States of Consciousness: A Review of Ideal Minds by Michael Trask

States of Consciousness: review of Ideal Minds: Raising Consciousness in the Antisocial  Seventies by Michael Trask

Garrett Bridger Gilmore

Under Review:
Ideal Minds: Raising Consciousness in the Antisocial Seventies. Michael Trask. Cornell University Press, 2020.

The opening paragraph of Michael Trask’s Ideal Minds promises the “large revisionist argument” that “the late twentieth century ushered in not the death of the subject but the revival of subjectivity in postmodern society.” In the following barrage of tightly argued engagements with a wide-range of academic, popular, and political texts, Trask largely succeeds in defining the 1970s as a decade in which Neo-idealism emerged as the pervasive paradigm for theorizing human subjectivity. Neo-idealists, Trask argues, “see consciousness not merely as the means by which we acquire knowledge about the world around us…but as their prefered object of knowledge.” On Trask’s telling, by locating subjective consciousness at the center of political analysis, Neo-idealism provided intellectual support in multiple fields for the rise of neoliberalism and the emergence of market relations as the moral and social engine of American society. The wide array of writers in Trask’s study reject materialist theories of mind, utilitarian ethics, and statist rationality in favor of subjective understandings of individual identity, community relations, and—most importantly—the governing logic of the market. Neo-idealism, Trask writes, is “the effort to retool features of Kantian traditions as weapons in the struggle against a behaviorism discredited by post-sixties thinkers because it appeared to underwrite the failed policies of the Great Society.”

If that sounds complicated, it is. Ideal Minds is meticulous and clearly written, but assumes—perhaps necessarily given the breadth of subjects it covers—a monumental amount of familiarity with the material it covers. While Trask effectively distills complex arguments into manageable pieces, I often found myself unsure why a given author or work merited such close analysis. Trask’s choices in this regard—to present arguments and narratives from a wide array of sources both high and low, canonical and fringe—is a consciously adopted method, and Trask offers a fairly inspiring defense of New Historicist approaches in the book’s introduction. Yet while the rationale for the prominence of certain heavy hitters that appear throughout the book—John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Philip K. Dick—is straightforward, I found myself needing to substantiate the presence of other authors. The total effect—that Neo-idealism emerges across disciplines, ideological orientations, genres, and communities—is ultimately impactful. Keeping up with Trask’s process, though, requires vigilance or at least greater familiarity with the era than I (a young millennial whose scholarship deals primarily with the early 20th century) find myself in possession of.

Trask’s chapters bristle with ethical urgency, though he saves his most direct engagement with the stakes of his argument for the closing pages of the book’s conclusion. This study of the 1970s is in many ways a study of the present: a present originating not in the disastrous reigns of Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s, but in the broad-based doing-away of any possible defenses of collective politics and state agency across 1970s literature, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind, economics, radical ecology, New Age spiritualism, and Rapture-obsessed mainline Protestantism. And while Trask does manage to convincingly establish the 1970s as an era of profound intellectual transition and import—a decade defined by “the normalization of libertarian beliefs”—the political ramifications of those trends tend to remain off-page. In the book’s introduction, Trask tips his hand, writing, “My critical genealogies of radical ecology and antiutilitarianism are occasioned by my sense that environmental action and economic justice are the most pressing causes on the globe.” In the book’s conclusion, Trask tells a compelling story about how Neo-idealist views of subjectivity in the realm of philosophy, literature, ecology, and religion all make way for what he calls “the marketization of everything”: “the massification of consciousness-raising in post-sixties culture has involved…a form of abstraction that gives rise to the view of persons as possessed of a subjectivity that cannot—and in its ethical dimension should not—be bound by the externalities of social structure.” 

In the final count, Ideal Minds is a complex and fascinating theorization of the emergence of neoliberalism and a model study of serious engagement with fringe movements, speculative fiction, and other discourses often positioned outside of the intellectual mainstream.

Yet while Trask makes a clear case for how Neo-idealism plays itself out historically, I found myself wanting to know more of how it was ushered in. Defining Neo-idealism as a “post-sixties” phenomenon, Trask largely writes of sixties counterculture in broad strokes. He provides clear evidence, especially in the chapters on artificial intelligence (Chapter One) and religious movements (Chapter Four) that there is a profound element of racial and sexual backlash in the libertarian bent of Neo-idealist thinkers, both in the academy and at the pulpit. At other points, though, Ideal Minds seems to rest on an assumed understanding of how “raising consciousness” in the Neo-idealist sense (elevating subjective consciousness to the center of political ontology) perverts various modes of “consciousness-raising” (identifying the role of collective social structures in shaping individual experiences and standpoints) that gave priority to external social structures. Might even the idea of “consciousness-raising” in this sixties sense presage the rise of Neo-idealism on the left? Trask is very willing to take to task environmental radicals, anarchists, and white counter-culture figures alongside right-wing figures in his book. A more complete story could still be told of the role of Neo-idealism in feminist and Black liberation politics, which, like every movement discussed in Ideal Minds, were vulnerable to neoliberal cooptation.

In the final count, Ideal Minds is a complex and fascinating theorization of the emergence of neoliberalism and a model study of serious engagement with fringe movements, speculative fiction, and other discourses often positioned outside of the intellectual mainstream. Readers looking for an argument about the particular affordances of post-sixties speculative genres to provide insight into politics and culture might come away disappointed. Where Ideal Minds shines is its convincing account that speculative thought holds a prominent place in all kinds of social and political discourses. Rather than elevating speculative works to the level of buttoned-up philosophy, Trask shows how fundamentally weird so many of the prominent intellectual figures of the 1970s were. This revelation helpfully unsettles what seems to be the inevitable rationality and ubiquity of neoliberalism and points one way forward for future authors and critics to imagine societies and subjectivities outside these anatomized conceptions of the human. Trask manages to distill succinct and impactful insights from a wide range of texts, and while some chapters are a bit of journey from A to B, his writing is engaging, generous, and frequently funny. In academic contexts, Ideal Minds should find its way into rotations in classes and exam lists on post-war U.S. culture and literature, speculative genres, and critical theory. In non-academic contexts, Trask’s thoughts on the politics of artificial intelligence, fringe movements, and ecology should also be appealing and useful to readers. Like many of the ideas it discusses, Ideal Minds can be a disorienting trip—but it’s a good one.

Garrett Bridger Gilmore teaches literature classes in the departments of English and Gender and Race Studies at the University of Tuscaloosa. You can find him on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This article was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. The review was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Adam McClain. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Cornell University Press.

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