A Voice of One’s Own: Aesthetics, Politics, and Maturity

Published date01 October 2014
Date01 October 2014
Subject MatterReview Symposium
Political Theory
2014, Vol. 42(5) 590 –625
© 2014 SAGE Publications
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DOI: 10.1177/0090591714540258
Review Sumposium
A Voice of One’s Own:
Aesthetics, Politics, and
Maturity: Symposium on
Tracy Strong’s Politics
without Vision: Thinking
without a Banister in
the Twentieth Century,
University of Chicago
Press, 2012
After the End of Thought1
Patchen Markell
University of Chicago
Tracy Strong’s Politics without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the
Twentieth Century2 is a book about—among many other things—the com-
plex mix of self-assertion, responsiveness to a world, and acknowledgment
of others that is involved in becoming a subject with a perspective and a voice
of one’s own. Understood in this way, it is also a book that exemplifies what
it argues. It’s not uncommon for a book by an eminent senior scholar to have
the kind of transparency of voice that this one does: any reader who knows
Strong will find him unmistakably present in its pages. It is somewhat less
common for an immediately recognizable book by an eminent senior scholar
also to be deeply marked by the friction of its encounter with new problems:
this is not just a pleasantly lucid distillation of things we’ve heard from
Strong before. And it is remarkable for such a book to avow its debts to others
as prominently as this one does: in its very title and subtitle, we already hear
not just Strong’s voice but also Sheldon Wolin’s and Hannah Arendt’s.3 At
one level, then, Strong tells the story of a series of seven authors—Nietzsche,
Weber, Lenin, Freud, Schmitt, Heidegger, and Arendt—who, following Kant,
seek to understand human subjectivity as a project and accomplishment, and
not just as a fact about us; but who (even more than Kant) are concerned to
540258PTXXXX10.1177/0090591714540258Political TheorySymposium on Tracy Strong’s Politics without Vision
Symposium on Tracy Strong’s Politics without Vision 591
do this without recourse to “visions” or “banisters,” a scruple that puts them
in a liminal position in relation to the philosophical traditions that precede
them. But Strong’s own book is also involved in the same play of proximity
and distance in relation to those traditions, and to his seven authors, and
indeed to the framing language he draws from Arendt and Wolin. In what fol-
lows, I want to pose three sets of questions about this mix of continuity and
discontinuity both in the work of the authors Strong examines, and in his own
(and our own) relation to these interlocutors.
I’ll begin with a terminological question: What are “visions” and “banis-
ters,” exactly? Often, Strong’s uses of these terms, and especially the latter,
seem to refer to what we used to call “epistemological foundations.” He
begins his book by saying that the phrase “thinking without a banister,” for
Arendt, “meant for her that humans no longer could rely on any transcenden-
tal grounding to finalize their thinking” (1, emphasis added).What this
amounts to is the idea that action cannot be underwritten by “complete”
knowledge of the world, not because there are things we should know but
cannot, but because “human understanding [is] not exhausted in the act of
knowing.” Absent the banister of knowledge, we are compelled to relate to
the world aesthetically, which means we acknowledge the “presence of the
incomprehensible” and, consequently, we recognize that “what one says
about it is necessarily in and only in one’s own voice,” a recognition that
“necessarilyopens and relates one to others making a judgment of their own”
(13).What sets Strong’s authors off from the tradition that precedes them, it
seems, is that all take up the challenge of thinking without banisters in this
sense, radicalizing Kant’s critique of knowledge under the weight of their
anticipation or experience of the horrors of the twentieth century.
Yet by focusing on the question of whether politics is grounded in knowl-
edge, Strong may overstate the discontinuity between his cast of characters
and their predecessors. One way to see this is to ask about the relation between
his subtitle and his title. Why would Strong want to say that a form of thought
or understanding that tried to do without the banisters of finality offered by
cognition would also be “without vision” in Wolin’s sense, given that Wolin
introduced the idea of “vision” precisely as a correlate of what he calls “the
imaginative element in political thought”—that which goes beyond descrip-
tive reportage and “propositions that seek to prove or disprove,” in order to
“illuminate”? To be sure, Wolin himself moved very quickly from imagina-
tion per se to a specific deployment of imagination by the political theorist,
exemplified by Plato and called “architectonic,” in which “the political
592 Political Theory 42(5)
imagination attempts to mold the totality of political phenomena to accord
with some vision of the Good that lies outside the political order,”4 which
would seem to take us back into the register of knowledge. Notice, however,
that even on Wolin’s description, an architectonic theorist like Plato is not in
the first instance a knower; he is, instead, one who imagines knowledge; that
is, who imagines a political world in which knowledge (of the Good, for
instance) would play a controlling role. What is primary in the figure of the
architectonic theorist is not his claim to knowledge but the relation of com-
mand over materials and people, which a claim to knowledge may then be
used to support (the “architect” is, literally, the master or ruler of builders).5
But this suggests, first, that the appeal to a transcendental grounding and
the aesthetic relation to the world are not mutually exclusive alternatives:
instead, the former may be a variety of the latter. And, second and conse-
quently, even the abandonment of the claim to knowledge may not in itselfbe
sufficient to provoke a recognition of the claim of others to their own voice,
since it is, in itself, merely the abandonment of one means to the imagined
end of security in command.6 There may well be others, as Strong shows us
in giving us a cast of characters who are quite uneven in their acknowledg-
ment that, as he puts it, “for one to have one’s own voice, others must have a
voice also” (85), and whose insistent framing of politics in terms of hierarchy
remains quite traditional, their rejection of foundationalism notwithstanding.
Indeed, one could make this point even while staying with the language of
“banisters,” for a banister isn’t only a support that holds us up if we begin to
fall, but a guide that facilitates movement by orienting perception: exhibiting
a trajectory visually, it can help us judge the steepness of a set of stairs, or
alert us to the fact that we’re about to encounter a step where we might not
expect one.7 So “thinking without a banister” may mean not just thinking
without knowing but also letting one’s thinking wander off the paths to which
we’re accustomed. The image of political relations as relations of rule or
command may represent one such path, to which some of Strong’s authors
hew all too closely.8 I’ll return to this issue.
The question of how far and in what ways Strong’s interlocutors depart
from a tradition that precedes them, whether we describe that tradition as
architectonic or banister-bound or in some other way, is inseparable from the
question of how they relate to Kant, and also from the question of Kant’s
ownposition in these matters, since he is the figure whom all these “twentieth
century” thinkers both emulate andradicalize. (We can admit Nietzsche to the
twentieth-century club in virtue of having been born posthumously.) Here,

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