Friday, January 13, 2023

Tyler Cowen, Straussian reading, and Žižek in Wakanda

A couple of years ago I decided to write a post about Tyler Cowen’s use of the term “Straussian reading.” Tyler has now posted an account of the matter that was given, I presume, by ChatGPT and sent to him by a reader, Jeremy David: Ask the beast. I posted a longish comment to that post based on some of the notes I’d made toward my post on the matter.

As for my own post, the notes became sprawling and unmanageable, so I never finished it. However, since Tyler has put the question on the table I decided to post some of those notes. Here’s how I planned to open my post:

If you read Tyler Cowen’s entries at Marginal Revolution then sooner or later you will find something referred to as “Straussian” or as a “Straussian reading.” You may know exactly what Cowen means or, like me, you may not. Oh sure, I was pretty sure that it referred to Leo Strauss, whom I know only as a teacher of and an influence on Alan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, a book I didn’t much like. Other than that, it’s a mystery.

Cowen is an economist and I’m not. He frequently uses terms of art – words, phrases, and acronyms – that are opaque to me. So I go to the web and see what I can see. Strauss wasn’t an economist but “Straussian reading” does and does not feel like a term of art. It’s a trope floating between a virtual cult-of-Tyler – he’s got a large and distinctive presence in the intellectual blogosphere, though no more than a modest presence in the Twittersphere (c. 160K followers), writes a regular column for Bloomberg, hosts a well-regarded podcast, and has recently become a philanthropist – and a larger and more diffuse aggregate floating in a libertarian conservative liberal sea – think of a frayed net on the water’s surface in a South Seas atoll.

When I went to the web I discovered that I’m not the only one curious about Cowen’s usage:

These are suggestive. I think the matter merits further investigation, and perhaps some actual thought on my part.

Somewhere in the middle we find this:

Ask an Encyclopedia

Perhaps Wikipedia can offer some insight. I found this in the entry for “Leo Strauss”:

In the late 1930s, Strauss called for the first time for a reconsideration of the “distinction between exoteric (or public) and esoteric (or secret) teaching”. In 1952 he published Persecution and the Art of Writing, arguing that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction. Esoteric writing serves several purposes: protecting the philosopher from the retribution of the regime, and protecting the regime from the corrosion of philosophy; it attracts the right kind of reader and repels the wrong kind; and ferreting out the interior message is in itself an exercise of philosophic reasoning.

There’s more, but that gives you the basic idea.

But does it help? Yes and no. It doesn’t tell me much about the meanings Cowen has or might have in mind when he alludes to the existence of a Straussian reading for this or that text (or movie). But it tells me that Strauss did have a doctrine about reading philosophical (and other) texts and that, whatever else he has up his sleeve, Cowen is alluding to that doctrine.

That philosophical, or other (serious) texts, have “multiple or layered meanings” is of no particular interest to me. That’s where I started from as a literary critic. If that’s all Cowen has in mind then the only work he’s doing by using the word “Straussian” is signaling that he’s in or a fellow traveller of the Club of Straussians. Let’s set that aside.

But that Wikipedia snippet is about more than the existence of multiple meanings. It’s about the meaning of texts written under the condition of political oppression. There’s definitely something to that.

Here’s the section on Žižek:

Žižek in Wakanda

I have little interest in the work of the ubiquitous Slavoj Žižek, but from what I hear, he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to have intellectual fun. I am pretty sure, though, that he inhabits a different region of the intellectual universe than the one traversed by Tyler Cowen – though, I note in passing, that they recently had a congenial conversation. Thus I was a little surprised to discover that he had published a Straussian reading of Black Panther. Is the Straussian Cabal more deeply and extensively embedded than I have heretofor imagined?

Žižek, S. (2018) Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of ‘Black Panther’, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 3, 2018:

Things thus seem clear, confirming Fredric Jameson’s insistence on how difficult it is to imagine a really new world, a world which does not just reflect, invert, or supplement the existing one. However, the movie offers signs that disturb this simple and obvious reading — signs that leave Killmonger’s political vision radically open. Reading the film in the way Leo Strauss read Plato’s and Spinoza’s work, as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost, we can recover this apparently foreclosed potential.

A careful Straussian reading draws attention to signs that indicate that the obvious hierarchy of theoretical positions has to be inverted. For example, although Milton follows the church’s official party line and condemns Satan’s rebellion, his sympathies are clearly with Satan in Paradise Lost. (We should add that it doesn’t matter if this preference for the “bad side” is conscious or unconscious to the author of a text; the result is the same.) Does the same not hold for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of his Batman trilogy? Although Bane is the official villain, there are indications that he, much more than Batman himself, is the film’s authentic hero distorted as its villain...

So, back to Black Panther: which are the signs enabling us to recognize in Killmonger the film’s true hero? There are many; the first among them is the scene of his death, in which he prefers to die free than to be healed and survive in the false abundance of Wakanda. The strong ethical impact of Killmonger’s last words immediately ruin the idea that he is a simple villain. What then follows is a scene of extraordinary warmth: the dying Killmonger sits down at the edge of a mountain precipice observing the beautiful Wakanda sunset, and T’Challa, who has just defeated him, silently sits at his side. There is no hatred here, just two basically good men with a different political view sharing their last moments after the battle is over. It’s a scene unimaginable in a standard action movie that culminates in the vicious destruction of the enemy. These final moments alone cast doubt on the film’s obvious reading and solicit us to deeper reflection.

Cowen on Black Panther: *Black Panther* (evaluations, only minor spoilers), Feb 17, 2017

Christopher Lebron, ‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve, Boston Review, Feb 17, 2018

Note that Žižek references Lebron in a note appended to his review.

That’s all folks!

Did Cowen approve that hot dog?

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