John Pistelli

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Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law

Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and RepresentationMourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation by Gillian Rose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a posthumous 1996 essay collection by the British philosopher, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 and is perhaps best known less for her philosophical corpus than for her stunning memoir, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995), which I mentioned in my personal canon. Of this book, the introduction and first chapter (“Athens and Jerusalem: a tale of three cities”) concern me most, as they elaborate both Rose’s criticism of contemporary philosophical and political thought and what she would put in its place.

In philosophy, Rose claims, we suffer from “despairing rationalism without reason” (her italics); this is what is popularly known as “post-modernism,” or the paradoxically rationalized discrediting of both reason (as a totalitarian and imperial force ruthlessly suppressing all diversity and plurality) and of the reasoning subject (as an effect of language or ideology). Politically, this refusal of reason leads to two divergent ideologies, both of which claim to abjure the power of the state (or, more expansively, the civic considered in Hegelian terms as “ethical life,” which can only be lived collectively) in the name of more potent and glamorous agencies: the (economic) individual or the (cultural) community.

For Rose, contemporary politics is a contest between libertarianism and communitarianism; the former is destructive of the civic because it refuses social constraints on individual economic choice, while the latter is destructive of the civic because it holds cultural particularism over collective deliberation. Yet, Rose claims, both ultimately empower the coercive force of the state even as they claim to diminish it, because they require the state to police threats generated by inequality to the libertarian order and those generated by cultural conflict to the communitarian order. Both presuppose modern rationalism—what Rose calls “legitimising domination as authority”—though they pretend to have surpassed it. Against their warring particularisms, she mounts a defense of political universalism:

Politics begins not when you organise to defend an individual or particular or local interest, but when you organise to further the ‘general’ interest within which your particular interest may be represented.

This was written over twenty years ago; I would update it with a stronger account of how these two tendencies embolden each other in a feedback loop, libertarian economics driving people deeper into communitarian cultural shelters until there is no common ground left (the late stage of which process I referred to as “the age of Trump” some four months before the U.S. election).

Rose advocates for a middle between libertarianism and communitarianism, but it is not political centrism, still less some cynical Third Way. Her key phrase is “the broken middle,” the space of inevitably imperfect negotiation and contestation where individual moral action and collective ethical practice takes place. Rose is a Hegelian, but not one for whom history is a neat narrative of progressively superior modes of order. Rather, for her, we are always involved in ethical action that mediates between the claims of reason and love. Contradiction is synthesized in action—hence her contempt for the refusals of action that she sees disfiguring postmodern philosophy (with its rejection of speculative reason) and postmodern politics (with its contempt for the civic).

Her brilliant essay on Athens and Jerusalem makes the point through a reading of Poussin’s painting, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion. In the painting, the widow of a man executed by a tyrant surreptitiously gathers his proscribed ashes as the buildings of Megara rise in the distance. Rose paraphrases an interpretation of the painting that she rejects: love, in the form of the wife’s piety, is pitted against the imperialism of rationalism signified by the tyranny of the city. Here, rationalism is Athens and love is Jerusalem; the rejection of the former Rose understands as the hallmark of postmodernism. She dismisses this opposition as too facile and proposes in its place a more complex relation wherein we supplement both Athens and Jerusalem, reason and love, with a third city that guides our speculation and wandering:

The gathering of the ashes is a protest against arbitrary power; it is not a protest against power and law as such. To oppose anarchic, individual love or good to civil or public ill is to deny the third which gives meaning to both—this is the other meaning of the third city—the just city and just act, the just man and the just woman. In Poussin’s painting, this transcendent but mournable justice is configured, its absence given presence, in the architectural perspective which frames and focuses the enacted justice of the two women.

In other words, justice is the sublation of law and love, while the completion of mourning takes place in action—this latter as opposed (Rose is borrowing from Freud) to the unending, inactive, and isolating melancholia of the postmodernists.

