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The Monkhood of the Left

By Jeremy Brunger.


“I loathe monks… For me, turning away from the world, from chance, from the truth of bodies is shameful… No greater sin exists.”

—Bataille, On Nietzsche

“Intimacy with great thinking is unbearable. I seek and make appeal to whom I can communicate such thinking without bringing about their deaths.”


“One does not write for slaves.”

—Sartre, What is Literature?

Civilization’s discontents have always scrimmaged its formal boundaries when they aren’t busy strumming its political heart. Social criticism, from the Greeks on to the New Atheists, places the critic outside the object of his criticism; he cannot be immersed in it lest he criticize himself. To witness a society and agree with it is to be content with its paradoxes and immoralities, which is to be immoral and uncritical. That the critic is a lonesome creature is the test of his critical abilities, and when they fail in distancing him from the crowd, he all too often succumbs to his original object; difference and sapience are one in the standing of the critic, who delivers society its judgments that it might heed them and thereby improve itself. But the distance of the critic can belie his intentions and the content of his observations. The gulf between his sermons on the saeculum and the way he wishes to deliver them can paint him a court jester or a fool as easily as it can reform the criticized.

The Left has always been at once an integral and a minority faction within modern civil society. Its function of criticism depends, indeed is parasitic on, the actions of the larger political economy against which current it swims. It is as dialectically dependent on injustice as the policeman and the criminal, as Hegel’s lord and bondsman. Given its admitted tendency to sectarianism, and what is more, its will to monkhood, what use does it offer the wider world beyond the bounds of consciousness, that interior landscape on which mankind lays bare its problems? The most visible proponents of leftism are writers and researchers, not politicos plotting reform or dismantling systems; they are critical monks, the modern thought-leaders, esoterisists, problematizers but not fixers, activists of the republic of letters. Where have the Weathermen gone, those who have been replaced by the weather? What has become of radicalism that its most radical expression is a university-published screed, or a self-conscious pamphlet, or even a plea for meaning broadcast to the indiscriminate internet? Don’t they know the shadows never solved anything in Plato’s cave, that the oracles strangled on their own lithium, that the armchair of theory eventually disintegrates and leaves the thinker sprawled before his masters?

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Consider a recent contribution to the leftist body politic from Verso, the publishing wing of New Left Review. In The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (2014), Ernesto Laclau, now dead, includes a chapter entitled “Why Constructing a ‘People’ is the Main Task of Radical Politics.” Laclau refuses to fall prey to the predictive tendency of nihilist Marxism exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, instead preferring the suggestion of solidarity in the wake of the populist Occupy movement. It is a strange sort of nationalism that is not a nationalism — a will to solidity in the face of the decades-long split among the Left and the coming to ascendance of philosophical peacocks like Žižek within its quarters. Radical politics should nation-build rather than dismantle attitudes; this is so that the populist polity might, in coming to fruition, in turn attack vertical hegemony all the better. Žižek proclaims a left-fascism, a totalitarianship against the people for their benefit — the very sort of structural government that Marxist-humanists claim Marx did not intend. It is evident that, if Žižek is not a fraud, then at least he is palpably insane. In his self-imposed cloisterdom he gathers a winking audience, the better to lead them to the laughing-pit of philosophy, a discipline once so serious it thought it could reveal God to the layman. The gentle polemic of Laclau, the more earnest figure, against Zizek’s criticism of his work on socialist strategy and the concept of ideology, comes to the forefront of Laclau’s political construction of a people. The whole edifice is built on polemic. With Laclau’s death, leftism lost a sincere if pedantic thinker who at least believed in his own thinking. Not so, no doubt, for his Slovene comrade.

What Hegel called “the Other” and Lacan “the Big Other,” Laclau refers to as “the Master-Signifier embodying the enemy” before suggesting that this is not to admit there are no enemies of either populism or the class struggle. Much ado about ephemera is said amid much spilled ink, Laclau discusses legal heteronomy, that mangled concept of Foucault which has provided job security to many a scholar from the upper middle class, and the social theory of mind, that mystical concept of Hegel, and the book is done with Agamben and social indeterminacy. And so goes the artful leftism of the rhetoricians. But what of the real victims of these struggles, those real concretes called human beings who exist not in the realm of solipsistic Concept but in the material realm of the all too human? What is the name of a person murdered by the state? What is the name of a person imprisoned for life because of the War on Drugs? What is the name of a person beaten half to death by her significant other who believes fervently in the Christian ontology of gender? Sartre’s conviction that both the victim and the perpetrator are the same person sounds unconvincing when one recognizes that Sartre never went hungry or slept under bridges. His tower was not ivory, and so he thought himself exempt from that charge against professional philosophers and moralists, that they are ambulance-chasers with brains. The poor, alas, with friends like these…

An outsider might think upon entering leftist discourse for the first time that, if the various minorities and oppressed have this for leadership, then they are already dressed in rags for the fire. The tendency in leftism to drift toward the intellectual, or to over-drift into it, suggests the flesh may break that the mind may sup — that the Age of Causes is not over but only dutifully transcribed between scholars. This development is not reality, it is fantasy; and woe to the thinkers who confuse fantasy and theory in their quest for the absolute. It matters that struggles are waged, not that they are written about. For the American Civil Rights marches to have happened in the 1960’s it took four hundred years of solitude, disenfranchisement, and death to bring it about — not Time Magazine.

