Reflections on Protest—from June 2020

I initially wrote this for submission to a journal in the summer of 2020, but it wasn’t quite up to snuff for publication. I post it here as a record of my thinking from that summer and on: the thoughts being worked out here, and the attitude they imply, have only deepened in the years since.


The first time I ever joined a protest was in 2003, shortly after the United States military bombed and invaded Iraq. I was a high school sophomore in West Virginia, almost entirely oblivious about the nuts and bolts of politics but wielding a red hot indignation for what seemed to be an immoral and unstrategic aggression against a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack two years prior. When I watched the night vision video of bombs falling on Baghdad, I knew—viscerally, unreflectively, and deep in my gut—that what was happening was wrong. Driven by this sense, I got together with my sister and a good friend one day after school and joined the few dozen anti-war demonstrators holding signs across from the Cabell County Courthouse.

There was nothing particularly heroic about protesting the war. All of us, I think, knew in our hearts that our opposition was ultimately futile: we had already lost and the bombs had already been dropped, but it was nonetheless important to register our rejection of the state of things as publicly as possible. And in 2003, voicing such opinions was no way to win friends: the war was overwhelmingly popular, and at all points of its unfolding practically every public institution (not just the media, but also the schools and city government) had cheered its arrival with rallies, celebrations, and the distribution of tiny American flags. The country was unified around an appetite for vengeance: everyone felt it was high time for revenge, even if the victim was arbitrarily chosen.

One appearance at an anti-war protest followed another, my backpack and black hoodie steadily gathering political patches and pins like a flame gathers moths. In response to a button I sported reading “war is not the answer,” a boy in my grade scrawled the obverse in huge letters on the back of a Mossy Oak hunting jacket and invited anyone in agreement to sign: I remember watching practically everyone in my history class—including our teacher—add their name. There was something refreshing in noticing my subjective, dispositional alienation from my peers being objectified in the form of political stances: where previously I had no clue why I couldn’t easily get along with my classmates, I now had something to point to. But waging this largely solitary war against war nonetheless contributed to my preexisting teenage melancholy, driving me even further into solipsism, and as the years passed my radicalism only intensified. By senior year, while corporations were printing “Support the Troops” on everything they could and carrying out elaborate strategies to insult the French, I was neck deep in far-left theory and propaganda: Crimethinc., the Communist Manifesto, a smattering of anarcho-primitivist essays, anti-globalization and environmental documentaries. By graduation (which I of course did not attend) I was a true believer—and the first day I walked into a college classroom some months later, I knew at once that whatever it was to be done would not take place in cheap plastic chairs beneath fluorescent lights, but out in the streets. I didn’t last a semester.

The next few years of my life were spent in the activist trenches, first in a campaign to end strip mining in West Virginia, then to block highway construction in Indiana, and, briefly, to end a free trade agreement in Canada and New England.[1] None of these campaigns were popular and all eventually failed, whether crushed by the overwhelming force of capital and the state or through internal decomposition and schism. (I have since driven on stretches of the highway whose very existence I fought against.) Comrades were arrested and, at the state’s most lenient, charged astronomical bail fees; at worst, they faced numerous federal felonies which, even if dismissed, meant years of house arrest, court appearances, and countless thousands of dollars owed to lawyers. Friendships disintegrated; some transformed into vicious enmity. Even the least disheartened recognized that an approach of direct confrontation with capital and the state was bound to fail, and redirected their efforts into smaller-scale, longer-term, more constructive projects; the most broken among us drifted into quietude, seeking peace after years of hopeless, exhausting struggle. For my part, I moved to a farm in southern Kentucky, retiring from mass politics for the sake of reading, thinking, and coaxing green life from the earth—that is, until an increasingly fanatical housemate sabotaged the project because of ideological disagreements. Politics obliterated even the anti-political.

The protests and riots unfold across the country have me reflecting on my own history of participation in mass politics. When they began, I—like most Americans—was moved by the nobility of their call for justice. I was baffled and awestruck by their rapid spread across the country. And when the fires and looting started, I was horrified—and only moreso as a chorus of journalists, celebrities, and left-wing politicians engaged in a coordinated show of intellectual gymnastics to justify and excuse the destruction. This reaction didn’t immediately have a language beyond a feeling of visceral refusal, a resounding “no” roaring from the deepest reaches of my being. But with the passing of time, so too a dispersal of fog—and accordingly, some clarity of vision and thought.

The riots and the rapid transformation of culture following them have carried with them an ominous sense of familiarity. The swift alignment of public opinion, buttressed by countless public statements made on behalf of corporations, institutions, and politicians; the unequal bifurcation of American society on all levels and a universal atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust; the hostility to debate and the repetition and enforcement of sloganeering: this all smacks quite uncomfortably of the disorganization of American society at the time of the Iraq War.

