Fanatical counter-histories: A conversation with Alberto Toscano


In November 2014 philosopher Alberto Toscano was interviewed by Gisle Selnes, professor in Comparative Literature at University of Bergen. This interview is an edited version of their conversation, originally published in Eurozine and first printed in the Norwegian magazine Vagant. Here he provides a history of the concept of "Fanaticism" and reflects on developments since the publication of his work Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea.

Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban, 21 March 2001. 

Gisle Selnes: Your book Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (2010) is, in one sense, a historical discussion of the idea of fanaticism. Yet, it is perhaps more adequate to call it a counter-history of the uses of this idea, since you have written a "polemical" history of the notion of fanaticism. Why did you feel it was urgent to write a counter-history of fanaticism in 2010?

Alberto Toscano:
 I have long been interested in how the idea of fanaticism operates within the history of western philosophy – especially German idealist philosophy – as a purely philosophical theme. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, specifically from the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant onwards, philosophy had set itself the task of curbing or limiting the propensity of thought to go beyond its limits. On one level – a philosophical rather than political level – this is what fanaticism means. Kant at one point refers to it as a kind of delusion of thinking: it means imagining that you are able to see the infinite. This delusion is nevertheless a kind of rational delusion, a congenital propensity of thought to want to move beyond its limits and to think that reason can have a direct, immediate or perhaps even mystical grasp of something absolute.

When the so-called war on terror started in 2001, fanaticism seemed epidemic, with endless discourses about terrorism, its prevention, Islam and its radicalization; even though the word fanaticism wasn't always used, there emerged an ensemble of statements and discourses that nevertheless revealed a kind of monotonous commonality. At the beginning of the book I quote the fact that even in one of Obama's pre-presidential texts – the 2004 preface to Dreams from My Father, where he lays out his supposedly progressive vision for the United States – he latched on to this notion or figure of the fanatic as the nemesis of all things liberal and civilized. So there was a kind of short circuit between the history of philosophy and the presence of "fanaticism" in the domain of everyday speech, the press, the speeches of politicians, in the rationale for invasions and occupations and the like. In other words, it was in the combination of a very speculative question and a very concrete and political one that the idea of the book crystallized. 

At the same time, there was another motivation behind the book, namely the attempts by contemporary philosophers as well as contemporary political movements, to revive certain notions of political radicalism – of revolution, antagonism and anti-systemic politics – at a time when these had been viewed as moribund, dead or forbidden. I was of course aware that the accusation of fanaticism wasn't just levied at political religious movements, but also at the whole tradition of emancipatory politics from the history of the French and Haitian revolutions, all the way into the later twentieth century. I wanted to reflect on why a certain form of radical political imagination, practice and subjectivity had been either foreclosed or pushed to the side. The first chapters of the book make evident that it is a book about the other of liberalism, or its limits and, perhaps somewhat pompously, the unconscious of liberalism. It is a book about how liberalism is haunted by these figures of radicalism. 

GS: Could you perhaps take us back to the beginning of the concept of fanaticism and especially the significant conjunction between politics and religion? It has its origin in ancient religious cults, and then it re-emerges in the revolutionary Christian movements in the sixteenth century...

AT: It's a term that originates in ancient Rome to describe certain religious cults, linked to groups that had come to Rome from what we now would call the Middle East or Near Asia. The word fanatic comes from fanum, temple, the same root from which we get profanation, which is of course one of the things that fanatics are said to be particularly obsessed with. Recently one of the main things the Islamic State has been known for is destruction of temples, and the whole question of iconoclasm is also part of this. But fanaticism was originally intended to designate a kind of religion, a seemingly violent or uncontrolled religion of the other. There is an interesting story of false etymology as well; during the Enlightenment, a lot of thinkers presume or project into this idea of fanaticism that which has to do with fantasythe fantastic and phantasms.

Within the Enlightenment itself, or at least within the eighteenth century's intellectual and philosophical movements that we can link to the Enlightenment, the concept of fanaticism had a whole set of contested and contradictory uses. Among these we identify a popular idea in the 2000s, formative of liberal political thought: the distinction or opposition between tolerance and fanaticism. This is of course the Enlightenment response to the menace of religious wars, and it is at the crux of Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance, where the philosopher would be on the side of tolerance, and those who tried illegitimately to mix political action with religion would be on the side of fanaticism. Fanaticism is the source of the worst in a society: civil war. Most of philosophy from Plato onwards is obsessed with the problem of civil war and factionalism, and religious civil war is of course a particularly virulent form thereof.

