For Ike Balbus on His 70th Birthday

Apr 01, 2014 | Updated Jun 01, 2014

My dear friend Ike Balbus, a distinguished political theorist who taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for several decades, recently turned 70. I wrote this tribute to him on that occasion.

I vividly recall my first encounter with the name Isaac Balbus. And what a fateful one it was.

It was almost a quarter century ago, in early 1990. I had taken a break from college to study with the anarchist thinker/eco-philosopher Murray Bookchin and got involved with the activist-intellectual scene that had formed around him in Burlington, Vermont. One afternoon in his house, I discovered his collection of back issues of the journal Telos. I was a proverbial kid in a candy shop: Telos was the English-language journal of Critical Theory, and Critical Theory was my life. My heavily marked-up copy of Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization was on me at all times. (I later learned that Salmagundi was the first American journal to publish translations of Adorno and Benjamin, in the mid-1960s, but Telos, which got off the ground in 1968 (the year of my birth), loomed larger in the world of Frankfurt School studies that I inhabited. It became the nerve center of English-language scholarship on the body of ideas known as Western Marxism.)

Realigned Molecules

The Summer 1982 issue carried an article with the title "A Neo-Hegelian, Feminist, Psychoanalytic Perspective on Ecology" by Isaac D. Balbus. This constellation of terms instantly sent my intellectual libido into overdrive. I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing. Psychoanalysis, feminism, Hegel... and ecology? I had an intense interest in Freud and psychoanalytic thought -- my first year of college, Paul Robinson's book The Freudian Left led me to the ideas of Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, and Erich Fromm had a huge influence on me. I had a strong interest in Hegel -- I was a philosophy major with a focus on 19th and 20th century continental thought. I was deeply intrigued by psychoanalytic feminism -- Paul Robinson's article "Freud and the Feminists" in the Spring 1987 issue of the journal Raritan led me to Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism, and beyond. And I was deeply immersed in ecological thought and Green politics. But this was too good to be true -- someone had actually brought these various intellectual strands together!

In writing this tribute, I discovered to my delight that the abstract for the essay is available online:

Marxism cannot withstand the challenge of ecology. The ecological vision of an end to the domination of nature necessarily includes the end to a historical materialism for which this domination has always been an indispensable condition of human liberation. A commitment to objectification as the immutable form of the relationship between humans and (non-human) nature obliges Marx and all those who invoke his name to celebrate the "great civilizing influence" of a capitalism that reduces nature to "simply an object for mankind" and thereby paves the way for a communism that alone will make possible "the advent of real mastery over ... the forces of nature."

I devoured the essay whole. As I read it, I experienced what Christopher Hitchens once described as "the feeling of an epochal shift in which [his] molecules were being realigned in some bizarre Hegelian synthesis." I was blown away -- and inspired. Who in the world was this Isaac Balbus? The journal identified him as the author of Marxism and Domination: A Neo-Hegelian, Feminist, Psychoanalytic Theory of Sexual, Political, and Technological Liberation (try saying that 10 times fast) and a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). This was almost too much: He lived in my home town! I simply had to track him down and get in touch.

This was before the Internet and email. I simply called the UIC switchboard and asked to be transferred to Professor Isaac Balbus in the Department of Political Science. Low and behold, he answered the phone! I introduced myself -- but who was I? An undergraduate student moving in anarchist and Green circles in Vermont, with no institutional affiliation or auspices. All I had was raw enthusiasm for his ideas and the hope that we could connect -- somehow, somewhere, at some point. Ike seemed unfazed by the randomness of the call. He was entirely gracious, and indeed encouraging of my inchoate desire to engage.

And engage we did, for many years to come.

The following year I found myself with auspices under which to engage Ike. I was one of the organizers of the Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference (the now-defunct Chicago version of the Socialist Scholars Conference, now called the Left Forum) and I put together a panel on "The Psychodynamics of Domination" with Ike, Eli Zaretsky (author of Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life), and Joel Kovel (author of The Age of Desire: Case Histories of a Radical Psychoanalyst). It was a Psychoanalytic Left Dream Team! But there were differences. Although the panelists broadly shared a Freudo-leftist perspective, Ike and Joel Kovel were moving in opposite directions: Joel started out as a Freudian psychotherapist and then discovered Marxism -- over time moving further and further away from psychoanalytic ideas (though never entirely abandoning them); Ike, in contrast, had been a Marxist, and through his encounter with psychoanalysis, feminism, and ecology, he developed a trenchant (and to me persuasive) critique of Marxism.

Soon after that stimulating panel, Ike and I discovered another common interest, one that would become a defining passion in our friendship: tennis.

Court Intellectual

I'll never forget the first time we played. It was on Northwestern University's courts. As we hit around, I thought: What kinds of shots are these? I aspired to hit with the silky topspin of Björn Borg, my idol growing up. Ike, a generation my senior (I was born in 1968, when he was marching in the streets), played a pre-Borg style of tennis; he hit half his shots extremely flat and the other half with massive amounts of slice. I had no idea where the hell the ball was going. When his shots landed they stayed very low and skidded, or else jumped violently sideways. I had never seen anything quite like it, and it was infuriating -- not least because he was so good. I arrogantly thought I was the superior player -- my form was more graceful and I was younger. And yet it was incredibly hard to win a point against him, not only because of his unorthodox spins but because he hustled his ass off and got virtually every ball back. It was bloody impressive. And we were evenly matched. A rivalry was born that afternoon, and it lasted a couple of decades.

