Francesco Maiolo, 'The philosophical fight over words is part of the political fight' A Tribute to Grahame Lock

Francesco Maiolo is Assistant Professor in Political Theory and Politics Fellow at the University College of the University of Utrecht. His current research focuses on the development of sovereignty in the modern theories of recognition and the political thought of Michel Foucault .

 

 

 

 

“The philosophical fight over words is part of the political fight”. A Tribute to Grahame Lock (1946-2014)

 

 

I received the shocking news of Grahame Lock’s untimely and unexpected death from his daughter Cecily, a distinguished pianist, the day after he passed away in Oxford. I was dismayed. The sense of loss that family and friends are experiencing will never be overcome. All we can do is learn how to cope with it. The impossibility of fully coming to terms with his death will be a reminder of the affection and intellectual commitment that bound us together. My thoughts are with Maria, Grahame’s wife, Cecily and her bother Edwin.

 

When towards the end of 1993 I first met Grahame Lock, I was one of his exchange students at the Law Faculty of the University of Leiden. In 1996 a unique teaching cooperation and intellectual fellowship began. From then on we taught together uninterruptedly until the summer of 2009, when he moved to Oxford. Thereafter we corresponded almost daily, sharing thoughts, analyses and concerns. Since 1998 we taught together a series of philosophy lectures in the Trinity Term at Oxford. Early in June this year I was there to attend the last of a series of lectures that he gave on Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Grahame was more pensive than usual. The gravitas of his monologue surprised me, and in vain I waited for one of his hilarious witty remarks. In those days I found him more home-loving than usual. In spite of the rather gloomy topic of some of our conversations, he was serene, and his tranquillity of spirit filled me with a very pleasant feeling. The morning I left he walked to the railway station with me, as he did other times. We said goodbye to each other on the assumption that we would soon put our thoughts together on paper. I could have never imagined that that was the last time we would see each other. Without being aware of it, I witnessed the end of a cycle. I was a student when I first met him at Leiden, and as a student I sat by and watched him twenty years later in the Oxford classroom where he delivered his very last lecture.   

 

Grahame Lock was a maître à penser. In the perspective of intellectual work, which he passionately professed, he taught that the lasting significance of what we do is that we are links in chains of transmission that are constantly in danger of being broken. He considered the devastation of learning and of the institutions in charge of its reproduction a fait accompli almost everywhere in Western societies. The teaching that we are ‘dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’ was at the heart of his attitude towards knowledge in general. At the same time, aware as he was of the risk of being labelled as an aesthetician of the intellect or as a reactionary conservative, he tirelessly warned that being part of a tradition means much more than merely giving continuity to a body of teachings, just being ‘giants’ or ‘dwarfs’. To this end he continued to practice his philosophical creed, which was based upon two fundamental principles, namely that the philosophical fight over words is part of the political fight, and that what we need are ideas capable of helping to solve contemporary political problems. His familiarity with both the continental and the analytic traditions brought him to emphasise that ‘what can be said at all can be said clearly’. Wittgenstein added that ‘whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent’. This, Grahame observed, does not mean that propositions that apparently make no sense play a merely negative role. In philosophy, in particular in the phenomenological perspective, propositions are generally stated as theses. Some of these theses concern questions such as the existence of God, the possibility of Resurrection, the existence of evil, and the possibility of total depravity. These are the themes to be found in the background of his most recent speculation. In this realm the theses that we formulate are important because they have the power to show specifically the limes of what cannot be properly expressed. The ability to think what cannot be properly expressed constituted his latest theoretical and practical concern. That is why in the perspective of faith, which he cultivated with discretion and respect, Grahame is to be seen as a maître à penser. Not for a moment did he undermine Dante’s dictum that ‘we were not born to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and true wisdom’. This endeavour, he thought, is in vain under the pressure of anti-dogmatism and against the rule of the Paternal Law, a concept provided by Freudian theory and reinterpreted by Jeanine Chasseguet-Smirgel and Pierre Legendre. Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so Grahame was yearning for the Almighty Father.

