Ken Jowitt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Individual, Charisma, and the Leninist Extinction: Conversation with Ken Jowitt, Robson Professor of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; 12/7/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Doing Political Theory

Ken, you're a political theorist, you're a social scientist, but in addition, you're a comparativist, and again and again the broad range of the comparisons that you are able to make help us inform the complexity of a situation. Tell us about that skill. How do you learn it? Or do you just have to be very smart?

No, I don't think it's just being smart. I really don't think it's being simply smart, because smart takes different paths.

I have no idea where this started, but I thank God for it: namely, analogy. I can't see something without thinking of an analogy, it drives my wife crazy. It goes back to Prince Valiant. If I sit down in an elevator that's stuck, God forbid, all I want is a book of history. I don't want a political science text, I want a historical reference.

I think it comes down to two things: one, imagination and two, analogy. Do you have imagination? Some people are incredibly bright and they're dull. Some people, while being dull, are rigorous, systematic, they're Sancho Panza. And I like Don Quixote a little more.

Somebody who was very kind, I'm not sure they intended to be, but they were very kind when they were reviewing this book [The Leninist Extinction], said, "Jowitt really is an artist more than a social scientist, and if he were an artist he'd be Picasso or a cubist because he puts things together in novel ways." I've always thought it's the nicest thing anybody ever said about me, and I think it comes down a lot to just the temperament you have. I don't think you learn it. I simply don't think it's available in a formal pedagogical way. You have an imagination that, I hope, has some discipline. Discipline by the material you read. But the intrinsic interest in this wide array of historical material is just that, it's intrinsic. I don't think you can explain where it came from in my case or in the case of other people who have that same bias.

Can students prepare for doing this kind of work?

I don't know. I'm not very self-conscious, reflective, in terms of how to teach. I love to teach, there's nothing I enjoy more than teaching. But I'm not sure you can do it other than by inspiration and example. There are techniques, there are procedures, and I don't wish to minimize, let alone demean them, but I don't think ultimately that's what it's about.

I really think in almost every profession in life, many are called and few are chosen. And they're chosen for different things, so because there's a lot of things, a lot of vocations, it means that everybody can be chosen for something. But to do intellectual life and to be creative or original in some way, I think you have to see somebody who shows it in the flesh. Which is why I don't believe you should teach through television. I think you should be face to face. I don't care how large the group, but you should be face to face. There's a palpable quality. And the other thing is, there has to be a resonance in the individual. If there isn't, fine. They can do something equally wonderful, but not that. They might be bright, not creative. They might be rigorously thoughtful, but not imaginative. I think you need an example, a living example, of someone doing that. And it has to resonate with you. You have to say, that's what I can do. That's my kind of tango. That's what you do.

A book that keeps coming up again and again, knowing you and even in our conversation, is the Bible, but I think it's not just reading it as a religious person, but really as a social scientist and as a political theorist. Tell us about that.

Well I find it an unending source of insight, not in religious terms at all.

I'm quite clear as an individual what my private life is and what my professional life is, but The Iliad, the Bible, and Sherlock Holmes are an unending source of intellectual insights for me. So if I want to look, for example, at how you create an organization, how you consolidate that organization, and then how it expands and dissolves -- Saul, David, and Solomon to me are as good an example or set of examples as anything you'll ever find. Why should I deny myself one of the richest pieces of ethical, critical, political, administrative, religious insight in the world and turn to something written by somebody with Ph.D. who is not the equal of the author of David? In fact, there's a new book, a new translation of David out by one of our colleagues here in the Classics Department. The same thing with the Iliad, and the same thing with Sherlock Holmes. Same thing with Weber (the German sociologist and author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), whom I refer to more than anybody. I'd rather read a very good book ten times than ten mediocre books. And what it is in each of these, it isn't a single lesson or an insight from the Bible, and one from Sherlock Holmes, and one from The Iliad, and one from Weber, it's rather [that] all of these deal with issues that I think perennial in the human condition, and that I think Weber has formulated best. I'm interested in those things that are charismatic, I'm interested in those things that are traditional in the sense in which he meant them. Interested in those things that are modern. And in those sources, I can't deplete their richness. I wish I could duplicate it, that's not even conceivable in my case. But I can at least be smart enough to take advantage of them.

But again I hear you saying, and I know from experience and from this conversation, it's a question of applying your imagination to these materials, because somebody else could read these things and say, oh the Bible is outdated and, oh who wants to read a nineteenth-century detective.

That's true. I think ultimately you either have this capacity ... analogies have limits, fine, now we've stated the obvious; but I'm currently working on a book (I don't write books, but I am "working on a book"). Basically it's three essays, you put them together and you call it a book.

We could build a website for you.

