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Wednesday, December 14, 2016


I begin the first of two posts responding to comments by Jerry Fresia.  This post is a response to the following lengthy comment from yesterday:

“But you said something Professor, in this post, that has been an issue for me for quite a long time: "find the place where you could most effectively strike a blow for freedom or for the international proletariat, regardless of where that might be." Great. I'm all in favor of solidarity especially when it has to do with the "proletariat." But here's the thing: what about my life? I'm a painter and spend a huge amount of time trying to get clear about and get my students to think of painting as an expressive activity, not a productive activity and further that an expressive activity affords one the opportunity to create one's life and become more of who one is most - as opposed to the artist-as-entrepreneur whose goals have to do with career and climbing the ladder. Here's my point: capitalism distorts my life and makes it difficult for me to be emancipated in the Marxian sense. Is this not the case with academics? Does academia somehow sit outside the range of corrupting power relationships? Perhaps I'm being defensive. I have been chided for not being "active," i.e. for not actively participating in some movement in which I am expressing solidarity. But my view is that I can most effectively help to create a better world if my activism is centered at the "point of production." So Professor, please tell me: have you felt (and Lord knows you have written about this elsewhere) that education in capitalist American has been corrupted in ways that you yourself have felt compromised? If not, I would be surprised. If so, why not urge that each of us strike blows where we work, blows at the university by professors for their own emancipation. This is a part of Marxism that appeals to me. Why is the revolution always over there?”

This is a very rich comment, about which much could be said.  In preparation, I searched my blog, seeming to recall something I had said earlier, and discovered that just three years ago, I responded to the very same question from Jerry with just the answer I wished here to give!  I am reminded of Socrates’ response to Callicles, who complains that Socrates is always talking about the same simple things [cobblers, fishermen, shepherds.]  “Yes, Callicles,” Socrates replies, “and in the same way.”  That is one of the most profound and beautiful lines in all of Philosophy.

Jerry asks two questions which, though linked, are distinct.  The first is, “How am I to justify a life devoted to art when the world cries out for justice?”  The second, put especially succinctly, is in the last line:  “Why is the revolution always over there?”

In discussing the first question, I shall allow myself to quote for the fourth time, the last as recently as thirteen months go, this passage from Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments:  "It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good.  Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him: nolite perturbare circulos meos.  [Do not disturb my circles -- ed.]"

Jerry, by working at your art, you are striking a blow for the revolution [whatever that may be] as powerful as if you stood on the front line of a protest confronting the police.  You are doing this in two ways.  The first way is that you are realizing the possibilities of the human spirit that, in the end, give value to life.  We shall all die, and while we live we shall all face sickness and tyranny and exploitation and injustice.  Beauty, like truth, confer dignity on what is, after all, inevitably a losing battle with fate.  The second way is that through art you are, as Marcuse shows us in One-Dimensional Man, keeping alive those infantile fantasies of omnipotence that serve as the erotic sources of revolutionary energy.  Men and women do not fight at the barricades merely for a raise in the minimum wage, even though that may be what they achieve by their sacrifice.  They fight for liberation, which is both impossible truly to achieve and the indispensable goal of all transformative action.

I shall begin my response to the second question by reproducing a story I told on this blog five years ago.  [Yes, even I have limits to my capacity for originality!  Like Socrates, I repeat myself.]  Here is what I wrote:

 Many years ago, I was invited to participate in a symposium at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, on the subject of the political responsibilities of intellectuals. This was part of a series of symposia open to the public, and we are asked to present talks that would be accessible and interesting to a non-academic audience. The other two participants were Martin Jay, a sociologist who had written a very valuable book on the Frankfurt School for Social Research, the famous pre-war gathering of left intellectuals that included Horkeimer, Adorno, Fromm, Benjamin, and Marcuse, and Sam Weber, a very well-known UMass Comparative Literature scholar, and myself.

I took the assignment seriously, and wrote a rather pedestrian, but earnest, talk on the responsibilities of progressive intellectuals. It was moderately well received, I guess, but at least it was entirely comprehensible. Martin Jay chose to speak on images of the mirror in nineteenth century French literature, a subject obscure even in the most recherch√© of circles, impenetrable to the good citizens of Lexington who had gathered for the event. Weber, not to be outdone, delivered a talk on Heidegger's essay on technology that I found completely incomprehensible, to put it as delicately as I can.

