Tuesday, August 22, 2006

From April 2005. A late summer repeat: on the art of politics.

There's a good article on John Brown in the NY Review this week (another link behind the $3 curtain.) His death precipitated a change, a hardening, in the attitudes of many white northerners in the months before the civil war. Brown may have understood this and turned his raid on Harpers Ferry, once it was clear that it had failed, into a suicide mission.

Brown was an outlier, a radical statistically as well as politically, and he was arguably a more directly moral man than Lincoln. But the fact that Brown was simply right in his absolute condemnation of slavery and of slaveholders does not make him a 'greater' man than Lincoln. Lincoln's moderation, his political and rhetorical expertise, even considered as partially corrupt make him the more interesting and complex figure precisely because Lincoln could communicate with for whom Brown would have no patience. Lincoln was more representative of the complexities of the white American imagnation. Brown, may have led the way to a certain degree but he did not 'belong.'

The only reason John Brown's ideas surprise us is that he's white. His is the fanaticism of the slaveholder's brother, not the anger of the slave. Frederick Douglass thought the raid was much too dangerous. The genius of Lincoln stems from his relationship, as belonging, to the dominant moderate party -moderate only in its own terms- of white America, and to the dominant language of American culture.

Modernism celebrated the radical individual as understanding things others do not. But how can individualism represent an idea of community?
Language is in independent entity of our own creation. It is the result of a collective action, but we can only define ourselves as individuals in terms of our relationship to it. How would we define 'speed' other than in terms of measurements of space and time: miles-per-hour. There is no terminology for describing the individual that is not defined in relationship to a community. When I get annoyed at Brian Leiter or pissed off at Brad DeLong, or mock the next generation of academic leftists, it's precisely because they refuse to accept that their language and their ideas are in conflict, and that the former gives us a much more honest representation of their thought processes than their ideas -as ideas- ever will. I'm tired of people who fantacize their relations to their own statements.

Any communicative act first and foremost describes the performer of the act in the context of the preexisiting social and political community of language. Only after that does it present the meaning -as intention- of the actor. As an old friend of mine says about a mutual aquaintance, whom I find it almost unbearable to be around:
"He doesn't know that he has an unconscious!"
J. understands my response, but doesn't share it. He laughs.

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