‘Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea’ reviewed by Tom Eyers

Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea

Verso, London and New York, 2010. 304pp., £16.99 hb
ISBN 9781844674244

Reviewed by Tom Eyers

About the reviewer

Tom Eyers is a post-doctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His …


Alberto Toscano’s superb excavation of the idea of ‘Fanaticism’ intervenes in a political landscape dominated, at least in the West, by a particular strain of managerial liberalism, a kind of politics without politics. The fall of Soviet communism and the intransigence of neo-liberal economics, coupled with the lack of a compelling socialist alternative, has allowed a neutered centrism to prevail, one that never fails to debunk any politics of radical or militant conviction. Marxist and post-Marxist academics have responded with a number of critiques of liberalism and its many and varied assumptions and idiocies, ranging from the theoretical to the polemical. One senses, at least within the milieu of a certain kind of ‘radical academia’ and its increasing and much-needed connection to multifarious forms of social activism, the beginnings of a revival of Left critique, conceived broadly along the lines of the now classical New Left interrogation of both neo-liberal capitalism and socialist, State-oriented orthodoxy.

Such forms of critique have probably never really gone away, but the severity of the current Western conjuncture, particularly in relation to new forms of colonialism and the neo-Imperial complicity of ‘left-liberalism’ in the advancement of neo-liberal and neo-conservative forms of exploitation, render the current task both strikingly apparent and often forbiddingly difficult to sustain. One finds the critical landscape dominated by astringent but sometimes obscure forms of post-Marxist theorising, and a sharp polemicism, often embodied in the same thinker, the most apt example of this being, perhaps, the French philosopher Alain Badiou. Badiou is as likely to appropriate the language of mathematical set-theory to advance a militant philosophical ontology as he is to imperiously and convincingly denounce the politics of Nicholas Sarkozy.

It is no coincidence that Alberto Toscano, a young lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, has been central in translating Badiou’s work and extending its analytic scope in his own writings. Toscano shares with Badiou an admirable and rather rare sense of the mutual compatibility of rigorous political theory and the most militant, direct forms of political critique. His book usefully conjoins an historical and theoretical genealogy of the uses and abuses of the idea of fanaticism, particularly in various strains of liberal discourse, with a wider polemic against attacks on the emancipatory Left by the new mandarins of McCarthyite ‘consensus’. It is, Toscano argues, via the manipulation of notions such as ‘fanaticism’, made to encompass other, ostensibly less threatening variations such as conviction and passion, that any universal emancipatory project is foreclosed. Allied with this, Toscano argues, is a liberal fear of abstraction, bound up with the idea that abstract ideas or forms of theoretical critique inexorably lead, at least when applied, to totalitarianism.

What renders Toscano’s account particularly strong, and what distinguishes it from the theory/polemic dichotomy discussed above, is the rich and varied historical resources that he marshals in favour of his argument. Thus, the book begins with a compelling chapter detailing how various spectres of ‘extremism’, from the condemnation of John Brown’s anti-slavery militancy by such deified figures as Abraham Lincoln to the repudiation of “militant passions” by the contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, cut across history in a general logic of the pathologisation of dissent. Toscano is excellent at identifying a multitude of historical instances of such an undermining of impassioned opposition, from the “naturalisation and racialisation of ‘fanatical’ anti-colonial violence” that allowed the British to claim an inevitability to the brutality of their colonial adventures, to the multiple ways in which Islam is discursively ‘fanaticised’ today, with the politicisation of religion and its ambiguous relation to more universal, secular forms of politics remaining an abiding concern throughout the book.

Intertwined with historical reflections are a number of trenchant readings of philosophical treatments of ‘fanaticism’ and the ‘fanatic’, both historical and contemporary. In an especially suggestive chapter outlining the inextricability of figures of reason and non-reason in Enlightenment philosophy, Toscano innovatively draws out the “ambivalence” of Kant’s supposed elevation of reason against the temptations of metaphysical speculation. On the one hand, Toscano notes, Kant “inherits from the Enlightenment the preoccupation with fanaticism understood as a pathology of transcendence”, while on the other he “exercises great caution when it comes to the reductive aims of a materialist Enlightenment that would seek to excise religion altogether.” Toscano takes the “particular distribution of immanence and transcendence” within Kantian thought as a model to explicate the proximity of a certain kind of fanaticism to “those forms of action he [Kant] deems to be politically and morally noble because they are universalizable”. Such an ambivalence, the mutual interpenetration of the philosophical purification of thought from the passions and those very passions themselves, figures as a constitutive vacillation for Toscano within very notion of fanaticism itself. Through recognising such an ambiguity, Toscano argues, we can undermine the false, ahistorical opposition between Enlightenment thought and impassioned political conviction so frequently argued for in liberal commentary today, an opposition that serves ultimately to promote liberal quietism as the only game in town.

Occasionally, the very richness of Toscano’s account, the accumulation of references that underwrite the complexity of his argumentation, becomes a weakness. I would have liked a more sustained reflection on the link between a Badiou-inspired focus on the messianism of the ‘event’ and the various ways of opposing reason and passion found in 20th Century radical thought. Other readers will hanker for longer versions of any number of the often compelling but short sub-sections that make up some of the chapters. Nonetheless, the range of Toscano’s focus rarely results in a sacrifice of detail. I was particularly struck by the explication of Hegel’s writings on religion, where Islam, in particular, is afforded a “spiritual and conceptual dignity” rare in the history of European philosophy, even as Hegel eventually charges Islam with the charge of over-abstraction, a charge that Toscano finds to be a particularly prevalent feature of anti-fanatical discourse more generally. The more specific, Marxist notion of ‘real abstraction’, and its necessity to any philosophically and politically grounded project of emancipation, is especially well argued for by Toscano, in a manner which dovetails usefully with Peter Osborne’s recent writings on the subject, among others. “An assertion of the rights of the abstract in politics”, Toscano notes, “must nonetheless be accompanied by an effort to account for the emergence, autonomisation and power of real abstractions.”

Ultimately, Toscano is too supple a thinker to unequivocally ‘support’ fanaticism against liberal pacification. Indeed, it is the falsity of the very opposition that underpins so much of Toscano’s argument. In political terms, the sustained attack on the Left and its universal projects of emancipation has resulted in a proliferation of passions unmoored from the necessary if demanding requirements of organisation and inclusivity. As Toscano concludes, “politics is not reducible to the cry, the clash or the axiom. Urgency and intransigence must be coupled with patience and strategy, if there is ever to be a history without fanaticism.”

28 May 2010

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