Hopefully Alexei won’t mind if I lift his latest comment into a more prominent space. The original context for the comment I’m reproducing below is in the still-percolating discussion of self-reflexivity: this comment was posted here, and was written as a direct response to this comment from Joe. I don’t want to deflect the original discussion, but my feeling was that Alexei’s response raises issues that are much more general (and – without speaking for Joe – might also be closer to the sorts of issues Joe has been trying to discuss all along). Alexei here defends a particular understanding of the value of theory and of the nature of radical transformation, to which I would like to draw attention:
while I too share your concern for the practicality of theory or philosophy, and I agree with you hat there is no such thing as ‘neutral theorizing.’ But I’m not at all sure I would agree with either of your metaphors. Like you, I don’t buy the idea that theory is mere observation. Nor, however do i think that there is an incisive — and decisive — moment, which, if missed, signals the failure to actualize whatever possibility it uncovered. Even if one picks the lock to an other’s home, bt takes nothing, and the other installs a new deadbolt, one still has the tools — and the skill — to pick it again, not to mention the knowledge of where the valuables are kept. As I see the matter, only fashion and reactionary politics can be “revolutionary”; Radical change, I think, is slow in coming.
So, if I might proffer my own analogy, I tend to think that philosophy/theory is much more like (but not identical to) Schrödinger’s box in that it is always already a world constituting and transforming intervention — although its effects are not as immediate or as direct as perhaps we would like them to be. It’s objects are social kinds, and hence produced by social practices, which can be changed by different modes of thinking. To pick up the example you used here, we need only think about the number of people who smoke today, compared to the number of folks who smoked in the first half of the 20th Century. And, while it may be true that I can come to recognize that I am addicted to cigarettes, and that smoking is killing me (however slowly), but nevertheless continue to smoke — and enjoy it — I may also affirm the various anti-smoking (by-)laws that prohibit smoking in public places, attempt to make sure minors cannot begin to smoke, etc. I can change the way we think about smoking. And, with a little luck smoking will be passé, a few generations down the road, . It may not help me, but it nevertheless changes the complexion of our social spheres.
Similarly, a theorist pursues a political interest by thinking and writing about it (I realize this probably sounds naive, but please bear with me). He disseminates his mode of thought by talking, by teaching, and by publishing, though not necessarily to bring about any immediate change, but rather to initiate its possibility (think here of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex). That is to say, a theorist creates politically important issues by making them public.
Now, perhaps I’m too patient, but I’m sceptical of every brand of millinerian theory, any Leninist avant-guardism (like Zizek’s), which promises that the revolution is (or could be) imminent, or that Utopia must come here and now. I’m sceptical of quick fixes, since they tend to come in moments of crisis, of implacable guilt, and they only lead to the continuation of crisis. At the moment, I actually think that we need more thinking, and less (mindless, instinctual, or responsive) action. We need to understand what it means to act politically, what a political action entails, whom it affects, and what it requires. And all this is this is a far cry from picking a lock, and stealing the establishment’s stereo for the good of the folks on the street.
I admit that, while I might tinker around the margins, I am sympathetic to the positions Alexei is sketching here.
We have no shortage of revolutions. Capitalism is a dynamic social form, which reproduces itself through dramatic cascades of structural transformation. The dynamic nature of the context means that it is extremely easy to confuse whatever transformation happens to follow the next crisis, with a movement toward liberation. The distinctive form of social reproduction – and the abstract character of what is being reproduced – makes it particularly important for transformative practice to gain a sense of what our context is, how the context operates, how the context is reproduced – and means that these questions lack simple and intuitive answers.
This doesn’t mean that no meaningful or important action can take place without some particular theoretical insight. It doesn’t mean that theory is a unique or exceptionalised reservoir of critical ideals. It certainly doesn’t mean that theorists have any “vanguardist” place in the leadership of social movements. It does mean that the dichotomy often drawn between “theory” and “practice” may be uniquely and specifically debilitating – may function as a form of “ideology” in the service of social reproduction – if we are oriented toward achieving emancipatory change in the present time.
Theory is a moment within collective practice, a moment which seeks to recognise and work through the implications of potentials that collective practice has already created (often unintentionally and unawares), a moment that seeks – along with other forms of practice – to deepen, extend and cultivate those potentials, to make them more available for targeted and deliberate political action in the service of emancipatory goals. The premise here is not that theoretical insight is somehow immediately and intrinsically transformative – that theory will snap its conceptual fingers, break the spell of identification, and instantaneously liberate us all. The premise is that, even in conditions where the spell is already broken and desires for liberation hang palpable in the air, we still need to work out how to extricate ourselves from the cycle that William Morris describes so well:
…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…