Review of Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason

With the notable exception of the rise of the alt.right, calling someone a “fascist” or a “Nazi” has become mostly meaningless. All you have to do is disagree with anything a leftist believes, and you are immediately slapped by them with one of those labels. However, this is not what Richard Wolin is doing in his book The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism.

In this book Wolin is looking at historical fascism, and the influence of fascism on much of what passes as philosophy nowadays. He identifies fascism with counter-enlightenment thinking. Since Wolin is clearly a scholar of Continental philosophy, Enlightenment philosophy is for him primarily that of Voltaire, Diderot, and the other thinkers of the French Enlightenment. The reaction to the Enlightenment came in several forms, from Romanticism to various forms of racism and nationalism. It is when the Nietzschean form of Romanticism (or, at least, sections taken out of context) were combined with ideas of racism and nationalism (one cannot really object on the grounds of reason that this is a contradiction, since Nietzsche both hated anti-Semites and nationalism, since the people who combined them were enemies of reason) that the various forms of fascism were born—the most commonly known being Italian fascism and Nazism. The author does an excellent reading of Nietzsche as the 20th century thinkers have misread him, noting only at the end of his chapter on Nietzsche that they were in fact misreading him.

Wolin spends each chapter covering different thinkers. But before we get to the ones he does cover, I think I should mention the one thinker he does not cover at all in his own chapter: Martin Heidegger. It may seem odd that Heidegger, who said that reason was an adversary to thought, was an actual member of the Nazi party, and who never recanted his Nazism nor apologized for what the Nazis did, should be left out, especially considering the fact that it is Heidegger’s ideas that have influenced postmodern thinking more than any others – including perhaps Nietzsche’s. However, Wolin is interested in exposing those we do not normally see as fascists. And besides, Heidegger’s associations with the Nazis are well documented—such as in Charles Bambach’s book Heidegger’s Roots.

So let us talk about those Wolin does talk about.

The first unexpected name to arise is Carl Jung. It may seem odd as first glance to include Jung, who was, after all, Freud’s handpicked successor at one time. However, Wolin shows several of Jung’s writings that were explicitly anti-Semitic. Further, Jung had a 10% quota on the number of Jewish psychologists who could join his Analytical Psychology Club of Zurich as regular members, only doing away with it in 1950. Jung also apparently thought of his famous ideas of the archetypes as being specifically Aryan in nature, and that Jews especially do not have them, or at least have them only weakly. The reason for this was that Jung saw the archetypes as essentially pagan in origin. Further, Wolin points out that “Jung eagerly cooperated with the Goring Institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy, accepting the presidency of the Nazi-run General Medical Society for Psychotherapy and serving as editor for its journal, the Zentralblatt fur Psychotherapie” (74). The fact that Jung headed a Nazi society for psychotherapy and cooperated with Nazi psychological research should concern anybody. It’s no wonder he was considered for war crimes after World War II.
The next surprise – and even more surprising – is the case of Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose mentor was none other than Heidegger. Certainly, this association is hardly enough. Karl Jaspers was a friend of Heidegger, but did not join the Nazis in any way. But Gadamer apparently decided to associate himself with the Nazis just to further his career (which only raises the question of who should be condemned more – Heidegger for actually believing in Nazism, or Gadamer for using what the Nazis were doing to further his own career), by signing pro-Hitler petitions, voluntarily enrolling in a Nazi political reeducation camp, joining the National Socialist Teacher’s Association, and volunteering to give lectures in Nazi-held Paris in order to help convert the French intellectuals (who were not given any other choice but to attend). This is most damning when we consider the fact that one did not have to become a member of the Nazi party, or associate with them at all, to work in the universities.

Wolin begins his section on the French thinkers’ associations with fascism with a chapter titled “Left Fascism,” which deals with the ideas of Georges Bataille. Bataille, whose influences included Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade, is considered by many to be the father of poststructuralism, out of which we get postmodernism. Bataille was closely associated with Left Fascism, which he identified as his ideology, and which seeked to unify fascism with an even stronger version of socialism. He was anti-reason, anti-civilization, anti-ethics, pro-violence, and promoted the most perverse, unreproductive sexuality (these things are not hidden or hinted at, but are explicitly stated by Bataille, or explicitly shown in his fictional works).

The next two figures Wolin covers are less clearly associated with fascism.
Maurice Blanchot was a writer, who wrote articles against what he called the “inhuman Declaration of the Rights of Man,” and who saw the “only solution to a dysfunctional republicanism” as a “fascist-type insurrection” (192). He also thought there was an “international conspiracy of communists, Jews, and capitalists” (Heidegger said that Germany was caught in the pincers of capitalism on one side, and communism on the other, both of which he said were metaphysically identical). His literary theories also became one of the cornerstones of poststructuralism – joining him with Bataille.
The most interesting person included in this work is Jacques Derrida, whose idea of deconstruction has led us into the postmodern era. Leaving aside Derrida’s attempts to deconstruct the Nazism of both Heidegger and Paul de Mann (to show they weren’t really all that fascist after all), and the fact that Derrida’s primary intellectual influences are Nietzsche and Heidegger, the connection to fascism seems, at first glance, weak. Certainly, Derrida is anti-reason. But for a long time, deconstruction was accused of being nonpolitical. Derrida’s response to this is what is interesting. He first responded by saying that deconstruction is in fact “hyper-political,” particularly in its critique of democracy. His attacks on natural law also undermine the very foundations of democracy, on which democracy is founded. He also opposed the ideas of Law and Justice, saying that “justice, as opposed to law, always pertains to the case at hand in its irreducible individuality” (234). While there may be something to this, this should not, as Derrida suggests, mean we should do away with law. What is most interesting is that Derrida gets this idea form the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who proclaimed that “the exception is more interesting than the rule” in his book Political Theology. He wants justice that is not grounded in law – which means he wants the rule of man, not the rule of law. Another problem with dealing with justice through the lens of the exceptional is that what we end up with is crisis “justice,” which allows precisely for dictatorial decrees.

Wolin ends his book with a chapter on anti-Americanism, which he identifies precisely with anti-Enlightenment thinking. America is everything Europe was not: it has no racial foundations, the laws are based in reason rather than tradition, there is no nation to speak of, but rather federation with a fluid hierarchy (as opposed to the strict egalitarianism supported on the Continent, which has resulted in the periodic desire to eliminate those who will not fit into the egalitarian ideal state), it is a liberal capitalist state, individualistic, and free. Some of these things are still true. Wolin identifies current anti-Americanism in Europe with Heidegger’s, whose ideas on America were so purely intellectual, that they had no basis in reality. Certainly, Heidegger never traveled to America to learn anything about it. And because America is capitalist, and in Europe Jews are associated with capitalism, the anti-Semitism that still runs through Europe contributes to anti-Americanism. We see anti-Americanism in the present day, among postmodern thinkers such as Baudrillard, who claims that in America we believe in a “hyperreality” made up entirely of media-generated images, which have replaced reality. He sees America as a negative utopia. He has also expressed a great deal of joy over 9-11, and he is joined in this sentiment by Slavoj Zizek, who claimed in his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real that “America got what it fantasized about,” in our movies. In other words, we got what we had coming. Neither is concerned with morality in their commentaries—only with their interpretations of things. Which all too often have nothing to do with reality—and almost never have anything to do with reason. Anti-Enlightenment thought, which reached its worse manifestations in Nazi Germany, continue on in postmodern thought and its offspring in identity politics of literally every sort, right and left—but with Wolin, it is no longer unchecked or unchallenged.

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