Christ Stopped at Eboli

In my youth I did many things. I expect this is true for all of us, I’ve no doubt that my many things are neither unique, original nor noteworthy.

However, one of the things that I did that I find myself increasingly returning to is my undergraduate studies, a bit of a surprise as they began 27 years ago at the University of Western Australia. To be honest after qualification I tended to put them to work in an applied way as a teacher of History and Literature and perhaps lost touch with the ideas and the concepts themselves. I suppose like many people, the transition from Year 12 to university was a bit of a shock. At school I’d done quite well studying Trigonometry and Calculus (Maths II), Probability and Statistics (Maths III), Physics, Chemistry, English Literature and History. When I went to university, my initial plan was to do 12 months of an Arts degree and then transfer into Law (back in those days at UWA there was no direct entrance to Law from Year 12, everyone had to do a year in another course and then apply for Law which used a competitive selection system based on 1st Year results). Of course, having this somewhat idealised view of what lawyers actually do which was more Perry Mason than contract paperwork, I found that I hated Law, loved Arts and returned to complete my BA.

When I returned, I had a decision to make about my ‘Major’ between three subjects that I really liked; History, English Literature and Philosophy. In the end I decided to pursue History with a focus on Europe from the Industrial Revolution to the present (sometimes called late modern European history) as I thought it would best integrate my love for Victorian Literature and Continental Philosophy as my Minor areas of study. Heidegger, Ford Maddox Ford and German unification. What a win! I graduated with an Honours in History from UWA. My thesis examined the suppression of the Catholic Church in Poland under Nazi occupation and how this was different to what happened in Italy under Mussolini.

The end result of my choices was a (somewhat forgotten) fascination with the history and philosophy of fascism, covering not just the German experience, but Spain, Italy, Hungary, England (the list could go on) and the abhorrent things that were done through the authorisation of a particular set of political philosophies. I was also amazed to discover that in 1930s Australia there was a proto-fascist group called the New Guard. Whilst fascist movements seizing political power might be relatively uncommon post-WWII, fascism itself is relatively common, and this continues to this day.

One debate that fascinated me was the distinction between Nazism and fascism. For example, if we were to compare Italian fascism and Nazism, we would find many similarities but marked differences in relation to theories of race, Anti-Semitism, corporatism and foreign policy. While Nazism is a particular version of fascism, not all fascisms are Nazisms. This is a distinction that is often lost in our contemporary debates, fascism and Nazism have become conflated in how we talk about political philosophy or various groups and movements. I would argue that it is possible to identify fascist movements, and call them such, without having to defend the point that they are versions of Hitler. At UWA the Head of School of History, Professor Richard Bosworth  argued that it was the Italian version of fascism as practiced by Mussolini that represented the purest form of the political philosophy.

One of the books we were asked to read was Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir written by Carlo Levi who was exiled to a remote part of Southern Italy by the fascists in the 1930s because of his political allegiances. The title refers to a common saying amongst the peasants that even Christ stopped before he got to Eboli. This area had been bypassed by Christianity, by modernity, even by politics to an extent. There is a scene where the narrator is astounded to find that there is almost no care, no positive or negative response, to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia because it did not matter to the villagers of Grassano and Gagliano. It was not a part of their world. However, at the end of the book, the narrator realises that 14 years of fascist rule had impacted how they thought about the world. As cut off as they were, they couldn’t avoid the logic of a fascist utopia in how they understood the future, and that this utopia was necessarily for and about them.

At bottom, as I now perceived, they were all unconscious worshipers of the State. Whether the State they worshiped was the Fascist State or the incarnation of quite another dream, they thought of it as something that transcended both its citizens and their lives. Whether it was tyrannical or paternalistic, dictatorial or democratic, it remained to them monolithic, centralized, and remote. This was why the political leaders and my peasants could never understand one another. The politicians oversimplified things, even while they clothed them in philosophical expressions. Their solutions were abstract and far removed from reality; they were schematic halfway measures, which were already out of date. Fifteen years of Fascism had erased the problem of the South from their minds and if now they thought of it again they saw it only as a part of some other difficulty, through the fictitious generalities of party and class and even race. Some saw it as a purely technical and economic matter. They spoke of public works, industrialization, and domestic absorption of the plethora of would-be emigrants, or else they resurrected the old Socialist slogan of “making Italy over.” Others saw the South burdened with an unfortunate historical heredity, a tradition of enslavement to the Bourbons which liberal democracy might little by little relieve. Some said that the question of the South was just one more case of capitalist oppression, which only rule by the proletariat could supplant. Others spoke of inherent racial inferiority, considering the South a dead weight on the economy of the North, and studied possible measures to be taken by the government to remedy this sad state of things. All of them agreed that the State should do something about it, something concretely useful, and beneficent, and legislative, and they were shocked when I told them that the State, as they conceived it, was the greatest obstacle to the accomplishment of anything. The State, I said, cannot solve the problem of the South, because the problem which we call by this name is none other than the problem of the State itself. There will always be an abyss between the State and the peasants, whether the State be Fascist, Liberal, Socialist or take on some new form in which the middle-class bureaucracy still survives.

