U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Beyond Conservatism: Vladimir Nabokov and the Anti-political in U.S. Intellectual History

In The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (2009), Michael Kimmage identified a philosophical turn away from the social and the political, towards the individual and the aesthetic. Although Kimmage labeled this a “conservative turn,” through his creative use of fiction in analyzing the intellectual development of Trilling and Chambers, he showed their eventual rejection of the saving power of politics, both left-wing and right-wing. While Trilling’s and Chambers’ renunciation of Communism did represent a turn away from Leftist ideology, more significant and compelling is their turn away from social solutions, away from politics as a liberating force, and towards belief in the particular, the complex, the subtle, and the infinitely beautiful. Placing Trilling and Chambers in conversation with their contemporary, Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, and his views on the purpose of literature, can help capture this elusive aesthetic turn, and, most important, suggest one way that intellectual historians can examine ideas about society, culture, and justice beyond the tired political dichotomies of left and right, liberal and conservative.

Kimmage developed Triling’s and Chambers’ “conservative” turn by tracing their views on the purpose of literature. During their involvement with the Communist Party, which for Trilling amounted to a mere flirtation and for Chambers treason against the United States, both men believed that fiction could be a tool in social reform. As Kimmage explained, they believed that “one might use art . . . to transform the polity.”1 Trilling was “intrigued by literature’s civic resonance,” and Chambers wrote poetry and short stories about his commitment to the Party, published in the Daily Worker.2 In this phase of their lives both Trilling and Chambers focused on social and political action. “Mass politics, rather than subtle ideas,” Chambers asserted, “was crucial to political action.”3 Trilling’s and Chambers’ eventual rejection of Communism amounts to a rejection of social and political action—a rejection of mass politics in favor of subtle ideas.

After their break with Communism, Trilling’s and Chambers’ views on the purposes of literature came to resemble the views of a fervent opponent of mass politics and partisan of subtle ideas, Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s aesthetic turn was forged when supporters of the Tsar murdered his father, a Russian politician. His family, persecuted by Russian Communists as well as Tsarists, fled to Germany in 1922 only to flee the Nazis in 1937. “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. . . . I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth,” Nabokov audaciously proclaimed.4 “I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions,” he wrote.5

As part of his renunciation of Communism and rejection of using literature for political and social transformation, Trilling published an “attack on the conception of literature as power, whether religious, social, or scientific.” He was “coming out for literature as contemplation, as an end in itself,” Kimmage explained.6 Nabokov aggressively advocated this view, arguing that “a work of fiction exists only in so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss,” and calling novels written primarily with a social or political purpose “topical trash.”7 After his aesthetic turn, Trilling came to share this view—though perhaps to a less extreme extent—asserting that “Wordsworth was writing very poor poetry during the time of his revolutionary sympathies and very good poetry when he gave them up.”8 Chambers, too, though he remained more political than Trilling or Nabokov, shifted his literary style from writing poems and short stories that amounted to Party propaganda, to telling his own, individual story with Witness. In this Chambers resembles the main character of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus C., who, facing execution for the mere fact that he dares to have a private self, desperately pours out his personal thoughts and struggles in writing while in prison.

Nabokov did not fully reject that idea that good fiction could have a political message. By his own admission, Invitation to a Beheading represented an “absolutely final indictment of Russian and German totalitarianism.”9 Yet this book opposes totalitarianism by appealing to the sanctity of the individual in all his or her complex, beautiful, infinite details, rather than by appealing to general formulas of political justice or calling for social action. Similarly, Trilling’s indictment of Communism, his novel, The Middle of the Journey, celebrates the individual with an artistic rather than a political sense through the character Laskell. According to Kimmage, “Laskell is politically weak because he is culturally alive. . . . Laskell is sensitive to beauty, culture, and love.”10 Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C.is also politically weak. His only protest against his imprisonment and execution is to repeat “by myself, by myself,” when robbed of his independence or to simply say “I can’t breath,” when suffocated by the oppressive attack on his individualism.11 Yet Cincinnatus is culturally alive. He is sensitive to love and, above all, has an artistic spirit that his tormentors cannot tame or kill. Cincinnatus desires what Chambers strove for by moving to a secluded farm in Maryland: a private self beyond the group, state, or Party organization. “In my heart of hearts I hate machines, and I hate a mechanistic civilization,” Chambers wrote, essentially expressing Nabokov’s reason for writing fiction.12 Chambers’ turn toward religion, particularly Quakerism with its focus on the “inner light” in each individual, also illustrates his shift from faith in social organization to faith only in the individual soul.