Contrary to the modern version of the concept of tolerance, Voltaire used it to defend regimes that bore no relationship with liberal democracy, which is something people continue to think "the" Enlightenment defended. Voltaire was for instance rather fond of the Ottoman Empire as a form of a tolerant political organization, and rather unfond of atheism, like many Enlightenment thinkers. In a letter of Voltaire to Jean le Rond D'Alembert, he praises Catherine II for having sent Russian troops to Poland "to preach tolerance with bayonets at the ends of their rifles".

After the French revolution, the concept of fanaticism undergoes a change – I think here it is justified to talk of a rupture or break. All of a sudden, from Kant onwards, the idea emerges that fanaticism is not the opposite of reason; fanaticism is not what the religious, the superstitious and maybe the insane engage in, but rather a propensity or potential of rationality itself. In fact, fanaticism may be seen as unlimited, the excessively universal use of reason, rather than something irrational or religious. This paves the way for a much more complex and uneven history of the way in which philosophy – the history of western philosophy – opens up the possibility for radical politics, characterized by extreme abstraction or abstract extremism. 

GS: You use the expression "antinomies of fanaticism", which we might rephrase as the paradoxes or inherent contradictions of fanaticism: on the one hand, fanaticism as the opposite of reason and, on the other, fanaticism as an excess of reason. Fanaticism can be understood both in the sense of the over-political and of the non-political, as a-historical and as excessively historical. Fanaticism thus turns out to be, basically, a polemical concept, evoked to stigmatize a particular position as "illegitimate". Is there, one might wonder, anything at all that is constant about this concept? One of the recurrent definitions in your book is Hegel's idea of fanaticism as an "enthusiasm for the abstract". But would you say that, apart from this, there is a constant in the uses of the idea of fanaticism to produce a fantasy of the other?

AT: You are right that there is a fundamental oscillation or fundamental ambivalence to this idea. Like many other ideological notions its power lies in its ambivalence, which allows a tactical and polemical use. That is why Fanaticism has the subtitle On the Uses of an Idea – the book is a history of episodes of its use rather than a history of its development. 

Efforts have been made to find more constant traits in the concept. An American friend who tragically died a couple of years ago, Joel Olson, was working on a book on the phenomenon of fanaticism within the political history of the US, called American Zealot, and he tried to formulate a kind of minimal definition of fanaticism, which I think is serviceable; the notion that fanaticism is – in his words – the extraordinary political mobilization of a refusal to compromise. I think many of the paradoxes in the concept do have something like intransigence – to use a single term to compress Joel's insight – at their core. For instance, fanaticism was used to describe or to stigmatize the politics of the Jacobin terror, which is viewed by many thinkers, and not least Edmund Burke, as a politics of excessive rationalism. From the perspective of British conservatism, the problem with the French revolution was its excessive rationality, its faith that the world can be organized according to an abstract, geometric or mathematical equality that could then be imposed. That is its intransigence.

In the nineteenth century fanaticism is used as a common operational term in British imperial counter-insurgency or colonial discourse. British administrators writing to each other from the same areas where counter-insurgency operators are working today, like Sudan or Iraq or Waziristan, describe anti-imperial, anti-colonial revolts as unified and rendered intractable by some kind of religious mobilization, sometimes millenarian or apocalyptic, using the language of fanaticism. In all of these cases there is this question of intransigence, of the absence of deliberation, the absence of compromise. The ultimate paradox is of course that those who present themselves as defenders of tolerance and communication can become intolerantanti-deliberative and non-communicative. As the discourse goes today: We won't negotiate with terrorists. This is very much like saying we won't speak to fanatics, so there is a kind of continuity in that respect. 

