The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985

We might assume that philosophy is an ivory tower discipline that has little effect on the unlovely operations of government, driven as they are by the concerns of middle class wallets, upper class stock portfolios, and the ever-present problem of poverty. But we would be wrong. In times when presidents, cabinet members, or senators have been thoughtful and well-read, the ideas of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and John Rawls—a favorite of the previous president—have exercised considerable sway. Few philosophers have been as historically influential as the German thinker Carl Schmitt, though in a thoroughly destructive way. Then there’s John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle… even Socrates, who made himself a thorn in the side of the powerful.

But when it comes to the mostly French school of thinkers we associate with postmodernism—Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, the Jacques Lacan and Derrida, and many others—such influence is far less direct. The work of these writers has been often dismissed as frivolous and inconsequential, speaking a language no one understands to out of touch coastal elites on the left edge of the spectrum. Perhaps this is so in the United States, where power is often theorized but rarely radically critiqued in mainstream publications. But it has not been so in France. At least not according to the CIA, who closely monitored the effects of French philosophy on the country's domestic and foreign policy during their long-running culture war against Communism and “anti-Americanism,” and who, in 1985, compiled a research paper to document their investigations. (See a sample page above.)


Recently made available to the public in a "sanitized copy" through a Freedom of Information Act request, the document, titled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals,” shows itself surprisingly approving of the political direction post-structuralist thinkers had taken. Villanova University professor of philosophy and author of Radical History and the Politics of Art Gabriel Rockhill summarizes the tenor of the agency’s assessment in the L.A. Review of Books’ Philosophical Salon:

…the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

The “spirit of anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism,” write the agents in their report, “will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to US policies.” The influence of “New Left intellectuals” over French culture and government was such, they surmised, that “President [Francois] Mitterrand’s notable coolness toward Moscow derives, at least in part, from this pervasive attitude.”

These observations stand in contrast to the previous generation of “left-leaning intellectuals of the immediate postwar period,” writes Rockhill, who “had been openly critical of US imperialism” and actively worked against the machinations of American operatives. Jean-Paul Sartre even played a role in “blowing the cover of the CIA station officer in Paris and dozens of undercover operatives,” and as a result was “closely monitored by the Agency and considered a very serious problem.” By the mid-eighties, the Agency stated, triumphantly, “there are no more Sartres, no more Gides.” The “last clique of Communist savants,” they write, “came under fire from their former proteges, but none had any stomach for fighting a rearguard defense of Marxism.” As such, the late Cold War period saw a “broader retreat from ideology among intellectuals of all political colors.”

A certain weariness had taken hold, brought about by the indefensible totalitarian abuses of the “cult of Stalinism” and the seeming inescapability of the Washington Consensus and the multinational corporatism engendered by it. By the time of Communism’s collapse, U.S. philosophers waxed apocalyptic, even as they celebrated the triumph of what Francis Fukuyama called “liberal democracy” over socialism. Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man made its startling thesis plain in the title. There would be no more revolutions. Harvard thinker Samuel Huntington declared it the era of “endism,” amidst a rash of hyperbolic arguments about “the end of art," the “end of nature," and so on. And, in France, in the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, the previously vigorous philosophical left, the CIA believed, had “succumbed to a kind of listlessness.”

While the agency credited the diffidence of post-structuralist philosophers with swaying popular opinion away from socialism and “hardening public attitudes toward Marxism and the Soviet Union,” it also wrote that “their influence appears to be waning, and they are unlikely to have much direct impact on political affairs any time soon.” Is this true? If we take seriously critics of so-called “Identity Politics,” the answer is a resounding No. As those who closely identify postmodern philosophy with several recent waves of leftist thought and activism might argue, the CIA was shortsighted in its conclusions. Perhaps, bound to a Manichean view fostered by decades of Cold War maneuvering, they could not conceive of a politics that opposed both American and Soviet empire at once.

