The following is the video and transcript of the second “Critical Conversation”, a monthly Zoom seminar with advance registration sponsored by The New Polis and Whitestone Publications and involving international scholars. The seminar took place on September 22, 2020.
Critical Conversations: Subjectivities Since the Sixties
Jason Alvis: Thanks everyone for coming, I just want to welcome you to a Critical Conversation, put on through The New Polis. Today’s critical conversation is on subjectivities since the Sixties—so subjectivities in the plural, the Sixties also in the plural—and we’re joined by Dr. Roger Green and Dr. Carl Raschke. The topics today are going to span from psychedelics to individualism to political neoliberalism—maybe someone will bring up Levinas at some point, maybe someone will talk about phenomenology. There’s no telling what’s going to happen with this group of people and these two presenters.
So, thank you Roger and thank you Carl for joining us and for helping put this workshop on. Our first speaker today is Roger Green. Roger is a lecturer in English at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he’s the general editor of The New Polis, and author of a book titled A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics. So, Roger you’re welcome to begin and maybe read the title of your paper for those of us who have not seen it yet.
Carl Raschke: Before we go on, Jason could you introduce yourself?
Jason Alvis: That’s a good idea, right. Yeah, I’m Jason Alvis, I’m the moderator for today. I’m a senior research fellow at the University of Vienna in the Philosophy Department and I run a research project called “Revenge of the Sacred: Phenomenology and the Ends of Christianity in Europe.” I work on topics like phenomenology, political theology, violence studies, these sorts of things, so the topic today is actually quite interesting for me and I’m looking forward to it.
Roger Green: Okay, thanks. The paper title I’m giving for this talk is just “Why the Sixties?” and it’s mostly an extraction from the book, but it’s been adapted a little bit for this context. It’s going to take me to right at 25 minutes to read this opening section, and I’m basically doing this with the intention of setting up a lot of the stuff that Carl is going to talk about in his portion of the talk.
So, thanks for being here and listening and contributing. I want to hear your thoughts, too but I want to begin today’s talk by asserting that what we in “the West” commonly call psychedelia, including the perspective that psychedelics and other psychoactive substances are agents to liberate consciousness, ought to be reread as a kind of code in cultural poetics for the emergence of what we now call “neoliberalism.” Furthermore, this rereading ought to be a counter to common political mythologies of the Sixties in the U.S., which on the right see it as a moment of cultural decline and on the left as a moment of cultural progress.
Common historical accounts of the 1960s narrate the decade itself as a kind of trip. In these accounts, the open possibilities articulated at the end of the 1950s in the United States end with violence and destruction, a breaking down of a national identity center as well as the dispersing of activist movements into different factions that cease to communicate with each other. The end of the decade is often characterized as the political inefficacy of progressive movements, government scandals, murderous cults, and the loss of some sort of moral fabric.
While some will claim that the magical time in San Francisco ended well before the decade’s end, with the Diggers’ public funeral for “Hippie – Son of Media” in 1967, the performative nature of the funeral expresses what I have termed psychedelic aesthetics, both in self-aware attention to its own construction and to its sacrificial overtones of death and rebirth.
No matter the narrative’s location of nostalgia, for many the chaos of the 1960s returns to order – even if it is a morally corrupt one, such as law and order politics – and most children eventually grow up. This is kind of one of the ways the narratives go: hippies turn to yippies, turn to yuppies. Yes, another narrative often superimposed onto the 1960s in the United States is one of growing up, coming of age, losing innocence, and graduating from acid tests. More microcosmically: Woodstock became Altamont.
But it is important to know, as groups like the San Francisco Diggers certainly did, that the construction of the supreme fiction of the 1960s as an exceptional era was present in criticism before the decade even happened. At the end of the 1950s, across discursive media, people seemed to be looking for something new. In 1960, Arthur Schlesinger characterized the “rise of the Beat Generation” as “the result of the failure of our present society to provide ideals capable of inspiring the youth of our nation” (“The New Mood in Politics” 45). In the same year, Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd that “Culture is, first of all, city and patriotic culture.” He argued:
I shall try to show that patriotism is the culture of childhood and adolescence. Without this first culture, we come with fatal emptiness to the humane culture of science, art, humanity and God . . . Young people aspire mightily to appearances on television and other kinds of notoriety, but I doubt that many now think of being honored by a statue in the park and winning ‘immortal’ fame, the fame of big culture. (57)
The generation gap was being written into public dialogue. The youth were central, but the current youth were seen as disaffected. C. Wright Mills used the term ‘post-modern’ in 1963 to characterize an age where “the ideals of freedom and reason have become moot; [where] increased rationality may not be assumed to make for increased freedom” (“Culture and Politics” 74-75). This was a collapse of Eurocentric Enlightenment thought.
There are reverberations of what Riesman articulated in The Lonely Crowd and Herbert Marcuse would articulate shortly in One-Dimensional Man. The irony of the late 1950s, according to cultural historian Lary May in Recasting America, was that although the United States had actually achieved its utopian dreams expressed earlier in the century, the effect was to bring about a state of extreme anxiety in the U.S. population.
While the perception of living in crisis was not new, “their concern, particularly in its intensity, was new: it is rare for people to be so self-aware, so self-conscious, so self-concerned” (22). According to May, one of the main reversals in the feeling of relief at America’s newfound power was in “mass participation in government.” Mediated culture had created the “youth” as an identity category to be marketed to, but this “produced” culture. Schlesinger presciently claimed that “national purpose . . . acquires meaning as part of an ongoing process; its certification lies, not in rhetoric, but in performance” (46).
We can even see this in jaded reactions to the 1960s. In 1971, John Lennon expressed his jadedness surrounding the period by reflecting that “nothing happened. We all dressed up, the same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything. It is exactly the same” (107). For Lennon in his freshly post-Beatles bitterness, the performance of the 1960s was not effective. It was all show.
Such bitter perspectives are just as present as nostalgia for a time when “everyone” had a cause, for a time when the “personal” became “political,” when the fabrication between public and private made a public game of lifestyle. The fact that the personal could become political is merely an articulation of expanded citizenship, a collapse between ontogenetic and phylogenetic expressed by psychedelic aesthetics and a deterritorialized, utopic desire for the death of the death drive. You can ask me questions about that if you want [laughs].
Mediated culture also challenged longstanding notions about subjectivity, perhaps especially the idea that subjectivity is a trap. In 1958, Hannah Arendt described with dismay the reactions people exhibited at the success of Russia’s Sputnik satellite. In her prologue to The Human Condition, she says, “when [humans] looked up from the earth toward the skies, [they] could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to earth’” (1).
We see in Arendt’s words that just before the psychedelic movement took off there was a culturally expressed desire for something “outside,” something more expansive in terms of situating subjectivity. It is also true that the youth of the affluent societies were growing up having their lives documented and directed in ways previously unknown to humans.
This may be because youth of affluent societies grew up less as subjects than previous generations – in the sense that the standard of living afforded a great deal of expendable income to the youth. At the same time, mediated culture located youth itself as a subject. The “cult of childhood” produced both themes of a return to childhood and a critique of masculinity.
The first of these themes can be seen in a few important books before the introduction of psychedelics to the public. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—which was not written before they were introduced to the public—Tom Wolfe mentions the importance of Hermann Hesse and Arthur C. Clarke. Wolfe compares Ken Kesey to Leo from Hesse’s Journey to the East: “He was never openly known as the leader: like Kesey, he was the non-navigator of the brotherhood” (266).
Earlier in his narrative, Wolfe explains, “For a long time, I couldn’t understand the one Oriental practice the Pranksters liked, the throwing of the I-Ching coins” (142). Eventually, the divinatory practice leads Wolfe to understand Jung’s concept of synchronicity wherein “the way the coins fall is inevitably tied up with the quality of the entire moment in which they fall.” The kairotic synchronicity of “Now” invokes the ancient past and ushers in the space of the perennial as if it’s the Basileia itself. It is then that Wolfe has another “ah-ha” moment:
There is another book in the shelf in Kesey’s living room that everybody seems to look at, a little book called Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. Hesse wrote it in 1932 and yet…the synch!…it is a book about…exactly…the Pranksters! and the great bus trip of 1964.
But another book of Hesse’s perhaps more ideologically prefigures psychedelic aesthetics work: The Glass Bead Game. Hesse, who was a pacifist, produced, like Aldous Huxley, a politics that may seem overly naïve and even complacently dangerous on the surface. In its pacifism it was critiqued as quietism. Nevertheless, The Glass Bead Game centralizes themes of childhood and the transcendence of time that are important to psychedelic aesthetics.
In the book, Joseph Knecht, an aging scholar, decides to leave the distinguished position as Magister Ludi of the Glass Bead Game set in the future, an “academically religious” land called Castalia – the name Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert used for one of their foundations after leaving Harvard in the early 1960s.
