Tuesday, January 29, 2008


In Richard Wolin's Labyrinths I found a surprisingly good collection of essays on critical theory, illuminating the disturbing connections between ostensibly left-wing postwar thinkers and the ideologues of 1920's-30's German far right and Nazism. The connections, as Wolin shows, go much deeper than de Man's articles in Le Soir or Heidegger's words and actions as Rektor-Fuhrer. The antihumanism that has dominated advanced leftist thought since the decline of Existentialism (in Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Foucault, et al.) has its roots in the pre-Nazi, proto-fascist German right wing antihumanism of the 1920's, a 'conservative revolutionary' movement (shades of Newt Gingrich!) out of which Being and Time emerged. So it's little wonder that Walter Kaufmann, by 1980, was exalting Sartre at the expense of Heidegger. Sartre may have played footsie with Stalin and Castro, but at least he never kissed Hitler's ass. By the same token, the fall of deconstruction (a fairly old story now, dating from the late 1980's) and the hardening of leftist thought into reified 'identity' camps (feminist, queer, African-American, Latino, Latina) suggest that it's high time for an Existentialist rediscovery, a swerve (not a return) toward Sartre and his brand of tough-minded humanism--a 'hard' humanism as opposed to the feel-good brand peddled by the ice cream merchants of the right, an atheistic humanism conscious of the nothingness at the center of our selves, of the absurdity and contingency of existence; a self-conscious and self-critical humanism, an Existentialism that sees freedom not as a given but as a possibility, an achievement, the result of the hard work of rooting out the discourse of the Other in our selves. This is the kind of Existentialism Walter A. Davis is writing towards in Inwardness and Existence, and it's what we need today.

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