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Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea [Hardcover]

Alberto Toscano
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
Price: 16.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

17 May 2010
Fanaticism is usually seen as a deviant or extreme variant of an already irrational set of religious beliefs. Drawing a straight line from the Peasant Wars to Bolshevism, this view of fanaticism is today invoked by the West in order to demonize and psychologize any non-liberal politics. Alberto Toscanos compelling counter-history explores the critical role fanaticism played in forming modern politics and the liberal state, and undermines the idea that liberalism and fanaticism are irrevocably opposed. Tracing its development from the traumatic Peasants War of early sixteenth-century Germany, to contemporary Islamism, Toscano tears apart the sterile opposition of reasonableness and fanaticism. Instead, in a radical new interpretation, he places the fanatic at the very heart of politics, arguing that historical and revolutionary transformations require a new understanding of its role. Showing how fanaticism results from the failure to formulate an adequate emancipatory politics, this illuminating history sheds new light on an idea that continues to dominate debates about faith and secularism.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Verso (17 May 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184467424X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844674244
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 16.4 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 718,010 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

A tour de force in every sense - Toscano wipes the smug smiles off the self-righteous faces of the New Philosophers. --Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

About the Author

ALBERTO TOSCANO is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Theatre of Production, translator of Alain Badious The Century and Logics of Worlds and co-editor of Alain Badious Theoretical Writings and On Beckett. He has published numerous articles on contemporary philosophy, politics and social theory, and is an editor of Historical Materialism.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Fanaticism is a bad thing and a fanatic is to be shunned. The fanatic and his abstract idealistic creed is the opposite of reasonable, tolerant, liberal Enlightened thought and behaviour. That is what we are all supposed to believe, anyway. But what is fanaticism? Who is a fanatic? And who decides these things and why do they decide them?

In order to address these questions, Alberto Toscano takes us on a genealogical journey to explore the political and philisophical roots of the concept. In this history of the uses of the idea of fanaticism we see the concept fall apart when critically examined. Kant, for example, beloved of the modern day reasonable, tolerant, liberal Enlightened was a fanatic himself according to his critical conservative contemporaries due to his sympathy for the French Revolution.

The book contains theoretical discussions of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Badiou, Sloterdijk, Arendt, Schmitt, and others. I found the section on Marx and the 'good old' concept of 'political religion' and of Marx's analyses of religion particularly rewarding. Toscano examines who has been called a fanatic, by whom and why. The answer is: anyone engaged in challenging current property and power relations who has an emancipatory agenda. Those advocating abolition of slavery were fanatics.

I found it particularly interesting how the concept of fanaticism has, throughout history, posited Islam as a template of the eternal fanaticism and of Mohammed as the eternal fanatic. An interweaving of Orientalist and counter-revolutionary discourse. For Hegel, Robespierre was Mohammed and for Bertrand Russel, Lenin was Mohammed.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Armed opinion" in the best sense. 7 July 2010
Format:Hardcover
We have encountered the trope of "native fanaticism" before, in the context of imperialist ideology, from Uttar Pradesh to Baghdad. Orientalism has produced various "Muslim fanatics" over the centuries. The figure of the fanatic is also a familiar subject of Cold War obloquy, from Spargo's appraisal of Bolshevik psychology to the 'antitotalitarian' literature of Fifties America and Seventies France. And of course, these discourses have been reinvented today to meet the putative challenge of "political religion". Today, "fanaticism" is held up as a sort of sock puppet opponent for those who would consider themselves enlightened, liberal, and modern. But is there anything that unites these various ideas? The answer might be that fanaticism is a mood, a psychic state characterised by a non-negotiable commitment to "something abstract" - whether that abstraction is revolutionary liberty, communism, or the earthly rule of God. In contrast, the liberal is empirical in his attitudes, and sensible of the need for compromise in pursuit of a modus vivendi. This is the ideologeme, the stereotype, or at least one variant of it.

Toscano's terse, penetrating account of the "uses" of "fanaticism" seeks to historicise and contextualise an idea that vigorously resists history and context. The book is not so much a history, though its chapters are arranged in a roughly chronological sequence, as a work of philosophy, a literary critique, a genealogy of ideas and also - inasmuch as each chapter could stand alone - a volume of thematically continuous essays.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars IMPORTANT MESSAGE BUT WISHFUL THINKING 19 May 2010
Format:Hardcover
The Capacity to Govern: A Report to the Club of Rome Crazy States: A Counterconventional Strategic Problem

This book has a very important message: Fanaticism, in the sense of total commitment to a cause, is important for the progress of humanity. This thesis is all the more important because of contemporary trust in "reasonableness," "compromises," etc., which often cannot bring about the required radical changes. Therefore, designating an actor as "fanatic" is not enough for judging him as wrong and evil. I will take this point into account in my next book ISRAELI STATECRAFT: CHALLENGE AND RESPONSE.

