monday musing: schwärmerei

It’s already been a few years since the journal n+1 published its first issue. It included a section called The Intellectual Situation. There was something bold, intellectually exciting about a group of young thinkers uttering proclamations about “the intellectual situation.” It would have seemed to many that the one thing about the intellectual situation today is that there is no intellectual situation. Maybe we could have been persuaded that there are any number of intellectual situations. Maybe these intellectual situations, in their staggering and sometimes upsetting diversity, are connected with one another in a roughly coherent, if bloated, constellation of thoughts and ideas. But such hazy notions tend to melt away in the face of reality, the pudding; sticky and opaque, like all pudding. So even to say it, “The Intellectual Situation,” seemed worthy of our attention.

In one early entry, The Intellectual Situation (Part Two), the n+1ers decided to take on the McSweeney’s empire, the publishing movement started and loosely run by Dave Eggers and having as one of its offshoots The Believer magazine. The piece has lingered in my mind for some time now, partly because I’ve never been sure exactly where I stand on it. But it has nagged me, vexed me. Finally something about it has jelled in my mind, not quite pudding exactly, but a sense of why the debate is so intriguing.

The gist of The Intellectual Situation (Part Two) was that the name of the magazine, The Believer, told you all you needed to know about its content. Believers, so the thinking goes, have abdicated on the intellect altogether and advocate in its place a basic acceptance, if not outright enthusiasm for the immediate conditions in which they find themselves. N+1 opined, “The Believer: now here’s a figure who would have revolted intellectuals of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s. (The echo in intellectual history is Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer.) Mere belief is hostile to the whole idea of thinking. To wear credulity as one’s badge of intellect is not to be a thinker as such.”

What’s fascinating about this claim is how much it sounds like the debates about reason and its limits that erupted at the end of the 18th century as the Enlightenment met a host of its most cogent critics and as Kant’s three Critiques threw the world into a huge tizzy about just what we’re able to think about and what we’re not. In short, Kant attempted to save Reason by limiting it. This created enemies on two sides; those who didn’t want to be limited (bless their hearts), and those who found the saving effort to be too little too late (the wild boys, Romantics).

Now, you cannot simply paste the terms of the Enlightenment debate directly onto the current imbroglio between n+1 and The Believer. For one thing, most of the people on all sides of the debate in the late 18th and early 19th centuries wanted to save religion and they thought the other side was botching the job. The question doesn’t resonate that way today. But one of the things that the defenders of the Enlightenment liked to do was to accuse their critics of some form of Schwärmerei. The word Schwärmerei comes from the verb schwärmen and sounds just like the English word it is related to, swarm. Schwärmerei is thus literally something like swarmfulness and it came to mean, essentially, enthusiasm, with a further implication that such enthusiasm is excessive or even fanatical. When Enlightenment critics accused their opponents of falling into Schwärmerei, they were accusing them of an irrational belief, mere belief, potentially dangerous belief. In many cases they had a point. Jacobi, for instance, could be a brilliant critic of the universal claims made by Kant. But he advocated in its place a leap into faith that was outright irrationality and mysticism. Hamann and Herder were the first thinkers to show how massively Kant had neglected to look into the particularities of language and culture, which seem to be at the very root of the possibility for having knowledge. But Hamann was close to insane and proclaimed “Nothing seems easier than the leap from one extreme to the other.” Herder was more interested in being understood but his critique of reason led him to a defense of extreme nationalism as the only place where he could ground tradition and meaning. Schwärmerei has not only a dumb side, but a scary side.


The final paragraph of n+1’s critique of The Believer reads, “Ultimately, the Believer is a book review. It has attracted writers we admire. It does differ in at least one particular from, say, the New York Review of Books, in that its overt criterion for inclusion is not expertise, but enthusiasm.” Schwärmerei. Of course, there is a dig at the New York Review of Books here and the implication that enthusiasm may be a step up from mere expertise. N+1 has been consistently interested in staking the claim that things do matter and that we ought to write about the world and think about the world as if it really does matter. So they want a little bit of Schwärmerei, but just a little bit. They don’t want to be overwhelmed by it, they don’t want their critical faculties to drown in a sea of swarming enthusiasm.