In his short story, The Other Margaret, Trilling depicts a naïve middle class girl trying to explain the injustice of punishing her maid for stealing. “It’s not her fault. She couldn’t help it. Society–” the girl exclaims. “But at that big word,” Trilling writes, “she halted, unable to handle it.”13 Although Kimmage interpreted this short story as a conservative endorsement of middle class values, more intriguing—and representing a bigger break from Communist Party ideology—is Trilling’s mockery of those who think in large, political terms with their cant about “society.” Politics, whether liberal or conservative, deal with general ideas and and social solutions to social problems. In The Other Margaret, Trilling not only rejected Leftist arguments, he called into question the value of social and political thinking altogether.

That Kimmage labeled this shift in ideology a “conservative turn” suggests, perhaps, that in 2009 he wanted to tell a story with significance for the rise of Neoconservativism, the Reagan Revolution, and today’s right-wing resurgence. Through his sensitive use of literature, however, Kimmage brings to light what was actually an aesthetic, apolitical turn. The dichotomy between the social or political and the individual or aesthetic, reflected in Vladimir Nabokov’s views on the purpose of writing fiction, constitutes as significant a force in history as the dichotomy between Left and Right. Like Nabokov, Triling, and Chambers, historians, too, can make an aesthetic turn and analyze the individual and aesthetic rather than the social and political, producing work that will have value beyond current political trends. By making use of literature in the ways Kimmage does in The Conservative Turn, historians can further explore arguments against general ideas and social action, as well as other themes in history that might become clearer with more attention to the important human act of reading fiction.

1Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn (Harvard University Press: Cambridge and London, 2009), 25.

2Kimmage, 33, 42, 46.

3Kimmage, 7.

4Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1973), 33.

5Nabokov, 16.

6Kimmage, 133.

7Nabokov, “On a Book entitled Lolita” published in Lolita (Random House, Inc.: New York, 1997), 315.

8Kimmage, 73, 74.

9Nabokov, Strong Opinion, 156.

10Kimmage, 196.

11Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (Random House, Inc.: New York, 1989), 221, 146.

12Kimmage, 39.

13Kimmage, 179.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fascinating post, Rivka.

    This passage from Andrew Jewett’s book (which I just finished reading, like, twenty minutes ago) seems apropos here:

    After World War II, the humanities became more visible, more influential, and friendlier to modern industrial society. Their practitioners – the Great Books and Book-of-the-Month advocates, the extollers of Western civilization, the middlebrow defenders of modernism for the masses – stepped into the cultural role that leading human scientists had long claimed for themselves. These humanists, who stood at a much safer distance from Marxian materialism and determinism than did the human scientists, took up the task of sustaining American democracy by shaping the culture at large. They claimed the ability to advance the cause of freedom by introducing Americans to great artistic movements and traditions of humanistic learning. Meanwhile, they repeatedly denied that science could speak to the normative questions at stake in postwar politics. Not all humanists adopted this project, by any means. Lionel Trilling and many other disaffected champions of modernist literature had become deeply suspicious of ordinary citizens by the 1950s. Yet in the universities, the torch of democratic culture-building clearly passed from human scientists to humanists. The arts and literature, and the humanists who interpreted them, emerged as major sources of authority in a society whose citizens were self-consciously assuming cultural leadership of the West. (pp. 229-230)

    In this chapter Jewett describes an interesting affinity between the humanities and the natural sciences, one that often is missed in the usual “two cultures” scenario: both the laboratory scientists and the humanists began to exalt/affirm individual creativity, the idea of the scientist (or artist) pursuing knowledge/art for its own sake, regardless of its usefulness/value. This was a rebuke — or at least an alternative — to the political engagement of the social sciences, which were viewed as “insufficiently value-neutral” (230) and too friendly to, or at least compatible with, socialism, and with the peril of the masses. The worry driving the aesthetic/apolitical turn was that a focus on the usefulness of knowledge “threatened to reduce it to an instrument of prevailing social norms, thereby eliminating its capacity to serve as a model of democratic freedom” — democratic freedom being best represented in/by “the absolute freedom of the individual as the very heart and soul of democracy” (231).