GS: In 2009, you contributed to the conference "The Idea of Communism" at Birkbeck, University of London with a paper that could be read as a vindication of a certain "enthusiasm for the abstract", viz. that of reintroducing the idea of communism in contemporary political thinking. Is it correct to say that you're not only a critical historian of the idea of fanaticism, but also one who subscribes to the fanatical option in some of its "uses"? In other words, do you think that we need this intransigence today in order to make a real difference politically?

AT: On a very basic level I don't think there is any political tradition that doesn't valorize a moment or at least the possibility of intransigence. Certainly, within a context of twentieth-century European history in countries like Italy, Norway and France, the valorization of intransigence, in the form of anti-fascist resistance, was generationally, intellectually and politically formative. There was a general recognition that under certain conditions, the extraordinary mobilization of the refusal to compromise was not just acceptable but an ethical imperative. One of the most affecting works of writing that comes out of World War II and the experience of the camps, was Jean Améry's At the Mind's Limits.

Améry was Jewish but had been tortured and sent to the camps as a resistance soldier. In one of the essays in the book, entitled "On the necessity and impossibility of being a Jew", Améry reads Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and his chapter "On violence", and explains how he experiences an immediate solidarity for the humanizing character of violence asserted by Fanon. He talks of how the moment he realized that his Nazi camp guard was human, was the moment he was able to strike back at him. There has been a general disavowal of that kind of moment of intransigence. 

In some traditions this moment of intransigence has been linked to communist, socialist or indeed anarchist movements, all of which had been treated as fanatical in different ways. But couldn't it also be a part of the radical dimension of liberal political thought itself? Some of the figures who put the unwillingness to compromise as a principle of the will were much more likely to be radical liberals. This was certainly the case of Piero Gobetti in Italy. For communists, on the other hand, the moment of individual intransigence was less significant than the moment of organized party-political and strategic resistance. 

So on one level I think it's difficult to remove intransigence from political thought. However, the fact that it was at the core, for instance, of the radical anti-slavery abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century doesn't necessarily mean that it characterizes contemporary movements. But you could definitely see that moment of the refusal to compromise at least as crucial to the onset, to the beginning of political movements, including a number of those we've witnessed since 2011. Like most of these somewhat universalizing or general concepts, the problem is that there's nothing necessarily emancipatory, progressive or egalitarian about refusal. You can refuse to compromise for any number of reasons, some of which I might find repugnant and some of which I don't. This is for instance why Joel Olson, when trying to trace the presence of a fanatical approach within American politics, rightly sees it as being present in the far Right as well as on the left, in all sorts of facets of the political field. 

GS: Julia Kristeva recently made a speech at the House of Literature in Bergen, where she talked about the inner or intimate revolt that she sees as necessary to soften a too idealized or homogenized subjective position. She claimed that this is a process that has been accomplished in Europe – perhaps not entirely, yet enough to make a significant difference with respect to other cultures. She even talked about the homo europeicus as the antidote to fundamentalism and fanaticism. I suspect that you have a different take on the history of secularization. In your view, is this just a European fantasy, to make one's own history a model from which to criticize the radical or fanatical other, or does it contain a modicum of truth?

AT: I admit that I have a kind of... allergy is maybe not the right term, but a sort of reaction whenever political subjectivity or political attitudes are identified with what I consider an ideological concept of Europe. Defenders of co-called European values tend to construct a hygienic and streamlined fantasy picture, and then presume that this reconstructed picture of what Europe is – this European history from the eighteenth century onwards – somehow just followed the precepts of Voltaire and Kant. That vision of history is also thought of as being the property and the privilege of individual European subjects – as though it were a quasi-ethnic or quasi-racial property.

This reveals a real confusion about questions of laïcité, secularism and atheism. I myself am very fond of political and philosophical versions of atheism, but I find it repugnant that it has been hijacked by extremely unsavoury figures, especially in the recent period. In terms of the question of secularism, at a philosophical or political level it is disturbing that there is so little reflection on what the discourse of secularism does or says about the state, though not necessarily in Kristeva's own variant, which I honestly don't know that well. A text I find interesting is the rather misread or misinterpreted text of the young Karl Marx on the Jewish question. The text is only understandable as a critique of another critical follower of Hegel, Bruno Bauer, who argued that the Jews had to give up their Judaism in order to become proper citizens. Marx tries to show how a certain conception of anti-religious political emancipation ignores the fact that it's making the state itself transcendent; the state becomes the arbiter and the substitute of a kind of religious transcendence. Marx says in a prophetic moment that the most modern state and politics we know is that of the United States, yet the United States is rife with religious superstition and sectarianism. There is actually no relationship whatsoever between state secularism and atheism in everyday life. The US variant of secularism proves that; I don't know the latest statistics, but regularly you read that 40 per cent of Americans believe that the Antichrist will manifest itself during their lifetime, or something to that effect.

