Why I’m Not A Radical

There are individual exceptions; but so far as a man sees the need for converting himself as well as the World, he is approximating to the religious point of view. But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad after-effects.
-T. S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society”

There is a great deal that annoys me about Thomas Stearns Eliot. It is impossible to read his prose without a painful awareness of the ideological constriction and suffocated certitude through which he apologized for his own high-walled life. I have no real sympathy for his conversion to Catholicism, or for his pale vision of a “Christian society” that would repress without being repressive, and that would look a lot like Plato’s Republic while somehow remaining loyal to the sacrifice on the Cross.

Still, from my own secular point of view, this quote from his essay is timely. Looking back on the history of my own life, it seems as though the greatest mistakes I have made, I have made out of a commitment to what I thought of as radicalism.

The concept of the “radical” has a vulgar application, meaning anything provocative and highly different from the norm; that is not what I mean here. By “radical,” I mean those ideas and persons who commit themselves to something like a total break with the normal practices and politics of our contemporary life. There are assorted versions of this; sometimes, the notion of radicalism attaches itself to some other ideology, such as feminism, deconstruction, or Marxism.

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?


I attended a high school that departed in major ways from convention. There were sixty students, and most of the classes were structured as independent studies. The school was Wiccan/shamanistic in orientation; although it was a public school, it was explicitly religious. Each morning, we participated in group meditation, followed by all kinds of activities ranging from political discussion to group therapies. We had celebrations for the solstice, and spent five days each year together in the woods, acting out a series of ceremonies. The ceremonies were, to the best of my knowledge, cobbled together from pop psychology, Carlos Castaneda, Wicca, and assorted other hippie sources.

To the extent that the school functioned as a hothouse for independent learning, it was remarkably successful. A lot of students went to good colleges; a lot of the rest went immediately into music, or web design, or massage therapy, or followed other passions. However, to the extent that the school was a massive experiment in religiously-oriented group psychology, it was an irresponsible and coercive mess. Students were occasionally traumatized by the ceremonies — for example, during one where they were instructed to criticize each other. We were immersed in New Age ideology, and discouraged from asking questions.

When the school worked, it worked according to a student-centric model with an immense tradition behind it; where it failed, it failed because it relied on sociological and psychological theories invented out of thin air, such as the admitted fictions of Castaneda’s shamanism.

This is, I think, where we have to begin: by studying the ways that we can use history to our advantage. I have been struck, in considering the spread of vegetarianism and veganism, by the way that people who don’t eat meat make use of all sorts of other traditional foods: tofu, seitan, a variety of grains, curry, falafel, and so on. It’s one form of personal radicalization (one I have yet to adopt, as it happens), and it works by bricolage.

It seems to me that the most important changes have roots that go deep into history, on the level of mass action and within the lives of individuals. The new indie movement in pop music, which was fueled by music piracy and Internet distribution, has encouraged a return to older, scaled-down models of performance. Many of the turns taken by blogging have predecessors in the pamphlets and occasional writing of the 18th Century. Collective, non-hierarchical resistance has a history. Gender subversion has a history.

Radicalism, with its dramatic gestures of alienation, has become a model for the entertainment industry. Its promises are deformed by advertisements that sell us the image of transformed lives, and by the escapist strain in Hollywood. Radicalism is the watchword for pushing the envelope, and forcing the moment to its crisis. The universal desire that something “different” or “miraculous” happen is radical to the core, as is the belief in destiny. In the academy, radicalism has produced an untenable extremity of critique. In political movements, it has led to divisiveness and a hysterical contempt for other people’s personal decisions and limits.

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.