    The argument that the aesthetic turn (and other turns of the Cold War, e.g., the turn to consensus) was not an apolitical gesture, but a very political one, is familiar enough. What was interesting/new about Jewett was that he showed a common “ideal type” underlying the humanistic and research-scientistic projects.

    I think this could be especially interesting/fruitful line of inquiry to pursue in the case of Nabokov, given his fairly serious and sustained engagement with biological science (lepidoptery, specifically). Nabokov may be a kind of aesthetic canary in the coal mine (or butterfly in the specimen drawer?) instantiating and exemplifying the basic coherence of this parallel turn by (presumably) discrete epistemic fields.

  2. This is really, really fascinating stuff Rivka. And I think what you’ve done here is really important. As you said above, it’s always important for historians to shy away from letting their work simply speak to the time period in which they live.

    And what I really find fascinating is coming at this as a person who has a creative writing background. When pursuing my BA in that field, we weren’t really told to write politically–in fact, most folks shied away from it. That, primarily, was due to wanting to write short stories, poems, etc., that delved a bit deeper and spoke to something within the human condition. Looking at what people like Nabokov and Trilling were doing, I consider it quite likely that these ideas have become very important to some fiction writers even today.

    It also reminds me of the old debate that raged for decades (and I suppose never really ended) among African American writers. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray both tried to stay away from openly political writing, and tried to pursue art more for its own sake. A caveat there, though: both writers, to some extent, were political, in the sense that they were trying to show how African American writing was, simply, American writing. Perhaps that isn’t political so much as its something deeper tied to identity, but nonetheless they both rejected what, say, James Baldwin was doing in the late 1960s and 1970s. It’s also interesting to note that Baldwin’s writing has, for the most part, been condemned as too political, and thus not as good, in this later phase of his life and career (although this opinion, like any other that was taken as common knowledge for some time, is starting to be criticized).

    How does one respond to totalitarianism? It seems for Nabokov, Trilling, and Chambers, the answer was to simply embrace individual spirit, drive, and freedom. I do like this idea of getting beyond liberal and conservative; if anything, it may open up options to understand how *moderate” people operate in history. Just a thought I’ve had more and more recently.

  3. Fun post, Rivka. I like the Kimmage book a lot and am glad you’re writing about it here.

    A couple of questions about your desire to go “beyond the tired political dichotomies of left and right, liberal and conservative.” Such a desire is a minority one in our profession and discipline, but it is a growing if still minority position in our sub-discipline of intellectual history. Why this compulsion? Why “tired”? I ask in all seriousness, because I don’t have such desires. It does, to me, seem like a return to the anti-ideological turn taken by the consensus thinkers, among whom Trilling was a member–an exceptionally gifted member, but a member nonetheless.

    • Upon reflection, most of the consensus thinkers whom we remember as such–Hofstadter, Schlesinger, Bell, etc–were “exceptionally gifted.” But Trilling seems different even still. Perhaps it’s his focus on literature rather than history or sociology.

    • Andrew, I won’t try to answer for Rivka, but it does seem to me that thinking narrowly in terms of political and ideological positions is a result of post-1960s turns in social thought–the collapse of the distinction between personal and political in New Left and feminist thought, and the notion of pervasive and ubiquitous power in thinkers like Foucault, as well as the critique of Cold War liberalism of the Bell/Schlesinger variety. The result was to say that politics was everywhere, so that the turn away from politics could be re-conceptualized as a fundamentally political act that was a form of false consciousness or denial of its own politics. At some level, of course, everything _is_ political, but it might also be political only in the most trivial way. The conflation of right/left politics with a generalized notion of ubiquitous politics tended to reduce claims about other matters–aesthetics, theology, philosophy, etc.–as positions in some kind of political battle. The result was to, in some sense, both diminish politics by making it everywhere, and simultaneously diminish concerns with a broader range of issues by making them politics by other means. To move past the tired politics of left and right, then, is to make it possible to talk about meaning and ideas in ways that are not reducible to stances in an on-going cultural battle.

