By the time you read this, election season will have passed, and with it, the snowballing of vapid catch-phrases: change we can trust! (McCain T-shirt); change is awesome! (Obama tote bag). What won't have been addressed is how else, beyond the bizarrely constricted choices set forth by the two-party system and global capitalism at large, the human animal might organize itself and live.
Anthropologist David Graeber's Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (AK Press) addresses this question, via examinations of "dilemmas of authority" in rural Madagascar, the etymology of concepts such as "consumption," and the global justice movement. "The Twilight of Vanguardism" is one of the most cogent assessments of the "orthopedic aesthetic" (as Grant Kester has put it, in reference to art that aims to correct its viewers' perceptual defects) I've yet read; "On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets" is a hilarious, disturbing account of how breaking a Starbucks window has become, in the eyes of the authorities, a "threat to the nation" that warrants military-style repression. An anarchist, Graeber believes the ends never justify the means, and he extends this ethos to his writing. His style is bracingly clear, even Wittgensteinian in its insistence on "expos[ing] dilemmas" rather than "dictat[ing] solutions." "Revolutionary action is not ... a grim dedication," Graeber writes, but rather "the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free." A contested notion, perhaps, but one that left me cheering.
Another contender for my pick was Slavoj Zizek's Violence, as Zizek's crackpot gravitas makes an intriguing companion to Graeber's Utopian earnestness. Zizek sees the primary threat today not as passivity but as "pseudo-activity"--i.e., the "urge to ... 'participate'" that "mask[s] the nothingness of what goes on." Zizek concludes that the most revolutionary act may be to abstain, in order to force a confrontation with "the vacuity of today's democracies." In the end, however, Graeber's conclusion strikes me as the more enduring. While most of today's "revolutionaries" are no longer organizing toward "a violent, apocalyptic confrontation with the state," neither are they pursuing "a strategy of 'engaged withdrawal.'" Instead, Graeber says, most are searching for a place in between--"a new synthesis," he admits, is "not yet entirely worked out." I'll say. What Possibilities presses upon us is the urgency of "working it out," while also giving us the felt sense that taking the time to think and imagine need not be an abstention.
MAGGIE NELSON IS ON THE FACULTY OF THE SCHOOL OF CRITICAL STUDIES, CALARTS, AND IS THE AUTHOR, MOST RECENTLY, OF WOMEN, THE NEWYORK SCHOOL, AND OTHER TRUE ABSTRACTIONS (UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS, 2007).