Abraham Polonsky and the Contest of Metaphysics vs. Realism

I came across a 1947 Abraham Polonsky essay recently, that includes the following critique of American culture, where he contrasts a realist approach with a metaphysical one:

In treating social events it is necessary to know their precise historical conditions in order to evaluate the operation of moral choices. In a metaphysical inquiry we are mainly interested in defining the abstract terms for logical manipulation. Nowadays, a whole literary school has arisen, antirealistic in nature, which is devoted to deciding whether organization-as-such is evil (not whether this organization is evil or not), and whether man’s inner agony is a condition of physical existence (not whether this social existence or that creates terror and anxiety in his spirit). [1]

Abraham Polonsky was a filmmaker, the writer of Body and Soul (1947) and writer/director of Force of Evil (1948). And he was one of the Hollywood Left’s intellectual heavyweights. Polonsky was blacklisted from the entertainment industry a few years after he wrote the above words. I wrote about Polonsky’s exploits working undercover in the television industry a couple of years ago, and briefly about his experience trying to make a movie about his time on the blacklist. But in all of my research, I never encountered anything like this. It was an exciting find.

What’s interesting about this essay is that my critique of Polonsky and his blacklisted cohort is related to the problem that he is calling out. I argue that when the red scare hit the film and television industries, there was a cultural turn away from material concerns—the politics of social justice—and towards liberal political concerns—the politics of civil liberties.

More specifically, in the above linked essay, I call for a reconsideration of how we think of allegory in the context of blacklist politics. In his work as a blacklisted writer on the 1950s television show You Are There, Polonsky speaks elatedly about his ability to use allegory to get at issues such as “civil liberties.” One of the more prolific students of Polonsky’s work, John Schultheiss, has written about how Polonsky’s writing on the show reveals broad themes like “freedom vs. conformity.” I think it’s worth asking to what ends such language are used in the shifting epistemic contexts of liberal America.

To my surprise, it turns out the 1947 version of Polonsky would have agreed! Isn’t the risk of allegory that it will occlude the specificity that is otherwise explicit in a critique, and by drawing lines across time and space, make universal claims instead? Isn’t this why any and all public voices today can appropriate the language of free speech, the blacklist, witch hunts, and McCarthyism?

Since writing about Polonsky, I’ve been trying to square my observations about the culture of the blacklist period with those of Mark Greif, who charts the rise of a liberal humanist framework in intellectual and literary circles. It strikes me that the language that Polonsky uses is remarkably close to that which Greif uses. For example, both cite “organization” as something that became something of a bogeyman in postwar America.

And both Polonsky and Greif cite a turn towards the “metaphysical” that I think is worth unfolding. For one thing, the language of realism vs. metaphysicality seems to map onto some of my existing concepts, but offers a broader way of framing them. And I think it will help to further think about not just my historical problematic—the cultural genealogy of American liberalism—but also that which presents itself as the epistemic problematic of the present, and the ways we see it embodied in contemporary popular culture.

Maybe metaphysical thinking is to blame for the limits of the “hashtag-resistance.”

Is there a connection between the historical development of narratives of liberal humanism, the contemporary fetishization of liberal principles and ideals, and neoliberal market rationalities? I don’t know, but it sure seems like there is a totalizing set of epistemes, axiomatic assumptions that guide what we understand as political debate or hegemonic conflict. And to imagine a different kind of history of the future, it seems to me, necessitates not just winning the debates, but in changing the axioms, however strong those past connections were.

Put differently, if this metaphysics thing makes sense, then can we think about a tendency or a rationality that favors abstracting specific concerns about justice, inequality, and violence? And if so, is there a relationship between such a tendency or rationality on one hand, and liberalism on the other? In other words, is there something about the liberal paradigm that lends itself to metaphysical thinking? I’m tempted to blame Locke and Rousseau and all of the rest. But I wonder if that’s too simple of an answer. In any case, what would an alternative episteme—one that is post-liberalism and post-humanism—look like?


[1] Andrew Dickos, ed., Abraham Polonsky: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 11.