Eliot Weinberger, in his gonzo-Thucydidean chronicle of 9/11 and its aftermath What Happened Here, noted that prominent left-wing intellectuals who had cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center as “a humiliating blow against the American Empire, and a just reward for the decades of American hegemony and aggression” did so as slaves to abstraction, in full ignorance of the reality of the situation: that a vast majority of the victims were poor minorities, low-ranking office drones, and rescue workers. Moreover, the destruction of the Twin Towers meant the obliteration of much of downtown Manhattan, a scenario easily weathered by the wealthiest of New Yorkers but economically devastating to the poorest. The upper classes can look on political spectacles with the rosy-colored glasses of abstraction: for them, the towers were primarily a symbol, whether of exploitative global capitalism or of American freedom and prosperity; the attack functioned first and foremost as an allegory, either of an oppressive empire receiving its just desserts or of forces of evil attempting to snuff out the light of freedom. No matter the narrative suggested to one beholding the ink-blot of reality, the concrete, on-the-ground consequences of the disaster became of secondary importance to achieving victory in a warfare of competing symbols.

Of course, left-wing intellectuals were not the only ones guilty of this after 9/11: the “weapons of mass destruction” narrative turned many prominent journalists and cultural commentators from the right to the center-left into an Aeschylean chorus howling for the rapture of blood and fire. Even the most critical were swept up in the frenzy: Christopher Hitchens, enfant terrible of the left, found cause to channel his nigh-religious hatred of religion into enthusiasm for airstrikes, going so far as to personally befriend Bush’s Secretary of Defense—and the war’s chief imaginarian—Paul Wolfowitz. The war divided America into unequal sides, the bellicose constituting the lion’s share. But in a different way, it served as a force of unity: it injected the poison of abstraction into the minds of nearly everyone, afflicting America with an inability to see the world on a granular level, to recognize things and people in a completeness irreducible to pieces in a cosmic game of Go laid by the heavenly forms that serve as the true motor of all things. A family member, coworker, or erstwhile friend who disagreed didn’t simply have an opposing opinion: they were a worldly instantiation of wrongness-as-such, a footsoldier of Manichaean darkness marching on the World of Light. And darkness, unlike a friend, may receive no quarter.

Perhaps now it’s possible to see the eerie similarity between the culture of 2003 and the culture of 2020. In both cases, a powerful schismatic force drove vast numbers of cultural elites, intellectuals, and normal Americans into hostile, opposing camps built around fanatical commitments to a priori truths and dogmatic refusal to question assumptions. Fanaticism carries with it a threefold demand: first, that you flatten complexity into a battle between two sides; second, that you pick one and stay put; and third, that you allow a swarm of assumptions associated with whatever position you’ve chosen to colonize your mind entirely. In a world rent top to bottom by friend-enemy distinctions, where all truth is power, there can be no truth beyond what is true for one’s group and no understanding beyond the battle lines. And ultimately, no matter how just a mass movement’s vision may be, the force of conformity it exerts will always jeopardize the inner dignity of the participant.

This lesson was known to an entire generation of writers and thinkers living in the shadow of the ideological frenzy that launched World War II, and in their present-tense reality of the looming Soviet Union and its relentless global propaganda campaign against the “fascism” of liberal democratic Europe and America. In his 1950 theoretical polemic Man Against Mass Society, an especially deep and illuminating example of the genre, the French dramatist, philosopher, and self-described “Christian of the Left” Gabriel Marcel explains how modernity’s transformation of society from a complex, interlocking network of small institutions into an undifferentiated mass of atomized individuals occasions the development and spread of an ideological fanaticism fundamentally hostile to the honest, deep reflection necessary for the existence of philosophy. “[T]he masses are of their very essence…the stuff of which fanaticism is made,” Marcel argues; “propaganda has on them the convulsive effect of an electrical shock. It arouses them not to life, but to that appearance of life which particularly manifests in riots and revolutions.” Propaganda and fanaticism are what Marcel calls “techniques of degradation”: strategies for reducing human beings and the communities they form to their base physicality, of stripping away their dignity, of eroding the metaphysical tendencies latent in all human endeavor in order to make populations more amenable to technocratic planning. The Nazi death camps are Marcel’s example par excellence of this process of degradation, but more subtle tendencies are visible in the overall logic of the new technocratic politics of the early 20th century: demographic- and population-thinking, consideration of human beings in masses instead of communities, total mobilization for religiously-charged political causes in place of careful, reasoned consideration of possibilities and consequences. A degraded society of degraded human beings may permit survival, but it doesn’t allow for life.

