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A parable inspired by a story that just keeps getting told because it just keeps happening.

Tenured professor gets stirred up, feels his moment in the sun of history is upon him, and leads his students up on the barricades, departmental or university-wide. Things are heady for a bit, and then, as is wont to happen, less heady. And then the inevitable reaction comes, the blowback that always occurs occurs. Said tenured professor is immune, because said professor is, yes, tenured. But the junior staff and grad students that followed him up there, well, they are not. They learn new lessons, lessons on the meaning of words like “blacklist” and “Barnes and Noble.” The tenured professor, when he has time in the evenings, writes letters of deep appreciation and support to his students, now ex-students and under-employed, thanking them for their service to the Cause. Perhaps he even facebook friends them, because he is just that sort of guy.

Students listen to their teachers. Why wouldn’t they? There is nothing worse than the look that you get from people younger than you are and who look up to you when you let a Cause down. Sometimes you do it out of self-interest, but mostly you see what is coming up the pike, slightly more clearly than they do as you’ve been around the block a few times, have heard all the stories about how these things go, and worry about their welfare, spending all that they have and are on a fight that won’t be won.

I’ve been there, and have made the right decisions at the right times. Thank Christ for that. I’m there to help them stay in the business, not usher them out of it in a blaze of hypocritical glory. Just saying.

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October 7, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Posted in academia

27 Responses

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  1. “I’m there to help them stay in the business” is, one must admit, a far more concise formulation than Althusser’s, regarding the function you affirm:

    “…the School (and the School/Family couple) constitutes the dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Apparatus playing a determinant part in the reproduction of the relations of production of a mode of production….”

    jane

    October 8, 2009 at 2:18 am

  2. That’s not a parable, that’s an extremely thinly veiled attack on someone. As they’ve noticed.

    Owen

    October 8, 2009 at 3:40 pm

  3. Damn, Owen now you’ve made me more curious.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 8, 2009 at 8:22 pm

  4. jane,

    Right. And boy does it ever make it complicated to work in one!

    Owen,

    Not sure you understand what a parable is, but that’s OK. Was Christ just free associating when he told the Prodigal Son story, or did he intend it to have resonance in context?

    The parable in question is actually amalgamated out of several real-world instances that I had reason to think about the other day for reasons having nothing to do with the blog.

    You know, in general, I know you’re a busy man… But it might be nice if, when you came over here, you actually tell me what’s wrong or right with my posts rather than simply slapping my hand. Do you agree or disagree with the point of my parable? Do you agree or disagree with the points I raise on other threads? I suspect it might be rather interesting to hear what you say about these issues.

    Ads

    October 9, 2009 at 7:44 am

  5. Ads:

    OK, OK, as you ask I’ll expand a bit here, as it’s clearly rude and amiss of me to leave a one-liner and then ignore you. I certainly didn’t intend to ‘slap your hand’ – the reason why I seldom comment here is more because of general agreement than any other reason – but the ‘parable’ made me lose my rag for reasons I will get to imminently.

    First of all, dysphoria. As far as I’m concerned, where this originally comes from in K-P, via this post, most of which turns up in his forthcoming Zero book. The post is a reaction to extremely high level of dysphoria and mental illness of one sort or another clearly suffered by his students at an FE college in suburban south London. Like most of outer London it’s partly working class, partly middle; partly white, partly not – though I doubt very, very much that the relative levels of dysphoria in those classrooms could be broken down along race and class terms. Anyway, its aim, which I think it at least achieves with great success, is to a) diagnose what produces this extreme unhappiness in political terms and b) to politicise it and extend it into conscious critique and potential destruction of the society that makes them unhappy. Now b) is, to coin a phrase, that simple thing so hard to achieve – but I think doing a) means you’re already halfway there.

    Quite simply, in the west the risk of actually starving is extremely low, so the notion that depression is a luxury felt only by those who can feed themselves is neither here nor there, if we’re talking about a politics in the countries where we live and work, which unless we’re planning on agitating abroad is the only place where we’re going to do it. The Western working and (much of the) middle classes are exploited, insecure and, particularly now, at extreme risk in one of the most basic areas of life – housing. They are also clearly, in the US and UK, more unhappy than they have been in more socially equitable circumstances. In this sense I don’t see why Militant Dysphoria is such an extraordinary idea – in a way it appears to me as the revolutionary equivalent to the reformism of, say, Oliver James’ writings on ‘Affluenza’ or Madeleine Bunting’s book on neoliberalism and overwork – sharing their concentration on personal affects and illness and taking it to places theoretical, political and aesthetic that liberals like James or Bunting would find deeply uncomfortable. Capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal varieties, produces its own forms of unhappiness and mental disorder, and while that doesn’t exclude the possibility that one can be apolitically unhappy, I don’t think that’s necessarily what militant dysphoria is about.