  4. Great post, Rivka. Several thoughts came to my mind while reading this.

    You seem to be saying, or at least implying, that the drive to place intellectual developments within the context of ideological traditions can distort the significance of the former by merely playing out, again and again, the same divisions characterized by the latter. This has allowed historians up to Kimmage to overlook the apolitical project of aesthetics that loosely united Trilling and Chambers after their Communist phases. I see nothing wrong with expanding the list of important contexts or traditions or ideas (or however you want to phrase it) to include as semi-autonomous (as least heuristically) things like aesthetic, moral, and personal concerns as well as political.

    Ian Shapiro, a political theorist at Yale, makes a good point that relates to this matter, saying that while, yes, everything in human relations is political insofar as power and decisions are involved, not everything is politicized. That is, not all contexts or ideas are always seen as open to political maneuvering. Taking seriously that some of our subjects believed this and then following up this commitment with to answer how this impacted their works, lives, and those around them seems like one approach among many that could yield interpretive fruit.

    But I was also thinking about perhaps a different but related way of approaching how notions of beauty have impacted political thought. To phrase this in a question: What about reading how various figures have seen beauty in the political? Or, to expand that to include the flip-side of aesthetics, how various figures have read politics as “ugly?” I am not sure if answering these questions would help us “go beyond left and right divisions” in our readings of political thought. However, answering them might go a long way towards figuring out to what extent Kimmage’s “conservative turn” and the “aesthetic turn” you read in him have circulated in the very channels that Trilling and Chambers hoped to avoid.

  5. Well, I guess I’ll speak for all those “politics is everywhere” folks by saying that I find describing something that aims to refocus faith “only in the individual soul” as “apolitical” very confusing – especially since it was in reaction to an engagement with politics itself. So how does a rejection informed by that politics, itself remain clean or free of politics?

    I say free or clean of because there does seem, to me, to be a desire here to try to find a place, or space, away from the political – a place I guess, as a commenter pointed out, that is at least not politicized. I grant a lot of things are not clearly politicized – obviously – but to say they are actually apolitical is another thing entirely.

    Of course, a lot depends on your definition of political. And that’s where my confusion comes in because, as far as I can tell, the definition of politics at work here is “anything that clearly engages with political ideologies & political parties,” which, to me, is a definition so narrow as to make its use rather limited and its meaning rather empty; which is interesting, of course, because others clearly think it is the *expansive* definition of politics which renders it useless, or trivial. I understand the concern, of course, with *reductive* analysis which makes everything simply an expression of the political, but that was never my understanding of the “politics is everywhere” position. My understanding was that everything – even those universals of the human condition which seem to stand outside of time & space, such as love, hate, or religious experience – is *informed* by the political, and contributes something to its hues and tones. I suppose it is easy enough to find a simpleminded materialist analysis to juxtaposition one’s position to, but I don’t think it accurately represents the best work done by people dubious that something like your subject matter here can really be regarded as apolitical – especially as many would agree, I imagine, that it should not be exclusively, or narrowly, understood as political (or at least I would, although I haven’t written any “best work”!)

    And just to close with a question that I think points to some of the assumptions I see going on here; why would we assume that explicitly political material can not “have value beyond current political trends”? This seems to imply that politics, which is represented solely as a temporal, historically specific phenomenon (rather than *also* something as constant to human nature as love of beauty) is somehow secondary to a project of spiritually, or self-knowledge, or aesthetics, or whatever. (The above commenter was also hinting at this; why is politics treated as a contaminant in some discourse, and as beautiful in others?) It is an odd thing to casually assert when much of the “great books” canon, so much talked about at this blog, consists of texts which were, in their times, explicitly or very implicitly political; and yet we still read them today, both for their historical content, yes, but also how they somehow have held water, have held their philosophical/spiritual/whatever-you-want-to-call-it value – and often not *despite* their politics, but because of them! It just seems to me that there is an implicit treating of politics going on here which assumes they are trivial & contaminating; and if that’s your position, that’s alright, but it needs to be argued for and engaged with directly rather than just popping up its head in asides which do not, on their own, support themselves.

