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BOOKS: Philip Rieff, advocate of 'inactivism,' returns to print, but what's the point?

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The Chronicle of Higher Education announces on the cover of the current issue:  "A Grand Social Theorist Returns to the Stage."  --  The "grand social theorist" in question is none other than 82-year-old Philip Rieff, about to publish his first book since 1973, to be followed by several others -- including "the 2007 publication of his long-rumored, epic-length book on charisma."  --  Coming from the man who seduced the 17-year-old Susan Sontag when she was a first-year-student at the University of Chicago, this should be piquant.  --  It's hard to take seriously the idea the Rieff's mysterious volumes will have much impact on contemporary thought, though.  --  This hyping of Rieff's books does nothing but make their author look like some modern-day Mr. Casaubon (with the author of Against Interpretation, mutatis mutandis, in the role of Dorothea Brooke).  --  With any luck, Rieff will have time to footnote the gossipy Chronicle of Higher Education article in Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume 1: My Life Among the Deathworks (University of Virginia Press, January 2006) as corroboratory evidence of "the emptiness of . . . the modern 'anti-culture.'"  --  Glenn writes that Rieff's work "might be better understood as a tragic lament than as a call to arms.  He does not believe that any restorative project is actually feasible.  When asked what he believes scholars might do to slow down the process of cultural decline, he says, 'They can become inactivists.  They'll do less damage that way.  Inactivism is the ticket.'"  --  This is so helpful....

Research & Books

PROPHET OF THE 'ANTI-CULTURE'
By David Glenn

** After a 30-year silence, the gloomy social theorist Philip Rieff is back -- with four books **

Chronicle of Higher Education
November 11, 2005
Pages A14-A17

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i12/12a01501.htm (subscribers only)

PHILADELPHIA -- At the age of 82, after two decades of failing health, Philip Rieff leads a monastic life. He rarely ventures from the second floor of the cavernous 1865 townhouse where he and his wife have lived for nearly 40 years.

The best-known photographs of Mr. Rieff show a severe, thin, clean-shaven man, but now he is appealingly bearded and potbellied. "My God, how I've gained weight," he says with a sweet, half-astonished smile as he rises to greet a visitor.

Mr. Rieff's eyes, however, still have the ferocity of years past, and his voice is steady and rich. He presses for news of the intellectual world outside. For 31 years, from 1961 to 1992, he taught sociology two miles from here, at the University of Pennsylvania. Now he rarely sees his old colleagues. "I fear," he says, "that sociology is suffering the miserable fate of becoming a gut, easy subject."

For Mr. Rieff, this is a season of anticipation. In January the University of Virginia Press will publish Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume 1: My Life Among the Deathworks, his first new book to see the light of day since 1973. (Volumes 2 and 3 will appear in 2007 and 2008, respectively.) Meanwhile, Pantheon Books is preparing the 2007 publication of his long-rumored, epic-length book on charisma.

After decades of near-silence from Mr. Rieff, there will soon be a deluge.

He is eager to find the kind of broad audience that he enjoyed during the 1960s, when he was admired as a shrewd, pessimistic interpreter of Freud's cultural theories. "It's very important that I aim to reach the lay reader," he says.

It may be an uphill struggle. Forty-five years ago, when Mr. Rieff came to prominence, Freudian ideas were everywhere, championed by the country's most visible sociologists (Talcott Parsons), literary critics (Lionel Trilling), and cultural radicals (including Susan Sontag, to whom Mr. Rieff was married from 1950 to 1958).

But today Freud -- and, for that matter, the entire mode of grand social theorizing in the key of Marx, Weber, and Freud -- has fallen from favor. In fact, there is no longer much of a niche for large-scale theory in sociology. The field is almost purely devoted to narrower, more technical questions about, say, the effects of welfare reform in Cincinnati, or how social networks operate within a particular software firm.