The Glass Bead Game is, among other things, academic precision par excellence, and Knecht has completely mastered it. Open to the criticism of a few long-time friends, however, he comes to see that Castalia is intellectually over-privileged and thus out of touch with humanity in the rest of the world. According to Knecht’s friend, an aged Catholic priest named Father Jacobus, what Castalia is particularly out of touch with is a deeply critical account of history. In Knecht’s resignation letter as Magister Ludi, he cites the words of his friend in the following post-script:
Times of terror and deepest misery may be in the offing. But if any happiness at all is to be extracted from that misery, it can only be a spiritual happiness, looking backward toward the conservation of the culture of earlier times, looking forward toward serene and stalwart defense of the things of the spirit in an age which otherwise might succumb wholly to material things. (363)
Spirit and history are intertwined for Father Jacobus and Knecht.
Though an old man, Knecht leaves Castalia for a more “secular” territory in order to become a tutor to his friend Plinio’s son, Tito, at a remote house in the mountains. Here, his mission into the secular world seeks to re-enchant the world with a religious conception of the temporal. It is a deepening of Knecht’s own spiritualism. On the first morning of his arrival at the families’ vacation home in the mountains, Knecht finds Tito dancing in the dawn’s sunlight.
the young man seemed to him stronger and more impressive than he had hitherto thought, but also harder, more inaccessible, more remote from culture, more pagan. This ceremonial and sacrificial dance under the sign of Pan meant more than young Plinio’s speeches and versemaking ever had; it raised the boy several stages higher, but also made him seem more alien, more elusive, less obedient to any summons. (422)
In this dance, Tito:
without knowing what he was doing, asking no questions, . . . obeyed the command of this ecstatic moment, danced his worship, prayed to the sun, professed his devout movements and gestures his joy, his faith in life, his piety and reverence, both proudly and submissively offered up in the dance his devout soul as a sacrifice to the sun and the gods, and no less to the man he admired and feared, the sage and musician, the Master of the magic Game who had come to him from mysterious realms, his future teacher and friend.
Knecht, compelled by admiration for the young Pan, follows him swimming into a cold mountain lake. The cold water is too much for the old man though, and Knecht drowns. Tito, sobered by the experience, goes on to reform his recklessness, and so it would seem that Knecht, in the act of dying, fulfills his final task – a teacher till the end. But what of Tito’s sacrificial dance?
The reference to Pan, a demigod, the one who lulls with music and forgetfulness, is an appropriate image frequently invoked in turn of the century children’s literature as a rise in interest in classical and pagan deities accompanied the perception of an end to metaphysics in general. In drowning, Knecht merges into a timeless pre-history.
The novel then follows with a legendary account of Knecht’s life and three fictional autobiographies that Knecht had written during his student days, two of which are pre-historical as well, the other an account of a saintly life. Transcendence through a sacrifice that ecstatically disseminates a life outside of lived-time, or what Martin Heidegger might call “care” or “being-toward-death.”
Hesse’s book itself, as in Knecht’s three fictional past-life accounts, each account for Knecht’s various incarnations over time. The reason for being, in Hesse’s novel, points toward this enlightened transcendence, but it does so through overcoming histories. Knecht’s drowning represents a well-intentioned will that is overcome by the force of fate, and the narrative of the book presents itself as a biography of Knecht, celebrating his acts. The will acts to overcome its intention.
In Heidegger’s philosophy, it is the taking up of one’s angst through one’s thrown-ness in the world in order to live the authentic life. The authentic life is to be praised, glory in the destruction of will, transcendent merge with impersonal spirit. But the metempsychosis and the return to the perennial is crucial in relaying the fact that it is not just one time, modernity, which is to be overcome through some technologizing account of progress, it’s also this return to the ancient.
In Hesse’s novel, Knecht’s transcendence makes way for Tito’s enlightenment and moral development while he himself achieves a sort of bliss in death. Hesse presents the enlightened subject who is reconstituted through an experience that occupies so much of literature, and psychedelic literature in many ways merely continues this. It performs the literary subject as the site of identification.
Later works, such as Italo Calvino’s If upon a Winter’s Night a Traveler continue these psychedelic aesthetics in the way the text performs identification with the reader’s gaze. The form of the artwork as transferable while containing the “experience.”
An easy way to conceptualize this appears phylogenetically in the theme of childhood innocence. In contrast to Hesse, during the psychedelic era Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, projects a vision of the human race overcoming all subjectivity and ending itself through a kind of mass-scale transmigration of souls. Set in the near future Clarke describes a mood of secular disenchantment:
Profounder things had also passed. It was a completely secular age. Of faiths that had existed before the coming of the Overlords, only a purified form of Buddhism – perhaps the most austere of all religions – still survived. The creeds that had been based upon miracles and revelations had collapsed utterly. (66)
But ultimately the narrative of the book arrives at the space beyond humans, the posthuman:
There was nothing left of Earth: They [the last generation of children] had leeched away the last atoms of substance. It had nourished them, through their inconceivable metamorphosis, as food stored in a grain of wheat feeds a plant as it climbs toward the sun. (211)
In order for the book’s narrative to proceed from this point in the novel, the reader must adopt the longing gaze of the alien, Karellen—you become an alien yourself as you read the book—as he contemplates why his race is not allowed to evolve the way humans do. In following Karellen, the reader is invited to transcend humanity itself and become posthuman.
Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, compares Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the children in Clarke’s novel. Here, the “return” to nature is not a mere return but a fulfillment of some sort of evolutionary progress. Wolfe explicitly writes that the entire idea of the psychedelic experience involved in the acid and in the Prankster’s performance antics could be found in a long passage from Clarke’s book describing “total identification,” which was itself the product of constructed media space.
The history of cinema gave the clue to their actions. First sound, then color, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old ‘moving pictures’ more and more like reality itself. Where was the end of the story? Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became a part of the action. To achieve this would involve the stimulation of all the senses, and perhaps hypnosis as well…When the goal was attained, there would be an enrichment of human experience. A man could become – for a while, at least, – any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary. (233-234)
The Pranksters, through their performances, through LSD, through being aware of their own construction in their movie, “re-enchant” a participatory space. Total identification became the goal of their psychedelic aesthetics, but it was not ideologically a one-dimensional goal.
In Childhood’s End, it is significant that the last human, Jan, is a black man. With his characterization, Clarke expands citizenship and inverts the racist primitivism present in the early 1950s. Jan remains curious about space travel, and he had wanted to be an astronaut before the Overlords had come and made the innovation useless to humans. Because they’re so technologically advanced we don’t need to innovate anymore. His romantic dreams were not, however, destroyed.
Jan attends a party where an alien interested in paranormal activity in humans has come. The partygoers decide to play a Ouija Board, and Jan asks it the location of the Overlord’s home planet. The board, powered by Jean Greggson’s latent psychic ability, produces the exact coordinates to the astounded crowd. Jan decides to stowaway on the alien’s ship while Jean and her husband eventually move to the artist colony “New Athens,” where people are suspicious of the Overlords’ true intentions. Clarke describes New Athens as having been founded by a Jewish man, a nod to the recently created Israeli State merged with irenic Greece.
He had been born in Israel, the last independent nation ever to come into existence – and, therefore, the shortest lived. The end of national sovereignty had been felt here perhaps more bitterly than anywhere else, for it is hard to lose a dream which one has just achieved after centuries of striving. (139)
If Wolfe’s connection to the goals of the acid tests being the total identification achieved by the children in Clarke’s novel with the Overmind, the tests also push toward deterritorialization and transcendence of nation-states. In doing so, they appear to have given up transcendent religion altogether.
But secularization is also overcome through the enchantment of the psychic mind. Childhood as a theme in the works the Merry Pranksters found important was not just a return to the romantic construction of childhood innocence. Childhood also works as a theme in psychedelic aesthetics to invoke the perennial through the nostalgia produced by modernity’s claim to temporal progress and alienation from nature. History is overcome by moving to a pre-political state of nature both before and beyond the nation state.
Yet, simultaneously, this supposedly phylogenetic overcoming of history is actually a recasting of a eurochristian phantasy structure onto a pleasantly “innocent youthfulness” which unwittingly in its perennialist return to nature actualizes a flattened universalizing of the “human condition” that merely perpetuates earlier forms of eurochristian domination, only now in a secular (or postsecular) “spiritual-but-not-religious” awareness.
It is that very subjectivity that perpetuates a globalized extractivist mode of consumption long-incubated within Euro-Christian capitalism and even its dialectical tension with Marxian trajectories. “Spirituality” here may not even recognize itself as eurochristian-derived in its implementation of the Basileia tou theou enacted by liberal subjects who, in their own enchanted awareness, have transcended the moral authority of the nation-state to fulfill the extractive intention of an invisible hand. Thanks.
Jason Alvis: Thanks, Roger that was a fascinating—you used the phrase “imaginary journey” at one point and that’s exactly what you just took us on. The very end, the final—let’s say—two minutes, you packed in a lot of theory and a lot of ideas and I’m interested to see how we unpack that. Carl Raschke, you have the first chance to respond.
Carl Raschke: Well actually, I’m not responding, I’m giving a presentation.
Jason Alvis: Okay, go ahead and give your presentation.
Carl Raschke: Okay, so I’m going to follow up with the question, how did the psychedelic era turn into the era of neoliberalism? And I think Roger kind of gave an account of that at the very, very end right there.
