David Sessions rants against a literary trend:
If you’re an American man of letters of the sort that currently gets called upon by places like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books to diagnose European philosophers, you have a fairly easy job laid out for you. Step one: Read the book, preferably with no prior familiarity with the philosopher’s work, influences, or academic milieu. Step two: search the text, as well as any biographical resources you can find, for any indication that the philosopher has/had radical political commitments or might have ever made comments about Hitler or communist regimes that are difficult to understand at first glance. If so, you’ve already got the main theme for your review. Step three: do your best to come up with a few paragraphs of summary of the philosopher’s biography and general outlook before transitioning into your main disquisition about whether or not they have apologized for ever having radical ideas and, if not, cluck disappointedly about their lack of intellectual responsibility. If you’re feeling a little bold, insinuate that they are anti-Semitic. For good measure, throw in a few concluding bromides about the temptations and risks of being an intellectual.
Why it matters:
While I understand the entertainment value of a withering takedown, I will never understand the desire to finger-wag ideas off the stage before the fight can even begin. One doesn’t have to be at all radical to respect and welcome a good-faith conflict between ideas, and to believe that engaging even the ones that creep you out can’t help but improve your own. (As Stephen Metcalf put it responding to the Romano travesty, “I never thought the answer to illiberalism was more illiberalism.”)
The notion that “responsible politics” have to be protected from dangerous intellectuals is itself an ideological danger, one that risks excusing the enormous, ongoing, and entirely preventable crimes of our political system. It’s precisely this unquestionable ideology of inevitability and givenness that people like Badiou and Žižek are attempting to unsettle, and the reason I suspect they inspire such anti-intellectual reaction.