Help Wanted: After Hours Work in Cosmopolitics
Robbins writes in the first person, displays a flare for personal anecdotes, and is not at all bashful about expressing his perplexities and uncertainties, all of which should make “Perpetual War” accessible to those who are challenged by the wealth of detail and insider talk Robbins brings to the case studies.
by David White
Anyone who has served as a juror is familiar with the judge’s charge, the instructions not on what verdict the jury should reach but on how they should come to a verdict of their own. “Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence” is Columbia University humanities professor Bruce Robbins’ charge, an appeal to the conscience and the intellect of the whole body of academicians in the humanities, to contribute to what Robbins thinks is the cosmopolitan moment. Cosmopolitanism has never been more popular, but the outstanding issues must be decided, and decided soon, even though the kind of work he wants the world’s intellectuals to do cannot be hurried at the expense of accuracy. “Perpetual War” is effectively a provisional agenda for the painstaking and detailed examination and reconstruction that cosmopolitanism deserves and the world needs.
In the interest of time and efficiency, Robbins urges that we skip the Platonic inquiry regarding the nature of Justice and the ancient Stoic’s kosmo-politis. Instead, we should concentrate on the most recent refinements of the cosmopolitical development, with special attention to the difference levels of application (local, national, global) make, and—most importantly—that we never forget ours is a pragmatic quest for a pragmatic resolution. Just as with a judge’s charge to the jury, Robbins urges his readers to take their time, to deliberate among themselves, but also not to make mistakes. There is a tide in the affairs of men, …, and now is the cosmopolitan hour to ride that tide, if only we can step out of our academic detachment and get into the surf even if the danger is real enough, and even though working out the pragmatics a priori is out of the question. Robbins does not mention the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, but his tone is that of “Civil Disobedience”: we feel shamed to remain scholars only and are embarrassed if we do not engage in the partisan struggle. But here is the question: which side does the cosmopolitan take? Or can we somehow rise above the fray in our efforts to change the world and not merely solve it?
Robbins skips the philosophical investigations entirely, and minimizes method. Instead, he does, with brilliance and perspicuity, what we all wish we could do. He provides seven case studies, letting us see in rich detail how the Robbins mind works. Socrates rejected this business of definition by example, but we have given the Socratic method a full and fair hearing and have now proved that whatever its merits it will never yield a consensus on the most important and most pressing issues before us. Unfortunately, Robbins does not consider philosopher Bertrand Russell’s view that even though philosophy fails in its ostensible aim, the practice of philosophy even as a failed enterprise nevertheless provides the best preparation for becoming a citizen of the universe.
For over a decade now, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has floated an agenda for philosophy that posits two levels of negotiation. The global philosophical culture, just by existing at all, would provide not answers, but a kind of psychic highway allowing diverse cultures to communicate even when the individuals involved are divided by political loyalties or hostilities. UNESCO’s charge to the philosophers of the world is functionally equivalent to Robbins’ charge. This is not a criticism, since the deficiency, if there is one on Robbins’ part, has already been made good by the work of UNESCO in cultivating the global culture of philosophy. The brouhaha over Iran’s attempt to host the event a couple of years ago has forced us all to become more pragmatic, and it is critical, pragmatic cosmopolitanism that Robbins presents in his seven case studies.
Despite holding an academic position for over forty years and taking as his topic matters of life and death most grave, Robbins writes in the first person, displays a flare for personal anecdotes, and is not at all bashful about expressing his perplexities and uncertainties, all of which should make “Perpetual War” accessible to those who are challenged by the wealth of detail and insider talk Robbins brings to the case studies. The material here was first published in periodicals over the past decade, making “Perpetual War” an excellent introduction to Robbins’ work as a whole. As befits a cosmopolitan author, the writing is personal and universal, qualified and emphatic.
In Robbins’ analysis, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most cosmopolitan of American intellectuals, mimicking the viewpoint of a visitor to Earth from outer space. Chomsky blames the United States as if he were a Martian, but we are not to blame Chomsky for being a partial and imperfect cosmopolitan since there is no cosmopolitanism without some degree of belonging. Chomsky has no fear of the supposed arrogance of speaking for humanity, and more power to him for that. The problem Robbins has with Chomsky is that he tries to hide behind his sources and writes as if cosmopolitanism is helpless in the face of state violence. What the times require is someone to “make our cosmopolitan arguments stronger and our strength more cosmopolitan,” and this Chomsky is in no position to do from his extraterrestrial perch, however helpful his deployment of his genuine strengths may have been to the cause.
Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein defines “system” in terms of the division of labor in an economic structure and then makes system the privileged unit of analysis. Robbins rejects the disciplinary special pleading of Wallerstein’s critics, but feels that blaming the system will not be efficacious. We need a vocabulary and a rhetoric that do more than express our disapprobation.
In his discussion of the novelist George Eliot and others who have revealed to us the ultimate power of the quotidian, the patterns of daily life we enact often without observation let alone report, Robbins delivers his most direct charge to the reader: there is, he writes, an imperative “to do some institutional housecleaning—that is, to do what we can to ensure that we do not work in universities, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions that for many of our colleagues will function … like intellectual sweatshops.” In an end note he adds, “This will mean after-hours work, it can’t be the content of our teaching and writing.”
“Perpetual War” begins with an anecdote about the author’s ten year old son liking the movie “Three Kings” (1999) because it is not “one of those, “I’m great, you stink” movies,” and the chapter on Edward Said, who was Robbins’ teacher, mentor and friend, begins with an account of how Said’s son Wadie spoke “bravely and humorously” at his father’s funeral of Said’s “dedication to the idea of speaking out and staying informed, no matter how sick or infirm” one is. Here Robbins refers explicitly of the confessional “movement from the personal to the general,” and it is such a movement that characterizes “Perpetual War” as a whole.
The remaining chapters engage Slavoj Zizek’s struggles with credibility, Louis Menand’s treatment of Robbins’s own principal concern, the global public and its problems, praising Menand for the consistency between “The Metaphysical Club“’s “narrative form and its philosophical content,” and present Robbins’ final summation and charge to the jury of readers as a comparison of German and British war crimes in the Second World War, making the point, his main point, that in order to blame or to be forgiven, one must forgo the pleasures of pure detachment, the pleasures that human rights individualism has made accessible, and acknowledge as a cosmopolitan that one belongs not only to the human race of which one is ashamed but also to a particular nation that probably has been and certainly could be wrong.
David White teaches philosophy at St. John Fisher College, Rochester NY, and is a specialist in the life, work and reception of Bishop Butler, whose theology was foundational to the British Empire and its conscientious critics.
Short URL: http://www.lefteyeonbooks.com/?p=5370