Pragmatism is concerned with the unity of practice with philosophy, or more specifically of ascertaining by what one might measure the utility of an idea. We can see, particularly with Rorty’s neopragmatism, that such concerns are not overdetermined or constrained.
Since Marx’s eleventh thesis commanding change, the focus on praxis in critical theory has predominated. No understanding that does not alter, demands Herr Marx.
Pragmatism and marxian praxis are the two varieties that carry currency, perhaps because they have driven prolificity more than results — a criteria which emanates from their own premises.
However, a praxis of a more vulgar variety pervades much of contemporary radical social theory. These might be referred to as the tyrannies of hopefulness and possibility.
The tyranny of hopefulness demands of any theory that it assign considerable agency to a political subject, and fill her with confidence and aspiration.
The tyranny of possibility is related to the former order. Any analysis that posits limitation on individual actors, or suggests they might despair simple change in any given context is rejected out of hand.
These tyrannies dismiss as not only lacking utility but also accuracy any philosophy that does not confer ambition and promise.
These are the politics of faith, of superstition. They enslave thought as well as action, and as such must be rejected and forcefully resisted.
I just completed a fascinating interview with McKenzie Wark about his recent book, The Beach Beneath The Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. The book profiles the ideas and activities of various characters involved in the preceding and formative years of SI. Part of this interview will be included in an “interactive review” of the text in an upcoming issue of Humanity & Society, and the full content will be submitted elsewhere.
In describing his motivation for writing this book, Wark says:
The book began as preliminary research for writing about the digital avant-garde of the 1990s, which was sort of rhizomatic, dispersed, and transnational. I was struggling for a point of entry, and I thought ‘What was one book that everyone would have read who was on this scene?’ And I thought ‘Society of the Spectacle! We all read that!’ Everyone read that book. So I re-read it and I thought, ‘This is a really amazing book! We thought we’d superseded this or transcended this, but we really haven’t. ‘Everyone reads the first chapter. You know, Debord’s famous account: ‘The world appears as a vast accumulation of spectacles’ and so on… But the meat of the book is in the later chapters. It’s really a book about detournement and the practice of plagiarism, that culture is always a commons, that’s collectively produced and so on. Actually, that’s the central idea of the book. So, I wanted to know the context of that book. What was the movement that produced it? So I read about the Situationist International. And I thought, ‘I want to know more about the context that produced them.’
This led him to the point where The Beach Beneath the Street begins, in post-war France. In this time, a variety of Marxist tendencies were emerging, from the existentialism of Sartre to Leninist and Maoist groups. For Wark, this is a time that continues to inspire intellectuals today, but they are often taking a “wrong turn.” He describes himself “as someone who always identified with a critical, libertarian, Marxist set of intellectual currents.” This turn is toward a popular tendency in cultural criticism and theory among twenty-first century inheritors who are bringing forward hyperacademic and idealist work that emerged in this period, alongside the Situationists.
Reviving Leninism in the twenty-first century, it struck me, seemed like a really terrible idea. Reviving Maoism seemed like an even worse idea. So I wanted to tell a story that would open up some other pathways through a kind of resolutely non-Stalinist, libertarian, nonacademic but very intellectually serious set of avant-garde movements. It struck me that telling the story of the Situationist International was one way to really start that. An alternative to reading Jacque Lacan is to read his exact contemporary, Henri Lefebvre. An alternative to reading Althusser is to read his almost exact contemporary, Asger Jorn. It was just a way to open up these other paths, another way of doing works that, I think, are much more interesting. They [Situationists] are partly about doing intellectual work, but they’re also about practices. They’re about forming collaborative practices with people who work in other forms, in other media, and so on. So I was just trying to make a gesture toward all these things, all these other ways of working that are antecedents to things you could do now, other than things that seem hypertheoretical but in a vacuum and to politically go back to some of the worst choices you could possibly make and bring them into the twenty-first century.