In response to Jodi Dean, on radicalism

Her post, and this post as a comment with uncooperative formatting, is here.

First, radicalism does not have to be a rhetoric of defeat–and I don’t think it always is. I think of Hugo Chavez, my current favorite example of everything. It seems to me odd to jump to the conclusion that radicalism is indistinguishable from an already present or assumed defeat. That capitalism has its own forms of radicalism, and has appropriate most–if not all–of what might be associated with radicalism does not mean that everything is already lost, absorbed, defeated.

I agree with this, and admire much of what Chavez has done. However, for me to call myself a radical, as an aspiring academic in California, is more an act of identification among communities than a specific statement of belief, and I no longer believe the communities calling themselves radical represent our best hope for change. When it is a question of identifying yourself with something, the rule is more important than the exceptions. Neither does the Democratic Party, incidentally, but I’m happier calling the Democrats un-progressive, than calling them”not radical” — the former is guiltier for them.

It’s also the case that I’m not opposed to breaks with the existing ways of doing business, so long as those are responsive to the particular circumstances of a people. Bolivarianism is a version of Marxism, and Chavez is at one remove from Bolivar, and in each case the adaptations have been based on a deep understanding of locality.

Second, Kugelmass wrongly makes radicalism the culprit in academia and in politics for things he doesn’t like. Why not blame capitalism?

I do — I blame capitalism for doing its best to make “radicalism,” an important political term in the 1960s, a philosophy generally characterized by defeatism. But this is not just a matter of pressure and bad publicity; the things I want, including the things Chavez has done in Venezuela, are not as radical as they may appear from a U.S. perspective. Mass vaccinations? Public ownership of the infrastructure? That doesn’t change roads or disease as we know them — it just maintains one, and combats the other, more rationally and effectively.

I think for Kugelmass it has something to do with Lenin and with Zizek’s use of Lenin. But I don’t find Lenin or Zizek either untenable or extreme. And, I don’t know if Kugelmass isn’t against all extremes or if some might be tenable. It seems to me that what is extreme or untenable at one time later becomes part of the history of an idea or practice.

If you’ve never seen anything but Guernica, then certainly, Picasso appears to be an extreme artist. On the other hand, if you look at the historical circumstances of the painting, and the gradual developments within Picasso’s own art, then you can see that his cubism was an idea that had ripeness — its time had come. Actually, I’m thinking of Zizek here, and his analysis of the forced choice. When I wrote about the “untenable extremity of critique,” I had in mind things like the auto-critique of Foucault, which turns some of his writing against anything faintly resembling a positive project in his books.

I don’t have any outrageous ideas, so I don’t know. But I think I might like having some.

Me too. But I’m not going to consider a mischievous, hypothetical pose like this the essence of my politics, because I could only evaluate and integrate an outrageous idea from the standpoint of what I know, and what I have experienced.

Third, politics is about division. It isn’t about people’s personal decisions and limits.

Well, I would say that politics is about governance. But insofar as you are claiming that politics involves disputes about governance, rather than personal matters, I basically agree with you. I’m talking here about the insulating pomp of the word “radical” — for example, in an earlier post, you described how you refrained from contradicting a friend about God’s grace. That is how I would like to behave in a similar situation, even though I don’t believe in God. When I raised the question of personal decisions and limits, I was thinking of the abuses of the slogan “the personal is the political.”

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