“The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”
An article on the Jacobin website titled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia” by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss tries to explain how Reza Jorjani, a fellow PhD graduate of the State University of Stony Brook philosophy department, turned into a leader of the alt-right. Jorjani sounds like a real piece of work:
Jorjani’s writings, political activities, speeches, and media appearances have drawn charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia. In one instance, he suggested that Yahweh and Allah were actually space aliens who enslaved their believers and tricked them into committing genocide. He has openly characterized certain high-ranking Nazi officials as akin to supermen with psychic powers. While Jorjani has vehemently denied the charges of bigotry leveled against him, his public statements do make you wonder.
What caught my eye was how inconsistent at first blush his rightwing politics were with Stony Brook’s department:
Stony Brook’s philosophy department, famous for its pluralism and progressive politics, seems like an unlikely context for this scandal. Many of the department’s students and professors identify themselves as leftists and liberals. Their focus on Continental philosophy includes research on critical theory, feminism, post-colonialism, and queer and critical-race theories. It came as a great shock, then, that one of Stony Brook’s newest alums had become the self-appointed spokesperson for “Aryan Imperium.”
It seems that it was the department’s opposition to “Enlightenment values” that explains this one graduate’s cryptofascist beliefs. “While it seems surprising that someone like Jorjani would come out of a self-consciously progressive department, suspicion of Enlightenment rationalism has become endemic to liberal philosophy programs like the one at Stony Brook.” They argue:
By mid-century, an impatient and demoralized Left increasingly threw the Enlightenment baby out with the bourgeois bathwater.
Thinkers blamed universalism, determinism, and what appeared as a deadening mechanical worldview for the mass slaughter of two world wars, the atrocities of the Holocaust, the horror of the atomic bomb, and the misery of industrial capitalism.
Thus began what Georg Lukàcs called the marrying of “Left ethics with Right Epistemology,” a project that tried to derive progressive politics and notions like freedom, equality, and solidarity from a more traditional view of existence akin to the Counter-Enlightenment. Understanding trends in today’s academic Left requires recognizing this crucial shift.
Much of this contemporary thought reinstates an enchanted view of the world that is inherently pluralistic. Drawing on figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Left thinkers learned to be suspicious of the rationality that once belonged to them.
To cap it off, they credit Vivek Chibber for fighting a bloody but unbowed struggle against this viral anti-Enlightenment infection that has made it difficult for Marxists like him and presumably other professors writing for Jacobin like Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss to get a hearing. Yes, Lyotard and Baudrillard not only crowded them out but also paved the way for Reza Jorjani.
This does not exactly map to my own experience. Like Stony Brook, the New School graduate philosophy department was one of the few places in the USA where the Continental thinkers were dominant. I was there primarily to avoid the draft but did appreciate taking classes with men like Hans Jonas, who was very close to Hannah Arendt and was featured as a character in her biopic. I also studied with Aaron Gurwitsch, who was the world’s leading authority on Husserl.
Since Jorjani is described as a virtual disciple of Heidegger, it is worth considering some connections between my ostensibly anti-Enlightenment professors and the German author of the existentialist classic “Being and Time” as well as some openly Nazi tracts.
Heidegger dedicated “Being and Time” to Edmund Husserl, a Jew who he served as personal assistant from 1920 to 1923. While Husserl’s emphasis was on resolving the contradictions of Cartesian dualism within the framework of epistemology, he had an enormous influence on 20th century existentialism. Not only did his theory of intentionality reverberate in Heidegger’s writings; he was also a major influence on Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two Communists.
Jonas’s relationship to Heidegger was even more complicated. In 1966 Jonas’s “Phenomenon of Life” was published, a work considered by many to be as important to the emergence of Green politics as anything written by Rudolf Bahro. It is widely recognized that Heidegger was a major influence on Jonas, who was his student alongside Hannah Arendt, also under his sway intellectually as well as his lover.
Heidegger supervised Jonas’s dissertation, while Husserl served as his adviser. For some, the Green values espoused in “Phenomenon of Life” were probably a worrisome sign that there has always been a dark undercurrent to ecological philosophy. Since much of Heidegger’s philosophy reflects a disenchantment with technology and industrial society, it is inevitable that some would make an amalgam between Heidegger, Nazism and the reactionary impulses that supposedly drive deep ecology.