I want to go back to what was one of the slogans of the late Sixties and early Seventies—I say late Sixties because it wasn’t really formulated until 1969—and that was a saying by Carol Hanisch, who wrote an essay in 1969—she was one of the architects, prime movers of what’s often known as second wave feminism—that was the phrase “the personal is political.”
In some ways that is a kind of epitomization of everything we might call about the Sixties’ mentalities and epistemic modalities. The Sixties was an era of the hyper personalization as well as the hyper privatization of culture. And I’ll explain how that happened. It became such a way that in the late 1970s Christopher Lasch, the famous social critic and theorist, wrote a best-selling book called The Culture of Narcissism, which is being taken up today by many, including myself, who are critiquing the culture of neoliberalism, particularly what Nancy Fraser, in her groundbreaking essays right around the time the 2016 election, calls “progressive neoliberalism.”
There’s a difference here because neoliberalism, which was originally an economic term has been, I think, misappropriated by many theorists as a conservative ideology when, in fact, it goes back to the Sixties and is a progressive ideology. There’s a book by Adam Kotsko, which came out a year before mine called Neoliberalism’s Demons. He tries to, in a sense, tie neoliberalism to the Reagan “revolution” or the Reagan reaction, as well as to the rise of evangelicalism, particularly political evangelicalism which he grew up in.
I maintain that this is all wrong. Neoliberalism, if we follow Foucault, is about the markets and it was essentially the progressive movement which adopted neoliberalism to create the global order that I think most of us find problematic, and so forth. So, what we see in the 1960s is the fragmentation of the rational neoliberal subject. The relation between subjectivity and rationality is, in many respects, the heart of the problem of subjectivity overall. And it gets down to the very basis of what happened in the 1960s.
In many ways, the operative term in the 1960s was ‘alternative,’ and the whole notion to try to find alternatives, alternativity, was in itself called a Movement with a capital ‘M’. So, how did this happen?
Well, we see, basically, the breakdown of what James Scott, who’s an anthropologist, calls high modernism. He says high modernism was in many ways the kind of faith, the rational faith of not only the enlightened but, many respects, the heritage of the western reformation itself. The emergence of the modern subject is also the emergence of the liberal subject.
Liberalism and high modernism are tied in intimately with the confidence in science and the autonomy of the rational agent, particularly the rational moral agent. Now this goes all the way back to John Locke but is refined by Kant. That’s why, in my book, Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, which was published in 2019 by Edinburgh University Press, I refer to Kant as, in many ways, the sort of tutelary deity of the neoliberal mind.
So, what was Kant really talking about then, that we have to take into serious consideration? Kant, in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” talks about what this kind of rationality is. He talks about it as an emancipated, universal rationality. He says that it is summed up in the expression “dare to know” sapere aude in Latin, release from one’s self-incurred tutelage. Now, the word tutelage in English is the common translation of the German word Unmündigkeit, which literally means ‘immaturity.’
So, Enlightenment is this kind of universal rationality, which is a release at, a collective human level, from our self-incurred immaturity. Now, notice the term self-incurred, because we incur it through, in some ways, our failure to exercise our reason, our God-given, naturally endowed rational nature, and, in a sense, to express our yearning for the transcendent in this particular way. The yearning for transcendence, which is in many ways the key to religion—by the way this was a term was thrown about constantly throughout the 1960s, ‘transcendence.’
It’s about finding transcendence, finding the liminal, going beyond the boundaries of what the mind can possibly conceive. This was in many ways characteristic of the enlightenment as Theodore Roszak wrote about in his book called The Making of a Counterculture. He called it a kind of New Romanticism as a rejection of the enlightenment, but in many ways it was different than the Romantic era because it was not an aristocratic movement.
It was an effort to try to tap what might may be called the deeper transcendence within the structure of human rationality, which many people in the Sixties, particularly intellectuals, saw as not only challenged by the Freudian hypothesis, but, at the same time, was something that what we might call the enlightenment model of reason can no longer capture.
When Kant, in his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, talked about religion without religion—a term that has taken up in recent years as a kind of slogan of post-modernism by John D. Caputo—he was really, in a sense, pointing to this idea, that was rife throughout the 1960s, of this kind of transcendent rationality which goes beyond the kind of formal rationality that was allowed only for scholars and also aristocrats.
For Kant, and this is why Kant was criticized so heavily by Nietzsche—because Nietzsche didn’t like the idea of the rationality of the common human being—Kant believed that this moral transcendence was something that was capable of every person regardless of their level of education. In fact, by virtue of being human, and he sum this up in the so-called categorical imperative—act in such a way that your principle of rational action becomes a universal maxim for all rational beings.
But rationality for Kant is not a given, it has to be developed, cultivated, formed. It has to be managed, so to speak, by formal institutions that will create a whole social order that is derived from its free exercise among individuals. The German word that Kant uses, is of course, Bildung, which means formation, but it’s also related etymologically to the English word ‘building.’ The German word Ausbildung, that is building out or a build out, is the word that is used for education, particularly higher education.
Hence, to fulfill the imperative of Enlightenment, for Kant, is to focus on education, not just self-education or self-development. In many ways the whole notion of the self-help movement, as it’s called in American society, and in the 1960s it was called the Human Potential Movement—realizing these untapped uh potentialities or dynamic forces within each of us—requires an institutional structure, or an educational structure.
So, in other words, I would argue that the Sixties was not so much—as it still is considered by its conservative critics to be—an outburst of irrationalism, but it was an effort to find a profounder and a more expansive rationalism that went beyond the dictates of what might be called technocratic rationality, particularly the technocratic rationality that was used by capitalism to dominate the world.
For Kant, this new rationality is found in morality. Now, Kant distinguishes in the Critique of Practical Reason between what he calls the good will and the pragmatic will, or between pure moral self-determination and what he calls utilitarian morality. Utilitarian morality has an end in mind, it is a means to an end. Pure rational morality, according to Kant, is an end in itself.
Reason, by its very nature, has its interests, for pragmatic rationality, for pragmatic morality the interests of those of the individual. For Kantian morality the interest of reason is itself, and the interest of reason is fulfilled in the moral law. Kant, in his famous line from his later writings, talks about “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Kant, of course, was a pietist, he was a child of the Radical Reformation, but a radical reformation that had been totally taken over by the enlightenment. So, for him inner transcendence, we might call it, the new kind of deeper alternative rationality, was to be found in morality, and I have argued this is essentially what the principle of neoliberalism is. I’m in agreement, I think, very much with Wendy Brown on this.
I won’t talk a lot about the literature on neoliberalism, you can read my book on that, but I’ll take that as a starting point because, for Kant, religion and rationality go together. There is a rationality that emerges after the religious impulse is expressed. So, one thing we might call it is an expressive rationality.
America has always been, as many critics have said, and many people who are trying to defend the traditional American legacy today, particularly when they talk about Supreme Court decisions, have said, that we’re essentially a religious nation.
And historically that’s pretty much true. America was founded—I’m not speaking from the Native American perspective here, I’m talking within the standpoint of the ideology of American exceptionalism—as an errand in the wilderness, undertaken by religious dissenters, those who, in some ways, had discovered the deeper meaning, the more committed meaning of what religion is. Not just a kind of social practice, religion is a whole way of life, it’s a way of dedicating yourself in an absolute way to the absolute God.
So, that is a summary of how many of these streams became the Radical Reformation, including German pietism. Many of these religious dissenters who migrated to America were all at odds with each other but, in some ways, they all formed the European complex and they began to see their own religious working out of this sense of divine destiny as having a rationality to it. That’s why I would argue that, if you look historically at the whole idea of Manifest Destiny in America—which was a term that was not coined until the 1840s, but it was used to justify the Western expansion of America and also later colonialism—it was a religious calling, a deep profound religious calling, primarily a Christian calling—but it also had its Jewish supporters as well—to in a sense bring about the kingdom of God on earth.
And what happened as the result of this religious impulse became rationalized as well. This is the American way—this was God’s Providence. The philosopher Hegel in his book On the Philosophy of History, in the 1840s, called this the cunning of reason (die List der Vernunft). The cunning of reason is a rationality that is realized after the fact, after, as Hegel says, one exercises one’s passions and one makes decisions that don’t necessarily have an immediate interest or an end in mind but are done out of this pure internal transcendent compulsion.
And once they’re done, the order that we get is seen as, in some ways, being what God intended all along. In other words, it is rational. Now, I want to get to how this all affects the Sixties, and I’m laying this out as background. What happened in the Sixties is this idea of what you might call American exceptionalism or the rationality of American triumphalism after the fact, as the outworking of a destiny that religious devotion and religious passion had set about.
And I just want to make a comment here before I go any further, that this still goes on the academic world—a lot of debate about what America’s founding principles were. Was it founded on Enlightenment principles or was founded on religious principles? The answer is, it was both. It was found on the kind of rational religiosity that we find articulated most perspicuously in a philosopher like Kant—though nobody had ever heard of Kant, of course, in America up until the middle of the 19th century.
In many ways, Kantianism became the sort of Manifest Destiny of Germany itself in the 19th century, and with all the German immigration that took place, from particularly around the 1760s up until the 1870s—when my own ancestors, who were actually from Silesia, from Eastern Europe, the Slavic part of Germany migrated as draft dodgers from the Franco-Prussian war. But they bore this kind of Kantian legacy, and that played into what we might call American civil religion, which I’m not going to talk about here but it’s an interesting topic in itself.
