Jan 17th 2015

The Resurgence of the Leftist Public Intellectual

by Daniel Tutt

Ph.D. in Philosophy and Documentary Film Producer

The American philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote that academe's obsession with theory creates a 'shibboleth' in the university system, sheltering and confining its debates and polemics from the public sphere. Rorty made this accusation back in the mid-1990's, right as the movement of 'theory' began to make its heyday following the immense influence of French philosophers Derrida and Foucault. The consequence of this shibboleth was that the jargon and the obscurity of theory created a profound disconnect with the working class and non-academics became marginal to revolutionary ideas. Since the decline of the New Left starting in the late 1970's, leftist and progressive intellectuals have become more and more absorbed into the institution of academe and as a result, the figure of the public critical intellectual, which formerly had a role in major debates from the 1950's to the 1970's, lost its cultural hegemony and moral force in the wider culture. The politics of tenure began to outweigh the politics of the larger culture and the public critical intellectual became a dinosaur, something from another time all together.

Concurrent with the decline of the left, the figure of the 'expert' public intellectual filled the void and eventually replaced the critical intellectual in terms of prominence and moral authority on issues of the day. Leftist intellectuals used to be so central to intellectual life in America, for example, that even today's neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, William Cristol and Paul Wolfowitz were all former Trotskyite intellectuals, enamored with leftist polemics and debate. But today, the expert dominates the very meaning and public image of what an intellectual is. The expert provides commentary on social and political policy, which ends up being watered down consultation to elites on matters of governance and crisis management. The expert informs the public about how to improve their lifestyle choices. The stepbrother of the expert intellectual is the TED-talk intellectual who provides what one writer refers to as 'magical thinking' for tech-entrepreneurs and the wealthy elite. Where the policy expert and the TED-talk entrepreneur fail is that they disregard the traditional role that intellectuals played in public life, of serving as agents of resistance to the status quo, often offering systemic and radical critiques of capitalism. Today's intellectual is rarely allowed to offer critiques that point to solutions requiring structural changes to the status quo of neoliberal life.

Despite the decline of the critical intellectual over the last several decades, the field of academic critical theory has expanded its influence both within academe, (in fields outside of the humanities such as economics and ecology) but more importantly, the critical public intellectual has been influencing social movements beyond the confines of the ivory tower since the 1990's to the present. As the American Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson argues, the left can only begin to overcome its defeat by providing what he calls a 'cognitive mapping' of its key ideas and strategies. Remzig Keucheyan's, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today is an important contribution to the field of critical theory today as it provides such a cognitive mapping. Not only is the book an excellent introduction to the burgeoning field of critical theory as it surveys the key ideas of master thinkers such as Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, Gayatri Spivak and Slavoj Žižek, it also sheds light on lesser known thinkers such as Elmar Altavater and Yann Moulier Boutang. Keucheyan situates contemporary critical theory historically and links its resurgence to the resurgence of leftist political movements globally and he goes beyond merely summarizing the salient ideas of key thinkers but effectively highlights the most important debates within critical theory.

The field of critical theory is broken down into two very general categories in the book: critiques of the system of global capitalism such as imperialism, the nation-state, and citizenship are analyzed and secondly, critiques of the subject of emancipation, i.e. how questions of revolutionary agency, equality, freedom, rights and gender are being thought by critical theorists. Today's critical theorists are most often working with classical Marxist categories such as exploitation, wage labor and accumulation; however, many thinkers have re-formulated these categories and reflect upon problems of ecology, neoliberalism and other contemporary problems of capitalism.

Keucheyan charts the origin of today's critical theory with the emergence of the global New Left in the late 1950's to the late 1970's. In Europe and America, the New Left period witnessed the rise of a centralized base of leftist organizations, from labor unions to socialist parties. What this meant for critical thinking was that the struggle for emancipation from capitalist domination was waged first and foremost from the factory and the agents of this struggle were the worker and the party form. While the New Left did not attain much political power during this time, it did see the rise of the May 68's global protest movements against capitalism, which had their epicenter in France. Paris served as the center of the world for critical thinkers, whereas today it is the United States and New York City. Major French thinkers such as Sartre, Derrida and Foucault played a seminal role in the intellectual development of today's critical thinkers, many of whom were students of these thinkers, such as Gayatri Spivak was of Derrida. While fewer critical theorists from the New Left period are still writing and publishing today, the names of Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou are two of the most prominent examples of thinkers from the May 1968 protests that are still engaged in and active with publishing books of political theory and philosophy.

