Clinton Rossiter once quipped that Russell Kirk “has the sound of a man born one hundred and fifty years too late and in the wrong country.” NRO contributor Gerald J. Russello nevertheless wants to update Kirk for 21st-century Americans — the University of Missouri Press has just published his book, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.
Russello is also editor of the University Bookman, a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University, and the editor of Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson. He recently spoke to NRO’s John J. Miller about postmodernism, crunchy cons, and whether Kirk would have watched ESPN’s SportsCenter.
JOHN J. MILLER: To a modern-day conservative, what’s the importance of Russell Kirk?
GERALD RUSSELLO: Kirk provides a way for conservatives to talk and live as conservatives. From early on, he was convinced that liberalism had exhausted itself because of what he called its lack of imagination. He was looking beyond liberalism into what would come after, in a time that had discarded both liberal rationality and the pre-modern tradition represented, for example, by Burke. This new age, which Kirk identified with postmodernism in an early essay, was still too inchoate to define. In 1980, he wrote that “We seem to be entering upon the Post-Modern Age … and new thoughts and new sentiments and new modes of statecraft — or renewed thoughts, sentiments, modes — may take on flesh soon. The Post-Modern Age surely will be an epoch of big battalions and Napoleonic figures; possibly it may be also a time of renewed poetic imagination, and of the reflection of poetry in politics.” The way he did this — through narrative and imagination, primarily — provides I think a sharp contrast to most conservative controversialists, who are too focused on political controversies and electoral victory to take the long view that Kirk did.
MILLER: So is this a time of “renewed poetic imagination” or “poetry in politics”?
RUSSELLO: It may be, although I am a little less optimistic than perhaps Kirk was in 1980. A lot of younger conservatives are breaking with the established right wing and focusing more on individual cultural issues–Rod Dreher has called this a “crunchy con” phenomenon, but I think it is broader than that. That new flowering of younger conservative thinkers may yet bear fruit in politics, probably not in 2008 but at some point.
MILLER: Was Kirk the original “crunchy con”?
RUSSELLO: Yes, and no. Certainly Kirk was concerned with what he called the Permanent Things, such as truth and beauty, and found in much of modern life obstacles to realizing them, so in that sense he was a little crunchy. Being something of a bohemian himself, I think he would have appreciated some crunchy efforts to go off the grid, which was easier in his less-regulated time. But I think the terms of that debate are not his; Kirk spoke fondly of certain cities, for example — including old Detroit, and defended family farms and small neighborhoods on the basis of their historical continuity and naturalness, which only roughly corresponds with some of the crunchy arguments I have seen.
MILLER: When I hear the word “postmodern,” I think of graduate students who wear black turtlenecks, hang out in coffee bars, and wish they were French. How is Kirk’s imagination “postmodern,” as the title of your book has it?
RUSSELLO: That is what I thought as well, but I discovered two things while researching this book. First, historically, a conservative was one of the very first people even to use the word “postmodern.” The Episcopal cleric Bernard Iddings Bell, whom Kirk admired and whose book Crowd Culture is a must-read, was one of the first to use the term “postmodernism,” in a book published in 1926. Bell’s postmodernism is explicitly religious, the solution to a crisis of faith in an unbounded reason. In its place, Bell proposed a postmodernism comfortable with both modern science and miracles, and which placed the good of existence — sacralized through the Incarnation–at the center of its understanding of the world. Though I don’t know if Kirk ever read this book, parts of it are consistent with his outlook.
Secondly, I found that a number of other conservative scholars are exploring the new opportunities postmodernism opens for conservatives who reject core principles of modernity. Vigen Guroian and Peter Augustine Lawler have both written very insightfully on the postmodern condition and what it may mean, but they are only the most recent in a longer series of anti-modern writings that touch on themes we would now call postmodern.
Kirk’s conservatism is “postmodern” in the sense that it was never modern, and therefore is not burdened as liberalism is with the weaknesses of the Enlightenment worldview. Kirk’s emphasis on imagination, his concern for the imagery a society creates of what it admires or condemns, his treatment of tradition and history as not objective but one in which we participate and can change, and his devotion to what Burke called the “little platoons” of society all have parallels in postmodern thought. Moreover, Kirk himself saw this. In 1982, he wrote in National Review, 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.” With liberalism moribund, it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.”
MILLER: Kirk always maintained that conservatism was not an ideology. What did he mean by that?
RUSSELLO: Kirk contended that ideology is a type of religious dogmatism in a political context, and one completely inconsistent with a conservative outlook. It eliminates the nuances and shades of gray that exist in actual political or social life. “For the ideologue, humankind may be defined into two classes: the comrades of Progress, and the foes attached to reactionary interests,” who are not only incorrect but who must be destroyed. The proponent of ideology “resorts to the anaesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and grandeur of true human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream-world of the future. Reality [the ideologue] stretches or chops away to conform to [a] dream-pattern of human nature and society.” Because ideology is a replacement religion, when injected into the public sphere it makes politics, at least as Kirk defines it, impossible.