It is doubtful that either Žižek or Laclau will ever directly influence rebellion except where rebellion was already poised to occur. Laclau points out that Stalin was not an ideologue; he was a pragmatist of the first rate who subordinated state ideology to his own personal ends. For trauma to take hold, it must be a process of repetition: this eerie formula resembles what many scholars in the ideological disciplines do. “One may not derive an ought from an is,” says the Humean empiricism. Would that the socialism of solidarity answer in firm reply that “one ought to be what one is.”

The best antidote to oppressive politics is to feel oppressed, to don that particular affect because it is authentic, not to scurry between scholars as to what a plan of action might be. Vanguardism cannot be waged in the universities — their trustees won’t allow it, no matter how sincere its intellectualism. Nor, in an age of mass literacy, can it be fruitfully waged between pages, for the pages are infinite and the attention span limited. A thoughtful person does not need a Laclau or a Žižek defining who their enemy is as a linguistic entity. It does not take a scholar to figure out that the leader of a superpower nation is probably not the same kind of person as one’s neighbor, upon whose community life itself is based. Žižek declaring that communism is a “non-reifying” movement means nothing to the person whom communism as a social formation might actually help, from the half-educated proletarian to the manager attached symbiotically to the corporate panopticon.

Nor does Laclau produce an authorial novelty when he asserts that politics is full of “empty signifiers,” what a normal person would call a “lot of bullshit.” Common sense can be its own worst enemy, but so can the bad faith of the intellectuals. It is sincerely doubtable that Žižek does not profit from capitalism, as in some way we all do, just as it is doubtable that Laclau’s professorial chair is profitless from the reaping of cash-crops in the areas surrounding Northwestern. The etymology of the word “analysis” means “to dismantle, to break apart.” Analysis can do this only so far before it transforms into the playful nihilism of the intellectuals who, if they do no harm, also offer little in the way of aid. Meanwhile, the world screams in the selfsame agony it always has, and the public intellectuals, ever mindful of that tenor, dine in the Grand Hotel Abyss.

These are monks who presume to teach the world a better way of living, a better way of thinking, and a better way of preparing the future — of in some sense planning it rather than leaving it to the animal caprice of former generations. Theory, if it is honest, is an important precursor to praxis. But imagine any leftist calling Žižek “honest,” or Laclau “self-interested in distributive justice.” The vast space between them and their imaginary worlds are akin to the medieval geographer’s sense of reality, that it may first be fantasized about and then rendered as a territory on a map for the abbot. But their maps were false, just like the bestiaries and theologies of their brethren monks. It is best not to forget that sailing off those maps tended to drown the crew and bankrupt the monastery. A book like The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, although of interest to the bookish or the merely academic mind, will not and cannot do for society what Laclau likes to think it does. Activism does not flourish under the majesty of blackmail-scholarship. It tends to wither into a farce so mystical and derelict that even its proponents begin to chuckle and squint.

Antonio Gramsci wrote his most influential tracts as he rotted and starved in a fascist prison.The writings of Louis Althusser, who was squarely in the academic tradition of the intellectual Left, caused real riots — later regretted, but material enough to credit his thinking with success in its aims — among the rebels who read him. For a select few of the soixante-huitards theory and practice merged because the theory was good and the practice necessary. The socialists of the nineteenth century implored the wider world to be weary of liberal capitalism in ways that actually lifted the consciousness of those suffering under liberal capitalism, ways that policy-makers eventually instituted, ways that moralists eventually adopted as their own. Even Helen Keller, a socialist whose socialism has been forgotten by history, led multitudes by example that the humanist imperative can change things, even if she candidly admitted she was bolstered in this by her class position. No recluse will read Laclau or Žižek and engage in the manufacture of molotov cocktails or the dismantling of capitalist relations. This is probably a good thing. But neither will anyone read them and begin even the remotest steps towards socialism, brotherhood, peace, or plenty, in consequence. Do we need another minority report on linguistics, another conspiracy theorist infiltrating the professoriat, another sneering Žižek wowing the unitiated, another dilettante Francophile in 2035?

Leftism should not be an example of perpetual homo ludens, of a monkhood of radicals at play, forever reading and never to be read. It should be an example of willed adversity that adversity might disappear from the greater landscape. The professors writing of Iamblichus do not sound off for the sophomore raped on campus any more than they do for the homeless throng skirting their universities. Real miseries are abundant, real politicians are ensuring they are perpetuated, and real victims haunt the world wondering how the deck became so stacked. Radicals suffer that radicalism might mean something more than the masturbating intellect or the pleasure of the cloistered few. Once consciousness is raised it must somehow be enacted. “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass,” writes Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia, his lament for civilization. Would that the monks would listen.

Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 1st, 2015.