    What is most important in all this, I think, is the question of how to affectively appeal to the young, the people who (unlike you or I) feel no longing for Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Scargill, the WPA or Otto Neurath. First of all, the young are often consumers of a mass culture – particularly in music – which comments on, incarnates, commodifies, spectacularises their dysphoria, and I see no reason why discussion of that music is so ill-advised (I detect, not necessarily in your own writing here but certainly in some of the comments, a snobbery that one might discuss these matters through Morrissey and Ian Curtis, Dizzee Rascal, George Romero or Xasthur, as if this somehow proves the discussion is *not serious*, is mere adolescent posturing). Second, the young are potentially more receptive to a politics which engages with that culture than they are, I suspect, to my liking for the Piccadilly line or GLC architecture, although I don’t imagine the two to be mutually exclusive. It’s a question of presentation.

    On that question of presentation, I also detect – again, more from sundry commenters than yourself – a different snobbery. That is, that by marketing ourselves, by allegedly trying to become a ‘movement’, the writers involved with Zero books are making some huge mistake/cheapening (heaven forbid!) our work/selling out/speaking in soundbites. Now, if anything, the reason for any attempt to present a united front, is so this conversation does not stay within the confines of the blogosphere and small groups, but actually manages to speak to people outside of them altogether – something which, may I add, Zero has been doing very successfully so far. I’m not interested in keeping my hands clean, and if a bit of alliteration and sloganeering constitutes giving in to the Man then I’ll bear that particular cross.

    Second thing: politics of the worst/accelerationism. As it happens, this is an issue where I agree with you more than most. The notion of accelerationism defended by Splintering Bone Ashes is something I’ve explicitly argued against on my blog, and I’m a lot more supportive of say, the climate camp, everyday protest etc than Mark or Alex, although these forms of action do have enormous limitations. I don’t think that this is necessarily the same thing as militant dysphoria however, and I think you’re conflating two largely unconnected phenomena, perhaps because of a shared imagery of darkness and negativity. Which brings us to:

    Your ‘parable’ and the UC Occupation. Firstly, I doubt the Prodigal Son was actually in the audience when Jesus was doing his thing, but we’ll let that pass. I suspect – you haven’t made it clear aside from in the form of the ‘parable’ – that you regard the slogans and communiques of UC occupation as an example of either (or both) accelerationism and militant dysphoria, and oppose them for that reason. Fine, that’s a tenable position – argue it! What I have a major problem with is the logic of your parable itself, in that it is immensely similar to a right-wing idea of what militant action is like. We could imagine it rendered in the Telegraph, where a ‘union baron’ ‘feels his moment in the sun of history is upon him’ brings workers out on strike, keeps his job, while around 98% of them lose theirs (the latter was certainly the denouement in, say, the 84-85 miners strike). It’s a strike-breaking argument, it assumes that strikes and occupations happen because charismatic leaders make them happen, that those involved in them, be they postal workers or grad students, are dupes of their leaders, that the most salient thing about them is the leadership. I’m surprised you can’t see why this is a politically dubious line of argument, whatever view one takes about the UC tactics and slogans. On which note, their approach – judging merely by the fact that two recent articles in the far from ultraleft Guardian refers to them in a positive manner, the latter linking it with the militancy of the factory occupations in the UK and Latin America, and to the ‘Idea of Communism’ conference, putting them on the same plane – seems not to be as adventurist as you or I might first assume.

    Finally, the question of reformism and positive politics. I’m by no means an unambiguous fan of reformism. We could agree on the NHS and Frank Pick’s London Underground as examples of ‘good’ reformism. Now the latter, wonderful as it was, as much as its architecture and design approached a modernist potlatch, principally existed so as to get city workers from the outer suburbs – the outer suburbs which were literally created by the Underground in order to sell season tickets and keep the shareholders’ dividends coming in – into the financial district of London in order to gamble on the stockmarket and to administrate a brutal colonial empire. No document of civilisation which is not also a document of barbarism. The NHS isn’t nearly so ambiguous, but there is an argument to be made that successions of extremely rightwing governments in the UK have tolerated it because it muffles discontent and keeps the middle and working classes just healthy enough.

