The Success of the Conservative Imagination

"[We] can chalk up the current state of the right not to its failures of imagination or excess of spleen – as some have done – but to its overwhelming success." - Corey Robin (The Reactionary Mind)

I am a firm believer that the imagination is the central identity marker of human consciousness.

Some prefer to speak of "reflective consciousness" (Sartre), "linguistic consciousness" (Jackendoff), "meta-consciousness" (Jaynes), or any other similar nexus of designation. This does not denigrate the other expressions of thought that compose the totality of imaginative consciousness. Quite the contrary. Thought is simultaneously affective, embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, pre-reflective, pre-subjective, pre-singular, etc, etc, etc...

These concepts all have value insofar as they indicate thinking tendencies of a co-inhering, co-constitutive, pluri-dimensional human expression. However, imaginative consciousness serves a unique set of purposes. For Hume, it was bringing the flux of sense data together. For Kant, it was the condition that allowed sense data to be apprehended. For Sartre, it was the moment of praxis that superseded the present toward the field of possibles. And for Burke, the imagination is the faculty that allows human beings to develop their moral tendencies – i.e. their character.

In fact, I tend to agree with all of these ideas. Not willing to limit the extent of the imagination's enactment, it seems best to me to recognize the ways in which the imagination is both transcendental and empirical. And what is more, it is crucial to recognize how it circumvents that simple bifurcation itself. This is why, following a term that Foucault employed, I think of the imagination as an historicized a priori. It is both an historically contingent construct and also the a priori transcendental grid by which we take up the world. 

With that, I am intrigued by Corey Robin's analysis of the conservative imagination in his 2011 stalwart prophecy The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Famous for being "The Book that Predicted Trump," The Reactionary Mind is not merely a foretelling but, more importantly, it is a forthtelling. The prophetic tradition is often thought of as a soothsaying enclave predicting apocalyptic events of the end of linear historical time. This reductionistic perspective limits the robustness of the prophetic imagination, which was concerned with hailing the dictates of divine truth and calling people to task for their failure to live faithfully. Interestingly enough, characterizing prophecy as psychic fortune telling is beholden to the very criticism of conservative thought that Robin expounds. 

Conservatism is not purely a spasm of irrationalism as Trilling once declared. Rather, for Robin, conservative logic is conditioned by a sense of nostalgia that is refracted through a counter-revolutionary spirit. Essentially, conservatism is an ideology of reaction that bears a logic not so dissimilar to the mark from which it seeks to separate itself. Of course, things must be understood in their unique expression, but the point is that conservatism has a malleability to it that enables conservative thinkers to perpetually reinvent themselves (albeit within particular parameters).

(it is not my interest here to explain the ways in which conservatism has reinvented itself, but I would definitely recommend checking out Robin's various expositions throughout the book)

For Burke, part of this is because of the power of the sublime. The sublime is that "terrible" beyond that shatters our comfort and rearranges how we comport ourselves with the world. Most notably, God is sublime. God serves as this fearful "lightness" and "darkness" that presents both "fear and pain" in his awesomeness (awfulness?). God is the transcendent beyond that stirs up opposition within the soul and constitutes the self in the process. The result is that the constituted self before the transcendent God-sublime is one that is made through tension, fear, pain, anxiety. 

This is a creative process for Burke. The self is forged before the sublime. And Robin rightly notes that this Burkean tendency resides to varying degrees within the conservative logic as such. However, something that I think needs to be pointed out is how this tendency is precisely not creative. It is the literal antithesis to creation. Reproduction? Sure. Repackaging? Undoubtedly. Transformation? That works too. But creation? No.

See, the God that Burke claims disrupts and makes the self is a God that is fashioned after man's own image (and I do mean "man"). It is the transcendent inverted inflation of those qualities of men that are deemed valuable. Projecting this image before the self, to only have that constructed image deconstruct said self, is to circularly flagellate oneself into submission by one's own hand. It is an act of ideological S&M. Although, even such a comparison does a disservice to the creative capacities of hedonic exploration that S&M could release (under particular conditions, of course). As such, the "sublime" that Burke touts, and that undergirds much of conservatism's imaginative logic, is essentially stale and suppressive. It is man's own moral character writ large and fed back to himself. A truly creative Sublime would be transgressive in its potency, not merely reproductive (exclusively at least, for reproduction itself is not contrary to creation).  

Thus, if this is accurate, and I think it mostly is, then what would be interesting to further explore are the ways in which this tendency of conservatism has morphed from the sublimity of Burke to a neoliberal immanent sublimity under the logic of the market – our God. As all is bestowed value according to the market's dictates (read: the market's "rationality"), in what ways is the market sublime in the Burkean sense? And then, once such is explored, how we can heighten the sense that this sublimity is not creative but is in fact, as Fukuyama declared, "boring"?