I was, I must confess, genuinely offended by the performance of my colleagues, so
when it came time for those of us on the dais to engage in edifying intellectual intercourse, before throwing things open to the audience for questions, I asked each of them where he stood on the subject of the unionization of professors. I should explain that the UMass faculty had recently been unionized, in an effort that I had very strongly supported. The two of them stumbled over one another fleeing from the question. It had obviously never occurred to either of them that the political obligations of ostensibly left-wing intellectuals had anything at all to do with unions, and most certainly not with the unionization of professors, which they clearly considered infra dignitate.

The answer to Jerry’s question is that the revolution is always over here, never merely over there.  Those of us blessed with comfortable guaranteed incomes may write about justice as John Rawls did, as though one were sitting on a cloud like the Greek Gods observing the amusing shenanigans of common folk below, but in doing so we deceive ourselves, until one fine day a corporate whiz is appointed to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and decides that too much money is being wasted on the Humanities.

In my opinion, the best way to form a political coalition with men and women in other lines of work is first to struggle for justice in one’s own neighborhood or workplace.  Then, reach out in solidarity to others and forge a coalition designed to strengthen both of you.  Progressive political action is not charity work.  In America today, if you think you have no personal need for the comradeship of others, then you are probably part of the problem.  When I became aware of the injustices in my workplace, which at the time was Columbia University, I stood with the students who were protesting their university’s involvement in the Viet Nam War and its plan to encroach on neighborhood parkland for a gymnasium that the residents of that neighborhood would be barred from using.  Three years later, I left for the University of Massachusetts [which, be it noted, despite not being an elite private school, was nevertheless very much in the “upper middle class,” so to speak, of tertiary American institutions.]  The limitations of my experience and vision are very much on view in my 1969 book, The Ideal of the University.  Each of us learns from where we are in the world.


Chris said...

So Martin Jay never explicitly answered that question? Ugh that's so depressing.

Jerry Fresia said...

Much appreciated, Professor. Thank you!

Ed Barreras said...

"The second way is that through art you are, as Marcuse shows us in One-Dimensional Man, keeping alive those infantile fantasies of omnipotence that serve as the erotic sources of revolutionary energy. Men and women do not fight at the barricades merely for a raise in the minimum wage, even though that may be what they achieve by their sacrifice. They fight for liberation, which is both impossible truly to achieve and the indispensable goal of all transformative action."

Might I recommend, on this theme, the recent book *Blake's Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions* by the Berkeley literary critic Steven Goldsmith. A question Goldmsith explores in that work is one that apparently plagued William Blake: the question, namely, of how one can be a revolutaiory artist while remaining, outwardly, utterly bourgeois.

Here is the book's jacket description:

*Blake’s Agitation* is a thorough and engaging reflection on the dynamic, forward-moving, and active nature of critical thought. Steven Goldsmith investigates the modern notion that there’s a fiery feeling in critical thought, a form of emotion that gives authentic criticism the potential to go beyond interpreting the world. By arousing this critical excitement in readers and practitioners, theoretical writing has the power to alter the course of history, even when the only evidence of its impact is the emotion it arouses. Goldsmith identifies William Blake as a paradigmatic example of a socially critical writer who is moved by enthusiasm and whose work, in turn, inspires enthusiasm in his readers. He traces the particular feeling of engaged, dynamic urgency that characterizes criticism as a mode of action in Blake’s own work, in Blake scholarship, and in recent theoretical writings that identify the heightened affect of critical thought with the potential for genuine historical change. Within each of these horizons, the critical thinker’s enthusiasm serves to substantiate his or her agency in the world, supplying immediate, embodied evidence that criticism is not one thought-form among many but an action of consequence, accessing or even enabling the conditions of new possibility necessary for historical transformation to occur. The resulting picture of the emotional agency of criticism opens up a new angle on Blake’s literary and visual legacy and offers a vivid interrogation of the practical potential of theoretical discourse.