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Victory and Loss: Solnit’s Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left

Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :

There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Solnit also says:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.

Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.)

I see Solnit’s thinking and language parallel Žižek’s in primarily two texts: Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), and the more recent, his Demanding the Impossible, a conversation edited by Yong-june Park (2013).

Let’s begin with Solnit’s assertion, There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And I agree with Solnit that these are deeply entwined questions.

In the first chapter of Demanding the Impossible, titled “Politics and Responsibility,” Žižek argues the following (and it’s relevant to see it entirely to note the parallel):

What is a common good today? OK, let’s say ecology.  Probably most people would agree, even though we are politically different, that we all care about the earth.  But if you look closely, you will see that there are so many ecologies on which you can have to make so many decisions.  Having said that, my position here is very crazy.  For me, politics has priority [underline for emphasis in original] over ethics.  Not in the vulgar sense that we can do whatever we want – even kill people and then subordinate ethics to politics – but in a much more radical sense that what we define as our good is not something we just discover; rather, it is that we have to take responsibility [underline for emphasis in original] for defining what is our good.

In this sense, priority and responsibility as valuable standards by which to address the questions, what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be?, appear to respond, in one way, to what we first need to consider if we’re going to respond to Solnit’s questions appropriately.

Only Žižek might argue that Solnit is passing from one extreme into another.

What does that mean?

Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style, says Solnit.  This is a compulsion, Žižek says, for a sort of partial harmony (Demanding the Impossible); it is defining the world we live in by contrast when, what we need to answer Solnit’s questions is, first, another set of relevant – perhaps the most relevant – questions:  How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good?  

Listen to Žižek and  you see where Solnit stops short in her analysis:

The first thing I would like to do is show how absurd it is to urge that we have two extremes and need to find the balance.  These two extremes already flow into each other.  That is why “synthesis” does not affirm the identity of extremes, but on the contrary, affirms their differences as such. So the synthesis delivers difference from the “compulsion to identify.”  In other words, the immediate passage of an extreme into its opposite is precisely an index of our submission to the compulsion to identify.

It is precisely this bind that compels us to re-examine Solnit’s proposition –  generosity and kindness and style as a solution – and turn it back on itself.  Generosity and kindness and style suggest that we live in a world that’s the polar opposite – not generous, unkind and cruel, without style.  Of course, these negatives do come with style – maybe a style that’s harsh, brash and vulgar, but style nevertheless.  This reality – or truth – puts those on the political Left, which Solnit is addressing, already on the defensive, evident in the reactions Solnit is criticizing; likewise, since those on the political Right don’t see themselves as cruel, unkind and styleless, we are once again in the place Solnit wishes we were not.

What’s the problem, here?

For starters, though Solnit feigns taking responsibility, which she does not allude to not at all, and certainly not on Žižek’s terms, we are left moving far afield from the critical questions – How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good? – and back into a political tug of war.

The irony – or the joke – is that this is how Solnit sees us moving towards a sustainable, compassionate, perhaps egalitarian and healthy and certainly more balanced world. Somehow generosity and kindness and style will begin to take us there.  Perhaps. Yet, I see Solnit’s call as Žižek does: an unsustainable attempt to move towards the measure of balance because, as Žižek argues, the very measure of what is extreme has changed.  So for me this is the true revolution.  It is that totality changed; the very measure of the extremes changed.  For Solnit extremes are not going away, so we have to learn how to negotiate with each other – generosity and kindness and style.  The world we have will remain.

Will we then have a world within a world? One generous, kind and stylish, moving a particular agenda, the other unkind, boorish and vicious, moving their agenda crudely.

It is here, in Žižek’s thinking, that we are closest to what Solnit is trying to get at when she admonishes – well – the admonishments she, and others on the political left, receive when privileging a good while the same person – Obama = Obamacare + drones – is also responsible for a bad, or even evil, as in the killing of innocent children while also protecting others.

Does the common good, always already arrive to us with good and evil?  Is this how we achieve stability, today, or how we define it? Is this who we are?

Historically, we live in a time that, when we talk about stability, says Žižek, it means the stability of dynamic development.  It is totally a different logic of stability from that of pre-modern times.  

Listen: stability is the stability of instability.  Say it again.

The lesson of politics, says Žižek, is that you cannot distinguish between means and ends (goals).

This is how we land on Solnit’s notions of idealism, which, she says, is the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be.  Solnit is closest to Žižek when he describes the source of totalitarian: The greatest mass murders and holocausts have always been perpetrated in the name of man as harmonious being, of a New Man without antagonistic tension (The Sublime Object of Ideology).

Think la Reconquista and the expulsion of the Moors and and the Fall of Granada in 1492 – begin there.  Then in the same year, Columbus, instead of reaching Japan as he had intended, discovers a New World.  And work your way through history and note how the ideology of a New Man without antagonistic tension wanders through as a harmonious being in a wave of mass murders and holocausts.

The only way this can happen, always, over and over, is if the first condition of ideology is met: individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic, says Žižek.  If we come to ‘know too much,’ to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.

This is why the emperor never has any clothes, as Solnit posits.  He is always already naked – only we don’t know it.

