Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ben Etherington reviews Borrowed Light

Timothy Brennan. Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel and the Colonies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2014. 304 pp.

Review by Ben Etherington

Timothy Brennan’s Borrowed Light is a work of grand ambition. Over two volumes, it seeks forcibly to realign the centre-ground of contemporary humanistic thought. In this first volume, Brennan wants to scrape off the assumptions caked around the work of certain canonical European philosophers in order to see whether the ideas, read in context, actually support the intellectual and political projects currently being driven by those assumptions. He also wants to change the atmosphere of conceptual debate, recommending that engaged dialectical encounter displace the kind of approach that sees the intellectual field as a space for manoeuvring pre-branded “ruptures” and “turns.” Philology is his method and polemic his rhetoric; modes that we might think incompatible until we read that Brennan understands philology’s marginalisation as a symptom of the condition which his work hopes to correct.

An understanding of this work, which likely will be misread by opponents and even some supporters (and I don’t hesitate to identify myself among the latter), needs to proceed with a clear view of its rhetoric and scope. The question is not whether this determinedly generalist study will stand up to point-by-point rebuttals  but whether it goes about fulfilling its deeper purpose in a manner that is true and strategically astute. Edward Said, Brennan’s dissertation supervisor and stylistic touchstone, was the most successful US-based generalist of his generation and the swarm of small-minded critiques that Orientalism attracted did nothing to prevent others from pursuing strands of enquiry leading out from it. Will Borrowed Light likewise succeed in renewing the left-humanist program? If Brennan’s diagnosis is correct, what new questions and possibilities does it make available?

Borrowed Light centers on two connected claims: (1) that there exists a suppressed Vichian tradition in modern thought centred on a civic hermeneutics whose practices and insights are sorely missed; (2) that contemporary wars of position largely repeat the intellectual contests of the period between the world wars, the forgetting of which is also to the detriment of the present climate. The task is twofold: to recover the tenets of the Vichian tradition (volume 1) and demonstrate its flourishing at the apogee of anticolonialism (volume 2, yet to be published). Brennan believes that many who have invoked the spirit of anticolonialism and the specific project of decolonization—most notably postcolonialists, but also posthumanists in an indirect way—have drawn on the intellectual resources of right without either recognizing or being troubled by this. Although this claim is not new, the depth and breadth of Borrowed Light’s revisionist programme and the division of modern humanistic thought into two warring camps with a much longer set of antinomies than that of, say, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, presents an original view of the topography and supplies new criteria for thinking about the Left and Right.

Volume 1 begins by setting out “the attractions of Vico for anticolonial theory” (p. 24). In Vico Brennan find the fundamental intellectual disposition and central themes of left-humanist thought: a dedication to systematicity that avoids the dogma of the a priori; civic debate as conceptual process; polemic as a cognitive mode; the view of language as a passionately sensuous medium that aspires to say the truth; a rationalism centred on human history not natural law and concomitant emphasis on cities and labour; a universalist rather than ethnic or sectarian notion of civilization; a rejection of irony as dissimulation; and, above all, opposition to imperialism past and present. The fact that this constellation of insights and commitments pre-dates G. W. F. Hegel and Marx shows us that those insights and commitments are not the outcome of their work, but that they belong to the Vichian tradition. Brennan next looks to Baruch Spinoza as the opposing pole. While Spinoza makes many claims that Brennan finds desirable, he argues that these are based on suppositions and an intellectual mode that pull in the opposite direction to civic hermeneutics. The thesis of the radical immanence of God in nature, which some understand to be Spinoza’s Copernican significance for radical thought, is really a passivity in which mind is just another aspect of self-evolving nature whose purpose becomes understanding the perfection of that closed system. Thought is transmuted into feeling and critical doubt becomes vacillation within a fixed unity. The anti-humanist Marxism of Althusser and his successors, in which Spinoza is used to expunge materialism of the subject-as-agent, has its basis, Brennan argues, in conceptual analogies to a closed philosophical system.

