Keeping It Real

Keeping It Real

In Songs of Experience, Martin Jay examines modern debates over the relationship between theory and the lived world.


There is something inherently strange about a familiar scene in modern Western intellectual history, one re-enacted many times during the past two centuries. A philosopher is in his study, constructing rational arguments on behalf of authentic experience–which he nearly always defines as nonrational. Somehow, he thinks, we are being robbed of primal, unmediated contact with the palpitating forces of real life. The obstacles to vitality may lie in the desiccating powers of modern science or in the encrustations of traditional religion or, if the philosopher is hostile to narratives of progress and decline, in the human condition. Whatever its explanatory framework, this philosophical cult of experience arises from a sense that full engagement with existence has somehow been rendered problematic, whether by social, spiritual or economic arrangements or by the sheer perversity of the individual psyche. Authentic experience, from this view, seems always maddeningly just out of reach.

How could this assumption acquire such enduring force? How is it that “experience”–like its kin “reality” and “life”–could be split off from the self, rather than remaining the ground of being in which the self is embedded? How did something universal and inescapable become external to consciousness–an object of feverish speculation and hot pursuit among men and (far less often) women of ideas? Part of the answer must lie in the historical experience of the thinkers themselves–their awareness of the world outside their study windows. Martin Jay rarely glances at that world, though he can deftly dissect the shifting emphases in Kantian aesthetics or Deweyan ethics.

What we have in Jay’s Songs of Experience is a shining example of the history of ideas, an underrated genre of the historian’s art. An exceptionally learned, humane and prolific practitioner of his craft, Jay is among our most reliable guides through the key sites of twentieth-century social thought, from the labyrinths of Western Marxism to the thickets of French post-structuralism. Songs of Experience is a worthy addition to this oeuvre, though its history-of-ideas form sometimes seems ironically at odds with its content.

Jay’s story takes place in an Olympian realm where philosophers and other intellectuals converse with one another. Though they are occasionally roused to indignation, they rarely lose their capacity for considered argument–even though, as Jay observes, the word “experience” is “a signifier that unleashes remarkable emotion” in the thinkers who explore it. Participants in this conversation range widely, from Edmund Burke and David Hume to John Dewey and Richard Rorty, among many others. All get a fair shake, as Jay patiently and carefully–but never uncritically–reconstructs their positions. Still, amid all the arguments about the nature and value of direct experience, one cannot help occasionally wanting to walk away from the polite conversation, throw open the study window and listen to the shouts and murmurs in the street. The content of the cult of experience overflows the form of the history of ideas.

This is not to endorse conventional historiographical wisdom, which dismisses the history of ideas as “disembodied.” The dismissal stems from historians’ own cult of experience, their assumption that ideas are not part of “real life.” Jay’s dramatis personae challenge that belief at every turn, and their passionate commitment to the deconstruction of mind-body dualism shines through their occasionally opaque prose. Yet there are times when the pace slows to a crawl, and one wishes that Jay’s own prose were a little more straightforward. His summaries are all inherently useful, but placed end to end they create a schematic effect. The flow of experience is channeled and contained in a series of compartments. Maybe there is a more fluid alternative, or maybe the tension between form and content embodies the inescapable contradictions in the cult of experience itself–it is, after all, an intellectual assault on intellectualism.

But that is not all it is. Jay’s title, from William Blake, gives the game away. The importance of authentic experience has not only been argued by philosophers; it has been sung by poets, imagined by novelists, cultivated by artists and avowed by ideologues. Jay excludes these songs of experience to focus more sharply on systematic thought. This is a perfectly sensible decision, and there are rules against reviewers taking authors to task for not writing a different book. Yet it is worth imagining what the broader cultural history of the cult of experience might look like.

The preoccupation with authentic experience was embedded in Protestant sensibility, from the prophetic pronouncements of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century to the great revivals that swept across the young United States 300 years later. Real faith required not merely an emotionally jarring conversion but a long-term transformation of the self–a self made whole, transparent and all of a piece.

