Robert Hullot-Kentor with Fabio Akcelrud Durão

The Brazilian literary theorist, Fabio Akcelrud Durão, returned to pay another visit to the home of Robert Hullot-Kentor in Manhattan to renew a conversation they began in the Rail in 2008. This is the first half of their April 2010 discussion, which touched on the questions of unemployment, the common good, committed art, and the nature of democratic representation.

Portrait of Robert Hullot-Kentor. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.



Fabio Akcelurd Durão (Rail): Why are we in the Brooklyn Rail? I’m from Brazil. When I visited you last time in 2008—that was a good discussion, I think there’s even a Romanian translation of it somewhere—our interview was for a Brazilian journal of philosophy and literature; so is this one. But in the U.S. our talks go into a freebie monthly newspaper. What’s it about?

Robert Hullot-Kentor: The Brooklyn Rail is the center of a common readership here, which is something that can otherwise hardly be found in the U.S. It’s a lucky thing; I don’t know anything like it. There are common readerships in Canada—Vancouver, for instance, is intellectually intense in the sense of young people with jobs, knowledgeably, aggressively busy with politics and with literature, the arts—in France too, and in Brazil as well—you were telling me yesterday—and in many other countries, but not at all in the U.S. Here intellect is almost completely isolated from public life.

Rail: That isolation comes across in American academic journals; they are jargon-bound, careerist, restricted.

Hullot-Kentor: Yes, I agree. That’s why we’re here. Rail readers can be students hanging around in shop front cafes in Brooklyn and the outer boroughs, who might also be reading E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in their spare time. And if they aren’t reading it, they may well go read it once they find out about a major work. The Brooklyn Rail could be part of the making of what we absolutely lack, something like an intelligentsia, in the historical sense of intelligentsia.

Rail: What do I know about the Rail? And obviously one reads Thompson; he’s essential reading. But, come on, there’s plenty of intelligentsia.

Hullot-Kentor: Maybe not. Not intelligentsia in the historical sense, which is what I said.

Rail: Zizek, Jameson: they’re not intelligentsia?

Hullot-Kentor: No. Not in the historical sense. They’re academics. The now long-gone intelligentsia—Arnold Hauser explains—came into existence after the defeat of the revolutionary hopes of 1848. They emerged as a loosely related cultural elite, social critics, artists, and thinkers who had formerly served as the middle class’s own social conscience, a group that in fact helped inspire the revolution, but found themselves dispossessed once the middle class achieved its undisputed hold on the social structure.

Rail: Because after the revolution the middle class was no longer so interested in having a sharp-minded social conscience breathing down its neck.

Hullot-Kentor: Yes; it wasn’t. Once the middle class was secure it jettisoned any memory of the guilt of its own rise to power and cut its intellectuals adrift. We would say “they lost their funding.” That group became the “intelligentsia.” It was isolated on one side from the middle class who hated them and whom they no less detested, and, on the other side, they were isolated from the immiserated working class whose voice and concerns they struggled to shape but who could hardly understand, let alone accept these displaced intellectuals as their own flesh and blood.

Rail: I remember this now. Some part of the intelligentsia continued to tumble economically, didn’t it, and became bohemians. They no longer spoke for the beaten down; they were themselves among the economically trampled. But this is European, not American history.

Hullot-Kentor: All the same, even by considerably different paths, the eventual victory of the middle class and the fate of intellectuals in Europe and America bear comparison. You see it in the spontaneous aversion Americans have for anything remotely like an intelligentsia. Decades ago, and probably outside the memory of most readers of the Rail, Spiro Agnew—Nixon’s Vice President— achieved the prodigious deed of actually teaching the whole nation a new word—“effete”—with a surefire object of spite and attacking the left as “effete intellectuals.”

Rail: Great teaching technique!

Hullot-Kentor: It’s history’s schoolhouse: Notice that “effete” is a select and “intellectual” word. By a complex ruse, a favorite of the right wing, the perduring sting of humiliation—whether that of an individual or of an entire population—is cunningly transformed into the self-evidence of the humiliation of the figure who can then be attacked en masse with laughter and confidence. But for that to work, as in this case, to be able to attack the intellectuals with their own word—“effete”—depends on an enduring middle class triumph, the victory of a mind—a kind of mind anyway—that for several centuries now has been certain that there is nothing real to life beyond buying and selling and has been no less positive that we are fine, and even better off, without those thinking characters who go about spreading their “negative energy.”

Rail: But what is the parallel you wanted to draw between the historical intelligentsia—the disdained intellectuals in your Agnew example—and the contemporary situation of students in the U.S.?