How can this process of degradation be fought? Marcel’s answer is clear: the only available weapon is philosophy. And he understands philosophy not as a process of abstract, analytical assessment of propositions, but as the fruit of reflection, of contemplating one’s situatedness, of the givenness of one’s environments, and of the pursuit of stable truth amid the flux of things. Because they are the first line of defense against this process of degradation, Marcel insists, “he first duty of the philosopher in our world today is to fight against fanaticism in whatever guise it may appear.” And propaganda, the vehicle of fanaticism, may come in many forms—newspapers, radio, television, political slogans—but all share the feature of militating against the quiet, unproductive, reflective act of thinking by demanding the habitual repetition of words. “At the root of fanaticism…lies man’s servitude to words,” observed Marcel, “and I would say that the first mission of the philosopher, in this world or in opposition to this world, is to refuse to accept that servitude.” This remains as true now as ever. No matter the content, propaganda and political slogans—whether 2003’s “support the troops” or 2020’s “black lives matter”—are cultural technologies meant to build an environment hostile to reflection, philosophy, and—perhaps most basically—honesty.

Participation in politics can be a noble pursuit. Maintenance of our shared world requires careful negotiation with one another about the shape we wish it to take. Sometimes, of course, we are confronted with radical decisions of monumental importance that must be made quickly, that don’t admit of scrupulousness or sobriety. In these moments, it is easy to lose sight of our existential situation: that we exist in a world we depend upon, with others we depend upon, and that the dreams we have for the world we share are not as easily realizable as we want them to be. The suffocating atmosphere of fanaticism can cause us to forget that there are things—beautiful, splendid, life-giving things—that have nothing to do with the power- and prestige-games that characterize our shared political reality. Rather than sacrificing ourselves to the politics machine, of assimilating ourselves to fanaticism, it’s of the utmost importance to find space to allow our attention to settle on things untouched by politics. In tumultuous times such as ours, recall the wisdom of George Orwell, writing just months after the end of World War II: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”


[1] In honesty, I must admit that I had absolutely no sense for movement politics or the ins and outs of organizing work, and was likely more of a liability than a boon. But I was a body in the battle, and I was more than willing to carry boxes, dig holes, and march in the streets when called upon.

What the West Is

Compare:

vis-à-vis

https://balkaninsight.com/2022/04/01/a-grudging-vote-for-fidesz-in-hungarys-poorest-regions/

In many ways, for many people in the county, more representative are the views of Istvan Lehoczky, a 76-year-old pensioner from the small town of Ujfeherto.

“Hungary is a quasi-mafia state, and everyone knows it. But if the opposition wins, we will have six more mouths to feed,” says Lehoczky, a former manager at the local industrial facilities, referring to the alliance of six disparate opposition parties seeking to defeat Orban.

One of the signs of this alleged mafia-like characteristics is the misuse of European funds, which, according to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), in Orban’s Hungary was the highest in the EU in 2015-2019. Ujfeherto alone was awarded several EU-funded projects, one of which is the construction of a cold store – a large refrigerated facility for preserving food at very low temperatures.

Since 2019, however, there has been little apparent progress in the project. The billboard informing about this 510-million-forint investment (around 1.4 million euros) stands on a vast, empty field with no signs of construction whatsoever.

BIRN asked the town’s Fidesz mayor what has been done so far and what are the next steps in order to complete the project. “The procurement procedure for the cold store was recently unsuccessful. A new procurement will be announced soon,” Mayor Jozsef Hosszu said in a written statement.

Despite being aware of all Fidesz’s misconduct, whether electoral or the misuse of funds, Lehoczky admits to a love-hate relationship with a strong charismatic leader, whom in this county is embodied by either Orban himself or Miklos Sesztak, his former minister and one the county’s influential leaders backed by a record-high 62 per cent of voters in his constituency.

“I’m not happy with many Fidesz policies,” Lehoczky says. “Yet, with COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, one has to expect the government to be able to make quick and firm decisions, something that the chaotic opposition doesn’t guarantee.”

His fatalistic pragmatism is a combination of a full awareness about Fidesz scandals and the feeling that nothing can be done to prevent them, while any change to this well-cemented dysfunctional order will end in political chaos and financial uncertainty. It reflects the unspoken contract offered to a large part of the society by Orban: political stability and some share in the distribution of fruits in exchange for restricted democracy.

Clientele politics and cronyism, but “based”: the apex of Western civilization, according to idiots.