The Sixties was the breakdown not only of the what we might call the architectonic—I’m using a Kantian term their—liberal rationality of the enlightenment, but it was also a breakdown of the civil religion, the sense of civic mission, which in its more extreme forms was predatory Manifest Destiny, colonialism, genocide, slavery, etcetera. But each one of those can’t be just simply subsumed under this paradigm, they have to be critically analyzed as trends or movements in their own right.
But there became this grand disillusion with the civic religion. Now again, I’m talking primarily about the dominant white society here, because these were in many ways the bearers of the intellectual tradition and they were also the agents for its critique and its transformation. The critique itself became a new form of domination, as I argue in my book, which we know as neoliberalism.
But what happened was a kind of disenchantment, a kind of terror that had not sunk in, even after the Second World War because America had won that war, but it had not been devastated domestically in the way Europe had. But it was the Cold War, the fact that we were not alone in the world as this new hegemony after the Second World War. This was the anti-communism, the Stalinists, the “Red Scare,” and it culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when for a week in October it looked like the world was actually going to blow up.
So, previous wars had always been to defend democracy as a commonwealth of rational decision making—in some ways the paradigm of the Republic—but the Vietnam War was not rational. It started out as the fruit of very careful technocratic planning, but it was also in some ways an inevitable failure because the planners were pushed further and further by a kind of logic that was not rational. That is, the rationale of America’s religious destiny.
America couldn’t let Southeast Asia go to the communists because communism was not only anti-American, it was anti-Enlightenment, it was anti-democratic. And there was the so-called domino theory, if they take Saigon then they’re going to take Australia and then they’re going to take San Francisco and on and on and on. It was based on this notion of America’s rationalities being under grave threat.
But it was also at this same time that, because of the emphasis on higher education, Americans began to discover, for the first time—or at least became seared into their consciousness—the contradictions of their own heritage, particularly with the civil rights movement they began to discover the contradictions of Jim Crow.
The fact [is] that the — let’s call it the Kantian imperative in American destiny — was only for a certain privileged few, particularly those with a certain kind of racial characteristics. But it wasn’t just about race, it was also about other forms of exception, i.e., gender—though in those days we didn’t use the word we talked about sex.
In fact, it was the women’s movement, second generation feminism that I’ve mentioned before—in 1969 there was a cover story with a woman raising a black power fist, even though she was white—it was called women’s liberation and that was the beginning of what we call radical feminism, the idea that it’s not about equality it’s about the expressive identity of women to become women and to, in a sense, have not only equal rights but to be recognized for who they are as women.
This same mentality, which in this way the conservatives are very crudely right, was a form of Marxism but it actually was not sanctioned by the Marxists. It was, in many ways, a rejection of Marxist rhetoric, particularly of class consciousness, the idea that class consciousness was really a form of white male hegemony.
So, it was within the “movement” itself that what we call identity politics or, as was known at the time, the politics of recognition began to emerge. Now, I’m running out of time here and I want to get to something that I think is key in the formation of neoliberalism. The Sixties was also the beginning of a new kind of economic rationality. It was not a rationality of a deeper transcendence, but it was a rationality that flew in the face of what Weber had called the Protestant ethic.
Weber had pointed out that capitalism and the protestant ethic went hand in hand with each other, but now, in light of the experience of the 1930s and the 1940s, this idea that since one produces goods one accumulates capital for the glory of God went out the window. This was the ethic of producer capitalism, which was based on the Protestant ethic, and the Thirties had shown the fraud of this idea just like the 1960s had demonstrated the fraud of the idea of American Manifest Destiny.
So, what we had in the in the Sixties was the beginning of what Daniel Bell calls consumer capitalism, an idea which he analyzed and pushed forward and we now take for granted, which was, in many respects, a new idea in the 1960s. The title of his book is The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, and he points out this contradiction between production and consumption, which Keynes had discovered in his economics, that you can’t have production without consumption, so how do you stimulate consumption.
And that, in many ways, was the genius of Madison Avenue in the 1950s. Madison Avenue didn’t discover consumer advertising, the theory of it was developed in the 1920s as a result of the kind of popularization of Freudian theory. But neo-Freudianism, which was the dominant form of psychoanalysis the 1950s, talked about ego formation, the formation of the self, and the creation of a healthy identity.
So, Vance Packard had written a book about how this was done by advertising agencies in the 1950s. It was called The Hidden Persuaders, and it claimed that you have to manipulate the unconscious, you have to create wants and desires in people who don’t realize that they really want this. It’s not about doing good, it’s not about solving your family, it’s about another form of transcendence which is not a spiritual or moral self-transcendence but a self-transcendence toward desire.
One of the things that Madison Avenue discovered, and you can see this in some of the sub-themes of a popular show like Mad Men, is that people don’t know what they want, but what they want is everything that everybody else wants. As the phrase went in the 1950s, they want to keep up with the Joneses.
Jacques Lacan formulated this in his seminars during the same period, using a famous phrase that all desire is the desire of the other. We want what others want, and we act on our wants in such a way as we think they will want, and we see these as our own desires.
In consumer capitalism, therefore, it’s not about creating more things so much as selling more the same thing and creating the issuing of more. There was another book that was published in the Sixties which became not only the new bible of this marketing movement but of the beginnings of neoliberalism itself, there was a Harvard economist by the name of Theodore Levitt who wrote a book called The Marketing Imagination. Interestingly, Levitt was also the one that invented the term, at the time, called globalization.
Levitt’s theory in The Marketing Imagination was that it’s not about creating new products, it’s about creating experiences. People, in a sense, take the same product but experience it in a new way, and his theory was not, as it is in the restaurant industry location, location, location but differentiation, differentiation, differentiation. So, in other words you’re consuming the same thing but you’re having a different kind of experience to go along with it.
Now what LSD became, and I’ll get to this real quickly, LSD became the agent for the breakdown of the liberal, rational order and, therefore, the mystification of experience which opened up a whole new world, you might call an empire of desire, by which people could want experiences that they’d never had before, to go through what Victor Turner, the anthropologists, called the liminal space, in which people’s selves are transformed.
Todd Gitlin, and here’s a book if one really wants to look at a book that talks about the Sixties, it’s called The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, he says that throughout the Sixties, in our political activism, we wondered endlessly about who we are. He said the theory of identity comes from Madison Avenue, but we adopted it to politics.
The new ego psychology became a form of activism, particularly among the children of traditional radicals, the so-called red diaper babies. Their children had been communists in the Sixties and even Stalinists in the Fifties. But now they saw the great consumer cornucopia before them, and they wanted to transform the world to be good Marxists, but they wanted to have the same experiences that advertising offered. You call this the new expressive politics of the New Left.
The New Left and the hippie movement basically, Gitlin says, converge out of this push for self-othering. But, in many ways, you can’t become an other without, in a sense, deciding who you’re going to become. And who one thought to become, now, was not the heritage you were born into but the other. Norman Mailer, in his essay “The White Negro” in 1957, put this on the line very carefully.
In other words, many people want to be black. Why? Because they don’t know what white means anymore, because white means liberal which means rational which means you are a prisoner of the consumer society. You don’t want a house in The Hamptons anymore, you want to change the world, you want to identify with the dispossessed.
And so, this is, of course, the beginning of the process of cultural appropriation, which Mailer, as far back as the 1950s, pointed out as the future of the new expressive politics. So, to sum up then, expressive culture and expressive politics turned into a kind of professionalism in the 1970s. You can see this in a popular movie called The Big Chill, the kind of disenchantment with the Sixties and also sense of the pointlessness of it all and even the kind of new nihilism that is beginning to emerge—you know, it’s all about me.
A popular book was written during this period called Looking Out for #1—you know getting an education, becoming a business major, becoming a tycoon, becoming rich, becoming a cocaine dealer, getting rid of your LSD or your marijuana, which are about feeling cool and hip, and taking drugs would stimulate you to manifest your own self-personal drive. The empire of desire becomes the empire of ego.
This is also a time in which marketing now begins to appropriate people’s dissatisfaction with the reigning order, and the discovery that if you’re going to have a true global economy in which capitalism is going to expand, you have to play, following Levitt, on other people’s identities. You have to market to their identities, particularly their sense of otherness, even people’s faux sense of otherness. Žižek’s essay, in 1997 “Multiculturalism, or, The Logic of Multinational Capitalism” talks about how multinational capitalism requires the diversity of expressive identities and expressive cells.
Okay, so I’m over time a little bit and I kind of ran through that last part there, but that’s my analysis and we can bring out more of that in the give-and-take.
Jason Alvis: Thanks, Carl. I really appreciated that, and I think it sets up an interesting juxtaposition with Roger’s presentation. It seemed like there’s two different classes that both of you were addressing in the Sixties, interestingly. But yeah, I’ll let the two of you discuss that and work that out.