And yet, the retreat from ideology was hardly a retreat from politics. We might say, over thirty years since this curious research essay circulated among intelligence gatherers, that concepts like Foucault’s biopower or Derrida’s skeptical interrogations of identity have more currency and relevance than ever, even if we don’t always understand, or read, their work. But while the agency may not have foreseen the pervasive impact of postmodern thought, they never dismissed it as obscurantist or inconsequential sophistry. Their newly-released report, writes Rockhill, “should be a cogent reminder that if some presume that intellectuals are powerless, and that our political orientations do not matter, the organization that has been one of the most potent power brokers in contemporary world politics does not agree.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:

Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.

It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.

While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.

In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.

And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Take Free Philosophy Courses from The Institute of Art and Ideas: From “The Meaning of Life” to “Heidegger Meets Van Gogh”

Back in 2014, we told you about how The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) launched IAI Academy -- an online educational platform that features free courses from world-leading scholars "on the ideas that matter." They have since put online a number of philosophy courses, many striving to address questions that affect our lives today. We've listed a number of them below, and added them to our list of 150+ Free Online Philosophy courses. For a complete list of IAI Academy courses, visit this page.

  • Heidegger Meets Van Gogh: Art, Freedom and Technology - Web video - Simon Glendinning, London School of Economics
  • Dark Matter of the Mind - Web video - Daniel Everett, Bentley University
  • Fear and Trembling in the 21st Century - Web video - Clare Carlisle, King’s College London
  • Knowledge and Rationality - Web Video - Corine Besson, University of Sussex
  • Life, Meaning and Morality - Web video - Christopher Hamilton, King’s College, London
  • Minds, Morality and Agency - Web video - Mark Rowlands, University of Miami
  • On Romantic Love - Web video - Berit Brogaard, University of Miami
  • The Human Compass - Web video - Janne Teller
  • The Meaning of Life - Web video - Steve Fuller, University of Warwick
  • The Universe As We Find It - Web video - John Heil, Washington University in St Louis
  • Unveiling Reality - Web video - Bryan Roberts, London School of Economics
  • Why the World Does Not Exist - Web video - Markus Gabriel, Freiburg Institute of Advanced Study.

Note: The courses are all free. However, to take a course you will need to create a user account.

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1,250 Free Online Courses from Top Universities

A Short, Animated Introduction to Emil Cioran, the “Philosopher of Despair”

It is admittedly a gross oversimplification, but if asked to summarize a critical difference between analytical Anglo-American philosophers and so-called “Continentals," one might broadly say that the former approach philosophy as thinking, the latter as writing. Contrast, for example, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Bertrand Russell—none of whom are especially known as prose stylists—with Michel de Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Albert Camus. While the Englishmen struck out into heady intellectual waters indeed, the Europeans brought the full weight of their personalities to bear on their investigations. They invented personae, wrote literary aphorisms, and often wrote fiction, drama, and dialogue in addition to philosophy.

Surely there are many exceptions to this scheme, but on the whole, Continental thinkers have been looser with the laws of logic and more intimate with the rules of rhetoric, as well as with their own emotional lives. But perhaps one of the greatest examples of such a philosophical writer is someone most of us have never heard of. After watching this short School of Life video introduction on Romanian-French philosopher Emil Cioran, we may be persuaded to get to know his work. Cioran, says Alain de Botton above, “is very much worthy of inclusion in the line of the greatest French and European moral philosophers and writers of maxims stretching back to Montaigne, Chamfort, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld.”


Costica Bradatan describes Cioran as a “20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor.” Called a “philosopher of despair” by the New York Times upon his death in 1995, Cioran’s “hair-shirted world view resonated in the titles” of books like On the Heights of Despair, Syllogisms of Bitterness, and The Trouble with Being Born. Though his deeply pessimistic outlook was consistent throughout his career, he was not a systematic thinker. “Cioran often contradicts himself,” writes Bradatan, “but that’s the least of his worries. With him, self-contradiction is not even a weakness, but the sign a mind is alive.”

