July 17, 2007


Russell Kirk, Postmodern Conservative? (James G. Poulos, 7/17/2007, American Spectator)

Since becoming editor of the University Bookman, Russell Kirk's classic journal of letters founded roughly a half-century ago, Gerald J. Russello has revitalized the venerable quarterly without making way for fad or fluff -- without, one could say, modernizing the Bookman. What a stroke then for Russello to have just released The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (University of Missouri Press). It's a book titled to give any conservative pause, and any postmodern who can recognize Kirk something a bit more severe. But conservatives, to whom this book will be more useful at the crossroads of what was once called simply "the movement," would do well to stop, think, read, and reconsider.

The reputation of postmodernism as a sort of intellectual funhouse for the damned has regrettably led many a searching mind to avoid such work by reflex. If to modernize is to contrive, surely to postmodernize is to revel in contrivance as a substitute for thinking? By examining not only Kirk's imagination but the role of imagination itself in his political thought, Russello suggests that the conservatism which Kirk narrated may both antedate and postdate modernity in significant ways. [...]

JGP: For a lot of people -- maybe conservatives particularly -- explanation has to begin at the word "postmodern," before you even get down to the business of giving a conservative that label. Was Kirk "a" postmodern, or was his a variety of postmodern thought?

GJR: My research for the book has persuaded me that Kirk's work has certain sympathies with postmodernism, and that Kirk himself illustrated some traits of postmodernity. As I explain in the book, Kirk shared with postmodernism a fundamental antipathy toward parts of the Enlightenment project; by happenstance, his friend Bernard Iddings Bell was one of the first to use the term "postmodernism," in a 1926 book, and he was no radical but a conservative cleric. But he parted company with them by seeing, after the rejection of absolutes and the playful montage of "symbols" that he used so effectively, that there was a core of mystery to human existence that could not be "pomo'd" away. His significance I think lay in this approach to the conundrums of modernity without giving way to either the despair or silliness of a lots of postmodern writings. And of course, he was in no way a postmodern, in the sense of using (or probably even knowing much about) capital "T" Theory or having even a passing radical phase.

It predates modernity by its demonstration that Reason is inherently illogical, but postdates it by its demonstration that faith suffices.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 17, 2007 6:56 AM

Russel Kirk understood the mystery of conservatism, namely that it is reasonable to adhere to the mos maiorem, even, no, especially, when the transitory "reason" of the mere present suggests otherwise.

This can be a hard teaching. There are times when the value of prescription, prejudice and deference outweigh the advantage of solving of ameliorating this or that immediate problem.

For example, real conservatives foresaw that the tools of civil rights would be hijacked by all sots of witches and perverts, and counselled caution and restraint, even in contexts we approved.

Thus Burkean, Kirkian conservatives have been accused of being "racist" for not endorsing state action to change peoples "hearts and minds," even when these shoud be changed, because we feared that the power, once assumed by >lo Stato would be used for other, darker purposes.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 17, 2007 9:51 PM
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