    At the moment, both reformism and revolution are extremely weak. If there were a serious reformism of an Olaf Palme or Nye Bevan sort around right now (some of those in Compass might conceivably be going in that direction, but I doubt it), we would be stupid not to support it. There isn’t. At the moment, it’s an open question as to whether ‘we are the crisis’ or ‘build council homes/build better public services rather than bailing out bankers’ is the better form of propaganda. I, like you, am closer to the latter, but I don’t think the former should be dismissed. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to at once utilise the bad passions – the depression or anxiety churned out by the system as it currently is, the class resentment I have written about elsewhere – along with an appeal to the possibility of constructing something better. It is a question of emphasis, and hence something we can and should be discussing in a comradely, sympathetic manner (which I admit I haven’t done until this needlessly lengthy comment).

    Owen

    October 9, 2009 at 2:34 pm

  6. (can’t …. resist … must… comment…)

    I was not saying Zero-istes are selling out, I’m saying that, like an advert for a car that promises freedom or independence, they promise something (to describe how an alternative politics can emerge from cultural critique) and simply do not deliver this, and then get huffy when this is pointed out. It’s like this enormous elephant in the room you all seem to have agreed not to mention.

    Gabe

    October 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm

  7. By ‘Zero authors’ I presume you mean ‘me’, as mine is the only one you’ve read, as you’ve mentioned elsewhere here.

    Anyway, I already replied to this (huffily or not, but 1000 words of huff if so) when you emailed me your point-by-point critique an impressive three days after my book was published, and I’d refer you to that email, where I conceded that the passage from critique to positive proposals/construction is an extremely difficult one that I don’t think we’ve sorted out. Anyway, suffice to say neither I, nor Mark, nor Nina, nor Dominic are offering a blueprint for a new society. I don’t recall any ‘THIS BOOK OFFERS AN ALTERNATIVE POLITICS OR YOUR MONEY BACK!’ sticker. I do think that a) a consciousness, a precise outlining of various things that are wrong with this society and an attempt to untie the excuses that we make for it are a step towards the possible creation of a better one, and b) that, in MM, there is a list of cultural things from the past, built or otherwise – communal housing, Reichian psychoanalysis, particular kinds of city planning, new musics and their means of production and distribution – which I argue potentially (obviously potentially, as otherwise we’d be half-way towards building it ourselves) enable different ways of living, and explicitly or implicitly, those new ways of living would entail a new kind of society. You reserve your right to be unconvinced, but don’t act as if we haven’t thought about this stuff.

    Owen

    October 9, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  8. Owen,

    I’m a little worried the snobbery comment is partly directed my way based on some snarky twitter updates I’ve posted. I’ll lay my cards out on the table from the get go – I have never found K-Punk’s writings helpful or interesting to any project I’ve ever been involved with and I tend to have an allergic reaction against the kind of contrarianism present in his waving off of actual political action coupled with a kind of impotent smugness that turns my stomach. That said, I know he’s a lot of people’s friend and so I tend to keep my mouth shut about it all. So, my problem isn’t with investigated cultural expressions like Dizzy Rascal or Ian Curtis or pop music in general (ok, I sometimes think some of the stuff on Michael Jackson is a bit Euro in a way that my American soul just doesn’t understand), hell I do the same thing with movies and just lack the talent to do it with music. My problem is putting so much emphasis, treating an aesthetic choice as a kind of political commitment on par with choosing to march or super-gluing your body to a power plant. It’s a kind of thinking that I think leads to flash mobs being seen as political efficacious or it repeats a kind of Bonoism except we can call it, following the fashion of the day, “Dark Bonoism”.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm

  9. Ooops. OK, sorry, maybe you’re right. And I do appreciate that I am sort of complaining about the free ice cream.

    Gabe

    October 9, 2009 at 5:48 pm

  10. OK Owen – looks like you may be referring to my ‘snobbish’ comments. I’m not out to attack the work done at Zero books, or indeed the writers involved (most of whom are excellent, including yourself). I don’t think its a ‘sellout’ (even though there’s a fair amount of ‘branding’).

    What I don’t ‘get’ is how ‘militant dysphoria’ is in any way a political (for want of a better word) or indeed cultural ‘innovation’. Popular (youth) culture now is de rigeur ‘dysmorphic’ – endless nihilistic horror movies, vampires, zombies, ‘dark’ re-inventions of old kiddie charcters, teen novels about suicide and teenage prostitution, apocalyptic games etc. etc. Yes, by all means engage with that culture – but where does it stop just being sussed punditry and start becoming ‘radical’?

    I’ve worked with the young for many years (from comfy middle class to shunted around the care system) and their consumer interests are indeed ultra-dysmorphic: numbingly so. Youthful morbidity (which has been around a long time) is easily marketed to, cultivated and handy for seperating class/race/gender/nation etc. as a ‘demographic’. how does emphasising a lack of community, depression and alienation

    Much of their entertainment is basically about a resigned acceptance/celebration of this seperation. A lot of the writing you’re defending seems to fall short of offering ‘real’ world analysis of why this might be the case. If they feel no longing for Nye Bevan etc. they couldn’t give less of a shit about Morrissey and Ian Curtis (and do we really need more words on these over-documented, over-analysed figures?).

