U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (8/7/2014): Perlstein, Burke, Agamben, Green, and Marketing Great Books

1. Burke on Perlstein on Reagan

Check out Timothy Burke’s reflections on the long arc of Rick Perlstein’s study of post-WWII American conservatism—through Goldwater, Nixon, and, now, Reagan. Here are some of the lessons from Burke:

a) “Perlstein shows (and means to show) that postwar American conservatism has surprisingly extensive and complex social roots and that at least some of its social roots have a kind of genuine “from below” legitimacy. This might account for why his previous two books initially received appreciative readings from conservatives, in fact.”

b) “I think his account comprehensively rebukes…the kind of progressive response to right-wing political power that falls back on tropes like “astroturfing” or that otherwise assumes that conservatism is the automated, inorganic response of a dying demographic to the loss of social power, that there is nothing real to it or that its reality is simple and self-interested.”

c) “Focusing on astroturfing, even when it is undoubtedly happening and has significance for controlling dominant “framing” narratives that influence politics, is mostly an alibi for [the Left] not doing the much harder work of understanding what’s happening in the larger lived experience of communities and regions.”

d) “Stop assuming that postwar conservatism’s content is wholly protean or arbitrary. “Big government” in this sense may be in all sorts of ways a really messed-up construction that obscures the degree to which mostly-conservative voting districts are actually the enthusiastic recipients of all sorts of public money, but it’s not a random or senseless trope at its origin point, either, …”

e) “Perlstein is very good on [contingency]…when he’s talking about political elites, politicians and party leaders, that the ways in which the fusion of popular and party agendas happened was full of false starts, unpredictable gambits, and improvisations.”

f) “Progressives today habitually underestimate the historicity, rootedness and local authenticity of what they regard as conservatism.”

Please go and read Burke’s post. And thanks to Ben Alpers for reminding me to read piece!

2. Giorgio Agamben Interview–on “The Courage of Hopelessness”

Learn something about Giorgio Agamben through Juliette Cerf’s interview with him, at the VersoBooks Blog. The occasion is the publication of a new Agamben work. Two questions and Agamben’s answers (translated from French):

Cerf: Theology plays a very important role in your reflection today. Why is that?
Agamben: The research projects that I have recently undertaken have shown me that our modern societies, which claim to be secular, are, on the contrary, governed by secularised theological concepts, which act all the more powerfully because we are not conscious of their existence. We will never grasp what is going on today unless we understand that capitalism is, in reality, a religion. And, as Walter Benjamin said, it is the fiercest of all religions because it does not allow for atonement… Take the word ‘faith’, usually reserved to the religious sphere. The Greek term corresponding to this in the Gospels is pistis. A historian of religion trying to understand the meaning of this word was taking a walk in Athens one day, when suddenly he saw a sign with the words ‘Trapeza tes pisteos’. He went up to it, and realised that this was a bank: trapeza tes pisteos means: ‘credit bank’. This was illuminating enough.

Cerf: Is this vision of becoming human, in your works, not rather pessimistic?
Agamben: I am very happy that you asked me that question, since I often find that people call me a pessimist. First of all, at a personal level, that is not at all the case. Secondly, the concepts pessimism and optimism have nothing to do with thought. Debord often cited a letter of Marx’s, saying that ‘the hopeless conditions of the society in which I live fill me with hope’. Any radical thought always adopts the most extreme position of desperation. Simone Weil said ‘I do not like those people who warm their hearts with empty hopes’. Thought, for me, is just that: the courage of hopelessness. And is that not the height of optimism?

3. The Teaching of Teaching

Joe Nocera ponder Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). Something for us:

Green’s book is about a more recent effort, spearheaded by a small handful of teaching revolutionaries, to improve the teaching of teaching. The common belief, held even by many people in the profession, that the best teachers are “natural-born” is wrong, she writes. The common characteristic of her main characters is that they have broken down teaching into certain key skills, which can be taught.