Requiescat in pace: Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander is dead. Let us remember his marvelous public debate with monstrosity-builder Peter Eisenmann, which years ago gave me the courage to finally say what everyone knows in their heart: that modern and postmodern architecture is, by and large, bullshit.


PETER EISENMANN: I was reminded of this when I went to Spain this summer to see the town hall at Logrono by Rafael Moneo. He made an arcade where the columns were too thin. It was profoundly disturbing to me when I first saw photographs of the building. The columns seemed too thin for an arcade around the court of a public space. And then, when I went to see the building, I realized what he was doing. He was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in. I had a feeling with that attenuated colonnade of precisely what I think you are talking about. Now, I am curious if you can admit, in your idea of wholeness, the idea of separation—wholeness for you might be separation for me. The idea that the too-small might also satisfy a feeling as well as the too-large. Because if it is only the too-large that you will admit, then we have a real problem.

[…]

CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER: Unfortunately, I don’t know the building you just described. Your description sounds horrendous to me. Of course, without actually seeing it, I can’t tell. But if your words convey anything like what the thing is actually like, then it sounds to me that this is exactly this kind of prickly, weird place, that for some reason some group of people have chosen to go to nowadays. Now, why are they going there? Don’t ask me.

PE: I guess what I am saying is that I believe that there is an alternate cosmology to the one which you suggest. The cosmology of the last 300 years has changed and there is now the potential for expressing those feelings that you speak of in other ways than through largeness—your boundaries—and the alternating repetition of architectural elements. You had 12 or 15 points. Precisely because I believe that the old cosmology is no longer an effective basis on which to build, I begin to want to invert your conditions—to search for their negative—to say that for every positive condition you suggest, if you could propose a negative you might more closely approximate the cosmology of today. In other words, if I could find the negative of your 12 points, we would come closer to approximating a cosmology that would deal with both of us than does the one you are proposing.

CA : Can we just go back to the arcade for a moment? The reason Moneo’s arcade sounded prickly and strange was, when I make an arcade I have a very simple purpose, and that is to try to make it feel absolutely comfortable—physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely. This is pretty hard to do. Much, much harder to do than most of the present generation of architects will admit to. Let’s just talk about the simple matter of making an arcade. I find in my own practical work that in order to find out what’s really comfort able, it is necessary to mock up the design at full scale. This is what I normally do. So I will take pieces of lumber, scrap material, and I’ll start mocking up. How big are the columns? What is the space between them? At what height is the ceiling above? How wide is the thing? When you actually get all those elements correct, at a certain point you begin to feel that they are in harmony.

Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night—I was doing empirical observation about—as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.

The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building—if I understood you correctly—is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

PE: That is correct.

CA: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Jainism is one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. It has three main pillars: ahiṃsā (non-violence), anekāntavāda (non-absolutism), and aparigraha (ascetism).

To practice ahiṃsā, orthodox Jains commit to vegetarianism (as well as a prohibition on root vegetables, to avoid killing plants). Many cover their mouths with cloth masks to avoid inhaling tiny insects as they breathe. Some sweep the ground in front of them as they walk, so they don’t crush anything crawling on the ground beneath their feet.

Anekāntavāda boils down to a kind of absolutist relativism, a firm belief in the inability to know or speak the truth. Of course, this is usually deployed against other people who claim to know the truth in order to defend Jainist doctrines.

Aparigraha is the belief that nobody truly possesses anything, and an avoidance of greediness or taking excessive pleasure in material things. This is complicated by a curious sociological fact:

Jains are more highly educated and wealthier than Indians overall, and few identify as lower caste. Roughly a third (34%) of Jain adults have at least a college degree, compared with 9% of the general public, according to India’s 2011 census. Moreover, the vast majority of Jains fall into India’s top wealth quintiles, according to India’s National Family and Health Survey.

https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/17/6-facts-about-jains-in-india/

A meeting at work today: coworkers (well-educated young people, all) wracked with roiling anxiety about the possibility of mask mandates coming to an end, the justification for their perpetual continuance constantly invoking “protection”: the need to protect others, the vulnerable, the immunocompromised, “our communities.” The request that mask policies continue until at least September—after that, “maybe” they could be lifted. Frustration expressed that the conversation was too “analytic,” and that we truly didn’t know anything. A refusal to accept that we are probably going to get sick, and will probably get others sick, and that a piece of fabric is unlikely to stop this. (But the ascetic wants to suffer, and wants others to see it.)

Later: introduced myself to a new coworker, who immediately asked me “my pronouns.” The sweep of the broom on the walkway.