This coherent self embodied modern mastery, yet its very coherence was threatened by modernizing tendencies. Modern ways of knowing sliced experience into specialized disciplines. Modern industry removed work experience from primary processes of making and growing. Modern capitalism placed a premium on the manipulation of (often deceptive) appearances. And eventually, modern technology insulated the moderately affluent from much danger and discomfort. Even as Protestants (and later Romantics and Modernists) exalted authentic experience, by the early nineteenth century the forms of modern life made certain encounters more difficult to achieve. The idea of experience became an imagined holistic alternative to disenchanted, fragmented ways of being in the world. Whether seekers of experience located it on the banks of the River Wye or on the streets of Berlin or San Francisco, they imagined it to be full, rich, intense. It eluded quantification and resisted reductionism. It could not be explained in terms of something else. It was what it was, irreducible. Wholeness was all.

Longings to immerse oneself in a flood of unmediated experience energized literary enterprises on both sides of the Atlantic but resonated with special force in America. They animated Whitman’s ecstatic merging with the milling crowds on Broadway as well as Thoreau’s search for the real in the woods around Walden, and they acquired more somber significance as orthodox faith lost legitimacy. Writers from Melville to Hemingway encountered experience as a looming cosmic plenitude that threatened to engulf human strivings for mastery and to baffle any effort to make sense of it all. The struggle to assert or sustain meaning in a meaningless universe energized a host of literary embodiments of authentic experience: Theodore Dreiser’s youthful naïfs on the make, Frank Norris’s speculative plungers, Sherwood Anderson’s “grotesques” left behind by the locomotive of modernity. William Carlos Williams’s slogan “No ideas but in things” epitomized a disdain for abstraction and a desire to re-engage mind with the material world, both emotions at the core of the literary cult of experience.

During and after World War II, the imaginative renovation of experience flourished among Abstract Expressionist painters, neo-orthodox theologians, existentialist philosophers and literary intellectuals with a psychoanalytic bent. In the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, there was much to brood about. Brooders like Reinhold Niebuhr and Lionel Trilling wanted a notion of experience that took into account the dark truths of the unconscious or (as the theologians preferred) original sin. They wanted some acknowledgment that, in the end, the imperial self faced the implacable power of fate. And they wanted the pursuit of experience to include awareness of the ultimate experience: death.

This broader midcentury definition of authentic experience informed the early New Left and the antiwar counterculture of the 1960s. The generation of those who cut their political teeth on the Vietnam War grew up in a suburbanizing society that seemed bent on creating a shrink-wrapped, synthetic version of existence; they also confronted a government policy characterized by systematic lies. No wonder they focused on authentic experience as a touchstone of personal and moral worth. As the counterculture became assimilated into commerce, authentic experience became a mass-marketed commodity. Nevertheless, down to the present it preserves a core value as a benchmark–it is what cannot be fabricated, faked or spun into a simulacrum of the real; it is what matters. This is not a theoretical issue. In our mass-mediated image empire, the Bush Administration has constructed its own political reality without regard to evidence, putting radical epistemology in the service of reactionary politics. Under these conditions, old ideas about truth acquire a new luster, and the ideal of authentic experience remains a necessity.

Yet the reverence for the real, especially when it exalts experience as an end in itself, can also have catastrophic consequences. Europeans repeatedly experienced them in the twentieth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, from Blake to Rainer Maria Rilke, European songs of experience had recognized the need to supplement spontaneous impulse with sustained reflection. But contemplation was engulfed by cataclysmic ideology. By the early twentieth century, the equation of authentic experience and unthinking action underwrote a politics of regenerative violence. For revolutionaries and reactionaries alike, the decisive (and murderous) deed seemed an irresistible alternative to bourgeois torpor. “What do you believe in?” Freikorps leader Ernst von Salomon was asked. “Nothing besides action,” he replied. Fascism (and anarchism) were nothing if not cults of authentic experience.

Americans embraced regenerative violence, too, but usually concealed the lust for combat in clouds of providential rhetoric about their nation’s missionary role in the world. Only occasionally have they openly celebrated the cleansing powers of war. At the turn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt and other patrician ideologues rallied Americans to take up the white man’s burden in the Caribbean and the Philippines by singing a song of military experience. Combat was, for Roosevelt, the most exalted form of “the strenuous life,” an essential means of preserving manliness amid the feminizing effects of modern civilization. Historians have written of a “crisis of American masculinity” in the 1890s, but in fact American masculinity (like other masculinities) is always in crisis; what changes are the instruments men use to confront the crisis. Roosevelt used the idiom of regeneration through imperial violence.

