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21

Bad Infinity

The endurance of the liberal imagination

by James Duesterberg

0
terms
3
notes

Duesterberg, J. (2019). Bad Infinity. The Point, 20, pp. 21-40

24

[...] Literature is at once close to home and strange: a world of fantasy and desire, of unwanted guests and uncanny returns. To understand liberalism through literature is to stop asking how it works, or trying to show that it doesn’t. It is, rather, to understand how we could organize our lives around an ideology that we renounce. To build a different system—or even to imagine it—we first have to ask: What is it that keeps us building this one?

—p.24 by James Duesterberg 2 years, 9 months ago

[...] Literature is at once close to home and strange: a world of fantasy and desire, of unwanted guests and uncanny returns. To understand liberalism through literature is to stop asking how it works, or trying to show that it doesn’t. It is, rather, to understand how we could organize our lives around an ideology that we renounce. To build a different system—or even to imagine it—we first have to ask: What is it that keeps us building this one?

—p.24 by James Duesterberg 2 years, 9 months ago
25

At the core of liberalism, Trilling emphasized, was a “primal act of imagination.” Behind all the conceptual infrastructure that made up the liberal world was a visionary desire. Our laws and customs might be the forms of our freedom, but they could not account for its content, for the value we attach to it. The purpose of a liberal society was to free individuals to follow their dreams: the pursuit of happiness, unleashed. But what dreams? By definition, a liberal framework cannot say.

This, according to Trilling, was the paradox at the heart of liberalism—a paradox that, while not fatal in itself, posed a mortal danger to the life of liberal societies. As liberalism progresses, it erects political, economic and social structures with a view to rational improvement, affirming the human capacity to build a better world. But the more power it gains—the more effectively it reshapes the world in its image—the more it loses sight of what exactly this power is for. “In the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind,” Trilling wrote, liberalism “inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.” Imagining itself as a human creation, liberalism creates a society of machines.

—p.25 by James Duesterberg 2 years, 9 months ago

At the core of liberalism, Trilling emphasized, was a “primal act of imagination.” Behind all the conceptual infrastructure that made up the liberal world was a visionary desire. Our laws and customs might be the forms of our freedom, but they could not account for its content, for the value we attach to it. The purpose of a liberal society was to free individuals to follow their dreams: the pursuit of happiness, unleashed. But what dreams? By definition, a liberal framework cannot say.

This, according to Trilling, was the paradox at the heart of liberalism—a paradox that, while not fatal in itself, posed a mortal danger to the life of liberal societies. As liberalism progresses, it erects political, economic and social structures with a view to rational improvement, affirming the human capacity to build a better world. But the more power it gains—the more effectively it reshapes the world in its image—the more it loses sight of what exactly this power is for. “In the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind,” Trilling wrote, liberalism “inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.” Imagining itself as a human creation, liberalism creates a society of machines.

—p.25 by James Duesterberg 2 years, 9 months ago
29

If the outward face of liberalism is idealism, the audacity of hope, its inner essence, Anderson argues, is failure: the experience of dreams deflated. Failure is not, as we might expect, secondary and historical, but primary and essential. The strangeness of Anderson’s argument—and the uniqueness, she argues, of liberalism—is that failure comes first. “Fundamentally,” she writes, “liberalism is prompted by enduring challenges.” Notice the phrasing: it is not that liberal optimism must confront challenges. Rather, it is prompted by them; the challenges are “constitutive.” Liberalism is a belief system that, while promoting a vision of progress to come, grows out of the experience of being “belated and disenchanted.”

Anderson returns often to a description of liberalism as a “lived relation to ideals.” She means that the ideals themselves are formed in the living; that, paradoxically, the life we imagine at once orients us in the world and follows from our experience. It is only in trying to live our ideals that we see what they mean, and in each case that she cites, the lesson is bleak. Her argument weaves through famous Victorian novels by Dickens and Trollope, as well as modernist works by writers like Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison and Doris Lessing. Anderson wants us to notice how each of these books is driven by the experience of political failure: ideals deflated, projects unfinished or abandoned, civic ties corroded. It is in these disappointing experiences, Anderson argues, that something else is born: what she calls the “intractable energies of these moods of doubt, despair, and difficulty,” an energy “at once negative and utopian.”

hm interesting, idk how much i agree with this (isn't that def of liberalism too vague?) but it does pose a fascinating horizon

—p.29 by James Duesterberg 2 years, 9 months ago

If the outward face of liberalism is idealism, the audacity of hope, its inner essence, Anderson argues, is failure: the experience of dreams deflated. Failure is not, as we might expect, secondary and historical, but primary and essential. The strangeness of Anderson’s argument—and the uniqueness, she argues, of liberalism—is that failure comes first. “Fundamentally,” she writes, “liberalism is prompted by enduring challenges.” Notice the phrasing: it is not that liberal optimism must confront challenges. Rather, it is prompted by them; the challenges are “constitutive.” Liberalism is a belief system that, while promoting a vision of progress to come, grows out of the experience of being “belated and disenchanted.”

Anderson returns often to a description of liberalism as a “lived relation to ideals.” She means that the ideals themselves are formed in the living; that, paradoxically, the life we imagine at once orients us in the world and follows from our experience. It is only in trying to live our ideals that we see what they mean, and in each case that she cites, the lesson is bleak. Her argument weaves through famous Victorian novels by Dickens and Trollope, as well as modernist works by writers like Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison and Doris Lessing. Anderson wants us to notice how each of these books is driven by the experience of political failure: ideals deflated, projects unfinished or abandoned, civic ties corroded. It is in these disappointing experiences, Anderson argues, that something else is born: what she calls the “intractable energies of these moods of doubt, despair, and difficulty,” an energy “at once negative and utopian.”

hm interesting, idk how much i agree with this (isn't that def of liberalism too vague?) but it does pose a fascinating horizon

—p.29 by James Duesterberg 2 years, 9 months ago