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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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