The Art of Generous Critique: Adam Shatz on the Radical Imagination – and an Overdue Humbling

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Adam Shatz – author of the new collection Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination – discusses his approach to painting portraits of engaged intellectuals, clarifies his concept of “radical imagination,” reflects on how the history of Algeria has served as his prism, and explains why the predicament of Arab intellectuals may be much more similar to those in the West than is often assumed.

Adam Shatz is the US editor of the London Review of Books and has contributed to magazines such as the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. He is also the host of the podcast series “Myself with Others.”

Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination has been published by Verso.

Ferenc Laczó: Your new collection features fine portraits of a whole host of writers, novelists, filmmakers, and philosophers. What motivates you to write more extensively about certain artists and thinkers?

Adam Shatz: Usually it begins with some fascination with their work that grabs hold of me; it’s not just a passing flirtation. Most of the essays in Writers and Missionaries are a kind of settling of accounts with figures whose work has preoccupied me for years: I’m almost never writing about someone whose work I’m encountering for the first time. In some cases, these are thinkers I’ve been reading since I was in my teens or twenties, and I keep on returning to them. The essays in the collection are reappraisals as much as appraisals.

The subtitle of your new collection is Essays on the Radical Imagination. Could I ask you what you mean by that?

I should first clarify that, by radical imagination, I’m not referring to a left-wing or Marxist politics. While many of the thinkers I talk about in this book were affiliated with the political left, some of my subjects are on the right: for example, the novelist Michel Houellebecq, or the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, who described himself as an anarchist of the right. By radical I’m evoking the idea of roots.

What is it to be radical? It’s to ask questions that go to the roots, that go to the fundamental aspects of a question. These are thinkers who were willing to raise deep and fundamental questions with audacity and even a kind of intransigence that sometimes bordered on madness.

The reason that I evoke the imagination is that most of these thinkers are writing works that are not purely a matter of ideas or rational argumentation. They are imaginative writers, and in some cases artists or novelists manqués. Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, aspired to become a novelist and his most lasting work is not The Elementary Structures of Kinship, his pioneering contribution to structural anthropology. It is his Tristes Tropiques, a memoir that is often highly novelistic. Similarly, Edward Said – who is best known as a literary critic, a spokesman of the Palestinian cause, and as the author of Orientalism and as a critic of cultural imperialism – also wanted to write a novel, tried on at least two occasions to do so, and also wrote short stories. Roland Barthes, too, had dreams of writing a novel, and felt a keen sense of inadequacy because he never succeeded in doing so. And yet he gave us luminous, deeply literary, and secretly confessional essays that are a kind of autofiction. So you can’t really separate these writers from the novels they failed to write; the unfinished novels are present in their work. That’s why I called these essays on the radical imagination.

We tend to understand thinkers in terms of the arguments that they set out, the logic they deploy, and the extent to which they are persuasive or not persuasive in the cases they make.

What I want to suggest is that visionary thinking often proceeds from some kind of intuition or illumination. Visionary thinking requires an act of the imagination.

And most of the time those who are willing to ask the questions that I’m calling radical questions have that courage because they are driven by an intuition or inspiration, often rooted in their personal histories, which is not a purely logical one. Jean Genet, in an essay on Giacometti, called this “the wound” behind every work of art.

You open the collection with portraits of Arab intellectuals, such as Fouad Ajami and Kamel Daoud. Whereas the African American and French intellectual traditions you explore later in the book must be quite familiar to your readers in the US or the UK, Arab intellectual history remains much less familiar terrain. What do you wish to convey by having placed those portraits first?