The tennis court became the main venue for our social encounters. It didn't replace our intellectual encounters, but rather relocated them. The lapses between points were filled with running commentary, a combination of psychoanalytically-inflected trash talk, theory jokes, and one-pun-manship (sorry). Example: Ike strongly preferred playing indoors, whereas I strongly preferred playing outdoors. He complained that the sun and wind messed up his game. I of course attributed this to being alienated from nature (a low blow, since alienation from nature was a major theme in Ike's work) and a compulsive-neurotic need for perfectly-controlled, womb-like conditions. I might have used the phrase "womb with a view" (sorry again). Another example: one time I badly missed a shot just as a strikingly beautiful woman was walking past the court, after which I complained to Ike that I had been "lewdly interrupted" (sorry yet again). His response: "Nice projection, Danny -- making her the subject and yourself the object of the distraction." (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the essence.) And there was plenty of straight-up trash talk about the game itself. This was our version of playing the dozens, our Jewish (or in my case half-Jewish) form of other-deprecating comical jousting and gamesmanship, in a spirit of affection and friendship.

But we maintained off-court intellectual engagements as well. Ike's book Emotional Rescue: The Theory and Practice of a Feminist Father came out at the end of 1997. I interviewed him about the book on the radio show I hosted at the time (in good Freudo-Marxian spirit, the show was called Free Associations). That book struck a deep chord in me, as it did in many others. The feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky (a close mutual friend of mine and Ike's) wrote that the book's...

...bold synthesis of feminist mothering theory, developed by such thinkers are Dinnerstein and Chodorow, with psychoanalytic theories of narcissism developed by Winnicott, Kohut and Masterson, is a major contribution to psychoanalytic feminism. So too is his psychoanalytically informed, simultaneously joyful and sorrowful story of how co-parenting his daughter made this synthesis possible.

Maurice Hamington wrote in the journal Hypatia that the book's...

...interwoven narratives allow the reader to glimpse how the trials and tribulations of a flesh and blood academic impact his theoretical positions. The result is a refreshing dose of epistemologically significant "reality scholarship" that shreds the vaunted veil of the passive voice of academia. Balbus is the protagonist of his own analysis, and that makes for intriguing and insightful reading.

As David Gutterman wrote in the journal Signs:

Endeavoring to bring closure to fourteen years of research and to synthesize two previous attempts to write a critical theory of Western child rearing, Balbus here seeks to examine the enormous impact of Benjamin Spock on families in the United States, analyze his own practice as a father, and answer the Marcusean question of "what it means to be a radical intellectual" by demonstrating the link between "enlightenment" and "embodiment."

(Speaking of Marcusean questions, Ike's essay "The Missing Dimension: Self-Reflexivity and the 'New Sensibility,'" published in the collection Marcuse: From the New Left to the Next Left, is one of the very best things ever written on Marcuse.)

Our interview about Emotional Rescue aired, felicitously enough, on Father's Day of 1998. Ike couldn't hear it at his home, because the signal of the college station that broadcast my show didn't reach that far south. So he drove with his daughter, Shayla, to a location where they could hear the interview and listened to it together in Ike's car. I was deeply moved by that image. Fortunately, the interview found wider circulation when it was transcribed and published in the (now defunct) magazine LiP, of which I was then a contributing editor. (Unfortunately, that interview isn't available online.)

It was only a few months later that I became a father myself. Ike's work on parenting, and our countless conversations about the subject over many years, cast a long shadow over my own experience. His thinking about fatherhood, and his own struggle to maintain his commitment to co-parenting after the demise of his marriage, deeply informed the way I approached fatherhood. Our conversations became a source of enormous support to me as I struggled to find my parental footing under somewhat unusual circumstances. I remain and will always be in Ike's debt for that.

In 2005, when Ike's wonderful essay collection Mourning and Modernity came out, I was programming author events at a small bookstore in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, a fabulous agora called Left of Center Books (also now defunct, alas). I was very pleased to organize a reading for Ike late that summer. He read his essay "The Psychodynamics of Racial Reparations," a fascinating attempt to apply the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's theory of psychological reparation to the debate about whether the United States owes African Americans reparations for the legacy of slavery and racism. (That essay first appeared in the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society.) A marvelously stimulating discussion followed. The philosopher Charles Mills, author of the influential book The Racial Contract, was in the audience (he lived two blocks from the bookstore). Ike was happy that night. And that made me happy.

But I'll always remember that night for another reason: Dimitra. She was a graduate student of Ike's. She arrived with him and his wife, Mary, for the event. The moment he introduced us, I was overcome by an ineffable sense that my life would never quite be the same again. That proved to be exactly the case. Hurricane Dimitra turned my life upside down. It has inhabited and haunted me since.

It seems significant somehow that I met Dimitra that night, in that place, on that occasion, through Ike. Our mutual connection to him brought our orbits into collision and gave us a matrix of ideas, stories and points of reference that were there, from the get-go. There's something lyrical to me about Ike's role in this fateful chapter of my life.

For two and a half decades now, Ike's friendship has meant the world to me. He has been an intellectual inspiration, a political comrade, a personal confidant, a tennis partner, a trader in puns, a kindred spirit. How fortuitous that I should have stumbled upon that issue of Telos that afternoon. My life has been enriched profoundly by Ike's friendship, and I am deeply grateful to him for that.