So, now we have a bit of time for a discussion between Carl and Roger and then after their original discussion we’re going to open it up for Q&A. I left a comment in the chat box, I hope you all can see that and see some of the conversation going on there already. But if you have a question just write in that chat box, I have a question, or you can go ahead and write out your question in that section there and that way we can be reflecting on it and then discuss it.
So, Carl, Roger please.
Roger Green: Carl and I talk all the time so, unless Carl had a specific question for me, I’m happy to jump straight to questions. Patrick has a comment first to talk more about some things and Sarah Pessin says she has a question.
Carl Raschke: That’s fine. I just want to say again, I’m not saying this pridefully or to give myself some you know kind of privilege here, but unlike many here, I actually lived through the Sixties, not necessarily chronological, but being there in the heart of the movement in Berkeley in the late Sixties, I was there. I went to Boston which was sort of Berkeley West in the early Seventies, and I was in involved in it culturally as well as politically, in many respects, and so I don’t speak from history books, even though history books, are very useful for me.
When Todd Gitlin writes about, for example, in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, which is, I think, a very good summary title of what the Sixties were about, he talks about the People’s Park Riot as kind of the turning point, I want to say, not only was I there, I was taking a course in liberal theology which ended with a tear gas canister being thrown through the window. And that sort of became a metaphor for both the beginning of my academic career and the end of what might be called the years of hope.
Jason Alvis: Well, Roger if you like we can go ahead and take a question from Patrick. Patrick, do you want to unmute yourself and ask your question?
Patrick Soch: Sure, thank you. Carl, you brought that last point about somebody sort of claiming blackness because they didn’t quite understand whiteness or didn’t want to be identified as white, and I think we see this sort of taken to the nth degree in contemporary culture with trans-racialism and, I guess I don’t know what the exact terminology for it is, but people who are not disabled saying that they feel like they identify as disabled, sort of these unrooted—I would say unrooted—identity claims as forms of subjectivity. They masquerade as radicalism but are really just a flip side of radical individuality, I would say. And they kind of confirm Roger’s point that some of these movements out of the Sixties reinscribe what they portend to critique. If both of you could speak to some of these trends, that would be great.
Carl Raschke: If I could add one point, which I didn’t because I was running out of time. You need to read Mailer’s essay because it was very influential at the time, and of course a lot of people don’t even know Norman Mailer is. Some of you may have noticed on my twitter account, I don’t fall in line with all the kind of days of rage today, particularly among people in their 20s and 30s, just because I’ve lived through it and I see the Sixties being kind of recycled right now, in some ways in even less authentic ways. And a lot of my skepticism about what’s happening right now is because of lived experience, not, you know, because I’m you know an old fuddy-duddy or anything like that.
In some ways we are still Americans, and the American obsession with itself is a kind of global narcissism that we still don’t seem to be working out. We think that all the world’s problems are our problems but there’s still the problems of the elites that is, I think, the one issue. But what Mailer says is, he actually says the hipster is the white negro. And he’s not writing a racial essay so much as he’s laying out the theory of cultural appropriation and of identitarianism as a way of not coming to terms with your own loss of purpose.
You still have a sense of Manifest Destiny, but it’s a manifest destiny with yourself. It’s a Manifest Destiny that is, in some ways, nihilism. It fits very well with Nietzsche wrote about in The Will to Power. It’s the end of the West not the beginning, and it’s a pathology of the elites. Mailer identified this back in 1957, believe it or not.
So, David Brooks, The New York Times columnist a lot of people don’t like, you know he’s on PBS and I have mixed feelings about Brooks, but you know he’s very articulate and sometimes he writes very insightful pieces. He wrote an essay right after the turn of the millennium about the bohemian bourgeoisie and he talked about, at the same time that Richard Florida had written this best-selling book called The Rise of the Creative Class, these people who are creatives—that’s the term right now, it doesn’t mean artists it means the new technocrats the new digital nomads.
Which, by the way, was a self-identification of this woman in Canada who tried to send ricin to Donald Trump. She obviously self-identifies with Florida’s idea, people who are highly educated but people who feel uprooted, who don’t know who they are or what they want. But they have a passion to save the world somehow, and so forth. It’s still, in subtle ways, this kind of Kantian rationality, which is now expressed as a form of neoliberal domination.
And neoliberalism is not about conservatives trying to take over the world. You watch something like the movie, With God on Our Side (2009), which was a documentary about the rise of the religious right, that came out just when George Bush was running for president, and the way in which he leveraged the religious right. George Bush didn’t win the 2000 election by a hair’s breadth because he had the religious right behind him, Ronald Reagan had it too, but what he did was, he was able to keep it intact for the last time so he could maintain this sort of progressive neoliberal idea which he expressed in the idea of the compassionate conservative.
And Bill Clinton, his third way, this was all part of Kantian neoliberal rise it was identity politics, the politics of self-interest as self-transcendence. Through creating a notion that you are special, you have a unique experience, you have to experience everything else, that’s why you have to accumulate degrees. You’re not just a working class stiff anymore, you’re not like Archie Bunker, who’s this kind of foil of the 1970s, but you are the new people that are in control, you are part of the empire of desire, which is a global empire.
So, one really needs to go read Mailer’s essay because Mailer was probably the unsung prophet of the Sixties and Seventies, that many of us have sort of forgotten. I might let Roger say something about that. I don’t know, he’s never moved to Norman Mailer to me but …
Roger Green: Yeah, I’m not going to talk about Mailer’s essay, it’s an important essay but, just in the interest of people who haven’t read it, right now I want to speak to Patrick’s statement from a different tack, and I want to think about the late Sixties and the birth of terrorism in the U.S. and in Germany, because I want to try and make that kind of connection just for the audience today.
So, of course, terrorism we could take back to state terrorism of the French Revolution and make a kind of genealogical history there, but I just want to look at this kind of radical individualism and what happens both in Germany and in the U.S. and in other places during ’68. So, this is happening all over the world and you have different reactions in different places. They gunned the students down in Mexico City, for example in ‘68.
Then we get Ohio State in 1970 in the U.S. But what you see is this increasing radicalization. You see affluent left society having a failure of compassion. So, what they seek to do is to align themselves, especially in Germany with people like Franz Fanon, with postcolonial thought of what people used to call the Third World.
So, the postcolonial entities, the German left, the German youth, really saw a kind of alignment with global postcolonialism because they wanted to see themselves as being against the Nazi past of their parents. So, by claiming a kind of world consciousness they wanted to reach out to the proletariat, what they saw as proletariat. You see this going on in France in May of ’68, as well, and you see it going on in the U.S. to a different degree, this attempt of privileged youth to align themselves with proletariat or previously colonized places in the world.
And it shows up, more or less, in radicalizations. So that, yes, you have The Weather Underground in the United States, but then you have the Red Army Faction in Germany or the Baader-Meinhof Group as they’re called sometimes. [See Elliot Neaman’s book, Free Radicals.] So, you get this kind of radicalization but the only thing that the liberals can do is to radicalize and become terrorists themselves. So, that impulse towards terrorism we see both on the right and the left in the 20th century—we could just fast forward to 2020, from the early Seventies to 2020, and we have the militarization of the police, the creation of what look like some kinds of secret police, unmarked police, and in places like Portland, the alignment of the police with neo-fascist groups and white supremacist groups.
The overt allowance of that sort of thing is happening at the same time that you see the radical individualization of the one guy with the gun protesting and not being seen as a threat but the Movement for Black Lives people, who are not armed, are being seen as a threat. And then, of course, the mask issues as well, that’s the hyper-individualism that we see, where it’s just a complete blur, I call it a political vortex between right and left—those kinds of metaphors don’t really matter so much anymore.
I wanted to, maybe, push to Sarah’s question, just to get more voices in here.
Carl Raschke: Can I just add something, quickly that I think is important? This will in some ways feed into what I know is Sarah’s interest. There’s kind of this messianism in all of this, and I want to read quickly a quote from Gitlin’s book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. It’s on page 213 where he talks about the tensions between the political and the experiential. He says, “despite these tensions, there was a direct line from the expressive politics of the New Left to the counter culture’s let it all hang out way of life.”
He talks about the people of SNCC, when they shifted to LSD. He says “SDS” that was Students for a Democratic Society, which was the kind of prototype of the New Left:
SDS’s prairie power generation, in 1965, saw no barrier between radical politics and drug culture. The New Left’s founding impulse said from the start, ‘create the future in the present, sit in, right now, at the lunch counter, as if race didn’t count.’ Historically the traditions were tangled, intertwined. The synthesizers took up a grand American tradition of trying to fuse public service and private joy. The Masses, for example, the pre-World War I magazine that brought the cultivation of self and youth cheek-to-jowl with socialism, feminism, and the anti-war crusade. Now there was a populace on which to dream, the unleashed young, the so-called youthquake as it was called on the verge of 1967 Summer of Love. Many were the radicals and cultural revolutionaries in search of convergence, trying to nudge the New Left and the counterculture together, to imagine them as yin and yang of the same epical world transformation. (213-214)
Sarah Pessin: Let me jump in, Carl, because I guess what I’m going say is somewhat related to the messianism frame, so good call on that. It was forecasting what my question was about. So, I guess my question for Roger and Carl is just, if you can speak a little bit about—and this might just be a sort of big background question, but it would be helpful for me—what, at the methodological level, do you take yourselves to be doing, vis-a-vis the question of ideology and whether it is surmountable?
