Via Jonah Goldberg, I have more from Corey Robin on his original essay, which is apparently the short version of a longer academic article. (Robin’s comments are #44 and #46 in the list of responses.) You can read my original post here.
Here are the most relevant snippets from his comments:
Some folks raised a legitimate question as to whether Burke’s “Sublime and the Beautiful” is a part of the conservative canon and how it relates to its later works. If you read his mature works—particularly his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” and his “Letters on a Regicide Peace”—you’ll see a fairly similar argument as what you find in “The Sublime and the Beautiful.” While’s he clearly hostile to the revolutionaries and their violence, he suggests at several points that one of the problems with the monarchy is that it lacks the capacity for terrifying awe that the revolutionaries are in a position to exercise. The question for him is how can the monarchy achieve some of that. Also his critique of the revolutionaries’ violence is very much in keeping with what he says in “The Sublime and the Beautiful”: that is, rather than offering people a theater of violence, where violence is performed and fantasized, they engaged in actual violence. And his critique of that actual violence is that NOT that it is cruel or hurtful or anything like that: it’s that it removes the mystery and obscurity that is necessary for the sublime. Actual violence entails bodies touching bodies (specifically, the mob’s handling of the queen), and when that happens—when we get too close to each other, or see each other too nakedly—sublimity disappears.
One last thing: people seem to be under the impression that I am arguing that only conservatives care or are taken by violence. Or that I’m saying that what makes a conservative a conservative is his or her position on violence. That’s not the case. The left has its own tradition of thinking about violence, but it’s a very different tradition. The kind of arguments one sees in Burke are, for the most part, not found in the left canon (with the possible exception of Fanon). Most leftists take their cues from what is often called the “realist” tradition—where violence is viewed as a means to an end, an instrument or resource, and a fairly scarce resource at that. The whole question of violence for the left, particularly when it is part of a revolutionary or guerilla movement or even a collection of terrorist cells, is how to maximize the effectiveness of this scarce resource (revolutionaries often have to husband their instruments of violence and use them prudently and carefully). In addition, the focus of discussion on the left is on the objects of violence—the victims—not because the left is filled with humanitarians but b/c it has to make a very little go a long way: it has to make sure that its violence does what violence is supposed to do (subdue one’s enemies). If this all sounds fairly military-like, it should. Lenin was a great reader of Clausewitz; Gramsci was a great reader of Machiavelli, particularly his writings on war; and even Foucault, who occupies a weird space in all this, was very interested in early modern, realist theorists of warfare. All this is quite different from the right, where the focus is on the wielders of violence (what will violence do for us and our decaying or decadent society), and where the purpose of violence is less utilitarian and instrumental and more symbolic and rejuvenative.
[I]t’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel to draw linkages between Burke, for example, and the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol, whatever his sins, was a great reader of Burke and makes many Burkean arguments. Francis Fukuyama’s take on war in “The End of History”—representing a next generation of neoconservative thinking, which was mostly influenced by Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom (though Kristol was also influenced by Strauss)—is straight out of the Sublime and the Beautiful.
Before I go any further, I have one comment to make on the Burke-Fukuyama “connection.” Robin doesn’t mention Kojeve, whose Nietzscheanized Hegelianism is a much more important inspiration for Fukuyama than anything Burke wrote. Perhaps that’s because it would tie Fukuyama to a neo-Marxist tradition and inconveniently complicate Robin’s argument about conservatism (which in any event appears really to be much more about neo-conservatism, which is to say, the conservatism of former leftists and liberals). And while it’s certainly true that Strauss philosophically respected Kojeve, that’s not the same thing as saying he agreed with him. (The same comment, by the way, could be made about the Strauss/Schmitt connection.) Lastly, I’ll certainly concede that Fukuyama’s argument owes something to Allan Bloom, principally to his account of spiritedness in Plato’s Republic. But I have a hard time getting from there to the Burkean sublime. I’d prefer to proceed much more straightforwardly through sources Fukuyama (and Bloom and Strauss) explicitly acknowledge than to assume a connection with Burke that strikes me as quite fanciful.
Sorry, but I’m not done yet. Here’s what I wrote in an email to Jonah:
I’d want to see the long academic article, because on the basis of this, I’m still not buying it. His Chronicle piece was much more polemical and certainly not nuanced in the way he makes it seem in his response to comments. Beginning with a reference to Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality and then segueing to Hofstadter, and then asserting that you were talking about theory and not personality seems rather an evasion, no?
And his account of the leftist “economy” of violence (as “realistic”) is just laughable. Violence has certainly not been a scarce resource in any revolution . And the role of violence in establishing identity (which he restricts to Fanon) is traceable to the master/slave dialectic in Hegel and was brought into the mainstream of theoretical leftism by Alexandre Kojeve.
I could state his argument another way: conservatives are the “realists,” recognizing the need for symbolic or aesthetic “violence” to ground the awe required to establish (sublime) respect for the sovereign. This could be said to be the function of the state of nature for someone like Hobbes. (To be sure, a “theocracy” doesn’t require aestheticized violence to establish awe, but if you’re trying to make do without God, a Leviathan protecting you from a state of nature that is a state of war may be a necessary substitute. Note, however, that the violence here is theoretical or imaginary.)
By contrast, instrumental violence is limited only by the goal you seek. If you want to create a new socialist man or establish an end to history or thoroughly to conquer and humanize nature (overcoming the realm of necessity to establish the real of freedom), you may have to use lots of violence.
I’ll add this: perhaps the most significant consequence of classical (and Christian) thought for any consideration of violence is its appreciation of the limits of politics. If you have unlimited ends, being economical about the means doesn’t necessarily get you very far in controlling violence. If you have limited ends, that’s a different story.