On The Accusation Of Totalitarianism

(x-posted to The Valve)

(Update: all links should be working now.)

It has become commonplace, these days, to associate numerous kinds of thought with totalitarianism. This, in itself, is remarkable, considering the legacy of totalitarianism. To call a thinker totalitarian is to suggest a close sympathy between their work and the history of genocide and bloody repression that includes the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulags.

Truly totalitarian writing is an accessory to violence, to murder, and to every other kind of misery that a governed people can undergo. If a substantial allegation of this kind were made about my writing, I would have no choice except to submit to the most painful and unrelenting kind of self-scrutiny, in the face of the possibility that I had turned out to be the monstrous inverse of my hopes and values. Do not imagine that this kind of anguish has anything to do with ordinary self-awareness: we are talking about a slim chance of escaping lifelong purgatory.

Instead, the accusation is becoming devalued, as if it was a coin minted too plentifully, and distributed too widely. It is nothing besides a standard tool for winning academic arguments. That does not mean that it is ineffectual, however. The cheap, inflated form of the argument about totalitarianism has very successfully undermined the academy’s ability to create functional alternatives to violence and oppression.


The charge of totalitarianism was recently leveled against Scott Kaufman in a response to his article on the history of the codification of “theory” as a field of study and an adjunct to literary criticism. Eileen Joy, writing at In The Middle, wrote:

There is something eerily totalitarian in this wish—that, somehow, all theoretical discourses could be drawn under one eye, where everyone would be responsible and accountable to everyone else, but this also assumes a kind of high arbiter, or set of “higher” value judgments that would structure the inevitable debates. (Of course, the fact that Scott also invokes Hegel over and over again in the most positive of ways is also telling in this respect.)

Joy is referring to Scott’s desire (which she represents accurately) to re-create

a place/site, in other words, such as Critical Inquiry’s “Critical Responses” section, nostalgically drawn by Scott as lamentably “past,” where everyone could somehow gather and voice strong, yet weakly held, opinions and hold each other accountable.

I am happy to report that Joy almost immediately backed away from the term “totalitarian” in her subsequent comments, indicating that it was the result of writing under time pressure (inevitable, given the avocational nature of blogging). However, she did not back away from identifying Hegel with totalitarianism, and she did not cease to identify Scott’s project with a worrisome desire for a totality that seems still to be related to totalitarianism.

Joy’s post inspired Jodi Dean, at the blog Long Sunday, to write a response to Scott’s ideas despite (by her own admission) not having read Scott’s work in progress. In that post, Jodi wrote:

When one’s opponents are possessed of an inhuman certainty, when they are motivated to realize their vision of the world, to respond by saying that, really, they need to demonstrate more humility is inadequate. That is not the way to defeat them. Instead, one needs to affirm the contest aspect of contestability, the aspect of struggle–force decides.

For Jodi, the necessary recourse to force is a consequence of the irreducibly incommensurate nature of belief, as it happens in the world:

For me, incommensurability isn’t something one is committed to or not. It’s a description of the world (I prefer the term collapse of symbolic efficiency) that one can try to refute, resolve, deny, or accommodate. Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible.

Joy was impressed by Dean’s post, and annotated, in the comments section, the nature of the argument about force (sorry for the long quote, it’s necessary here):

But I would also say, to Rich, that while “we” literary critics, whether over at Acephalous or In The Middle or The Valve or elsewhere in the blogosphere are debating the importance of contestability or “strong opinions, weakly held” or incommensurability, that political theory scholars such as Jodi are engaged in debates about questions that pertain to situations with more [possibly fiercely detrimental] material effects: actual local and more globalized politics. I cannot speak for Jodi, but I have read her writings elsewhere and know that she has been willing to launch some critiques of weak ontology’s “weaknesses” [forgive the pun–is it even a pun?]. How, as political philosophy with [hopefully] real-world applications [never mind its utlity for the purposes of a more progressive set of theoretical debates among intellectuals] can it confront persons & groups who wield power and hold, often forcefully, “strong opinions, strongly held,” without humility, without postmodern forms of theoretical generosity? How, for example, would weak ontology, whether in White’s or Connolly’s terms, help us to argue with, even overturn, neoconservatism? How could it confront or alleviate the Russian government’s treatment of Chechens seeking redress for their “disappeared” [likely tortured and killed in secret] relatives? And so on and so forth.

I am reminded of a really funny scene in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” where Allen’s character is at a benefit party with a group of very sophisticated, artistic & intellectual types, and he asks if everyone has heard that a neo-Nazi supremacist-type group is going to be marching somewhere in New Jersey, and maybe they should all go there with bricks and bats, and this very obviously anemically pinched intellectual comments that he read a “really satirical” piece about it in the “Times,” really “biting satire,” etc., and Allen replies that he doesn’t know about “biting satire,” but he thinks bricks and bats would be a good idea.