There are several reasons why I placed them first. These essays were written over a period of nearly 20 years, and both comment on and reflect this era, which began with the calamitous decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. At the beginning of this era, the future and fate of the Arab world was central to the political conversation. The architects of the Iraq War claimed that they were bringing about a “new Middle East,” by force of arms. To many of us then, and to most of us now, this vision seems ludicrous, and indeed horrifying, but the idea that the region was on the verge of an epochal shift was widely shared. The Arab revolutions were in part an attempt, by Arab activists and popular movements, to usher in popular democracy and to defeat the regimes that had oppressed them – often with the consent, and indeed support, of the West. And these uprisings attracted enormous attention – and considerable sympathy – as one regime fell after another. But the events that followed – first the rise of the Islamic State, then the collapse of the Arab Spring and the restoration and hardening of Arab dictatorships, and finally the refugee crisis – led to a shift in Western attitudes toward the region. The West had always looked upon the democratization of the Arab world with ambivalence, and once the question of democracy was off the table, intellectuals and policymakers in the States and Europe focused instead on things like jihadism, or the problem of refugees: the “old Middle East” is back with a vengeance, and the tragedy is that no one seems to care. But Arab intellectuals did, and always have, and that’s why I start with them.

The first essay is about Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese Shia scholar who emigrated to the States and made his career there.Ajami started out on the left and ended up becoming a politically very influential person and forged ties with people in power – in the media and eventually in high politics. He was cited by no less than Dick Cheney who invoked Ajami’s authority for the claim that the American troops in Iraq would be greeted with rice and flowers.

The other reason that I begin with Arab intellectuals is that I have had an interest in the Middle East and North Africa for more than three decades. I come from a left-leaning, secular Jewish family. Although I did not grow up in a Zionist home and my parents never went to Israel, like most American Jews I was raised with certain sentimental ideas about the Jewish homeland, as a sanctuary for a people who had been persecuted throughout history.The repression of the First Intifada shattered that image of a humane Jewish homeland and led me on a long and complicated path towards the position that I hold now.

When I went to Columbia University, I befriended quite a few students who were from the Arab world, from both the Middle East and North Africa. Meeting them reshaped my thinking in many ways and deepened my awareness of the legacy of European colonialism and helped shape my understanding of the Israel–Palestine conflict.

Since the Trump era began, there’s also been an overdue humbling among American intellectuals and writers, many of whom bought into the idea that America’s ideals might be ‘exported’ to regions like the Arab world.

Now, I have never had an idealized image of American democracy, in large part because of my awareness, from the time that I was very young, of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and indeed the racial and economic injustices that continue to plague American society. Still, it used to be possible, even if you were on the left, to imagine not necessarily that America had something to teach the rest of the world, but that at least we had a relatively stable political democracy. The emergence of Donald Trump, the passion that he elicited and continues to elicit among his followers, and the enormous power of the evangelical lobby have shaken some of our assumptions about the strength of American democracy.

As it turns out, we now have to refight the battles for gains that some had begun to take for granted – I’m thinking of women’s rights, gay rights, even a basic awareness that America has done a great injustice to black Americans, the descendants of African slaves. The fragility of these advances reflects the growth and strength of the Christian right, and the persistence of white nationalism. When you really take on board this turn of events, the questions faced by Arab and Muslim intellectuals in the region begin to look a little bit different.

Leaving aside the fact that the United States is a very developed and prosperous country even in decline, how different is our situation from that of Muslim and Arab intellectuals who wish to live in a society that is less dominated by religion and patriarchy, but face very strong religious opposition that has a popular following with resonance among poor and working-class people?

I’m not saying that our societies are identical; they are clearly not. I do think there has been a humbling though, and that has probably been long overdue.

You state in the book that you have studied Algeria rather extensively, partly because it has been your prism to try and understand the Israel-Palestine tragedy. Could I ask you to reflect on that prism?

I became aware of the history of France and Algeria when I was a teenager traveling in France. I heard people talking about Algerians – mocking the way they slaughtered lambs during Ramadan and laughing about it – in a way that surprised, startled, and troubled me. I knew enough about American racism and the cruel, jocular forms that it assumes to be reminded of it. I thought, what is this story of France and Algeria? It began to dawn on me that this story would be crucial for my understanding of France, a country that had begun to fascinate me because I had been studying French and aspired to be a French chef at the time. I first began to read up on the subject in a casual way.

