The Pomo Mind

Was the conservative intellectual Russell Kirk a postmodernist?


The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, by Gerald J. Russello, Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 248 pages, $44.95

Toward the end of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, the conservative scholar Gerald Russello insists, "The possible connections between…Kirk's conservatism and postmodernism are more than a simple enemy-of-my-enemy stance toward liberalism." His book makes a surprisingly strong case for that unlikely claim. But it also reinforces what is likely to be the reader's first impression: that the lowest and surest common denominator between Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, and pomo theorists such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard lies in their shared antagonism toward the Enlightenment and liberalism in all its forms.

Kirk, a 34-year-old professor of history at Michigan State when The Conservative Mind was published in 1953, is an icon to traditionalist conservatives, an eminence so holy that he "often has been the subject of undue adulation and hagiography," as Russello admits. Even conservatives who don't think of themselves as traditionalists often pay lip service to Kirk's authority. Russello notes the irony in this: Kirk, who hated the first Gulf War in 1991 and was at most a lukewarm defender of capitalism, would find little in common with today's hawkish, pro-growth right-wingers. But even before his death in 1994, Kirk the symbol had become uncoupled from Kirk the man—a very postmodern turn of events.

Still, Kirk doesn't seem at first blush like a postmodern figure. Premodern would be more like it. Kirk assumed a "carefully crafted eighteenth-century persona," says Russello, along with an "antiquated style of writing." Even more than his style, his ideas echoed various dead white Anglo-Saxon males who defended established institutions of church and state. Postmodernists, by contrast, tend to embrace the marginal, the "Other," and the genuinely or putatively oppressed, while condemning the "cultural hegemony" of men and institutions that Kirk admired. Moreover, whatever similarities there might be between postmodernism and Kirk's attitudes toward liberalism, a more obvious benchmark for Kirk might be the sentimentally conservative side of the 19th-century Romantic movement. Kirk is in many ways a chip off the Walter Scott block, not only in his criticisms of progress and industrialism but in his predilection for things Gothic and medieval.

Certainly Kirk lacks many traits characteristic of postmodernists. Unlike them, he never evinced an obsession with theory, a keen interest in power relationships, a yen for the transgressive. But he did believe that America had entered a postmodern age, defined by the decay of classical liberalism, and Kirk was confident, as he wrote in National Review in 1982, that "the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives."

Defining postmodernism is a dodgy business, but Lyotard provides perhaps the best short encapsulation: "incredulity toward metanarratives," or skepticism toward grand stories like the Enlightenment account of scientific and moral progress. Traditionalist conservatives in the vein of Russell Kirk may or may not share that incredulity—depending on whether Kirk's belief that "society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life" counts as a metanarrative—but they find rationalistic system building equally distasteful, fearing that it strips the mystery and feeling from life.

Following the classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek, libertarians might make common cause with Kirk and the postmodernists against what Hayek called "scientism," the misapplication of the methods of the physical sciences to the ordering of human society. But postmodern and traditionalist critiques of objective reason and philosophical liberalism can easily be taken too far; after all, the pomo sociologist Michel Foucault's rejection of the Enlightenment led him to endorse, for a time, Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution (though by the time of his death in 1984, Foucault had come to a more temperate perspective on the Enlightenment and commended Hayek to his students).

Postmodernists and traditionalists alike run the risk of putting their loathing of the Enlightenment ahead of their love for liberty or justice. Luckily, even at his most anti-modern, and despite the evidence Russello marshals, Kirk was no postmodern radical, and he never went as far as the most extreme postmodernists and anti-modern reactionaries—though his attacks on libertarians and classical liberals certainly do not help the cause of liberty, a cause to which Kirk professed some allegiance himself.

Russello is a lawyer by trade, but his credentials as a Kirkian are 24 carat. He is the editor of The University Bookman, a quarterly founded by Kirk and now published by the Russell Kirk Center. Russello's book is outstanding in its insights into Kirk but often leaves something to be desired in its discussion of postmodernism. At times The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk seems scattershot. It is drawn heavily from work that appeared earlier in conservative and legal journals—Modern Age, The American Journal of Jurisprudence, and The New Criterion, among others.

