Adam Kotsko, meet Mark Lilla

Is this man on your syllabus?

Is this man on your syllabus? (Psst. It's Bill Buckley, Jr. He loved McCarthy, Southern segregationists, and Nixon. He should be.)


Adam Kotsko has a nice rendering of a widespread logic employed in conservative thinking. It just so happened that I recently heard a rendition of this.

This was in my mind when I read another one of those contrarians in one of those contrarian moods, in this case Mark Lilla , about how the left has thought conservatism as a pathology, not as a tradition,  so I had my own more pathological response. FIrst, I love the observational powers of Mark Lilla, who begins with this bit about the wonders of America’s conservative movement—which is not to be confused with the fascists of Le Pen et al. in Europe:

Our conservatives accept the legitimacy of constitutional self-government, even when they hate the legislation and court decisions resulting from it; they play by the rules. The same cannot be said of the European right, which has always been suspicious of parliamentary politics.

I wonder just where Lilla has been living these past few months, if not the past several decades. Did he not witness the Bush years? And the conservative non-response to it? “They play by the rules”? 

I say this because at the least, if you’re going to argue that idiot members of the left are unfair and ignore the great ideas of the right, you should do so without suggesting that leftists like me can’t or won’t read. Perhaps Lilla himself can’t read, if one were to look just at his examples: Allan Bloom (agreed), Edmund Burke (great stuff there), Whitaker Chambers (really? really?, uh, ok), Irving Kristol (better than his son…a hack, but I can see for pointing out the history of conservative politics), Ayn Rand (well not at all like the others, really heading south quickly), and William Buckley, Jr. (the worst of the bunch–had a great prof who said his trick was just to speak really slow, which is about right).

I’m wondering if Lilla is not practicing a bit of leftist jujitsu here: convince others that these are the conservative tradition in order to carve it up. These are some of the worst writers of recent memory. My bet is that they wouldn’t have been published if not for the fact that they were conservative. Is Rand known for her subtlety with language? And Buckley is exactly one of the Le Pen nationalists that Lilla cites. Maybe I don’t read conservatives as well as he supposes he does, but I did read Buckley on the segregationist South, and all through his later career. And not one, but two of his spy “novels.” His son, Christopher Buckley, can be a great comic writer; the father is simply a joke.

As in this article by Lilla, which pretends that the left doesn’t know—like he does—about the “think tanks” in Washington that have so much influence, while we parse out so many supposed subdivisions of postcolonial feminist critical race theory. Or whatever. But I do know all of those groups (having learned it from some leftist or other), I have read a number of their policy papers, and I dare say anyone paying attention to Washington politics does know them. But at least do the conservatives a favor: read them. As in real decent ones, like everyone I know who takes political theory seriously has: not just Burke, but all those who fit loosely into a better tradition than the apparently ill-read Lilla can: Scruton, Eliot, Heidegger, Strauss, Tocqueville, Arendt, Schmitt, and on and on. I’m not saying these figures fit easily, but you can’t tell me Ayn Rand is a political thinker that we must read and then ignore the fact that her pedantic egoism isn’t covered in most ethics books I see. And then rightly ripped to shreds as self-defeating, with her novels as the worst tripe. No matter how many decided to go carve out their libertarian mountain hideaway (it’s a Rand thing, don’t ask) after last year. But as Lilla says, if only we’d read these figures, we’d be….well, he doesn’t say what would happen. (I realize that reading Lilla after the early 90s Derrida affair at the NYRB on “intellectual diversity” is a hilarious exercise.):

They read selections from Burke, Maistre, Hayek, Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and many others, including Lyons’s personal favorite, Peter Viereck. (Now, answer honestly, dear reader of The Chronicle Review: How many of these authors have you yourself read?)

Well, honestly: all of them, but thanks for the presumption. (That list does seem to run out of steam quickly after Hayek, doesn’t it?) And Vierkeck has a couple of great essays on Buckley and Kristol (I’m sure you know this Mark Lilla, since you’ve read him) calling them “pseudo-conservatives” who have no intellectual heft, with the fear result by Viereck that they would come to stand for those truly fighting a battle of ideas, instead of defending McCarthy and others in the name of ideology. And if Lilla would read more on the left, he would note that Burke and Maistre and others he doesn’t mention are oft-cited in political theory. And I’ve taught Burke, Maistre, Bloom, Strauss, Heidegger, Arendt, and others he doesn’t cite, let alone all those who could be said to belong to a longer tradition going back to Plato.

