Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, David E. Wellbery, et alia, editors Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought.
Stanford University Press, 365 pages, $39.50

The Glass Bead Game is a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property—on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ.
—Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

The sixteen essays collected in Reconstructing Individualism are drawn from a host of papers presented at a three-day conference by the same title held at Stanford University in February, 1984. Including contributions by such formidable scholars as the art historian Michael Fried, the philosophers Stanley Cavell and Martha C. Nussbaum, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, the literary critics John Freccero and Stephen Greenblatt, and others of similar academic repute, the volume may be taken as a “state of the art” report on current academic thinking about the notion of individualism. And because the notion of individualism has traditionally occupied a central place in the humanities, we may also look to Reconstructing Individualism for some insight into the situation of the humanities in the more advanced precincts of contemporary academic life.

The essays themselves vary considerably in quality and tone. One or two are more or less traditional academic exercises: sober investigations that are at pains to be responsible to the reader and to the subject under discussion. J. B. Schneewind’s essay, “The Use of Autonomy in Ethical Theory,” for example, reviews the concept of autonomy in the moral philosophies of Bishop Butler, Kant, and John Rawls and ends up by defending a theologically “neutral” version of an “autonomy-centered morality” against several common objections. The essay is technical enough to be of interest mostly to persons with philosophical training, but it has the decided virtue—a virtue rarely evident in Reconstructing Individualism—of dealing straightforwardly and thoughtfully with its topic.

Less straightforward, but equally thoughtful, are Martha C. Nussbaum’s meditations on “Love and the Individual: Romantic Rightness and Platonic Aspiration.” Employing the old conceit of the found papers of mysterious origin (“There in this closet, on the floor, I noticed a strange document: a manuscript of some 38 pages .... I could not figure out who its author was”), Professor Nussbaum accurately describes her contribution as a “story,” “a strange hybrid of fiction and philosophy.” The result is in fact a bit precious: “She sat there, somewhat absurdly weeping into the book, and the phrase ‘special perfectness’ conjured up an image so concrete that she shuddered at its nearness and wept again. (I find it difficult to describe this.)” The reader may find it difficult to read it, and the “story” abounds in this sort of thing. But it also offers its share of insights, both into Plato’s discussion of love in the Phaedrus and more generally into the subject of “love and the individual.” And unlike virtually every other piece in the book, Professor Nussbaum’s meditation exhibits a refreshingly direct engagement with its subject: whatever its flaws, one does not come away feeling that for her “individualism” is merely an academic curiosity, divorced from any vital concern.

Of course, it has become practically axiomatic in the academy that one cannot invoke so jaded a notion as “individualism” without an elaborate garland of reservations, qualifications, and caveats. Any discussion of the subject has to be undertaken with the clear understanding that one is dealing with tainted goods. For one thing, because individualism is widely recognized as one of the bedrocks of Western liberal thought, no self-respecting academic would dream of taking it “straight,” of dealing with it on its own terms as an idea that continues to have a profound claim on us morally and intellectually. “Individualism” in this sense is only slightly less disreputable in the academy these days than that ultimate term of abuse, “bourgeois.”

Hence, it is not surprising that, as Messrs. Heller and Wellbery put it in their introduction, the “animating assumption” of the conference was that “the concept of the individual, which has played such a central role in the formation of the post-Renaissance world, needs to be rethought in the wake of the severe criticisms which have been directed against it” over the course of the last century. “[Developments in the material and social realms,” we read, “such as industrialization and the emergence of mass society” have rendered individualism “problematic,” have even “altered the ontological foundations of individual identity.” By now, having been subjected to the “de-constructive” scrutiny of such critics as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—to say nothing of the legions of academics who carry on in their name today—individualism can be made academically palatable only if it is suitably “reconstructed.” While the particulars of this envisioned “reconstruction” are never really set forth, it is nonetheless clear that most of these essays are to be seen primarily as attempts to explore alternative, “reconstructed” versions of individualism—“post-cultural” versions, perhaps (to employ a word brandished by one of the essays): versions of individualism sophisticated enough to dispense with anything so embarrassing as particular individuals. “At the volume’s close,” the introduction cheerfully concludes, “the figure of the individual has not been discredited or dissolved so much as displaced and transposed.”