    If its to be political, it has to go some way towards motivation and action. The point is to change it, after all. The cultivation of a ‘depression industry’ – whether its the therapy racket or a rock band singing about the holocaust – ultimately works towards the opposite.

    I should also make clear that I admire most of the writers’ work a great deal, so much that I’m somewhat disappointed by what I see as a theoretical dead end.

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 6:11 pm

  11. ‘how does emphasising a lack of community, depression and alienation…’

    Sorry – this sentence should end with:

    …bring about any ‘consciousness’ about the relationship of the subject to society, its economics and power relations, instead of just giving a respectable ‘cool’ to wallowing in the horror and making sure your ipod playlists suit your self-image?

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 6:24 pm

  12. OK sure, but I think you’re misunderstanding what Dominic is trying to do. The notion is emphatically not ‘join us, we’re miserable’. Put better: For some reason I’ve not yet been able to fathom, various people have taken it to mean, essentially, “dysphoria – that’s the tonic!”. No. What the attempt is, rightly or wrongly, is to at first discuss, analyse, explore dysphoria, and its links to both politics and our unfortunate maladapted relation with the world and ourselves, and second, attempt to politicise it. Dominic’s example is Ulrike Meinhof, although in Cold World he is clear that, despite agreeing with her move from depression to praxis, the praxis itself was not enormously clever or successful. Now in order to speak about and politicise this dysphoria, we have to speak in terms of the cultural artefacts listed above, not in terms of ‘dude, you listen to Burzum – well so do I, now here’s a copy of Capital‘ – but taking them seriously, thinking and writing about why these phenomena have such appeal among the young (and to us) and what they can or cannot offer us as we try to move beyond the society that produces them.

    Incidentally, I note nobody seems anywhere near as bothered about my liking for one-time actual unambiguous Fascist Wyndham Lewis (which takes up a fair chunk of the first chapter of MM), but they are about Dominic’s discussion of black metal. I’m afraid that disparity suggests snobbery to me.

    Incidentally, any politics of dysphoria which cannot accommodate or align itself with a politics of construction doesn’t interest me – but I don’t think that is the case with either Dominic or Mark. Actually, the former got some stick at the Militant Dysphoria event at Goldsmiths for precisely this reason, for attempting to politicise, for suggesting that the cold world might actually be worth emerging out of – for stealing the non-enjoyment of the Bataille contingent. Similarly, the Morrissey/Ian Curtis discussion was spurred by a taxonomic comment on the day itself, so I have no idea why it’s being taken as some sort of statement of intent.

    And by the way, the idea that young folk don’t listen to the latter two figures is odd – there’d be a damn sight less poor imitations of both plying their trade if that were so.

    Owen

    October 9, 2009 at 6:50 pm

  13. Owen,
    Thanks for clearing up some points, even if much of the M.D. stuff reads like a post-rave Frankfurt School (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    You’re probably ‘forgiven’ for FW Lewis due to the ‘seductive’ aspects of writing. Some can engage and convince, but some can’t no matter what their stance is.

    But I’m afraid this:

    http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/

    Reads like and RCP/Spiked member writing for NME in the early 80s. The hubristic tone of it all (obviously a ‘non-debatable’ response to this comments box) is only motivating the ‘praxis’ that I cancel my order for his book. Take it from this ‘grey vampire’, sometimes too much attention can produce its own distorted libidinal impulses…

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 7:37 pm

  14. I’ll second that, Wayne. I don’t care how much crossover there is in our personal political goals or taste in music (less Curtis, more M.E.S.), I can’t trust anyone who pulls from Karl Rove’s playbook. The only thing radical about insulating oneself from every external & potentially “corruptive” influence is how fantastically off-the-mark the end results will be if one is wrong. And you’d think part of meditating upon dysphoria would be entertaining the possibility that maybe one is wrong.

    Seb

    October 10, 2009 at 4:43 am

  15. Owen,

    Ah, geez, what an excellent comment! Thanks for leaving it. Obviously we shouldn’t be punchy with one another. We do have far too much in common in terms of what we’re thinking through – and, in fact, the differences in our approach are exactly the sort that make for fruitful disagreement rather than the other kind. So it’s very good of you to write such a detailed response.

    On MD: This is a very clear explanation of some of what’s going on, and thank you for it. Obviously I am only responding to blogposts – which seem fair game as we are after all bloggers, all of us – and you’ve read the book.