The sobering impact of two world wars made that sort of talk impermissible in polite company until quite recently, when neoconservative intellectuals began to sing similar songs and the “war on terror” provided legitimacy for them. Consider Michael Ledeen, in-house “expert” on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute: His Machiavelli on Modern Leadership argues that war “provides a real test of character” and “creates a pool of leaders for the nation” while “peace increases our peril, by making discipline less urgent” and “encouraging some of our worst instincts”–dooming us to become one of those “effeminate republics” his hero scorned. We are back in the moral universe of Theodore Roosevelt, and it is not a pretty place. Once again, old men are at their desks and in their clubs, singing the praises of war, while young men are experiencing the exquisite impact of steel on flesh.

Militarism, male fantasy and the rhetoric of regenerative violence do not appear often in Jay’s Songs of Experience. Occasionally one hears the sounds of far-off battle, but the war of ideas is what matters here. Many thinkers used experience as a stand-in for the God they had ceased to believe in, but no more than rival theologians did they agree on the precise features of their deity. Experience, Jay writes, has not been simply a “foundational term” signifying “incorruptible immediacy” but more broadly “the site of a productive struggle” among contentious claims about existence.

At the outset Jay makes a crucial distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung. Erlebnis suggests “lived experience,” whether in the primal unity of organic community or the vital rupture of individual liberation. It is immediate, pre-reflective and personal–and associated with the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, with William James, with Martin Heidegger. It is the sort of notion that, from the liberal view, can start one down the slippery slope to soil worship. That is why Erfahrung constitutes an appealing alternative. It refers to experience based on sense impressions (Locke) combined with cognitive judgments (Kant), which can become part of a learning process, characterized in the form of a narrative or adventure. It is at the heart of the Bildungsroman, or novel of self-development (The Red and the Black, David Copperfield), and while it resists simple linear notions of human progress, Erfahrung can be assimilated to a dialectical, crabwise version of advance. One can see why it appealed to meliorists like Locke, Kant and Dewey–and why the most ambitious philosophers of experience (Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin) sought a synthesis of Erlebnis and Erfahrung, ecstatic immediacy and mature reflection.

Jay implicitly acknowledges that the philosophical pursuit of experience is a product of early modernity. After a nod to the Greeks and Augustine, he warms to his subject when he discusses the humanist Michel de Montaigne, whose self-examination through recollection made him the first true philosopher of experience. Montaigne’s essay “Of Experience” (1587-88) refused fixed categories and definitions, pondered the frailties of the human condition (including his own), remained attuned to the pleasures of body and mind, and concluded that philosophy was nothing other than preparation for death–which, unlike other challenges, was impossible to learn about through actual experience.

But almost as soon as Montaigne had finished contemplating mortal man in all his fullness, Bacon, Descartes and their followers began to call his worldview into question. The attempt to grasp experience as a whole was futile, they claimed: Memory was far too slippery and imprecise to promote understanding of the self or of the world. For these thinkers, experience became an object outside the self, to be studied with methods of unprecedented precision. Numbers became the sign of scientifically verifiable experience. The wholeness sought by Montaigne was fragmented into specialized forms of knowledge. The process of rationalization was under way.

Yet after Descartes, rationalist certainties lost ground to probabilities. Through the eighteenth century, Hume and other empiricists questioned the reliability of procedures and instruments that had possessed an almost fetishlike charge for an earlier generation of scientists and philosophers. With the emergence of probabilistic thinking, statistical procedures displaced older notions of quantitative certainty. Locke’s medical training encouraged him to reassert the value of everyday observation. Hume went further, undermining the rational self as a source of knowledge, insisting that personal identity itself was a mere verbal artifact and that causality was a convenient fiction. It was left to Kant to complete the Copernican revolution of subject and object, redeeming human cognition in the process. For him, the pursuit of truth involved the creation of coherence, as the mind sorted through the jumble of sense impressions. This was experience as Erfahrung, a journey toward greater understanding. Still, knowledge was not entirely a human construction; Kant preserved the possibility of the absolute by postulating a noumenal realm of timeless truths beyond the phenomenal world of everyday life.

