It should be obvious that the term “radical” is now in trouble. The small cluster of blogs, including K-Punk and Antigram, that are most involved with Slavoj Zizek’s “radical” thought (more so, even, than Larval Subjects or Adam Kotsko) have been responding with intelligence and disappointment to Zizek’s review of the film 300, which he thought was a great example of discipline (the good guys) battling hedonism (the bad guys). Of course, Zizek could have done himself a favor by simply not publishing the review, but there is a larger problem here — in the face of a market-driven overload of meaningful pop culture, Zizek has begun to revert to an ideological stance that is exactly that of Vladimir Lenin circa What Is To Be Done?, and thus has made himself politically irrelevant despite his semblance of up-to-the-moment cultural engagement.
Variations on the same theme — the feeling that the question “What is to be done?” is being answered inadequately — are showing up all over the place. In fact, intellectually allied ideas travel so quickly around the blogosphere that all of the following posts are from the last two weeks. Forgive me for citing them all; frankly, I find such honesty as is being displayed here very exciting. Clearly, the combined pressure of 9/11, the Bush presidency, and the Iraq War have brought the conversation about theory to a boil. At I Cite, Jodi Dean wrote a terrific post (”Everything and Nothing“) in which she mourned the feeling of political disenfranchisement that the right-wing has done so much to encourage. She writes,
The question, then, is analyzing what is behind the feeling, the sense of inability and futility. And the sense isn’t one of the depoliticization but of the efficacy of a specific combination of right-wing politics. Consumerism adds to the problem: people want quick results.
The question of futility, of speaking but not being able to act, leads to the unfortunate problem of hypocrisy, noted by LarvalSubjects here:
It seems to me that theory as it is often practiced today is split between a surface theory that is published and a shadow theory that the theorist genuinely advocates. For instance, a theorist might publicly claim that all is signifiers and then go to the doctor to get checked for cancer. There seems to be a disadequation between what the theorist proclaims and what he really advocates.
Swifty, over at Long Sunday, just published a post about the possibility that Heideggerian studies are inadequate to the situation in Iraq:
The first line of [Heidegger’s essay] is “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Under what circumstances is a question like that going to arise? Shall we assume that the checkpoint scene described by Escobar [he witnesses a random shooting on an Iraq road] is one where such a question not only would not be asked, but would be regarded as perverse? Heidegger worries a lot about the claim that philosophy, in general, is useless, and that his philosophizing, in particular, exaggerates and intensifies this uselessness.
N. Pepperell, at Rough Theory, has been writing about the disillusionment of the Frankfurt School with conventional Marxism:
Such positive theories have suffered over the course of the 20th century for many reasons - not least of which is the historical disappointment that set in, as it was recognised that the targets of early Marxist theory could be overcome, without the result being emancipatory - that the institutions of private property and the market could be superceded by conscious planning, without greater freedom resulting as the intrinsic and inevitable counterpart of this transformation.(emphasis mine)
So, the effort that philosophy (and even, one might say, speculative thinking in general) makes to be adequate and relevant to lived experience faces a series of problems:
1. The political experience of futility;
2. The risk of a comfortable hypocrisy;
3. The regression, however honest, to a useless earlier formulation (Zizek’s Leninism);
4. The perverse preference for theoretical speculation over a confrontation with real traumas;
5. The possibility that even realizing theoretical goals will not lead to freedom.
Which leads us finally to petitpoussin, who puts the question with her typical, startling directness:
Right now I’m in the midst of plans for a Big Move, which brings to mind all the opportunities and potential disasters that big changes can bring. How can I use relocation as a chance to move my life more in line with my beliefs? How can I turn my own ‘radical’ self into my daily self? Very importantly, what resources can I find to move beyond what I can do and start working for an ‘us’? You know, the question all progressives ask about being a part of real change: Where to begin?
Our lives are already striated by real, irreversible, involuntary change. Calling something like the Internet “radical” is pointless, because the word is actually inadequate. Radicalism is finally the rhetoric of defeat; ultimately, the entities that want the most change, the fastest, are corporations. I’ve seen a corporation turn an entire forest into a field of pampas grass in the space of a month; I’ve seen a handful of them re-form the whole business district of a town in a year. Corporations uproot populations and “create jobs” to take the place of native economies. They introduce new products, new technologies, new additives, new fertilizers, new markets, new kinds of international politics. An excess of history makes a corporation suffer. It can’t afford old employees, outmoded practices, waterlogged bureaucracies, or obsolete equipment.
And, in the name of resisting all of this, we have saddled ourselves with the wretched belief that our efforts are inadequate, and our goals unknowable. It is a fundamental mistake. All resistance should be aimed at protecting those processes of development and change that are slow enough to have a past; resistance derives its strength from the slow time of human life, including the continual grief of repressed cultural or personal identity, and the protracted agonies of living under oppression. Each step forward should be so fully comprehended, and massively parallel, that it endures.
It is the only possible approach for someone devoted to literature. Works of art help change to ripen, measuring its costs carefully, and calling it by old names. Published in: Art & Aesthetics Utopian thought Ethics & Morality Philosophy Politics Personalon May 4, 2007 at 1:08 am The Kugelmass Episodes What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence