On the Uses of an Idea
By ALBERTO TOSCANO
Published 7th June 2010
Thursday 3 June, 1pm at the RSA, London: A special introduction to Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. For more information and to book your free place.
Thursday 8 July, 6.45pm: Launch talk at the ICA. Further details to be announced here.
“A tour de force in every sense – Toscano wipes the smug smiles off the self-righteous faces of the New Philosophers.” Mike Davis, author of many books including Planet of Slums, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb and Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City.
Fanaticism is usually seen as a deviant or extreme variant of an already irrational set of religious beliefs. Drawing a straight line from the Peasant Wars to Bolshevism, this view of fanaticism is today invoked by the West in order to demonize and psychologize any non-liberal politics. Alberto Toscano’s compelling counter-history explores the critical role fanaticism played in forming modern politics and the liberal state, and undermines the idea that liberalism and fanaticism are irrevocably opposed.
Tracing its development from the traumatic Peasants’ War of early sixteenth-century Germany, to contemporary Islamism, Toscano tears apart the sterile opposition of “reasonableness” and fanaticism. Instead, in a radical new interpretation, he places the fanatic at the very heart of politics, arguing that historical and revolutionary transformations require a new understanding of its role. Showing how fanaticism results from the failure to formulate an adequate emancipatory politics, this illuminating history sheds new light on an idea that continues to dominate debates about faith and secularism.
The ‘fanatic’ is the figure that we are all scared of – whether it’s the Islamic fundamentalist primed for a suicide bombing or the Christian anti-abortionist planning to murder a doctor. The fanatic is a whirl of contradictions: at once cold-blooded and insanely passionate, opportunistic but principled, backward and yet technologically sophisticated, murderous and prepared to risk everything to human rights. He or she is driven by abstract principles, whether religious or secular, that threaten the very basis of a pragmatic liberal democracy. But are these oppositions really the way to understand the conflict between religion and state, terror and democracy?
In this tour de force examination of political and philosophical rhetoric through the ages, Alberto Toscano examines the use of the term ‘fanatic’. Following its use by Martin Luther in the Reformation, the rationalists in the Enlightenment, and liberals in the Cold War and the present day, he finds our understanding of it dictated by the prejudices of the day.
Toscano argues that there is an unsettling intimacy between political behaviour regarded as fanatical, and rational, emancipatory politics: supposedly liberal political projects are also marked by fanaticism. Moreover, while a liberal would claim that passion and abstract principles (such as universal rights) are the jurisdiction of the fanatic and have no place in rational politics, we should seek to reclaim a place for these supposedly negative terms at the heart of contemporary politics. For example, finding that nineteenth century slavers called abolitionists fanatics for their ‘mad’ adherence to the Rights of Man, he asks us to reconsider who we regard as a fanatic.
ALBERTO TOSCANO is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Theatre of Production, translator of Alain Badiou’s The Century and Logics of Worlds and co-editor of, among others, Alain Badiou’s Theoretical Writings and Antonio Negri’s Political Descartes. He has published numerous articles on contemporary philosophy, politics and social theory, and is an editor of Historical Materialism.
ISBN: 978 1 84467 424 4 / $26.95 / £16.99 / CAN$33.50 / 304 pages
For more information visit Verso Books.