What’s the point of all this? Probably two points. The first is that recently I’ve read so much about fascism/Nazism online in a series of debates about education that I think it is worthwhile contributing to this by adding a series of blogposts that carefully frame what fascism is to inform debate. I don’t agree with Godwin’s law that saying ‘fascism’ means that you’ve lost an argument so it should never happen (which is not what Godwin suggests but is certainly how it is applied in various social media forums). In our current political climate, I think it is more important that we can call out fascist thought and action where it can be justified (but I do acknowledge the point that it often used unwisely and indiscriminately as a form of ad hominem argument and this detracts from the ability to criticise what actually should be called out as fascism).

Second, with PISA results being released tomorrow, I wonder how we think about what the tests can do, why we rarely seem to direct acrimony and/or praise to the bureaucracies and the enabling conditions for education practice. I also wonder what is it that we think education policy can actually do, and whether or not the 15 years of PISA testing, to paraphrase Levy, have erased the problem of disadvantage so that we only see education as a technical and economic matter. Of course, the morality of efficiency, in regards to learning, achievement and a techno-rationalist belief in the purity of data remains hard to break. I wonder if we are really interested in taking this on, or whether being happy to vent on social media will forever be enough.

For my next post, I want to suggest Umberto Eco’s characteristics of ur-fascism as a heuristic for defining fascism. Thanks for playing along.

On Post-structuralism

It appears that there are few more confounding, and misunderstood, approaches to understanding the logic of the works that post-structuralism. Invariably, those from different philosophical/epistemological traditions and those for whom post-structuralism is a new field can fall into a form of a theoretical ad absurdam argument that post-structuralism in simply moral relativism (a point I will return to in a later post).

A common, and somewhat ridiculous request, that we sometimes see on Twitter is that post-structuralism should be able to be condensed to 140 characters for it to have either relevance or meaning. However, post-structuralism is difficult, but not impossible, to define, with the caveat that in the defining of it we necessarily force a systematicity that post-structuralism may not have. While a snappy tweet that is adequate to the purpose is not possible, a careful and considered unpacking of this rich theoretical tradition is very worthwhile. Over the next few weeks I plan to devote a number of blogs to poststructuralism, focusing in turn on the relationship between post-structuralism and the Enlightenment, truth, ethics, Science before considering the many and varied criticisms of poststructuralism. I hope that readers find these useful.

One of the reasons that many are loathe to define post-structuralism is that the term ‘post-structural’ is really a post-hoc categorisation originally created by American academics to group a collection of post-1968 Continental philosophers and sociologists. In short, it is kind of an academic shorthand to describe a loosely associated group of thinkers, many of whom did not see or define themselves or their work as post-structural. I often have doubts that post-structuralism is really a valid categorisation beyond that of a certain ‘historical’ form. To attempt a definition, however, we have to pay attention to the etymology of the term, and ask what the ‘post’ actually means? Does it refer to an historical moment (as in temporally after structuralism), is it a claim on theoretical succession (as an improvement on structuralism but still within the same theoretical ‘family’), or is it a decisive rupture with structuralism? I think the answer is probably all 3 in that different theorists manifest different aspects of these ‘posts’ at various points in their work. However in this post I will propose that the historical definition, although acknowledging it’s obvious limitations, is the most useful for an introductory treatment of the work.

Structuralism

Prior to 1968, and following the horrors of World War II, French leftist intellectual thought was dominated by two distinct traditions – existentialism and structuralism. Existentialism was the movement loosely organized around Jean-Paul Sartre that argued that the world was absurd rather than rational, and that human existence itself held no specific purpose. In this, existentialism is profoundly anti-Enlightenment in it orientation, Structuralism, on the other hand, is the belief that human culture and nature are related to broader structures and/or systems. In other words, human activity, thought, communication and belief are not natural, rather they are constructed. Furthermore, language is itself a complex structure is constructed of signs and symbols. Tellingly, for structuralists,

Truth is not something we ‘discover’, or can ‘own’, or can ‘start from’, but a structure which society invents.

The most important structuralists were Althusser, Lacan and Levi-Strauss. Basically, structuralism was heavily influenced by both Marxist theory and Freudian psychoanalysis.

1968

Up until 1968, many of the leading figures of post-structuralism were busily going about their work in universities and salons across France, publishing work fairly traditional in scope. One thinks here of Foucault’s order of Things and Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. But France in the 60s was in the grip of social, political and economic turmoil. May 1968 in Paris was gripped by student riots, a general strike, mass civil unrest and confrontation with authorities. There’s quite a readable account here.

While they were protesting many things, what emerged after May 1968 was, to a great extent, the end of the dream of Communism, so horrified were many with Stalinism and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the abuses and barbarity of the Vietnam War, the ongoing horror at the Holocaust and the inability of the philosophical traditions at their disposal to explain, let alone improve, life and social relations. It must be remembered, that post-structuralism is, at some level, a criticism of Marxism as much as it is a criticism of the Enlightenment that thinkers such as Adorno had long argued was a central factor in the Holocaust.

So, at its outset, post-structuralism (if it exists) is an attempt to think about the relationships between individuals, societies, states, ideas and beliefs in new ways. This essay here is a useful introduction for those who would like to read further. In the next blog post, I will provide a brief insight into some of the key thinkers and their major ideas.