Poetics of Resistance: Radical Politics in the Waning Years of Capitalism

Levi Bryant has had a lot to say in the past several months about the relationship between politics and ontology. HERE is his latest. Essentially, he argues that academia is too caught up in symbolic and cultural forms of resistance to capitalism, when in reality what changes history are not shifts in consciousness but transformations of material conditions. The global non-locality of contemporary hyper-capitalism makes it especially difficult to resist, since, for example, if factory workers in America decide to strike and/or bargain collectively with their corporate managers and shareholders, the corporation can simply re-open a factory overseas where workers expect less. This is largely the story of the last several decades, as post-industrial America shifted away from manufacturing to become a nation of consumers.

In the comments, Bryant got into it with Tim of Fragile Keys over whether it is material conditions or habits of the heart that finally transform society. Bryant took his characteristic anti-religion stance, while Tim argued that, even with the best of material conditions, human beings still need proper enculturation in order to live in harmony with others and the universe. Religion, therefore, will be central to any social transformation. Bryant certainly has a point when he suggests that the evils of capitalism are structurally rooted, and not simply a matter of individual greed. However, I don’t think that changing the legal structure of our economy can happen without a transformation in individual and social values. But in the end, I wouldn’t want to claim the true cause is either one factor or the other. Change would seem to emerge as a result of both factors becoming effective simultaneously. I must also say that Bryant’s grasp of history is just wrong when he suggests that religion has most often functioned as a conservative force to maintain dominant power structures. I think the facts of history present a far more complex relationship between religion and politics, there being as many religious radicals as there have been reactionaries (my last post on Bruno’s radical politics and heretical religion being an example of this complexity).

On a related note, I just stumbled upon a 2010 issue of the journal Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy devoted to “Poetics of Resistance.” Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

The register of individuality and subjectivity that is linked with the term poetics, and the evocation of collectivity and community through the term resistance, places the practices and works under discussion in a tension between these categories. It encourages an analytical approach that considers the relationship between the work of art, the subjectivities of its creator(s) and of its recipients, and the social movements or political ideologies with which it is linked. The place of the work of art in the tension field between the subjective and the collective, and the relationality that the existence of this tension field necessarily entails, has emerged as one of the most important foci of the work of members of the network.

The term ‘resistance’, in the way it is used by the network, needs further explanation. We use it with specific reference to neoliberalism, as one recent form of capitalism, while also maintaining an interest in practices of creative resistance to pre-neoliberal regimes of capital. This focus was chosen to facilitate the response to a very particular situation which is characterized by the implementation of a specific set of ideologically based policies while, at the same time, the existence of the ideological dimension is disavowed by policy makers. As Eagleton points out, proponents of conservatism (we may apply this more concretely to neoliberalism) are wary of acknowledging its own ideological status, since ‘to dub their own beliefs ideological would be to risk turning them into objects of contestation’.[4] Neoliberalism thus pretends to be pragmatic rather than ideological; interested in policy rather than ideology. This pretence is made easier by neoliberalism having originally emerged as an economic theory. David Harvey writes:[5]

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. … But beyond these tasks the state should not venture.

This ‘theory of political economic practices’ does, however, have ideological underpinnings which are crucially important to an understanding of neoliberalism’s impact on the arts, and also on scholarship. Those ideological underpinnings have become ever more obvious as the economic theory proves to be flawed, inadequate, and destructive. Since the crisis of 2008, it has become ever more necessary for neoliberalism’s proponents to maintain the appearance of its overall coherence and effectiveness. Ideology is indispensable for this. Other actors—not politicians—have to step in and provide the justification for the continuity of neoliberal politics. This justification draws on the previous ‘construction of consent’, as Harvey calls it, and this draws increasingly on the pretension that ‘there is no alternative’. Culture in the widest sense plays a part in translating the ideological points outlined by Harvey into more generalized assumptions, discursive figures, and commonly held beliefs. Thus, neoliberalism creates imaginaries that can then inform the creative imagination or that, conversely, are projected through works of art without this necessarily being the intention of the artist. The potentially complicit functions of art and scholarship and their co-optation, are important areas of interest of the members of the network. At the same time—and this interest is more prominently represented in the articles collected in this issue—the members of the network explore how works of art can effectively resist the imposition of neoliberal ideology and the absorption of art by neoliberal politics, either by creating alternative imaginaries or by contributing to and interacting with political projects that stand in opposition to the neoliberal model. This sometimes implies seeking spaces of artistic praxis ‘outside’ neoliberalism, but frequently involves entering into discursive, and sometimes financial, negotiation with neoliberally-informed social, cultural and educational structures. For those of us working in higher education, as we will see below, such negotiation is an everyday reality.