All in all, this talk of Europe and secularism is a-historical. That doesn't mean I don't find the endemic religious discourses in political spheres worrisome, but I worry for different reasons than the ones put forward by Kristeva. Fanaticism is not about a return of a repressed religious spirit, let's say in the Middle East or North Africa. A picture like that doesn't show how religious phenomena are politically manipulated. It allows us to forget that ISIS wouldn't exist had the US not decided to fire one million members of the Iraqi army while allowing many of them to keep their weapons and jailing their military personnel; these are the military personnel now working for ISIS. None of these groups were necessarily religious or Islamist to begin with, but had an immediate political gain from this particular movement. The idea that they could be understood simply through a mobilisation of religious extremism is nonsensical. In saying this, I don't underestimate the capacity that certain religious, political and military discourses have, to create unities where there is only dispersion.

GS: Four years have passed since Fanaticism was published in English. Your book has been translated into various languages, and you have written prefaces to a couple of these editions, where you seize the opportunity to broaden the perspective and include material from Asian and Latin American contexts. In addition to that, the political situation has changed considerably during these years. The fanatical subject is now popping up, uncannily, in our very homes, acting like us, looking like us... On the one hand, we have the upsurge of almost "tolerated" violent and parliamentary rightwing organisations throughout Europe; on the other, there is the "wave" of so-called foreign fighters returning home. Hence the almost desperate need to grasp fanaticism, by creating psychological profiles to target the fanatic among us, to "predict" the fanatical subject. But in your view, this strategy is doomed to failure?

AT: You're right that we now have a whole number of institutions, you could even say industries, which specialize in the profiling or identification of potentially violent or dangerous intransigent and fanatical subjects. One tries to pre-empt radicalization, to de-radicalize those who have been radicalized with a whole arsenal of fairly vapid concepts, that nevertheless have a very real effect: people go to jail or stay in jail or are taken out of jail, certain communities are profiled, others are not. We even have – I guess this is the more dystopian dimension of it – a sort of automation of profiling the fanatics, or at least of potentially violent subjects, and this is a very concrete and bloody part of the whole drone programme. There has been a lot of debate about the kill lists Obama went through every Monday or every Tuesday, but even more striking was the whole phenomenon of the signature strikes. Signature strikes are drone strikes of predator drones armed with missiles. The missiles are not fired based on targeted individuals, they're based on targeting certain types of behaviour in certain areas which then more or less automatically trigger drone strikes. This is a dystopian Minority Report, a precog-like limit to this whole story – from prison psychologists to drone algorithms: that you could kill the fanatics without even knowing who they are, and obviously without being able to recognise the body or identify them afterwards.

One of the things I find striking about IS is how they – in a reflexive and extremely targeted way – managed to embody the dominant western and, especially US, imagination of their enemy, down to the lighting and everything else. It's like a weird mimetic spectacle of fanaticism in which they're fashioning – with Hollywood-like production values – exactly the image of the enemy that is desired on the other side. This is an unprecedented and significant phenomenon, almost like a specific aesthetic and psychological knowledge of how to introduce oneself clinically into the fantasy or the mind-space of the West and the United States. Compared to ISIS, movements like Al Qaida seem rudimentary, amateurs of the spectacle.

Regarding the political mobilisations that have taken place from 2011 onwards, my book is entirely irrelevant. In many ways these mobilisations showed that this discourse, this whole image of the liberal West and the fanatical rest and some kind of clashes of civilisation, cannot explain what happened in Egypt, Tunisia or in Bahrain. There was of course an attempt to manipulate it by projecting the desire onto the subjects of revolt: they basically just wanted to be like us, a very comforting thought. But looking at it more carefully it is a much more complex phenomenon.