The decline of the New Left is a story of betrayal and resilience. This period of decline occurs from 1977 to 1993, with the rise of the alter-globalization movements. On the side of betrayal, what occurred during this period is that many formerly committed critical intellectuals abandoned their fidelity to radical ideas and chose to become integrated into various movements of liberal thought such as the French New Philosophers movement. In France, former Maoist intellectuals such as Andre Glucksman and the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti began to adopt neoliberal ideals. Similarly, in China, many critical intellectuals abandoned Marxist ideas as Deng Xiaoping ushered in neoliberal reforms in the 1980's. In Argentina, critical intellectuals veered away from the radical Marxist tradition and modified their thought to adapt to changing dynamics in their country. While not an outright betrayal to radical left ideas, some critical intellectuals, most notably in Argentina, (where the passive revolution known as Peronism occurred) argued that a new theory of seizing power must be created because the proletariat had lost its organization. This modified theory of leftist revolutionary moved away from the more classical Leninist notions and many critical thinkers have similarly expanded their range of references and tactics for thinking revolution in an age when the left has all but lost its party and worker base of power. This innovation of leftist theory and strategy is evident in the thought of the late critical theorist Ernesto Lacalu. For Laclau, the thought of Gramsci, particularly the concept of hegemony, presented a radically new way to think of the different ways that identity groups such as labor unions, minorities and others contest for attaining the status of 'the people' and how seizing power at the level of civil society might occur, instead of seizing power at the state level (242).

The early 1990's witnessed a rise in critical theory from its slumber as many critical thinkers gained a foothold as commentators and analysts of various social movements, most notably the alter-globalization protests, the anti-war movement and more recently with Occupy and a number of indigenous anti-capitalist movements. While Kuecheyan does not provide an exhaustive genealogy of the relation between critical thought and social movements and today's leftist militancy, it is clear that a dialectical relation exists between critical theory and a centralized strengthened leftist base. More research into this dialectical relation would make for a fascinating continuation of this study.

Thinking a New Subject of Emancipation:

A preoccupation with the theme of the subject in critical theory is central to the work of many thinkers, from Alain Badiou's theory of the militant subject, to Giorgio Agamben's idea of homo saccer. This preoccupation with the subject can be traced to historical and theoretical forces. For starters, the left no longer has a privileged subject of revolution, as the figure of the worker and of the working class has disappeared as a unit of empirical reality and thus they no longer contain the same potency of agency and hence they are no longer viable subjects for producing social change (169). What destroyed the working class as the agent of emancipation was the overwhelming success of neoliberal ideology and the fragmentation of the industrial working class (169).

With the evaporation of the figure of the worker as the subject of emancipation and the shift away from the factory as the site of contestation, critical thinkers have expanded their range of references to historical figures of emancipation. Although overwhelmingly atheist, critical thinkers have invoked religious figures such as St. Paul, Thomas Müntzer, Gandhi and they include references to the Book of Job, the Old Testament and even the American founding fathers. Religion is invoked in order to think through different problems that the 'end of ideology' presents to our world today. One of the premises of this return to thinking a more emancipatory form of religious thought is that such a thinking might prove a tonic to the fundamentalist turn that has affected Christianity and Islam over the last several decades, providing it with a set of alternative narratives, histories and figures of radicalism. Invoking religious thought also enables thinkers to probe the more complex nature of belief and ideology, in an age of capitalism that lacks compelling alternative ideologies to global capitalism.

The theme of identity and ways of thinking outside of and beyond the limitations that identity politics presents is another important topic addressed by critical theorists such as Habermas, Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, and Jacques Rancière. Interestingly, Kuecheyan notes how the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who questioned different regimes of normality and subjects outside of the norm, such as subjects classified with mental illness, prisoners, etc. is what in part led to a larger fascination with an expansive category of identity. More generally, critical theorists that examine the question of identity are concerned with different ways it is ontologically possible through an encounter with others or through a procedure of recognition to arrive at different states of emancipation from psychical servitude.

