Produce yourself

What things excite you? One of the questions that gets asked of activists incessantly is how to avoid burnout. The fact is that it’s not something easily avoided, and something that happens to even the most vigorous of us: it’s a well-observed fact that there does tend to be an activist lifecycle, with periods of rest or disengagement – periods from which many come back, but many don’t. One of the privileges accorded to us is that we don’t have to be political operatives in the same way that those who work inside existing political structures do, with all the concomitant frustrations and bureaucracy that entails, instead choosing to operate a prefigurative politics which tries to demonstrate the truth in the old saw that another world is possible.

To experience such a politics actually working can and should be revolutionary for the people involved – and it usually is. It’s why people drag themselves to meetings despite tiredness, or involve themselves in risky confrontations, or suffer the panicked brutality that such a politics often provokes. It engenders commitment, and a deep sense of other people’s possibilities – at least, when it’s working at its best. But the point of such a politics which has at its centre process rather than analysis is that it contains ways of righting itself when it’s not working, of recognising that seeming incommensurables are often not the sticking-points we’re taught to think they are. Yet process is nothing without ideas, and one of the things that excites and intrigues me is where people get their ideas from and how they’re formed.

Those of us in the academy will frequently disparage activists for failures in analysis, and activists will roll their eyes at the endless reams of detached analysis spewed from the academy. Maybe both positions have merit, but one of the things that’s particularly striking is that the notion that activists don’t read is simply wrong – the question of what gets read is far more interesting. For some there’s a considerable shared interest: Badiou, Deleuze, Žižek, or equally Lukács, Althusser or Negri are names which abound as much outside as within academia. Yet what is particularly notable is the way in which activists have retained a deep affection for the work of the Situationist International – Debord and Vaneigem – and the welter of enraged theory that preceded May ’68. Activists don’t have to deal with ’68 in the way that many academics do: every so often you’ll read a preface to a book by a revered leftist sage in which he (and it is, of course, a ‘he’) will explain that the activism of his youth has transformed into a desire to ‘change the system from within’, or be a leftist gadfly in a capitalist world – and it certainly explains the attraction of the modes of theory that render all questions of political agency as irrevocably naive, all historical subjects always already compromised and all change as doomed to catastrophe. It’s not to say there aren’t important, dramatic questions to be asked about those matters, but I wonder sometimes if they all too easily enter a mode of mourning for something that hasn’t actually died, that disclaiming agency is also exculpating complicity.

When someone like Debord says ‘[a]rt need no longer be an account of past sensations. It can become the direct organization of more highly evolved sensations. It is a question of producing ourselves, not things that enslave us’, it’s not hard to recognise the inspiring call that young, alienated and politically outraged youth can get from it. So too Vaneigem:

Never before has a civilization reached such a degree of a contempt for life; never before has a generation, drowned in mortification, felt such a rage to live.

It’s romantic, sure. But it’s also an affirmation of the potential for resistance: i.e., the current that runs throughout the work of the SI is one of creative resistance, which begins with a core sense of personhood that cannot be compromised. We can then talk about the philosophical naïveté of such a position, but it remains true that it’s a notion immediately stimulating to its readers. In fact I’m more interested in the widely-held belief that such notions are the fuzzy preserve of alienated teenagers and pointless utopians, or middle-class dreamers unwilling to put their shoulder to the hard work of class war. Rarely is the image of the trustafarian activist true – in fact I’ve never met anyone for whom it could be considered true – and many are confronted by the choice not to live easily on a daily basis. I suspect that it is precisely the experience of realising another potential world however briefly that means the rage, desire and impulse towards creativity unfettered by the logic of commodity many find in the SI seem increasingly realisable and workable.


These things have been on my mind of late, because the realm of ideas and the realm of action are springing together in new ways given the imminent attacks on education in this country. I’m convinced that direct action against the destruction of critical thought is crucial for any world in which I want to live, and the most exciting, inspiring and effective activism I’ve been involved with has been with people who were interested in a creative form of work not bound by the standard models of safe (hence easily ignored) petitions, protests, demonstrations. These are people who were reading the SI, yes, but also Peter Brook and Artaud, interested always in making things new. I am convinced that we cannot act merely to preserve education as it is – which is shoddy, frequently riven with injustice, patronage and nepotism, too frequently designed to crush the intellects of students – but fight for and create the education we wish to see in the world.

Of course: ‘Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.’

1 thought on “Produce yourself

  1. “direct action against the destruction of critical thought”

    This has a strangely double meaning I cannot resolve out. I think the conventional interpretation probably applies: there are people out there who are silencing the democratic process of criticism, and one must therefore fight back against them with another weapon; that of direct action.

    But also it can mean that critical thought is itself destructive, and one must therefore move beyond mere criticism from the sidelines to real action.

    Both apply in your argument I think. I wonder if it was your intention?

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