Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Research

In a recent discussion with a colleague, I was asked to articulate my current research interests, and I thought it would be worthwhile to expand and write down what I said.

In the first place, I am motivated by a certain fidelity to particular figures in the history of political philosophy--Marx and Aristotle, primarily--to defend the honor and virtue of their thinking. I believe that most and the most readily accessible interpretations of these thinkers are quite strikingly bad. I find Capital and the Nicomachean Ethics to be incredibly compelling works, but when I turn to the characterizations of these works that are found in much of the secondary literature or that function as shorthand in general discussions of political and ethical philosophy, I find them to be unintelligible or incoherent or banal.

I take this mismatch to be at least in part the consequence of Marx and Aristotle standing not merely outside but in opposition to the main current of modern political philosophy that stretches from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls and Habermas. It is Aristotle and Marx above all others who have served that tradition as enemies the denial of whom defines and cements the community of interlocutors. The refusal of Aristotle's politcal naturalism was just as necessary for early modern theorists of sovereignty, contract, and civil society, as the refusal of Marx has been for 19th and 20th century thinkers of liberalism, proceduralism, and the legal codification of rights.

This refusal comes at a price, since the modern conceptual framework that has grown up around the artifactual state (sovereignty, general will, property, claim rights, mechanisms of enforcement, representation, personality, etc.) functions as a grid of intelligibility, a set of landmarks by which to recognize and respond to theoretical assertions, but it is a grid that is largely alien to the thought of those refused thinkers, Aristotle and Marx.

Therefore, the first aspect of my research is merely to attempt to read Aristotle and Marx on their own terms, and to develop, to the extent that I am capable, a compelling account of their political thought that begins from those points where the modern grid of intelligiblity fails to grasp them. To some extent, this involves a sort of artificial naivite, an approach to their texts that seeks to identify and begin from the phenomena they themselves begin from, instead of taking any contemporary question or recognized problem as a beginning point and then seeking an answer or resolution in Marx or Aristotle. The latter method risks importing precisely the mainstream conceptual framework that I claim makes Marx and Aristotle so difficult to understand. To this extent, then, my method of reading must owe something to a sort of Heideggerian phenomenology that seeks first the pragmata of the text being read, attempting to suspend or bracket the questions and claims of mainstream political theory (basically, contemporary liberalism).

On the other hand, however--and this leads me to the second aspect of my research--the political theories of Marx and Aristotle are not simply outside modern liberalism, they are opposed to it. Therefore, there must be points of critical contact between the mainstream discourse and the discourses produced by Marx and Aristotle. Thus, at some point, the naivite must be put aside and the project of rediscovery must become a project of critique. Once Marx and Aristotle have been rearticulated to a certain level of concreteness, I feel the need to intervene in the contemporary mainstream in order to press on certain perceived weak spots in that discourse: its lingering technocratic flavor, its reduction of politics to the state with its laws and administrative functions, its reduction of all ruling to domination or the right to coerce, its assumption that needs and desires are pre-politically and privately articulated, etc.

As a particularization of this critical project--and this is the third and final aspect of my research--I am especially interested in political violence, both as a phenomenon and as a problem for liberal/modern political theory. You could say that the whole problematic of the modern state has been organized around the hypothesis that violence could be minimized or even eliminated by being concentrated or monopolized. A daring and dubious hypothesis!

Built into the modern political problematic are a host of such daring and dubious hypotheses: that violence is identical with coercion; that violence is therefore fundamentally a problem of the will (rather than of the body, or of life, or of measure, or...); that violence is therefore essentially a problem of the borders between soverign wills; that violence can only be authorized by a prior (necessarily unauthorized) violence; that legitimate (authorized) violence is not really violence at all (so, for example, the criminal wills his or her own punishment); that, therefore, violence as such (the unauthorized--but this is redundant--violation of a will) is always wrong and is to be reduced to an absolute minimum; that the wrongness of violence consists in its injustice (rather than its immoderation, its ugliness, its...). There are surely more.

Even some of the most cogent critics of modern political philosophy--I'm thinking of Arendt here--subscribe to the identificcation of violence with coercion, which seems to me to be entirely without justification (that is, I've never found anyone who even attempts to justify this identification, which is not to say that such a justification could not be given, just that no one seems to feel the need).

I think both Aristotle and Marx (and sundry post-Marx Marxists) approach violence with very different basic assumptions, and that the perspective afforded by these different assumptions might go a long way towards rethinking the place or non-place of violence in politics. I'll try to lay out some of these differnet assumptions in future posts.

Anyway, there we are: my research interests. Any thoughts, questions, pointers, criticisms?


Hasana said...