    • Robin. Interesting issues raised here in terms of the nature and historicity of the political. I won’t speak for Rivka even though her and I have had many conversations on this matter and I think from those, as well as just the text of this post alone, that she is not denigrating politics. She seems to be more interested in understanding why figures who were immersed in what even a narrow definition would call “politics” would want to escape politics and how we might take that move seriously on its own terms. I read this post as trying to ask new types of questions of old sources in order to reveal trends in intellectual history that can get overlooked when the focus is primarily on political issues, however we define the scope and nature of those. It is not that politics is unimportant; it is just that other concerns–like aesthetics and the sense of, what, transcendence maybe that sometimes go along with them–are important, too.

      I am not quite sure what you are saying in a few parts, though, and I was wondering if you could clarify.

      I was confused on this part where you say: “This seems to imply that politics, which is represented solely as a temporal, historically specific phenomenon (rather than *also* something as constant to human nature as love of beauty) is somehow secondary to a project of spiritually, or self-knowledge, or aesthetics, or whatever. (The above commenter was also hinting at this; why is politics treated as a contaminant in some discourse, and as beautiful in others?)”

      I was a bit unclear as to how you were characterizing my position. I am not quite sure if I agree with the sense I am getting of how you interpret my post. In other words: What do you take me to be hinting at?

      I am also not sure about what it means for everything to be “informed by the political.” Do you take this statement, definition whatever it maybe, to be an objective truth that stretches across time and place? If so, does that mean that people who think otherwise are just suffering from false-consciousness? Or is this truth also informed by the political, definition pending, and therefore contingent and constructed, its causal importance waxing and waning depending on context?

      I think that the bigger question here, however, is what do we all mean when we talk about “the political?” (I guess I am posing this directly to you Robin, but it is also an open question.) Is the meaning we assume that of our actors? Or are historians more likely to import what they mean by the political from sources like critical theory and political philosophy? If so, what is meant when we talk politics?

      Finally, can’t someone agree that the political is a key category of human experience and still try to understand how other categories or expressions of various forms of said experience are distinct from it? ( I take you to be saying this but do not want to mischaracterize.) If so, might there be times where questions we could call political are the most interesting and others where other types of questions, like those of aesthetics or morality or causality, are more so? This not because the political is a priori and universally degrading, in need of being quarantined so that “higher things” won’t contaminated. But rather, because framing a specific project around these sorts of questions might not yield a study with anything particularly new to say on the topic?

  6. Robin Marie: ” I understand the concern, of course, with *reductive* analysis which makes everything simply an expression of the political, but that was never my understanding of the “politics is everywhere” position. My understanding was that everything – even those universals of the human condition which seem to stand outside of time & space, such as love, hate, or religious experience – is *informed* by the political, and contributes something to its hues and tones.”

    There is a kind of slippage that happens in these arguments. Having ceded that politics is ubiquitous, the claim is then made that attention to the political facet of a text or phenomenon is necessary for its understanding. No one, apparently, feels that the converse is true. That is to say, if I say that there is an aesthetic or epistemological facet to all cultural phenomena–which, I hope we could agree is just about as true as the statement about politics–hardly anyone thinks it’s a reasonable criticism to point out that X’s analysis of Walter Lippmann’s political writings (for instance) neglects its aesthetic dimension and fails to adequately discuss the text’s implicit stance on underlying matters of beauty and form. In fact, the reasonable response to such criticism would be that these matters are not relevant to the questions that X is asking about Lippmann and the significance of his work for the history of political theory. What this tells me is that the “politics is everywhere” position may insist on the subtlety of its analytic perspective, but it is actually committed to a metaphysical claim about the priority of matters of power that lie behind or beneath apparently other kinds of phenomena. Else they would be willing to entertain the “epistemology is everywhere” argument on equal terms. The pragmatic approach would be to say that relevance of matters of power (or aesthetics, or epistemology) would lie in the kinds of questions you are posing and trying to answer. By insisting on bringing the question always back to power–to the always and ever presence of the political–the advocates of this anti-pragmatic position, it seems to me, to be committed to a fairly narrow definition of reality. And, that, of course, has its own political implications!