The essays in the issue focus on the power of art and culture to disrupt and transform the social imaginary concocted by the PR managers of neo-liberal capitalism. As an academic, I can’t help but believe that the maintenance and creation of culture can change society. I am of course still willing to put my body on the line in the few remaining sites of political rebellion. But this willingness is a side-effect of my convictions. As a philosopher in pursuit of a philosophical religion, I believe that when the opportunities for seizing history and bending its arc further toward justice do arise, the role of inspired and charismatic individuals and devoted communities should not be underestimated. Rebellion and resistance must happen on the ground and in the streets, but after the revolution, art and religion will still be necessary for civilization to construct and re-construct livable worlds. And while we are still imprisoned in the capitalist oligarchy, art and religion are the most effective weapons we have for combatting the consumerist imaginary beamed to every television and pasted on every billboard in the world.

Cornel West is another good example of a radical political activist whose radicalism emerges chiefly for religious reasons:

[Update: Bryant has responded, both below and at Larval Subjects. He is rather peeved and accuses me of intentionally misrepresenting him in order to score rhetorical points. I've responded below, but let me also add here that I fully agree with him concerning the heinousness of the religious right in America. I don't so much blame the people, but the power brokers manufacturing their opinions both through economic oppression and propaganda. I've learned much in this respect from Chris Hedges]:

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7 thoughts on “Poetics of Resistance: Radical Politics in the Waning Years of Capitalism

  1. Matthew,

    It’s hard for there to be any dialogue when you so misrepresent my positions. I’m either led to believe that 1) you didn’t not pay attention to what I said and made an honest oversight (an honest interpretation), or that 2) you’re fundamentally dishonest like Chic-fil-a and are representating my positions in a fashion analogous to the reasons that Chic-fil-a gave for withdrawing Muppet toys (i.e., that they were dangerous, rather than the truth, that Muppets withdrew their toys because of CFA’s donations to oppressive organizations, up to and including donations to Ugandan groups that support the *murder* of homosexuals.

    It is these sorts of practices that give religious thought a bad name, and after repeated dishonest gestures and mischaracterizations on your part– that have every appearance of being *opportunistic* –it’s hard to escape the impression that you’re not playing a game like CFA. First, I *never* made the claim that shifts in social conditions are *merely* shifts in *material conditions*. I have repeatedly argued that *both* are needed. If you’re honest, you will update your post to reflect this point so as to not mischaracterize my positions. Or maybe you have an axe to grind and would prefer not to acknowledge certain points? Second, I did *not* articulate an anti-religious position. I said that a) I full agree that *sometimes* religion can be a powerful motivator for emancipation, but that b) when we look at the balance sheets of history, religion as i) tended to support opressive forces, ii) tended to side with the powers that be against the will of the people, and iii) has caused more suffering than emancipation. When we look at how religion functions as a set of *institutions* throughout the world and throughout history, I think that this is overwhelmingly obvious: genocide, persecution, terror, guilt. Again and again we see the same results of religion. We then get well meaning people such as yourselves that focus on the narrative that these religions present, rather than the social facts of how they function in practice. As a consequence, you become a part of the problem, thinking that the atheist and heretic is your enemy, rather than your own “bretherin” that level unspeakable cruelty on people in the world today and throughout history. If you were a little bit more honest and carried out a genuine critique of how religion actually functions in the world you might be taken seriously, but given that you provide cover and support for these kinds of oppressions, suggesting that somehow it’s the materialists and naturalists that are the cause of this horror, it’s hard to take you seriously. You comport yourself as the knave, or the one that provides the ideological infrastructure for the master/oppressor. So step up to the plate: first, behave honestly and portray the positions you’re arguing against *honestly*. Don’t you understand that no one trusts priests, pastors, and so-called “holy men” because you behave in the ways you do in this post, all the while bending over for masters and oppressors? First, recognize that your enemy is your intolerant and oppressive religious bretheran and suggest a way beyond that. Absent these gestures you’re just another dupe or knave, fellating the 1%, providing them with cover by muddying the issues, and caught in our own ridiculous and *damaging/dangerous* fantasies. Meanwhile the rest of us have to live with the consequences of your bullshit and creepy new age defenses of horror.