These epistemological gymnastics were a mere prelude to the real songs of experience. As the German historian Wilhelm Dilthey later observed, “There is no real blood flowing in the veins of…Locke, Hume, and Kant, but only the diluted juice of reason as mere intellectual activity.” When Jay turns to religious and aesthetic experience, the blood begins to flow. Both these categories emerged from the shadow of cognitivist philosophy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; both emphasized the embodiment of experience in fleshly, mortal humanity.

The key figure in the modern revaluation of religion was Schleiermacher, a liberal Protestant theologian who wanted to free religious experience from the brittle formulations of Kantian morality. The backdrop to his work, as Jay observes, was the ferment of popular piety on both sides of the Atlantic. The evangelical exaltation of emotional intensity revived the fears of anarchic anti-intellectualism among the “cultured despisers” of religion, whom Schleiermacher claimed as his audience. He aimed to create a version of piety that would be acceptable to elite sensibility by incorporating both aesthetic and spiritual experience into Leben (life). Rejecting rationalism and legalism, he celebrated religion as Erlebnis, a primal feeling prior to any doctrine or institution. The essential religious feeling, he thought, was one of “absolute dependence,” the sense of being overwhelmed by a power beyond our control or even understanding.

Stirring and psychologically acute, Schleiermacher’s hymn to Erlebnis nevertheless proved troubling. It could be appropriated for sinister purposes, as it was by German nationalists in World War I. And by focusing on human psychology, it could lose sight of God altogether. The same problem affected William James, one of Schleiermacher’s legitimate heirs, whose Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) concentrated exclusively on “individual men in their solitude” and asserted that “the real core of the religious problem” was summed up in the phrase “Help! Help!” Such theologians as Karl Barth and Rudolf Otto aimed to rescue religious experience from mere functional efficacy by redirecting attention from the believer to the object of his belief–the God who was “wholly Other.” In The Idea of the Holy (1917), Otto insisted that the awe-struck experience of “the numinous” involved knowledge as well as feeling, but that it was impossible to convey this experience through language or concept alone. Contrary to Freud, Durkheim, Malinowski and all the other great reductionists of twentieth-century social science, Otto and Barth insisted that religion was irreducible to anything else.

What may have been the most profound explorations of religious experience were conducted by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He began his career as a youthful devotee of Erlebnis but gradually developed an outlook more open to otherness, which culminated in I and Thou (1923). He steered a subtle course between psychology and theology. Criticizing James’s psychologism, he wrote that “the great mystics did not have experiences, they were had by them.” Yet he was also wary of Otto’s emphasis on divine Otherness, observing that “of course, God is ‘the wholly other,’ but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms, but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I.” Seldom have the extraordinary and the ordinary been so gracefully merged in the philosophical discourse of experience.

Like seekers of religious experience, worshipers at the shrine of beauty aimed to reconnect body and soul, self and world, by turning a particular form of experience into a stand-in for the whole–or at least a path to wholeness. Aestheticism arose in the cultural capitals of Europe during the late eighteenth century, when ornament and luxury were spreading and a commercial traffic in images threatened to erase any distinction between objets d’art and mere commodities. Neoclassical aesthetes wanted to restore a sacred aura to the artwork but on a secular basis, as an embodiment of universal beauty.

Still, there was no denying that in a (comparatively) disenchanted universe, the work of art could no longer embody “real presence”–and beauty could no longer be seen as an emanation of the divine. Not that Kant, Burke and a few of their contemporaries didn’t try. Indeed, they began to make even more extravagant claims. The idea of the sublime evoked an experience of transcendence that resonated with Kant’s noumenal realm. Aesthetic theorists refashioned the sacred by viewing objets d’art as its vessels. But rather than seeking to reconnect the sensuous and the spiritual, eighteenth-century aesthetes elevated aesthetic experience to an ethereal plane by stressing its “disinterested” quality. This kind of thinking turned naked women into “nudes.”

