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Russell Kirk, Postmodern Conservative?

An interview with Gerald Russello, author and editor of the Kirkean University Bookman.

By 7.17.07

Since becoming editor of the University Bookman, Russell Kirk's classic journal of letters founded roughly a half-century ago, Gerald J. Russello has revitalized the venerable quarterly without making way for fad or fluff -- without, one could say, modernizing the Bookman. What a stroke then for Russello to have just released The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (University of Missouri Press). It's a book titled to give any conservative pause, and any postmodern who can recognize Kirk something a bit more severe. But conservatives, to whom this book will be more useful at the crossroads of what was once called simply "the movement," would do well to stop, think, read, and reconsider.

The reputation of postmodernism as a sort of intellectual funhouse for the damned has regrettably led many a searching mind to avoid such work by reflex. If to modernize is to contrive, surely to postmodernize is to revel in contrivance as a substitute for thinking? By examining not only Kirk's imagination but the role of imagination itself in his political thought, Russello suggests that the conservatism which Kirk narrated may both antedate and postdate modernity in significant ways. The relationships among individuals, families, communities, and countries, woven with interknit stories and lives, remain, when attended, more durable and commodious than the systematized and self-conscious structures typical of state and society under modern liberalism. As conservatism continues to grapple with old questions wanting new answers and new questions needing old ones, Russello seeks to provoke a broader reconsideration of imagination among conservatives as a means of engaging the culture at large in a successful critique of liberal modernity.

Typically modern in sweep, promises lately made on behalf of Freedom and History have, with less precedent, been put forth in conservatism's name. To understand better what alternatives exist to spark the imagination, and what form the wisdom takes to feed it, Russello's book makes for good reading. Moving on from modernity calls neither for grandiose schemes to live in a perpetual future nor retreat into the isolation of a mockup of the premodern. In conversation, this was our point of departure.

JGP: For a lot of people -- maybe conservatives particularly -- explanation has to begin at the word "postmodern," before you even get down to the business of giving a conservative that label. Was Kirk "a" postmodern, or was his a variety of postmodern thought?

GJR: My research for the book has persuaded me that Kirk's work has certain sympathies with postmodernism, and that Kirk himself illustrated some traits of postmodernity. As I explain in the book, Kirk shared with postmodernism a fundamental antipathy toward parts of the Enlightenment project; by happenstance, his friend Bernard Iddings Bell was one of the first to use the term "postmodernism," in a 1926 book, and he was no radical but a conservative cleric. But he parted company with them by seeing, after the rejection of absolutes and the playful montage of "symbols" that he used so effectively, that there was a core of mystery to human existence that could not be "pomo'd" away. His significance I think lay in this approach to the conundrums of modernity without giving way to either the despair or silliness of a lots of postmodern writings. And of course, he was in no way a postmodern, in the sense of using (or probably even knowing much about) capital "T" Theory or having even a passing radical phase.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.