“You don’t need to be a genius,” Green told me recently. “You have to know how to manage a discussion. You have to know which problems are the ones most likely to get the lessons across. You have to understand how students make mistakes — how they think — so you can respond to that.” Are these skills easier for some people than others? Of course they are. But they can be taught, even to people who don’t instinctively know how to do these things.

4. Marketing Great Books

This one is for me. At the New Republic, Hillary Kelly reviews “the most iconic, important Penguin paperback covers of all time.” Here argument? “While the iconic orange stripes and simple sans serif typeface are perhaps the most indelible feature of the Penguin paperback, the examples below prove that with its evolution, Penguin has continued to push the boundaries of what makes a book cover smart, coveted, and collectible.” Check out the covers. Very cool. I think I love them all. – TL

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I too really enjoyed that Agamben interview at Verso. There’s lots of good Agamben-related stuff happening at http://itself.wordpress.com/ , a wonderful site that is mostly dedicated to contemporary philosophy and left theology; Adam Kotsko there is translating another Agamben text and blogging about it a bit. Catching up on my own Agamben-related back reading, I discovered that one of his recurrent interests is Clinton Rossiter. Worlds collide!

    • Thanks for that link, Kurt. My knowledge of Agamben is very limited and introductory—from two vectors. My philosopher coauthor on a book project is very familiar with Agamben and has incorporated his thinking into his half of our project. Other than that, I had begun to run across his name in my deeper explorations of Critical Theory. But, I’d love for someone to explain to me (talk to me like teacher) WHY one should know Agamben’s work and thought. I ask this, in the vein of CT, as applied to my thinking about the past and the present. Why should he matter to historians, and why does he matter to the present predicament. – TL

  2. Reading “The Invisible Bridge,” I am finding myself comparing it to the earlier works. Now, I haven’t gotten too far into it–am enjoying it greatly–but I wonder how much he’ll delve into liberalism in the 1970s? I know the story of American conservatism is very important in this period, but I think there’s still a great deal also left to be said about American liberalism in this period. Of course I’ll read on and see what he has to say!

    • Robert: Have you read Perlstein’s work on Goldwater and Nixon? I’m wondering if I should buy the trilogy, given Burke’s reflections. Otherwise, I’m 100 percent with you on the need for more historical exploration of the contours of mid and late-twentieth-century American-style liberalism. – TL

  3. Although I used Perlstein’s “Before the Storm” for my dissertation (and loved it), “Nixonland” was a huge disappointment to me. It was much less carefully researched and written and relied far too heavily on non-archival sources (newspapers and television, in particular). Reviews of “The Invisible Bridge” seem mixed, but why is no one talking about the degradation of the series as a whole? Am I the only one who is upset with the quality of recent Perlstein’s scholarship?

    • I think the Sam Tanenhaus review in the upcoming “Atlantic” issue makes a similar critique.

      I liked both “Before the Storm” and “Nixonland”, although I can see your point about the non-archival sources. On the other hand, considering what Perlstein is trying to do–to ground the reader in how people experienced the 1960s and 1970s–I can see why he uses television and newspaper sources.

      Also I like his use of television–I think far too many scholars who study the latter half of the century don’t use it nearly enough as a source! But, to each his own. I’m currently reading through “The Invisible Bridge” right now, and I think the one critique I agree with so far is that there seems to be too much Reagan biography here–but so it goes.

  4. Okay, one last point about Perlstein’s book and Campbell’s excellent critique: I wonder how this book looks WITH archival sources? As we all know, sources can greatly change how one regards a historical narrative.

    I think what I’m really saying is, I need to finish the book before I attempt any substantial critiques!

  5. Last things first: I am a Perlstein fan and am looking very forward to cracking the spine of the Reagan book… but there is no question that RP is interested in reaching a wide, mostly non-academic audience, and that will be a turn-off for some of us within the profession. The slide towards different kinds of sources can be best explained, I think, by the fact that the Goldwaterites were a classic political sect, with extensive private archives and great enthusiasm for telling their stories. The Nixonians were a different breed.