Even so, it must be said that most of the efforts at “displacement” and “transposition” collected here do what they can to discredit the “figure of the individual.” In “Toward a Relational Individualism: The Mediation of the Self Through Psychoanalysis,” for example, Nancy Julia Chodorow assures us that “Psychoanalysis radically undermines notions about autonomy, individual choice, will, responsibility, and rationality, showing that we do not control our own lives in the most fundamental sense.” But think about it: to what extent has psychoanalysis really undermined our notions of will, choice, responsibility, etc.? Did not Professor Chodorow will to write this essay? Did she not choose to contribute to this volume? Did she not assume the responsibility of submitting a manuscript by a certain date, and so on? “Rationality” I'll leave to one side—I have to admit that some of the contributions to this volume have shaken my confidence there—but notwithstanding academic psychoanalysis’s voluminous attempts to convince us that we are creatures of unconscious impulses, do we not in fact bear witness to the cogency and pertinence of such concepts as will, choice, and responsibility every day?

Among the chief casualties of this brand of criticism are its heroes. Nietzsche has suffered particular indignities at its hands. Typical is Werner Hamacher’s long and elliptical essay on “‘Disgregation of the Will’: Nietzsche on the Individual and Individuality.” He manages to grind all the philosopher’s trenchant comments on the subject into a kind of murky verbal paste. “The term ‘individuality,’” Professor Hamacher tells us, “properly applies only to what transgresses the series of forms and the form of forms (typological knowledge and its objective correlatives), dissociating itself from the rigor mortis of canonical life forms, eluding the subsumptive compulsion of general categories, advancing toward a future that withdraws from every typology and objectification.” This is Nietzsche, champion of Dionysus, philosopher of the Anti-Christ? “I shall repeat a hundred times,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words!” Obviously, there are some things you can’t say too often.

To speak of “seduction by words” brings us to one of the main features—one might even say “principles”—of the chic academic criticism that Reconstructing Individualism specializes in: the attempt to enliven its cruelly abstract, anemic prose by interleaving it with sex, preferably perverse sex, the more violent the better. To employ one of its favorite terms, we might even say that such criticism “fetishizes” the erotic. The chief locus of sexual relations is not, of course, between individuals but within language itself. That’s where the real excitement is. This makes for some pretty silly speculations, but it does allow one to throw around lots of terms like “phallocratic,” “castration,” and so on. Reconstructing Individualism is full of this sort of thing. Stephen Greenblatt, for example, bases his entire article on “Fiction and Friction” on the story of a seventeenth-century French hermaphrodite, the insistence that sexual difference is “unstable and artificial,” and a theory about the relation between individualism, “sexual chafing,” and “the wantonness of language.”

Indeed, recourse to smarmy eroticism seems to have become practically a ritual gesture, a verbal tic. One first says something about language—about how everything is really only a corollary of language, etc.—and then one introduces a sexual twist. Paolo Valesio offers a good example in his essay, “The Beautiful Lie: Heroic Individuality and Fascism,” (the “lie” being individualism, of course). Having told us that individualism is “a poetic concern, a concern with linguistic intensification and shaping,” he proceeds to note that here, “[a]s in every intensification of reading, not only the link with the process of writing emerges, . . .but the link of both processes with solitary and self-sufficient love—with the softly existential grounding of solipsism, masturbation.” Or take Christine Brooke-Rose’s essay on “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel.” In the midst of the usual litany about the death of character—“character,” like “individualism,” turns out to be in need of “reconstruction"—we read that “characters are verbal structures; they are like our real-life relationships but have no semblance of a referent. More and more swollen with words, like stray phalluses they wander our minds, cut off from the body of the text . . .” Those phalluses! They crop up everywhere these days.

The treatment of sex in such works as Reconstructing Individualism highlights one of the great ironies of the whole enterprise: going on and on about the importance of reading more carefully, more critically, more boldly, it proceeds to display a remarkable obtuseness about the works it addresses. Concentrating on some detail of a text, it misses the whole; seizing upon verbal similarities, it misses the sense. Often, one gathers, this is just the point. In the present volume, Stanley Cavell’s essay on “Being Odd, Getting Even: Threats to Individuality” offers a sterling example of the procedure.