"The question 'What can Freud teach us about the relation between our impulses and civilization?' ceases to be interesting if it transpires that Freud didn't actually make the discoveries he claimed to have made about the psyche," says Frederick C. Crews, a professor emeritus of English at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading Freud skeptic.

Mr. Rieff's new book will probably face additional hurdles. Its jabs at feminism and gay rights will not be universally well received. And Mr. Rieff's prose style is much more challenging than it was in the 1960s. My Life Among the Deathworks is filled with puns, esoteric language, and fragmentary, recursive arguments.

The book uses 39 paintings and other artworks as launching points for meditations on what Mr. Rieff calls the "third culture" -- an empty, permissive realm where no authority is recognized. (A 1991 essay in Commentary celebrated him as "a neglected conservative thinker," although his students say his thought cannot be tethered to a single political ideology.)

"I don't know what the quality of Rieff's new work is going to be," says Jeffrey Prager, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles and also a psychoanalyst. "But I'm very happy that it's going to get some attention. Rieff has played an important role in carving out a certain terrain for sociology, in paying attention to the nonrational and the ineffable."

Mr. Rieff can't quite account for his long absence from the stage. "I didn't think the world was waiting for these arguments," he acknowledges. But now that his long-awaited texts are finally about to see print, he is eager to resume old debates. "I have been laying awake nights," he says.

COLERIDGE AND SONTAG

During Mr. Rieff's boyhood, in Chicago, he dreamed of being a baseball writer, not a social theorist. He was born at the end of 1922 on the city's North Side. His parents had fled Lithuania's political violence in 1921; several members of his extended family were later killed in the Holocaust. In Chicago his father found work as a butcher.

When he entered the University of Chicago, in 1939, Mr. Rieff says, "I thought there could be nothing better than to be a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News." He joined the staff of the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, and became editor during his sophomore year. He was fired, however, after he wrote a sardonic editorial about social stratification at the campus coffee shop. In "The Sociology of the C-Shop," he noted that the college's mainstream students (whom he still refers to derisively as "fraternity boys") sat up front, while "at the back, near the kitchen, sat the Jews, the Negroes, and the independents -- the lame, the halt, and the blind."

Mr. Rieff then turned his full attention to academic studies. He became close to Edward Shils, a scholar who, in contrast to the empirically oriented sociologists for whom Chicago was famous, had a deep interest in European theory and intellectual history. Mr. Rieff inherited Mr. Shils's fascination with the half-visible cultural structures that make a society function. But where the professor drew primarily on the theories of Max Weber, Mr. Rieff brought Freud into the equation.

Mr. Rieff's study was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as an assistant to a brigadier general in the Army Air Forces. After the war, Mr. Shils asked Mr. Rieff to join the university's faculty, even though he hadn't completed even a bachelor's degree. "That was the way Chicago was in those days," says Mr. Rieff. "I felt I couldn't refuse. I was fully intending to go work for the Daily News, but there I was, a teacher."

Mr. Rieff scrambled to complete his degrees. He wrote his master's thesis on the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notion of the "clerisy" -- that is, an informal class of learned people who preserve and maintain a country's cultural heritage. "I can tell you that the idea of doing a master's thesis in sociology at the University of Chicago on Samuel Taylor Coleridge was seen as rather odd," Mr. Rieff says. "Still, they accepted it. And I think his idea of clerisy is still a viable concept for the social sciences."

Then came one of the most storied courtships in American academic history: In 1950, Susan Sontag, a 17-year-old in her first semester at Chicago, audited Mr. Rieff's course on social thought. They were immediately captivated by one another's intellectual seriousness, and married 10 days after they met. In an autobiographical fragment that appeared in the New Yorker in 1986, Ms. Sontag recalled: "Whatever I saw when I was apart from him for an hour made me think first of how I would describe it to him; and we never separated for more than a few hours, just the time he taught his classes and I took mine -- we were insatiable. My bladder might be aching, but I didn't want to interrupt myself or him; talking, he would follow me into the bathroom."