On the topic of feminist theory in today's critical theory, Keucheyan highlights the work of Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler and Donna Harraway and characterizes their thought as "post-feminist" in that they break with the mold of feminism. For Harraway, the very category of 'women' does not exist. In a different but related way, there is no representational politics that does not create exclusion for Judith Butler. Both of these positions are tied up in a larger critique of gender norms (199). In terms of the field of postcolonial studies, which has transformed greatly in recent years, Kuecheyan highlights the important concept of 'strategic essentialism,' developed by a branch of postcolonial studies called subaltern studies. It argues that essentialism is still deployed despite its waning effect in reality. One of the most often deployed critiques in critical theory therefore various critiques of essentialism and universalism, both of which haunt Eurocentric discourses and systems of thought, from metaphysics to ethics. Strategic essentialism maintains that identities do not refer to anything substantive and essentialism still operates on all subjects and they aren't able escape it. The ubiquity of essentialism is often useful for political action, however in the realm of critical theory one of the things critiques of essentialism has led to is the idea that the category of class is itself that which underlies all forms of domination, and thus it is not one social antagonism on par with another form of oppression. This is a matter of debate amongst critical thinkers where thinkers such as Žižek argue that class antagonism is a priori the site of social antagonism, whereas Ernesto Lacalu argues that social antagonisms should be understood along a more nuanced spectrum of struggles. 

Critiques of the System of Global Capitalism:

In the 'system' chapter of the book, Kuecheyan examines debates about the status of capitalism and offers insight into schools of thought such as cognitive capitalism, historical materialism, and radical ecological thought. Cognitive capitalism owes much of its thinking to the long tradition of Italian operaismo, or autonomism, which posits that knowledge becomes a central domain for production with the innovations in capitalism following the 1970's. With the ascendancy of knowledge value, the worker ceases to be the central figure in the process of production. For Negri, a central proponent of autonomism, the workers movements won against capitalism in the 60's and 70's and a new version of capitalism was created. The implication is that class struggle extends to all of society, and power functions in a dualistic manner. There is power over (potere) something and power to (potenza). It is this latter power to, where Negri identifies what he calls the multitude, and the former mode of power over is what he calls empire, or the large system of global capitalism. In his famous text, Empire, co-written with Michael Hardt, Negri argues that imperialism is over and power is now exerted across all territories.

David Harvey, the well-known Marxist geographer, makes a similar point when he argues that capitalism produces a "space-time compression" that annihilates public space and the commons. Unlike Hardt and Negri, Harvey submits that imperialism is still operative in today's global capitalism, even though the nation-state form is in decline. Harvey argues that imperialism is triggered when under-consumption is created as a result of the exploitation of workers in the countries at the center of the world economy. Under-consumption creates insufficient demand and then forces the exploiting countries to shift overseas, thus imperialism shifts grounds from the nation-state to the private market taking the hegemonic role (105 - 106).

Perhaps the most developed theory of cognitive capitalism is found in the work of Yann Moulier Boutang who argues that contemporary capitalism has transitioned to a third age of capitalism following mercantislism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and industrial capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This new era is one of cognitive capitalism, and the 'cognitariat' are the new proletarian subjects who are exploited by their brain and their labor is reduced to immaterial labor (92 - 93). Critics of cognitive capitalism insist that the opposition between capital and labor remains formative and they argue that there is no transition from labor value to knowledge value (140). Michel Husson, for example, argues that the dislocation of the Fordist wage relation has resulted in what he calls 'pure capitalism' and the appropriate measure must be the abolition of the wage earning class and a reduction in working hours (142).

Other critics of cognitive capitalism are thinkers such as Elmar Altvater who wrote the important ecological Marxist essay, "Is there an ecological Marxism?" Altvater also developed the idea of "fossil capitalism" and points out that the source of energy supply is the sin qua non of capitalist production and accumulation. The conclusion to be drawn from this theory is that investment in the green economy is doomed from the outset because it does not provide an adequate level of investment for profit making, which means that neoliberalism is unable to adequately sustain the expansion of a green economy. Altavater also developed the idea of the Entropy Law that looks at how energy depletion is tied to economic processes, shattering the assumption that growth is infinitely possible. For Altvater, the law of value makes labor value the main surplus value there is. Altvater claims that only major state-based investments in a solar economy and a solar revolution can alter the Entropy Law.