  7. FWIW, I was rambling at my blog this morning about Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 as a text that is (for me, anyhow) all tangled up with power and aesthetics and epistemology — the aesthetics of power, the power of aesthetics, and the (historical? persistent?) epistemic claims of/for “the academy” as either the arbiter or the exemplar of truth/beauty and the politics thereof:


    They that have power to hurt and will do none,
    That do not do the thing they most do show,
    Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
    Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
    They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
    And husband nature’s riches from expense;
    They are the lords and owners of their faces,
    Others but stewards of their excellence.
    The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
    Though to itself it only live and die,
    But if that flower with base infection meet,
    The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

    It’s a great sonnet, and was among those that were, it seems, frequently assigned by one of the more genial and genteel combatants in the 1980s canon debate. I think it is thematically, if not historically, concerned with some of the questions raised above [can I get away with a claim like that?!], which are also some of the questions raised in the 1980s: Is power (politics) necessarily or always ugly? When is it not ugly? Can power/politics be beautiful? Can someone immersed in the milieu of power be unaffected by its ugliness (or beauty)? Does wielding power necessarily mean forfeiting beauty (or sweetness, or goodness)? Can the power of beauty (if it can have power and still be beauty) be understood as anything other than a function of politics? Can power ever be anything but unseemly or unkind? What is the role of the academy in posing these questions? Where are its commitments? To power? To beauty? Does the academy make beauty powerful, or does it make power beautiful? Both?

    In any case, aesthetics, politics, and epistemic claims were all tangled up in the debate about the canon, and they were also (not coincidentally, I think) tangled up in many of the texts that made up the “canon” that was being debated. (Shakespeare, BTW, was *not* on the list of required texts in Stanford’s “great books” course. Go figure.)

    One thing this post has prompted me to think about is how often the distinguishing feature of certain texts (what made them “worth” teaching, for some) was framed in terms of the texts’ power — their power to transcend their time, their power to move the reader, their power (I suppose) to provide a refuge from power relations, a power which justified (for some) their inclusion on a syllabus, which is an instantiation of the almost incalculable institutional power of the university as an arbiter of access, downsized to fit on a list you can fold up and put in your pocket.

    It’s a lot to think about, and none of my thinking at present gives me much comfort. But maybe that’s all right. Anyway, I hope someone besides me sees the connection I’m trying to make to the above post/discussion.

  8. Glad to see there is more discussion going on here! Here we go! : )


    Thanks for these questions. I’ll try to take them in order.
    I think I am not entirely clear on what Rivka was trying to do here; I know that she was explaining how her subjects were trying to get “beyond the political,” but she also seemed to be implying that they succeeded in doing so; or, at the least, that since their project as they conceived it was “apolitical,” it is problematic for historians to disregard this and “impose” their own interpretation by referring to this “turn” as conservative. Probably more the latter. But I think this is a perfectly acceptable thing for scholars to do. More on this in a moment.

    Your statement about other things being important – which of course, I agree that other things are important – kind of gets at how I see politics being positioned here though in a problematic way; because as you write, “aesthetics and the sense of, what, transcendence maybe that sometimes go along with them,” and as Rivka has written elsewhere, about the desire/hope to “transcend the political,” why is politics here appearing as the thing to be “transcended”? Why “beyond” conservatism rather than, you know, “something other than” or “in addition to” or “alongside” or “informing” conservatism/politics? That framing, to me, does “denigrate” politics, or marks it out as something to be gotten beyond, something contaminating to spirituality, whether or not that was purposefully intended. I mean what is out there, in this non-political space floating around “beyond” or “above” us? It seems to me that there is a deeply romantic/theological impulse here, and I just want to point this out, so it can be dealt with directly. And all I meant to say by referencing your comment was simply that you pointed out that this feeling about politics is not at all eternal, and in some places and times would seem rather odd.