Rose’s own politics, though, go largely unspecified. Most contemporary theorists who work in her Hegelian métier are far more forthrightly and sometimes even orthodoxly Marxist than she appears to be (I am thinking of Slavoj Žižek, Susan Buck-Morss, Timothy Brennan). She does defend Marx, together with Plato, at the beginning of the book; she advocates an “aporetic” reading of both thinkers rather than a “determinist” one. A determinist reading would see in their thought nothing but certain monumental and imperial concepts (the forms for Plato, the law of history for Marx), while a reading attentive to the aporias, or contradictions, in their thought would allow the difficulty and complexity—and thus the continued viability—of their works to stand. One imagines that she also prefers Marxism for its nuanced account of contradiction and conflict, as opposed to the moralism of anarchism. Marxism is the theory that only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house; that is what the dialectic means. When Rose argues so passionately against the abandonment of reason because of its instrumentalization in tyranny and genocide, she must have something like this in mind.

Several of this book’s chapters were beyond me, especially the central one on Jewish tradition wherein she argues against the idea of “the Jew as modernity’s sublime other” and for an interpretation of midrash as inherently political. A related piece on representations of the Holocaust makes a similar case against turning the Nazi genocide into a pious and sentimental myth rather than an object of self-implicating historical investigation and representation. Her example of bad Holocaust art is, unsurprisingly, Schindler’s List, which she sees as facile and sentimental; to it, she counterposes Primo Levi’s memoirs and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, among others, as narratives that force readers into morally disturbing crises of identification rather than leaving us at a complacent distance.

Rose is a fierce but sly polemicist. In one paragraph, she obliterates Richard Rorty without so much as mentioning his name:

One recent version of this separation of metaphysics from ethics understands itself as a ‘neo-pragmatics’. It deliberately eschews any theory of justice, for all such theories are said to be dependent on the metaphysics of objective truth independent of language. The pernicious holism of truth is attributed to the modern tradition whereby the theory of subjectivity, the theory of the freedom of the individual, is regarded as the basis of the possibility of collective freedom and justice. Cast as generally as this, the indictment of liberal metaphysics also applies to corporatist, and to revolutionary theories, and, in effect, to the overcoming of nihilism. In the place of this metaphysical tradition the ‘creation of self’ is to be explored independently of any theory of justice, which is thereby restricted to the vaporous ethics of ‘cruelty’ limitation, learnt from modem literature and not from analysis or philosophy. This separation of the self from any theoretical account of justice is advertised as a ‘neo-pragmatics’ for it claims to follow the contours of contingency and to avoid all and any structures of prejudged truth. Commitment to the ineluctable contingencies of language, self and community is presented as ‘ironism’ by contrast with liberal, metaphysical ‘rationalism’. ‘Ironism’, the celebration of the sheer promiscuity of all intellectual endeavour, depends on this opposition to any philosophical position which presupposes an independent reality to which its conceptuality aims to be in some sense adequate.

She devotes one whole essay to Derrida, whose tragic ethos she replies with Hegelian comedy, and one to a scorching polemic against Maurice Blanchot. She reads Blanchot as an ideologist of “passivity beyond passivity,” a refusal of action and language and a worship of a death whose meaninglessness has made it an inverted transcendence; against Blanchot, she calls for “activity beyond activity,” the constant labor of imagination, language, and representation in the broken middle where we reside. (Whether or not this is fair, I am not sure; I have barely read Blanchot and know him mainly from secondary sources, friendly [Gabriel Josipovici] or hostile [Richard Wolin]. As for Rorty and Derrida, I find her criticisms cogent, though there is perhaps more to be said for Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity than she allows.)

Rose’s thesis, in short, is that we must replace our passivity and nihilism with an activity oriented toward transcendent ends, with the understanding that there will always be a disparity between theory and practice. These disparities should not be taken as evidence that theory or practice are impossible; instead, they are what allow us to scrutinize and correct our actions in the light of both thought and experience. This is a difficult ethic to maintain, it should be said, though I sympathize with it, more from the point of view of aesthetics—why else would I continue to read and write novels, even after the novel is supposed to have died along with God and the subject?—than politics.

Rose, at the end of her life, converted to Anglican Christianity. It has been called a deathbed conversion, implying, I suppose, that it may not have happened had she not been dying. But I can just as easily think of it in the opposite way: who knows if she would have stopped there had she lived longer? Her unnamed third city of justice, synthesizing love and law, may have been a rather more traditional sublation of Athens and Jerusalem all along: Rome.

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One comment on “Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law

  1. Pingback: César Aira, Ema, the Captive | John Pistelli

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