In 1952 Ms. Sontag and Mr. Rieff had a son, David, who is now a well-known journalist and foreign-policy analyst. (On the sociologist's bedroom wall hangs a small framed picture of his son, clipped from a 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the looming war in Iraq.) But the marriage came to an end, at Ms. Sontag's request, in the late 1950s. "I've never felt so safe with anyone since," her 1986 essay continued. "It's not right to feel so safe." In 1963 Mr. Rieff married Alison D. Knox, a Philadelphia lawyer with whom he lives to this day.

Mr. Rieff and Ms. Sontag left the marriage with similar tastes for grand and solemn pronouncements. In his new book, he argues that every previous human culture had a bedrock of authority that is absent today: "True barbarism has never existed before. We are witnesses to the first true barbarians." Ms. Sontag wrote in a 1996 reflection on the triumph of consumer capitalism and expressive individualism: "Barbarism is one name for what was taking over. Let's use Nietzsche's term: we had entered, really entered, the age of nihilism."

But in a more important sense, the two scholars went on to move in very different directions. Ms. Sontag had a much more hopeful view -- although always ambivalent -- toward feminism and other liberal and radical cultural currents. Her 1966 collection, Against Interpretation, praised Norman O. Brown, whom Mr. Rieff regarded as a utopian "left-Freudian." In 1985 she wrote an appreciative introduction to a volume of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. Mr. Rieff is far more skeptical: His new book includes a meditation on one of Mr. Mapplethorpe's photographs, which culminates with the declaration that "homosexuality as a social movement is not a movement of love but a movement of hatred and indifference."

THERAPY AND ORTHODOXY

When Mr. Rieff moved into this house, he had just completed his second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966). In it he argued that Freud's renegade disciples -- Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, D.H. Lawrence -- had failed to grasp his fundamental pessimism and had instead spun off utopian fantasies of cultural liberation. More broadly, he warned that urbanization and modernity were giving rise to a hollow "gospel of self-fulfillment." The central fact of the age, he said, was the emergence of "psychological man," a figure with no sense of duty and little sense of history.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic became a touchstone of its intellectual moment. It left a deep mark on Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other scholars who were moving toward cultural conservatism. It also impressed other, more liberal readers. "It seemed to me an extraordinary and really in many ways a shocking book," says Robert Boyers, a professor of arts and letters at Skidmore College who first read the book around 1968. "It seemed to me to identify what were many of the key problems confronting the culture."

What intrigued readers was Mr. Rieff's use of the vocabulary of Freud and other pessimistic modernists to reach conclusions that were strikingly friendly to "tradition" and the premodern world. In the new book Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff's Theory of Culture, Antonius A.W. Zondervan, an independent scholar in the Netherlands, says Mr. Rieff believes that authority and guilt can never be truly eradicated from even the most libertarian society. "The sacred was never absent from social order," writes Mr. Zondervan, paraphrasing Mr. Rieff. "It was merely repressed and, according to psychoanalytic logic, returned in distorted forms."

Mr. Rieff does not believe that cultural decay (as he sees it) can be reversed through "values education," like Bart Simpson repeating sentences on a blackboard. In his first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), he denounced "Kant's mistake in regarding religion as the apprehension of our moral duties as divine commands." Mr. Rieff believes that an authentic religious culture is not about citizens' intellectual understanding of rules of right and wrong, but about structures of authority, myth, and meaning that are so deep that people are only half-aware of them.

Mr. Rieff has repeatedly suggested that the decline of the European Christian worldview has had catastrophic results -- but at the same time, he emphasizes that he does not want to resurrect any particular past culture. In a famous passage in 1973, he wrote: "The defense of [credal organizations] implicit in my theory of culture does not make me an advocate of some earlier credal organization. In particular, I have not the slightest affection for the dead church civilization of the West. I am a Jew. No Jew in his right mind can long for some variant of that civilization."