    And yes, I am going to go ahead and talk crazy talk and say that I think things being informed by the political is a universal – but I don’t think it is as crazy a claim as it sounds, especially considering that we are dealing here with my expansive sense of the term. Consider that before we were even fully human, we had culture; and if you have culture, you have ideas about how to live together, what is fair and unfair, who rules, who doesn’t, etc. Politics is not the entirety of culture but I struggle to see how one comprises or takes part in a culture without dipping into politics at least a bit. At least I’ve never seen a compelling example of it.

    Now as for false consciousness, I feel like this is such a problematic term in academic discussions because you know, it is obviously bad. (Maybe you don’t think it is obviously bad but, 9 times out of 10 that is how it operates, or is received, at least, by those being questioned about it). Thomas Frank doesn’t know what he is talking about with Kansas and so on and so forth. But in a way it is a rather sophisticated term – and the wrong one, at that – for something we all know, which is simply that sincerity is not the same thing as accuracy. I steal this phrase from someone on Crooked Timber, writing about how post-war suburban northern whites sincerely did not think they were racist; they really believed they just, you know, wanted to maintain the quality and safety of their neighborhoods, etc, etc. But I don’t think many of us now take seriously the idea that they weren’t racist. That many people are driven by motives they are not entirely aware of, and contribute to trends in ways they do not completely own up to or recognize, seems incredibly obvious to me. I don’t think that quite rises to the level of false consciousness, because that involves acting or believing specifically against your interests as they are defined by Marxist analysis, and that’s definitely problematic – on the contrary, in terms of preserving the status gained from whiteness or patriarchy or whatever, I would say a lot of people described as having “false consciousness” (at least in this country) have no such thing; but, that still doesn’t mean that they are the best judges of their own motivations. People self-deceive all the time; we all know this in interpersonal relations, but somehow it becomes illegitimate as an insight for historical analysis. So while Rivka’s subjects here apparently certainly did think they were being anti-political, or apolitical, or whatever, that is not a reason, in and of itself – although it certainly is interesting and important for other reasons – to believe them.

    And finally, I am also myself quite confused here about what is meant by “the political” or “anti-political” – but that has a lot to do with the difficultly I have of conceiving of individualism, with its deep roots in the Western tradition of political thought and political ethics, as apolitical. It just doesn’t make any sense to me, historically speaking.

    @Dan: “No one, apparently, feels that the converse is true.” Well, except for you and Rivka of course! In all honesty, I do recognize that in terms of what you’re interested in emphasizing, you are in the minority, so as far as that goes, you have a right to complain. And if politics are everywhere, aesthetics equally so – but to me, this just suggests the impossibility of separating them entirely, so the challenge becomes how to talk about both without implying only one matters. Insofar as we all suck at that, I think it’s a fair criticism. But, for those who “insist on bringing the discussion back to power,” I certainly agree it is political!, and my experience is that this is usually owned-up to, recognized, grappled with, or embraced by those so insisting (but granted, I hang out with a bunch of overtly committed lefty grad students so, maybe that’s not the norm elsewhere); on the other hand, trying to find a space “beyond” or “other-than” or “independent” or whatever from politics is *also* political, and yet, those who gravitate towards this work often cast themselves, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, as somehow not also pursuing politics; it’s everyone else who is being political/ideological!, not them. (As though, they seem to assume, that admitting its political implications and content would delegitimize the work; on the contrary, I think it would make it far more interesting.) This is why, as Andrew pointed out above, it starts to look a lot like consensus school history at times. I find this highly problematic.