Despite the theorists’ efforts, Jay notes, objets d’art continued “losing their integrity as self-sufficient entities in the world” and as “exemplars of universal beauty.” Patterns of patronage became more commercial and more complex; according to Jay, the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere meant an unleashing of centrifugal forces, with new aesthetic emphases on pluralism, tolerance, variability. Romantic aesthetes, led by Friedrich Schiller, grew impatient with the bloodless passivity of Kantian “disinterest” and eager for a more active conception of aesthetic experience.

Out of this dissatisfaction arose two influential ideas: the belief in art as promesse de bonheur (Stendhal’s phrase, which signified profound fulfillment for thinkers from Friedrich Schlegel to Herbert Marcuse) and the notion of the Romantic genius. As Jay wryly observes, “there was general agreement that the genius possessed a heightened capacity for authentic experience, which put him above the common herd of men.” There was much masculine hysteria behind this idea: Sade epitomized it and Goethe satirized it in Faust (1808-32). By midcentury the flâneur had displaced the genius, and Romantic tradition had narrowed into the separatist vision of l’art pour l’art. Despite the efforts of John Ruskin and William Morris to combine aesthetic and social criticism, the popular image of the aesthete became that of a wan and withdrawn figure, too sensitive to withstand the slings and arrows of ordinary experience.

The understanding of aesthetic experience as something subjective, receptive and contemplative had begun to collapse in on itself, exacerbating the fear that (as in religion) the “real presence” of the artwork (like the presence of God) would be lost in a fog of incommunicable feelings. As Heidegger observed, “even the much-vaunted aesthetic experience cannot get around the thingly aspect of the art work.” For Heidegger’s contemporaries Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, the battle to save the material basis of aesthetic experience was part of a much larger struggle against the corrosive cultural impact of “late capitalism”–which threatened to destroy all forms of genuine experience by reifying abstractions into things (“the economy”) and alienating the worker from his work. Adorno suspected the struggle was already lost, but Benjamin held out some hope. In the Wordsworthian tradition, he evoked the child’s-eye view as the criterion of “absolute experience” and sought opportunities to sustain that perspective in the unpromising world of the present.

Like Schleiermacher and Otto, Benjamin wanted to rescue experience from the splintering impact of capitalist modernity. But he never bought into the nonsense peddled by Ernst Jünger and other proto-Fascists, never reduced Erlebnis to battlefield combat. In search of a god-language, he fell in with Louis Aragon and the Surrealists, who persuaded him that archaic longings and dreams could still be found in the banalities of kitsch. This was heartening; maybe the culture of late capitalism was not as monolithically reified as he had feared. But he could not escape the feeling, especially in the wake of World War I, that something had snapped in history, that the world was being overtaken by a new barbarism, that the resources of culture were exhausted. Even his friendship with Bertolt Brecht, and their dalliance in revolutionary fantasies, could not stop him from mourning lost experience–most memorably in his lament that the objet d’art had surrendered its “aura” of singularity to the standardizing processes of mass production.

Even John Dewey shared some of Benjamin’s pessimism about the prospects for aesthetic experience in the modern world. In Art as Experience (1934), Dewey tried to restore the balance between art as objective artifact and art as subjective perception. Arguing (as Ruskin and Morris had) for an aesthetics of everyday life, he nevertheless acknowledged the difficulty of having an aesthetic experience in modern society, where “No one experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is entered upon so speedily. What is called experience is so dispersed and miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name.”

The statement that experience has been impoverished by modernity sounds out of character for Dewey, who was probably more enthusiastic about the promise of modern life than anyone else in Jay’s book. Yet as an American pragmatist, Dewey shared James’s sense that the wholeness of experience had been concealed by conventional ways of understanding the world. Beyond this common assumption, the two pragmatists diverged. James was fascinated by the “blooming buzzing confusion” of “pure experience.” He was convinced that we had somehow lost contact with this primal vitality, and he spent much of his career trying to construct a “mosaic philosophy” that would recapture the multiplicity of a “pluralistic universe.” But James knew that it was difficult if not impossible to translate pure experience into language–as difficult as it was to describe a mystical religious experience. So he was thrilled when he read Henri Bergson’s vitalist manifesto, Creative Evolution (1907), and summarized its accomplishments to a correspondent: “All our positions, real time, a growing world, asserted magisterially, and the beast intellectualism killed absolutely dead!”

