Civilization as we would like to have known in ended in 1914, or maybe 1871

 

 

The State of Exception
Giorgio Agamben
Chicago
2005

Pursuant to my policy of making sure that I don’t have any friends at all, here’s my review of Agamben:

Benjamin and Schmitt’s debate about violence reminded me of the debates of gestures and grimaces described by Rabelais and by Gombrowicz. I could understand scarcely a word. It was like listening to a debate among cannibals about the fine points of cannibal ethics.  But then again, I’m a naive American liberal radical anarchist nihilist populist.

I’ve always been dubious about the enlistment of the intelligentsia of the European high bourgeoisie into the revolutionary proletariat, when they put their Byzantine abstrusities at the service of the masses, starting with Marxo-Freudianism and then it getting worse from there. What could the proletariat possibly have been to Walter Benjamin? (Though if you like that kind of craziness, I recommend Edward Conze, the Bolshevik Hamburg streetfighter and Buddhologist).

Perhaps we should be orientalizing 19th century Europeans instead of Asians and savages. Economically and intellectually, 19th century Europe (centered in Germany and France) was the high point of human history up until that time, but those two nations could think of no better purpose than to go to war against one another. Even during times of peace their entire societies were mobilized for that,  and it wasn’t just the Germans. The French entered the Franco-Prussian War enthusiastically and expected to win. The Goncourt diaries for that period are depressing. The literary sophisticates of France – realists, Parnassians, and decadents, with the sole exception of the Enlightenment holdover Renan – showed themselves to be nationalists of the stupidest sort. When the Communards are massacred, they felt a sombre sort of satisfaction  – except for the rentier Flaubert, who felt that too few had been killed. (The literati who supported the Commune: Gustave Courbet, Jules Vallès, the teenaged Arthur Rimbaud,  and of all people, Paul Verlaine). After the Franco-Prussian War, and after WWI, neither side came to any other conclusion other than that they should do things better next time (though I have read that one of the French war planners, after viewing the carnage left by the Battle of the Marne – battle of the mud – did say, “That isn’t really what I had in mind”).

The ex-quasi-radical Edmund Wilson’s little piece on the politics of Flaubert should be read in this context. He argued that Flaubert was truly radical in his writing, even though he was entirely reactionary in his politics, and with this Wilson paved the way for the transformation of a generation of literary radicals en masse into Cold Warriors, neocons, and neoliberals.

My European readers may be offended at my American or Anglo-Saxon provincialism. But yes, the US also has blood on its hands, and the British too of course, and the moving finger of history has now selected us to be the bad guys of today. Don’t I know it! But then – we imported Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek to teach us the sophisticated European ways….

No, nothing I write is judicious and fair. Nothing.

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Published in: on May 22, 2017 at 5:28 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Enjoyed reading this. And thanks for directing us to Edward Conze (of whom I, at least, was hitherto unaware.)

  2. Authors who wrote before 1950 regarded war as normal, something rather like bad weather. Many authors even thought it was healthy. We do not yet understand how much even a short period of imperfect peace has changed us.

  3. There was a period of imperfect peace 1815-1914 (or 1815-1871, 1815-1866 if you count the Prussia-Austria War) ) and the lesson learned seems to have been that bigger wars were needed.


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