Where do memes come from? Am I allowed to make one? Tom Bunyard from Monagyric has asked me a question down in the comments that I thought might be worth transposing up here, and passing around. Tom writes:
John’s organised a kind of series of self-critique things for the Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies, and after having been volunteered I’m due to speak myself. I was thinking about saying something around the innate silliness of playing around with arch theoretical models of political emancipation whilst in academia, and thus whilst fundamentally divorced from real praxis (which pretty much defines what I do). At the last session someone had made a comment about theory and practice; whilst the practice that he had in mind was militant struggle, it was quickly interpreted by the culture industry types in the room as a problematic of getting their work identified by the advertising industry so as to secure a career. The distinction between the two notions of practice seemed to define the afternoon for me. I think I want to talk about the limits, flaws and general farce of doing ‘radical’ lefty theory within the academy, particularly in relation to my own attempts to write a PhD that only three people in the world are ever likely to read.
Consequently I’m interested in speaking to a few people as to how they figure the relation of their own political research/writing/whatever to practice; whether they view it (after Adorno) as a kind of practice itself; and to what extent they view this separation (assuming there is a separation) to be problematic. So, as someone working on Marx, how would you respond?
I’ll reproduce my response up here in a moment, but I want to see whether I might be able to turn this into a meme. I’d be interested if the following folks would be interested in answering Tom’s question, and then passing the question on to a few friends. It doesn’t have to be restricted to folks who work on Marx. The core question, as I see it, is:
How do you understand the relation of your own political research/writing/whatever to political practice; whether you view it as a kind of political practice itself; and to what extent you view the separation (assuming there is a separation) between your work and political struggle to be problematic?
I am uncomfortable requiring anyone to link back to this post if you do reply but, if you do, I can create an archive of the responses.
I tag Nate (because we’ve discussed these things before), Lumpenprofessoriat (because turnabout is fair play), Larval Subjects (because I think you will find the tag irritating and probably won’t respond), Trinketization (since it might be useful to have a response from someone who would be at the actual event), Now-Times (with a particular interest in how you might feel about the “after Adorno” aspect of the original question), and Scandalum Magnatum (as I link to your site far less often than I intend). Anyone else who feels inclined to respond is more than welcome.
My own response, lifted up from the comments, was:
First: I’m anti-idealist in perhaps a more extreme sense than many people: I think it’s a mistake to regard the concepts that academics come up with, as though those concepts aren’t related in some way to other sorts of collective practices that are unfolding at the same moment in time. This doesn’t mean that what academics do is “praxis” in some sense of direct contribution to achieving political ends – that is something that would need to be evaluated in a less abstract way. It just means that it’s not going to be “accidental”, that certain forms of theory are trending when they are, and that the tacit sensibilities that find expression in academic theory can be analysed, just as can the tacit sensibilities that find expression in any other form of human activity, as one among many clues to the possibilities we are collectively constituting at a particular moment in time. To stress: I am not suggesting that some sort of special possibility is constituted through academic work – I am suggesting that humans tends to think with our practices in a very broad sense, academics like everyone else, and so even apparently very abstract and removed forms of thought are quite likely to express something that has shifted in much more everyday forms of practice. Grasping that link – which is a lot of what I think Marx does with his critiques of various sorts of formal theory – then makes it possible to analyse the sorts of tacit practical possibilities that are finding nascent expression in various types of formal theory, political ideals, popular culture, etc.
On the more specific issue of whether some sort of formal theory makes a contribution to some particular political project: again, I don’t think this sort of question can be answered abstractly in a meaningful way. I do think that capitalism as a target of political practice, or as an object of analysis, has very peculiar “ontological” characteristics, that are very difficult to grasp without engaging “theoretically” with this object. I think political action in a dynamic social context is difficult, that it’s extremely easy for unanticipated consequences to follow on our actions, and therefore that movements increase their chances of achieving their ends, if they have a good sense of how history might bite them in the butt. This is what I think theory is “for” in a political sense – improving the odds of grasping whether particular sorts of actions are likely to have the results we hope they will. Theory helps us try to deal with the problem William Morris sketches out:
I pondered all these things… how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…
It helps us work out the name of what we are fighting for, so that other people don’t have to perpetually keep coming along behind us, setting up new struggles to achieve what we meant, but didn’t know how to fight for last time around. At least, this would be my normative criterion for what a good theory would do.
To put the same thing more briefly: if we make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing, then it can be helpful to learn as much as we can about those conditions we haven’t chosen, so that we have as good a sense as possible of the sort of history we might be able to make.
This says nothing about whether some particular kind of theory, in some specific institutional setting, is actually helpful for this end. There will always be at least a tacit theory underlying any form of practice – formal types of theory tease out and make explicit what is tacit in what we are already doing. This process of making the implications of our own practice explicit to ourselves isn’t limited to academia, but it isn’t necessarily barred to academia either. Farce isn’t limited to academia either… ;-) And there is a form of idealism, to me, nascent in the idea that real life is somewhere “out there”: Marx’s position is that humans, in a sense, aren’t that clever – we aren’t that original or creative in our thoughts – our thoughts are already “material” – our categories are things we do. He spends a lot of time showing that the same sorts of sensibilities that are cropping up in more “academic” forms of theory are sensibilities that are also being enacted in settings that take themselves far less seriously – showing that academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.
His strategy undermines academic pretension – but it also undermines romantic notions that there is some special sort of institutional setting where “real thought” can happen because that setting is somehow less divorced from “real life”: humans, for Marx, generate new possibilities collectively, initially in mundane actions – and largely, in the first instance at least, unintentionally. Explicit theory and conscious political practice then fumbles along behind, trying to work out and realise the potentials opened up by our collective accidents. Where this happens, what sorts of practices and institutional settings are associated with doing it in a way that is potentially transformative – all of this strikes me as a case-by-case thing…