Colin Jager: Literary Thinking: A Comment on Bilgrami

Colin Jager is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University.

Early in April presidential candidate Barak Obama remarked that “some of these small towns in Pennsylvania…like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them….And it’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The remarks were widely seen as a slip for the normally sure-footed Obama—certainly Hillary Clinton went to town with them, accusing Obama of condescending to working-class voters and being “out of touch.”

Obama’s remarks might be seen as an example of the kind of thinking that Akeel Bilgrami finds lacking. In the essay under discussion here, Bilgrami criticizes the ease with which left-liberal thinkers translate enchantment into its supposedly more worldly (read: economic) causes. Bilgrami argues that there is a wider and more philosophical issue at stake here, namely the disenchantment that attends modernity. That disenchantment has a certain “feel” to it. Consequently, those who see in re-enchantment simply a form of false consciousness miss the cultural dimensions of disenchantment: the transformation or outright destruction of indigenous and local forms of solidarity, the isolation and alienation that trail in its wake.

Bruce Robbins, in his response to Bilgrami, wonders whether this is the right approach. Do the kind of cultural-philosophical interpretations of what ails red-state America that Bilgrami recommends really hit their mark? The beliefs of values voters, says Robbins, may be “less representative of would-be theocrats struggling to free themselves from liberalism’s privatization of religion than of consumer-citizens, whipsawed between consumerism and asceticism, who live a relatively happy inconsistency between public and private” (639).

Now it may be that Robbins has misconstrued his target here. Bilgrami certainly thinks so. That’s something for them to work out. I’m more interested in the fact that Robbins’s remarks might serve as an admirable gloss on Obama’s remarks. Both Obama and Robbins might be understood as suggesting that the modern age has brought with it a distinctive set of tensions, even contradictions, perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom the promises of modernity have not materialized. This way of construing things puts most of its emphasis on getting the description right, and much less emphasis trying to imagine how it might feel to be a consumer-citizen so “whipsawed.” (Thus, right wing media outlets continually mentioned that Obama had made these remarks in San Francisco, implying that elites on the Left Coast just don’t “get” the heartland.)

At the same time, when Bilgrami writes in the original essay that “in the local habitus of the West itself ordinary people have to live in and cope with the disenchantment of their world, seeking whatever forms of reenchantment are available to them” (407), he could also be seen as glossing Obama’s remarks. This would be the version of Obama who pushed back after Clinton tried to exploit his remarks, the Obama who emphasized his Midwestern credentials, assuring people that he was the one who was “in touch,” that he knew exactly what was going on. This would be the Obama who “gets” religion because he is himself religious, who understands the spiritual cost of living in the modern age and sympathizes with those casting around for something with which to blunt its worst effects. There’s a first-person perspective introduced here—and this part of what Bilgrami is after.

The point of the Obama example is not only that there may be less daylight between Robbins and Bilgrami than they seem to think. It is, more importantly, that it can be hard to parse exactly when values are being translated into some material determination and when they are not. I am in complete agreement with Bilgrami that writing off religious traditionalism, say, as a symptom of economics or globalization misses the kinds of commitments—visceral, bodily, disciplinary, communal, and ultimately, historical—that are at stake. But I’m also sure that he would agree with me that acknowledging this is not the same thing as saying that culture (God, guns) and economics (unemployment) have nothing to do with each other. Quite the contrary: they are deeply intertwined, and not only because varieties of enchantment and retreat are often critical responses to material conditions, but also because, for example, religiously-inspired critiques of economic policy are among the most salient in our world today. In this context it’s worth noting that analysis of Obama’s remarks quickly focused on the words “bitter” and “cling,” and those words can be construed in a variety of ways. Obama might have been suggesting that religion is infantile, that people “cling” to God or guns the way a child clings to a parent. But then again, Obama might have been thinking of Psalm 63 (“my soul clings to you; your right hands upholds me”). Hillary Clinton made a big deal out of the word “bitter,” but did she mean to suggest that people shouldn’t be bitter about the loss of their jobs? Prophets—Isaiah, Amos, Jesus—have known that bitterness about the status quo is a powerful motivator for change.

Here’s another way of putting it: Robbins says that Bilgrami wants to read politics off of epistemology, and perhaps he does, but in fact there’s a middle term, namely interpretation, and that’s actually where all the work gets done. What does “cling” mean? What energies does it activate? What cultural histories does it summon? Which modes of being does it welcome, and which dismiss?

The importance of interpretation brings the conversation firmly within the realm of the literary. The debate here is really about how much argumentative power we want to cede to literary thinking. There’s a curious but perhaps not very surprising cross-over in the debate: Bilgrami, the philosopher, finds much to value in literary thinking, while Robbins, the literary critic, is more skeptical.