Hullot-Kentor: It’s an inexact parallel; it’s a potential parallel. Academia isn’t going to become the source of a counterculture, not Zizek, and not Jameson either. But there is a possible intelligentsia, a genuinely displaced body of independent intellectuals, that could develop and take shape in the form of college students today. They are a cohort of considerable urgency and intelligence that knows it is stranded. The degrees are piling up and there aren’t jobs—and no expectation of suitable jobs in an economy in which dispossession has become the fiercest form of possession, where any economic recovery is sure to be a proportionately jobless recovery. It’s not, of course, that I’m in any sense recommending that these students exhume “intelligentsia” as such. That would be a project for restaurateurs and sweatshirt designers. But there is something to learn from its history by those who are in a situation that will likely continue to border repeatedly on crises of considerable proportions. Unemployment is extraordinarily painful, isolating, and destructive; one is deprived of the world. Developing the solidarity of a common readership and critical intelligence among allies economically hovering between something like “intelligentsia” and “bohemian,” somehow getting an education in a completely stupidifying situation, is an urgent possibility to consider given what we’re in the midst of. It would make something productive out of the circumstance.

Rail: You’re saying that if education no longer subserves economic intentions it could be discovered for what education, in its own terms, really is.

Hullot-Kentor: Exactly. The economy has now taken it on itself to debunk its claim to possess education whole hand. A dispossessed and debt-burdened student body may realize that of all things education is what they could possess—not only in the sense of piling up books, but in the form of Sapere Aude!, the dare to know!

Rail: As to what to study, I know you’ve been reading Tocqueville a lot lately.

Hullot-Kentor: Yes. He is top on my list right now in trying to understand a country that teeters on the ungovernable where the people are characterized essentially by the inability to represent the common good to themselves. Come to think, I know you’re interviewing me, but that’s what I’d like to talk about.

Rail: Who Americans are and their inability to represent the common good to themselves? Sure, let’s discuss it. That would have something to do with the exclusion of students and many others in the U.S. from the common good—if there is such a thing here. How does Tocqueville fit in to this question?

Hullot-Kentor: There’s a note he made in Democracy in America, written in the 1830’s that touches on it, which fascinates me and continues to be revealing. Let me get Tocqueville off the shelf here, because otherwise I’ll misremember it. Tocqueville writes that he was fascinated watching our kind be “carried away by their disinterested,” spontaneous impulse to respond to another’s need. People, Tocqueville knew, do that everywhere; someone trips, and you spontaneously put a hand out to catch them. But, “the Americans” he continues—and this is what he found fascinating—“are hardly prepared to admit that they do give way to emotion of this sort.” “They prefer to give the credit,” he continues, to “their philosophy of self-interest.” In other words, the common good is perceived, but we cannot represent it to ourselves. We would want to say, even to joke: I caught him so he wouldn’t fall on me. Something like that.

Rail: It’s ironic that Tocqueville calls this a philosophy. Americans are hardly a philosophical people. In American English, when people talk about their “philosophy,” it’s a synonym for “tactic,” or “strategy”; their “sales philosophy” is their sales tactic, how they set up a shop window display. These are a tactical, not a philosophical people.

Hullot-Kentor: It’s true. This side of the Atlantic, a “philosophy of education” would concern whether you count off for spelling or not. And, definitely, one will not come across the idea of “speculation” in the philosophical sense—the sense of mind seeking to criticize its own narrowness—but only in the economic sense of the assertion of narrow interest through risk. But, if Americans are not philosophical—if they are tactical, strategic, and pragmatic, as you say—they are at every turn a systematic people. The whole of American life now takes place exclusively within systematic structures. But this is hardly recognized, not least because the idea of a system seems to imply a rigorously complete order, while any individual life is actually so tumultuous, so many people founder, life is so difficult for many, that it is hard to imagine that the tumult is a function of the antagonistic structure of the systems to which we are ineluctably immanent. People are more likely to chalk up the tumult as evidence of freedom from systems, and even, strangely enough, value the distress as such with a sense of “maybe we lost the house, but, you know, at least we’re free.” The systematic structures, without anyone needing to plan it, veil themselves with their own turmoil.

Rail: But what are you driving at here? In claiming that the U.S. is increasingly ungovernable, I understand you’re referring to the fact that the country is unable to pass legislation that adequately solves the tremendous problems it now faces. By its might it leads the world in the cataclysmic failure to pass legislation to protect the earth—which, I’ve noticed, Americans now like to call the “planet,” as if there are many to chose from. But what does this have to do with Americans, Tocqueville, and systematic structures?