Dewey was never as viscerally engaged as James was with the recovery of Erlebnis. He was committed to Erfahrung–a progressive, human-centered process of growth through problem-solving engagement with the world. Yet his humanism was less capacious than Montaigne’s (or James’s). Despite Dewey’s own experience of loss–two of his children died very young–he never tried to mix what James called “life’s more bitter flavors” into his philosophy, never openly contemplated the ultimate experience of death. His account of experience remained humane, flexible and democratic, but curiously incomplete.

Deweyan pragmatism posed some key questions for devotees of experience. Given the commitment to endless experimentation and growth, what was the status of past experience, of history, in the pragmatic world picture? Could it be understood on its own terms, in all its strangeness and singularity, or would it be merely a jumping-off place for the present and future? Dilthey and other historians, as Jay deftly shows, were determined to assert the “pastness” of the past and the value of understanding historical experience for its own sake, but also as a path to self-knowledge. Dilthey aimed to recapture past Erlebnis, which he understood as “experience in its concrete reality…made coherent by the category of meaning.” Generations later, social and cultural historians in the 1970s picked up the thread of “lived experience.” Most had never heard of Dilthey and would have had no interest in his hermeneutics. But they did want to recover the everyday life experiences of ordinary people, and what they found was often strikingly at odds with progressive conventional wisdom. Past experience, understood on its own terms, posed a challenge to “the enormous condescension of posterity.”

The historian who most effectively assaulted the condescension of posterity (and who coined that phrase) was E.P. Thompson, whose book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) revealed the profoundly serious critique of capitalism developed by Luddites and other local radicals who had been dismissed as loonies by liberal historians. The historical scholarship of Thompson, combined with the literary scholarship and criticism of his contemporary Raymond Williams, was a bold effort to reclaim the politics of experience for the democratic left–and specifically for their own culturalist version of Marxism. The political meaning of experience had historically been the property of what might loosely be called the right, whether nationalists like Jünger, for whom Erlebnis implied the sublime sacrifice of self for nation; or organicists like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, for whom experience implied the unreflective wisdom of custom and tradition. Was it possible for the left, with its utopian rationalism and disrespect for the past, to construct a politics of experience? Dewey tried but ended up in milk-and-water meliorism. His Erfahrung, like Kant’s, needed a dose of Erlebnis–a dimension more grounded in the concrete actualities of everyday life. That is what Thompson and Williams supplied. Like Burkean conservatism, their Marxist politics of experience was intended to be a critique of the left’s utopian rationalism (reincarnated most recently in the work of Louis Althusser). It was also an effort to explore the radicalism of tradition, to show how the most ferocious challenges to British capitalism were not inspired by progressive ideology but grounded in local attachments, customs and practices–all of which came together in a common culture, or (in Williams’s signature phrase) “a whole way of life.”

Culturalist Marxism, it turned out, had a limited shelf life. During the last thirty years, as Jay confirms, the postmodern turn in the humanities has challenged the very notion of “lived experience” as a meaningful concept–as well as the assumption of an autonomous, coherent self who does the experiencing. Yet among the thinkers who might be characterized as postmodern in Jay’s book, only Rorty dismissed experience altogether. He insisted that everything was mediated by language, even such apparently straightforward sensations as the taste of an onion, and he dismissed any notion of a nonlinguistic realm as a regression to Kantian mystification.

But most postmodern thinkers preferred their onions unmediated. The idea of experience remained indispensable to a characteristic project of twentieth-century intellectual life: making sense of sensations in the absence of God. Nietzsche, the godfather of this enterprise, appears frequently in Jay’s account but receives no sustained attention except as a precursor of poststructuralism. For Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, the pursuit of extreme sexual and imaginative experience–the Surrealist “derangement of the senses”–became ever more fevered. This quest for intensity was often ironically at odds with the experience of reading the prose that described it, prose that was filled with opaque abstractions and sweeping assertions. In the end, Jay argues, the French thinkers offered a “reconstitution” rather than a rejection of the idea of experience.