I was going to say, does he think that we keep a censored list of writers? But then, yes, he does say that at the end. I guess that’s why I don’t teach Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas or anyone else who is not a postcolonial, postfeminist theorist. (Please don’t write me for including Arendt or whomever—I include them for the importance to other conservative writers.)

Ok, so what’s the upshot, Mark Lilla?

[David] Horowitz is an annoying man, and what’s most annoying about him is that … he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.

It is obvious that Mark Lilla should not be running any curriculum. Horowitz is an annoying man because he has no point. Look at any youtube video of him getting questioned by students. He is a dolt. He is a self-important, egregiously unprincipled man who has students tape recording their professors (even yours truly) to publicize their “radical” agenda, only to find out (as in my case) that I’ve been teaching Homer. And Horowitz has never written anything that would be worthy to print. But Horowitz more that you, dear academic reader, knows better than you what should be taught in a university. David Horowitz. Because he knows what Mark Lilla knows:

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens.

Yes, whenever you read that a dean or a professor is “well paid” (unlike Horowitz, who has grown wealthy for his efforts, and has been accused by some of milking the whole thing for speaker’s fees), you know that something really ground-breaking is about to follow: a description what “we know” (always love that rhetorical trick, the non-evidential “we know”) that “rarely happens.” So let’s try a field trip in the coming week to our local university bookshops. He’s right that we won’t see Buckley, Jr. but I don’t recall his magnum opus—does his hagiography of Nixon count? He’s right we won’t see Irving Kristol—I’ll just have to assign my students his work defending the sovereignty of South Africa during Apartheid (neat trick for a Jew living in Manhattan). And he’s right, you won’t probably find Chamber’s red baiting. Or Rand’s embarrassing work. (Actually, you will—I have a colleague that teaches it.) But you’ll find all the others he mentions and more than all that. Now, I’ll have to get over to Columbia the next time I’m in New York and see what Lilla’s been teaching: maybe some Rancière or Foucault or Levi-Strauss or Judith Butler for “intellectual diversity”? Maybe some good SR stuff?

Or does diversity only count if you’re defending racist Apartheid states?

The Harman-Gratton difference

I’m about to head up and give my CRESC paper–nothing major, and I’ll note when it’s published in some form or other. But I caught this from Graham’s blog (and it’s strange to read this while seeing him right across the room):

Before then, I’ll be hearing, among other things, a Gratton paper on Nancy that he says will refer to both me and Meillassoux. Gratton is a blunt enough character that it could well be a frontal attack, so I’d better be listening closely in order to respond.

Well, it’s a 6000 word paper that I’m going to run through quickly, but for those looking for the “frontal attack,” here it is:

First reference, where I quote him to agree…  After a discussion of Heidegger on animals: “Yet, we will in turn sovereignly declare human beings as having the touch, as we say in English. The result is that, as Graham Harman puts it in a different context, “One privileged entity is allowed to form links where others cannot. Against this notion, I propose the more democratic solution of a local occasionalism or vicarious causation, in which every entity that exists must somehow be equipped to serve as a medium of contact between two others” (IO, 8).

Second reference: “The responsibility today, the ‘more democratic approach,’ as Harman puts it, is very much about the public things—and how we accede to them, even if acceding to public things means questioning access itself.” 

And last reference, from the footnotes: “Graham Harman offers a helpful example in terms of what he calls ‘intentional objects’: ‘While the real tree is always something more than whatever I see of it, the intentional tree is always something less. That is to say, I always see it much too specifically, encrusted with too much accidental color or from an accidental angle, or in some purely coincidental melancholic mood. Any of these details could be changed without changing the intentional tree, … It is not an empty je ne sais quoi projected onto unformed sense data, because in fact it precedes and shapes any such data. As Merleau-Ponty knew, the black of a pen and the black of an executioner’s hood are different even if their wavelength of light is exactly the same. The qualities are impregnated with the objects to which they are attached.’ Graham Harman, “Intentional Objects for Non Humans,” available, with the author’s permission, at, p. 6. Henceforth cited as IO.