I think this looks exciting. Though I have to say that I am highly skeptical of the Heideggerian methodology, to the extent that I understand it. I don't think a text can just disclose itself to you if you listen attentively enough. Reading is always an encounter from which something emerges that is reducible neither to your subjectivity nor to the text's objectivity. Nevertheless, I think that the effort to resurrect these discourses as alternatives rather than supplements to contemporary theory is very important. A genuine encounter between traditions can only occur when the others can appear in their, as Foucault would say, singularity. Maybe that is part if his crypto-Heideggerianism...

Plechazunga said...

Very interesting.

1) In regards to your first interest, I'm curious as to what your thoughts are about MacIntyre's project to revive virtue ethics--particularly with his own roots as a Marxists.

2) With your second and third points, have you looked into at all the "radical democracy" of Laclau and Mouffe--if not as a starting point then as a point of consideration? Especially with their reliance on Carl Schmitt's political theory which is concerned with political violence and antagonism.

Any way, best of luck.

Maria said...

Hi there Will. Was placidly grazing on the Internet and fell through a rabbit hole, which deposited me here, so I thought I should leave a note to say hi.


Maria (Talero).

Will Roberts said...

So much to respond to...

Hasana: Would it make you more comfortable if, instead of the reference to Heidegger, I talked about reverse engineering Aristotle and Marx in order to figure out what problems their texts actually address? That is, it's not a matter of closing your eyes and listening really intently, but of discerning the actual function of every part of the text.

Plechazunga (if that is your real name):

Re: MacIntyre, I'm just hoping not to repeat his trajectory from Marxist to Thomist! Actually, I think his Aristotle (and before that his Marx) have always been a bit Thomistic. That's a problem faced by all Catholic Marxists. I think Aquinas's understanding of virtue and so forth is quite a bit different from Aristotle's, if for no other reason than that you stick a creator God on top of Aristotle's philosophy and it's bound to have cascading effects at every level.

Re: Laclau and Mouffe, I think their "Hegemony and Socialist Strategy" should have been called "Coalition Building as a Left-Liberal Tactic." They were writing shortly after 1989, and I think their thinking reflects that. I think they have generally ceded too much ground to liberalism and have no deeper philosophical underpinnings for their thought. In short, I'm not much of a fan. Which is not to say I shouldn't reread that book at some point--it's been years.

Maria: Hi! Congratulations on your nuptials, and I hope all is going well out Rocky Mountain way. Now that you're down the rabbit hole, you should check out our baby blog--it's on the blog-roll.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Very interesting and stimulating! I wonder about this bit:

"I think both Aristotle and Marx (and sundry post-Marx Marxists) approach violence with very different basic assumptions, "

by which I don't mean "I doubt," but really "I wonder," with respect to Aristotle in particular-- I'm just not sure where to begin thinking about what Aristotle thinks about violence in politics, and look forward to edification in future posts or papers.

Pietro de Simone said...

enjoyable reading! Nietzsche came immediately to mind as a "cogent criticism of modern political philosophy" who could have a few interesting intimations re: violence. Just off the top of my head, it seems for N. violence is as an act of profound ambivalence operating within the distinctly modern context of nation-states, rationalization, and "coercion," conducted ultimately out of ressentiment or "injustice" yet also an act, (perhaps in a more beastly pre-modern context?) of non-state actors for their ordinary livelihood.

i know, its not thought out that much...but i've been wondering of late how how violence gets sublimated today into all kinds of coping habits and deeper powerlessness. look forward t reading more.

Will Roberts said...

I swear, I should start making 1 post per month the norm around here--I've never gotten so much feedback.

Jacob--Hopefully I will have more to say about this very thing quite soon. My preliminary thought about Aristotle is that he doesn't have a category of "violence" per se, but of "force" (bia), and this is always understood in relation to motions rather than to individual entities. "Violence" presupposes something integrated and whole, which can then be violated. "Force" presupposes a conception of natural motions which can be retarded or opposed in various ways. When I lift a stone above the earth, I impose upon its natural motion, and hence use force. But I don't violate its being. Of course the tricky part comes in "applying" this sort of thinking to the political context, which would require some sort of discussion of the natural motions of human beings, etc. So, I've supplied the beginning, but nothing more...

Pietro--Glad you found it enjoyable. Certainly Nietzsche is a cogent critic of modern politics. Unfortunately, I feel like I have nothing very interesting to say about him. This is in part because I feel like he has had quite a number of able and insightful commentators (Strong, Deleuze, Conway, Klossowski, etc.). I've always felt behind the curve when it came to N. Which is not to say that N. is "tapped out," but only that I don't feel like I have anything especially interesting to add to the conversation.

I do think it would be interesting to read a Nietzschean response to Shklar's liberalism of fear. There is a fascinating exchange between my colleague Catherine Lu and Robert Meister in "Ethics and Int'l Affairs" (Vol. 16.2?) about some of these issues. Nietzsche doesn't come up, to my memory, but he could.