They started by abandoning the quest for wholeness. For Bataille, Barthes and Foucault, the sense that personal identity had become dispersed was not a soul sickness to be cured but a source of strength. All three exalted the emancipatory possibilities of the fragmented self. Indeed, they pressed the point, celebrating the loss of conscious control in ecstatic self-immolation. They seemed to be groping toward a mystical experience beyond language, without closure and without God. Death, for them, was not merely an inescapable necessity (as it had been for midcentury existentialists and neo-orthodox theologians) but a “limit-experience” to be courted. Unlike the Fascist cult of death, this courtship rejected conventional virile heroism and instead evoked the dream of Nietzsche (in Jay’s words): “the sacrifice of the integral, armored self in the hope of recovering a lost Dionysian community.”

Yet the recovery of community could never be complete. The rejection of wholeness, the fear of stasis, the suspicion even of stillness–these habits of mind created a common pattern in the French poststructuralists’ writings, a kind of rhetorical brinkmanship. As Jay observes, Bataille’s “willingness to live life as a radical experiment, involving the body as well as the mind, risking danger in the quest for a certain version of redemption,” led him to construct the concept of “inner experience”–an amalgam of violence, pain and erotic ecstasy. Yet his own “inner experiences” of sexual experimentation were momentary punctuations of his mundane life. One could immerse oneself in the abyss of nonbeing, but only temporarily.

Bataille is one of the people we have to thank for all the chatter about “transgression” in the academy during the past several decades. Barthes is another. Searching obsessively for forbidden sexual pleasure, he compared gay cruising to the mystic’s quest for union with the deity. But there was no salvation for Barthes, no sense of oneness or quietude, or even regret over their absence. The quest for wholeness, he believed, was a fool’s errand. His own quest was committed to endless repetition, subject to occasional impotence and failure, but always recharged by aspiration for the fleeting frisson. Authentic experience, for Barthes, was not something lost in a harmonious past but endlessly (if temporarily) re-created in a chaotic, discontinuous present.

Foucault was a little more open to the postlapsarian model: He suspected that modern sexuality had actually been devalued under the guise of liberation–and those suspicions led him to his most probing work, The History of Sexuality, which unmasked the rhetoric of sexual freedom to reveal its complicity with new forms of social coercion. Acutely aware of the limits of liberation, Foucault was even more committed than Barthes to exploring “limit-experiences” in theory and practice. He wanted nothing less than to pulverize the conventional unified self. Like his heroes Nietzsche, Bataille and the novelist Maurice Blanchot, Foucault demanded that experience perform what he called “the task of ‘tearing’ the subject from itself in such a way that it is no longer the subject as such, or that it is completely ‘other’ than itself so that it may arrive at its annihilation, its dissociation. It is this de-subjectifying undertaking, the idea of a ‘limit-experience’ that tears the subject from itself, which is the fundamental lesson that I have learned from these authors.” How a “limit-experience” became a “lesson” was obscure. And how one put this quest for limit-experience into practice was an equally tricky question; much has been guessed about Foucault’s adventures beyond his study.

But those questions are less interesting than a larger one: How do we assess the life of the mind in a society where fully individuated selves celebrate the implosion of the self, and the “limit-experience” of annihilation becomes a topic to be discussed over Pepperidge Farm cookies and Styrofoam cups of coffee? In the postmodern academy, intellectuals still ponder the possibilities of intense experience–though many emphasize the “performative” dimensions of behavior once deemed spontaneous. In current talk about experience, the contrast between form and content is even greater than it once was: Abstract formulations sanctify transgressive limit-experiences. Sade (at least in some circles) has supplanted Marx as the revolutionary thinker du jour.

Extraordinary intellectual fashions reveal larger historical significance. The shrinkage of social vision from the democratic socialism of Thompson and Williams to the desperate individualism of Barthes and Foucault suggests the impoverishment of cultural politics on the left during the late twentieth century. Other, more tentative questions can be raised about the poststructuralist vogue, as well. Is there a link, however elusive, between the poststructuralist courtship of violent death and the postmodern media’s mass-produced simulation of it? Or between the intellectual fascination with limit-experiences and the popular culture of apocalypse? Who knows? Maybe Foucault and Jerry Falwell are brothers under the skin. It would not be the first time the cult of experience had connected a demonic divine and a holy devil.

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