    In any event, the Goldwater book tells us many things we cannot find elsewhere; the Nixon book, less so; the Reagan book (I imagine) least so. Its pleasures, I anticipate, will be synthetic and literary. Perlstein is our best writer in this vein since Gore Vidal, and I think the world is better with such writers than without them.


    Re: Tim’s question of why read Agamben? This is an excellent question–it’s one I have gone over, even, with friends who, like me, have read a lot of Agamben. Why are we reading this stuff? (the angst derives from: a) frustration with the sometimes gothic pessimism of Agamben’s style, and b) the sunday school flashbacks that they trigger for some).

    On the one hand, Agamben is like Derrida. He takes his cues, in the broad sense, from Heidegger, and he writes in a beautiful, poetic way about fascinating things.

    On the other hand, Agamben is a much more original *political* thinker than Derrida (for a satisfying Derridaean politics, one really has to turn to his readers, like Judith Butler or Samuel Weber).

    What does Agamben contribute to political theory? First, he is the most articulate interpreter of the thought of Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist whose realist revision of notions of sovereignty, the state of siege, and the origins of power seem to have predicted our current moment. Agamben reads Schmitt with the late Foucault (the Foucault of bio-politics) to produce a new image of what it is to be a subject of the contemporary state (or worse) a subject of no state at all. For this reason alone, Agamben should be read.

    Second, Agamben is a profound thinker about the ontology of the law. His thinking about this question leads to illuminating disquisitions on theology, Church law, and Roman jurisprudence that–at least for this vulgar Americanist–opened up all sorts of new vistas. At this point, I think everyone writing about law, policing, justice, medical ethics, etc. should read Agamben.

    Finally, Agamben (like Derrida) is one of the key contemporary left/theoretical readers of the New Testament. My own biblical reading expertise ends somewhere around Hosea, so I cannot vouch for the quality of his interpretation of, say, Paul. It seems good to me! So in pure intellectual historical terms, Agamben might be seen as indispensable as part of a broad trend (Badiou, Zizek, Derrida, Ted Jennings, many others) towards left/Marxist/poststructuralist interest in the Christian Bible and Patristic literature. As a tourist/voyeur, I find this turn illuminating, fascinating, thought-provoking, etc.

  6. Agamben, Schmitt, and the Foucault of bio-politics have had an influence on one corner of the Int’l Relations literature — it’s visible for example in journals such as International Political Sociology.

    I have mixed feelings about how Agamben, Schmitt, and Foucault are used in IR. If one is writing about e.g. Guantanamo and other aspects of ‘the war on terror’, or immigration and border control, or the NSA etc., I can see that Schmitt and the other two cast some light. But often in these pieces one has to wade through some pretty bad prose to get whatever insights are there.

    Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read enough of the originals. I’ve read some Foucault (e.g. the lectures in Security, Territory, Population) but not Agamben or Schmitt (except little bits of the latter). So maybe one problem is I’m getting Agamben in particular at second hand.

    Be that as it may, I find, glancing at the Verso interview excerpts above, Agamben’s remarks about optimism and pessimism having “nothing to do with thought” to be wrong. It sounds hip and paradoxical — hopelessness is the height of optimism, etc. — but it suggests to me someone who is unattuned to a fairly important aspect of the history of political and social thought. The notion that you can understand, e.g., Robert Owen or Fourier (or Condorcet or prob. Rousseau, for that matter) without the category of optimism seems peculiar. Conversely, if something like Civilization and Its Discontents is not pessimistic, I don’t know what it is. Obviously optimism and pessimism are limited and often crude categories, but the position that they are not useful categories at all for the discussion of social/political theory — which is a clear implication of Agamben’s statements in that interview — seems wrong, to me at any rate.

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