Also, Graham notes that we were “debating” last night. I was actually asking about his account of the distinction between substance and change, that is, Aristotle’s account of potentiality and actuality. He thinks you can’t think things as relational without falling into Aristotle’s critique of Heraclitus. But you also can’t have monism, either, as Aristotle had previously made clear in the previous section of the Metaphysics. And this all requires a rethinking of time, since Aristotle’s notion of substance necessitates a thinking of time found in the Physics (now time…), a point Heidegger makes well. Having read Graham on this, he doesn’t accede to Aristotle’s view of time and so I’d like to hear more from him (and this is genuine question–not a counter-argument) about how objects relate and what modicum of relation they can’t have on his account…without falling into stasis and oblivion. I don’t think I made that clear. The analogy I’ll try is that we can think this through Nancy’s notion of sense, or partage. An example that comes to mind is the way in which languages evolve through it’s self-differences. In other words, there is a real truth that the Brits and the English are two peoples separated by a common language. Without that “partage” of language, there would be no development of it, and yet, there must be some “touch” or such between them for there to be a relation in the first place. But in the end, I don’t think Graham realizes how much I agree with him.

Conclusion from tomorrow’s paper on Speculative Realism

I’m editing my paper to get it down to the time limits for the CRESC objects conference. Since I don’t publish enough philosophy here, here’s my as-yet-unedited conclusion. I suppose it makes better sense in terms of the whole, though to set this up, I take up the problem of what Meillassoux calls “intuition” as the relation between the phenomenal and chaotic noumenal in his work…

Conclusion: Finite Relations Irreducible to Correlationism

            Is, then, “intellectual intuition” the only access to the real? Heidegger famously tells us in his 1929-30 lecture course that the “stone is without world,” that the animals are “poor in world,” and that human Dasein is “world forming.”[1] Nancy begins on territory familiar to Meillassoux’s readers, arguing that there is no sense of the world, as Wittgenstein claimed in the Tractatus, that is given from the outside. This would treat the world as representable, instead of, as Nancy claims, a infinite happening of coming to presence, each time just this once and thus non-representable. But it is also the case, he notes, that the fact that “there is something, there are some things, there is some there—and that itself makes sense,” without a need for a God. But this does not mean that it only makes sense “for, through, or in Dasein”:

[T]he world beyond humanity—animals, plants, and stones, oceans, atmospheres, sidereal spaces and bodies—is quite a bit more than the phenomenal correlative of a human taking-in-hand, taking-into-account, or taking-care-of. … For it is a question of understanding the world not as man’s object or field of action, but as the spatial totality of the sense of existence, a totality that it itself existent, even if it is not in the mode of Dasein. (SW, 55-56).


Certainly, Nancy note, one could proffer an exteriority to humanity, but this is not to be thought in terms of the “relation between subject and object” (SW, 56). Nancy is careful, as we’ll see, not to place language simply to one side of this relation. If we take there to be a circulation of sense among things,[2] then there are in a sense (a sense that is not reductive compared to human language) signature and singularities at work, and thus a passing of signs, even if these signatures exscribe their sense elsewhere from us. That is, for Nancy, being a “fragment” of a world means having a signature, having a place and a taking-place that is not simply, on the Heideggerian model, a placing in view of that which has been hidden away (abscondus). And this signature is always underdetermined in the circulation of sense, and thus can be confused with nothing, as the nihil, though in truth it is a “nihil unbound,” to use Ray Brassier’s phrase.

            To take the risk of an anthropomorphism that will quickly recede, this is what we mean when we say that we are touched. Something touches us (and thus is touched by us in turn) and its affectivity passes along the signatures of one and the other with such a gravity—whether the touch is light or not does not matter—that “to be touched” is synonymous with profundity, a depthlessness of meaning being passed along and circulated. And this is why, beyond Meillassoux’s apt discussion of “touching upon the absolute,” each touch (or all touching) is a touch upon the absolute, upon an infinity of sense irreducible to a signification communicated or a bit of information passed along; it is never just a simple touch. Having a sense or sensing of this touch marks a “coming to presence” “just at” (à même) us such it that can never be pinned down as a present thing[3]; it can never be fully felt and thus conceptualized: a touch is always shared, distributed, or it is nothing.

