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison. He writes admiringly of its insights (while dismissing what links it to his other works, those he doesn’t like; these weak links, of course, are somehow related to Marx; but I appreciate being given a new, deliciously French vocabulary word: marxisant). His seemingly off-handed mention of how he died of AIDS reeks of the worst sort of nauseating, neanderthal moralizing (the subtext seems to be, ‘you know he was gay right?’ he shows similar attitudes when criticizing Sartre’s Saint Genet for mocking ‘norms of heterosexual respectability’).

As to why he, in particular, cannot let Marx go, even when he acknowledges Marxism is no longer very relevant to current debates, it is at the heart of his conservatism. Insofar as Scruton is a philosopher of import and a conservative, it is on the field of aesthetics that his foundation is laid. He is, arguably, a Burkean, but a Burkean of Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime and Beautiful. Materialism and class analysis are anathema to him. Tradition, culture, and classic ideas of beauty inform Scutonian conservatism (I wanted to write Scroogean there, but that’s more a feature of the near homonymity than any deep connection between Scruton and Scrooge, whose own conservative was less about beauty and culture than class and materialism). Marx is a symbol for a turn from this aesthetic sense (he even blames the tortured syntax and unnecessary vocabularies that have become standard to many forms of academic writing across the ideological spectrum on Marx and Marxism, which would surprise anyone who has tried to read an academic article by an economist broadly from the Chicago, née Austrian, School.

I am disinclined to defend Zizek, though Scruton offers him some praise.

He writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music, and when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamist extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say.

Well, paint me surprised. Later, he even seems to suggest that is Marxism is just fine (Lacan, apparently, is to blame for Zizek’s flaws) Also, I guess I hadn’t noticed before, but I don’t see an Oxford comma here.

The codicil chapter, which fits awkwardly, though if he had just stopped, that would have felt jarring, tries to give a positive statement on conservatism and is titled What Is Right? A certain political naivete rears its head here and makes clear that he’s not much of a political theater. His origin story is of watching the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. He says that he didn’t know what he believed, but that they must be wrong. He loves order, in other words. But when he tries to go beyond that, well, he sounds rather liberal, to my ears.

I enjoyed the last (and only other) book that I read by Scruton that I read, but, just as I questioned his credentials as a political thinking, I am also not sure that he is really a philosopher at all (anyone who gives Hume some portion of credit for having ‘kept skepticism at bay’ deserves some mistrust). Actually, I am fairly certain that he is not. Which is not to say that he is not well, indeed, deeply read in the subject. But it is to say that he is more like a Christopher Hitchens figure. A powerfully intelligent polemicist rather than a systematic thinker. He’s also like Hitchens in that it can be marvelously fun to read his mockery (Habermas is subjected to the best lines. His books ‘are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of that who have read them remember what they say.’ Also, ‘with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’ prose’) and that it’s a worthwhile waste of one’s time to watch extended clips of him online (at least thirty minutes, but preferably longer).

But, he’s made me want to take another stab at reading Being and Nothingness (presumably not his intention) and to find and reread a Raymond Williams book that bought years ago at Kramerbooks (I know I’ve seen it recently on the shelves in my study; it has a striking, if not particularly handsome, silver cover), offered an offhanded but fascinating defense of Augustine’s theory of original sin, and maybe convinced me to read more Scruton.

Scruton fulfills or can fulfill, in a way, something like the role that William F. Buckley played for the intellectual left. That is the role of the conservative that one can engage with. The each bring a pleasant, upper class accent and vocabulary, though Scruton, so far as I know, lacks Buckley’s unreconstructed racism and segregationism (though his attack on Edward Said and his defense of Said’s targets smacks of a certain pro-colonialism). Certainly, I hope so. One can imagine him despising Trump’s rigidly unintelligible propaganda, proudly uninformed opinions, and, not least, his outspoken and unironic tackiness (one can easily imagine Buckley being outwardly seduced by Trump, but that is because Buckley’s interest was movement through the exercise in political power, whereas Scruton appears driven by his love of aristocratic English high culture).