Martin Durkin, called the Michael Moore of the right, connected the dots in a blog post titled “NAZI GREENS – An Inconvenient History”:
Heidegger argues against the ‘monstrous’ building of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine and sings the praises of wind power: ‘modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such. But does not this hold true for the old windmill as well? No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock the energy from the air currents in order to store it.’
Durkin even manages to concur with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that this toxic brew of nature worship and Hitlerism has everything to do with a rejection of Enlightenment values. He argues that the Nazis were forerunners of today’s Green movement and Heidegger was its prophet. A “rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of the Enlightenment and its humanist values” was at the core of National Socialism that motivated men to “turn on the gas taps at Auschwitz”.
Although I never took the idea seriously that Heidegger’s philosophy led to Nazism, I had the same reaction to “anti-Enlightenment” intellectual trends twenty years ago when Alan Sokal’s hoax seemed tantamount to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. Fed up as I was at the time with Judith Butler’s unreadable prose and the notion that Marxism was guilty of imposing an oppressive “metanarrative” on social movements, I was ready to hoist Sokal on my shoulders. He was certainly skinny enough. In “Fashionable Nonsense”, a book co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal sounds almost identical to Frim and Fluss:
Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, “postmodernism”: an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration”, a “myth” or a social construction among many others.
While there is little doubt that the Enlightenment was an improvement over the stranglehold that the Church had over feudal society, I don’t find much basis for counting Marx as an enlightenment thinker. To start with, most scholars would regard him as a post-Hegelian alongside Feuerbach, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
As I stated earlier, Aaron Gurwitsch considered Husserl to be the first philosopher to have transcended the dualism/monism dialectic that had begun with Descartes and reached a kind of climax with Immanuel Kant. Everything after Kant, including Hegel, reflected an impasse that could not resolve the mind-matter conundrum that was triggered by Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” within conventional philosophical methodology. Kant’s categories supposedly created a synthesis of the ego and the surrounding, and for some unknowable, world.
If Kant is the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, Marx somehow missed the point. In “German Ideology”, he was rudely dismissive of what he considered to be a bourgeois moralist:
The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionising industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.
In fact, the great Enlightenment that started with Descartes and came to a climax with Kant was pretty much a reflection of the state of bourgeois society at a given time. Probably the only good thing to come out of the Enlightenment was French materialism, a current that Marx paid tribute to in his early “The Holy Family”. For Marx, it “clearly expressed struggle against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, and against all metaphysics, in particular that of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz.” So, unlike Frim and Fluss who eulogize Spinoza as the virtual anti-Trump whose “universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities”, Marx would have certainly considered him a banal moralist like Kant.
Speaking of Kant, I am not sure that he holds up well as a member of our Enlightenment values club considering what he wrote in his 1764 “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so wide-spread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.
Yeah, so beautiful and sublime. I doubt that any words that came out of Heidegger’s mouth in a university classroom were as racist as this. Furthermore, if Reza Jorjani had been properly educated in Enlightenment values rather than relying on its critics, I doubt that it would have made much difference. After all, every Christian soldier who went on colonizing missions to tame the savages of Africa probably read the Sermon on the Mount before boarding a British or French ship. A lot of good that did.
My point is this. The history of ideas is a poor guide to understanding how someone like Reza Jorjani crops up. Or Ricardo Duchesne, the former PEN-L subscriber and tenured sociologist who started off as a critic of Robert Brenner just like Vivek Chibber and now is a leader of the Canadian alt-right.
It is a waste of time to blame Nietzsche for Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx for Stalin. Ideologues are reacting to pressures generated by the two main classes in society. In a time of crisis, such as has existed since the early 1970s, they are like the leaves on a tree fluttering as the winds of an approaching major storm. Some are blown to the right, others to the left. Our worry should be less with the ideologues than how to make a connection with the social class that can finally put ethics on a material basis, namely an end to the class system that generates greed, racism, homophobia, nativism and other forms of barbaric behavior. But to put an end to barbarism, it is necessary to transform the social system that feeds it. That is the task facing humanity as it hurdles toward oblivion.