Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 2

Beyond Idiocy, Towards Involvement

Susan Bee No Exit

Image Credit: Susan Bee, No Exit, 2012, oil on canvas, 20” x 24”. Courtesy of the artist.

“It is not a matter of governing; still less of being governed.”
Marcel Havrenne

Hannah Arendt reminds us that “…to the Greeks, private life seemed ‘idiotic’ because it lacked the diversity that comes with speaking about something and thus the experience of how things really function in the world” (Arendt 129). With the hypertrophy of today’s digital world, in which intelligence is increasingly spoken of in relation to the artificial and memory considered as a quantifiable attribute of a computerized device, such idiocy has become generalized. “Speaking about something” rarely occurs in any kind of physical agora-space but is confined to dematerialized silos where pseudo-dialogues unfold within surveilled, engineered, and monetized commodity-forums such as Facebook. (Thinking of the currently two billion Facebook users conjures up images of those old McDonald’s franchises that proudly proclaimed “over X million sold” until their mass-marketed junk became too plentiful, indeed too burgeoning, to encompass in a mere statistic.) “The experience of how things really function in the world” implies the kind of active thought that not only seeks to comprehend the world, the possibilities of its beauty and the realities of its miseries, but on that basis to contribute toward a transformative praxis. However, it has now been reduced to a privatized, screen-sized domain in which the truncated self (often under cover of a craven anonymity) can claim, and indulge “freely” in, the narcissist’s delusory omnipotence, hurling anathemas, death threats, invective, and falsifications at whatever the dominant mentality has designated as an appropriate scapegoat or target.

In short, what Guy Debord identified 50 years ago as the society of the spectacle, where “[a]ll that was once directly lived has become mere representation”, has simultaneously reached (by its own lights) an apogee and (in Arendt’s concept of the “human condition”) a nadir (Debord 12). As Debord carefully demonstrates, the spectacle marks the ultimate realization of the commodity-form, and hence of that reification in which “in a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood” (Debord 14). Behind the abundance of commodities, the “realm of dispossession” has simply extended itself; beneath the proliferation of things, mere survival, which since the publication of Debord’s book has become increasingly precarious for the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants, “may gild poverty, but it cannot transcend it” (Debord 30-31). The flight from awareness of this poverty as it manifests itself in daily life is nourished by spectacular ideologies; “in a society where no one is any longer recognizable by anyone else, each individual is necessarily unable to recognize his own reality” (Debord 152).

In the context of this atomized self that late capitalism has engendered and, in its digital incarnation, aggravated, Günther Anders’s concept of the “human without world” (Mensch ohne Welt) acquires particular relevance. Writing about Franz Biberkopf, the main character of Alfred Döblin’s Weimar-Republic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, Anders noted that there was “nothing behind him: no particular custom, no bourgeois, no proletarian, no urban, no rural custom, no nature, no religion, no denegation of religion, no indifference, no milieu, no family,” and that this makes Biberkopf “inhuman, because in a barbaric sense he is only human” (Anders, quoted in Bischof et al. [eds.] 98). Even as this description can be applied to the floundering cyber-orphans of today seeking to relieve their simmering frustrations by lending willing ears to the siren songs of fundamentalism, nationalism, racism, and other ideological modes of commodified world-abjuring hatred and ressentiment, it can also take on another signification. When one considers the millions of people who have been rendered superfluous to the needs of the capitalist machine and systematically denied any place in the world – the incarcerated, the refugees permanently barred from places of refuge, the landless, the evicted and displaced, the homeless, the addicted, the ruined and ravaged, not to mention the countless (and uncounted) civilian casualties of endless wars – Anders’s declaration that “the expression ‘human without world’ designates a class truth” bears witness to a world founded on mass dispossession, where those who produce and reproduce the world in their daily activity are prevented from seeing that world as a whole, let alone taking control of it (Anders, quoted in Bischof 100). That so many should retreat into a private world that is not even private, insofar as it is mediated by an array of technological devices aimed at promoting and enforcing passivity and helplessness, and claim, notwithstanding, autonomy and freedom, is understandable (albeit morally unjustifiable) since the assorted managers and beneficiaries of the human-depriving world do not have an interest in ensuring that its underlings and “object shepherds” (to use Anders’s phrase) arrive at anything near a comprehension of that world and of their (shameful) place in it.

Anders’s contemporary Theodor W. Adorno points toward a more emancipatory notion of individuality explicitly directed against the totalitarian universality of capitalist domination: “Experience and consistency enable the individual to see in the universal a truth which the universal as blindly pervading power conceals from itself and from others. The reigning consensus puts the universal in the right because of the mere form of its universality. Universality, itself a concept, comes thus to be conceptless and inimical to reflection; for the mind to perceive and to name that side of it is the first condition of resistance and a modest beginning of practice” (Adorno 344). Unmasking the Social Lie of which all the lies that befoul our sociopolitical atmosphere are but subsidiary phenomena requires a sense of purpose, a refusal to be fooled by the spectacular terms of false “debates” which leave intact the “reigning consensus” around economy, governance, the delimitation of the private and public, educational systems, labor (whether productive or reproductive), etc. Indeed, it requires a redefinition of terms (akin to what Debord did with the word “spectacle”) and revitalized modes of perception and naming.