When I first read Camus’s novel The Stranger, I’d been taught that it was a work about existential absurdity – this tale of a young man, Meursault, who failed to express sadness over the death of his mother.

But then I was forced to reflect on the fact that the man Meursault kills on a beach in Algiers is a nameless Arab. And the summer that I heard these racist jokes about “the Arabs,” I heard the song by The Cure “Killing An Arab,” and I began to realize that there was more to Camus’s story than the tale of a young man facing the absurdity of existence.

It was only much later, sometime in my late twenties, that I really began to study the history of the French-Algerian war.What prompted that was an article that I read in Le Monde about a one-eyed general named Paul Aussaresses who was then in his eighties and who, apparently in an attempt to seduce a woman that he fancied, published a memoir in which he recounted the atrocities that he had taken part in during the Algerian War of Independence.He had engaged in summary executions,he had staged so-called suicides of well-known Algerian nationalists like Larbi Ben M’Hidi and the lawyer, Ali Boumendjel. There was also another story that I read by Le Monde journalist Florence Beaugé who had interviewed an Algerian woman, Louisette Ighilahriz who had been in the Front de libération nationale (FLN) along with her sister, Malika. Louisette had been horribly tortured: she had been raped with a bottle and left in a puddle of her own blood and feces. She was eventually rescued by a French doctor whom she remembered only as Doctor Richaud. She gave this interview to Beaugé, which was a very brave interview because Algerian women very seldom talked about their tortures. She had come forward mostly because she wanted to find this doctor to thank him.

Moved by that interview, I began to read up on the Algerian War and discovered a history that was very rich and complex, and I came to forge relationships with historians of the period like Benjamin Stora, who was born in Constantine to a Jewish family,and Mohammed Harbi, who had been a young member of the FLN and who had then fled an Algerian prison in the early 1970s and settled in France where he published a series of works dismantling some of the myths about the FLN and Algerian nationalism. In 2002, I visited Algeria for the first time, and my fascination only deepened.

The history of French colonization in Algeria was not identical to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, of course, and there were obviously striking differences.For one thing, the French had annexed Algeria in three departments and claimed that it was France and that therefore France was not a colonial power in Algeria. France also embarked on an effort to undertake a so-called civilizing mission to make Algerians French. Of course, Algerians were never equal citizens of France until very late in the game when it was much too late, but there was this idea that somehow Algerians would be remade into French subjects or citizens eventually. Obviously, the Israelis have never sought to do the same with Palestinians – there has never been an effort on the part of Israel to assimilate Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Even efforts to assimilate have been rather limited inside Israel itself where 20% of the population is of Palestinian origin. To a large extent, Israeli colonialism has been based on expulsion and internal exclusion more than economic exploitation, although exploitation certainly has figured in the history of Zionism as well. Israel has always had a protector of some sort, with Great Britain, of course, then France in the 1950s – France helped Israel to build its nuclear program – and then, after 1967, the United States. However, there is no metropole in the same way as in the case of Algeria.

But there were also striking resemblances and parallels, starting with the violent confiscation of land, the destruction of villages, the renaming of places, and the creation of a binary opposition between natives and settlers. Like the French, the Jews who conquered Palestine understood themselves as pioneers who were making the desert bloom. Few people are aware of this, but the French in colonizing Algeria had this idea that they were returning to a place that belonged to Latinity. There was a well-known ideologue named Louis Bertrand who hypothesized that Algeria had always really been part of France and wrote a very influential book on the idea of Algeria as part of a French Mediterranean. You could also find this in the work of a writer like Camus who was a pied-noir and grew up as the son of a poor and illiterate mother and whose father had been killed in the war. For all his brilliance and although he’d written early in his career about the misery and oppression of poor Algerians for a Communist newspaper – he reflected the ideology into which he was born. Camus’ opposition to independence, his attempt to draw an equivalence between anti-colonial violence and state violence, and his belief that Algeria would always remain French, reminded me of liberal Zionist Israeli writers like Amos Oz or David Grossman, who wrote on some of the injustices of Israel’s occupation but could never bring themselves to oppose the ideology that underpinned those injustices.

