Monday, June 19, 2006

The Irrationalist Tradition

By: Zeus-Boy

Two of my favorite thinkers opposed any and all attempts at system building. Both worked against the urge to codify thought in architectural, reticulated edifices of rationality. Both interjected confusion and the irrational into rational structures; and both rejected codes and sought instead to enliven thought with tangential, unpredictable and unprecedented ideas. The first was Shakespeare's contemporary, Thomas Nashe, after whom I named and dedicated my blog. He is remembered primarily for collaborating with Ben jonson, for befriending Robert Greene, for resisting the Harvey brothers' attempt to shut down the theatres and for being the inspiration behind some of Shakespeare's most colorful characters.

The other was Johann Georg Hamann, a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, who also lived in Konigsberg, but who created one of the most exhilirating collection of irrationalist essays and letters extant. Most of his work still remains untranslated, but there are important monographs by Walter Lowrie, James O'Flaherty and Isaiah Berlin. I dare anyone to read his essay Aesthetica in Nuce, which recalls the work of Giordano Bruno and foreshadows that of Goethe, Jacobi, Kierkegaard, even Joyce and Beckett. Hamann believed in approaching systems with a subjectivist skepticism, which he characterized as the necessary antidote to the "monastic rules" of the "self-castrating eunuchs" of rationality:

From his 'debut' work, Socratic Memorabilia, Hamann began to promulgate a particular view of what it means to understand something. From the beginning of that essay he emphasized the importance of passion and commitment in interpretation; undermining the more conventional assumption that objectivity and detachment are prerequisites of philosophical reflection and understanding. In Aesthetica in Nuce, wearing the authorial mask of the 'kabbalistic philologian', he provocatively maintained that initiation into orgies were necessary before the interpreter could safely begin the hermeneutical act. The idea that one must rid oneself of presuppositions, prejudices, and predilections in order to do justice to the subject matter he characterizes as 'monastic rules'—i.e. an excessive asceticism and abstinence. He goes so far as to compare such individuals to self-castrating eunuchs. (N II, 207:10-20)

I am reminded of these thinkers because of the very monolithic historical approach to US history that seems to prevail and underlie justifications of American Foreign policy today. Most extenuations for the 'Pre-emptive war on terror' depend on an abolutist view of history, especially US history, and while US policy makers grant themselves the right to frame their sometimes sociopathic deviations from their own norms in the most rational terms, they cannot abide rational scrutiny of those very terms. They define the parameters and then condemn their detractors for using their own language against them. It has always been the way with megalomaniacal law makers -- one law for themselves and another for everybody else. Such hubris is endemic of the criminal mentality. Therefore, an irrational analysis would not even be possible where the terms of the discourse have been selected beforehand, so there would scarcely be room for a Nashe or Hamann today. And how would such a critique of US empire look?

Well, before answering that question. Let me suggest that the Ann Coulter-Michael Savages represent precisely the sociopathic view. They may tap into the zietgeist to justify their hatreds and bigotries, and be accounted seers by those unwilling to remove themselves from the lure of their contagion. More mainstream bigots enjoy a more unimpeachable platform because of the shock tactics of the extremists. Try as one might one cannot debunk these people on the terms they provide and this is why a complete outsider is needed. I propose the work of Dahr Jamail as an example in the tradition of Nashe and Hamann; for a completely tangential view of the same history his dispatches oppose the valorized representations of power. His outsider status compels us to rethink and re-examine our assumptions and expectations. It's subtler than, say, any radical departure from the routine and hegemonic language of power; rather, it is in the new sense he gives us with which to apprehend the same old sense of things -- the being-there where there is not the simple transplanting of here to there, but complete subjective skepticism. None of the dour and bigoted points of view that went embedded could see with Jamail's eyes, and it seems to me the only way out of the prison of authority is through the misprisons of somebody like Jamail. The challenge is to recognize what is other and not to be beguiled by the confidence tricks of silver-tongued con-men who can be and not be whatever we choose when we choose. The David Copperfields of language may mesmorize us into forgetfulness, but it takes the jolt of unreason to awake us from our received hypotheses and conceits.