In this endeavor, poetry may be of some assistance, given that at its highest level it teaches us to see things otherwise, beyond the “blindly pervading power” of the false capitalist universal. I am thinking in particular of the work (and figure) of the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, who took an active part in the fight against British colonialism in the early 1950s and was imprisoned for it. As the movement became fragmented along ethnic lines, to the point where the final achievement of independence in 1966 proved at best a Pyrrhic victory, Carter’s poems reflected this disillusioning condition; though no less committed to liberatory struggles than before, he did not hesitate to confront the wreckage of his erstwhile hopes, resigning a diplomatic position on the grounds that “a mouth is always muzzled / by the food it eats to live” (Carter 136). In an earlier poem, “After One Year,” written the year following bloody ethnically-incited riots in the capital Georgetown, he marshals all his individual “experience and consistency” (Adorno) to try and find a way to “speak about something” (Arendt) with the poem’s addressee. He initially strikes a note of fellow-feeling, acknowledging that “Those miseries I know you cultivate / are mine as well as yours”; he too knows the darker, hidden corners of the city, and it is on the basis of this complicity that he cries out to the other to “jail me quickly, clang the illiterate door / if freedom writes no happier alphabet” in a situation where “great dreams that give the soul no peace” are mocked and “everywhere wrong deeds are being done.” Apostrophizing his addressee as “Rude citizen!” he ruthlessly exposes their hitherto unspoken awareness that “love is stammered, hate is shouted out / in every human city in the world” and concludes with the apodictic “Men murder men, as men must murder men / to build their shining governments of the damned” (Carter 119).

In an earlier poem, Carter declared that “all are involved! / all are consumed!” (Carter 61). The “rude citizen” of “After One Year,” then, is no less a citizen for all his rudeness, but precisely because he is unformed (i.e., an uncivil citizen), he is unmindful that “the impartial bullock” of arbitrary power cares little for “whose land is ploughed,” and must therefore be persuaded of the truths he has preferred not to take account of: that governments, for all their gleaming images, are founded on murder, and that the stentorian voice of hatred reduces love to a mere stammer. Thus, Carter’s addressee ceases to be simply a lone individual encountered in the Georgetown streets and becomes a stand-in for all of Guyana, and beyond that, for a world founded on oppression and racing headlong towards damnation. Every murder, however individually motivated, contributes to the ascendancy of Babylonian “shining governments.” “Always for me,” laments Carter at the conclusion of “Black Friday 1962,” “the same vision of cemeteries, slow funerals / broken tombs, and death designing all” (Carter 118). Yet the poet recognizes himself as part of this world, since all are equally involved in and consumed by it; he would later announce “in the shame of knowledge / of our vileness, we shall fight” rather than join the ranks of those state-sanctioned murderers for whom “A pot / of rice is their foul reward” (Carter 201).

Writing in tribute to the murdered scholar/activist Walter Rodney, Carter denounces the “assassins of conversation” (Carter 210). Against Power’s monologue, the poet proposes an ethic of responsibility, one in which the individual must be answerable to her fellows, and, through a process of mutual education and development – which in the last analysis can only be embodied – engage in a movement from the existing heteronomy to an autonomous (self-instituting) direct democracy capable of developing what Carter called “a free community of valid persons” (Carter, in Westmaas [ed.] 30). That this is not a matter of governing or being governed in the commonly accepted sense is further elucidated by C.L.R. James: “You see, government which is essentially the government of the majority by a privileged minority is one thing. But the government by a lot of free people is something else. It’s not the same at all. And my experience is that where there is freedom, there are all sorts of immense possibilities which do not exist under capitalist society, because the capitalist society is essentially domination” (James, 55). Under the conditions of all-encompassing crisis with which we are confronted, even the most modest step towards realizing the possibilities of which James speaks is important, as long as it encourages and broadens liberatory self-activity, self-understanding, and collective creation, and brings us closer to the creation of a situation where human beings come together in socialized spaces to discuss their needs and capacities, and thereby contribute to a reconciled, non-exploitative world. The Black poet Bob Kaufman, amidst police persecution, poverty, and illness, outlined the lineaments of such a world in a poem dedicated “To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room” :

On this shore, we shall raise our monuments of stones,
of wood, of mud, of color, of labor, of belief, of being,
of life, of love, of self, of man expressed
in self-determined compliance, or willful revolt,
secure in this avowed truth, that no man is our master,
nor can any ever be, at any time in time to come. (Kaufman 19)

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1973.
Arendt, Hannah. The Promise of Politics. Ed. and intro. Jerome Kohn. New York: Schocken, 2001.
Bischof, Günter, Jason Dawsey & Bernhard Fetz (eds.). The Life and Work of Günther Anders: Emigré, Iconoclast, Philosopher, Man of Letters. Innsbruck/Vienna/Bosen: Studien Verlag, 2014.
Carter, Martin. Selected Poems. Georgetown: Red Thread Women’s Press, 1997.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone, 1996.
James, C.L.R. Every Cook Can Govern & What is Happening Every Day: 1985 Conversations. Ed. and intro. Jan Hillegas and Jim Murray. Jackson: New Mississippi, Inc., 1986.
Kaufman, Bob. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.
Westmaas, Nigel (ed.). “A Martin Carter Prose Sampler.” Kyk-Over-Al 44 (May 1993).

Tags: , , , , ,