    @LD: Reading your thoughts about when, or how, politics is not ugly clarified something for me; while indeed, I use the term politics to refer to ideas about and arrangements of power, I don’t think of it as always the equivalent of *having* power. Many people & texts, indeed, are deeply political without being in much power, or having much power. When I say I am confused by the framing of getting “beyond” politics or “transcending politics,” I mean to remind us that political values are as deeply human as say, love of beauty; and as such, they are part of many beautiful, as well as ugly, human projects. To remind ourselves of this all we have to think of is our favorite, most deeply felt political text; maybe MLK’s last speech, maybe something Thomas Paine wrote, maybe even music from the 1960s. I don’t think many of us actually walk around experiencing politics as something that is the opposite of spirituality and beauty, as something heavy that keeps us tied down and prevented from “transcending,” and yet, we sometimes talk in this way.

    In other words, if I ever “transcended politics,” I wouldn’t recognize myself as fully human; and, consequentially, I have no desire to ever do so. But of course, that’s just me, neither here nor there in terms of convincing anyone; but, “just me” is always lurking in the text, right?

    • Robin Marie–
      I think you misread me. I can’t speak for Rivka (insofar as we are lumped together on this), but my point was not to take the converse of “politics is everywhere” (e.g. aesthetics is everywhere) as an excuse to insist that someone studying explicitly political thought needs to attend to its aesthetics, or that aesthetics are somehow essentially pre-political and universal. My point was the opposite. I’m fine saying that while every statement is epistemological in some sense, for instance, there is no reason to insist that analysts return to the epistemological dimension of the phenomena when the questions they are attempting to address lie elsewhere. I think it’s reasonable to hold those who insist that every move is fundamentally political to the same standard, and ask why they seem so intent on providing a political critique for the failure to deal with politics. And, as I suggested, I think it’s because this mode of analysis assumes that politics are everywhere in a more fundamental way than aesthetics or epistemology are everywhere. It is a metaphysical claim rooted in notions of universality and primacy of one sphere of human relations over others. So, while everybody is an anti-essentialist, an historicist, a respecter of contingency and accident, behind all of that lies a commitment to the universal primacy of the political. Otherwise, I think, there would be a willingness to accept the idea that it’s equally legitimate to ask, say, the historian writing on New Deal economic policy why he/she isn’t attending to the aesthetic dimension. I don’t think this is a valid criticism of the author writing on New Deal economic policy–in fact, it’s an attempt to derail the focus of that author on addressing some very specific questions about politics and economics. I would hope that the “everything is politics” group would accord the same respect to those who are trying to ask other kinds of questions.

      I guess I think the reason this is unlikely to be attended to is that I think the distinction has been eroded between phenomena being political in the trivial sense and political in the explicit and serious sense of organized struggles over power. Once one sees ideology everywhere, when ideology in the strong sense appears, its distinctiveness has been diminished, and it tends to appear as simply another instance. In other words, I think the politics of “politics is everywhere” has the ironic effect of diminishing the significance of politics.

      I don’t really have anything to say about the idea that some pure realm of human experience is “contaminated” by being associated with the political, expect that I don’t think anybody here was really saying that.

      • Right, this sounds like how I was reading you, more or less — so apparently I was not clear — but it definitely clarified, so thanks.

        I agree with your theoretical example of how it would not be appropriate to pester a historian of New Deal economics about aesthetics — but, in this particular case, here in this post, I’m just not convinced that it is coherent to talk about these projects as apolitical; in actuality, that is, not just intent. That’s just where I land. In other places, with other subjects, it has been more convincing.

        But yes, I was being lazy/hyperbolic with the “politics and/or aesthetics are everywhere” framing; I suppose I didn’t mean for it to be taken literately, but just as a way to position ourselves as somewhere else or other than that actual level of simplification.

        I do think, though, that some of what you might take to be “political in the trivial sense” I wouldn’t recognize as trivial at all, or at least not to the point of having that particular word come to mind. But, for another day.

        Finally, I don’t think anyone here has actually *claimed* that politics contaminates anything – that’s part of what I’m trying to point out, that things pop up in asides but aren’t unpacked — but there are problems, then, with our vocabulary, because talking about “reducing” anything to anything else, or, especially, “transcending” it, or going “beyond” it; well, these are loaded terms, I would argue, that set things up in a manner which one can be critical of.

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