Friday, July 02, 2010
Alberto Toscano on fanaticism posted by Richard Seymour
We have encountered the trope of "native fanaticism" before, in the context of imperialist ideology, from Uttar Pradesh to Baghdad. Orientalism has produced various "Muslim fanatics" over the centuries. The figure of the fanatic is also a familiar subject of Cold War obloquy, from Spargo's appraisal of Bolshevik psychology to the 'antitotalitarian' literature of Fifties America and Seventies France. And of course, these discourses have been reinvented today to meet the putative challenge of "political religion". Today, "fanaticism" is held up as a sort of sock puppet opponent for those who would consider themselves enlightened, liberal, and modern. But is there anything that unites these various ideas? The answer might be that fanaticism is a mood, a psychic state characterised by a non-negotiable commitment to "something abstract" - whether that abstraction is revolutionary liberty, communism, or the earthly rule of God. In contrast, the liberal is empirical in his attitudes, and sensible of the need for compromise in pursuit of a modus vivendi. This is the ideologeme, the stereotype, or at least one variant of it.
Toscano's terse, penetrating account of the "uses" of "fanaticism" seeks to historicise and contextualise an idea that vigorously resists history and context. The book is not so much a history, though its chapters are arranged in a roughly chronological sequence, as a work of philosophy, a literary critique, a genealogy of ideas and also - inasmuch as each chapter could stand alone - a volume of thematically continuous essays. In examing different aspects of the idea of fanaticism, from origins in the Germans Peasants War (here he draws on the work of the excellent Peter Blickle), through its uses in the Enlightenment, in the defence of slavery and in imperialist theodicy, Toscano juggles an intimidating array of topics - psychoanalysis, philosophy, racism, anticommunism, recondite marxist polemics, secularism, anti-utopianism, etc etc. - comfortably shifting between multiple perspectives and analytical frameworks. One of the most surprising and enjoyable chapters in the book deals with the complex relationship between reason and fanaticism in Enlightenment thought. In this, we encounter fanaticism not merely as irrational dogma, but as a surfeit of reason. Indeed, the whole Burkean critique of those revolutionary "fanaticks" is precisely mounted on anti-rationalist precepts framed by one trained in Humean empiricism.
As far as "political religion" is concerned, this line of critique comes from two angles. One suggests that a political religion is a perverted expression of a spiritual impulse that is far better served by authentic religion. This raises a potentially discomfiting chain of induction for the devout since, by identifying religion with a set of ideological gestures and social processes, it raises the prospect that all religions are in essence no different to other ideologies and thus susceptible to the same modes of critique. The other angle, the response of the empiricist liberal ostentatiously displaying the looted intellectual treasury of the Enlightenment, suggests that the very idea that a form of politics recalls religion in having non-negotiable tenets, in pursuing non-empirical, abstract goals (eg, universality) is already to damn that politics. But that line of critique assumes that there is some form of behaviour that is essentially religious. Toscano deflates this with a choice quote from Kenelm Burridge:
"Meditating on the infinite may be a religious activity, so may writing a cheque, eating corpses, copulating, listening to a thumping sermon on hell fire, examining one's conscience, painting a picture, growing a beard, licking leprous sores, tying the body into knots, a dogged faith in human rationality - there is no human activity that cannot assume religious significance".
Which, if you think about it, somewhat takes the sting out of the charge of "political religion". The war on terror has of course produced various kinds of 'anti-fanatical' discourse. In the main, this is has focused on Islam, although some of the soft liberal critique of the neoconservative right also takes this form - they're obsessed with some kind of abstract global democratic revolution, because they're all closet Trotskyists. But that aside, the main way in which we encounter such discourses is with respect to Islam. Toscano is entertaining on the history of this kind of vituperation, particularly on the laboured analogies drawn between Islam and communism. Depending on who you listen to, Islam is the communism of the 21st Century; communism was the Islam of the 20th Century; Lenin was Mohammed (Keynes); Robespierre was Mohammed (Hegel); and even Hitler was Mohammed (Barth, Jung). The logic is curious. It is as if Islam itself is merely a worldly, materialist social doctrine in devotional get-up; but at the same time, Bolshevism (and/or Nazism, depending on who you're hearing from) is really a fanatical pseudo-religious doctrine with worldly trappings. It sets up a dichotomy that automatically deconstructs. But the even more curious thing is how, from the counter-revolutionaries of the 18th Century to the counterinsurgency texts of the 21st Century, the role of 'fanaticism' always turns out to mandate an equal and opposite 'fanaticism' in retort: since our enemy is fanatical, will stop at nothing, knows none of the humane and liberal limits that we assume, we must be fanatical, stop at nothing, throw aside our humane and liberal limits, otherwise all is lost.
Toscano has much fun, and vents justified disgust, at the expense of the turgid polemics about Islam that have been produced in the context of philosophy and psychoanalysis. This includes, but is not restricted to, a finely pointed, piercing critique of Zizek's engagement, or non-engagement, with Islam. In contrast to his ostentatiously philosophical approach to Christianity and Judaism, Toscano maintains, Zizek's encounters with Islam are strictly ideological, or sociological, tending merely to reproduce trite clash-of-civilizations discourses, predictable interrogations of the 'veil' that feed into the usual moral panics, dichotomies that award to Christianity an emancipatory, rationalist kernel that is held to be missing from Islam, and which produce the Muslim-as-pervert, the fundamentalist fanatic with a direct line to God. Taken in conjunction with Zizek's particular appropriation of Bloch's atheism-in-Christianity thesis, his belabouring of Islam feeds into the typical problematic of a Christianity that is supposedly the religion to end all religions, but is chronologically prior to Islam and is in some sense haunted by Islam's alterity. At best, this results in Orientalist pseudo-analysis of the kind that his favourite philosopher, Hegel, was rather fond of. The relationship between this kind of 'anti-fanatical' discourse and Zizek's broader Eurocentrism, not to mention his explicit apologias for US imperialism in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, is obvious and requires no elaboration here. I will not do Toscano's analysis - either with regard to Zizek, or the wider topic of psychoanalytic treatment of Islam - justice by attempting to render it in a few brief phrases here. But I found it useful to have an argument that meets and bests the psychoanalyst on his own turf.
This dissection of fanaticism, and the family of concepts surrounding it such as political religion, totalitarianism, and so on, is a potent intervention that defends radical and revolutionary Enlightenment, and the emancipatory ideologies emanating from it, from the pall of misappropriation on the one hand, and defamation on the other. It is a compendium of useful idiocies trumped by biting retorts, extravagant rhetoric let down by coolly deflating satire, rampant idealism met and surpassed by sophisticated materialism. For those who remain faithful to the liberating adventure of Enlightenment-as-insubordinate-thought, who still cleave to the possibility of emancipation licensed by reason, and who are marginalised by doctrines of extremity on account of it, this book is a weapon. In the best sense, it is, as Tocqueville said of French revolutionary ideology, "armed opinion".