Instead of constructing a master narrative of Kirk as postmodernist, Russello makes discrete arguments in each of his chapters, which tackle by turns Kirk's ideas about history, politics, and jurisprudence, and the general relationship between "Conservatism, Modernity, and the Postmodern." The fragmentary nature of the book might seem appropriate for a text about postmodernism. But Kirk put a high premium on narrative integrity, and the intermittently persuasive case Russello builds for Kirk as a postmodern thinker would have been more forceful if he had approached it systematically.

Indeed, the book's title notwithstanding, Russello's best sections are those that have the least to do with postmodernism. The introduction and the first chapter, on Kirk's "Life and Thought," are a case in point. Russello usefully shows that Kirk's conservatism was sui generis. Not only did it differ from the National Review conservatism that took root in the 1950s—which was shaped by the Cold War much more than Kirk's own thinking was, and which at times savored too much of classical liberalism for Kirk's taste—but Kirk's conservatism was distinct from the Southern agrarianism of many of his friends and followers as well. Kirk admired Abraham Lincoln, for example, unlike those in the latter group, who see Lincoln as a tyrannical centralizer.

If Kirk had his differences with Cold War conservatives and agrarian traditionalists, he actively disliked neoconservatives and libertarians. Kirk called neocons an "endangered species" and famously declared, "not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." He denounced libertarians in equally vehement terms. The "representative libertarian," he claimed in a piece titled "A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians," is "humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull" and didn't know "which sex he belonged to." Kirk disdained classical liberalism in part because he believed it undermined its own religious and moral foundations. "The contract theory of society rested upon religious assumptions," he asserted in The Conservative Mind, "and as religious faith decayed among the liberals…the economic competition and the spiritual isolation which resulted from the triumph of their ideals provoked among them a reaction in favor of powerful benevolent governments exercising compulsions."

Yet Kirk admitted to a few areas of agreement with antistatists: "they do not believe that the United States should station garrisons throughout the world; no more do I," he wrote in the same essay, and he found libertarian resistance to collectivism and centralization laudable. Russello looks only briefly at Kirk's relationship to libertarianism. That's a pity, since the question of why Kirk felt such animosity toward a group with which he had a good deal in common (in practice, if not in theory) is an interesting one, and his attitude could be fruitfully compared with the disdain many postmodernists feel for capitalism and classical liberalism.

Russello's overview of Kirk's politics is insightful, and his take on Kirk's spiritual background is even more revealing. "Kirk did not have a particularly religious upbringing," Russello notes, and indeed "his Mecosta relations had a reputation for being 'spiritualists' and for hosting séances and other ghostly summonings at their house." Those formative experiences inspired in Kirk an early and lasting love for the Gothic and occult, which came through in his second career as a writer of horror stories. (Kirk's top-selling book was not The Conservative Mind but his 1961 "Gothick tale" The Old House of Fear.) When he married in 1964, Kirk converted to Catholicism, but before that he described himself as a "Gothic Jew," proclaiming "heterodoxy is my doxy, not orthodoxy." Postmodernism at its best has a sense of the playful, and Kirk had a lifelong playfulness about spooks and hidden powers.

Still, all that sounds more like an old Romantic than a contemporary postmodernist. Russello begins laying his claim for a pomo Kirk in his second chapter, "Participant Knowledge and History." There are three lines to Russello's argument. First, Kirk "was in accord with the postmodern reluctance to propose grand statements about the 'meaning of history.'?" Second, "like the postmodernists, Kirk displayed a certain 'presentism' when speaking about the past": He believed that living traditions in the present change the past, or at least transform how we conceptualize the past. Third, Kirk rejected the idea of entirely factual, objective history in favor of a belief in historians—and their readers—as participants in the construction of history. There's some merit to all these threads, particularly the second one. Kirk, like the postmodernists, did see history as unfinished and imaginative, something that could not be understood by piling up facts in chronological order. But this understanding of history is not peculiar to postmodernists or to Russell Kirk, and few contemporary historians would find much to argue with in Russello's other points. Who doesn't recognize perfect objectivity as a chimera? And among today's historians, who really believes history has an overarching "meaning"?

