Friday, April 06, 2007

Those Who Dream with Their Eyes Open

Recently, I picked up Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe. I am not really sure why, it is not the sort of thing I generally read. I would classify it as pop-progressive, and I find that in general I do not have time to read those sorts of things. For example it took nearly a decade, and several friends, students, and colleagues recommending it to me, for me to get around to reading No Logo.

The book takes as its starting point the following anecdote about the Bush administration, relayed in The New York Times:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

While many within the “center-left-progressive” camp have cited this passage to stress the Bush administration’s disconnect from reality, claiming with pride to be part of the “reality-based community,” Duncombe takes it in an opposite direction, pointing out how ineffective the “murmured” enlightenment principles have been within politics. Ultimately he argues that “progressives” (to use his term) need to understand the constitutive nature of the imagination; the way the imagination, desire, and fantasy constitute community, subjectivity, and investments. Now, the book is not primarily theoretical in its orientation. It deals with specific sites of the imagination, video games, advertising, celebrity-worship, and Las Vegas, all of which are usually held in contempt, and tries to reconstruct their radical potential. This is done through the example of such political movements as “Billionaires for Bush” and “Reclaim the Streets.”

Now, I am in fundamental agreement with this book, I still have my suspicions about “Grand Theft Auto,” however, but aside from that I basically agree. What strikes me is that his central criticism of progressives, the idea that politics should eschew imagination, desire, and fantasy in favor of truth, reason, and the force of the better argument, is not just a bias on the left. It is also what I call “the spontaneous ideology of philosophy,” the idea that the “better argument always wins”: that truth has an effectivity in and of itself, and once enunciated and circulated it will change the world. Duscombe does not address this dimension. Like I said the book is not very theoretical, aside from references to Debord and Machiavelli, it addresses practical instances.

Of course there have been a few philosophers who have broken with this ideology; notably Marx, Machiavelli, Spinoza, and, oddly enough, perhaps even J.S. Mill. I was struck to discover again the following passage in Mill: “It is a piece of idle sentiment sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.” In some ways this reads like a muted echo of Spinoza’s idea of limited effectivity of the true insofar as it is true, but ultimately I think that Mill is conflicted on this point: propagating “true” principles while at the same time recognizing the forces of custom, habit, affects, and fashion, have more force than any principle.

Well, I seem to have blogged myself into a corner. It is not my intention to discuss the contradictions of Mill. I guess I will end with two projects that I think need more work: First, the constitutive dimension of the imagination; and, Second, the critique of the “spontaneous ideology of philosophy.”

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