So, in other words, critique at some level is a way of creating new spaces, but I guess it would just be helpful for me to hear both of you talk a little bit about, when we read with both of you and see these different critiques and ways of seeing the links between the Sixties and neoliberalism, what is the activity that we’re doing, related to the question of is ideology something that can be shifted, surmounted, or not? And if yes or no what are we doing? And, I guess relatedly, Roger and Carl both talked about multiple pieces, but in some respects, Roger ended with the idea of the Sixties running into what he described as eurochristian flattening, universalizing of the human condition, and Carl ended off talking about the opposite, of that which is like a hyper-individual empire of ego.
So, I guess, with both speakers, in a way, there’s like pincers of opposing pathologies and it leads me to ask, related to the first question, is it the case that within an ideological tunnel that we’re in, no matter what you do is going to run into a neoliberal affront? Or, to say it differently, given the way the Sixties leads to neoliberalism—it leads to it if you go too much on the universal and it leads to it if you go too much on the particular—so that leads me to ask you both to reflect on that, and does that mean that there’s just simply no way out, once a certain course of history is underway? No matter what you do, at this point, even if you think you’re breaking out of neoliberalism, in five years from now we’re going to tell the story of how you did this other neoliberal thing?
I guess these are interrelated questions. I’m commenting on the fact that both of you showed how it leads to neoliberalism whether you focus on the universal or on the particular, if that’s one way to say it, but then relatedly, I want to know what is this activity that we’re doing and, to the messianic point, is there any way of actually opening this space? I just want to hear you both speak to what you think about that.
Kieryn Wurts: Can I add an addendum to that question? I’m really interested in Sarah’s question too, in so far as first she asks kind of the methodological question and what you see yourselves doing with this, I think you can call it a genealogy of the Sixties and kind of a political genealogy, so what’s going on methodologically, what’s to be done with neoliberalism—kind of the million-dollar question—and then third, in the titles of both of your most recent books, you understand yourselves as doing political theology, so, if I could just circle back on that first part, how do you understand the political theology that you’re doing?
Carl Raschke: I would say that what I am doing is political theology, but I’ll defer to Roger and let him start.
Roger Green: Yeah, so just on the methodological question, I’m just going to tell you this. I work with the literary, I’m primarily interested in the literary, and so what I’m doing is a kind of cultural poetics, which is a term that comes from Stephen Greenblatt, who’s often pegged as a new historicist, but I like the term cultural poetics. I’m going to use a quotation here, just really quickly, from Daniel Boyarin, who uses the similar method in a book called Carnal Israel, which is a totally different subject, but I just like the way he sums up what we do.
It is a practice that respects the literariness of the literary text, that is as texts that are marked by rhetorical complexity, and for which that surface formal feature is significant for their interpretation, while attempting at the same time to understand how they function within a larger socio-cultural system of practices. (14)
So, we look at a text as a kind of reflection, but something that presents itself as literary itself, and in addition to what Boyarin says, what I’m trying to do is to approach the reading of genres with a certain degree of flexibility, what Michel Foucault has called discourses, while also trying to attend to the nuances within these discussions. And this is something that’s typical of all of my writing, or recent writing, on The New Polis, this interest in the literary, what philosophers do with the literary. Sometimes I think philosophers take literary examples as what Aristotle calls inartistic proofs, instead of artistic proofs, only to further their own arguments.
So, uses of literature is something that I’m interested in, as well as this complex of discourses. That’s what I’m doing as an analytical method and, to the extent that I extract that into some sort of cultural formations, like the Movement for Black Lives, in that recent answer, is as a way of first grounding and then extrapolating from that. Why I’m interested in the Sixties and in aesthetics in general is, I think that there is something in what Herbert Marcuse called the aesthetic dimension. Yes, I know that there are criticisms for this, but I believe that what has been lost through identity politics, through neoliberalism is a sense of something that aesthetics do and that, when that is mystified, it is completely dangerous in the Levinasian sense, and when it is completely unaccounted for you’re left in this space between what Walter Benjamin calls, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” the aestheticization of politics and the politics of aesthetics at the end of that particular essay.
[Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art. 20]
So, that’s what I’m kind of trying to do. And then, of course, I was trying to lead into Carl’s talk because I knew he was going to talk about neoliberalism. I’ll talk about political theology in a minute but that’s my method.
Carl Raschke: Well, I had mentioned Adam Kotsko’s book before, which came out a year before mine and I think his books probably been read more than mine, simply because the publisher offered it for twenty dollars, and I didn’t realize this but Edinburgh University Press only offered it in hardback. It may be coming down in price now, it seems that people are writing about it. It’s a wholly different argument about what neoliberalism is. There are demons, but the demons are not the demons of conservatives they’re the demons of people who think that they’re changing, the world demons we haven’t confronted yet.
To give a personal reminiscence, I was in a philosophical seminar at the University of California, Berkeley in, it was the winter or spring in 1968. I remember it was right about the time where I almost got drafted to go to the Vietnam War, and that’s a story in itself, which I’m writing about in my memoirs. And the professor, who was from India, we didn’t have such a thing as postcolonial theory at the time, but I think you could call him a postcolonial theorist, because he was very interesting in what he said. Of course, I wasn’t acquainted with anything at the time, I was only 24 years old actually and immersing myself in this topic.
But he said, what’s happening now, this very year, is that we are in control for the first time in history. And people asked, what do you mean by the ‘we,’ and he said, we the intelligentsia, we the academics, for the first time we are in control. And that struck with me, because Peter Drucker when he wrote this essay, right in the late Nineties, I think it was, talked about the knowledge worker and the new knowledge society. And some ways we live in a whole new form of capitalism, digital capitalism.
It’s what Bernard Stiegler calls immaterial capitalism. It’s a capitalism that is basically built upon the creation of human capital and human potential and human experiences. And this of course is what Žižek is talking about it’s what Stiegler is talking about, a lot of these basically famous critical theorists. But we listen to these people, including the feminists. That’s what’s so interesting about Nancy Fraser to me, she’s one of the foremost feminist theorists and she was the first to say the emperor has no clothes.
Her essay, which appeared in Dissent the very month Trump was elected where she talked about progressive neoliberalism and said, we see the 2016 election as this kind resurgence of barbarism, but actually it’s a reaction to progressive neoliberalism and the system of domination that’s perfected itself.
We haven’t realized that yet. Not that I’m defending Trumpism whatsoever, by any means, but as intellectuals were famous for talking about the people who we see as terrorists you know trying to understand them. And we don’t understand them, the populists the Modi’s of India and so forth.
We throw on this term fascism because we don’t understand ourselves, we don’t understand to what degree we are like in the famous line of Pogo—he was talking about the Vietnam War, he was talking about America—when he said “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Maurizio Lazzarato, in his book, The Making of Indebted Man which he’s writing from a neo-Marxist perspective, and in some ways, I think we need to discover what real Marxism really means because Marxism is about class and inequality. This was the issue that the Sixties never addressed and still isn’t being addressed.
And with COVID it’s becoming even more pronounced—economic inequality and the self-consciousness that comes with it. You can’t have society based on neoliberal elites who become increasingly wealthy, who claim to justify themselves in the name of some kind of higher historical destiny or good, even if it’s now understood as global. Because underneath that there are many who don’t have the voice, who cannot articulate it, who see the fraud.
This is what postcolonialism is all about. In some ways the worldwide populist movement—we don’t have to accept it or embrace it, but we certainly need to understand it—is a form of anti-neoliberal, postcolonialism—a postcolonialism of disenfranchised people, not the educated elites, not the educated elites who become the dominant economic elites. And that’s sort of my methodology, to get to that point. How did we get there? We got this way from the people who revolted in Berkeley.
Berkeley in the Sixties was the first “revolution” that didn’t begin at the factory door. Nor did it begin in the working-class compounds. It began in the university, the free speech movement, 1964. That was the beginning of what was called the movement, and it was it was intellectual elites who, in a sense, redefined history for themselves with a whole new kind of subjectivity. A new subjectivity, a desire that became economized and commodified and ultimately became a dominant system, and we are the products of this.
We have to understand this. If we don’t understand this, we’re going to be lost with what’s coming, and what’s coming is something that’s not very pretty. I don’t want to go there, but …
Sarah Pessin: Carl, the last thing you said, that’s what I want to just clarify, “if we don’t realize this” then what? Say that sentence again. Like what if we do realize it, what’s the difference? That’s the part I want to hear you say.
Carl Raschke: I think if we do realize that we can retool very quickly. I mean, we realize the whole issue of systemic racism in America—I don’t want to get into this right now—but the way this is being addressed now, the term systemic racism came up in the late Sixties. This was part of the whole New Left repertoire of issues, particularly the Black Panther movement.
Sarah Pessin: Carl, are you sure? How can we quickly retool? So, in other words, here are twelve of us or whatever …
Carl Raschke: We have to understanding what the goals are. In some ways the goals are what the whole notion of politics of recognition was all about. Interestingly, a guy like Fukuyama, in his book called The Politics of Recognition, he was the one, of course, who wrote The End History and the Last Man, which was the famous neoliberal manifesto, basically says we’ve forgotten it’s all about dignity.