Continuing his recent efforts to champion Emerson’s philosophical acumen and to blur the distinction between philosophy and literature, Professor Cavell begins by suggesting that in “Self-Reliance,” when Emerson writes that “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage,” he is actually quoting Descartes’s famous slogan Cogito, ergo sum. More, he insists that Emerson was up to essentially the same sort of thing that Descartes was up to in the Meditations. “[O]ne can describe Emerson’s progress as his having posed Descartes’s question for himself and provided a fresh line of answer, one you might call a grammatical answer: I am a being who to exist must say I exist, or must acknowledge my existence—claim it, stake it, enact it.” He goes on to compare the studied, deliberately ratiocinative style of Poe’s story “Imp of the Perverse” to Descartes’s prose style, and ends by suggesting that Hollywood melodrama “may be seen as an interpretation of Descartes’s cogito.”

Professor Cavell’s presentation is canny, entertaining, and perfectly unbelievable. We may pass over the details of his analysis. But—speaking of “Imp of the Perverse”—it is worth remarking how perverse his essay is. Consider only his treatment of Emerson. ” ‘Self-Reliance’ as a whole,” he tells us, “presents a theory ... of reading.” In fact, what Emerson presents, there as elsewhere, are not really “theories” at all but elegantly cast, edifying opinions. Whatever virtues Emerson possessed—and he possessed many —his was not a philosophical mind; he did not argue, he declaimed, he preached. What he wrote was not philosophy but a species of hortatory essay. And to pretend that “Self-Reliance”—that rousing, unsystematic sermon on the virtues of independent thinking—has any intrinsic connection to a seventeenth-century philosophical tract concerned with basic epistemological and theological questions is simply ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Professor Cavell’s remarks at least have the virtue of being written in something resembling English. This cannot be said of all the contributions to Reconstructing Individualism. Many trail off into a vertiginous hinterland of the mind where the words spin themselves out in hopelessly jargon-laden skeins. One could open the book pretty much at random, but Niklas Luhmann’s reflections on “The Individuality of the Individual” contain some choice examples. “We may, of course, define emotions as the autopoietic immune system of the autopoietic psychic system; but again: is this emotionally adequate?” Anyone wish to answer that? “The most important consequence,” Professor Luhmann continues a bit later, “might well be that the theory of autopoietic systems seems to bar all ways back to an anthropological conception of man. It precludes, in other words, humanism [yet another term, incidentally, that has been singled out for academic “reconstruction”] .... This means that we have to invent new conceptual artificialities in order to give an account of what we see when we meet somebody who looks and behaves like a human being. How do we know that he is one?” Hard to say, hard to say.

Practically all of these faults—deliberately perverse interpretations, verbal obscurity, etc.—are writ large in Michael Fried’s contribution to Reconstructing Individualism: “Courbet’s Metaphysics: A Reading of'The Quarry.'” It is indeed a kind of specimen text, and is worth lingering over in some detail. Professor Fried began his career with a handful of brilliantly eccentric essays on modernist art and Minimalism. His essay “Art and Objecthood,” which first appeared in Artforum in 1967, is something of a classic of the genre. But he has become increasingly smitten with the motions of his private hermeneutical game, preferring his own interpretative categories to the evidence of his eyes and common sense. By the time he published his book Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980), the relation between the paintings and criticism Professor Fried discussed and the interpretations he proposed was already often tenuous. In the present essay, the relation has all but snapped.

His announced subject is Gustave Courbet’s 1856 painting, The Quarry, a hunting scene that depicts a moment of rest after a successful hunt. In the left foreground, the vanquished roe deer hangs from a branch, its head lolling sideways on the ground. To the right, receding into a shadow, the hunter— generally acknowledged to be a self-portrait —leans back dreamily against a tree. Further to the right, the piqueur, the master of the hounds, sits in a brilliant slip of light blowing a hunting horn. In the right foreground two dogs, also brightly illuminated, frisk playfully. It is well to supply this simple description at the outset, for as Professor Fried progresses with his interpretation one’s grasp of the particulars of Courbet’s painting is likely to become shaky.

