Thursday, August 09, 2007

Post-Modern Conservatives

In the latest dead-tree version of National Review, Michael Potemra reviews Gerald J. Russello's The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk. (Russello is editor of the Russell Kirk Center's "The University Bookman"). Huh? A conservative post-modernist? Well, just hold on...According to Potemra:
Kirk, like the best of the postmodernists, is calling not for a radical relativism—i.e., an assertion that truth doesn’t exist—but for a humility of the intellect. The postmodernist challenges us to learn from the aspects of the truth presented by today’s less powerful voices; the traditionalist Kirk asks us to show the same respect for those who are less powerful because they are voices of the past. (This idea is echoed in Chesterton’s phrase “democracy of the dead.”) Modernity viewed the past as an oppressor whose shackles must be removed from thought, but postmodernism can view the past the way a healthy new republic treats its former king: He is no longer king, but he must not be denied the full rights of citizenship—for he, too, has much to teach us.

Like the postmodernists, Kirk presents us with what has been called a “romance of the marginal.” Gerald Russello’s fine book demonstrates how looking at the margins can give us directions to the moral and intellectual center; how Lyotard’s “crisis of narratives” can yield a vision of the permanent things.
In an interview with John J. Miller at NR, Russello explained:
Kirk’s conservatism is “postmodern” in the sense that it was never modern, and therefore is not burdened as liberalism is with the weaknesses of the Enlightenment worldview. Kirk’s emphasis on imagination, his concern for the imagery a society creates of what it admires or condemns, his treatment of tradition and history as not objective but one in which we participate and can change, and his devotion to what Burke called the “little platoons” of society all have parallels in postmodern thought. Moreover, Kirk himself saw this. In 1982, he wrote in National Review, that “the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” With liberalism moribund, it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.”
Looking at the historical margins for the moral constants exhibited by the silent majorities of the past could be--and has been--a worthwhile endeavor for conservatives.

But perhaps this bit--from an interview with James G. Poulos at the American Spectator--goes further in explaining Kirk's post-modern leanings:
Reviewers since the 1950s have noted the internal dilemma of conservatives: once they start articulating what it is to be conservative, the battle is already half lost. Bernard Crick, in a review of The Conservative Mind, thought that Kirk was in an intellectual quandary, because "[h]aving no significant conservative tradition, Americans are put to the unconservative task of inventing one." In order to defend what they thought was worth conserving, many mainstream conservatives once believed that they had to engage liberalism on its own terms, in a "dialectic" mode that is foreign to the rhetorical, didactic, and imaginative modes more amenable to conservative expression. Kirk tried to overcome that difficulty by wrapping his arguments in a protective covering of narrative imagination. To state outright the traditions one wishes to preserve, and the means to do so, succumbs to the liberal temptation of reducing to reason things that are not always rational. To cast the same lessons through stories and autobiography, however, can leave enough room for the creation and preservation of tradition to take root. I think this is what Kirk was trying to do in the overall body of his work.
Now we can see the allure of post-modernism for anti-modern traditionalists like Kirk and many other conservatives. (Admit it, most of us can at least be partially described this way). Yet, I don't doubt it'll still rub conservatives the wrong way to be lumped in with the contemporary--and satirized--post-modernist. But they, like the po-mo social and cultural historians, may discover important truths (heh) if they pay a visit to the heretofore ignored masses.

1 comment:

Gerald Russello said...

Thanks for discussing the book!

Gerald