Melville

Joseph Bottum:

And yet, even as he develops such ideas in his fiction, he seems less to think them than to feel or even suffer them—wincing as they crash from side to side in his brain like dense boulders of thought. Melville was not a systematically educated man: though backward in his early schooling, he taught himself literature by devouring haphazard naval libraries during the four years of his sailing adventure. And his lack of education meant that he had only the crudest intellectual tools with which to try to break his ideas open. […] He knew the Bible well, inheriting from his church-going age an almost unconsciously profound biblical awareness that left Scripture the ground on which his mind invariably walked. But Melville had little else of the kind of general education that might have stocked his brilliant mind with anything beyond the intellectual commonplaces of his day. His typical pattern of writing is to take a hackneyed, obvious notion like the Romantic view of the corrupt city and the innocent country, and twist it into complex, awkward shapes in an attempt to make it express the far denser mood-thought he felt about the city.

Only such a crude, haphazardly educated mind could produce the bizarre marvel that is Moby-Dick. Take it as inspiration.

Jaspers

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Existentialism and the Philosophy of Existence,” from Hedegger’s Ways:

Jaspers was a psychiatrist and apparently an astonishing, wide-ranging reader. When I first came to Heidelberg as a follower of Jaspers, someone showed me the bench in the Koestersschen Bookstore where Jaspers sat for exactly three hours every Friday morning and had all of the new releases laid out before him. And without exception he ordered a large package of books to be delivered to his house every week. With the self-confidence of an important spirit and the posture of a schooled, critical observer, he was able to find nourishment in any of the diverse areas of scientific research that had some import for philosophy. He was able to mesh a conscience or, better, the conscientiousness of his own thought with the awareness of his own participation in the actual research. This gave him the insight that scientific research meets up with insurmountable boundaries when it encounters the individuality of existence and the obligatoriness of its decisions.

A Response to a Response

Jared Loggins begins his response to my essay in First Thingsabout critical theorist and black studies professor Fred Moten—with an argument for indirect writing drawn from the Caribbean social theorist Edouard Glissant. “The issue at the heart of…Glissant’s Poetics of Relation,” Loggins writes,

has to do with how we relate to, read, and interpret others without reducing everyone and everything to a singular category or standard of experience. What Glissant had in mind was the colonial predicament in which black people had been rendered unintelligible, abnormal, barbaric, and therefore ripe for the forms of education, discipline, and control Westerners believed the situation called for…. What Glissant was suggesting is that it is not necessary to understand everything about the person or persons with whom we are in community. Through the practice of translation, we can come to a reasonably shared sense about what is to be done. We may not agree entirely and some of our experiences and claims may not translate over. But this is the point. We can indeed work out our shared goals while preserving our right to opacity as human beings.

It is precisely this possibility of opacity, Loggins argues, that I attempt to deny Moten in my critique of his deliberately obscure (I charge) prose. I “require transparency” of Moten, and therefore deny him his humanity.

This is one of the many failures I’ve made in comprehending and giving voice to Moten’s project—failures which include (according to Loggins) a suggestion of Moten’s racial inferiority to his co-author, an ignorance of Moten’s “material analysis” in favor of an “abstract theoretical” read of his work, and of denying critiques and contributions of black studies while eliding “the colonial origins and ongoing racial inequalities of classics as a field of study and ‘Great Books’ programs.”

I will not give the suggestion of my supposed racism the dignity of a response: it is a ridiculous, groundless, bad faith accusation, albeit one that I anticipated from Moten’s defenders as one anticipates thunder after lightning. It is the obvious accusation one has to make in such a situation, the big red emergency button always within reach—I can’t even blame him for making it. But I will do my best to respond to the others.

First, on opacity. I am not encountering Moten as a man; I encounter him as a writer, a thinker, a rather public (and richly rewarded) producer of books and ideas. And the kind of opacity Loggins asserts the right to—and which I, too, regard as essential for meaningful human coexistence—needs no defense. It is implicit in the very nature of human communication: every married person knows that no matter how hard one might try, it is impossible for me to become wholly transparent to anyone else. The process of communication itself is a fun house in which thoughts and feelings are distorted by the warped mirrors of speech and gesture. “Not only is the human heart,” Arendt writes in On Revolution, “a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display.” But Moten’s innermost motives were never up for question; rather, my focus was entirely upon his stature and his work. “To riff on Glissant,” Loggins writes, “I think a more appropriate standard of evaluating the radical intellectual’s political commitments is to look not just at how they say things but also at what they do.” This was, of course, the focus of my essay, and the substance of my criticism.

