Nowadays, as a Leftist intellectual in any discipline, there is always the incentive to produce for the sake of producing. Publishing for the sake of money alone, and so the push is to say something original for the sake of saying something original, instead of saying something meaningful. Even Leftist intellectuals seem to fall under this trap. How many variations on “this is why capitalism is bad, neoliberal economics is bad” can people write before people start to wonder “well they got published, maybe capitalism is fair after all, there is a readership, etc”. The only way to counter this obviously flawed point is to point out the embarrassingly large volume of right-wing talk radio garbage best sellers at Barnes and Noble storefronts. There’s a market for every ideology. But there isn’t a market for genuine philosophical innovation, or books that should be at the forefront of the public consciousness. At one time, Margaret Mead was a bestselling author and columnist- now, the most well known anthropologist is a social Darwinist xenophobe who stands for everything anthropology is against (this may be an overstatement but actual book sale numbers suggest this is the case). So there seem to be two options for the aspiring academic- write to a popular audience (sell out) or write to a specialist audience (which may be another form of selling out). How do you ride the line?
Zizek seems to me to be the paragon of how to talk to a wide scale audience and manage to produce excellent scholarship. It manages to be both entertaining and engage with a wide berth of subjects that most of the public probably knew nothing about beforehand (post-Freudian developments in psychoanalysis, critical theory). In a sense, he is carrying on the tradition of people like Adorno and Walter Benjamin.
The only other intellectuals that I believe also made this jump to popularity without sacrificing something essential in their thought were Foucault and Deleuze. Contrary to what some people believe, these two thinkers were popular enough to be featured on French television, and Deleuze in particular was an intellectual reference point in May ’68. The key text on this subject seems to be the dialogue between Deleuze and Foucault called “Intellectuals and Power”:
A most enlightening quote I find is this one:
“Intellectuals are themselves agents of this system of power-the idea of their responsibility for “consciousness” and discourse forms part of the system. The intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge,” “truth,” “consciousness,” and “discourse. “(4)
Although Foucault has written other enlightening things on this subject, such as his work on the function of the Author itself.
This is precisely why Postmodernism should be privileged within the Anthropological theoretical debate, and not discarded. Because we MUST continue to ask the question- why am I writing at all? Even if our enlightened wish is to expose the neoliberal structures of power for what they are, and speak truth to power, and all those high and mighty slogans, there seems to be, at a certain distinct level, by my reckoning, a certain powerlessness at the heart of current academic political anthropological discourse. What do I mean by this? I mean not just that there is theorizing for theorizing’s sake, but that even “practical” discourse functions as a mechanism just by which to perpetuate the discipline. Finally, we must shed the notion that discourse exists for the sake of the Other, because the Other, at every level, takes care of themselves, and it would be to perpetuate a certain type of “white man’s burden 2.0” to assume that one is writing for the sake of the Other. Now, I say this with a kind of sinking feeling, because I do believe that academics can participate in certain ideological battles, change hearts and minds, and ultimately help certain members of the “wretched of the Earth”. But I believe it comes by only once in a blue moon, and the instances that I’ve heard of radical change coming about as the direct result of an anthropologist’s or philosopher’s work are few and far between. But I mean that the ideological WORK- and I do believe, as a good Marxist, we should think of ourselves as intellectual workers- and by this, I mean that our work is like this metaphor. As Deleuze likes to say, “a theory is exactly like a box of tools”. Thus, we can build mighty theoretical edifices, or tear existing structures down. But the primary goal of an intellectual is not as bricklayer, but as foreman. We build the intellectuals of tomorrow. We give the intellectual tools to the future politician, the actuary, the lawyer, the salesman. And not just in the sense of some kind of intellectual capital that can be used to sell one’s own labor- tools that are used in the broader social sphere. Tools that cut through the divide of right thinking from wrong thinking, in political and social life. Tools to know how statesmen of the future may promise and lie and sell you false hopes and dreams. Tools to know how to anticipate developments that haven’t happened yet- when the floods will come, to anticipate the struggles that have only barely begun.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Deleuze, its to connect, and to think organically. Every day, the dynamics of the world change. That is the only constant. One has to learn to think “underground”, in a subterranean fashion- what is only below the surface now, and has not yet breached the public consciousness. That is why ecological problems are the most devastating in the end- everything we depend exists on a fragile ecological basis, and all of Marxist class dynamics exist upon a fragile framework of the earth, the one we continue to poison, destroy, and torture. Its the dams themselves that do the exploiting now- no need for an army to uproot the local population- development comes with its own internal colonizing process. Thankfully, it will begin impacting the one thing we all depend on (agua)- when the water tables start drying out, due to a variety of climatic and over-development/agricultural factors, then maybe the tides will change of their own accord. All an intellectual can do now is to try to redirect the currents, and shine a light on what is below the surface of the water, waiting to be exposed.
And maybe, the metaphor of conceptual tools is not good, or hasn’t been carried far enough. We must be on the side that says subjectivity is molded- it is a cultural construct. For what we are doing at the end of the day as intellectuals is molding, like a potter, desire. Instilling the desire to resist the consumer deluge. The desire to break out of the confines of mass society. The desire to see the spectacle as it really is. The desire to continually remind ourselves to be disgusted with the being we could be, or could have been. Our discourse is not for the Other- it is for ourselves. We are not discoverers of truth- only truth’s handmaidens, stewards, or even…creators