Let me see if I can clarify the status of the literary here by appealing to an extreme case, one neither Robbins nor Bilgrami would agree with. I take the phrase “literary thinking” from a fairly recent academic article, by Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, entitled “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left,” published in the Yale Journal of Criticism in 2005. In this essay the authors take aim at what they understand to be the de-politicization of the Left, which they blame (surprise) on the 60s. The New Left’s embrace of the counterculture, partly out of frustration with traditional political channels, has left it hamstrung when it comes to confronting an expanding conservative movement. Why? Because, having abandoned political movements and organizations, the Left is left with “culture,” and with the idea (the wrong idea, according to McCann and Szalay) that working at the level of culture is itself political. Here is now they put their thesis: “Our complaint is against the assumption … that analysis of these [cultural] forms itself constitutes significant political action, or equally, that the ability to affect culture is, independent of other means, also therefore politically efficacious” (441). Perhaps there is not be a whole lot to object to here—though one might wonder why the options have been narrowed only to two, why we have been offered two phrases in apposition that are clearly not identical, and whether there is anybody who would sign on to that “independent of other means” clause. But leave that aside, for McCann and Szalay are only getting warmed up, and as the essay develops, it becomes considerably more tendentious. First, the interest in culture at the expense of politics is, predictably enough, linked to a kind of narcissism: the New Left became “attracted to the idea that performance itself functions as a kind of therapeutic rite aimed at the self-realization of its participants” (444). Second, the personalistic self-realization to which the New Left was already attracted slides into apocalyptic religious yearnings, what McCann and Szalay call “high-minded irrationalism” (451). The chief peddlers of this irrationalism, it turns out, are contemporary novelists (Pynchon, DeLillo, Morrison) and their theoretical enablers. And here we arrive at the real target of the essay. I permit myself a lengthy quotation:

“The deep investment in the therapeutic value of ineffable mystery, like the often knee-jerk disdain for mundane political efforts to work toward imperfect justice, is commonplace. Both are evident not just in the continued vitality of what might reasonably be called America’s Third Great Awakening… but [also] in a pop culture with a seemingly bottomless appetite for stories of vampires, angels, and witches. But the specifically countercultural contention that mystery might prove to be a higher form of politics has taken root nowhere more powerfully than in our universities’ humanities departments and their now long-standing indebtedness to the various crypto-spiritual theories that have combined to form the postmodern lingua franca. For, whether in the messianic visions of Walter Benjamin, the spectral shades of Jacques Derrida, the strangely rapturous optimism of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, or the often apocalyptic antirationalism of post-structuralist philosophy generally, academic postmodernism has turned with increasing earnestness … to the unlikely promise of ‘magical serendipities.’ Professors of literature have been most invested in these serendipities….” (451)

Track the moves here: from an interest in culture as a form of politics, to a belief in self-realization as a form of politics, to apocalyptic religious yearnings, to humanities departments, to academic postmodernism, and finally, to the professional self-interest of literature professors. Whew. (Whenever I read these kinds of indictments of my own profession I wind up thinking, “if only it were true! If only we did have so much power!”)

Now, each of these slips could be queried. (And have been: there’s been lots of bloggy commentary on this essay.) But my feeling is that the best way to come at this question is historically. McCann and Szalay are not interested so much in the New Left as they are in the “literary thinking” that they think is the New Left’s legacy. So they’re making a historical claim. But the essay itself is remarkably ahistorical, for it proceeds as if “literary thinking” is the invention of the 1960s. And it is just here that Bilgrami’s essay does its most important work, for its historical/genealogical method offers a compelling explanation of just why literary thinking has such an enduring appeal.

As I noted above, Bilgrami is impatient with the kind of analysis performed by McCann and Szalay, with its baffled contempt for both popular folk enchantments and the organized enchantments of religion. Bilgrami, by contrast, thinks enchantment does real conceptual work. But he doesn’t want to go over entirely to the side of culture—for him, the specter here is neoconservatism of the kind peddled by Samuel Huntington. Indeed, Huntington’s happy trading in invocations of cultural difference might seem to offer some support to one of the most provocative and interesting of McCann and Szalay’s claims, namely that the “literary thinking” of the current Left actually has a lot in common with the individualism propounded by a resurgent conservatism. There’s a libertarian, anti-statist, anti-institutional impulse in both. That’s probably right, but as McCann and Szalay narrate it, the reason for this elective affinity remains itself mysterious, or is ascribed to a kind of treason of the intellectuals for which no explanation is given. If we recast the question in Bilgrami’s terms, however, and historicize it in the way that he does, then this family resemblance no longer looks magical at all.

