In school I studied history because the teachers in that department were particularly good. One of my favorites was a guy named Alan Trachtenberg, who had just written an important book about the rise of the American corporation during the Gilded Age that closed out the 19th century. Robber barons, railroads and a ferocious assault on labor and the working man, according to Trachtenberg, fueled in the U.S. the collapse of space into time, jump-starting the development of the 24-7 economy that now shapes our daily lives. I loved also the Annales school of French Marxist historians centered around the work of Fernand Braudel, whose painstaking, longue duree approach to history involved turning a multitude of small facts over and over again in search of clarity.
Among the reasons I did not stick with the field back then was a sobering truth I’m sure all historians confront at some point—how impossible it is to shake ourselves lose from projections and presuppositions, the interpretive frameworks we use to assemble the flood of information contained in the historical record into a comforting narrative. There’s even a sub-discipline devoted to looking at this process of narrative construction—historiography, is what this is called. The facts, it turns out, can be arranged by the skillful historian to defend whatever presuppositions he brought in with him through the door. Even more alarming, what happens tomorrow revises the meaning of what happened today—when the Berlin Wall comes down, all our stories about the inevitable triumph of state socialism have to be revised. There is no longer any mystery about how that particular chapter of our particular story will end.
What I secretly found most interesting, I now realize, was exactly the groundlessness that runs beneath this hall of mirrors—contact with the shapeless and non-conceptual raw experience that precedes and lies behind our constructions and narratives and interpretive frameworks. The summer after I left school I found two books waiting for me on the coffee table in my family’s house. These books drew me further along this track toward the open wild. One, the MOMA monograph on Marcel Duchamp, was already familiar to me, and I have written about that encounter on TQ. The other book was Knowledge and Politics published by a young political philosopher from Brazil named Roberto Mangabeira Unger when he was only 28 years old. Unger was already a bit of a legend. In a course on legal theory at his law school, the story went, Unger asked a question so adroit the teacher turned the class over to him, and then the place gave him a job. Shedding light on the crisis in leftwing or progressive politics post-1968, Knowledge and Politics is written in direct and clear language devoid of theoretical jargon. Unger’s thinking combines the insights of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci with those of the American pragmatist John Dewey, and draws on many other thinkers as well. Knowledge and Politics was Unger’s initial attempt to locate a middle way between the postures of disintegration linked to the radical nihilism of outmoded Marxist-Leninist dogma, and the resignation of progressives who passively accept the arrangements of our existing political institutions. In the legal community Unger also led a kind of insurrection, working with Duncan Kennedy and other political philosophers in the Critical Legal Studies movement to reach deep into the foundations of Western thought and propose serious alterations in our political DNA: the codes of law. Working also in the Democratic Movement Party in Brazil, Unger took his activism a step further in 2007 when he served as the Minister of the Strategic Affairs of Brazil under President Lula da Silva. He continues to publish, and all his work is available free of charge, here.
Looking back I can see now that, just as Duchamp’s work oriented me towards paradox and deep irony, Unger’s embrace of incommensurable oppositions encouraged me to continue the investigation of groundlessness mentioned above, and also, I now understand, toward work in the theater. Reason and desire in Unger are newly problematized so that we look again and again at their paradoxical co-emergence. Desire has an orientation, an objective and a story or narrative, but desire is blind and needs reason in order to reach toward its goal; reason can see with clarity, but it lacks any inherent orientation, and can only serve desire. Around and around spin these two aspects of mind, co-creating the world in the manner of form and emptiness, Apollo and Dionysus, actualizing the real in the manner of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), while also providing the material boundary constraints biologists now view as the ground of every living cell’s autopoietic, self-creating, self-sustaining emergence out of inert substance into expressive life. This illuminated pageant, it seems to me, is really what we want to worship when we go to see a play by Sophocles or Shakespeare—the Apollonian dream arising out of the chaos of Dionysus, holding the stage for a while and then dissolving again into the awe, pity and terror of raw, unmediated experience.