Among much else, Professor Fried’s interpretation indulges heavily in a second major principle—not to say cliche—of fashionable academic criticism, the principle that holds that whatever the work {poem, painting, novel, essay) is ostensibly about, at bottom it is self-referential, being primarily a figure for the creative activity of painting or writing. The overt subject of the work may initially mislead one into supposing that it is really about something else, something quite tangible in one’s physical or emotional experience—a hunting scene, for example. But an adroit practitioner of the new academic criticism easily overcomes such “extrinsic” objections. One powerful—if by now well-worn—aid in this task is the word “symbol” and its fashionable variants: “metaphor,” “metonymy,” “synecdoche,” “trope,” etc. Like the philosopher’s stone, these terms can transform the base material of reality into the gold of “intertextuality.” Professor Fried provides us with many wonderful examples of the procedure. We do not have to read far into his essay before we are told that the piqueur is really

another of Courbet’s characteristically displaced and metaphorical representations of the activity, the mental and physical effort, of painting. Thus the young man’s strange, half-seated pose (with nothing beneath him but his folded jacket) may be taken as evoking the actual posture of the painter-beholder seated before the canvas. The hunting horn, held in his left hand, combines aspects of a paintbrush (I’m thinking of the horn’s narrow, tubular neck) and a palette (its rounded shape) though strictly resembling neither, and of course a horn being blown is also a traditional image of the fame Courbet forever aspired to win by his art.

It’s not long, in fact, before Professor Fried can conclude that “all three principals —hunter, roe deer, and piqueur—are in different respects figurations of the painter-beholder [Courbet himself].” One only wonders what he has against dogs: why aren’t they, too, “figurations of the painter-beholder”? Isn’t their playfulness there in the painting’s foreground a symbol of the playful dialogue of the creative mind at work—doubled to represent the simultaneous interplay of the productive and critical faculties, tokens of the artist’s awareness of his intractable animality . . . but you see how it works. It’s like something out of The Pooh Perplex, minus the light touch.

Operating on the principle that if something isn’t shown, it is more present than if it is, Professor Fried has no trouble populating the canvas with all manner of objects and covert significances. There is no gun depicted in the painting? No problem: “in place of the missing musket there is the piqueur’s hunting horn, previously described as symbolizing the painter’s tools (and therefore linking those tools with the absent weapon); . . .” Therefore? Yes, of course. But what about sex ? We have seen that no such interpretation can be complete without a dash of the erotic, preferably outlandish, but where in this forest scene could one conjure sex? A tired hunter, a self-absorbed piqueur, two dogs, and a dead deer may not seem much to work with. Not to worry: “I for one,” Professor Fried confides, “am struck by the implied violence of the exposure to the hunter’s viewpoint of the dead roe deer’s underside, specifically including its genitals.”

One has to admire Professor Fried’s brass. And his well-developed sense of just how far he can intrude upon the reader’s credulity without making any concessions to common sense. “The last observation may seem excessive,” he allows.

For one thing, I am attaching considerable significance to a “side” of the roe deer we cannot see as well as to a bodily organ that isn’t actually depicted. For another, the hunter isn’t looking at the roe deer but faces in a different direction. But I would counter that we are led to imagine the roe deer’s genitals or at any rate to be aware of their existence by the exposure to our view of the roe deer’s anus, a metonymy for the rest .... I would further suggest that, precisely because the roe deer’s anus stands for so much we cannot see—not simply the roe deer’s genitals and wounded underside but an entire virtual face of the painting—such an effect of equivalence or translatability may be taken as indicating that the first, imaginary point of view is more important, and in the end more “real,” than the second.

The imaginary point of view is more important and in the end more real than the point of view discerned with one’s eyes: this sums up the method. But wait, there is more. In a long footnote to this passage, Professor Fried tells us that

my suggestion that The Quarry calls attention to the roe deer’s undepicted genitals and to their exposure to the hunter or at least to his point of view invites further discussion in terms of the Freudian problematic of castration. Now what chiefly characterizes the painting’s treatment of these motifs (if I may so describe them) is the absence of any signs of special or excessive affect and in particular of anxiety, which may seem to indicate that for the painter-beholder the implied threat to the roe deer’s genitals was simply that, an objective menace, not the expression of a primal insecurity. On the other hand, the absence of affect ought perhaps to be seen as a further expression of the splitting of the painter-beholder into passive hunter and active piqueur: that is, it would be a further index of the hunter-painter’s manifest passivity, which itself might be described as a sort of castration.

Consider: the roe deer’s genitals are undepicted, therefore the painting “invites” discussion in terms of the Freudian notion of castration; the hunter isn’t looking at the deer: no matter, the deer’s genitals are exposed “at least to his point of view” (i.e., if he only turned his head, he would see them); despite this threat of castration, the hunter displays no special signs of affect or emotion, quite the opposite: no matter, being passive may itself be described as “a sort of castration” (on which account I suppose that a painting of a man asleep or unconscious or dead would provide an even more dramatic “index” of preoccupation with castration). Poor Courbet!