 

Grahame’s formative years are of importance to understand the development of his thought. He studied philosophy, achieving outstanding results, at the University College, London, King’s College, Cambridge, and the École Normale Supérieure, Paris. He received his PhD from Cambridge in 1974 defending a thesis on the old and new theories of ideology. He was, in the words of Jerry Cohen, who had been his tutor in London in 1966-67, “an undergraduate of uncommon originality and acuteness”. This past April, Grahame told me that when he began to study philosophy, students were taught that as philosophers they should respect only valid, and if possible sound, arguments. Rhetoric was beside the point. Later, he said, he noticed that rhetoric could be and was massively used to discredit those who tried to use only valid and sound arguments. The type of hegemonic role that the post-modern style of thought plays in Dutch academia must have brought back to his memory the lesson he learnt when he was a young student.

 

Brian Barry is among the thinkers who most influenced Grahame Lock. I was never able to establish how close the intellectual relationship between the two of them was. However, every time students or colleagues referred to the Rawls-Nozick debate, Grahame felt compelled to recall that Barry’s critique of both is an indispensable instrument of analysis properly to identify the problematic presuppositions and implications of the concept of justice as fairness. Recently, the critical position taken by Raymond Geuss on Anglo-American mainstream political philosophy offered Grahame the opportunity to take up the question of the nature of justice as fairness again. He agreed with Geuss, whom he never met, that questions about the correct distribution of goods and services in a well-ordered society are not capable of helping to solve our most pressing political problems. As Guess suggested the problem in the Third Reich was not that people in extermination camps didn’t get the share of basic economic goods that they ought to have had, if everyone had discussed the matter rationally, freely, and from behind a veil of ignorance. This, Grahame explained, was not a criticism to the effect that political philosophers should act rather than think, but a criticism to the effect that they are not thinking about relevant issues in a serious way. According to Grahame “for people whose career demands of them not to be revolutionaries – this is true of most people, including most academics – Rawls-type approaches are a heaven-sent opportunity, because they enable one to believe that one is serving justice or anti-discrimination when one is de facto turning not just thinking but also political effort in exactly the wrong direction, serving regressive and even utterly reactionary causes, as in the case of the ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘human rights imperialism lobbies’, which advocate NATO bombing of second- and third-world men, women and children for the sake of noble aims”. This is an example of Grahame’s radicalism in thought, but also of his independence of judgement and dislike of intellectual fashions and parochialism.

 

Sometimes Bernard Williams is mentioned as one of teachers who played a significant role in Grahame’s formation at Cambridge. In this case, also, I was unable to precisely determine the type of the intellectual exchange which occurred between the two of them. However, I gathered from Grahame that the formative importance of Williams was minimal. In a memorial text that appeared on the webpage of the political science section of the Nijmegen School of Management, Marcel Wissenburg asserted that Grahame “was a student of the great and mostly consequentialist thinker Williams”. In a moment of “un-British frankness” Grahame “described Williams as a bastard” – possibly the strongest word he ever used to characterize anyone”. These passages puzzled me. On the one hand, I failed to see why Wissenburg regards Williams as (mostly) a consequentialist, given that the latter explicitly rejected consequentialism in general, and utilitarian theory in particular. On the other hand, besides the fact that expressions such as “un-British frankness” do not do justice to Grahame’s anti-parochialism, I recall that over two decades I heard Grahame mention Williams no more than four or five times. When he did so nothing relevant from a personal point came out, and his statements were neither tinged with wit nor bitter. This does not prove that Grahame never actually used the epithet “bastard” to mark Williams. Yet, it is curious that Wissenburg says nothing about the reasons of Grahame’s dislike of Williams. It’s unlikely that Grahame criticized someone without providing valid reasons. I should add that if by gossip is meant casual reports about other people, involving details which are not confirmed as true, Grahame definitely disliked gossip and its practice. Rather, he passed judgments whenever strictly necessary. All I can say is that Grahame was at odds with the humanistic implications of Williams’ moral philosophy.

 

Jerry Cohen and Louis Althusser are the teachers who, more than others, influenced Grahame’s thought. The former was a proponent of Analytical Marxism originally. Grahame knew him well as “one of the best analytic philosophers ever” and “a wonderful man”. Cohen died in the summer 2009, aged 68. A few days later, Grahame wrote: “what a strange society we live in. The death of someone of Jerry’s intellectual stature attracts less attention than the vapid outpourings of any number of pointless celebrities, including members of the political class”. “In terms of intrinsic value”, Grahame concluded, “he is front-page news”. Yet, he did not much like Cohen’s choice of themes and position (“a radical liberal position”) after the publication of Karl Marx’s Theory of History: a Defence (1978). This was something he could not discuss with him “since he had invested so heavily in the new problematic”. For his part, in the preface to The State and I (1981), Cohen mentioned that he would have predicted for Grahame “a conventionally brilliant career” within British philosophy, but his commitment to Marxism drew him to Paris, where he began to work “in an idiom very different from that of British philosophy”. Cohen concluded ambivalently that Grahame’s book belongs to “the un-British idiom”.

