As a person who might fairly be said to love Thoreau, I want to begin by noting how supremely easy it is to dislike, even to detest him. I’m not thinking of the oft-noted imperiousness of, say, “Economy,” or not only – though anybody who has taught it to a roomful of undergraduates, and seen how virally Thoreau’s postures of prickly and superior impatience replicate themselves among certain of the young men there, has more than earned their wariness. Neither do I have in mind the routine arraignments (typically on charges of privilege or, a perennial favorite, “hypocrisy”) that crop up semi-regularly, such as we were treated to not long ago in a hyperbolically irritated article, originally entitled “Pond Scum,” that ran in no less a venue than the New Yorker.
These varied annoyances are real, certainly, but my sense is that Thoreau’s lasting efficacy as an irritant – his capacity to rankle habituated motions of thought, and to disturb the smoother operations of conscience – lies elsewhere. I suppose I’m thinking mainly of the disquieting way all those aspects of Thoreau that seem most alive with critical power, and with that lethal denaturalizing skepticism for which he has so long been celebrated, find themselves one after another articulated to his stubborn attachment to the very normative structures that elsewhere appear to chasten and confine him. Call this, if you wish, his perversity. (Many others have.)
Of course, you needn’t be Foucault to recognize that liberal modernity specializes in the fomenting of practices of “critique” whose cumulative effect is to affirm, rather than fracture or enlarge, the extant horizons of the possible. Thoreau is a figure who all at once embodies, hyperbolizes, and in that hyperbolization lays excruciatingly bare the contradictions of what Michael Warner calls “liberal culture,” and that for our part we might name secular capitalist modernity. Part of the reason I have enjoyed reading my colleagues’ work as greatly as I have is that they grapple so adeptly, and with such committed refusal of reductive reading, with just that bedeviling multiplicitousness in Thoreau.
We find, as a result, an educative contrast between the versions of Thoreau on offer across these pieces. Balthrop-Lewis, for instance, engages Thoreau’s “political asceticism,” and what she calls his “truly radical refusal of unjust economies,” to make a case for the unexpended utility even of things as seemingly evanescent as “reading and writing,” even here and now, in the midst of dire planetary climate crisis. I take this to be deft and heartening work, resisting as it does any glib uncoupling of the material and the intellectual (and finding heartening examples for this resistance in the archive of Thoreau’s writing). This Thoreau speaks intriguingly to the Thoreau we find in Smith’s essay – though they may speak in not wholly compatible registers. That is, we might wonder whether the styles of refusal Balthrop-Lewis’s essay excavates manage to achieve escape-velocity from the environing dynamics Smith describes, in his meticulous account of the redemptive mechanics of what might be called good attention (as it is opposed to those malign forms of failed attention: distraction, paranoia, consumerist desire, etc.).
Smith and Balthrop-Lewis concur on the point that Thoreau is indeed a surpassingly acute critic of capitalist modernity, and of the disciplines of attention inculcated there. But in Smith’s tonic account what issues from such critique in Thoreau is, ultimately and delimitingly, an elaborate therapeutics of the self: a critique that works by “isolating the self, extracting it from its entanglements in the social and material world,” the better to “analyze, with an eye toward repairing, its relation to others and objects that now seem alien to it.”
The problem here might be parsed, in very compressed terms, as that of the status of “critique” in a secular age. For what Balthrop-Lewis rightly describes as “the depoliticization of religious practice” is a matter of larger than methodological reach and consequence. We might rather say it is a signature of the secular, and its disciplinary confinement of religion – of good religion by the lights of secularism – to the realm of the safely private, where it may shape and guide and elevate us, but where it will not, say, impel us toward more directly incendiary practices – toward what secular states are pleased to name, in its others, violence.
As Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and many others have observed, to deprivatize religion under conditions of secularism is to run hard not only into the outer limits of liberal “toleration” but into the state’s strictures, not against “violence” as such, but violence as practiced by any agent not itself. (Asad, in a killing phrase, asks us to mind the secular state’s “readiness to cause pain to those who are to be saved by being humanized.”) “Critique,” in an age of secular discipline, is the oppositionality you are allowed when “violence” has been thus othered, and delegitimated.
Much of this is at stake in Gould’s bracing essay. Think only of the Thoreau that speaks to Tarek Mehanna, imprisoned by the state for “material support” of Al-Qaeda despite having never met or conversed with anyone in that organization. As Gould deftly reconstructs the case, the Thoreau who galvanizes Mehanna is the Thoreau of a “Plea for John Brown,” which finds him confronting most directly the possibility that “political violence may be legitimate and necessary.” This Thoreau has not abandoned contemplative life, or produced a brief as against intellectual pursuits. It is a Thoreau who has rather rendered judgment on the adequacy of critical contemplation as a political project – or, we might say, on the inclination to overvalue the efficacies of critique as a way of derogating, or cordoning off, those responses to political harm that refuse to cede a right to violence solely to the state and its laws.
We might accordingly find a great deal to value in Mehanna’s inventive, synthetic, and provocatively deprovincializing reading of Thoreau, which places him among other global opponents of capitalist exploitation. As Gould observes, Mehanna’s attraction is indeed to the more nakedly incendiary elements in Thoreau, wherein one can hear a resistance not to “political economy” alone but to that state-claimed monopoly on violence that undergirds political economy, and makes it go. Gould, we should note, is somewhat uneasy with this turn in Mehanna’s thought, worrying over Mehanna’s “failure” to “critically interrogate the violent premises of some of his Islamist texts” and “to understand and resist the call of violence.” The “agonistic pluralism” Gould’s essay ultimately commends as an alternative path toward substantive resistance to unjust authority is without question admirable, in a number of frames and a number of contexts. And yet one might wish to concede too, with Mehanna’s case in mind, that it seems an unlikely rival to amassed and mobilized U.S. state power. In his “eclectic dissident genealogy,” Mehanna returns us to the work where Thoreau’s recognition of this obdurate fact seems least dissimulated – even if, in his reverence for the towering individual conscience of John Brown himself, Thoreau’s praise is tinctured by the therapeutics of self that are so much at issue in Smith’s argument.
As Smith’s essay makes plain, those therapeutics are a real problem – no less so inside the dire contexts Balthrop-Lewis frames out around climate cataclysm. Indeed, they are so to such a degree that we might justly begin to wonder whether Thoreau’s styles of asceticism, even at their most critical, can in fact turn us toward a project of liberation. For that project, as I understand it at least, must necessarily be communal, social, part of the arduous and fractured and un-self-anchored work of solidarity, where the scale of the individual is precisely not what is at issue or at stake.
For my own part, I have been interested in Thoreau for the nervy way the problem of other people keeps undoing him. For without a tolerance for that nettlesome other, solidarity is a phantasm. And without the work of solidarity – of what Whitman called comradeship and what in other language we might call mass mobilization or, why not, mass uprising – the monster of the lurching present tense will surely devour us, its children, before too long.
This suite of essays leaves us, then, with a mixed vision. Conscience and critique, we might say, are cherishable things, and Thoreau is a writer and thinker who makes them glow as brightly as anyone. But to the degree that the therapeutics of “conscience” inhibit rather than accelerate the self-indifferent work of solidarity, and that “critique” supplants rather than focalizes the necessities even of potentially violent insurgency, then Thoreau may be of less use to us than we, his vexed admirers, might have reason to desire.