"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, October 25, 2019

Sightings in the LRB for 26 September 2019

Continuing with some periodic notes and musings on things discovered in the always delightful London Review of Books, I spy the following of interest.

First up, amidst the endless Brexit discussions, it is easy to forget that the roots of some of the "thinking" (or, rather, emoting) that led to the narrow victory for Leavers in 2016 go back a half-century and more. We are reminded of this in Ferdinand Mount's fascinating review essay of Paul Corthorn's new book, Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain (Oxford UP, 2019).

Mount's essay contains some acute commentary on modern nationalisms, and avers to a relatively old book which I have long profited from reading: Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism. Mount notes, rightly, that "nationalist rhetoric is so saturated with false consciousness" that none of it can be trusted. All nationalisms have "rubbish heaps of false memories and embroidered legends."

This, of course, puts me in mind of Vamik Volkan, whom I have often cited on here over the years, and found useful in trying to understand, e.g., Orthodox narratives of the Fourth Crusade. Volkan talks about "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory," and these concepts are as useful in looking at nationalist histories as at some ecclesial-national ones. Volkan has written many books about nationalism and its bloodlines, and about conflicts between ethno-nationalist groups in Israel-Palestine, the Balkans, Turkey-Cyprus, and elsewhere.

Back to Mount's essay for a moment. He goes on to argue that we need not be especially concerned with the "sentimental content" of nationalist mythologies. The real problem is their "iron framework: the insistence that the nation is the supreme fact, the one in which every citizen finds, and ought to find, his or her greatest fulfillment and which therefore demands all our loyalties." It is striking how many people nowadays are coming to this realization, questioning at long last the pious certainty many have that the state is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, than which no higher authority exists or could exist. Recent converts to questioning the idolization of the state are welcome aboard, but the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre got there first in an essay published some thirty years ago now.

Say it with me again, dear friends, in MacIntyre's acid and unforgettable words:
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf … it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.
When the state refuses to realize it is just like the telephone company, and instead inflates itself all out of proportion and begins demanding one's highest allegiance, then we are on the verge of fascism. A new book from Michigan State Press sounds very timely indeed: (New) Fascism, by Nidesh Lawtoo.

Michigan State is the publisher of a some works by and about René Girard, whose work clearly figures in Lawtoo's book, as the publisher tells us:
Fascism tends to be relegated to a dark chapter of European history, but what if new forms of fascism are currently returning to the forefront of the political scene? In this book, Nidesh Lawtoo furthers his previous diagnostic of crowd behavior, identification, and mimetic contagion to account for the growing shadow cast by authoritarian leaders who rely on new media to take possession of the digital age. Donald Trump is considered here as a case study to illustrate Nietzsche’s untimely claim that, one day, “ ‘actors,’ all kinds of actors, will be the real masters.” In the process, Lawtoo joins forces with a genealogy of mimetic theorists—from Plato to Girard, through Nietzsche, Tarde, Le Bon, Freud, Bataille, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Nancy, among others—to show that (new) fascism may not be fully “new,” let alone original; yet it effectively reloads the old problematics of mimesis via new media that have the disquieting power to turn politics itself into a fiction. 
While on the topic of Girard, I failed some time ago to give you my thoughts on Cynthia Haven's lovely biography of him, which I read on the plane to Romania in January. I should write up a long review, but in the meantime let me simply say that it was a very enjoyable and edifying read and you will not regret picking it up.

In other matters, I spy an ad for a new book from Bloomsbury, Sex and the Failed Absolute by (you guessed it) Slavoj Žižek. If not always edifying, he is almost invariably amusing in some measure, provocative in many others, and rarely boring.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
In the most rigorous articulation of his philosophical system to date, Slavoj Žižek provides nothing short of a new definition of dialectical materialism.
In forging this new materialism, Žižek critiques and challenges not only the work of Alain Badiou, Robert Brandom, Joan Copjec, Quentin Meillassoux, and Julia Kristeva (to name but a few), but everything from popular science and quantum mechanics to sexual difference and analytic philosophy. Alongside striking images of the Möbius strip, the cross-cap, and the Klein bottle, Žižek brings alive the Hegelian triad of being-essence-notion. Radical new readings of Hegel, and Kant, sit side by side with characteristically lively commentaries on film, politics, and culture. Here is Žižek at his interrogative best.

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