 

Grahame Lock met Louis Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a visiting student in 1971-73. Cohen was adamant in attacking the ‘Althusserian school’, which he called ‘Complete Bullshit’ in opposition to ‘Non-Bullshit Marxism’. Naturally, Grahame disagreed, partially because in his opinion there never has been an ‘Althusserian school’. Yet, Althusserianism did exist and that is what Grahame found intellectually attractive when he had to decide whether to follow Althusser or Jean-François Lyotard. According to Jacques Rancière, Althusserianism signed the theoretical death certificate of Leftism. On the one hand, it theoretically it called for a return to Marx’s thought against all forms of revisionism by those who wanted to modernize Marxism. On the other hand, politically, it displayed faithfulness to the Communist Party in the face of the various currents of emancipation and rebellion that were rattling communist apparatuses in the 1960s. Althusserian Marxism was a ‘philosophy of order’ against Fascism, Liberalism and Leftism, that is, the illusions of Humanism, the vision that man makes history by remaking existing history and that man only knows what he himself does. This vision, Althusser argued, is one of man as “a little lay god served by the worn-out philosophy of petty-bourgeois liberty”. Not too long ago Grahame admitted that he was never, even as a teenager, attracted by the Left. At the age of fourteen he became a Communist, “which was however a kind of supra-political position, to avoid being ‘on the Left’ as manifested in daily politics”. Not surprisingly the purity and strictness of Althusserian Marxism intrigued Grahame, who thought he had finally found a man with ideas which were potentially capable of helping to solve contemporary political problems.

 

As Étienne Balibar recalled, it is to the conversation with Grahame that the largest public owes one of Althusser’s most well-known pamphlets, the Reply to John Lewis, which appeared, translated by Grahame himself, in two numbers of the theoretical and political journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Marxism Today, in October and November 1972. Grahame accepted Althusser’s definition of ideology as a system of representations that automatically subjects individuals to the dominant order. In his 1970 essay Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses), Althusser argued that “every social formation arises from a dominant mode of production”. It follows that “every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce”. Every social formation “must therefore reproduce the productive forces and the existing relations of production”. In this context the agents of exploitation and repression provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’ (the ruling ideology). According to Althusser, a philosophy states propositions which are theses. A science states propositions which are demonstrations. Following Althusser, Grahame considered the predominant philosophical element in Marxist theory, that is, dialectical materialism - a philosophy of the universal process of evolutionary advance where a higher level of existence has its roots in the lower – to be naïve and idealistic. The same charge was pressed against the philosophy of the young Marx. Instead, he praised the demonstrative power of historical materialism, the scientific element in Marxist theory. In this perspective changes in material conditions are the primary cause of changes in the organization of society and the economy. Production relations, not productive forces alone, must be attributed explanatory primacy on the presupposition that productive forces are themselves relations. Grahame’s structuralism is the Althusserian method in virtue of which it is established that productive forces are themselves relations. Grahame’s anti-humanism is the Althusserian method whereby the analysis of history and society does not start from man, the individual, but from social relations. Obviously, to say that the science of history is not a Humanism does not mean that the work of the ‘scientists of history’ is not prompted by human feelings. Grahame was convinced that the Marxist answers to the problems of our time do not emerge from the thought of the intellectuals or of the people, but they require constant struggle against the ever present and often subtle effects of bourgeois ideology which surrounds us. He took ideas such as individual self-development, alienation, liberation, autonomy, anti-dogmatism, and, more generally, human subjectivity to be part of a petty-bourgeois world outlook that threatens the apprehension of the truths which history discloses.