Like Nietzsche, Cioran possessed a “brooding, romantic, fatalistic temperament” combined with an obsession with religious themes, inherited from his father, a Greek Orthodox priest. The two also share a penchant for pithy aphorisms both shocking and darkly funny in their brutal candor. De Botton quotes one example: “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” For Cioran, Bradatan remarks, writing philosophy was “not about being consistent, nor about persuasion or keeping a readership entertained.” It was a personal act of survival. “You write not to produce some body of text, but to act upon yourself; to bring yourself together after a personal disaster or to pull yourself out of a bad depression.”

Cioran put it this way: “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” In his thematic obsessions, literary elegance, and personal investment in his work, Cioran resembles a number of writers we admire because philosophy for them was not a matter of rational abstraction; it was an active engagement with the most personal, yet universal, questions of life and death.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Slavoj Žižek Names His 5 Favorite Films

Anyone who has read the prose of philosopher-provocateur Slavoj Žižek, a potent mixture of the academic and the psychedelic, has to wonder what material has influenced his way of thinking. Those who have seen his film-analyzing documentaries The Pervert's Guide to Cinema and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology might come to suspect that he's watched even more than he's read, and the interview clip above gives us a sense of which movies have done the most to shape his internal universe. Asked to name his five favorite films, he improvises the following list:

  • Melancholia (Lars von Trier), "because it's the end of the world, and I'm a pessimist. I think it's good if the world ends"
  • The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), "ultracapitalist propaganda, but it's so ridiculous that I cannot but love it"
  • A Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), "standard but I like it." It's free to watch online.
  • Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), because "Vertigo is still too romantic" and "after Psycho, everything goes down"
  • To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942), "madness, you cannot do a better comedy"

You can watch a part of Žižek's breakdown of Psycho, which he describes as "the perfect film for me," in the Pervert's Guide to Cinema clip just above. He views the house of Norman Bates, the titular psycho, as a reproduction of "the three levels of human subjectivity. The ground floor is ego: Norman behaves there as a normal son, whatever remains of his normal ego taking over. Up there it's the superego — maternal superego, because the dead mother is basically a figure of superego. Down in the cellar, it's the id, the reservoir of these illicit drives." Ultimately, "it's as if he is transposing her in his own mind as a psychic agency from superego to id." But given that Žižek's interpretive powers extend to the hermenutics of toilets and well beyond, he could probably see just about anything as a Freudian nightmare.


You can watch another of Žižek's five favorite films, Dziga Vertov's A Man with a Movie Camera, which we featured here on Open Culture a few years ago, just above. Whether or not you can tune into the right intellectual wavelength to enjoy Žižek's own work, the man can certainly put together a stimulating viewing list.

For more of his recommendations — and his distinctive justifications for those recommendations — have a look at his picks from the Criterion Collection and his explanation of the greatness of Andrei Tarkovsky. If university superstardom one day stops working out for him, he may well have a bright future as a revival-theater programmer.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Alan Watts Waxes Philosophical About Time in The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the 1970s “Sesame Street for Grown-Ups”

Time is a measure of energy, a measure of motion. And we have agreed internationally on the speed of the clock. And I want you to think about clocks and watches for a moment. We are of course slaves to them. And you will notice that your watch is a circle, and that it is calibrated, and that each minute, or second, is marked by a hairline which is made as narrow as possible, as yet to be consistent with being visible. 

Alan Watts

However true, that’s a particularly stress-inducing observation from one who was known for his Zen teachings…

The pressure is ameliorated somewhat by Bob McClay's trippy time-based animation, above, narrated by Watts. Putting Mickey Mouse on the face of Big Ben must’ve gone over well with the countercultural youth who eagerly embraced Watts’ Eastern philosophy. And the tangible evidence of real live magic markers will prove a tonic to those who came of age before animation's digital revolution.


The short originally aired as part of the early 70’s series, The Fine Art of Goofing Off, described by one of its creators, the humorist and sound artist, Henry Jacobs, as “Sesame Street for grown-ups.”

Time preoccupied both men.

One of Jacobs’ fake commercials on The Fine Art of Goofing Off involved a pitchman exhorting viewers to stop wasting time at idle pastimes: Log a few extra golden hours at the old grindstone.

