On having never been done with fanaticism: Book Review of Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism

Alberto Toscano’s recent Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is the culmination of research into the philosophical uses of the idea of fanaticism throughout various political philosophies of history. It develops what could be thought of as a critical philosophy of religion, one that turns the usual modern constellation of politics and religion on its head by investigating the form this thought takes itself. The project is not merely critical though, but aims to explicate a kind of “emancipatory core” at the heart of fanaticism, one that suggests, for those who take the axiom of equality seriously, that think a better world is possible for everyone, we should be distrustful of those discourses of anti-totalitarianism that have mutated in our contemporary age into anti-Islamic discourses. Those who disagree with Toscano will face an impressive array of thinkers, from Kant to Marx to Derrida to Žižek, and a fluid and wide-ranging reading of historical figures of fanaticism, from Müntzer to John Brown to Lenin. Toscano draws on sources from French, German, English, and Italian scholars in the course of this work, but rather than simply setting up one scholar against the other weaves them together to form his own theory and analysis of the various aspects of fanaticism. The first chapter, “Figures of Extremism”, examines the discourses of figures like Müntzer as well as the discourses on these figures that followed them. It should be clear from this method that Toscano is not, as he makes clear, concerned with the history of those acts and movements that have been grouped together as fanaticism. In fact, this isn’t a book on history as such at all, but a book on the construction of the idea of fanaticism, the philosophical underpinning behind the historians’ work. Thus, throughout the book he examines and subsequently works through and against a variety of philosophical interactions with fanaticism and its elements, from Kant to an interesting reappraisal of Derrida’s work on Marx and Agamben’s genealogical project.

Though Toscano’s work wouldn’t normally be included under the rubric “Continental philosophy of religion”, at least not as this field has been defined and overdetermined by phenomenological approaches to religion, it should become a model for a reclaimed practice of philosophy that brings together the philosophical question of politics and religion. Those interested in the questions of “political religions”, or what is more commonly called political theology amongst theologians, will find Toscano’s work invaluable. (As an aside of shameful self-promotion, this is also why his essay “Fanaticism, Revolt and the Spirtualistation of Politics” was included in our edited volume After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion.) What separates Toscano from the usual Christian and post-Christian approaches to political theology is his sober analysis of political Islam. By sober I mean his complete refusal to fall into any kind of Islamophobic discourse, even those hiding behind some kind of seemingly atheistic appreciation of the “Christian legacy of the West”. Here he turns his analysis on Žižek, Hegel, and psychoanalysis, all with his eye towards Islam’s “religion and politics of the One”. Toscano both holds that psychoanalysis allows for an analysis of political religion that does not simply subsume that religion within a vision of the secular, always itself a political act of the “Christian West”, but also faults Žižek’s practice of this tool with remaining within the critical. While Žižek has engaged Islam on a sociological and ideological level, he has not engaged it with the same philosophical seriousness as he has Christianity and Judaism. His conclusion is worth quoting here, for its economy and power:

If the methodology of psychoanalysis is atheistic and scientific, it cannot allow itself to serve as a vehicle for the interminable ‘secularizing’ of Christianity, or for the depoliticizing study of cultural-religious fantasies supposedly expressed by individuals in distant lands. Believing by proxy – believing in the other’s belief, in his fanaticism – is no substitute for the laborious struggle against our illusions. (171)

This “Islamic Question” runs throughout the book, especially in relation to liberal and conservative philosophies of history that equate Communism with the Islamic. After a longer version of his “Rethinking Marx and Religion“, which has already made the rounds on the blogs and garnered much deserved praise, Toscano turns to the interesting 20th Century equations of Communism with Islam in thinkers like Bertrand Russell (and the same equation of German Nazism with Islam in the theologian Karl Barth) to the contemporary reversal of this equation where political Islam comes to be the “Communism of the 21st Century”.

While Toscano convincingly argues, in my view at least, that many contemporary thinkers are being dragged into the same kind of discourse against radical politics in their fear of political Islam, he also makes a convincing argument against the sort of equivocation of a truly emancipatory politics with a political religion. The point is clear – religion is not substantial as radical politics, its emancipatory kernel has to be grasped, but without falling into the practices of the actually existing religion. This is a important lesson for many Christian advocates of political theology, and for those who cling to the notion of tradition as legitimating their practice. The point of certain equivocations between Christianity and Communism is not that one can simply attend church and in that way anticipate the egalitarian politics of Communist society, but rather the homology of the theoretical structure of the two point to a certain shared historical situation.

One could perhaps the fault the book for not offering a positive political project, but I think this would be misplaced here. The book is a book about one particular idea, fanaticism, and the uses that idea is put in a variety of philosophical projects connected to political action. It is not a book about the practice of politics, but the abstractions that a certain politics happens in the name of. What the book calls for is a supplement, but Toscano himself says this locating that supplement in the political questions of solidarity and partisanship. For me, there is a third supplement, one which has been a persistent intellectual problem for my own political thinking, which I have called the problem of political apoptosis (or programmed cell death, though I like the confusion it may at first cause with apotheosis). How can the fanatic, the extremist, the partisan of equality, avoid simply perpetuating itself? Is there something in fanaticism that lends itself to this cancer (keeping in mind here I’m not claiming that fanatics are a cancer, but that there is a kind of refusal to pass away, a conservative thought at work within them, that refuses apoptosis and is the cancer)?

In short, though, I found this to be an incredibly rich book. Those who have read Toscano’s earlier The Theatre of Production may be expected an incredibly dense and difficult writing style, but Toscano’s earlier metaphysical treatise took an incredibly abstract form, while this book, ostensibly written about abstractions that have political power, has a much more concrete and accessible style. For readers of AUFS it should prove a worthwhile book and may even suggest new avenues of thinking about political religion than those taken for granted.

4 thoughts on “On having never been done with fanaticism: Book Review of Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism

  1. Thanks for this review, I’ve been looking forward to reading this book, I think it only came out in May here in the US, but I bought a copy already.

    Did anyone have a chance to read Zizek’s Living in the End Time? I haven’t seen much about it.

  2. He has a Mac, of course. I like to see academics read papers off screen, I was in the vanguard of that movement, mainly due to laziness.

    Agree with Harvey’s proposal at the start of the paper and with the need to think of the boring nitty gritty of logistics. Within anarchism, as opposed to Marxism, these thoughts tend to come from anarcho-syndicalists and class struggle anarchists, rather than the pretty politically confused activist anarchist subculture. Though I supported both their aims and strategy, have a look at the painful Climate Camp discussions on politics. Funny thing is a mate of mine went out drinking with some of the Tiqqun, who were involved with Claire Fontaine, and apparently he said “fucking anarchists, they have taken all our work all wrong”!

  3. Urghhhh “post-anarchism”, like Critchley, combines all the worst elements of anarchism with all the worst elements of post-structuralism and the result is embarrassing bullshit. Max Stirner, Marx and Engels got your number.

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