            And yet, we will in turn sovereignly declare human beings as having the touch, as we say in English. The result is that, as Graham Harman puts it in a different context, “One privileged entity is allowed to form links where others cannot. Against this notion, I propose the more democratic solution of a local occasionalism or vicarious causation, in which every entity that exists must somehow be equipped to serve as a medium of contact between two others” (IO, 8). On this matter, as so often, Heidegger takes the less democratic approach:

The stone is lying on the path, for example. We can say that the stone is exerting a certain pressure upon the surface of the Earth. It is “touching” the Earth. But what we call “touching” here is not a form of touching at all in the strongest sense of the word. It is not at all like that relationship which the lizard has to the stone on which it lies basking in the sun. And the touching implied in both cases is above all not the same as that touch which we experience when we our hand upon the head of another human being. …[B]eing a stone it has no possible access to anything else around it, anything that it might … possess as such.(FCM, 196-7; SW, 59)


            Before moving further, let me note that everything hinges on how we are inclined towards this passage. If Nancy is right in arguing that the epoch of representation is coming to end (GT, 83) and that “time of modernity is followed by the time of things” (FT, 317), then a “responsible praxis of sense” (FT, 292) must now register for the “test of the real,” even if, on Nancy’s account, “there’s nothing to prove” (FT, 317). This, for Nancy, is the mark of our primordial exposure—an exposure that is not ours alone—to the ruptures of sense in the “movement of a presentation to… which is a rupture of presence itself” (GT, 63). Again, every being-toward is toward another being that is itself toward. Without this circulation and excess of sense, there would be only be signification, that is, “mere indication” and the “denoting of things,” a zero-degree of sense that Heidegger presumes to find in the rocks that do not have a world.[4] And this “test of the real” is not just coming in terms of the “fraying” of things in all their abundance, but also in terms of all of the questions surrounding this notion of “access”—a responsibility of sense practiced in a variety of ecological and movements against the suffering of animals. As is well known, “access” has its root in the Latin accedere, to approach or come near, but nevertheless part of the motto of Roman civic life: accedere ad rem publican, to do one’s civil duty and begin a public life. The responsibility today, the “more democratic approach,” as Harman puts it, is very much about the public things—and how we accede to them, even if acceding to public things means questioning access itself. Nancy writes, responding to Heidegger,

Why, then, is “access” determined [with regard to the stone] a priori as the identification and appropriation of the “other thing”? When I touch another thing, another skin or hide, and when it is a question of this contact or touch and not of an instrumental use, is it a matter of identification and appropriation? … Why does one have to determine “access” a priori as the only way of making-up-a-world and of being-toward-the-world? Why could the world not also a priori consist in being-among, being-between, and being-against? In remoteness and contact without “access”? (SW, 59)


As Nancy notes, the scene is all but feudal, if not Platonic, with its hierarchies

of touch as it ascends closer to the sun, wherein “a hieratic and paternal pose fraudulently substitutes a knighting [the placing of the hand on the head] for a touch” (SW, 60). The whole of this antiquated anthropocentrism is “betrayed,” he rightly argues, “by the expression ‘the earth is not given for the stone.” But what, he asks, if this givenness were never “pure”? What if it were preceded by what makes that gift possible in the first place, namely the distribution and sharing out of unassignable gifts “neither to be perceived or received as a ‘gift’”? And what of the networks of stones and animality and—why not?—humanity passing in and through this “contact” of stone, heat, and surfaces of all kinds:

[the stone] is in contact, an absolute difference. … There is not ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ but rather, there are sites and places, distances. … [W]ithout this impalpable reticulation of contiguities and tangential contacts, without the place (interstice, interval, and escape) of a geared down being-toward ….there would be no world. “In itself,” the thing is “toward” the other things that are close, proximate, and also very distant because there are several of them. (SW, 61)


In this way, he writes, the stone isn’t simply there as an abstraction, laying in wait for its encounter “by or for a subject” (SW, 62). The stone does not “have,” as Heidegger notes, the world. But are we still naïve enough to think that we things, we res extensae do? The stone, for Nancy, is toward the world or “is the world” as “at least” “areality: extension of the area, spacing…” (SW, 62). The stone has a “liability [passibilité]” to sense, an area of passing through and passing along senses irreducible, Nancy argues, to an “animism” or “panpsychism,” which would figure the sense of the stone, of the things, back through the human. There is in the stone its “concrete” liability, which is also “concrete condition” of its singularity (BSP, 18). This liability is but another word for accede; the stone, too, accedes to the public thing.

