February 13, 2004
Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents

"Our gripe is historically specific. If everyone was busy with bullshit doctrinal debates we would prescribe a little anti-intellectualism. But that is not the case right now."

Without condemning or being too cranky, Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti argue that "activismists" dominate the left, and that there is a problem with this.

Adorno - who admittedly doesn't have the last word on activism, since he called the cops on University of Frankfurt demonstrators in 1968 - nonetheless had a good point when he criticized the student and antiwar movement of the 1960s for what he called "actionism." In his eyes this was an unreflective "collective compulsion for positivity that allows its immediate translation into practice." Though embraced by people who imagine themselves to be radical agitators, that thoughtless compulsion mirrors the pragmatic empiricism of the dominant culture - "not the least way in which actionism fits so smoothly into society's prevailing trend." Actionism, he concluded, "is regressive...it refuses to reflect on its own impotence."


Our point is not that there should be less activism. The left is nothing without visible, disruptive displays of power. We applaud activism and engage in it ourselves. What we are calling for is an assault on the stupidity that pervades American culture. This implies a more democratic approach to the life of the mind and creating spaces for ideas in our lives and political work.

Two interesting themes here, which I've been thinking about.

1. Anti-intellectualism. Michael Moore represents probably the best version of this: he uses a kind of dumbed-down lefty analysis in an entertaining way to draw attention to important issues. He does this by simplifying things, and appealing to humour and other emotions. It's wildly popular, and I won't condemn it. But it fails to address a fundamental problem in America (and Canada too, though it's more hidden here)--as the authors of the above piece put it, the "larger society's division between mental and physical labor".

Thinkers think, activists act. So you have this huge gap between Chomsky and the other A-list lefties on the one hand, and the righteous street-fighting youth on the other hand. This doesn't improve things at that basic cultural level.

2. Action for its own sake, on the basis of righteousness. There is a tendency, of which the authors provide many illustrations, to take action, and see that as a goal in itself. To act, one doesn't need a comprehensive account of reality--one just needs a reason. Chomsky, for example, might present a comprehensive view, but all I need to know as an activist is that the US is wrong, and that there are good reasons for saying this (want a list? go read chomsky.)

Thought, then, is bypassed. I can sympathize with this a great deal. At some point in high school, I distinctly remember thinking that activism is an easy way to add a depth of meaning to life that was not available before. There are these things that are deeply, fundamentally wrong with the world, and there are straightforward ways to oppose them. (A prof of mine characterized this as "upholding yourself" as opposed to "upholding the thing that is under consideration" (sweatshops, East Timor, whatever).)

At any rate, this is a way of thinking that I'm still trying to find my way out of. It's not a trivial process. The alternative is simply to understand, and to act on that understanding: not just that something is wrong, buy how, why, and when was it wrong before and how was it dealt with then?

Martin Heidegger (whose work I really like, despite the various issues surrounding his Nazi Party membership card and other related actions) takes this as far as it will go, arguing that authentic thinking and action are inseperable. The opening lines of An Open Letter on Humanism:

We are still a long way from thinking through the nature of action in a sufficiently resolute manner. We are generally willing to understand it only as the effecting of results, and we can see in what is effected only the reality that can be put to some use. But the nature of action is to accomplish something, to bring something to completion. To accomplish, to complete; that means: to unfold something so that it reveals the fullness of its nature, to escort it into this fullness, producere. Thus only that can really be accomplished which already is. Above all else, however, what "is" is being.

In activist terms: acting on something (the world) to transform it in a positive way is not possible without understanding that thing. The more it is understood, the more transformation is possible. The less it is understood, the more likely the fundamentals will remain unchanged.

There can be little doubt that understanding the world is a life-long and deeply complicated task. It's easy to slip into a closedness about topics once one reaches a certain point of immersion in information. (It's also more comfortable--one reason specialization is so popular in academia is that it allows for a point at which one can reasonably the expert in a tiny corner of the field. An unassailable position, except by someone who spends their whole career looking at the exact same things.)

The most useful thing one can do at that point is be open to being surprised.

The other day, I read the following on Matt Brennan's weblog:

Thing is, Ulanov wrote that in 1957. The voice of protest has always been around in popular culture, and it's scary to see how little the arguments have changed over the decades. Makes you wonder whether activists likedownhillbattle.org and the groups who preceded them (Ulanov was a big advocate for the economic independence of musicians in the 1950s) have studied the history of previous (failed) attempts to transform the economics of popular culture.

In every area that I'm interested in transforming (or thinking about transforming), there's a whole history that I'm inevitably not aware of. Just reading what Matt wrote gives me an extra reserve of humility to draw on when I approach the issue of how artists get paid in the future. And maybe I'll even spend some time in the library on the way to the Nova Scotia legislature to protest the cuts to arts funding, which will repeat themselves in the near future.

posted by dru in activism