It’s about dignity and recognition of the other. It’s not accidental, Sarah, that I end my book on neoliberalism and political theology with a kind of tribute to Levinas, because I think the Levinasian way that we deal with ethics is, if we can make it more programmatic or institutionalize it, if we can politicize it in a real genuine way, is the answer.
Roger Green: I want to come back to Kieryn’s point and this point about ideology that’s showing up just as a quick point of clarification here. So, I understand the discussion of ideology as already within a kind of Marxian tradition and particularly the famous Althusser essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970). What Althusser does, is he subordinates the religious realm to ideology itself and I would rather kind of invert that and say that what political theology is, is ideology par excellence.
And so, the problem of Marxianism and those trajectories, the liberatory, messianic movements, is that they perpetuate a form of eurochristian temporality that pushes towards a kind of utopianism or a futurity or a Parousia, and that is part of the problem.
The eurochristian element is part of the problem. So, when I’m talking about doing political theology, I’m trying to name that eurochristian problem and unpack it. If there’s a way out, it has to be a way out of eurchristianity as a social movement.
If you are readers of The New Polis, look to Tink Tinker’s piece on eurochristianity, this is an analytic term that we use, and it’s a complete anti-approach to kind of the broader discourse that’s become quite popular in certain circles of academia, of political theology and it’s why we founded The New Polis as a reaction to what was happening on Political Theology Today. That’s why I left writing for them.
Jason Alvis: So, we have quite a few questions coming in about drugs, Roger. And Carl, I’m sure you have some experience with this topic as well. Let’s see here, we’ll scroll back up. I had posed a question about the increase in recent decades of drugs used for medical purposes, and Drake also took interest in this, about the use of MDMA.
So, maybe the two of you could say a little bit about that. I’m not sure if you have access to that question in the chat box there.
Roger Green: Yeah, I can speak quickly to MDMA and what’s happening along that process, which is an extension of the birth of, and the massive growth of the psychiatry movement, which if you look—so I’m seeing this reference to Hartogsohn’s recent book—at an earlier book called Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens, in intro chapters he talks about how basically in the early 1940s we’re talking about less than a thousand psychiatrists in the united states and by the end of the 1940s, 8,000. And this growing profession of human care, whether it’s behaviorist or Freudian talk therapy, keeps on exploding and exploding.
And so, what is happening there is that they see the normal working-class person as being somehow in need of care. It’s probably a reaction to the war but they need to be normalized into a healthy society. And homosexuality and all this sort of stuff is going on. So, what is happening [currently] with MDMA, although it is coming from a good place, in groups like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies or MAPS—I was in a talk with them last week, not participating but listening—what they have done is they’ve used the rhetoric of veterans returning from wars to advance the legalization, the therapeutic legalization of MDMA, with the idea that behind that is LSD and psilocybin, and this will become the new therapeutic culture.
So, I see this as part of what Foucault might call the biopoliticization or the domestication of psychedelics into a sort of normalized space of professionalism of neoliberalism. I’m totally for the end of all drug wars and the deregulation and decriminalization of all substances. Let’s just be clear about that. That’s an awful imposition. The drug war is a reaction to Sixties stuff, it’s state terrorism at the highest level. So, all substances, I don’t care about cocaine, heroin, any of it, so just be clear about that.
But at the same time, what we see in this professionalization is a big divide between the plant-based people and the chemical-based people, and lots of tensions that I can talk about there. So, the impulse and the rhetoric around it is always medicalized, it’s always made therapeutic, it’s always about care of the self, and that is just a recapitulation of neoliberalism itself.
Carl Raschke: Let me just quickly add something there. Foucault, his whole theory of the biopolitical, or if you read “Security, Territory, Population” he talks about the development of the pastorate, and the argument that I make in my book Neoliberalism and Political Theology is that neoliberalism is essentially a kind of contemporary version, iteration, transformation of the pastorate or the biopolitical in Foucault’s sense. And drugs, identity, the proper experience, particularly the proper moral experience, as Wendy Brown talks about with this theory of responsibilism, this is all part of the same thing.
In some ways we have institutionalized the Sixties and we call it capitalism, but capitalism is a kind of throwaway term because it can mean everything and nothing.
Jason Alvis: All right, so Adam, do you want to jump in here? You had some questions earlier, you mentioned.
Adam Loch: Yeah, thank you. This has been really stimulating and super informative. It’s just interesting, I loved Sarah’s and Kieryn’s questions with regard to method because that is essentially the question I have between Carl and Roger, and I’m most interested in mobilizing aesthetics in a way that can elicit an effective participation in relation with others, that generates temporalities otherwise than eurochristianity. And I kind of just entered some notes here from Roger’s book. Essentially, there’s something about perspective, there’s something about dialogical situations, there’s something about habitus, that can possibly afford modalities otherwise in thinking.
As somebody who’s been a part of a liberal higher education and private institution, you know, reading, writing, thinking, talking, reading, writing, thinking, talking as a cycle of verbs, if you will, it generated a temporality that was future oriented and not conducive towards the emancipatory project. So, Carl and Roger, I wanted to ask you, with regard to specifically this notion of re-enchantment in a postsecular world, what sort of modalities can we enact, as scholar-citizen-activists, such that we don’t reproduce the same eurochristian temporality that Carl had warned that happens?
Carl Raschke: Yeah, let me let me address that because, to go back to drugs, you know I didn’t do drugs in the Sixties. Mainly in LSD, everybody else was doing it. The sister one of my good friends in high school jumped out a window her freshman year at Berkeley just as LSD was coming on the scene and killed herself. I didn’t want to fly and die, so to speak. So, I stayed away from it, I gradually got myself in to pot—yes, I inhaled fairly early on, everybody did, and of course, that’s not an issue anymore.
But, for me transcendence came through my own kind of messianic moment. It’s a long story, it’s a crazy story, some of you are familiar with it. I tried to write it as a kind of fictionalized account and that didn’t work. Right now, I’m working on my own memoirs and you know trying to give it more context in terms of my own intellectual development. But I would call it the realization was of the Sixties as a messianic moment, that was based on the Levinasian principle of encountering the face to the Other, encountering the face of God, or the face of the holy, or whatever terminology you want to use.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of the particularities of Levinas’s philosophy, except nobody had ever heard of Levinas in the Sixties, but when I discovered Levinas for the first time in the late Seventies, reading Totality and Infinity, it was just mind-blowing for me. It was like that that moment of what we might call realized messianism—not a messianism in the future, not a messianism of domination, not a messianism à-la enlightenment where we have to educate those people, but in a sense encountering them where they are. This is not an issue of justice but a justice that is based on this kind of radical ethics, perhaps even spiritualized.
I experienced that in the Sixties, and we experienced it as the eschaton. There were even three of us and I will tell you one is now a retired famous history professor from the University of Missouri—I won’t mention his name, but he’s very well known. The other guy became a venture capitalist. The three of us published what we saw as this messianic moment on the front page of The Daily Californian, which was the daily newspaper of the University of California, Berkeley on May, 18th 1967 by The Eschaton Society.
It was very Sixties, it didn’t have all the sensibilities of today, but it was, for us, a kind of revelation and it wasn’t a religion. In some ways it was not only trans-ideological, but it destroys all ideologies. So, I don’t think there is a methodology. In some ways the word method—I used to make a joke about methodism with this word—comes from the Latin Methodos, which can be loosely translated as ‘dead end.’
Descartes inaugurated modern era, what Scott calls high modernism, with his discourse on method. In some ways the whole modernist project, which liberalism is part of, has been the methodism started by Descartes, which some of you, that are in my course called the Theory of the Subject, we just read Descartes last week. But that modernism is at an end, the project is over, it’s done—even it’s more extreme versions—and there’s something new and radical emerging right now. I can only speak to it in terms of the language of alterity, but I won’t say anything more about that.
Roger Green: To speak to Adam’s questions, some of the stuff about aesthetics and the notion of re-enchantment. It is not always necessarily a good thing for me, re-enchantment or enchanted citizens, just to put that out there. It is the way that the citizens see themselves through a kind of Gnosticism by which they’ve used a psychedelic model to transcend in the nation-state and to out-moralize the nation-state, which is the trajectory towards globalized neoliberalism.
So, it’s [in] a descriptive sense [that I speak of re-enchantment], I’m not using it as a sense of hope so much. And this is why I think that we need to think about aesthetics in the classic, sort of, Kantian sense. Aesthetics means ‘of the senses’ but what we see after the 20th century, particularly after folks like Heidegger, and maybe we could throw Levinas’s critique in here, is that in the return to ontology and the return to philosophy as the history of all philosophy, that that return toward towards historicizing the moment, which is so much a part of what critical theory does, I think, still has a usefulness in holding things at bay a little bit. And this is what Marcuse does — I think Patrick mentioned earlier [in the chatbox Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization — [Marcuse] historicized, he put Freud and the unconscious into a historical moment, rather than using it as a static transcendent category.