Much of the debate around Algeria concerned the future of the European minority in a decolonized society. Would the European minority be capable of being decolonized or Algerianized or would the European minority eventually have to relocate, as we know it did – the French were “repatriated to France,” even though few of them were actually French: most of the pied-noirs were Corsican, Italian, Spanish, and so forth.

De Gaulle was in fact fascinated by Israel.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s – before de Gaulle finally decided to withdraw from Algeria – he had been studying Israeli plans for partition and thought perhaps that they could be applied to Algeria – perhaps France could retain the coastal cities and parts of southern Algeria where natural gas deposits lay.

Israel was in that sense an inspiration. The fascination went both ways. Rumor has it that Ariel Sharon would go to bed at night reading Alastair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace, a classic account of the Algerian War of Independence. I am not sure exactly what lesson Sharon was drawing from Horne’s book because it is a story of a pyrrhic military victory, but the Israelis were certainly interested in the history of Algeria and the French were fascinated by the Israelis too. The French Right has a long history of interest in the Israeli military partly because the Israeli military has carried out a series of devastating campaigns in the Arab world.

So there were a host of parallels but also fascinating divergences. In that sense, Algeria became a kind of laboratory for me. I do not want to suggest that my interest in Algeria is reducible to it being a prism for thinking about Israel–Palestine. I actually have an interest in Algeria that is separate from that but that is partly how that interest first formed.

You emphasize that irony, skepticism, doubt, detachment, and a passion for nuance are necessary instruments of radical critique. Could I ask how your approach might differ from other influential critical approaches today?

I’m wary of painting with too broad a brush when it comes to current trends in intellectual criticism since there are obviously many gifted practitioners and there are no doubt new developments that deserve to be celebrated. Still, I do think that there’s a growing tendency towards what you might call an ethos of exposure, calling to account,andsometimes shaming. Probably the underlying premise is that to be properly radical is to identify or – in the contemporary lingo – call out the abuses of the powerful and their flagrant injustices.

When the subject is a writer from the past or a political movement from an earlier era, this ethos is often applied too and in such a one-dimensional way that there seems to be scarcely anything of value left after the critical dissection has been performed.Whether we are from New York, Budapest, Africa, or Latin America, we all come from societies, cultures, and traditions that are marked by injustice, by inequity, and by ideological misconceptions.

It would be very surprising if any of us were able to entirely liberate ourselves from the stuff that we have inherited no matter how hard we battle against it, and no matter how strenuously we work to reimagine our societies. Given this, it seems to me highly ungenerous and rather arrogant to interrogate the intellectuals of the past as if they were suspects in a historical crime.

That does not mean that we should cease to judge them in any way, but we should do so with a certain humility, and even where condemnation is merited – for example in the cases of writers who defended flagrant injustices – it’s not enough. Tocqueville, for example, was a champion of French colonization in Algeria, but he was also an extraordinary observer of American society, not least its racism toward black people and Native Americans. We shouldn’t ignore his complicity in the French project in Algeria, but we shouldn’t stop reading him, or only read him as a case study in liberal imperialism.

There’s a risk that if we write to prove that intellectuals are guilty of complicity in these historical crimes in this very one-dimensional way then we don’t really leave much room for historical contextualization, or for that matter the possibility of progress, since it becomes impossible to measure the distance that we have traveled.I also think we tend to forget that we too, at this very moment, are probably ignoring some terrible crime in our midst that we have not begun to think of as a crime.Looking back, we may conclude that some of the ruling passions and ideological preoccupations turn out to have been a distraction from something that was much more urgent.That is entirely possible.

