What happens when the foundations are cut out from under an observation? When a solid thought gets emptied out, vacated, left as hollow as a drum? When we’re talking ideas, what does a giant with feet of clay look like? An emperor with no clothes? Could what seems that way really be a chrysalis, an intermediary stage in which an idea jettisons that which was old and truly comes into its own?
What i’ve been thinking about is a subsection of all those things that we “know”, but we don’t know why we “know” them. The countless cases where, as a former Attorney General once apologized, we don’t know how to define something, but we “know it when we see it”.
i’d suggest that this feeling can indicate one of two things, each one a consequence of transition. On the one hand, perhaps it’s a sign of a thought or observation in the process of forming, coming into being – something that can be intuitively seized as a logical conclusion, even though we haven’t done all the math yet. An obvious way forward, a part of building.
That’s not what i’ve been thinking of, though.
What i’ve been thinking of is those cases when a belief still feels self-evident, but the intellectual road that got us there has been obscured or lost. So we’re left with the observation – we may even cling to it – but we can no longer explain why it’s so. While it still feels important, its presuppositions seem obsolete.
Former conclusions float free, untethered from the ideas and movements and context that they were tied to. Perhaps they will be integrated into new movements or grand theories, perhaps they’ll find other freefloaters and together form a foundation for something new, or else… do they disappear? or do they just wait to be rediscovered? i’m not sure…
In any case, this orphaning process, this process of conclusions surviving the death of their arguments, is what i mean by “afterglow”. Like the embers of a fire that’s gone out, or the afterimage you get after you stare at the sun, or the feeling one might get in the last moments of a drug trip.
i’ve been thinking this way in relation to the transition away from the 20th century left, our present time of post-whatever, and specifically the way in which some of the political insights from the previous movements have survived their parents’ demise. Am wondering where they’ll end up.
For instance, a lot of anti-sexist and anti-racist “common sense” was actually the result of hard ideological and political battles within and between different groups of people. Queer and trans realities exist not just because of struggles by the “progressive movement” but also because of struggles within and if need be against said “progressives”. (These are the broad outlines, if anyone wants examples there’s a litany of anecdotes and horror-stories preserved for the anti-nostalgic who want to feel good about how far we’ve come, or who want to fuel the drive to distance themselves from their own movement’s past.)
The movements and thought-structures that produced this “common sense” and these new realities no longer exist. Or if they do exist, they might as well be unrecognizable. Subjectively, we feel like we’re in a time between cycles of struggle, a low tide, or an interregnum, as one of my pals is fond of saying.
If one were to explain ideas that way, i guess what i’m talking about could be translated as “ideas losing their material basis” – all i’ll stand by, though, is that they’ve lost their mooring.
So what will happen to these ideas? Will they be reintegrated into the left? If not, have they been internalized sufficiently to be retained? As part of the left or as part of society in general? Or will they slowly fade away?
The context in which i have been asking myself this is the relationship between insurrectionary anarchism and the insights that get put under the “anti-oppression” umbrella.
On the level of theory, i understand insurrectionary anarchism to be hostile to identities, and to be hostile to the 20th century left and to the various social movements that existed in its orbit. Insurrectionary anarchism seems therefore to be hostile to the movements and schools of thought that produced most of the insights about racism and sexism, and which helped to create the space in which queer and trans liberation could sprout. (i’m not talking about “identity politics”, but i’m talking about the presupposition that we’re not an unvariegated mass, but that we individually and collectively have specific experiences which give us more in common with some people than with others.)
At the same time, many of those who seem broadly within the insurrectionary anarchist orbit are obviously very serious about opposing racism, sexism, gender oppression and homophobia. Their intellectual lineage may have been hostile to these insights and breakthroughs, but these certainly constitute their reference-points now nevertheless.
But insurrectionary anarchists seem to be uncomfortable theorizing about this. And when they do, they’re not really that radical, or new, or even interesting. And so i wonder to what degree their opposition – real and fierce as it is, today – is a consequence of afterglow – right now the insights of yesterday’s left may still seem “obvious” and like “common sense” even to those who reject their lineage, but how will they look in the future? As optional? As having been superceded? It’s open to question.
i would argue that within the broader radical left, this process is further advanced in regards to opposition to antisemitism. Once an almost axiomatic aspect of being on the left, opposition to antisemitism remains widespread but undertheorized, and in some quarters you get the sense that it is being looked at like the guest nobody can remember inviting to the party. Nobody wants make a fuss (apart from those who enjoy drama for its own sake), but there are signs that its place at the table is coming up for grabs.
i’m not talking about a process that only effects those who are comfortable with these developments. Whether one is for or against it, happy or sad about it, the way antisemitism is presently undertheorized is evident both is the superficial arguments of those of us who can simply repeat that it is “bad” and also in the dishonest arguments of those who say they’re against it but that the real problem is talking about it.
to think about…