Archive for December, 2011

The New Republic Review

Spirits of the Cold War got both pegged and plugged in a review in The New Republic by the New York Times’s Barry Gewen. Here’s the review: Isms

Gewen’s reading of my book is curious, if not unexpected. He’s most critical of the “German” influences on its theory and method (e.g. Herder, Weber, Gadamer), which is to say that he’s skeptical of “worldview” as a critical concept. He thinks, with some justification, that it allows me to draw connections where there are, in his view, none. “In his enthusiasm for loose parallels and vague affinities, O’Gorman sometimes seems to be sending us dispatches from another planet.” (What a great line!) Yet, what he takes as wild affinities, I take as rhetorical connections. And this is where Gewen’s review is most strained: nowhere does he acknowledge, let alone engage, that mine is a study of rhetoric. Rhetoric writ large, to be sure. But still rhetoric.

Rather, he reads it a study in “personality” and “psychology.”

Thus, I detect a kind of circularity in the review: Gewen reads my study as one focused on “personality” and “psychology,”  ignoring the ad naseum attention I give to language and rhetoric.  And he’s especially critical of the chapters on Jackson and Eisenhower, the two most rhetorically effusive figures that I consider. Both Jackson and Eisenhower are preoccupied with the vitality of the symbolic in strategy.

At the same time, he’s most complimentary of the chapter on Kennan and stoicism.

It just so happens (as I discuss in my book) that  two key words of (modern) stoicism are “personality” and “psychology.” Indeed, I don’t use those concepts in the book except to characterize the language of stoicism. Rather, I present my book as a study in “language,” “rhetoric,” and “worldview.”

Stoics and their close kin have made a long habit of distrusting the rhetorical (see the Advances issue) and transforming issues of language and sociality into personality and psychology. Gewen, consistent with this, offers a stoic reading of my non-stoical book. He seems to be glad to find, at last, a fellow stoic in Kennan. Reading my book may have been for him a kind of exercise in self-recognition, and indeed the relative strength of the chapters of my book seem to have been gauged by him according to the strength of such self-recognition. The language of his review curiously mirrors that of Kennan (albeit Gewen is far more witty and fun to read).

Am in danger here of letting my “system” dominate the conversation in such a way that I can’t listen to what he has to say? Yes. I am quite aware of this, and am trying to guard against it. My framework is not meant to peg, but to provide a range of coordinates from which to think about foreign policy discourse.  As a rhetorical study, it is bound to generalities, though in situ. And this inability to get too precise is only compounded by the “ideal type” form of analysis. I can, therefore, only go so far in making claims about Gewen’s rhetoric . . . or Kennan’s for that matter.

And that was the point of the rhetorical, “German”-inspired approach, one Gewen seems to have missed.