A koan-like skit featured a gramophone through which a disembodied voice endlessly asks a stuffed dog, “Can you hear me?” (Jacobs named that as a personal favorite.)

Watts was less punchline-oriented than his friend and eventual in-law, who maintained an archival collection of Watts’ lectures until his own death:

And when we think of a moment of time, when we think what we mean by the word "now”; we think of the shortest possible instant that is here and gone, because that corresponds with the hairline on the watch. And as a result of this fabulous idea, we are a people who feel that we don’t have any present, because the present is instantly vanishing - it goes so quickly. It is always becoming past. And we have the sensation, therefore, of our lives as something that is constantly flowing away from us. We are constantly losing time. And so we have a sense of urgency. Time is not to be wasted. Time is money. And so, because of the tyranny of this thing, we feel that we have a past, and we know who we are in terms of our past. Nobody can ever tell you who they are, they can only tell you who they were. 

Watch a complete episode of The Fine Art of Goofing Off here. Your time will be well spent.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Love Letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

The notorious four-year affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger has occasioned many a bitter academic debate, for reasons with which you may already be familiar. If not, Alan Ryan sums it up succinctly in a 1996 New York Review of Books essay:

She was a Jew who fled Germany in August 1933, a few months after Hitler’s assumption of power. He was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg in the spring of 1933, and in a notorious inaugural address hailed the presence of the brown-shirted storm-troopers in his audience, claimed that Hitler would restore the German people to spiritual health, and ended by giving the familiar stiff-armed Nazi salute to cries of “Sieg Heil.” The thought that these two were ever soulmates is hard to swallow.

Arendt went on to write The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she used the phrase “banality of evil” for the Nazi functionary on trial at Nuremberg. Heidegger refused to discuss his collaboration publicly and “remained silent about the extermination of the Jews, about the terrorism of Hitler’s regime.” But as we’ve learned from his recently published journals, the so-called Black Notebooks, he was privately a “convinced Nazi,” as Peter Gordon observes, who “did not awaken from his philosophical-political fantasies. They only grew more extreme.”


But indeed, Arendt and Heidegger were in love, during an affair that began when she was an 18-year-old student and he her married 36-year-old professor. Their letters show an illicit relationship developing from caution to infatuation. Heidegger waxed romantically philosophical:

....we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices.

We can only thank with our selves. Love transforms gratitude into loyalty to our selves and unconditional faith in the other. That is how love steadily intensifies its innermost secret.

But both of them knew the relationship could not last, and Heidegger suggested that moving on from him would be in her best interest as a young scholar. In 1929, Arendt met and became engaged to a German journalist and classmate in Heidegger’s seminar. She sent her professor a note on her wedding day which begins, “Do not forget me, and do not forget how much and how deeply I know that our love has become the blessing of my life.”

Before his Nazi appointment, Arendt wrote to her former lover and mentor in 1932 or 33 upon hearing rumors “about Heidegger’s sympathy with National Socialism." (Her letter has been lost.) He replied with a number of excuses for specific acts—such as refusing to supervise Jewish students---and assured her of his feelings, but “nowhere in the letter is there any denial of Nazi sympathies,” writes Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker. The two met after the war in Freiburg, and Heidegger later sent Arendt a passionate, poetic letter in 1950, extolling the “exciting, still almost unspoken understanding” between them, “emerging from an affinity that was created so quickly, that comes from so far away, that has not been shaken by evil and confusion.”

Later, in a 1969 birthday tribute essay “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” Arendt penned what has generally been taken as an exoneration of Heidegger. In it, she “compared Heidegger to Thales,” writes Gordon, “the ancient philosopher who grew so absorbed in contemplating the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.” The truth is quite a bit more complicated than that, and quite a bit less lofty. But as Maria Popova eloquently writes, their relationship “exposes the complexity and contradiction of which the human spirit is woven, its threads nowhere more ragged than in love.” Read many more excerpts from their letters at Brain Pickings. And find complete letters collected in the volume, Letters: 1925-1975 - Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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