PODOPTICON is a politics, history, and culture podcast. Topics will range. Current politics; hobbits and fascism; the invention of color; a new book that will complicate Civil War history, etc. Join in on the fun. https://podopticon.com
African American Political Thought: A Provocation
A discussion of the new book, "African American Political Thought: A Collected History." I'm joined by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner, the editors of this magnificent volume. The conversation is wide ranging. We discuss the obstacles to the emergence of this field, the neglect of African American thinkers in American Political Thought, what it means to recenter the latter around Black political thought, and how this book fits within the Socratic tradition.
The “State of Nature” and the Origins of American Independence
This episode is about the state of nature, which turns out to be a lot of things, as will any concept that’s about 6,000 years old. But following my guest, Mark Somos, we've narrowed it down to about fifteen years in 18th century America. We discuss Somos's "American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775."
Spinoza's Epicurean Politics: the Dialectic of Authority and Utility and the Pleasures of Sober Reasoning
Dimitris Vardoulakis and I discuss his book, Spinoza, the Epicurean: Authority and Utility in Materialism.
James Baldwin's Tough Love
Last time, we discussed Rousseau’s "Confessions," an autobiographical work that’s meant to encourage some thinking around various questions common to life and living.
This time, we turn to another thinker who made his own life central in various ways, James Baldwin. As we’ll see, Baldwin personalized his thinking–not just by being autobiographical but by addressing his audience directly. “YOU” must this and that. “YOU.” A jarring sort of second person personal.
Now, in the spirit of autobiography, even a touch of confession, I don’t know James Baldwin well at all. I come to him very late. But it’s particularly exciting to come to a thinker so deep and deeply interesting when you feel like you might already have a foot in the grave; makes you want to pull the foot out and keep reading. I recommend it.
On the other hand, I haven’t simply stumbled around in the dark, I’ve had the help of Nicholas Buccola, a Baldwin expert and author of “The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America.” Nick was PODOPTICON’s first guest. And it was there that I got a taste for Baldwin.
So don’t worry, people. This won’t just be some bro who thinks he’s discovered something. I come with an expert, who’ll keep me in check. Or who will try.
I come, then, as an amateur, which in an older and simpler sense suggests a kind of lover. So it’s appropriate that we’re going to talk about James Baldwin on love.
It’s not so romantic, though, unless by "romance" you mean to suggest a touch of the Sturm und Drang.
Baldwin’s love is tough love, and you’ll hear from him terms like a “lovers’ war”. Baldwin applies such love to his own country. It’s not a warm hug. But it’s hard to say it’s not necessary. He applies it, too, to his father, as in his novel, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and to Norman Mailer in the essay “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” Distinct works, but two scathing critiques later described by the author himself as love letters.
In the same light, we’ll touch on Baldwin’s engagement, his grappling, with the western tradition. There, too, is a kind of Baldwinian love in action. Particularly interesting in this regard, maybe, is the discussion around his essay, “Why I stopped Hating Shakespeare.”
Like Rousseau, with whom I opened, Baldwin found himself a stranger in his own land. While Rousseau’s researches made him feel like a barbarian for not being understood, Baldwin’s digging around the tradition made him feel like what he called “a bastard of the west.” Such individuals might be destined for a kind of loneliness.
Indeed, in the various personal works discussed in this episode, we’ll see Baldwin talk about the life and business of the artist. And it’s there, I think, that it all comes together. Baldwin doesn’t shy from the big questions, and he doesn’t want you to, either. It’s Baldwin in the Socratic tradition.
Let’s get to the episode, then. I do hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
On Rousseau's "Confessions": A Life in the Camera Obscura
In December of 1770, Jean-Jacques Rousseau completed his Confessions and gave his first reading of the book to a group of seven or so gathered at a Parisian home for the occasion. Rousseau started at nine in the morning and for the next 14 to 18 hours, he let it all hang out.
Those who first heard the Confessions read were equally stunned but variously effected, you could say. From “how beautiful and profound that an individual could be so nobly forthright” to “what’s wrong with this whimpering psycho?” Those are paraphrases.
But why would someone, especially someone so well-known, want us to know even more? Why so openly admit his most embarrassing and personal flaws and acts, as he did in this book? The spankings, the exposures, the courtesans; the five children out of wedlock, each dumped at a foundling home; the betrayal of innocent people and friends; the paranoia and conspiracy; all that laid bare by the subject himself!
So I wanted to talk to Laura Field about these and other things, and she didn’t disappoint. I say that even after she laughed at me for asking “what’s wrong with modern society?”
Laura is a political theorist who’s lately been on the fascism and authoritarianism beat, where she’s among the most penetrating analysts. She’s worked on everything from Xenophon to Nietzsche and contemporary politics. Her work on the Confessions, especially, has shown me a lot, and I’m so glad she took the time to have a chat with me about it and the wily and elusive Jean-Jacques.
Her work on the "Confessions" is “Rousseau’s Confessions: A Pattern for Living," which you can find in this volume.
Michael Hattem on the Long Tradition of Fashioning an American Past
It turns out that working and reworking American identity is as old as the creation of the republic itself. As we’ll see in this episode, the thing called “American History” is not a static set of truths to be uncovered, but a story that has had numerous versions told by individuals with their own motivations.
This and much more is uncovered in this discussion with Michael Hattem, author of "Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution."
In this episode, we’ll discuss, among other things, how the American Revolution stands out from the Russian and the French; we’ll hear how colonists understood the past in relation to the present and how that understanding underwent its own transformation after the Revolution; we’ll talk about the creation of what Hattem calls an “American antiquity;” we’ll trace this and various other American efforts at cultural independence from Britain, including the creation of Columbus as the discoverer of America and the establishment of natural history museums and historical societies–all of which was the work of a network of individuals Hattem calls “cultural nationalists.”
Stick around for a conversation with a thoughtful author who helps us better understand the American Revolution, “American History,” and the interplay of the two.