From that he was able to critique this notion of the death drive versus the life drive, eros, and to say that what Freud misses is that, for the adult, aesthetics and art can do these sorts of things that are supposed to be happening at childhood. Freud fixates on the Oedipal drama and misses what aesthetics might possibly be able to do. In the same way, [Marcuse] would say that the people who are saying ‘death to the death drive’ don’t really understand what is at stake, and that’s where Marcuse separates himself — and Adorno, too — separates himself from the broader social movements.
They don’t understand the youth movements. They see them as privileged, as annoying brats, essentially. And, I think there might be a possibility of recovering it through what Marcuse does call the aesthetic dimension. Of course, there are ways to critique that as well. In the 21st century, I think that this notion of aesthetics is going to have to be one that is beyond that notion of the senses. We see that happening all the time.
Just as a quick example, the recent two posts on The New Polis, by Andrew Santana Kaplan, where he is pointing to animality and Black lives and this kind of critique that comes from folks like Hortense Spillers and Alexander Weheliye’s book Habeas Viscous—although he doesn’t mention that book. This way of asking, the example that he uses from one of the books he’s quoting is, okay you liberate the slaves but then what happens to the cattle? what happens to the cows?
And what he’s saying is that that Black slave life was attached to the animal-ness of chattel slavery in the sense that they were treated as animals and that there is a continuous connection there of being treated as the non-human rather than trying to include them into this eurochristian sense of what the human is.
So, that is one example of a way of thinking about aesthetics differently than subject/object bodies of the European Enlightenment, but it also brings up all sorts of questions around posthumanism, around animal human distinction and the ethics of the face—Levinas says he’s not sure if a snake has a face. So, that’s where I think that we’re at, in terms of the discussions. I wanted to intersect with Kaplan’s really nice pieces in The New Polis the past two weeks. If you haven’t read them, read them.
Carl Raschke: I would say one thing about the Sixties, too. The sexualization, or the somatization, if you want to put it that way, of the Cartesian ego—remember Descartes said the body and the mind have nothing to do with each other, the so-called Cartesian dualism—has always been an issue, but even if you somaticize or sexualize the cartesian ego it’s still the Cartesian ego. And critical theory has done a marvelous job of, in a sense, enabling the deconstruction of the Cartesian ego throughout these last years of high modernism, in some ways breaking down the logic of high modernism.
But still, in the end, as Nietzsche pointed out, what do you end up with? Nothing. In this famous line at the end of On the Genealogy Morals, human beings would rather have the void for meaning than be void of meaning. And, in some ways, what you have are the days of rage. This is the end point of the Cartesian ego which we are going through right now.
Jason Alvis: I guess you could say we’re living in the last days, which are the days of rage. We’ve got a couple more questions. Ron had posed something on the chat. Ron, did you want to ask your question? If you don’t, that’s okay, we can also take a look at it.
Ron Pate: I think Roger answered that question, if I’m not mistaken.
Roger Green: Yeah, I jumped in as much as I could, but if I didn’t answer part of it feel free …
Ron Pate: I certainly agree with what you said about the recapitulation. I still wonder if there’s not a way to manage, I guess, for lack of a better word, the three vectors of set, setting, and culture in such a way that that psychedelics could become a tool of spiritual direction. I guess that’s the question I’m wrestling with.
Roger Green: Yes, and these are ongoing conversations in the psychedelic community right now. I tend to agree quite a bit with Beatriz Caiuby Labate, she’s a big researcher of ayahuasca especially, but she’s big in the movement as well. I’m quite critical of the spiritual moves towards it for various reasons, but I do think that they [psychedelics] are useful tools, nonetheless. What I especially agree with, with Labate, is that in this sort of medicalized discourse on psychedelics and what we call the psychedelic renaissance, there has not been enough attention paid to the role that culture plays in set, in set and setting.
So, for those of you who don’t know, in drug research set is what you bring to the situation, setting is the environment that you’re in, and then there’s the role of culture in the triad that Ron just pointed out. But I think what Labate says, and I agree with her on this point, is, it’s just like this thing that Carl was talking about, why he didn’t do psychedelics in the Sixties, there was this suicide scare, and we know—I posted that article in here for people—that psychedelics themselves do not cause suicide, but this doesn’t mean that people in the Sixties who use psychedelics didn’t also commit suicide. There’s just not a correlation.
But there was a cultural correlation. So, if you go into a psychedelic experience and you’re thinking, I’m afraid that I might commit suicide, that is going to be the culture affecting your set that you bring into the setting, and then it gets reinscribed the same way that if you think that it’s going to liberate you. I’ve been in an ayahuasca session where a particular German man I’m thinking of felt like he was liberated from the morality that this kind of liberal post-Nazi culture had put on him. He’d “liberated” his true Nazi, pedophile self. It’s the structures of morality that he felt liberated from, that the psychedelic experience lifted for him.
So, they are tools for all sorts of uses, but they can’t [just be assumed to] be tools as agents of liberal liberation in the sense that we’re going to make a more democratic society. I would hate to see Trump’s ego, for example, after an ayahuasca trip, in the ayahuasca glow. It’s bad news, if you ask me.
Ron Pate: Yeah, I agree with that.
Carl Raschke: Yeah, just one other comment, too. I’m not a scholar of psychedelics, but actually I did do a lot of research, back in the Seventies and Eighties, on altered states of consciousness and actually experimented a lot with hypnosis back in the early Eighties, and so forth. There were a number of studies that were done in the Seventies that basically showed that people had “religious experiences” when they were on LSD or psychedelic mushrooms, whatever it was—those are the two main ones then—would have visions or have experience, they’d later report, that were essentially manifestations of their own upbringing, cultural presuppositions, and so forth.
In other words, your own cultural background, your own cultural epistemology, was all determinative of what you would experience there. But at the same time, you would experience it in a way that you’d never experienced before, and that was very often what was called liberating. I don’t think there was a lot of fear about people committing suicide. I think it was of things accidentally happening.
That was my fear. I wasn’t afraid of committing suicide. I was afraid I might jump off a building, which this girl had done, and she actually did it because she told her friends she could fly. There are other cases of that. It wasn’t totally unique. It wasn’t a controlled circumstance and people didn’t know what it was all about.
I had an experience with a woman I was involved with who did do LSD and, basically, she went totally nuts. It didn’t really disturb me. It actually fascinated me, but then I ended up finding my first wife and getting married and she was a real rationalist and scientific and thought you could be hippie without doing LSD, so I didn’t. I was calmer toward it by then but thought, if you don’t do LSD, I won’t do LSD.
Roger Green: I just threw in a link to The Consciousness Podcast. He’s done several different episodes related to psychedelics, so I just linked to the first one with Raphaël Millière. There are two parts to that one. It’s a little hard to hear, but if you’re interested in psychedelics and consciousness and up-to-date research on that from a really interesting source that’s a good way into that discussion.
And this is the problem with what Carl is talking about, this woman that he knew. It’s the framing of the setting. Some people should probably not be doing psychedelics. It’s the disposition of people that you wouldn’t want to do that and it’s really a complicated discussion.
Jason Alvis: Kieryn has a quick comment she wanted to drop.
Carl Raschke: And this needs to be the last, too.
Kieryn Wurts: Oh, okay. I’ll be short. I’ll to do the shameless thing where I’m not really asking a question, I’m just making a comment. So, here we go. I really appreciated both talks from Carl and Roger. I think the Žižekian sense that the best ideology is the one that thinks it has transcended ideology, that thinks that it’s beyond it, somehow, that’s ideology par excellence, I suppose. That’s kind of floating in my head right now and what I really like that Carl and Roger are doing is, they’re kind of naming the political theology, the cultural background to neoliberalism, and not just the economic one which has been so talked about in the past.
So, I think this kind of naming what our time is and kind of the religious, the cultural, the ideological set and setting of the zeitgeist, I think, is really helpful. I think what’s disturbing to me is in the way that we frame our questions about this, in the U.S. especially, this apocalypticism, this very end of the world, and it exists where we are over here [in Germany], too, but I think in the States you just have it at another level this year.
But I think it’s interesting when we approach our own sense of apocalypticism, the questions and the methods of neoliberalism kind of re-code themselves on us. Like, how do we escape, how do we react how do we escape the ideology into the pure utopian state of being? These are kind of the energy of our questions right now, and I think that’s maybe the disturbing thing. So, I find it really helpful, what Roger and Carl are doing is just to name what we’re doing and name how we think and name where that’s coming from since the Sixties. So, thank you.
Jason Alvis: Well, that’s an excellent comment and I’m sure Carl and Roger could probably riff on that for at least a half hour, but I think it’s also a good point to end, to end the apocalyptic note here. We’re at the end of time, it is perhaps the beginning of the end times. But let’s thank Roger and Carl one more time.
Roger Green: Thank you all very much for being here.
Carl Raschke: And please join us for these, we’re going to do this once a month. Sarah are you still on for the next month or not?
Sarah Pessin: Yeah, I was just having a conversation with Roger, so I think, yes.
Carl Raschke: Okay, we need to talk about that. But yes, Sarah Pessin, who you see right here, will be the focuses of the next one. Please join us for future ones, thank you.
Jason Alvis: Thanks, everybody.