    The problem that I have had with what I’ve seen so far from Mark is not the identification or description of dysphoria, which of course exists and I think he gets it very much right, but the recurrent embrace of dysphoria as a kind of end. I can anticipate you responding that he does not do this… But in the blogposts, he does, over and over again. I think that I understand why he does – to work another way with it, to advocate the identification and then purging of the dysphoria (whether individually or socially) would lead him directly into the James / Bunting camp that you rightly mention. Mark seems to want his book to resist both capitalist dysphoria and liberal reformist attempts to cure it – which is smart, the right thing to do. But it’s also, yep as you say, “that simple thing so hard to achieve.” I’m not sure just gesturing towards another way will do, in this case. And the self-marketing that he’s done of his idea seems to give the impression that he’s sorted it out. But it remains, from what I can see, mostly gesture and not necessarily the right sort of gesture.

    Just to say it one more time one more way: It’s all well and good to write Anti-Affluenza. But it needs to do more than simply declare that that’s what it is. It needs to be it. And simply saying “we need more organisation and militancy” isn’t a sufficient answer.

    (Meta-biographical point: I think the fact that I came of intellectual age in the climate of the late 1990s, the era of rising tide lifting all boats, has had a formative influence on my intellectual bearings, where I think the goalposts are. While I have always completely resisted the claims and arguments of neoliberalism, I learned to take them very seriously, as they, well, tended to win and win all the time. To get into this fully, I’d need another post – but let’s just put it this way for now: I tend to go by the idea that if I can’t come up with something substantively better – and actually workable – than the stream of liberal reformist writers out there, it’s best to work harder until I come up with the answer than to blurt some sort of half-baked, gestural negativity. It lets the side down when you do that – and ultimately leads to “us” being taken even less seriously than we already are…. Again, I need a full post – or several – to describe this fully….)

    I agree about the Ian Curtis / Piccadilly Line distinction, and I further agree that they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – as you’ve so often and so vividly shown. I’m not snobby about cultural products – and I’m even less confident that my vivid readings of Madame Bovary are going to result in the cessation of privatisation etc. But it is at the same time, obviously, important to make sure that what one’s making of these things actually makes good sense. High cultural texts are less dangerous than low ones, because no one really cares about them, and they’ve been so circumscribed that a lot of the danger and contingency have been taken out of them.

    I suppose if I have a problem with the Zero model at all, it’s related to all that I’ve said above. There’s obviously absolutely nothing wrong with marketing the books by whatever means possible – one puts things in print so that they are read, and in order to get read, people have to hear about them and want them. (Readers will note that a week or so ago I caught someone reading Militant Modernism on the bus in my not-very-downtown neighborhood on Saturday morning… Super excited I was to see that, and texted Owen immediately to say so…) No, if I’ve ever used “marketing” as a perforative in this discussion and in re Zero, I am using it somewhat abstractly – I am worried about argumentative overreach, making claims that fall flat because they’re not worked through all the way to the end, promise more than they deliver, and get vague at just the wrong place. (See above. And also, of course, as I’ve said elsewhere recently, I definitely don’t think this is a problem that affects your MM). And as I also said recently, some of this attitude has to do with living through the apex and rapid collapse of Theory in America. We definitely need another sort of “Affluenza” – we just want to make sure that we actually get it somewhat right when it comes, or else we’ll just be marginalised even more than we are.

    I am going to write more about the UC thing – or at least the Communique – soon. I understand that it was easy to misinterpret what I was doing with that post. I am not trying to make the “strike breaking” argument. But I will also say that academia is a funny sort of business, and one that involves a complex set of ethics. Or perhaps they’re not so strange. I really want to avoid saying anything (else) half-handedly here – but I promise to post something more substantive soon.

    Or perhaps I can say something obliquely about all that by responding to your next point: we agree about the civilisation / barbarism issue, even or especially when it comes to the things that we love. I suppose “destroy the university, the handmaiden of capital” type arguments rub me the wrong way for exactly this reason, they fail to be responsible to the inevitable and persistent double-sidedness of such things. Of course the university is tainted, just as the underground and the NHS are, with the barbarism and exploitation that built them, and of course they muffle discontent. But I’m simply not sure I buy the idea that deprived of medical care or education, the masses will take up arms. After all, these things don’t exist in the first place all over the world – and where they do exist they’ve been whittled away for years.