However the book has a major weakness, shared by books written by the author's reference group. A lot of space is devoted to scholastic debates with Badiou, Sloterdijk, Zizek and other authors which are of limited interest to other than "sect" members -- however important the authors may be in other respects to a broad audience. And even more space is going to show that Marx was right on some main points, which may be relevant in a book on the history of ideas but is irrelevant for the main valid point of the author.
Instead of engaging in hermeneutics on various texts, the author should have taken up the real novel issue posed by fanaticism, namely the dangers posed by it when combined with modern and foreseeable mass killing weapons. These dangers require global policies against "armed prophets." However this fateful issue is not taken up in the book.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book (via response to Prof. Dror) 6 May 2010
By J. D. Haskell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Prof. Dror raises essentially three critiques with the book: 1) that it is overly concerned with 'scholastic debates' of 'authors which are of limited interest to other than sect members'; 2) that it does not take into sufficient account of the need for 'global politicies' against the 'real novel issue' posed by 'armed prophets' who use 'mass killing weapons'; and 3) that he provides no alternatives in any way, with the implication that the reason is Prof. Toscano cannot face the possibility that the realities of human nature do not allow for his values. Prof. Dror lets us know that he will engage with Prof. Toscano's idea of 'fanaticism' more in his own upcoming book.

First, writers such as Badiou, and definitely Zizek are not some marginal figures only enjoyed by some sort of 'sect'. In fact, one might argue, for example, in the case of Zizek, that one would be hard-pressed to find a more popular living philosopher, who enjoys almost a rock-star status across a number of disciplines and even in the public at large, regardless of what people think of his work. Likewise, if not already familiar with Badiou, a quick wikipedia search, and you'll discover that not only is he widely translated into a number of languages, but he is also an extremely influential and prominent French thinker in both the intellectual and artistic world, if not the political. In other words, by no means 'cult' figures, and in fact quite the contrary - Toscano is dealing with some of the most well-known, if albiet polarizing, figures on the intellectual landscape today in philosophy.

Second, in my own understanding, the whole thesis of 'fanaticism' is to get us away from thinking about these bipolar visions of the world as 'armed prophets' (e.g., the Islamic terrorists) versus global policies (e.g., a militarized liberal humanitarian military regime). In other words, what stands behind Prof. Dror's comments is the idea that the 'global policies' are the representatives of liberalism, modesty, tolerance, progress and humanity - exactly what Toscano is trying to undermine, showing us that what we actually think of so often as liberal tolerance is anything but.

Third, Toscano does lead the reader somewhere beyond empty words such as 'patience' and 'emancipation'. Just off the cuff, his purpose is to get us to re-imagine our political vocabulary/imagination/strategies via the word and possibilities of fanaticism. One might think of this in psychoanalytic terms. You go to the shrink for years to deal with some particular trauma or phobia or whatever, and finally, you are able to overcome / work through this issue. As you sit up from the couch after your breakthrough, you realize that there are other problems both past, future and present. In such a situation, Prof. Dror seems to ask, what was the point of the therapy, all we did was get over one issue - but wouldn't even overcoming that one issue, especially if it was a big one (such as Toscano's topic), be worth while in and of itself regardless, and wouldn't that leave us in a new place?

All in all, Prof. Dror seems like a nice guy, but I'd try to set aside his criticisms and give Toscano's book a chance.
5 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars IMPORTANT MESSAGE BUT WISHFUL THINKING 1 May 2010
By Yehezkel Dror - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Capacity to Govern: A Report to the Club of Rome; Crazy States: A Counterconventional Strategic Problem

This book has a very important message: Fanaticism, in the sense of total commitment to a cause, is important for the progress of humanity. This thesis is all the more important because of contemporary trust in "reasonableness," "compromises," etc., which often cannot bring about the required radical changes. Therefore, designating an actor as "fanatic" is not enough for judging him as wrong and evil. I will take this point into account in my next book ISRAELI STATECRAFT: CHALLENGE AND RESPONSE.

However the book has a major weakness, shared by books written by the author's reference group. A lot of space is devoted to scholastic debates with Badiou, Sloterdijk, Zizek and other authors which are of limited interest to other than "sect" members. And even more space is going to show that Marx was right on some main points, which may be relevant in a book on the history of ideas but is irrelevant for the main valid point of the author.

Instead of engaging in hermeneutics on various texts, the author should have taken the real novel issue posed by fanaticism, namely the dangers posed by it when combined with modern and foreseeable mass killing weapons. These dangers require global policies against "armed prophets." However this fateful issue is not taken up in the book.

I am in sympathy with the underlying and in part explicated claim of the author that humanity needs novel institutions assuring more equity than capitalism can provide -- and also other shifts, such as in global security regimes, which the author does not discuss (but see Zizek's new book LIVING IN THE END TIMES which I will review separately). But the author presents no substantive suggestions. He postulates abstract values, mainly "emancipation" and "equality;" and he states requirements "that we find ways" (p. 251), "urgency and intransigence must be coupled with patience and strategy" (p. 253), and so on. But he does not offer any proposals, however preliminarily, and does not indicate any way to develop novel alternatives. Even less so does he face up to the possibility that the domain of the perhaps possible, given the characteristics of human beings and the limits of their plasticity, may not include any options realizing his values.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
msdror@mscc.huji.ac.il
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