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  • Sartre and Local Aesthetics: Rethinking Sartre as an Oppositional Pragmatist
  • Paul Trembath

And that lie that success was a moving upward. What a crummy lie they kept us dominated by. Not only could you travel upward toward success but you could travel downward as well; up and down, in retreat as well as in advance, crabways and crossways and around in a circle, meeting your own selves coming and going and perhaps all at the same time.

—Ralph Ellison,
Invisible Man

The tension between art and politics looms large in the life and work of Jean-Paul Sartre. The child-aesthete depicted in The Words, the celebrity of Post-World War II Existentialism, the Marxist revisionist of The Critique of Dialectical Reason and, arguably, the uneasy Freudian of The Idiot of the Family—all of these and more seem like a family of conflicting self-representations. Contemporary interpreters of Sartre find themselves addressing several related dilemmas. First, was Sartre a philosopher, an artist, or a political theorist? Second, to what extent did Sartre’s literary writings contribute productively to an effective oppositional politics? Finally, given the early Sartre’s modernist use of phenomenological metaphors (as an apolitical philosopher) and the later Marxist Sartre’s interest in political “totalization,” how can Sartre survive familiar postmodern and poststructural criticisms of phenomenology, ontology, and Marxist theories of totality? I think that the later Sartre understood the hermetic redundancies produced by such questions and—having lost interest in art, philosophy, and totalizing social theory— strove to manipulate his multivalent historical reception in the service of specific political projects. These projects were invariably oppositional. In retrospect, they illustrate how Sartre moved away from professional philosophy, literature, and totalizing social theory toward a commitment to specific political protests calculated to reinvent the social world and our experience of it. I propose that the later militant Sartre makes possible a new understanding of aesthetics itself, one that anticipates John Rajchman’s discussion of Michel Foucault’s “politics of revolt.”1

In his biographical narrative on Sartre, Ronald Hayman writes that Sartre “used his life to test ways of facing up to the evils of contemporary history. If he was not always honest, it was partly because honesty was a luxury he could not afford.”2 Hayman’s suggestion that Sartre “used his life” to affect what he considered the “evils” of contemporary history—racism, dictatorship, colonialism, multinational capitalism, the serial family, and so forth— requires us to consider how Sartre’s “life” was largely made up of the literary, philosophical, and political-theoretical representations that people had come to associate with his name and public reputation. These representations were what Sartre “used” or manipulated to give voice to different political positions and programs. Hayman is unclear about what the word “honesty” implies in this passage, but the word is provocative. Hayman’s use of “honesty” suggests something like an unprofitable lack of social versatility; in a world as diverse in knowledges, truths, economies, and political interests as Sartre’s in the 60s and 70s, unilateral moral concepts like “honesty” serve only to bury any versatile engagement of seemingly contradictory political commitments beneath an ultimately reactionary—and apologist— language of hypocrisy. If Sartre allowed himself to be described variously as an Existentialist, a Marxist, or a Maoist (to name only a few of his provisional “identities”), his lack of representational stability—his inconsistency in Kantian moral terms—made his larger objectives seem dubious to a public trained to recognize in Sartre’s political versatility only his inability to take a definitive political stance of his own.

Clearly such a stance—when compared to the complex, changing, and situation-specific political commitments of Sartre—would have limited Sartre’s concrete ability to contribute to political change. In fact, the “luxury” of political “honesty,” in Hayman’s supramoral sense, would have ultimately re-empowered the problematic concept of historical totality that the activist Sartre arguably left behind with his “theoretical” Marxism, or the luxurious assumption of representational accuracy he had once assumed for himself as the phenomenological ontologist of French Existentialism.3 For the militant Sartre, “honesty” became the political, theoretical, and philosophical luxury of stepping outside one’s specific...

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