    Hasn’t it long been established that populations stage revolutions when the tides are rising, not when they’re locked in the hardness of penury and, well, dysphoria? When they’ve gotten a taste of the bounties to come, but structures exist to prohibit taking what they increasingly perceive to be their right? And now we’re right back to the start of this discussion, aren’t we? Of course there are exceptions, but they’re extremely far from conclusive. And the added bonus is that if I’m wrong, I’ve not got people without medical care / students without universities weighing on my soul. If the other side’s wrong…. Well…

    In short: I resist this longstanding mythology, this cliche, that suggests that there is a mutually exclusive relationship between reform and revolution. It’s unscientific, and if pushed I’d say it’s some sort of vengeful turn of the spirit of capitalism itself – deferral of pleasure-taking and profit-taking, a sense that before the bounty there has to be a requisite period of immiseration… even self-immiseration. I have a feeling that you and I are, in a deep way, on the same page with this in the end.

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    October 10, 2009 at 9:01 am

  16. Seb,

    I’m definitely not writing another response to another grey vampire post. The fact that someone who wants to be taken seriously as a cultural-political writer says something like I’ve gotta be me – fuck whether I’m wrong or right… pretty much signals that there’s no more work to be done here, as far as I’m concerned.

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    October 10, 2009 at 9:16 am

  17. Anthony,

    I understand if your stylistic and political sensibilities clash with k-punk’s, but I’m not sure I understand your reproach here. I’ve been reading k-punk for quite some time, and I am perplexed as to how his writing allegedly reduces to endless contrariness and impotent smugness…these days especially, he writes almost as much about the problems with existing political and apolitical social tendencies as he does suggest the positive potentials lurking within. Obviously the comments are to a large extent provisional and incomplete, but as Owen suggests above, they are no less a first step on that account. Moreover, I’d rather have those comments kept provisional, allowing their practical explication to come in tandem with a more concrete engagement with the tendencies in question. If you haven’t found these ideas useful for your purposes, well, I don’t see how that’s a reproach to those ideas. I think the question should be whether they actively undermine or inspire action which undermines those purposes and causes, or on the other hand, whether they can operate side-by-side without antagonism. I have a feeling that this eliminativism regarding political positions with which one disagrees is nothing more than a relic of the bad-faith Marxist mindset that has really cut short all theoretical work on the radical left since, well, since Marx’s day really, in the spat with Bakunin and others.

    As for the point about treating aesthetic sensibilities themselves as political positions – I don’t think the sort of Marxism that Mark, and myself, subscribe to would legitimately allow the separation of the neutral sphere of taste from the relations of social production. There is really no part of oneself, no little habit or preference or sentiment, which is not somehow bound up with larger social tendencies, themselves deeply embedded in political systems (typically depoliticizing politics these days). The point isn’t that listening to this band makes you as politically active as an environmental activist – the problem is that, in listening to this band, we almost uniformly abstract away from the political positions embedded within it’s popular efficacy, and thereby depoliticize it and ourselves in the process. The problem isn’t to show how people who listen to black metal are already political, but rather, to show why they aren’t political, but also why this distance from politics is itself a political position which must be challenged.

    I really don’t understand how, at least since Adorno, if not since Marx himself, one can honestly act as if aesthetics is anything but political. Phenomena like popular music groups and popular nervous disorders, when treated as apolitical, certainly inspire nothing but complacency. But they do have tangible political cores which, if explicated and ‘marketed’ alongside those phenomena themselves, could becomes sites of inspiring resistance amongst those who so often rest in the depoliticized condition they see in the very culture around them. This is certainly not the only political task, but I do think it is a crucial one, especially given the leverage such cultural products have in the libidinal economy of disaffected and potentially mobilized youths.

    I hope you don’t take this as an attack, but rather, as Owen says above, ‘It is a question of emphasis, and hence something we can and should be discussing in a comradely, sympathetic manner’. I just don’t like to see unnecessary bitterness growing between people who I consider both friends and valued political allies.

    Reid Kane

    October 10, 2009 at 11:52 am

  18. ‘Mobilising youth’? The idea that ‘youth’ carries revolutionary potential is a rather quaint baby boomer notion. Lest we forget those baby boomers gave us the world we now have. Politicising psychological disorder and popular culture is very much a product of said generation (whether its R.D. Laing or Greil Marcus) – and arguably has led to the political cul-de-sac of focussing on the ‘inward’ and aesthetic.

    If the intention is to create a music-loving vanguard on the campus, good luck with that – squeezed as they are between signing ‘attendance agreements’ to ensure uni funding is maintained, and working 30 hours (non-unionised of course) on top of that to pay the rent. Maybe they can squeeze in ten minutes to download the latest Shakira hit (or indeed satisfy those naively physical ‘libidinal impulses’). And that’s just the middle-class ones.