I have written for years on racial stigma and racial oppression. Overall, I regard it as very welcome that there has been this confrontation with racial injustice in the United States, even if some of the forms that this reckoning has taken strike me as misguided.At the same time, when we look back on this era of racial reckoning, it is possible that some critics will say that you were dwelling on the relationship between human beings – not to mention the hysteria over ‘wokeism’ – at a time of deepening ecological crisis, which in fact menaced everyone, no matter the racial group to which they belonged. So perhaps focusing on these issues was a way of avoiding some deeper and implacable existential crisis.I do not have a crystal ball – what I am saying is that we really don’t know how our era is going to look years from now.

I try to write about the figures in this book, most of whom are dead, with critical detachment, but also with humility, some commitment to generosity, and some awareness of the complex, and often mysterious, arc of a life.

I’m writing about their work, of course, but I’m also writing about people who are struggling to figure out their world, comment on, and change it. I do feel that there is a kind of moral obligation not to remain where they are, but to at least appreciate where they begin.

The purpose of your essays, you write, is “to explore the difficult and sometimes perilous practice of the engaged intellectual.” Would you say that the condition of being an engaged intellectual has radically changed in our age of the internet and social media?

I think that it has changed, and I think that it’s going to continue to change. I’m writing about figures who were alive in an era in which the literature of commitment possessed a great aura – it was much talked about in intellectual circles and was seen to be central to high culture, not unlike the art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. People were expected to have, if not literacy in it, at least some awareness of Jean-Paul Sartre, who is an important figure in this book and who was, as you know, an enormously famous person, not just in France, and whose words commanded attention from the general public – even if many of the French hated him at the time of the Algerian War when he took a very brave stance against torture and in favor of independence.When he was asked why he hadn’t arrested Sartre for his position on the Algerian War, de Gaulle said that “you can’t arrest Voltaire.” It’s very hard to think of a writer who is that central to a country’s politics today. Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and Ta-Nehisi Coates don’t come close – and it’s no fault of theirs. At the mid-century the society of the spectacle, of images and sensations, was on its way to eclipsing the culture of print, but print and the written word still had enormous power.  

I think that the aura that engaged intellectuals possessed endured in a range of societies through the 1970s and even the 1980s, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe during the struggles against Stalinism, where writers played a very important role.Even those intellectuals who publicly repudiated the idea of the universal intellectual, such as Michel Foucault, nevertheless benefited from the idea that intellectuals had a right and even a responsibility to reflect on and comment on the politics of their time. In fact, Foucault himself was publicly involved in struggles on behalf of prisoners, gay rights, and the Vietnamese boat people. He may have rejected the category of the universal intellectual, but in a strange way he became a symbol of radical commitment, like Sartre.

There are obviously very significant intellectual figures in our own time. Thomas Piketty, for example, has helped shift the debate around capitalism and inequality, and Michelle Alexander has transformed our understanding of mass incarceration in the US. But the passage from extended argument to meme is hardly more than an instant in our time. New books were events whereas we are currently living in what the British writer Richard Seymour has called the ‘twittering machine’. This machine is not very welcoming towards the kind of slow and patient and diligent work of intellectual appraisal that allows people to sift through arguments, nuances, and subtleties and reach a deeper awareness of the issues that they’re exploring.

Writers and intellectuals thus struggle for a declining amount of potential attention. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place and maybe the figures who are going to shape a public conversation outside the field of high politics are going to come from other realms – maybe they are going to be artists or so-called influencers.

I don’t think this is a very positive development, but it feels unavoidable, and I don’t know how we are going to forge a new economy of attention. Having said that, I don’t mean to strike an apocalyptic note because I do think that history is about change and I’m not a ‘declinist.’

I very much adhere to that famous line by Antonio Gramsci “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner.

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