Yes. The subject matter, whether it's the title, is frontiers, barricades, and boundaries. I'll give you an example so you and anybody who risked watching this can see whether this imagination of mine is really a hallucination. But let's take frontiers. I'm sitting down and thinking, "What is a frontier condition?" So you have images, right? That's what I begin with. My image of a frontier is a singles bar. A singles bar is ... how did I get this idea? I have no idea. I don't use drugs. It just came to me. I'm sitting there and I'm saying to myself, what is a singles bar? It's a bunch of people who don't know each other who, in the lingo, hook up, go home, have sex, don't see each other again, can't remember each other's names, go back to the bar and meet somebody else. So it's a world that's made up of disconnections.

Now, I said, what's a barricade? I have an analogy in mind, people's relation. A barricade is a Roman Catholic marriage. It's the exact opposite of hooking up and forgetting what the person's name was. You get married, you can't get divorced. It's all over, you are locked in forever. Unless you're the Kennedys and can get an annulment or something. But you're locked in, basically locked in.

What's a boundary, you continue with that analogy, a boundary is marriage with the possibility of divorce. Same thing I was thinking again, because that's what I start with.

I start with an idea, I think of an image, an analogy. It doesn't prove anything, analogies can't prove anything. It gives you an insight into the character of a phenomenon.

I'm thinking of frontiers. I think of the Los Angeles freeway. You go down and you have four lanes, people don't signal, they cut each other off. If they really dislike you they shoot you. I mean, those boundaries are supposed to be real but they mean nothing.

Now, I lived with [my wife] Becca for most of a year in Romania. In any communist country the central lane of a highway was just for the Communist Party bosses. If you went into that lane, you did not get a ticket, you went immediately to jail or you were thrown out of the country, or you could be hurt.

Then you come to a place where people are civilized. I can't find this imaginary place, but that is to say, a highway where there are lanes, you can cross them unlike the barricade, but you use your signal in a civil way, and then you go.

Well, that's an example. I think that's imaginative. I think it relates to the same analogy. I think the analogy is fertile. The question is, now can you make more specific arguments that can be tested? That's a different stage.

But can you teach that to somebody? I don't really think so.

Since I assume you're not writing a book on single bars, then these images that you've just discussed are really the working materials to guide your insights about the way the world is going. Is that correct?

Yes that's exactly right. What I'm trying to do in effect is, I've looked at most of the literature written in the last ten years which predicts the future, the Nostradamuses, Huntington, we're all going to live in cultural bunkers that aren't going to interact with one another, orthodox and protestant. His image of the world is Fu Manchu versus the Lone Ranger. You're going to have all these Chinese civilizations against the West, and so on. Then there's Robert Kaplan, just the opposite. The future of the world is Sierra Leone, fourteen year olds on drugs, shooting everybody that comes along. And there are a number of these predictions and these are ... a person like Huntington has a powerful intellect, he's made major contributions; they're all trying to be Nostradamus. They're trying to specify the content of the future. I think that's a level of intellectual conceit that simply isn't warranted. We can't do that. So in reading them and saying this isn't the way to go, I said, "How can you frame the world so that we can see what types of, in the formal sense, realities are out there?"

I think we're living in a world that's increasingly made up of frontiers, of disconnections. I think frontiers, because they create uncertainty and risk, generate ideas and organizations that are barricades. So my prognosis for the future is not that we'll have civic and civil boundaries, but that out of this increasingly frontier, disorienting world, you're going to get new ideologies and new movements that are barricades. Barricades means dogma, dogma means coercion. I don't like them. And so I want to look at the world and see where these new barricades may be arising, who are their representatives, what are their countries, what are their resources? It enables me to start to examine empirically what the world is. So imagination I think of as the word. Concrete studies I think of as the flesh. And I enjoy doing that.

As you look ahead to the future, how would you advise students to prepare for it, or is that too presumptuous a question?

I don't think it is at all.

I'm happy to be a political scientist. I like to generalize. Historians for the most part don't. I'm interested in questions of power and leadership and what we've talked about before.

I think it is incredibly indulgent not to study the past, and Americans are singularly uninformed about their history and the past of the world. We should study ... the best preparation for understanding the twenty-first century is to study the twentieth. I will always remember the first line in Henry Chadwick's book on primitive Christianity. The first sentence is, "The first Christians were Jews." What is the point? The point is, something new always comes from something old. So if you're going to try to understand the contours of the new, you don't sit down and close your eyes, squeeze them tight, and say, "I want to think of the new, I want to think of the new." Begin with the old. What are the defining features of this century, and what cultures, what parts of the world, which are likely to have the longest half-life and to shape the emergence, not determine, shape the emergence of the new? Start with what we know. So I would tell the student, know your history.

Ken, thank you very much for taking this time and talking about your life and your work.

Thank you very much Harry, it's been a treat.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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