Rethinking the Politics of Absurdity: Albert Camus, Postmodernity, and the Survival of Innocence

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What does it mean to describe something or someone as absurd? Why did absurd philosophy and literature become so popular amidst the violent conflicts and terrors of the mid- to late-twentieth century? Is it possible to understand absurdity not as a feature of events, but as a psychological posture or stance? If so, what are the objectives, dynamics, and repercussions of the absurd stance? And in what ways has the absurd stance continued to shape postmodern thought and contemporary culture?

In Rethinking the Politics of Absurdity, I offer an account of absurdity as a widespread endeavor to make parts of our experience meaningless. In the last century, he argues, fears about subjects’ destructive desires have combined with fears about rationality in a way that has made the absurd stance seem attractive.

Drawing upon diverse sources from philosophy, literature, politics, psychoanalysis, theology, and contemporary culture, I identify the absurd effort to make aspects of our histories, our selves, and our public projects meaningless with postmodern revolts against reason and subjectivity.

Weaving together analyses of the work of Albert Camus, Georges Bataille, Judith Butler, Emmanuel Levinas, and others with interview data and popular narratives of apocalypse and survival, I show that the absurd stance and the postmodern revolt invite a kind of bargain, in which meaning is sacrificed in exchange for the survival of innocence. I ask readers to consider that the very premise of this bargain is false: that ethical subjects and healthy communities cannot be created in absurdity. Instead, we must make meaningful even the most shocking losses, terrors, and destructive powers with which we live.

The book will be of interest to scholars and practitioners in the fields of political science, philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis, sociology, and cultural studies.

Praise for Rethinking the Politics of Absurdity

“Bowker rescues absurdity from literary and philosophical neglect, showing how it affects the work of diverse authors such as Dylan Thomas, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, and Emmanuel Levinas, not to mention a television show about zombies. Absurdity, he argues, is a protest and defense against the meaningful experience of loss. Especially valuable is Bowker’s playing off the literature of absurdity with his own qualitative research on the topic. The book is a dazzling display of erudition by an intellectual who has his feet on the ground, a rare combination of virtues.”

—C. Fred Alford, University of Maryland, College Park

“Matthew Bowker has written a welcome exploration and critique of the treatment of subjectivity in contemporary literature. Especially notable is Bowker’s treatment of grief and the insistence on the part of some authors that acceptance of loss is neither possible nor desirable. In developing his ideas, Bowker poses and suggests answers to a number of genuinely important questions including whether what he refers to as the “absurd experience” offers freedom from illusion or instead “a regressive and melancholy illusion about the value of perpetual grief whose goal is to incapacitate subjects so that all may share the same absurd fate.” This is an engaging book filled with sharp insights into matters of importance. It offers a much needed counterpoint to the celebration of suffering that is so much a part of our intellectual and political landscape.”

—David Levine, University of Denver

“A valuable addition to the literature that contests the fashionable celebration of an absurd existence. This is an insightful and important work.”

—Stephen Eric Bronner, Rutgers University

Reviews of Rethinking the Politics of Absurdity

“Matthew H. Bowker’s rigorously researched volume provides a welcome contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding this author and his work. Ultimately, it is the aim of this thoughtfully written work (which includes a full index and bibliography) to ‘make absurdity meaningful’ through a process of rethinking; by the end, the reader is left in no doubt that such a laudable objective has been achieved.The book can be highly recommended to both the specialist and non-specialist reader, who will doubtless discover that a topic which was thought to have been researched to its limits still has many intellectual surprises in store.”

—Mark Orme, French Studies: A Quarterly Review

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“Matthew Bowker brings welcome attention to the concept of the absurd, which has largely been neglected in recent political theory and philosophy. Bowker’s treatment of the concept breathes new life into the absurd and makes an interesting contribution to the recent rethinking of Albert Camus’s ethical and political thought.”

—Antony Lyon, Perspectives on Politics

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