But even to raise objections risks complicity with Professor Fried’s undertaking, granting it a measure of credibility it can never have. For the suggestion that The Quarry has anything to do with castration— indeed, that it has much of anything to do with sexual violence, period—is ludicrous. If any of the theories of Sigmund Freud have a bearing on the matter at all, it is not his conjectures about castration anxiety or “displacement” but his method of free association: here at any rate we may have a clue to Professor Fried’s own critical method.

Professor Fried’s speculations about the hidden sexual current in Courbet’s painting are perhaps the most outrageously absurd aspects of his interpretation of The Quarry. But in many ways even more absurd—because it touches directly on the core of Courbet’s painting—is the end to which Professor Fried’s complex hermeneutical apparatus tends. This is summed up in his title: “Courbet’s Metaphysics”—probably the drollest piece of unintentional wit in the whole of Reconstructing Individualism. Drawing in part upon an obscure work by the obscure nineteenth-century French philosopher Felix Ravaisson, Professor Fried concludes that “the project of Courbet’s Realism—of his metaphysics—was above all to represent” the “indemonstrable ideality” of nature. “Indemonstrable,” of course; and note Professor Fried’s sly apposition of “realism” and “metaphysics,” as if these opposing terms really meant more or less the same thing.

Now the truth is that, in the repertoire of Courbet’s beliefs as we know them, there is nothing that can even remotely be described as a “metaphysics.” Indeed, few painters can have been more overtly anti-metaphysical than Gustave Courbet. In part, that is what the usual description of him as a “Realist” intends. Courbet himself put the matter with admirable clarity in 1861 in a letter to his students. The emphasis is his.

I also believe that painting is an essentially CONCRETE art and can only consist of the representation of REAL AND EXISTING objects. It is a completely physical language that has as words all visible objects, and an ABSTRACT object, invisible and nonexistent, is not part of painting’s domain.

Like many of the essays in this volume, Professor Fried’s interpretation of Courbet’s painting brings considerable erudition and an even more considerable ingenuity to bear upon his subject. We read about Courbet’s method of composing a painting by joining separate strips of canvas, are privy to considerations of the evidence of pentimento, and witness the rehearsal of a stunning array of scholarship. But to what end? As in Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, the matter at hand is merely the occasion, the raw material, for an elaborate interpretative exercise. What we see throughout these essays is an extraordinary amount of analytical bravura engaged in what is at bottom a narcissistic game. Whether the occasion is Nietzsche, or Courbet, or psychoanalysis, or an obscure account of hermaphroditism in seventeenth-century France, “individualism” is only the theme upon which the players execute their hermeneutical arabesques—not to illuminate the idea but to embellish the pages of their critical text. “The whole secret,” as Kierkegaard put it in Either/Or, “lies in arbitrariness .... [Y]ou consider the whole of existence from this standpoint; let its reality be stranded thereon.” And the fact that the notion of individualism is assumed to be bankrupt only makes the game more challenging. The task then becomes finding a way of “reconstructing” individualism without precisely reinstating or legitimating it; and in this task, at least, it must be said that most of the essayists in this volume excel.

What Michael Fried has in common with Stanley Cavell, Stephen Greenblatt, Werner Hamacher, and most of the other contributors is the almost casual cynicism characteristic of an age that, as Kierkegaard put it elsewhere, “leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.” In itself, of course, the performance of the writers collected in Reconstructing Individualism is nothing out of the ordinary. The players are more skilled than many, but in essence it is simply business as usual in the academy these days. What is particularly dispiriting is the thought that many of these men and women are among the brightest, most talented scholars in their fields. That they should have chosen to abandon anything like a traditional humanistic approach to their subjects, that they should have given themselves up so shamelessly to the latest intellectual fashions, is a troubling sign indeed for the humanities. Even more troubling is the fact that Reconstructing Individualism represents the sort of thing that is being passed off as humanistic inquiry by teachers at our best colleges and universities. As a contribution to thinking about the subject it purports to address, Reconstructing Individualism is hardly worth the paper it is printed on. But as a record of contemporary academic decline, it stands as an eloquent if melancholy admonition.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 4, on page 83
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