Lastly, an interesting aspect of the discourse of fanaticism is that it involves imagining or giving shape to a particular idea of what an agent or a subject is. The curious obsession of the discourse on fanaticism, whether it is dealing with Jacobin revolutionaries or Sudanese anti-imperial rebels, is to imagine that these are perfectly – and excessively – coherent subjects. A really interesting European text, which is one of the few explicit manuals of how to become a fanatic, is Sergey Nechayev's Catechism of a Revolutionary: you must make yourself one, you must make yourself cold. Some of the discourses on fanaticism depend on that, the threat of the enemy as too unified a subject, too attached to a single principle, too devoted to an idea and therefore lacking the ambivalence, the reflexivity, the internal distance, the scepticism that we would like to ascribe to modern subjects that can allow themselves to exist in a pluralist society because they have a kind of internal pluralism.

All subjects who engage in political and religious violence of various sorts, or violence that can't be defined as political or religious, but nevertheless violence of some anti-social variety, don't necessarily fit that profile. They are sometimes extremely non-unified, extremely incoherent subjects. If we try to find some kind of causal narrative about why they became radical, it unravels in our hands. A very anecdotal version of this is the number of young people who've gone to fight in Syria. When you look at their social media profiles, they often combine videos of beheading with completely bizarre, banal accounts of what they ate for breakfast, their passion for cats, music they listen to; in some uncanny way they are just "typical" contemporary subjects that happen now to be fighting the civil war in Syria.

Faced with subjects who might act extremely violently, the temptation is to treat them as subjects of total conviction. In reality they're often postmodern subjects, to use a term I don't particularly like. They don't resemble the figure which we associate with revolutionary histories of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: subjects that have turned themselves into instruments of revolution and nothing else, characterised by pure belief, pure intransigent conviction.

GS: I'm wondering how Anders Behring Breivik fits with this "postmodern" scenario. In his "manifesto", he poses as a Christian crusader and "Marxist hunter", interviewing himself as a martyr for the European cause, while at the same time living a perfectly drab life in his mother's apartment playing World of Warcraft, before moving to an abandoned farm where he conducts all the prosaic preparations for the big, transgressive act. This suggests a contradiction between a fanatical – totally convinced, unified – subject versus an "ordinary" person preoccupied with his daily routines, showing all the familiar symptoms of Facebook narcissism. Yet, in another sense, Anders Behring Breivik appears as the prototype of a convinced, "radicalized', extremist subject: he sacrifices everything for the idea of a re-conquered Europe, he purges himself of any emotional qualm in order to fulfil his mission, effectively turning himself into an instrument for the "revolution". How would you, from your political and scholarly vantage point, regard a case like his?

AT: Except for reading news reports and the informative and often insightful book A Norwegian Tragedy by Aage Storm Borchgrevink, I know rather little about Breivik and don't really feel I have the authority to pontificate about it, certainly not to Norwegians! What I can say is that much of what was narrated in Borchgrevink's book – which admittedly takes a psychogenetic angle quite alien to my own approach – fits well with the somewhat inchoate intuition I have that contemporary figures of "fanaticism" cannot be ascribed the full or indeed excessive self-presence and self-identity classically associated, rightly or wrongly, with the fanatic, as manifested, for instance, in Nechaev's Catechism. When I read about Breivik's obsessive registering of his purchases and his favourite brands, I'm reminded of a book I'd read when I was still in high school, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991). There is something about this, something other than the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt sketched out with regards to Eichmann, who – despite being incapable of what she called thought, in the honorifically philosophical and humanist sense – nevertheless was a pretty "coherent" subject. Somewhat flippantly, one could talk of the mediocrity of evil when it comes to Breivik. He is characterised by an intensely commodified life and a schizoid relationship to the domain of ideology; a cut-and-paste or plagiarised fanaticism, one could say. Even the way Breivik tried to shut off any moral reflexes during his killing spree, speaks of this grotesque commodification, his decision to listen to a rather compulsive, if kitschy, post-classical music by Clint Mansell on his iPod – a tune present in numerous adverts and films. The way he described this in his "manifesto" likewise bespeaks an extremely adolescent kind of alienation, which is much closer to a kind of video-game machismo than to anything resembling a revolutionary catechism.