Implicit, however, in Loggins’ invocation of Glissant is the relation of colonizer to colonized: I, the colonizing power, am imposing a demand for transparency upon Moten, the colonial subject. Obviously I reject this assessment, and point instead to a few sociological facts (a “material analysis,” if you will): that Moten is a product of the most elite reaches of American higher education, a resounding success by any metric of assessment, the recipient of countless honors and awards. Mine is the first piece of negative criticism of him to appear anywhere, and is outnumbered by countless glowing profiles and sympathetic interviews. Call it superfluous, wrongheaded, or just plain stupid—but an expression of colonial force against the subaltern my essay most manifestly is not.

(Notice here that all of Loggins’ quotations of Moten come from The Undercommons, a work I praise for its readability. Any elaboration of his project beyond this book is done without reference to his own words: rather, the defenses of illegibility and opacity happen in rather clear prose, even while criticizing my insistence upon clarity. A curious phenomenon!)

Criticizing opacity is not elitist by nature, because opacity is not simply a “weapon of the weak”: it has often been used by elites (self-styled or otherwise) to protect themselves from the rabble. Arthur Meltzer, in his book Philosophy Between the Lines, identifies four species of esoteric writing employed throughout the entire history of written philosophy, from the Greeks through the Medieval scholastics (including the earlier Islamic inheritors of Aristotle) up to the twentieth century:

  1. defensive esotericism (to protect the philosopher from the rage of the multitude, especially in religious matters)
  2. protective esotericism (to shield ordinary people from radical ideas that challenge the ingrained prejudices of traditional political societies)
  3. pedagogic esotericism (to provide a proper method for educating future philosophers)
  4. political esotericism (an Enlightenment invention, to gradually make the populace more rational, albeit with some temporary accommodation to defensive esotericism)

Philosophers of the Ancient and Medieval world had no interest in “enlightening the masses,” and understood the activity of philosophy to be fundamentally and eternally at odds with the political life they nonetheless depended upon for the ability to pursue philosophy. Esotericism was a wall that kept the domain of the few separate from that of the many, thus retaining the dignity and integrity of philosophy while protecting the wider political community from its dangers. The moderns, on the other hand, believed philosophy to be a means of improving the estate of mankind, and subordinated the activity of the few to the benefit of the many. The earlier forms of philosophic esotericism thus atrophied, leaving only one with any legitimacy: that which stimulated the rational capacities of the hoi polloi, nudging their natures ever closer toward reason.

As might be obvious, the Ancient and Medieval approaches to esotericism were fundamentally aristocratic. Only those gifted few, who possessed not only the requisite intelligence but also the leisure time necessary for the kind of careful reading needed to detect esoteric clues, were capable of true understanding. They shored up a community of the wise few, who spoke freely among each other away from the prying eyes of the many: all others were condemned to the outer darkness of customary belief and conventional opinion. The philosophers cultivated, that is to say, opacity.

The world is full of vernacular language-domains that are difficult, if not impossible, for the uninitiated to penetrate. This is the nature of human community-formation: every inside entails the exclusion of the outside, every “us” implies a “them.” It is perfectly sensible that a community that feels its boundaries to be under attack would defend them, shore them up against the threat—and in many cases, would be completely justified in doing so. But the justifiability depends upon the nature of the community. A government, colonial power, or other elite caste employing brutal force to impose legibility upon its subjects—as Glissant explains, and a dynamic that anthropologist James C. Scott has likewise devoted his career to exploring—should disgust us; but groups of subjects and citizens demanding transparency of their government, colonial power, or elite caste—demanding legibility and transparency, in other words, and the destabilization of their rarified vernacular language-domain—should not.

Academics, of course, do not always wield political power. But one’s position in the academy does grant power to shape the intellectual life of the university, and often of the country at large. In the academy, prestige enjoys a reciprocal relationship with attention, engagement, and assignment; it is, in other words, a kind of celebrity, albeit one within the bounded, selectively permeable domain of the academy. And it is justified, however tired a gesture, to criticize Ivory Tower illegibility, and suggest that perhaps there is a better way of doing things—especially when such illegibility is explained as part of a plan to make a better world (rather than, say, just the kind of thing philosophers do to keep themselves from being persecuted, in utter indifference to the living conditions of the many).

Part of what initially drew me to Moten concerned certain similarities in our respective biographies. Like Moten, I was a smart and sensitive kid in a working-class home; like Moten, I went off to college (though Marshall University instead of Harvard) after high school and dropped out after my first, largely unattended year. (He went finished his degree and continued to Berkeley; I became an anarchist crustpunk hopping freight trains between summit protests, a dweller of the vernacular intellectual world of American radical counterculturalism.) Like Moten, the taste of the neoliberal university I eventually got left me, simultaneously, ever hungrier for understanding and revolted by the material reality of academic existence under neoliberalism’s aegis: permanent precarity and indebtedness, “publish or perish,” the demands for productivity and professionalization, the totalizing anxiety of competition, etc.

