Pessimism claims an impressive following--from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse--an accusation of a bad attitude--or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species--who would actually counsel pessimism? Joshua (...) Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been--and can again be--an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal--of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism--is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe. (shrink)
A variety of theorists have emphasized the paradox at the center of democratic legal authority, viz., that it cannot be self-derived but must ultimately rest on some extra-legal phenomenon, usually an act of exclusion. John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance examines precisely this paradoxical situation and, I argue, actually suggests a novel response that has escaped theorists who have considered the problem in the past. The film's best-known line ("print the legend") in fact represents the opposite of its (...) perspective—which is to carefully deconstruct and reveal (without debunking) the complicated interrelation of law and power in the formation of any state. Rather than undermining democratic authority, we can be strengthened, if sobered, by the revelation that law is not self-sustaining. By setting the facts alongside the legend, the film perpetuates the fortuitous moment of state formation. What constitutes the state, then, is neither law nor power, but rather the matrix of representation that creates the relationship between them—here a film, but perhaps, more generally, a sustaining narrative. (shrink)
Pessimism today is poorly understood. Indeed, such is the disdain that pessimism engenders, that it often has difficulty being taken seriously as a theoretical position. Yet pessimism, which is distinct from skepticism and nihilism, has much to offer those who have discarded the Enlightenment's expectation of progress. Through an examination of Rousseau, Schopenhauer and Unamuno, this paper traces out some of the common themes of pessimistic thought. Pessimism, it is argued, is con-cerned with the burden of time and with the (...) problem of organizing the best kind of human life in the absence of a promise of progress, happiness, or salvation for society as a whole. But it need not urge passivity or resignation in response to these conditions. The figure of Don Quixote, first appealed to in this context by Unamuno, illustrates pessimism's capacity to craft a positive ethic of personal conduct for life in a disordered and disenchanted world. Key Words: Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote history nihilism pessimism progress Jean-Jacques Rousseau Arthur Schopenhauer time Miguel de Unamuno. (shrink)
In this volume, Simona Goi and Frederick M. Dolan gather stimulating arguments for the indispensability of fiction_including poetry, drama, and film_as irreplaceable sites for wrestling with nature, meaning, shortcomings, and the future of modern politics.
Cinema Pessimism explores the challenges of representative democracy through film. Film allows us to see the problems of democracy from a unique perspective, illuminating dangers that are not always visible to us either from day-to-day experience or the classics of democratic theory. Joshua Foa Dienstag argues that there are threats lurking in our political systems that we fail to perceive due to the many pleasures that representation provides. Ultimately, Dienstag seeks to defend a kind of pessimistic politics that might produce (...) a better sort of democratic representation than what we have today. (shrink)
In the past few decades, political theorists have attempted to articulate a nontheological basis for a special human place in the moral universe. These attempts, I argue, generally fall into two groups, one centered around the concept of “dignity” and the other around ideas of “difference.” Both of these attempts ultimately fail, I maintain, but their failures are instructive and help us along a path toward a better kind of relationship with nature and the earth as well as one another. (...) In the face of increased scientific knowledge about the environment, animals, and our own species, we have every reason to recalibrate our stance toward nature as a whole. But in doing so we must acknowledge that the human relationship with nature is ultimately a representative one that can therefore never achieve the kind of reciprocity available in human society. Whatever form our respect for nature takes, it will always be distinct from the relationships we have with those we consider co-citizens. (shrink)
Philosophy is often depicted as generically distinct from literature, myth, and history, as a discipline that eschews narration and relies exclusively on abstract reason. This book takes issue with that assumption, arguing instead that political philosophers have commonly presented their readers with a narrative, rather than a logic, of politics. The book maintains that philosophical texts frequently persuade through the creation of a 'role' that they invite their audience to inhabit. The author also investigates the place of narrative in politics (...) in two ways. It offers a hypothesis of a broad connection between political identity and narrative, and it analyzes three major figures in the history of political thought - Locke, Hegel, and Nietzsche - to demonstrate that their work is best understood through the hypothesis. The author argues that each of these philosophers rewrites the past in an attempt to direct the future. (shrink)
This dissertation is an attempt to examine the role of historical argument in political theory. Its main contention is that political theory, rather than relying on concepts of abstract right and timeless duty, often attempts to convince by giving its readers a particular sense of history. I argue that authors of political theory in many instances present to their readers a narrative, rather than a logic, of politics. Political theory persuades not simply by reason but by giving the reader a (...) more convincing account of history and of the particular role s/he is to play. Consequently, I maintain, we put our own powers of interpretation in a strait-jacket if we approach each book of political theory only in search of an everlasting argument. Our readings will be more fruitful if we consider the qualities of historical argument alongside those of abstract right. The project of political theory, I conclude, is not so much to reform our morals as it is to reform our memories. ;The weight of my argument falls on extended interpretations of three figures in the history of political thought: G. W. F. Hegel, John Locke, and Friedrich Nietzsche. My aim in each chapter is to show that these theorists are at their most persuasive when the historical element in their thought is brought to the forefront. Taken together, however, they do not provide a single 'historical' viewpoint; instead they offer markedly different narratives which rest on different notions of human experience: Locke's account stresses labor, both mental and physical. Hegel's story is rooted in his understanding of art and beauty. Nietzsche's history centers on matters of violence and pain. ;In the prologue and conclusion I consider how political debates can often appear as historical disputes . By reading political theory with an eye to history, I hope to restore it to a position from which it can contribute to such controversies and speak directly to some of our political concerns, even if it must remain, to some degree, persistently aloof from them. (shrink)