    My mother is deeply ‘dysmorphic’ (try watching TV with anyone over 55 and watch their bewilderment), and has pretty much the same diagnosis of social malaise as the M.D. writers (without requiring reference to French philosphers). However, if I were to bring up George Romero or Joy Division (or even Zizek – his self-publicity has gone a loooong way) she’d benignly wonder why I’m not applying my political energies to something a little more substantial – in a time of imperialist invasions, wages and benefit cuts and nazis on prime time TV.

    wayne

    October 10, 2009 at 12:26 pm

  19. As these things are all mutually exclusive, for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom.

    Owen

    October 10, 2009 at 12:31 pm

  20. Reid,

    I don’t see K-Punk as a political ally and that is because I don’t see him as a practical or theoretical ally. Like I’ve said before, I tend not to say this stuff because in the circles I run in the man is somewhat sacrosanct. I’m reticent to go into it now, as I’m not sure it is worth arguing against a position unless it is actually dangerous. In some ways I see his arguments undercutting support for important ACTUAL activism like Climate Camp amongst lefty intellectuals, but I doubt they’d listen to me anyway and so I’m not sure it is worth going on about. I’ll wager that I am correct in calling it an impotent smugness that cascades his dark Bonoism.

    I was careful in my original comment not to say that the aesthetic and political are unrelated. Still, and this is a problem in Adorno too with his writings on jazz, there is a real tendency to conflate aesthetic decisions with political ones in an over determined manner. There is a certain sense that, “I have the right politics AND I listen to the right music, whereas these fucks listen to that poser shit.” That moves outside of the realm of practice and theory and becomes nothing interesting at all. To me.

    Of course, I have an aesthetico-political reaction going on here. I recognize that. Still, I don’t feel like there is anything to argue with here because someone like myself, someone who thinks and has seen the scientific evidence for the overwhelming need to address environmental issues in tandem if not before social-justice issues, has already been categorized and placed in the etymology book of incorrect “vitalist common sense”. There is a moralism inherent to all of this, albeit a dark moralism, that means there is no room for argument. So, for me anyway, I see no space available to discussing this in a comradely, sympathetic manner. Tactically that would mean that I would have to change my discourse to match the dysphoric discourse. It would mean, essentially, giving up from the start.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 10, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    • Anthony,

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the first point, because in both his writing and private conversation, I’ve seen nothing deriding or condemning political activism. He is critical, and I think rightly, of the temptation to make the admittedly clear scientific evidence for the necessity of intervening on climate change (as well as feel-good Bono-politics of curing all the world’s diseases and feeding the hungry, etc) a means of removing the political emphasis from these problems – they become administrative difficulties that someone has overlooked, and we have to fight to get capital and state to fix their accidental oversights. It’s a matter of using such clear problems as a means of undermining the real political task of not only fixing them, but recognizing what caused them to happen and how we can fundamentally change that system itself. So the criticism isn’t directed at activists themselves, who are doing great work for the most part, but at the ideology operative not only amongst them, but amongst the population at large and in the media especially, that this is simply an unfortunate mistake and not a symptom of a fundamentally flawed political-economic system that deserves to be replaced.

      Obviously that is easier said than done, and no one is suggesting we postpone all action until we’ve gotten rid of capitalism or something vulgar like that. We want activists to do what they do (for the most part), and I for one want to join them in whatever capacity I can, even if its just moral support for now. The question is one of how to prevent such activism from playing into the very system which created the problems it is attempting to solve, and how to get apolitical people active by undermining the ideological fantasy that ‘the activists, those subjects-supposed-to-act, and the government, will take care of climate change for us’.

      Now if we can, say, get the major contributing factors of climate change cut by means of assistance from the state and capital, and do so expediently, that’s great and we should obviously do it. I’m all for it. And the same goes for Bono-style third-world relief (on a side note, I’m not sure why you’re equating k-punk with Bono, as even in your view he is opposed to these sorts of instant-cure solutions to big problems). The threat of this approach, however, is that it will then leave the very cause of the problems themselves untouched. Historically, whenever political movements have forced capital’s hand into cleaning up after itself, it has only reproduced those methods on ever more horrible scales, only doing so out of sight until it can systematically decimate the movement.