Sometime in the early 2000s, while squatting an abandoned house in San Francisco, I briefly formed a reading group at an anarchist bookstore on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, alongside a factory worker and high school teacher. I joined a few of Aragorn!’s legendary discussion groups at Berkeley’s Long Haul, mostly of strange zines he discovered and translated during his travels around Europe. I fell in love with avant-garde literature (Balestrini, Bolaño) while living on a farm in southern Kentucky, and (Kertész, Perec) while working in a breakfast restaurant in Lexington; with Adorno and Benjamin became my friends while I worked at a bar in Lousiville. Perhaps the single most influential book in my life is a book called Nihilist Communism, written by two former UK postal workers and passed (much like The Undercommons) between friends in America, which disabused me of a whole host of assumptions central to the psychology of leftism, most notably of the question of agency, and reminded me that politics must be in the service of, say, birdwatching. Long before I reentered and was eventually reshaped (into a person who writes, mostly) by the university, I had been a fringe learner of fringe texts in fringe spaces (the most irritating occasional visitors of which, without fail, were graduate students with heads full of theory). These things matter to me more than any university classroom ever will.

Which is to say that my essay did in fact propose a “material” course of action to counter the wretchedness of the neoliberal order and the rapacious, degrading neoliberal university, one just as oriented toward the realization of a “different world” as the black studies that Moten and Loggins craft from their respective campuses. Allow me to repeat myself:

We can escape the shallowness of modern life into the narrowness of ethnic groupings or the ranks of a mythical revolutionary subject; or we can turn away from all this faction and folly and strive for the freedom and togetherness in the light of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. We can build thieves’ dens that feed upon and wage war against the university; or we can build communities that prize learning and edification for their own sake. And we can speak of the need to “refuse an exclusive and exclusionary ontic capacity or to move outside the systemic oscillation between the refusal and the imposition of such capacity”—or, perhaps, we can discover the freedom found in speaking simply, the generosity of an earnest question, and the joy of fellowship with no scorn or condescension.

This is not, as Loggins suggests, a “retreat into the psychic life of the mind.” This is a concrete praxis of living well with others, sans bullshit, without pretensions to utopian schemes for the radical transformation of a society—a society that has time and time again proven stubbornly resistant to such schemes. It is strategy within the limits of agency. Friendship is real; fellowship is real; every conversation is an opportunity for collaboration, for a genuine act of thinking-together that can occasion a radically new thing in the world, something nobody could have predicted. To deny this is to deny the spontaneity and capacity for action that is the very essence of human existence. In the presence of a true friend, with whom one (per Aristotle) “has eaten salt together,” one of the rare generous minds (per Kojève, to Strauss) from whom one can actually learn something—who gives a shit about the neoliberal university?

So it is obvious—to me, at least—that none of the desirable things need exist there. The university is not a prison; you are not obligated to “struggle against it”; it can quite easily be escaped, and less easily—but still successfully—ignored. It is not the only place from which intellectual work could possibly be done. (What greater insult to all of those who read and think and conspire with no connection to it at all?) People gather and think together in churches, libraries, living rooms, break rooms at their job. Walk into a coffee shop (or, as Chris Arnade has detailed, a McDonald’s) in nearly any mid-sized city in America and you’ll likely bump into a group of people earnestly and thoughtfully studying the Bible. As I noted in my essay (and which Loggins interprets as some kind of dogwhistle), the democratic West—that is, the actual regime and culture we inhabit; the worldly theater in which our lives play out; and the tradition of which every American, like it or not, is an inheritor—has a long history of vernacular intellectualism being done by all manner of people at the edges, one that—despite the triumph of entertainment, that great soporific of the mind—has never stopped.

Which is, ultimately, my point. The Undercommons, as conceived by Moten and Harney, has no room for those who have never stepped foot on a college campus. It is predicated upon acceptance: it takes for granted the byzantine apparatus of standardized testing, entrance essay composition, and application submission, rituals utterly foreign to the world I came from and which most people I’ve ever known simply don’t want to mess with. And it is, despite its own self-conception, aristocratic. The type of opacity Moten and his fellows deploys constitutes a group not of beleaguered racialized subjects striving for a better life free from oppression (that hated “floating signifier” again!), but of professional artists and academics building out their own vernacular intellectual world of the art gallery, faculty office, and lecture hall.

