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So Long . . . and Thank You

My last few posts clearly hit a nerve, which suggests to me that tempers are frayed on the left.  No surprise when recent poll numbers (this from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) tell us that 51% of Americans think our government has handled enemy detainees in a perfectly acceptable manner, while 30% think the government has “gone too far.” (Details over at my blog, Public Intelligence.) Small “d” democrats haven’t got the luxury of being Straussians like the neo-cons or Leninists like the Old Left; we can’t work behind the populace’s back and still retain any semblance of good faith with our fundamental commitments. Yet the actions of our government around the globe belie any easy retreat to “all politics is local.”

But, really, I was getting to the local.  The posts were meant to work by an inclusive logic, moving through various sites of political engagement in order to find one where the “fit” felt satisfying, felt “organic.” I guess, instead, the posts came across as too abstract and too wistful (if the responses were a fair indication of the general sentiment out there.) In any case, the plan was to end with a tribute to and meditation on the work of my ex-student and friend Paul Castelloe, co-founder of the Center for Participatory Change, a community organizing effort in the mountains of western North Carolina.

I will talk about Paul over at Public Intelligence within the next week.  But, for right now, I will, by way of farewell, just recall that Hannah Arendt would have loved to mix it up with Bobby Orr and Rod Gilbert because she was fully convinced that politics is a contact sport.  And she was equally convinced that politics wasn’t worth a candle if it didn’t deliver a “public happiness” whose source was the quality of the interactions with one’s fellow citizens in a public, non-domestic, space.  She was fond of recalling Socrates’ delightful image of the afterworld as one giant Greek agora, where he would be able to question and converse with all the great thinkers, politicians, and heroes of history. 

Michael’s blog has created its own version of that dialogic community and it has been a great privilege to be able to try out some of my ideas in front of this demanding, intelligent, and passionate audience.  I thank you for your patience—and even more for your impatience.  And I thank Michael for having given me the chance to hang around for so long.

Posted by on 11/23 at 11:16 AM
  1. Yet the actions of our government around the globe belie any easy retreat to “all politics is local.”

    But it’s not a retreat. Building a foundation is not a retreat from painting the house. Acting locally is a necessary (and currently unfulfilled) precondition of effective left work on a global scale.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  11/23  at  01:23 PM
  2. momentary segue detour:
    http://gnn.tv/articles/1897/Talking_the_Talk
    Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and Like, Whatever

    “...this are the subject of Leslie Savan’s new book, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever.

    Savan, a former advertising columnist for many years at the Village Voice, is taking on the rugged world of the social application of language. She has produced a work that slides past the sensitivity most people hold to the way they speak and goes for the jugular of exposing pop language for what it is.”

    and now back to regularly scheduled programming

    Posted by  on  11/23  at  04:48 PM
  3. Take care John.  You’re right on Arendt’s regard for politics. But recall that she started wearing the helmet after Scholem high sticked her in the wake of her book on Eichmann. Kenneth Burke wore his after Wayne Maki chopped him in a fight over whether the structure of a text actually reveals motivation. Literary criticism can be rough too.

    Posted by  on  11/23  at  05:06 PM
  4. That Wayne Maki two-hander was one of the most appalling cheap shots in the history of rhetoric, Chris, and I for one believe it’s contributed to Burke’s spotty reception in American intellectual circles ever since.

    And thank you, John, for guesting so graciously, with such generous invitations to thought.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/23  at  05:11 PM
  5. John, i hope that your apparent pessimism concerning your posts last week, is not representing the fact that they elicited so relatively few comments, but rather from the sentiment that the issues upon which you focussed are difficult to fully embrace in the society in which we co-exist.  Several of the comments seemed to identify this aspect. 

    Yes, i am fortunate that i get to “DO” something “political” at the macro and micro levels that entwines global policy changes with localized activism--and none of this having to do with the war per se. 

    Few people remember that one of the precipatory incidents that triggered the Wounded Knee occupation in ‘73 was the shooting and killing of a drunken Lakota who was guilty of pissing on the highway near Custer, SD.  Today we see rich kids doing it all the time on MTV or E’tv and whatever.  We live in a deeply unfair and unjustice world in which most of us, regardless of our professional occupations and responsibilities, would like to believe that our daily actions can make a difference in “making the world” a better place to live.  If we can stop white, high-school educated law enforcement personnel from killing american indians for minor transgressions, while simultaneously encouraging them to detain and arrest the rich kids then we have informed, and hopefully shifted, the socio-political landscape a bit. 