      I’m thinking, for example, of the labor movement in the US from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. Workers were forced into unbelievably harsh and dangerous conditions, working for terrible durations at minuscule pay – and not just adult male workers, but women and children as well. The labor movement eventually grew very strong in response to these atrocities, and indeed progressively challenged capital to such an extent that many of these conditions were corrected and replaced with far more tolerable forms of exploitation. But then what happened? Capital fled the country, beginning a campaign of stripping rural populations in ‘undeveloped countries’ of any possibility of subsistence in the traditional manner (just as it had done in Europe centuries prior), leaving them with no other option than consenting to reinstituted forms of labor exploitation more horrible than the relatively coddled workers in the west could now imagine. It wouldn’t make the same mistake of letting movements grow here, fleeing at the slightest hint of organization, thereby leaving the new workers in even more dire straights than the sweatshop. And back in the west (especially the US), the labor movement was systematically destroyed in only about two generations, while capital found ways to get around the now mandatory minimum working conditions by ever increasing the extraction of relative surplus value, chaining workers to ever increasing and ever more necessary amounts of debt, and undermining job security, thereby removing any possibility of leverage in the workplace.

      Sorry to get all preachy, but I’ve been studying this for a long time and it’s important to me. I think it serves as a telling example of what can happen when activism rests on the ‘solving of clear problems’ without simultaneously trying to undermine the conditions which created them. I’m not saying all activists fall prey to this kind of thinking, but it seems to these eyes at least that the general logic of activism has taken this form. I don’t hear very many environmental activists, for example, claiming that capital is intrinsically a threat to our ecological existence, even if we ‘fix’ climate change – and rightfully so, given the extent to which such a claim would marginalize them. The goal is to undermine both the dominant logic at work and the discursive-libidinal conditions which necessitate it, not to deride the good work of activists themselves. I’ve never seen k-punk do the latter, unless you are referring to the potent critique of ‘activism’ content to protest a problem and wait for the state to respond.

      If you don’t think capital, upon capitulating to the environmental movement and doing something about climate change (or otherwise, doing something about conditions in Africa, or poverty worldwide), will circumvent the very intent of these reforms by finding ever newer and more insidious means of externalizing costs onto people and the environment, and moreover, will undermine the movement which forced its hand in the first place, then I’m worried. I think k-punk’s work is tremendously valuable for worrying about this longer-term question. The question is how to immunize such activism against this danger from the start (and also, how to repoliticize populations already stripped of the will to act), not how to undermine them from the start because they aren’t ‘dark’ enough.

      Okay, but if you don’t like his work for whatever reason, fine, I’m not going to try to convince you. I’ve said my piece. I’m not really sure how you’ve gotten the image of it you do have, but you’re free to have it nonetheless.

      Reid Kane

      October 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm

      • “I don’t hear very many environmental activists, for example, claiming that capital is intrinsically a threat to our ecological existence, even if we ‘fix’ climate change – and rightfully so, given the extent to which such a claim would marginalize them.”

        You must not hang out with a lot environmental activists!

        If you’re not trying to convince me then don’t try to convince me. Because when you write all this it makes me want to respond. Which will likely continue to bother you. I’ve written a little on it here if you care to read it. http://itself.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/marxism-and-environmentalism/

        Anthony Paul Smith

        October 10, 2009 at 2:04 pm

  21. Not mutually exclusive at all – but its a matter of what is foregrounded in M.D. discourse: minimum ‘base’ with an abundance of (highly selective) ‘superstructure’.

    ‘He fills his head with culture
    He feels just like an actor’

    ‘It’s all about the Benjamins’

    wayne

    October 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm

  22. See, already I’m really unsatisfied with this. Because instead of actually arguing for anything I have to endlessly go on about the conditions for debate that I see manifest in these conversations. I’ve essentially turned into a reactionary there and I would rather just not register my anger and become indifferent to them. Plus, many of the comments can become misunderstood.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 10, 2009 at 1:00 pm

  23. Just a quick aside in reply to one of Reid’s aside, without really getting into the substantial issues under discussion – Reid, I’m not convinced by your example about the US labor movement as the period of growth you cite was also the period in which there was the highest prevalence within the labor movement (and perhaps within any US social movement ever) of a perspective akin to that which you’re defending here (which I take to be something like a need to be aware that demands and struggles can be made into engines of capitalist development). So I don’t see how that example works in defense of your argument.
    cheers,
    Nate

    Nate

    October 10, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    • Nate,

      If that was truly a dominant tendency, then it seems strange that the movement would have pretty much run out of steam after securing what are now considered the standard regulations, rather than fundamentally challenging the mode of production itself. Of course, there was no small measure of repression, active and passive, involved in the undermining of that movement, but to blame its failure entirely on external factors is disingenuous. There was very likely some degree of reflective recognition of the kind you point out, but that’s not what I’m advocating. Rather, my point is that the goal must be to explicitly overturn capitalism, as this is the only way to prevent the appropriation of one’s struggle by one’s enemy. This sentiment was very marginal, and only became moreso during WWII and the red scares.

      Reid Kane

      October 11, 2009 at 12:14 pm

  24. […] turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For […]


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