    • Levi,

      I would hope that I’ve just failed to understand you, since I have no desire to misrepresent your position. It is my understanding that the fundamental thrust of your argument in this area (politics and ontology) is that intellectuals pay too much attention to critiquing capitalist narratives and discursive systems. I actually agree with you on this point; I think we spend too much time on critique and not enough time on (re)construction.

      After re-reading your post, I think I’ve characterized your position fairly. I never said you completely deny the need for transformation at the cultural level, but I do think the general trend of your thought is to de-emphasize this need by drawing attention to the fact that, as you put it, “networks function independent of people’s intentions.” As I understand you, you clearly don’t think consciousness is the major player in the history of civilization. Is that not a fair characterization?

      I think we all run the risk of misinterpreting each other on these sorts of foundational, “precursive” issues. I’d remind you that Tim/Fragile Keys also felt like your comments misrepresented him as having dismissed the role of material conditions outright.

      I think there are plenty of reasons to critique the role of religion in contemporary society, but I am not so naive as to think the solution is to somehow purify humanity of religious practices and narratives. We’ve gotten into this before over the issue of myth v. Enlightenment. It represents what would seem to be an unbridgeable gap between our perspectives. Critique must be followed by re-construction, and without drawing upon the poetics of religious and spiritual experience, I’m afraid such reconstruction remains dead in the water as far as its political effectiveness is concerned.

      I do think we are on the same team politically; we are fighting for the same ends. Its the means that we disagree on, it seems.

      -Matt

  2. I’d suggest that you are rather willfully blind to history: religious war, support of monarchial power, witch burnings, shame and fear, religiously motivated nationalistic war, genocide of other groups, colonial expansion, justifications of slavery, anti-suffragism, murder and “rehabilitation” of queers, shame, guilt, the closet, fear, rejections of medical science, and many more things besides. These things have been the rule, rather than the exception. When you honestly face these things and acknowledge that you have a problem in your own house far more serious and dangerous than any materialism, naturalism, atheism, or heretic to deal with, then maybe you can be taken seriously. As it stands, your position is a bit like saying “hey, the Nazi’s were truly good! They built roads and put people to work!” why anyone would want to associate themselves with such a history of horror and oppression is beyond me. Leftist religiosity has always been a tiny minority of what’s been dominant. Devote your energies to combating that practice of horror– all too real today –and maybe you’ll a say in these discussions. Acknowledge that history,and perhaps other things you say will have some validity. As it stands, you sound like a privileged white heterosexual boy that likes crystals and mysticism– a person who talks about the “wisdom of these myths” rather than their socio-political reality and effects– and that hasn’t the faintest clue as to the real impact on real lives of the things you give cover to.

  3. I have to say that this is some of the most disgusting “philosophical” treatment that I have ever seen of another human being in a comments section. It was intentionally excluding, degrading, and humiliating. I think he is the one who should be apologizing Matt, not you.

  4. Thanks for your cogent and thoughtful post Matthew.
    Religion can be a force for good or bad as you say. It is true that it has often been used for evil, but I believe this is a consequence of the fact that it is easier to conserve resources and be fearful of, and react in a hostile fashion to, new ideas than any intrinsic evil on the part of religion.There are a myriad of ways to be wrong when it comes to improving the lives of others socially. Only a few ways to be right.

  5. Pingback: Experiments in Political Theology, Research Methodology, and Dialogical Blogging « Footnotes 2 Plato

  6. I agree with the anonymous commenter above. it is you that deserves an apology here Matt. Bryants tirade is tasteless and embarrassing, no matter how one turns it. not to mention intellectually dishonest as it sets up numerous strawman accusations as an excuse for hurling abuse. judging from his usual lack of measure and generosity when replying to you such an excuse will never come. I kinda hope the post stays up for posterity though, because it showcases a real persistent weakness in the way he “argues” when he perceives a commenter as supporting some pet peeve of his.

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