Carlyle and Foucault?

by Mark Wallace

So, how does Thomas Carlyle map onto contemporary critical theory? Not an easy question, but one abstract of an essay attempting to explore this came to my attention this week.

This paper argues in favour of the beneficial currency of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History in three ways, each of which finds the basis of its critique in aspects of Foucault’s theories of discursive practice, as explored in Foucault’s theories of historical discourse; 1) that Carlyle’s terminology connects with his discursive practice in an ambiguous manner, as his concept of worship is more akin to study than devotion, if we take the text of his lectures as evidence of his perception; 2) the sources of enlightenment Carlyle offers us, based on these studies of heroic individuals, may provide an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship centred around biographies of notable individuals, and finally; 3) we challenge the notion that heroes such as those Carlyle offers us can be manifest in the present and argue that the depth of insight Carlyle demonstrates into his subjects is only possible by means of a lengthy temporal transition: the historicity of these narratives, and the narratives of social codification, cultural development and long-term impact witnessed and described over generations, is what makes them feasible at all.

Louise Campbell, “The Archaeology of Heroes: Carlyle, Foucault and the Pedagogy of Interdisciplinary Narrative DiscourseJournal of Philosophy of Education (2017) Wiley Online Library

Three interesting points here. Point 1 I am, on first glance, somewhat sceptical of, for, though there is obviously an element of the scholarly to Carlyle’s work, his rapturous and forceful tone mean reading him is very different to reading a standard “study”. The Victorians called him a “sage” and this does get across the intensity of his work better than the notion of “study”. There is an ambiguity there about Carlyle’s relation to worship, but I don’t think it’s resolved by seeing his work as a “study” or him as simply a scholar.

Point 2 is promising, looking to Carlyle as an early interdisciplinarian, and trying, it seems, essentially to rehabilitate the “Great Man” approach to history and humanities. Of course it will be under a different name, and it will cast a wider net to find its subjects, in terms of gender, geography, class, etc., but we could learn certain things from the “Great Man” writers like Carlyle. In a sense this is being done by the nascent discipline of Heroism Science, but Carlyle wasn’t a scientist. He was closer to a humanist in his sense of the importance and power of the individual, and his interest in the psychological make-up and state of his heroes. This broad humanism may also be worth recovering.

Point 3 is difficult. As I understand it, it says we can acknowledge and study heroes, but they must be in the past. This is a fairly unorthodox point to which it is different to respond here. On a political level, at any rate, it seems sensible. Elevating a dead person to godhead seems less dangerous than elevating a live one. Yet, even here, is it not our worship of dead or non-existent persons/entities that gets us into most trouble? We find it hard to unequivocally worship the living being, but the non-corporeal symbol, less so. This, indeed, was a central point in Sartor Resartus, according to the reading of it in the Dark Knight Rises Chapter of my thesis, from which I quote:

In the moment of attaching the nuclear core to the Batmobile and carrying it away from the city, Batman becomes a realized ideal, emblematic of true heroism and sacrifice for the citizens he has undertaken to protect. His physical absence lends itself to a more manageable symbolic presence, now finally incorporated into the structures of power of Gotham – indeed providing the iconographic base around which they can rebuild themselves, and finally regain credibility. It is his almost total emptiness as a political symbol, aided by his physical absence, that renders him so suitable for the role.

The point is, it is an absence that the people of Gotham worship, rather than a presence. That is the Batman paradox; it is only when he leaves that he is appreciated. Were he to return, they ambivalence towards him would likewise reappear. It is a complicated dynamic, and the difficulties of thinking about worship and heroes, and their place in human history is apparent. Nevertheless, their importance remains, so one must welcome the debate this paper should engender, if the interesting abstract is anything to go by.

My position remains roughly that we need to encounter Carlyle in his exemplary otherness. Progressive thought in our societies has almost lost the ability to engage with the other side. We can find in Carlyle plenty of hooks that will provoke our engagement: his anger at shams and dishonesty, his dismay at the mechanization of thought and society, his proto-anti-consumerism. We can use them to understand better the roots of much contemporary anti-liberal thought, and learn to see that it does not wholly spring from simply base or stupid motives. Now is not a time for agreeing amongst ourselves, now is a time for (as Žižek recommended) defending lost causes to ourselves, so we can come up with a common solution.

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