 

According to Balibar, Grahame remained a Communist all his life, although “not in the organizational but in the ethical and the intellectual sense” for “he was convinced that the effects of capitalism on our lives and societies and the injustice of class domination, which cause so much despair and suffering, must be opposed without recess”. I believe that this is an accurate portrait although perhaps it leaves the most recent developments of Grahame’s thought in the background. Wissenburg’s portrait of Grahame Lock as “an aesthetical communist” leads us astray, I am afraid. Undoubtedly, Grahame cultivated a strong aesthetical sense, expressed in his passion for music, gentlemanly manners, and painting. He even displayed a Victorian, and indeed aesthetical type of interest in institutions in general. Yet interpreting his unquenched thirst for ideas capable of helping to solve contemporary political problems as a matter of taste primarily – a sort of political dandism – is misleading. Grahame was indeed a peculiar type of Marxist who rejected the charge of elitism by arguing that scientific ideas, to have any value, must penetrate the working class. Lately he lost his faith in the working class. Already long ago he abandoned the simplistic idea that the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant of the laws of domination. According to his critics, in declaring the inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions, hence the inability of the masses to take charge of their own destiny, Grahame embraced a policy of resentment. I think that his was realism, not resentment. He argued that “in reality it is not that we have moved into an era of consistent anti-dogmatism - into a world, in other words, emancipated from ideology- but rather that we have substituted new dogmas for old”. “The organization core of these new dogmas”, he said, “is indeed their ‘anti-dogmatic pretension’. The content of this contemporary package of ideas is in principle simple, combining an appeal to (scientific) rationality with a guarantee of fundamental, self-evident rights for all. Such a package recognizes no dogma or orthodoxy. This is its strength – but also its weakness. For in principle such an attachment can function as an obstacle to self-understanding”. I still wonder about the meaning of such self-understanding. Perhaps Grahame regarded it as the minimum required on the side of what we call the subject in order to live not like a brute, but to pursue virtue and true wisdom.  

 

My encounter with Grahame Lock has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had for it occurred in a world in which, as the Gospel of St. Matthew (24: 11-12) prophesied, ‘men’s love grows cold’ and ‘false prophets lead many astray’. Joost de Vries concludes his tribute to the memory of Grahame Lock which appeared on De Groene Amsterdammer – a Dutch journal to which Grahame contributed in the past few years – saying that in spite of his radical criticism Grahame was not a pessimist. I am not sure I can share this opinion for in spite of his tranquillity of spirit he was a (cultural) pessimist and he did not mind being reminded of it. His recent production is all about the new forms of emancipative barbarianism and the end of civilization that brought about the impossibility to antagonize capitalist dominion. All institutions as we have known them, namely as the guardians of the Paternal Law, including the university - whose devastation Grahame brilliantly diagnosed and examined in various articles written together with Herminio Martins and Chris Lorenz - collapsed or are about to collapse. I should like to conclude this schematic account of his thought by giving the floor to his own words, which he shared with me a few days before he died:  

 

I am still surprised when I see how easily certain ‘images’ have become the currency to be found in every pocket, whereas initially they were in the pockets of the few. So, for instance, long ago there was a man named Jeremy Bentham who thought that both the human and non-human animals have sensitivity and volition in common. A number of morally relevant consequences follow. Perhaps relatively few saw them, and made sense and use of them. Now almost every individual is willing to talk about, and support, the ‘essence’ of anti-specism. Long ago there was a man named Friedrich Nietzsche who thought that only a few, special, individuals will be able to practice the transvaluation of all values. Now almost every individual is a ‘super-man’ and is willing to tell how easy, after all, to practice the transvaluation of all values is. Not to speak of the Enlightenment – all of us are Enlightened. What did determine, in the past thirty or forty years, such a transformation? Certainly, and largely, the imposition, extension and triumph of the contractual principle...Yes, it is over, so perhaps we might usefully look at what it means to say that it is over. It is over, but clinical death has not yet taken place. Bits and pieces of institutions, of the culture of the past, are still (pathetically) kicking, like a hanging man on the rope. Because clinical death has not yet taken place, we cannot avoid being witness to this dying, which is horrible to see. It is over in the sense that what is happening is irreversible, at least in any foreseeable future...Only ignorance or the lack of the relevant sensibility can protect people from these horrible sights...Over the years all comforting feelings have fallen away...When almost every decision an organization makes, and when especially every new policy or rule, every initiative is bad – and not just slightly bad – then comes a time when our attitude ‘flips’. So suddenly we are in an essentially hostile world, where power resides in bureaucracies that run everything and are active agents of evil. Of course good people and good impulses remain in these organizations – but you can see them being mopped up and eliminated over the years. What this means is that we find ourselves in the service of evil, namely in service of organizations whose hearts are rotten. What to do when a society, an organization, an institution is set up such that it serves evil? There really is no significant institutional refuge.   

 

 

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For other pieces in memory of Grahame Lock please go here.

 

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