They want to perform a balancing act. They recognize that there is something to talk about, that we can’t simply stumble forward with the old criterion, the old defense of civilization. At the same time, they want to preserve the idea of critique that is our heirloom from the twentieth century. Here’s a couple of lines from The Intellectual Situation (Part One): “It didn’t have to be this way: if only they [The New Republic] had allowed more positive individuality, cultivated something new, and still kept an old dignified adherence to the Great Tradition, running continuously to them (as they hoped) from the New York Intellectuals, whose ashes were in urns in the TNR vaults if they were anywhere.” N+1 isn’t looking backward, it’s glancing backward with an eye toward what’s ahead.

This is a worthy stance. It is Kantian, not so much in the particularities of the argument but in the structure of the argument. It’s a new defense of the critical tradition that is willing to shake things up a little, that gives the nod to Edmund Wilson without bowing down slavishly before him. Just as Kant realized that to defend anything in the spirit of the Enlightenment he was going to have to acknowledge some major flaws, n+1 has taken on a similar two front war: Attack the dead rot within the critical tradition in order finally to renew it. This is exciting. It’s exciting.

It’s also completely wrong. But I say that with admiration. I’m from the sneaky school of Romantic Ironists for whom being wrong is just another admirable way of being human. Kant was the most powerful philosophic mind since Aristotle. But he couldn’t save the Enlightenment, he couldn’t save reason the way he wanted to and it turns out, I’m sorry to say, that synthetic a priori judgments are not possible. Similarly, n+1 is not going to save the critical tradition. That’s not because the critical tradition was more limited or more wrong than anything else (everything is limited and wrong) but because it was of a time and that time is over, never to return. The basic assumptions that the critical tradition assumed are no longer assumable. N+1 tries to reassume them, if in a reinvigorated guise. It is difficult, however, to reinvigorate a corpse.


One of the more successful among a host of interesting and ambitious side projects for n+1 has been their pamphlet series. The second one (What We Should Have Known), in particular, captures the spirit of honest inquiry with a commitment to serious literature and thought that is the very best side of n+1. It is a discussion about our collective past, the days of youth, college. It is a look back to what we wish we had been reading and thinking about given what we know now. It’s a delight to read.

But there’s also a troubling undercurrent to the discussion that is never addressed as such. It’s the implication that something has gone astray, that we were thinking about the wrong things when we could have been thinking about the right ones. This is always true, of course, and therefore simultaneously not true at all. It is perfectly fine to play with this feeling of intellectual regret, to roll it round on the tongue. But it is something different to actually propose it as an ethic. There’s the assumption in the n+1 discussion sometimes that we had everything we needed out there and that somehow we failed to recognize it. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment comes up a number of times. I did my PhD in philosophy at The New School. The Dialectic of Enlightenment is in my bones. But I know in those same bones that The Dialectic of Enlightenment is not the book that’s going to put us back on the right track to critical thinking again, even with its intellectual nod to the Romantic tradition. It is a dusty book right now, a book for our grandchildren to rediscover, a book that needs to sit around in the basement until history cycles itself through once or twice. Hearkening to books of the immediate past in that way is the refuge of reactionaries, be they from the left or the right, and n+1 is better than that. The Dialectic of Enlightenment is critique of the Enlightenment minus even a dollop of Schwärmerei and as even n+1 is willing to admit, it’s going to be difficult to move forward without that dollop.

The debate, then, should rather be about how much Schwärmerei and where to apply it. In a lovely piece by Jacques Barzun written in 1940 and currently republished on the American Scholar website (in a tribute to Barzun’s 100th birthday) he writes, in defending Romanticism that, “Romanticism was full of disbelievers in every kind of creed, but it numbered hardly a single unbeliever.” It is this believing as a basic stance toward the world, this specific form of Schwärmerei, that allows the Romantic to enter into the world again with fresh eyes. As Barzun explains, “Perceiving all forms and conventions to be relative, the romanticist is an individualist, a democrat and a cosmopolitan. Having had the mutability of human affairs brought home to him and being endowed with the spirit of adventure, he values the variety of human experience.” This stance is antithetical to the distance roundly recommended as necessary by the critical tradition. If you were to put it purely in spatial terms you’d say that Romantics always want to run up close to things while the proponents of ‘The Great Tradition’ always want to take another step back. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which standpoint is more apt to the moment. I propose to my friends at n+1 that we believers, just as two centuries ago, won’t be so easily brushed aside in our Schwärmerei. Let the games begin.