Indeed, Mr. Rieff does not believe that an authentic religious culture could be resurrected, no matter how hard one might try. Following Marx, Weber, and Freud, he argues that modern prosperity, cities, bureaucracy, and science have completely transformed the terrain of human experience. People who try to practice orthodox Christianity and Judaism today, he says, inevitably remain trapped in the vocabulary of therapy and self-fulfillment. "I think the orthodox are role-playing," he says. "You believe because you think it's good for you, not because of anything inherent in the belief. I think that the orthodox are in the miserable situation of being orthodox for therapeutic reasons."

So when Mr. Rieff denounces the emptiness of what he calls the modern "anti-culture," it might be better understood as a tragic lament than as a call to arms. He does not believe that any restorative project is actually feasible. When asked what he believes scholars might do to slow down the process of cultural decline, he says, "They can become inactivists. They'll do less damage that way. Inactivism is the ticket."

Mr. Rieff's deeply conservative pessimism "has a certain odd parallel with the tragic view of modernity held by Herbert Marcuse and other left-wing social theorists of the Frankfurt School," says Neil McLaughlin, an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University who has studied the reception of Freudian ideas in America. (Mr. Rieff and Mr. Marcuse, who died in 1979, were friends. Mr. Rieff says he has fond memories of attending Mr. Marcuse's wedding, although "we disagreed about practically everything." Perhaps, as Mr. McLaughlin suggests, they had more in common than they realized.)

TIGHTENING THE DRUM

Mr. Rieff's long withdrawal from prominence began in 1973, after he published Fellow Teachers, a meditation on the vocation of the college professor in a "cultureless" era. The book found a devoted core of admirers, but it amounted to a much smaller readership than Mr. Rieff's earlier books had enjoyed. Where The Triumph of the Therapeutic had a classical structure -- one chapter for each misguided Freud disciple -- Fellow Teachers was sinuous and full of wordplay. Its 218 pages have no chapter breaks. And where The Triumph was melancholy, Fellow Teachers was caustic: "My re-educated friends, with their ardor for innovation and the perverse, are too influential as things are. . . . This psychosocialism may destroy what remains of our received culture in order to replace it with permanent therapies."

In a footnote near the end of Fellow Teachers, Mr. Rieff mentioned that he was at work on a "cluttered eruditional warehouse of a book, complete with a passionate chapter on Lutheran jurisprudence, titled Charisma, not to be published until it is tight as a drum and yet without sounding in the least 'charismatic.' I shall probably fail to make it so -- but one thing the academy is for, precisely, are such failures. I might learn something in the attempt, over the years."

The drum-tightening continued for a long time. A 1977 profile of Mr. Rieff in Penn's alumni magazine mentioned campus rumors of "the three unpublished books he has supposedly written and shown to no one." The 1980s came and went. In 1990 Chicago published a collection of Mr. Rieff's essays, but only 7 of its 49 components were written after 1973.

Mr. Rieff was hardly inactive during those years. He spent a tremendous amount of energy on his classroom work, often teaching from his unpublished texts. He became a memorable campus presence. "I will always remember the first day of class," says Jonathan B. Imber, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College who entered graduate school at Penn in 1974. "He arrived with his two Dandy Dinmont terriers. It still felt like summer -- it was late September -- but Professor Rieff was dressed in his finest. I believe it was a seersucker suit." (Kenneth S. Piver, now a psychiatrist and an adjunct instructor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, recalls that on his first day of Mr. Rieff's class, the professor announced that the measure of his success would be whether his students thought of him on their deathbeds.)

In his seminars on the history of sociological theory, Mr. Rieff would not allow note taking. He wanted his students to engage directly with the text, without mediation of any kind. The semester would begin with the slow, close reading of a particular text -- sometimes Lenin, sometimes Paul's Letter to the Romans.

"It's a different canon than the one that is generally explored in the discipline of sociology," Mr. Imber says. "But that didn't stop him or us from wanting to understand it better. In my first semester, we began with Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. We read it line by line -- in fact, we didn't get very far."