Hullot-Kentor: Tocqueville, in that passage, explains what everyone here already knows: that the American character is recognizable most of all in its claim to the paramount virtue of self-interest. His vignette hits the bull’s-eye by pointing out that Americans aren’t exactly sure who they are, or what they’ve done, unless they “give credit to a philosophy of self-interest.” He at the same time knew perfectly well, of course, that we aren’t a philosophical people; he says so at length. Even if there are philosophies of self-interest, as of course there are many, Americans are not the kind to get wrapped up in such subtleties. Even when the topic is “theory,” they want to “do theory;” they want to get on with business. To make good on Tocqueville’s vignette, let’s help him out a bit. Myself, I wish he had written “system” instead of “philosophy.” We would read, then, that in opposition to the emotion of disinterested goodwill Americans feel obliged to “give credit to a system of self-interest.”

Rail: Where would that lead?

Hullot-Kentor: Then we could consider his vignette in terms of a relation between a systematic structure of representation, on one hand, and the mimetic impulse on the other, because the mimetic impulse is the power to respond, to put an arm out spontaneously to catch someone tripping. We would see that that system of representation amounts to a taboo that prohibits an individual from representing to themselves the common good—the felt “disinterested” impulse—and in just the same way as what’s called the “American system of representational government” prohibits the nation from representing to itself the common good.

Rail: Wait a second. Stop. I don’t want to lose track of what we’re talking about, and it is already tangled. But just a moment ago you said that “a taboo prohibits an individual from representing to themselves the common good.” English is a second language for me, you know, and I try to keep up with it. Why are you confusing the singular “individual” with the plural, as in your phrase, “representing to themselves”? You’ve done that a few times already today. I hear it everywhere in American English now. One couldn’t possibly do something like that in Portuguese or French or any European language today.

Hullot-Kentor: You’re not in any way interrupting the direction of what we’re talking about. Because what you’re noticing about contemporary English is a linguistic level of what Tocqueville observed in his vignette of the need Americans have to represent themselves exclusively in the form of a “philosophy of self-interest.” That mashing together of the singular and the plural pronouns—“an individualthemselves” or, as we’re now likely to say “a person has to understand they cannot…”—phrases which you rightly point out are everywhere—are part of the rhythm of the language trying to accommodate a non-discriminatory reference to male and female at every turn. The effort marks a kind of achievement, but in every instance it on one level also amounts to discrimination against the plural. What’s happening results from a society that is in fact plural in all of its structures, but where the only possible political-economic form of life is individual in its form of self-preservation. Self-preservation demands that we can’t be interested in a sentence that goes, “the individuals…themselves.” That is, the plural has a compelling reality to us only in exceptional instances even though the sum total of experience takes place exclusively on that level. The tumult—the systematic tumult—we were talking about earlier is in every sentence we speak. If we could imagine language as having its own conscience, it is as if language in its contemporary chaos of singular and plural insists on our noticing that at this point we can’t comprehend ourselves. There’s much more to say about this.

Rail: The “individual…themselves” is a spurious plural that embodies the actual force of the plural? But all the same the contrary is the case? Then what is in fact being expressed in these garbled phrases, even in someone who speaks carefully, as you do, is that the individual is experiencing—what to say?—“their,” “his,” or “her”?—own spuriousness in these constructions?

Hullot-Kentor: We could also say that at this point what we hear in these jumbled phrases and in the weirdly sexless sexualization of language, which is another aspect of it, is a plural that remains a power of the disorganization of the individual, rather than it—the social whole—becoming a capacity of the individual in which individuality—and sexuality as well—would be something more than the façade of a predatory form of a society that has yet to make good on its potential for individuality; the garbled language is a pretense of the emancipation of the individual, which very much still remains to be achieved—as we see, for instance, in the awful rate of contemporary unemployment.

Rail: You’re saying that the social conflict is evident in the disorganization of contemporary American English.

Hullot-Kentor: That’s it. High school and college students now graduate from these institutions considerably impeded in their ability to write. This is of national concern. All kinds of screws are being tightened both on students and on teachers to somehow get the students to write coherently. Draconian plans are being made to fix our “dysfunctional educational system,” that is, to effect a cure by inflicting undilutedly what is doing the damage in the first place. But education cannot resolve the problems. No amount of education could keep George Bush, a graduate of Yale, from speaking in stream of consciousness solecism and referring from the national podium to “childrens.” Every sentence poses the problem of the relation of the one and the many, but the capacity to set this relation right is not within language’s grasp. What we are watching happen to English right now bears comparison to the dissolution of Latin in the early Middle Ages after the collapse of Rome, whose social structure organized the language and maintained its grammatical order. To fix the schools, to help students write, it is the stupidifying social conflicts that must be addressed—as the problem of the common good.

Rail: There’s a lot to sort out. Let’s take a break.