This is to say that what I love most about the theatre is implicit in the radical potentiality of the stage space, which can suddenly shift and become anywhere and any time, carrying the audience along for the ride. The theatre demonstrates the creative aspect of being; it opens a space of pure capacity, showing us aspects of our social existence that cannot be illuminated in any other way. Unger’s insistence on an experimental politics, meanwhile, implies a kindred skepticism toward the common sense claims of received wisdom, and toward the habitual modes of conducting our social and cultural interactions that limit our freedom. “We do not know how to think about structural change or structural alternatives,” Unger writes in 2015 (The Critical Legal Studies movement: Another Time, a Greater Task). Although Unger considers Marx’s work the “supreme achievement of classical social theory,” he goes on to criticize the “illusion of false necessity” that left its mark on “Marx’s theory of history and capitalism” (61). Certainty, especially dogmatic certainty, is the enemy of social progress; in certainty, and especially in dogmatic certainty, all we find is a projected record of our own futility, our inherently meaningless suffering, our own lurid psychic violence.
The truth of this has been borne home to me during this surreal political season in the U.S. With the rise of Donald Trump, the stasis of the past forty years—the duration of my adult life actually—has clearly expired. That forty year span was defined by the infamous “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party, and by neoliberal economics in the form of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Together these two forces can be considered a form of aggressive class-warfare from above, in which covert race-mongering was used to enlist a significant portion of the white electorate to vote against their own actual interests. This “stealth revolution” as theorist Wendy Brown calls it, was phenomenally effective, decimating the unions, the environmental community, the left generally, resulting in a massive transfer of wealth upwards to the top 1 per cent, and allowing corporate lobbyists to create legislation out of whole cloth. The trickle-down myth died in the crash of 2008, and the left now stands on more favorable terrain. And yet, in thrall to outmoded forms of critique, progressives have been unable to take advantage of the moment and offer visionary leadership. The American middle class now rests on the sketchiest of foundations, rendering it anxious and paranoid, hungry for villains to blame and strongmen to bow to. The final victory of the right’s “stealth revolution” is precisely how neoliberalism has produced a collapsive social dynamic of such strength it now draws a significant portion of the left with it into the black hole of zero-sum dominance: fascism, in a word. Trump is a one-way ticket into direct authoritarian rule.
It is still unclear how this election will unfold. Unger himself caused waves in 2012 when he denounced his former student Barak Obama, launching a YouTube video entitled “Barak Obama Must be Defeated.” To Unger, the political stasis of 2012 could only change in the aftermath of a complete surrender to the anti-democratic forces that are rooted in the postwar Republican party, but that captured the democrats too in the neoliberal era. Unger may well feel the same way about Clinton in 2016, I can’t say, but to me the authoritarian violence that would follow a Trump victory argues for greater caution. Violence of any kind radically reduces the elasticity of a cultural milieu, thereby making Ungerian experimentalism impossible—with the shedding of blood the stakes rise way too high to try anything new. With a Trump victory, I believe the culture will leave the familiar track of low level middle-class striving and enter a new realm defined by pride and aggression. The main problem with this new modality is simply all the carnage it produces, the tit-for-tat aggression leading quickly to an endothermic collapse in which the violence feeds on itself as it did in Germany in the 30s and 40s. In all likelihood, this time around, there would be a nuclear exchange.
The urgent need to locate new modes of political engagement and collective action requires an embrace of non-violence, both in our rhetoric and in our actions. There’s no need to look toward abstract moral laws or ethical precepts when it comes to this imperative—sufficient reason can be located strictly on the grounds of the pragmatic. Violence, again, radically forecloses the elasticity needed to find new arrangements for our collective existence, without which we cannot survive. There is no shortcut for us, sadly; to survive as a species, human beings must lose the addiction to violence in all its forms. Violence, sublimated into systemic forms like the neoliberal economy, or expressed directly via aggressive domination, is the very essence of our “problem.” And this is why the right, unfortunately, always has an advantage—resentment and wild projection suit the reactionary project, whereas progressives are called to rise above all that and locate the new.