FIGHTING FREUD

Finally, around 2000, Mr. Rieff felt an urgent need to publish. He had retired from teaching in the early 1990s, and his chronic health problems were growing more severe. (Among other things, he copes with arthritis and has suffered a stroke.) He turned to Dr. Piver, who flew to Philadelphia and helped sort through the manuscripts -- "literally tens of thousands of pages," says Dr. Piver.

How will the new works be received? "I think there's a good chance that at least some of the work that Rieff has accomplished will endure, in the way that the work of Durkheim and Weber and others have," says Mr. Imber.

"I'm in no sense competent to locate my father's work," says David Rieff, who was estranged from his father for a long period before a rapprochement in the late 1980s. "I think what should be said is that what has characterized his career is a commitment to seriousness. Agree or disagree with his arguments, he has always tried to be as serious about the topic at hand as he knew how. Here is a person who is not interested in fame, not interested in money. He was committed to his role as a teacher."

Mr. Crews, of Berkeley, writes in an e-mail message to the Chronicle of his mixed feelings about Mr. Rieff's legacy. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the English professor says, "Rieff was brilliant in assessing the schismatics' more simplistic visions of liberation, and he left us with the sense that Freud's tough-mindedness, while hardly sufficient as a replacement for actual supernatural belief, deserved our sympathy and respect."

But Mr. Crews continues: "My feeling today is that those books of Rieff's were period pieces, in three senses: In the intellectual style of the era, they overrated the extent to which social stability depends on the ideas of literary intellectuals; they overrated Freud's permanent interest as a scientific pioneer; and as a result, they took seriously the vacuous antinomies of Civilization and Its Discontents, whereby a measure of 'repression,' causing personal unhappiness, is deemed requisite to the preservation of culture."

Alan N. Woolfolk, a professor of sociology at Oglethorpe University who has written an introduction to the second volume of Sacred Order/Social Order, replies in an e-mail message: "Either one can take Freud seriously and attempt to save what is worth saving or one can simply characterize his work as bogus. That pretty much ends the discussion. Rieff has attempted to continue the discussion, while being quite critical of Freud, especially in his later work."

The important thing to understand about Mr. Rieff's work, Mr. Woolfolk says, is his belief that the new therapeutic culture -- perhaps unlike any previous culture -- lacks the capacity to regulate its own excesses.

Mr. Rieff acknowledges that what he calls the "permissive" or "trangressive" impulse in American culture peaked quite a while ago, around 1970. "The Norman O. Brown argument -- that's over," he says, alluding to the philosopher who advocated the liberation of Eros.

But he adds -- and this is one of the major themes of the new book -- that the culture has been adrift ever since, unable to recapture an "interdictory" character. "People keep saying that new rules are being established," he says. "But I never quite see them. Where are these new rules? Tell me what they are."

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BOOKS BY PHILIP RIEFF

Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Viking, 1959) (In 1979 the University of Chicago Press published a revised edition with a new, 43-page epilogue.)

The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Harper & Row, 1966)

Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Second Death (Harper & Row, 1973)

The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings, edited by Jonathan B. Imber (University of Chicago Press, 1990)

Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume 1: My Life Among the Deathworks (University of Virginia Press, January 2006)

Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume 2: The Crises of the Officer Class (University of Virginia Press, scheduled for 2007)

Charisma (Pantheon Books, scheduled for 2007)

Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume 3: The Ultimate Murderer of Moses: Sigmund Freud as the Jew of Culture (University of Virginia Press, scheduled for 2008)

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BOOKS ABOUT PHILIP RIEFF

Therapeutic Culture: Triumph and Defeat, edited by Jonathan B. Imber (Transaction, 2004)

Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff's Theory of Culture, by Antonius A.W. Zondervan (University of Toronto Press, 2005)

Freud and American Sociology, by Philip Manning (Polity Press, 2005)


Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 November 2005 07:25