Jodi responded thus:

Eileen–I like the Woody Allen example; sometimes there is a place for satire; sometimes for bricks and bats. In fact, I probably am taking the example too seriously (but I really like it), yet it seems that in politics we can’t actually choose between them categorically, that no matter what there arise times for each, despite and because of our best intentions.

In other words, this line of reasoning leads in a straight line from a denunciation of Scott’s imagined site of argumentation as totalitarian, to a fantasy of street violence as an effective response to hate speech.

Scott is accused, in Joy’s original post, of hoping to see the day when “certain geniuses would emerge out of this tensile field of discussion, theoretical muscles rippling,” the perpetrator of a masculinist ideal of “strength or lack thereof” (from a follow-up comment in which she demurs on “masculinist,” then immediately re-instates it in different words). However, in the comments at Long Sunday, Joy is accusing Scott of a “weak ontology” that is much too weak, and her final description of his article as “anemic” (in the comments section at In The Middle) echoes the “anemic” and “pinched” reader of satire from Manhattan. In the end, Scott is accused both of being too weak (via his anemic and weak ontology), and of being too strong, because of his supposed desire for totality.

Scott is advocating for the creation of new forums where academics with differing views can debate each other on the well-established, humanistic ground of reasoned argument. He would like to see them articulate their positions without their feeling obliged to assume a crippling deference to all prior theorists who have proved “useful” to this or that piece of literary criticism. When he says that such views should be “weakly held,” he means that all participants should recognize their obligation to admit the error if a logical inconsistency in their argument is exposed.

The response he has received is characteristic of the contemporary practical application of the ethical thought of Derrida and Levinas. Academics hazily define the opposition by conflating Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, the ascendant American far right, and smaller instances of terror around the world: “How, for example, would weak ontology, whether in White’s or Connolly’s terms, help us to argue with, even overturn, neoconservatism? How could it confront or alleviate the Russian government’s treatment of Chechens seeking redress for their “disappeared” [likely tortured and killed in secret] relatives? And so on and so forth” (from Joy’s comment at Long Sunday). Many academics try to formulate a response in terms of a practical ethics of alterity and incommensurability, drawing on the work of Derrida and Levinas, among others.

However, the provocative force of American conservatism, and of persistent totalitarian practices around the world, has distorted the meaning of a politics of alterity, whose only real ethical possibility was as an ever-more gentle mode of deference towards others, of the sort disclosed in the poetry of e. e. cummings. As it is used now, incommensurability is the foundation of a hysterical academic ideology that proposes violence as a means of compensating for its own self-contempt and uncertainty. The apparent vigor of “force decides” and “bricks and bats” covers for the definitive anxiety “of saying that nothing is certain, that certainty is an inhuman element” (from Jodi’s post).

Force decides nothing, if we are to understand force in terms of the bloody destruction of human beings, with bricks and bats, or any other way. That is certainly how the Bush Administration understands force: the use of force indicates where the line is drawn between those with whom we can communicate, and those others whose beliefs are simply incommensurate with ours.

I see force a little differently. I see force as the proper term for the willingness to endure in belief in the face of terror, and the refusal to be goaded into a symmetrical response. In that sense, Allen’s character is wrong about satire, which is not surprising since he is a character in a satiric film. The satires of homophobia by Jean Genet have force. The satires of racism within the African-American community have force. The Master and the Margarita, a satire of the Soviet state by Mikhail Bulgakov, has force.

I don’t believe for a moment that any of the respondents in this debate hold racist or anti-Semitic views. However, the larger debate over universality, of which this particular dispute is merely a symptom, brings clearly into focus the shape of the argument that sites of rational contestation are both too strong (because totalizing) and too weak (because anemic). Homologous to that argument, in anti-Semitic societies, is the argument that Jews are too strong (because they have secret power) and too weak (because they are parasites, moneylenders, and so forth). In racist societies, it is the person of color who is too strong, because primitive and brutal, and also too weak, because uneducable and servile. In all of these cases, the contradiction of “too weak and too strong” is necessary, in order to maintain a philosophy based on a false notion of the difference between oneself and the Other.

The reaction against universalist ideals of discourse is founded on an ontological claim about incommensurability, a fact which leads me back to Derrida’s essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics”:

Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. (Writing and Difference 91)

Derrida’s words, in my opinion, still have tremendous force. Ultimately, however, we decide how to understand them. We decide how to define genuine resistance in an uncertain and violent time, and how to avoid making common cause with oppression. Bricks and bats are not a means of defending in the “real world” a valid ideology that stands apart from them – they are ideology, and so are the true acts of defiance that put on weakness like a mask.