    Writing letters, faxes, and emails have political power, as do blogs such as this.  Contributing hard earned capital to causes, in which one deeply believes, and importantly about which one is informed and aware, has decidedly beneficial outcomes.  Working in one’s own, or a common community, organic garden provides its own inherent local rewards as well as directly affects the global markets of produce production.  These sorts of local actions help in numerous ways; they help more so when they are informed by intelligent shared discourse that includes regional, national and global issues.  In this scheme there is a role for everyone, and indeed, whether they are “conscious” or not, all are involved.

    Posted by  on  11/23  at  05:13 PM
  6. The Center for Participatory Change looks like many of the community organizing groups that I’ve worked with.  But if you look at their Web site, and their staff list and job opening, you can see the beginning of the process that I alluded to before, in which the most successful “organic intellectuals” (i.e. community leaders) become full-time political workers, supported by the intermittant money contributed by many others.  I really don’t think the problem was mostly one of being too abstract or too wistful (unless perhaps wistful means romantic), it was more that your idea didn’t really reflect the preferences of the people involved in this kind of politics.  I really don’t see many of them who would stay “organic” rather than “professional” if they had the choice.  So it seemed like you wanted something for people that the people you admired really didn’t want for themselves.  And although we never got there, I would say that this problem is not a personal one, it is characteristic of the involvement of cultural studies (and other non-political fields in the humanities) with politics as a whole.

    Thanks for the posts and the opportunity to comment.

    Posted by  on  11/23  at  06:10 PM
  7. I read your posts, and I learned from them, I just didn’t feel competent to comment on most of them (way outside my turf).

    Thanks for posting them.

    Posted by julia  on  11/24  at  09:23 AM
  8. Paul Musgrave’s writes on this topic, in his Partisan vs Ideologue post:

    “Partisans will follow the dictates of their interests. Ideologues will follow the dictates of their consciences. From the discussion above of professional organizers and protesters, it should be clear that “ideologues” in the common sense–spokespeople for avowedly ideological groups–may not, in fact, be ideological, but professional. Real ideologues are unlikely to be high-profile, because their interest is in truth, not in power, fame, or wealth, and only those who seek the latter will exert themselves to the degree necessary to become public figures (and be willing to suffer the indignities needed to remain in the public eye). Ideologues may come together to form schools or circles, but these will be different from the factions of politicians, linked by shared ideas and unresponsive to power politics.

    From this, it is clear that ideologues cannot be partisans. Partisans are grounded in the realm of fact, ideologues in theory. Partisans seek transactional outcomes, ideologues transformational ones. The common conflation of the two groups comes from the poor observational skills of many watchers of the political scene, who conclude from the transitory association of Republicans and “social conservatives” or Democrats and “Deaniacs” that the parties and the ideologies are naturally and permanently linked. The fallacy must be avoided. “

    Posted by  on  11/26  at  01:50 PM
  9. Just when I get some time to set down and read John’s posts, I find out that “the party’s over.” My lame joke aside, I think there are layers and layers of this onion that haven’t yet been peeled.  Since your first post, John, I have been bookmarking instances of communication and activity networks that exemplify how “flows” operate in ways that maintain an alienation of people from use-value and the type of organic politics you describe.  Because the conversation seems to be over (or, at the very least, moved), I just want to link to the Washington Post article I read about Sony dropping $10 million into the next installment of the “Left Behind” series as a way of testing the “home-grown” megachurch distribution network.  This moderately-funded movie is only going to be released in these churches before it goes to DVD (incidentally, the domestic space that you eschew John, may be the place to start looking at new possibilities in organicism).  The quote that grabbed my attention was:

    “With 330,000 churches in America, it’s potentially the largest distribution network in the country and probably in the world,” said A. Larry Ross, president of a Dallas public relations and marketing firm with many evangelical Christian clients. “But most pastors are all about changing lives, so they’re going to be resistant if it’s a product that does not have an evangelistic message.”

    I think that much of the work in aggregation, when combined with some of the recent work in exploring affective argumentation may be an effective tool for searching for strategies for organization.  Rather than holding onto pre-cyborg notions of self (where the person emanates outward to the edge of their handiwork rather than operates with the recognition that their “environment” has multiple layers of autonomy), looking for “armies of the heart” can begin to help us create strategies for aggregating our own common individual interests.

    What does this “new demos” look like?  I’m not sure, but the DVD distribution about Wal-Mart, and the internet preparation for Bird Flu come to mind.  Common action dispersed through a widespread, yet individualized medium.  I can imagine things like individualized algorithms that can be put into PDAs and then taken to supermarkets to “buy local” (if you aren’t a Luddite, that is).

    Posted by DocMara  on  11/27  at  03:22 PM

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