Bleak Thoughts on a Grey Day

We interrupt the regularly scheduled blog posting for some passing gloom.  I will get back to Arendt on life tomorrow.

Reading Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. (Harvard UP, 2015). It is sensible and clear and convincing.  Except for the continual exposure of “contradictions.”  It remains an article of faith on the left that contradictions are symptoms of instability.  Yet the contradictions cited are, often, simply logical ones.  For example, Butler’s belabored discussion of how soldiers are “dispensable” (i.e. cannon fodder) even while their existence and work is “indispensable” to the nation’s survival.  That barely works above the level of wordplay.  Even more substantial contradictions—for example, between needing consumers to fuel the economy and failing to pay workers adequate wages—are manageable in both short and long terms.  The periodic “crisis” of capitalism have done little to undermine it.  We could say, I guess, that capitalism’s ingenuity is endless, or (more to my liking) that power’s ability to withstand both protest and dysfunction should never be doubted.

Power, as Boltanski’s work considers, sometimes yields to critique, mollifying it by adopting certain reforms, and sometimes simply ignores critique, refusing to give an inch.  Which strategy is adopted depends on the situation and the calculations that situation elicits.  But power does not abdicate.  Which is perhaps a way of saying that I have lost my liberal faith.  Instead of thinking there is “some justice” to be had, I am more inclined, in these dark times, to say that people find niches, that they find out ways to hide in the interstices of a system big enough and complex enough for there to be corners that aren’t totally colonized.  That is, we don’t live in a fully totalitarian world just yet—and a fully totalitarian world would be awfully hard to actually construct and maintain.  But the “colonization of the lifeworld” (Habermas’s phrase) proceeds apace.

I usually dislike abstractions like “capitalism” and “power”–and dislike imputing agency to them.  But there is something to be said for systematic imperatives.  The US manufacturer who must lower labor costs or go out of business because the product can be produced more cheaply elsewhere.  The maufacturer’s agency in such a case is so compromised as to be almost non-existent.  The same cannot be said as easily for politicians or judges.  The Paul Ryans and Samuel Aliotos of the world have much to answer for–and are (this is what hurts) generally immune from ever being held to account.  So the theoretical issue is how to adequately account for both human agency and for systematic functionings.  I don’t think the notion of “contradiction” helps in either case–and I certainly don’t believe that “contradictions” drive the system’s evolution over time.  Tensions between competing goals that require trade-offs yes, opposing forces yes, conflict yes, but contradictions no.  All kinds of things can co-exist without compelling change or adjustments.

I met up with a former student yesterday who has been spending time in Ladakh in Northern India, writing a book for school children that aims to help preserve the local language and culture.  The community is about 250,000 people and was relatively isolated until recently.  Now it depends heavily on tourism in place of its traditional pastoralist economy.  300,000 tourists last year.  Eco-tourists, trekkers, but also cultural tourists, so we are in ethnicity inc. territory.  Creeping colonization.   His work is honorable, but it will also be monetized.  How to think about the “contradictions” involved here, that the preservation of a culture is also a means for incorporation into a global tourist industry?  Certainly, these contradictions do not imply instability.  They just entail different goods, each of which will find ways to accommodate the others.  The results will be messy–but so are all social systems, all cultures.  The messiness may often our sense of logical coherence or consistency, but it doesn’t mean the result will be short-lived or a source of deep discomfort to those living within it.

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