In philosophy we're used to thinking of the void at the heart of the subject, but there's a particularly horrific kind of vacuousness at work here. Though I would refrain from theorising the relation between murderous violence and capitalism directly, I think we could move beyond the surface invocation of the postmodern "psycho" and reflect instead on some comments made by the late Robert Kurz. There's much to dispute in Kurz's account of the "fatal pressure of competition" – the title of his article about the Columbine massacre and related phenomena – but he does at least try to account for the unsettling impression of vacuity and mediocrity at the heart of the Breivik phenomenon, and approach it from the angle of questions of agency and subjectivity, rather than say, of the toxic mainstreaming of the Islamophobic visions of the European far Right. Apropos of both American school shootings and "Islamist" terrorism, Kurz referred to these "psycho killers" as "robots of capitalist competition gone haywire" who, in trying to keep the "modern subject" alive, reveal capitalist subjectivity as a death-drive, an ultimate indifference to oneself and others. Though this drive may cloak itself in the language of principle, for him it has little to do with the classical "idealism" which could justify the sacrifice of self and others with the vision of a project for society.

GS: In Norway, post Utøya and Anders Behring Breivik, there has been a period of moderation in which any call to radical political activism, not to say revolutionary thinking, has become even more implausible than before. To some degree, the far Right has modified its anti-Islamic rhetoric, but a far more prominent effect is how the liberal Right has taken advantage of the situation, appropriating the term "radicalization" for its own purposes. Norway even has a governmental action plan against radicalization and extremist violence. At the same time, liberal academics continue their attack historical examples of "left extremism" – both as an international phenomenon and with regard to Norway's idiosyncratic Maoist movement – as well as the alleged affinity between intellectuals and totalitarianism. Would you say that this "de-politicised", "end-of-history" front against radicalism is symptomatic of how the idea of fanaticism is being used at this particular historical juncture?

AT: The short answer is an emphatic yes. One of the sinister by-products of the "war on terror" – with its whole ideological and institutional apparatus – has been the consolidation of the idea, arguably foundational of a certain liberal worldview, that all "extremisms" converge. The fact that "emergency" powers and "exceptional" decrees are being used with great frequency to monitor and quash any, even mildly anti-systemic, or indeed radical-reformist, activity testifies to this, and of course this policing of people is shadowed by a policing of language. The bad faith involved in this shallow updating of the discourse of totalitarianism – the equation of fascism and communism – is pretty breath-taking. Consider, for instance, that the rise of the main concern of contemporary anti-fanatical discourse, violent political Islamism, was a product of, and at times a contributor to, the defeat of anti-imperialist socialism in the Middle East and elsewhere. This was often directed and intentional, which the history of US involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere patently demonstrates. The defeat was no doubt linked to the shortcomings of those socialisms, but to equate the more reactionary brands of Islamist politics with communist projects is to paper over the often extremely violent antagonisms between them.

The situation is even starker in the besmirching of all communist movements with the same brush as the fascisms that they historically fought. The state-liberal utopia of de-radicalization would involve wiping the very memory of intransigent – and yes, violent – resistance to fascism, without which invocations of freedom and democracy only can be understood as lubricants for consumption, exploitation and social order. The very idea that a massacre carried out by someone wearing a "Marxist hunter" badge should provide an occasion for repressing – whether politically or symbolically – the practical desire to change the status quo in an emancipatory direction is, well, pretty grotesque. It is also, frankly, ignorant, whatever your political position or judgment on the matter, to create a meaningless amalgam that would include the racist Islamophobic far Right and a Third-Worldist Maoism. The rationality governing such amalgams is not historical, intellectual, political or ethical, it is a security rationale, it is classifying everything that is not the status quo, everything that may be characterised as anti-systemic, under the same indistinct banner. Even the most fervent – fanatical? – partisans of liberal democracy should have the intelligence not to descend into such a obscurantist position.

By Alberto Toscano 

Toscano visited Bergen on 29 November 2014 to participate in the seminar "Fanaticism, Extremism, Radicalism", organised by the research group Radical Philosophy and Literature at the University of Bergen.

Interview transcribed by Hans Jacob Ohldieck.