Sunday, June 08, 2008

False Victims, Inwardly Ravening Rulers

by Karl Steel

Wherein your author falls off the edge of the world in the end of his post.

In the most recent Nation Cory Robbin (BC-CUNY History Prof) reviews Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative, the collection Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, and Jacob Heilbrunn's They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. On his way to arguing for the fundamentally reactionary nature of conservatism (and thus against the notion that Goldwater and his descendants have much to teach liberals about organizing), on his way to pointing out how much terminological ground the Conservatives have lost to liberals (for decades, at least, they have had to argue for "freedom" and "liberty" and "egalitarianism"), and on his way to kicking Heilbrunn down the stairs for what he diplomatically termed "sloppy...borrowed...derivative" writing (and what I might, less diplomatically, refer to our academic integrity office), Robin writes:
While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement's leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato's guardians were wise; Aquinas's king was good; Hobbes's sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the "terrible school of misfortune" and suffered in the "hard school of adversity."

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them--or to obey them because we feel sorry for them.
And soon after he writes:
[Conservatives] are aggrieved and entitled--aggrieved because entitled--and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.
This point, in part because Robin expresses it so well, hardly requires the emphasis of proof, but I could offer our friend Charlotte Allen as a perfect example. And by that I of course mean she's merely an example.

However, my point is not to promote Robin's brilliant review, nor to herald the nobility of CUNY (and we are all fans here of Steve Kruger, Glenn Burger, and Valerie Allen, inter alia). Rather, my point, if I want to reduce it to this, is to trapdoor another Nation review, because of course we medievalists always salivate when anyone writes "arguably for the first time in history."

(I thus defer responsibility for what I do here to my drives.) The dynamic of "a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood" predictably conjures up the clichéd Hegelian insight that any desire for a self-sustaining, idealized identity (for example, "the human") is necessarily going to discover itself under threat, as this continuing failure is, after all, inherent to identity-as-fetish and is, in fact, what enables it: hence my use of the phrase "discover itself" to characterize this violent phenomenology.

Robin's "ruling class...sense of victimhood" also conjures up the structure of Christianity itself, whose Savior is a victim whose Kingdom opens most easily to the poor, the sick, prisoners, and the scorned, or to those who ascetically take on the habitus, if not the class position, of such groups. A couple of centuries later, Christianity becomes the State religion. The cognitive dissonance necessary to adapt an outsider faith to a position of dominance infinitely fascinates me, perhaps nowhere near so much as in Eusebius's record of the effects of Constantine's conversion. In one sermon for this period, we hear how:
Benefactors of themselves and all men, and Christ they [emperors and the secular ruling class] acknowledge as Son of God and sovereign Lord of the universe, naming Him 'Saviour' on monuments, and inscribing in royal characters in the middle of the city that is queen of the cities on earth an indelible record of His triumphs and His victories over the wicked.
(G. A. Williamson trans., revised by Andrew Louth, in the 1989 Penguin edition of The History of the Church, 4.17, p. 309)
With this delight in Jesus honored by emperors as a emperor-god--that is, in the style to which Roman gods and emperors had grown accustomed--any earlier scorn of Rome, any wishes for its destruction and for a new eternal city, retroactively looks less like otherworldliness and more like ressentiment (and you will observe now, if you have not already, the hoariness of my "insights").

Looking far ahead, I slide into the exegesis of Psalms 79: 14, “exterminavit eam aper de silva, et singularis ferus depastus est eam” (The boar from the woods has banished her; and a singular wild beast hath devoured her), which interpretations passed down from Augustine and Cassiodorus understood as referencing the destruction and dispersal of the Palestinian Jews under Titus and Vespasian. In this exegesis, admiration for the power of Rome, and for the ability of Rome to do God's will, was always polluted by a (feigned?) scorn for Rome itself; thus in his commentary on the Psalms Bruno the Carthusian impugns Titus and Vespasian with “ ‘aper de silva’ procedens, Vespasianus scilicet, qui ferus erat et immundus sordibus vitiorum, sicut aper ferum animal est et sordidum” (PL 152: 1066D; "a boar from the woods” appearing, namely Vespasian, who was savage and unclean with filthy vices, just as the boar is a savage beast and filthy). In a commentary on Habakkuk, Rupert of Deutz explains Habakkuk 2: 17 (“vastitas animalium deterrebit eos de sanguinibus hominum” (and the ravaging of beasts will terrify them because of the blood of men) through what must be a memory of Psalms 79:14: “Ut dictum, ita et factum est. Venerunt enim animalia de silva” (as it was said, so it happened. For animals came from the woods). These animals are, as usual, Titus and Vespasian, who justly destroy the Jews, “qua primi ex omnibus gentibus ausi fuerunt ad se missos prophetas et sapientes et Scribas occidere et crucifigere, flagellare in synagogis suis, et de civitate in civitatem persequi” (who had first among all peoples dared to kill the prophets, wise men, and scribes sent to them, and to crucify and beat them in their synagogues, and to pursue them from city to city). For all his desire to have such a people scorged, Rupert designates Rome as the “silva," and characterizes the silva as a place “ubi erat multiplicitas errorum, et feri homines habitabant, sicut ferae in silva” (PL 168: 623B-C; where there were many errors, and bestial men lived, just as beasts do in the woods): this city, this center of civilization, this "queen of the cities," is no city at all.