I am not against this in principle. Many of the writers most important to me believed to be participating in something like this—but despite their efforts, their work fell into the hands of fringe readers and thinkers who found in their researches serious attempts to think through those fundamental questions and problems that bear upon all human beings regardless of time or place, questions whose urgency is often most poignantly felt by those sitting at the bottom of the world’s hierarchies. Questions like: What is a human being? How should one live? What is the proper relationship between self, community, and world? What is justice? What is God? The posing of such questions in frank, direct terms is an invitation to anyone who wishes to think through such matters to do so. It is a way of inviting into the ranks of the few—those who wish to pursue philosophia, a life devoted to the love and pursuit of wisdom—any from the many who are interested in, and capable of, reasoning together.

Updating one’s underdog consciousness in light of unexpected success is difficult, and I know the challenge well: going from frustrated, underemployed PhD reject to somewhat-widely-published essayist and future philosophy graduate student over the span of two years has left me with serious existential whiplash. I have a good friend who regularly chides me that the chip I continue to bear on my shoulder is increasingly unnecessary and counterproductive: with success comes responsibility, and the need to accept criticism as a sign of being taken seriously—that is, of success. (She advised me against writing any more about this; I am stupidly ignoring her wise counsel.) It is hard to know how use such responsibility prudently, and how best to speak honestly and truthfully about oneself and the world. But one who has achieved such a level of success—even that as meager as my own—should nonetheless, I believe, be oriented by such a sense of responsibility. And dissembling about, or deliberately mystifying, one’s success and level of influence is a kind of intellectual sin.[1]

Liberté, egalité, and fraternité are no longer especially sexy or compelling ideas for Americans (however urgent others elsewhere continue to find them), and thus my original essay perhaps failed on the level of persuasion. Fellowship has no revolutionary subject; one cannot easily convene an academic conference at Columbia University on what it’s like to talk to a friend. The True, the Beautiful, and the Good have long been less seductive than salaciousness and militancy. It is always an absurdity to make public arguments for, in Ivan Illich’s words, “a place where fools can gather.” But I’m glad to be absurd.

Loggins concludes by suggesting that my objection to pseudo-radical academic jargon is a kind of bourgeois hatred of messiness, that my appeal for clarity from star intellectuals is a kind of disgust reaction to the “noisy chorus of the undercommons.” I hope, at this point, that such an accusation appears laughable. I am, however, indifferent to “abolition”: the universities, increasingly eager to liquidate their philosophy, literature, and humanities departments, are doing a good enough job at this without my help. So climb down into the noisy chorus of our undercommons—among the mothers preparing dinner to audiobooks of Victorian literature; truckers whose cabs are filled with the sound of literary classics and history podcasts; bike couriers with GEDs and shelves full of Kierkegaard; autistic computer programmers with a passion for Vitruvius; soldiers reading Hegel in communes full of exiles; Dominican immigrants in New York discovering Plato in a pile of trash—and ask them the purpose of their studies, and one suspects they’ll reply in unison: “wisdom.”

Peter Handke:

The house of strength is in the other’s face. Here and now is the festival of gratitude. So let it not be said of you that you failed to take advantage of peace: let your labor work wonders—pass it on. But only those who love pass it on: love just one—that suffices for all. In loving you, I awake to myself. Even when most can’t be uplifted, be upliftable. Avert your eyes from the bestial two-legged creatures. Be real. Follow the caravan music. Walk until the vanishing lines emerge from the confused tangle, so slowly that the world becomes yours anew, so slowly that it becomes clear how it doesn’t belong to you. Yes, always keep your distance from power that parades itself as power. Don’t complain that you’re alone—be even more alone. Pass along the rustling. Describe the horizon, lest the beautiful dissolve into nothing again. Describe life-images to one another. What was good deserves to exist. Take your time—and be creative: transform your inexplicable sighs into mighty songs. Our art must aim to cry out to the heavens! Let no one talk you out of beauty—the beauty we humans create is what shakes us to the core.


[1] An excerpt from an interview I had to cut from the First Things piece:

Observer: Power is obviously an enormously loaded concept. What’s it like to receive an award like the MacArthur grant and ostensibly accrue more social and literal capital?

Moten: I’ll answer in kind of roundabout way, because there was this other thing, I think it’s ArtReview or Art-something, and they have a “Power 100” or a “Hot 100.” But they don’t really talk to you about it; they just put you in it. You have no choice. And what I found is that I have no idea what that actually means. I don’t know what it means to have power, or whatever the kind of power it is that I supposedly have in the art world seems very different than the kind of power that an artist would have or that, you know, a big curator would have or gallery owner or somebody like that. So, it’s not that I’m saying I don’t have it; I just don’t know how, what it is and how it works, you know?

I hope that if I were ever given nearly a million dollars and admitted into the ranks of MacArthur “geniuses,” I’d have a much better answer to this question than “Well, I don’t know.”