Bilgrami is carving out an analytical space foreclosed upon by analyses like that of McCann and Szalay, who offer a stark choice between “organized” politics and cultural pseudo-politics. And he does this, again, historically, by returning to the modern origin of what I am here calling literary thinking. What Left and Right have in common, he argues, is the legacy of enlightened modernity, more particularly scientific rationality. The origin of literary thinking is to be found in modes of dissent and ambivalence within enlightened modernity. The “enlightenment” was not a monolithic entity but rather contained its own internal critique almost from its inception. Bilgrami’s example is the development toward the end of the seventeenth century of a resistance to “scientific rationality:”

The metaphysical picture that was promoted by Newton … and Boyle, among others, viewed matter and nature as brute and inert. On this view, since the material universe was brute, God was externally conceived as the familiar metaphoric clock winder, giving the universe a push from the outside to get it in motion. In the dissenting tradition … matter was not brute and inert but rather was shot through with an inner source of dynamism that was itself divine. God and nature were not separable as in the official metaphysical picture that was growing around the new science, and John Toland, for instance … openly wrote in terms he proclaimed to be pantheistic. (396; emphasis in original)

Now two points need to be emphasized here. First, as Bilgrami rightly emphasizes, dissenters like Toland were every bit as scientific as Newton and Boyle. They opposed not science itself “but a development in outlook that emerged in the philosophical surround of the scientific achievements” (396; emphasis in original). In other words, theirs was a critique not of science but of a certain “scientific culture.” This allows Bilgrami to contrast the orthodox model of the scientific revolution, with its brute materialism, with the more epistemically generous and thickly contextualized dissenting pantheism of the deists. The second and related point is the institutional one: for a variety of reasons, the official metaphysical picture promulgated by the Royal Society found influential supporters in the Anglican establishment, and this in turn pushed the dissenters and pantheists to the margin both intellectually (they were heretics) and institutionally (they were unscientific). It is of course a profound historical irony that the official guardians of Christianity, for pious reasons, colluded in stripping the world of meaning and helped usher into being the disenchanted cosmos where we now reside.

But the point more germane to the present discussion is that, with the origins of the dissenting tradition firmly established as a reaction to the enlightenment from within the enlightenment, Bilgrami then goes on to sketch a dissenting genealogy that threads its way through aspects of English and German romanticism, through Nietzsche, Thoreau, Emerson, and Ghandi, and then lands in the critique of western enlightened modernity sometimes described today as “fundamentalist.” Here is where Bilgrami is able to explain the data that leaves McCann and Szalay mystified: the elective affinity between conservative evangelicalism, Huntingtonian neo-conservatism, Islamic “fundamentalism,” and the literary thinking currently dominating humanities departments. The battle is not, as they seem to think, between rationality and irrationality, between magical thinking and political effectivity. We can’t get away with just indicting the “high-minded irrationalism” of literary thinking, because, Bilgrami shows, the deep and longstanding tradition of thinking under investigation here is not irrational. (Indeed, the complexity of England’s own scientific revolution suggests how partial it is to dismiss critiques of western enlightened modernity as “irrational.”) This is more than a Foucaultian point about competition among different accounts of what gets to count as reason, and what gets to count as modern. It is a historical/genealogical claim about the way rationality (and hence effective political action) has been defined, and it is thus an analysis of the surprising blowback of that definition. For as I read Bilgrami, the indictment is two-fold. First, definitions of rationality that ignored or downplayed its “cultural surround” stripped the world of meaning and thereby created the need for enchantment—a need that sometimes manifests itself in violent, exclusivist ways, other times in forms of retreat and withdrawal. And second, such definitions of rationality have made it impossible for Left intellectuals to understand enchantment as anything other than irrationalism and magical thinking. And so they continue to be surprised by its staying power, for they are unable to understand it as doing cognitive and cultural work.

Now it is a historical fact that the modes and approaches that Bilgrami links up under the headings of “dissent” and “enchantment” have tended to find a home in literature. But this is a fact to celebrated—as I think Bilgrami implicitly does. It certainly goes well beyond the New Left credentials of many literary academics. It was the romantics, after all, who not only gave us our modern definition of “literature,” but who also found in pantheism, in Spinoza, and in deism, an early expression of what they were themselves sensing at the turn of the nineteenth century, with empire and industrialism staring them in the face. And this sensibility issued in a kind of writing simultaneously literary and political. I don’t want to make the romantics into heroes here—like the rest of us, they were mortal. But at their best they helped to create the sensibilities that eventually issued in Gandhi and in the social movements of the 1960s. And the vehicle of that creation was literary thinking, or what Wordsworth called “philosophic song” and that Shelley, in a poem that had a direct influence on Gandhi, called “measured words.” More than that, too: literary thinking, or what Bilgrami calls enchantment, can help us to understand why the energies to which such thinking gives expression don’t always bend to the Left. As I read him, Bilgrami is asking intellectuals to take enchantment seriously as a first step to understanding the world in which we actually live. That’s asking a lot, perhaps—but it’s also, in the end, the very opposite of magical. It’s remarkably realist.