Monks of the eleventh and twelfth centuries upheld their social power in part by scorning the world, but they did this even as the world's endowments swelled their estates, even as they became the financiers of Crusade (see Robert C. Stacey, “Crusades, Martyrdoms, and the Jews of Norman England, 1096-1190,” in Juden und Christen zur Zeit der Kreuzzüge, ed. A. Haverkamp. Sigmaringen, 1998, 240). Knowing this, is it enough to demystify monastic scorn of "Rome" and its emperor by pointing out the obvious, namely, that
in their enjoyment of Titus and Vespasian and through their enabling of yet another destruction of Palestine, the monks are themselves the boars come from the woods? Is it enough to return to Eusebius to strip the feigned authenticity of victimhood from (certain) Christianities? Have I done enough in invoking ressentiment and Hegel? Is there enough in these gestures--to which I might add my 2005 Leeds paper on "The Christ Child and Pigs in the Oven"--to justify what I do here, to make all this something more than a precious insistence that Robin weigh down what's already an enormous review with the detritus of my medievalist memory?

Lacking a proper conclusion, lacking even directed motion, all I can do is stop here for now.

(Creative Commons image from here.)

6 comments:

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I'm not certain what makes you so uncertain about this post, Karl. Why does it lack confidence in what it accomplishes? Namely, it takes a contemporary political insight, spins it into a theorization of how the stance of victimhood can buttress the power of the privileged, and then -- in some dense, ambitious paragraphs -- shows a late antiquity/medieval version that adds nuance and historical depth. You come a long way from your point of departure, and that instigation isn't quite the same for the journey it launched.

Karl Steel said...

Ah, but you should read the post as I imagined it when I started writing. Now THAT was a sliver of brilliance!

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I'll settle for what you did write. It made me think a lot about the strategic deployment of various and (you would think) mutually antagonist subjective positions by and for groups and individuals over time. What's intriguing is the lack of cognitive dissonance: the stance of victim and victor can cohabitate without much trouble.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Only a few thoughts, hopefully to the point:

Victimhood is only one of many categories of *separative identity* through which power, aka institutionalized egoism, operates. If "conservatives" have an affinity for this category I assume it is because it serves as rhetorical antidote/covering of claims to privilege. What most interests me though is the question of what makes this rhetoric practicable, the subjects it creates/consoles, which of course is something Robin addresses with his point about making "privilege democratic and democracy aristocratic" and which Jeffrey ponders the cognitive dissonance of. The limitation of his piece is that it simply assumes that the liberal rhetoric of victimhood is transparently authentic, real (correct me if I am wrong I skimmed it really fast!). If so, this misses the deeper point, namely, that there is a problem with 'victimhood' per se as a category of political discourse insofar as it depends upon/institutes a (privileged) non-victim as an entity responsible for the victim/victimization and so breaks with the reality of *collective* responsibility.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, I'll second Jeffrey. This is a fantastic post, as was the review which spawned it.

Particularly interesting to me: a minor point about "trapdooring" (a word I'd forgotten -- how cool). It seems important that there's a distinct relationship between setting up this victim-as-ruler stance, and a very specific relationship to what is remembered, and forgotten, about history. I don't quite know how to explain what I'm noticing in what you write, but it seems that a part of what you're doing so well here is outlining a lack of identification, in which case what you're describing as "the obvious" isn't really obvious at all. The Monks who finance Crusades can't understand their situation in the ironic mode, because they can't see the resemblance between their Rome and that Rome. They don't recognize themselves -- or more accurately, they don't recognize a pattern, a way of proceeding through time.

And you thought you fell off the edge of the world . Does any of that make sense?

Karl Steel said...

It made me think a lot about the strategic deployment of various and (you would think) mutually antagonist subjective positions

For ages now, I've wanted to write (or, rather, finish) a piece on shifting self-identification of regular clergy as sometimes poor and sometimes needing to dole out charity: I have in mind--perhaps not correctly--a sermon on the Dives et Pauper parable by the 12th-century regular canon Raoul Ardent. I'm sure that's what underlies all my thinking in the post.

The limitation of his piece is that it simply assumes that the liberal rhetoric of victimhood is transparently authentic, real (correct me if I am wrong I skimmed it really fast!). If so, this misses the deeper point, namely, that there is a problem with 'victimhood' per se as a category of political discourse insofar as it depends upon/institutes a (privileged) non-victim as an entity responsible for the victim/victimization and so breaks with the reality of *collective* responsibility.

Nicola, I know we talked about this briefly just the other day, but I do want to thank you for this comment, and, at once to reassert that (of course) some situations can best be analyzed according to a victim/violator schema, and also to thank you for turning our attention to the question of the victim itself. I do wonder, however, whether the 'reality' is in fact "collective" responsibility. I do want to propose a slight nuance by suggesting distributed responsibility. The advantage derives from moving us past the binary and thus allowing for more complex, more adequate, and thus more helpful analysis, while still preserving the differing weights of responsibility that "collectivity" obscures. Although in our conversation I offered Reagan's destruction of Carter's environmental improvements to the White House (and thus Reagan's repudiation of environmentalism and thus, given that the 80s might have been a "magic window" for halting global warming, his responsibility for lord knows how many tens or hundreds of millions of deaths in the next 15-30 years, probably including my own), Reagan's repudiation would not have been possible, or politically efficacious, without, for example, structures of masculinity that consider environmentalism a kind of effeminacy. As an American male, I no doubt participate, or have participated to some degree, in that structure. But, again, the best analytical mode for this phenomenon and its effects is one that attends to power. Thus we must condemn Reagan, but we must also distribute responsibility. We need more guilt, not less; "distribution" should therefore not be understood as dilution. And we need that guilt to encourage us to make a space for those who can most authentically speak as victims. This goal may involve teaching people to recognize their own victimhood.


MKH, I don't have anything to add to your very very good comment except applause. "Ironic mode" is wonderful there, and I just love your historical thinking. So, yes, totally makes sense. Thanks!