It’s best to go further and bring it to a close listening to Žižek, fully:

This is probably the fundamental dimension of ‘ideology’: ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ – ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence – that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’.  Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him – the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution.

And here we are, inside this ‘ideological bubble’:

  • Solnit points to the non-knowledge of the left
  • Generally speaking, in Solnit’s words, none of us know what we are doing – not the left, not the right, not anyone
  • Yet we are involved in doing, what Solnit suggests is the making of the world
  • This is the false consciousness supporting us, what we are doing without knowing, always
  • We are, in the West, especially in the US, most of us, involved in the greatest perversity of all: we are enjoying ourselves, even as murderers and holocausts abound

The solutions are, perhaps beginning with Solnit, as here, but then moving to the more critical: How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good? And doing so with responsibility.  It’s the only way out of the bind of trying to create a balance among contrasts, a shallow exercise that leads us back into the bind we’re in.   It’s not about victories, as Solnit says; it’s about knowing and understanding where difference are – and they’re always a moving target.

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My Final Post on Getting Lost: Lost in the Funhouse…

Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern. 

Read more here…

The Anecdote of the Gloves

In the “tangible landscape of memory,” as Rebecca Solnit calls it, on one end is the primal scene of my father’s first instance with disease that keeps repeating itself in my life, and the life of my family; on the other end resides the “unseen bodies” that are at work, like strong winds that can be felt but not seen.

To acknowledge the unknown is part of knowledge, and the unknown is visible as terra incognita but invisible as selection – the map showing agricultural lands and principal cities does not show earthquake faults and aquifers, and vice versa (Solnit 163).

What, then, lies beneath?

My trip from Vermont to New York was common enough. I was on route to see my literary agent and, once more, go over a piece we were wrangling over (we parted ways because of it – so it goes, an unseen fault line). The first stop, as it always is when I visit New York, is my parent’s house in Garden City, L.I.

My father, then 82, was not well; that is to say, after 50 years in a wheelchair, taken there by polio, an acute, viral, infectious disease, now a new form reared its ugly head, post-polio syndrome, which, like the original virus, creates yet more muscular weakness, pain in the muscles – what’s left of them – and fatigue. Post-polio syndrome’s wickedness is that it crashes life’s party some 30 years after the original polio attack. My father’s case. To add to the picture, it had been recently discovered that my father also had leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow – and not unusual given his age and condition.

His immovable frame in bed brought me back to my childhood when he was returned home after spending time in an iron lung when polio first attacked and left him totally paralyzed. I stood at the edge of what then, for a 6 year old kid, seemed like a giant, cold, green cage with levers and pulleys. I held the metal bars at the foot of the hospital bed and peered through at the face I knew – the new man I didn’t. This was 1960, Córdoba, Argentina – the primal scene that changed everything. Fifty years later, in Garden City – GC, as we call it – he looked tiny, child-like, as if dissolving, though he was once 6 feet tall.

In another life, he and I rode his motorcycle to Villa Carlos Paz, sometimes running out of steam and having to push it up mountainsides. I wouldn’t again mount a motorcycle until I was 19. I didn’t return to Argentina until I was 50.

It’s amazing how age and disease reduce us to almost nothing, churn us into something else – the ill and the healthy together. How we whither, becoming smaller as if somehow Nature understands that’s what we need to pass on. Until eventually we’re nothing – so it appears.

Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), says that, “…things cannot/Be born from nothing, nor the same, when born,/To nothing be recalled.” Nature, he says, “ever by unseen bodies works.”

“You have to come with me to the doctor’s office,” said my mother. “I can’t do this alone,” she said.

My father had been through a series of tests that would determine his prognosis. He was hopeful that somehow science – his one touchstone in life (he was a man of science and mathematics) – would know how to bring him back, at least get rid of the leukemia and, though bedridden, enable him to live a bit longer. My father’s appetite for life was voracious.

“There’s nothing more to be done,” said the doctor, someone my father, a very loyal man, knew for 40 years.

“I can’t face your father with these news,” said my mother. “I’m going to ask you to tell him. I’ll be there but I can’t do it. You have to. I can’t. Not after all the life that’s between us.”

Emerging from Penn Station, in New York, I wasn’t sure how I would approach my father with his death sentence. I was lost, literally, in a search for courage. I was totally in the dark. Completely. I wasn’t sure, either, how this was to fit my story – or into a story – since we live by stories; but I was sure that I had to create a story in which the title character is told that he has an expiration date – and it’s near.

Deep in my thoughts – perhaps deep in my soul questioning father and son roles – just up ahead of me, on 31st and heading towards 7th Avenue, an old man in a gray overcoat dropped a black glove. I caught up to the glove, picked it up, and caught up to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Here, you dropped this.”

“Thank god my wife’s not here. You saved me,” he said, chuckled, thanked me again and we were off . I turned right on 7th Avenue, making my way toward the Flatiron District. My agent was on 22nd.

Not five minutes later, nearing 22nd, a woman trying to speak to her friend while balancing a shopping bag and a handbag, drops a beige pair of gloves. I thought it strange that I’d see the same thing so quickly. What are the odds? I picked up the gloves and faced her and said, “I think these are yours.”