            The stone’s “concreteness” is a “real différance” or différance as real and as à mème, circulating materially. The problem has not been, as Meillassoux suggests, too much use of the thinking of relation in modernity, but too little. What is called for is a thinking of a circulation of sense and materiality, that is, a thinking of an excessively real, if I can put it that way, complex of relations. This is the absolute to which we are all, one and other, one as another, liable and acceding, in the public and in common, passing along signs, partes extra partes, in a generalized circulation of exposure and relation. It is this exscription, this real writing of the real in the passage of sense, that is the res ultima. Where speculative realism in Meillassoux begins and then circles back to the correlationist circle by thinking through the absolute contingency of the relation, Nancy offers a generalized and therefore public thing, an ultimate res that refuses to privilege any given relation over any other—a “more democratic solution” of rocks, bodies, fragments, ligaments, and an endless catalogue from there, in touch with and sharing with one another. In this way, the an sich is still, as “à meme and exposure of the “to,” the ultima res. And this means the absolute is not the res abscondus, but rather the abscondus of the res: the secreting and motion away from signification in a way that hopefully makes sense retains a trace of the res along the way. It is time, then, to “learn to think toward the world.”[5] In the last poem of his Collected Poems, “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself,” published a year and half before his death, Stevens writes,

                                                            It was not from the vast ventriloquism

                                                            Of sleep’s faded papier-maché

                                                            The sun was coming from the outside.

                                                            That scrawny cry—It was

                                                            A chorister whose c preceded the choir.

                                                            It was part of the colossal sun,

                                                            Surrounded by its choral rings,

                                                            Still far away. It was like

                                                            A new knowledge of reality…


[1] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 177. Henceforth cited as FCM.


[2] This is the locus of Graham Harman’s “object-oriented” philosophy, to think “a

universally given” as a de-localized givenness “withdraw[n] from all

perceptual and causal relations” (Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the

Carprentry of Things (Chicago, Il: Open Court Press, 2005), p. 20.

[3] This is why Nancy argues that “sense,” as touching, is an “untouchable touch,” since it can never grasp the full significance of the sense, the touch, that is open among things (FT, 110).

[4] The “test of the real” does not necessitate a return to ideologies that presume a hold over all sense, reducing the multiple of existence to singular significations (myths of human nature, God, etc.) less for the sake of realism than Reelpolitik. That is to say, we recognize the danger of those who have presaged an access to the real as a means for buttressing power (e.g., the “real” of a sexual or racial difference), though in turn these ideologies—never soon enough, but inexorably nonetheless—face the test of the real, the excess of sense of beyond any signification, which is another way of saying there is a future worthy of the name, unsignifiable by any tyrant of the present.

[5] SW, 191, n. 112.

Digging Maoism

In a short review of Amiri Baraka’s collection of essays on jazz music and American culture, Digging, which I do very much recommend, there are these highlights:

Digging collects eighty-four essays and reviews in which the poet, playwright, and critic Amiri Baraka makes an impassioned case for jazz as a central achievement of American culture… Diggingoffers a generous selection of recent writing undertaken in the same spirit of intellectual engagement, political advocacy, and ardent fandom. … His sentences reverberate with puns and allusions, echoing the structure and style of jazz itself. He also displays impressive intellectual range-in an essay titled “The Blues Aesthetic and the Black Aesthetic,” he makes reference to Nietzsche, Michael Jordan, and Arthur Murray as part of a single argument. …Baraka’s outspoken and unconventional politics might also serve as a stumbling block for some readers. Although his commitment to Marxism lends him a powerful lens for examining the socio-cultural circumstances under which jazz music has been produced, his unfortunate penchant for quoting Mao Zedong sometimes detracts from the general perceptiveness of his criticism.

And here I would want to have a contest for any book worth reviewing: Can one not use that same sentence and insert another thinker to the same effect. Try this game with the home edition! ” … “Heidegger’s unfortunate penchant for quoting Aristotle sometimes detracts from the general perceptiveness of his criticism…” Or more the point, perhaps, to reverse the dig at Digging’s maoism: “X, Y, and Z’s work on jazz has an unfortunate penchant for quoting record sales as a mark of value, like a latter day Adam Smith, which sometimes detracts from the general perceptiveness of their criticism…” And why the use of “sometimes” here? I would love to read, then, the part of Baraka’s book where his quoting of Mao Zedong for this author did not detract from the perceptiveness of his criticism…

A Heideggerian’s Advice for Grad Students

I saw this as I was working through a portion of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics in order to discuss his notion of violence:

Heidegger’s own story is quite different. Its backdrop, which often remains implicit, is very traditional and Aristotelian. Although in the final analysis Heidegger “undid” that tradition, he first took care to master it, and he recommended that Heideggerians do the same. “You would be well advised,” he told his students in 1952, “to put off reading Nietzsche for the time being and first study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years” – the way Heidegger himself did. 


Except, well, that he didn’t.