Becoming-dangerous: a philosophical agenda

In reading through Steven Nadler’s nice introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics I was reminded of how dangerous Spinoza’s thought was taken to be at the time. Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment also drives this point home. Spinoza himself was excommunicated from his church before he had even published a word, an unprecedented and extreme measure even in Spinoza’s time. Spinoza also survived an attempt on his life when the attacker’s knife tore through his cloak but missed him, and yet Spinoza’s case is not an isolated one in the history of philosophy. Descartes fled France; Locke fled England for a time; Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake; Marx fled Germany; Aristotle fled Athens so he wouldn’t suffer the same fate as Socrates; and of course there was Socrates. But when was the last time a philosopher’s ideas were seen as truly dangerous, and where might one look today for the possibility of a dangerous philosophy? One will certainly not find any dangers among the analytic philosophers, and if one accepts John McCumber’s thesis that analytic philosophers turned away from any philosophy that smacked of Marxism during the red scare of the 1950s, then this absence of danger is no accident. Continental philosophers are no better it seems, and the failure of May ’68 seems only to highlight the impotence of philosophical discourse. But if philosophy as Foucault argued in his late work is integrally involved with parrhesia – free, frank, and truthful speaking to power – then it will necessarily involve risk and inevitably become a danger to those in power. This risk and danger, in fact, is an essential component of parrhesia according to Foucault but it is precisely what seems to be lacking in the contemporary scene. Can philosophy become dangerous again, and if so how might it do so in a way that is not already anticipated and hence neutralized by a media that thrives on marketing outrage and scandal (think Glenn Beck)? If philosophy cannot regain its traditional status as a danger to established power then it will most likely become increasingly irrelevant.

4 thoughts on “Becoming-dangerous: a philosophical agenda

  1. I found this very interesting, and I definitely agree with the conclusion, but have a slightly different point of view. I think the real problem does not lie in the “impotence of philosophical discourse”, but in the fact that the counter-revolutionary forces that were at work in the 60’s and 70’s have actually won. To take the example of the failure of May 68, I think that the works of those involved were actually dangerous at the time (e.g. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Marcuse’s Counter-revolution and Revolt), but, unfortunately, we have lost the fight — and it was a real fight, we have been militarily defeated. The counter-revolution has effectively managed to wipe out every trace of social nonconformism in most of the Western countries, legating us this low-intensity democracy that we know today. Perhaps part of out task now is precisely to regain the inventiveness and imagination to think up real alternatives to the established order…

  2. I don’t know, Daniel, that’s a bit too much, isn’t it? “Militarily defeated”? C’mmon now. Things certainly look bleak for institutional(ized) philosophy, but it is also clear that ideas are still as dangerous as they used to be – maybe the question is not so much of philosophers becoming-dangerous, but ideas/concepts becoming-dangerous. Philosophers are not the only carriers of ideas, and they don’t have any privileged access to them or any monopoly on their distribution (regardless of what they think or want to think). Glenn Beck’s problem is not that he is a manipulative marketeer, but that his ideas are very old and banal (everything from conspiracy theories to “connecting the dots” game), were he to come up with some new dangerous idea, he would be as potentially dangerous as any Socrates or Spinoza. My point is simple: philosophers need to get rid of the ridiculous assumption that they are somehow in the avant-garde of idea-creation, when in fact it is pretty clear to anyone who ever had a chance to encounter “academic philosophy” (of any variety) that it is in many cases a kind of a pretentious after-thought to most of the creative thinking taking place outside of the confined spaces of classrooms and offices.

  3. Mikhail, I admit that I was being provocative in my response, but that doesn’t mean what I said was false. Take the situation in my own country, for example, Brazil. There was a revolutionary process in its way, here (which doesn’t mean it was a socialist revolution, the process could take any number of forms), which was obliterated by the military counter-revolution of 1964 (the military themselves admitted it was a counter-revolution!). We’ve spent the next two decades under a military government that basically wiped out not only the opposition, but everyone who displayed signs of non-conformism. In the academy, most of our professors were forced into retirement. The guerrilla was exterminated. We went through quite literally a civil war — and the counter-revolutionary forces have won, our current democratic governments are the result of those twenty years of military dictatorship. The same process happened in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, etc. The fact is, there was an international civil war going on in the 50’s-80’s, and we lost.

    In this sense, I think we should look at works like Foucault’s or Marcuse’s in that context. I agree completely that we should abandon the idea of the intellectual messiah that will guide the masses into the new utopia; in fact, I think that Foucault and Marcuse, among others of that time, were saying precisely that (e.g. Foucault and Deleuze’s discussion “The Intellectuals and Power”, or the aforementioned book by Marcuse). My impression is that they do not saw themselves as leaders or as proposing new solutions, but as helping a revolutionary process that was well under its way. That’s why I said that it’s wrong to see their failure as a sign of “philosophical impotence”. How could such a discourse fail a role that it was not even its own to begin with? On the contrary, they were quite explosive pieces, as fuel to the revolutionary fire, but not as gateways to new worlds.

    Nowadays, that we live in the aftermath of this civil war, it seems that we have run out of alternatives. Whereas back then they had real and obvious alternatives to the current oppressive order, we apparently have run out of political imagination and can only think about this or that reform. That’s a sad state of affairs, hence why I think we should regain some of those guys inventiveness and perception.

  4. I think the key factor is that there must be something to lose in order for a philosophically motivated movement to have substance. This is why I call myself a Renaissance Constructionist or Reconstructionist.

    We have no communities.
    We have no economies.
    We have no industries.

    There is no private enterprise; only corporate or government.

    Shouldn’t we have something to save first before we charge the gates of academic and professional cathedrals? Otherwise even if we’re right, we’re only philosophers in the desert with nothing at stake. It leads to sophistcraft rather than philosophy. And for those who need something to touch or bite into it looks way to abstract.

    The beauty of the work you all are doing is that it helps in coming up with tools and ideas that are non-linear and don’t blow up under the slightest pressure.

    The other is that we have to have a concept of fighting what is called the problem, reaction, solution tactic. Division strategies, false uprisings, wars funded on both sides by the same people. Our understanding is undermined by analyses that do not question the mechanics of the apparent situation.

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