She gave me a beaming smile and said, “Oh. Yes. Oh. Thank you so much.”

And we went our ways.

“Even when deprived of all but all the soul,/Yet will it linger on and cleave to life, –” writes Lucretius.

And, says Solnit, “A story can be a gift like Ariadne’s thread, or the labyrinth, or the labyrinth’s ravening Minotaur; we navigate by stories, but sometimes we only escape by abandoning them.”

That afternoon I abandoned one story, the one my agent wanted me to tell. I wanted to tell it my way, which I did. But what I didn’t know is that I was already in another story – aren’t we always in someone else’s story, after all?

On the return walk to Penn Station, a wind kicked up. It was overcast and chilly. I was thinking that it would be a good idea to slide into a bar and have a stiff one before heading back to GC. When a middle-aged couple comes out of a building and an elegantly dressed woman drops a pair of red leather gloves. The man with her, also quite elegantly dressed, didn’t see them.

The red gloves looked huge to me, bigger than they actually were. On this the third set of gloves dropped before me, I was certain that something unseen, some force was talking to me.

Here’s Lucretius again – he explains it best for me:

And as within our members and whole frame

The energy of mind and power of soul

Is mixed and latent, since create it is

Of bodies small and few, so lurks this fourth,

This essence void of name, composed of small,

And seems the very soul of all the soul,

And holds dominion o’er the body all.

I could find no reason or logic; I could not locate the language by which to describe the first dropped glove, then the second, and now the third that came with a thunderous roar from a place “void of name.”

When I got home I stood by my father’s bed. My mother at his feet.

He looked up at me with his incredible blue eyes, as if pleading yet knowing.

“This is it, viejo,” I said. “This is it. It’s hard to say so I’ll be straight,” I said. And he grinned. “There’s nothing more we can do. Nothing more.”

On the final day of his life, the woman that took care of him came into his room; it was a resplendent day. And she said to him, “It’s such a wonderful day.”

And he said, “For you. For me it’s not going to be a good day.”

When he left us around 10PM, my mother instructed one of her grandchildren to open a window.

Lost in the Most Unlikely of Places …

As I contemplate, as Solnit does, the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno’s notion about how I will go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to me [you]?, I realize that I’ve written quite a bit about this (and others). And I figure that it’s because of something Solnit says: “Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form of the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.”

A place where I find myself lost – along with students – is in the writing classroom. That’s right. I try and create an environment where something – preferably the self – has to be found, the nature of which is totally unknown to you. “Children seldom roam, ” says Solnit,” even in the safest places.” I find this to be the single most critical impediment to finding that thing that nature of which is totally unknown to you. Students, for the most part, have been sold programs, prescriptions, answers and ways through the confusion; and they prefer these, it seems, rather than lurking, losing themselves, having no answers. Self-reliance is alien to kids today. Solnit wonders – as I do: “…what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

The ways through writing students bring to the college classroom are forms of house arrest. Students fear letting go. Students don’t want to let go; they don’t want to get lost, though it’s fundamental to learning. “Lost ..was mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.” I want students – with me – to blunder about the classroom, crossing the quad, in their rooms, searching, looking and not finding yet finding. I want students to wander – but wandering is not privileged in our culture. Efficiency is. But discovery – which is what, after all, education is about – requires time; in turn, time requires that an individual gain some distance from the lived experience. As Solnit says, “Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

So, the place where I find myself lost – along with students – the writing classroom, is fraught with obstacles to getting lost; it comes with a history of “knowns”, of “answers” that suggest, always, that getting lost is not very effective, a waste of time, not too efficient and costly.

Funny. As I think about this getting lost, I’m also looking at a few other books – David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto, Verlyn Klinkenborg‘s Several Short Sentences About Writing, and Henry A. Giroux‘s American Education Deficit and the War on Youth.

Let’s just listen:

Shields: I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized…Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

Klinkenborg: Write these things down – the contents of the noise in your head as you write.
You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.

Distrust them.

Giroux: There is a need to invent modes of communication that connect learning to social change and foster modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other…At a time when critical thought has been flattened, it becomes imperative to develop a discourse of critique and possibility – one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of our reach.

All three writers – Shields, Klinkenborg and Giroux – are calling forth for the removal of impediments to our getting lost. Shields asks for new forms, new experiments to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction – always already determined by economics, not creativity; Klinkenborg speaks about “the noise” that is formal education and how it impedes creative thinking and writing; and Giroux, not unlike the others, is asking for a more engaged critique of ourselves and others, which cannot be done without the time to get lost, to wander.

All three writers – and Solnit, too – are the reasons why I find myself lost in the writing classroom alongside my students. But, like Solnit, I’ve chosen to make this the subject of my classroom’s inquiry. I want to make sure that, as Solnit says, students realize that history – and their lives – are “made more of crossroads, branchings, and tangles than straight lines.” In-between the crossroads, the branchings, and the tangles is where we get lost – and it’s what we have to capture. And what I hope, after this first posting, others will write about.

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