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Russello relates the dubious idea that Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in quantum physics, which Russello says "struck a terminal blow to the idea of scientific objectivity," tells us something about historical knowledge. What does our inability to observe simultaneously the velocity and position of a subatomic particle have to do with our ability—or lack thereof—to understand what happened at, say, the Battle of Hastings? Even if there is uncertainty about both kinds of events, we are not talking about the same kind of uncertainty. We may not know whether King Harold was really killed by an arrow to the eye, but if he was, we can say with certainty that both the position and velocity of the arrow could have been observed simultaneously, if anyone had been in a position to do so.

There is indeed common ground here between Kirkian traditionalists and postmodernists. Both camps try to conscript the uncertainty principle, mathematician Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and Einstein's relativity into attacks on objectivity in other fields. The Kirkians and postmodernists share a fallacy, and ironically it is a species of scientism: They wrongly apply the ideas of advanced physics and mathematics to history. It turns out that when "science" casts doubt on objectivity, the otherwise science-skeptical Kirkians and postmodernists are all for it.

Missing from the chapter on knowledge and history, however, is any sustained discussion of the two very different elements that postmodernists and traditionalists find at the heart of historical interpretation. For the postmodernists, that element is power. For traditionalists, it is truth. Kirk was a realist: Objectivity may be elusive, he believed, but the truth is out there, whether we can grasp it fully or not. Postmodern theorists have tended to see the matter differently. Foucault, for example, was more interested in how knowledge, including historical knowledge, could be an instrument of power—not just state power but cultural hegemony. Russello cannot be faulted too much for not getting into this, since Kirk himself did not look very deeply at the nature of power and the ties between convention and the state, in part because that would have been a more theoretical discussion than Kirk, who abjured most abstraction as the sin of "ideology," would have wanted to undertake. Kirk was not a painstaking, analytic historian; he was more of a chronicler, a literary writer with an interest in political history and philosophy.

The chapters on Kirk's political thought and jurisprudence are on firmer ground than the chapter on history. Russello brings his talents as a legal thinker to bear in discussing Kirk's views on natural law, common law, and positive law. He clarifies a contentious issue among Kirkians: whether, and to what extent, Kirk was a natural-law thinker. Russello argues convincingly that for Kirk, the common law—built up over centuries upon the ad hoc decisions of judges and juries—should be preferred over consciously constructed legislative law or abstract natural law. He feared the revolutionary potential in natural law and disliked its absolute and rational qualities; he wanted it tamed and codified by common law or, failing that, legislation. There is a plausible pomo dimension to Kirk's thought here. The bottom-up and participatory common law does have qualities congruent with postmodernism—certainly relative to the rationalistic, top-down approach of legal positivism and the universalism of natural law.

In his final chapter, Russello deals most explicitly with the relationship of conservatism to postmodernism, particularly to Lyotard's "crisis of narratives"—the splintering of metanarratives into discrete, incommensurable stories. It is here that Russello insists that Kirkian conservatism and postmodernism do not simply have the same enemies but have common interests as well. Cultural decentralization and localism are two of the overlapping concerns Russello finds, and he notes parallel themes in several traditionalist and postmodern thinkers. In 1926 Bernard Iddings Bell, an Episcopal clergyman and friend of Kirk's, was "among the first ever to use the term postmodernism as a description of an age emerging from the collapse of Enlightenment rationality," Russello notes. Meanwhile, the postmodern theorist Hans Georg Gadamer came to a rather Kirkian understanding of, and respect for, tradition, arguing that it could not be understood by an objective, outside observer. "To stand within a tradition," Gadamer wrote, "does not limit the freedom of knowledge but makes it possible."

Yet even this final chapter leaves too much merely summarized and too much left unsaid. Gadamer, the postmodern figure whose approach to tradition seems most sympathetic to Kirk's worldview, is discussed only fleetingly, and the book never rigorously compares Kirk with any postmodernist intellectuals. At a little over 200 pages, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk only skims the surface of what might link Kirk to a figure such as Gadamer. As a prologue to a future, wider study of conservatism and postmodernism, it's valuable; there might be inspiration for a half-dozen doctoral dissertations within its pages. And as a book showing Kirk to be a more eccentric, unorthodox figure than most conservatives imagine him to be, the book is delightful. But for all the connections Russello finds between Kirk and postmodernism, the strongest impression it leaves is that Kirk and the pomos are at best allies of convenience against liberalism. And that may be the least attractive element in either camp's thought.

Daniel McCarthy is a contributing editor to The American Conservative.