The Vichian themes and commitments acquire a methodological impetus in the next chapter. Brennan reminds us that Hegel’s Absolute is not omniscience but “knowledge absolutely given over (reconciled, one might say) to the collective nature of knowledge” (p. 76). This collectivity is “objective spirit”, an open totality that is constituted and negated by human activity. Agency thus is not the expression of a fictional essential subject, it is subjectivity. The arena Brennan calls the civic is none other than the domain of the Subject, which takes him to the crux of volume 1: a defence of the State as the medium of collective self-determination. Hegel’s State is defined not by handing down and policing the law, but by the dialectic of law and civic action. It transpires that Borrowed Light is something of a systematic elaboration of Brennan’s famous essay, ‘The National Longing for Form.” First-world postcolonialists might gleefully denounce Hegel’s use of terms like backwardness, but, Brennan points out, theorists of dependency like the Caribbean historians Eric Williams and Walter Rodney unapologetically use such terms when condemning the inadequacy of “undeveloped infrastructure, spotty education, inept technical knowledge, and illiteracy” (p. 105).

The most monumental chapter of this first volume demonstrates that, in both form and content, Nietzsche’s ideas were shaped by an imperialist attitude. Nietzsche has long been critiqued on the basis of his appeal to National Socialists, but Brennan assiduously demonstrates that, in his time, he was sympathetic to colonial enterprises and posited colonial activity as a remedy to Europe’s problems. Here, the weight of Brennan’s larger argument is brought to bear. In turning away from a conception of language as a sensuous medium for truth, by advancing a philology based on the tendentious use of the historical record, and in recommending a genealogical approach to history built on suggestive connections over detailed historicism, Nietzsche was diffusing dialectics and the tools of civic action at precisely that moment when European imperialism was starting to hear the rumble of challenges from the global colonial periphery. In setting out a rhetorics of performative lying, Nietzsche fulfils in form the imperialist cast of mind revealed in certain of his comments. Volume 1 closes with a discussion of Georges Bataille, who Brennan argues, redeployed Marxian concepts in the vein of Nietzsche, serving as a conduit for counter-philology into the left, and anticipating the way in which reaction was repackaged as left insurgency after the war.

The final pages deliver a strident attack on post-humanism as a contemporary appearance of the antihumanist Spinoza-Nietzsche-Bataille axis. Brennan’s antipathies to these formations are well-known and this closing polemic is more notable for its sheer breadth. Tactically, the book is perhaps directed more at the broad sphere of Marxian thinking, particularly ongoing debates between humanist and anti-humanist Marxists. This is where Brennan’s recourse to the ‘Vichian’ enables him to move beyond quasi-biblical bickering. It is not a question of the relation of early to late Marx, but the way in which Marx’s work built on the Vichian tradition that allows us to seize upon its importance for left-humanism. It does raise the question, though, of why Brennan has not dedicated a chapter to Marx. Given the centrality of this body of work to his argument, the decision to disperse commentary on Marx through the chapters on Vico and Hegel might be taking too much for granted, especially as it will be with reference to Marx’s work, above all, that Brennan’s Vichian tradition has its showdown with imperialism.

Also, in an environment where the organisation of the history of ideas is increasingly conducted according to ad hominem identity-based categories, Brennan is too short when explaining why the first volume of a work on anticolonial thought is given over to European thinkers. He is at pains to point to the always already imperial context of his chosen thinkers and their contrapuntal relation to the colonial periphery, and it is only wishful thinking that looks for a contemporaneous New Science written at the expanding colonial frontier. That we can find in Vico intellectual resources that later would be essential for the anticolonial movement is convincing, and that a reckoning only with twentieth-century anticolonialism (as one reviewer of Borrowed Light has recommended) would be shallowly synchronic seems obvious, but in focusing on those dedicated to extended philosophical exposition we risk losing sight of the dialectic of theory and praxis.

These decisions do not invalidate Borrowed Light’s core theses, but they might prevent this first volume from enlisting some natural allies. In any case, the full weight of this project will only become apparent when the second volume appears, and that promises to be a watershed. One can see already the ways in which Borrowed Light points in new directions.. The identification of a civic hermeneutics is a development whose limits and possibilities deserve investigation and contextual research. What is a literature of the civic that is not the didactic echo chamber of political ideas or predictable allegory? The identification of irony as the natural mode of the anti-civic presents itself as a basis for rethinking the criteria of aesthetic investigation where the modernist paradigm has long reigned. What, indeed, is involved in writing good literature sincerely? How would an intellectual culture of polemic and counter-polemic function? Borrowed Light volume 2 also promises to be a riposte to the fashionable notion of decoloniality, for which no object is too small to spark calls for decolonization. Brennan reminds us that political sovereignty is at the very centre of anticolonial thought and it is in collective action that imperialist formations and ways of imagining the world are transcended. What would a true anticolonialism that does not evaporate into voluntarism look like in our present?