Since its birth, capitalism has gone through four stages or cycles of accumulation and each stage has a material and a financial stage. As a result of the inevitable fall of profit rates, capital enters a financial stage to continue to reap profits. The United States is currently at the center of today's global financial capitalism. World-systems theorists develop this theory of financial capital, most notably Giovanni Arrighi, who argues that American imperialism has reached an ossified state where it exerts domination but it no longer has economic hegemony, rather only military hegemony. What signaled the decline of the U.S. as a global hegemon was its imperial blunders in Vietnam and later in the Iraq war. Structurally, the problem is that financialization does not fix the problem of the rate of profit and a cycle of crisis and major social unrest unfurl during a period of financialization (154).

What will follow the U.S. empire? Many argue that China is emerging as the next economic hegemon, and one hypothesis is that the coming decades will unleash a period of intense chaos until a new mode of capital accumulation will be developed. The consequences of this shift will be multiple, but it will entail the destruction of decayed cities and neighborhoods in its wake, such as what is occurring in Detroit today and it will lead to an increase in riots and protests. The theme of accumulation is addressed by a number of critical theorists and one of the main ideas of accumulation is that capitalism always needs an exterior to overcome its crises of over-accumulation, thus accumulation entails the usurpation of former communal areas, and lays the slate clean for accumulation through war (107). War takes over existing sites of production and refurbishes them, a concept that draws on Marx's notion of original accumulation - always following capital like its shadow.


What does critical theory tell us about the future of social struggles? Keucheyan is wise to point to the central role that ecology and the ever-growing ecological crisis will play as a site of social antagonism and political conflict. He identifies the ecological movement as a 'worksite' of future engagement. In a fascinating point towards the end of the text, he argues that the ecological movement is waiting for its very own Marx to provide a mature theoretical account of the social relations that underpin today's ecological crisis and the oppression that it wreaks. Following the development of the theory of today's material conditions, a set of organizing principles connected to that thought would have to then follow. The other worksite he identifies is the party form of politics, which is beginning to make a comeback with the rise of Syriza in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain, two far left parties vying for political power.

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Daniel Tutt works on contemporary philosophy, filmmaking and interfaith social justice. He is the Director and Co-Producer of a new documentary film in the making entitled “Insurrections” that explores the philosophy behind recent protest movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. His writing has appeared in Common Ground News Service, the Washington Post, the Platypus Review, the International Journal of Žižek Studies, The San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies, TheThe Poetry Blog and the Huffington Post.

He is Professor of Media Studies and the Dean of Student Affairs at the Global Center for Advanced Studies, an independent movement for the transformation of higher learning that address foundational, historical and theoretical issues of contemporary global concern. Daniel received his Ph.D. from the European Graduate School, where he studied continental philosophy, media studies and psychoanalysis. His dissertation invokes the concept of community in contemporary continental philosophy through a comparative analysis of four influential thinkers including Alain Badiou (advisor and chair of dissertation), Slavoj Žižek, Ernesto Laclau and Jean-Luc Nancy. He holds a Masters of Arts in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs from American University and he is a Fellow at the nonpartisan think tank, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, where he researches policy issues related to Islam and Muslims.

As an activist, he works on interfaith dialogue and social justice for Muslim communities in America. He has worked with the American Muslim community for nearly a decade and has built several educational and social action projects that seek to counter Islamophobia. He has also helped to produce several media and film projects that have educated a wide mainstream American audience about Islam in America.

As the Director of Outreach and Foundation Relations at Unity Productions Foundation he oversees the organization’s foundation relations, assists with production projects, and oversees the digital, community and educational programs of the organization. Daniel is a member of the Lacanian Forum of Washington, DC, a psychoanalytic association and a board member for several religious and academic organizations.

Browse articles by author

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EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
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EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."