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  • Sheldon Wolin between Two Worlds
  • Nicholas Xenos (bio)

In an address written in response to an invitation to reflect on his seminal essay, “Political Theory as a Vocation” (1968) thirty years after its publication, Sheldon Wolin noted that the conference for which the invitation was offered was devoted to the future of political theory. That theme signaled a “temporal divide” between him and the conference organizers, and prompted him to a singular autobiographical moment. “My formative experiences,” he wrote, “are: a child during the Great Depression, a flier in World War II, a Jew during the era of the Holocaust, and an activist during the sixties—all, except the last, experiences dominated by loss.” Even this last, though, represented “the loss of liberal innocence.”1

This list of experiences is telling. It does not include any of the presumed mile markers of his academic life. There is no mention of Oberlin or Harvard or Oxford. Berkeley figures not as the professorial position he occupied when Politics and Vision (1960) made him famous among political scientists but as the unstated battleground in which he emerged as “an activist” a few years later and before his vocation essay threw down the gauntlet in a different disciplinary battleground. So we are to understand that that essay was informed by the preceding experiences of loss, including the loss of liberal innocence. This sentiment was repeated in a slightly different form when, in the preface to his 2004 expanded edition of Politics and Vision, in which the original text was left unaltered save for the correction of printing errors, Wolin wrote that some usages he deployed in 1960 [End Page 180] “now appear anachronistic” but that “these embarrassments can serve as a general reminder of how common understandings have changed and also alert the reader to the evolution in the author’s own understandings and political commitments. These might be summarized as the journey from liberalism to democracy.”2 Thus even when referencing the two pieces of writing most academics will recognize him for, Wolin is at pains to connect those writings to experiences of political importance in his own life and, by extension, the life of the polity.

Those experiences, as he says, are of loss. “Loss belongs to history, while politics and life are about what is still to be done. But maybe loss is related to power and powerlessness and hence has a claim upon theory. . . .” (PT 3). The ellipses are Wolin’s and they presumably signify an opening through which theory engages loss, as he proceeds to demonstrate in the essay that follows. What kind of engagement that will be is made clearer by a turn to a passage from T. W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which Adorno, in a Benjaminian vein, asserts that what appears as the defeated elements in the rectilinear march of history is the stuff of theory. “Theory,” he writes, “must needs deal with cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic” (PT 4).3 Wolin then adds, “what survives of the defeated, the indigestible, the unassimilated, the ‘cross-grained,’ the ‘not wholly obsolete’ is what should interest the theorist.” (PT 4)

Vocation, he notes, has, since Martin Luther and Max Weber, signified a calling, which is how Wolin deployed it in his essay, while invocation is associated with recalling. “In ancient Rome,” he notes, “an invocation was an appeal to a departed deity. While vocation implies action, a practice, invocation may be said to imply memory and to enjoin recovery. Vocation predicates a certain commitment, ‘ideal’ though not disinterested, to the particular practice in question. Invocation is a response to a certain kind of loss.” (PT 5) In this respect, his title, “Political Theory: From Vocation to Invocation,” signals that the commitment to the practice of political theory as a vocation has, like an absent deity, departed.

Which is not, it turns out, to say that theory or theorists have disappeared. On the contrary, Wolin notes, “theory” has proliferated in the thirty years that have passed since the vocation essay. In an analysis sure to...


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pp. 180-190
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