In a recent review of Eric Hobsbawm’s biography written by Richard J. Evans, Susan Pedersen gives a striking summary of the eventful life of the great historian: “For his whole life, he would stubbornly defend his communist convictions and just as stubbornly crave every mark of status and honour.” Communism, on the one hand, and craving every mark of status and honor, on the other. It is suggested, tacitly, that the images and implications aroused by these two distinct concepts somehow don’t sit well together. One wonders why. What is it that causes the tension between the hunger for status and honor and being a communist?
Perhaps, we should first of all specify who we are talking about here. Who are these people who find themselves continuously there where they “actually” don’t want to be, who seem to be constantly ill at ease? Evidently, we are not talking about, to give an example, people of certain type who would die of overwork during an election. This tension points, rather, to a distinct subject, for whom James Meek proposed a feasible definition: “the hundreds of millions of university-educated, left-leaning, avowedly tolerant, socially concerned people around the world”. An entity that he calls “global liberaldom”, “trafficking between power and powerlessness, at worst wanting all the street cred that comes from standing with the crowd and all the benefits from hanging out at parties with the powerful, at best endeavouring to be the honest messenger between the two.”
The ambivalent attitude, a cocktail of envy and aversion, towards what one goes against, did not begin, to be sure, when Frantz Fanon moved to Paris. The story of the ones from whom the sweet fruits of civilization are withheld is an age-old story, told in many ways and forms and inspiring countless deconstructions. Yet, something particular took place, not accidently in the capital of la mission civilisatrice, that turned this emotional regime into a global phenomenon, giving the impression that what is in reality merely an outcome of certain interactions is the timeless substance of the so-called “human condition.”
My allusion to Fanon is not arbitrary, for what I would like to know is whether or not there is any difference in kind between the ambivalences that marked Hobsbawm and Fanon’s individual life courses. That both figures turned out to be communists is a contingent fact; otherwise, we have to conclude that being a communist is a prerequisite for envy and aversion. But as Žižek never tires emphasizing, the very same ambivalent attitude is held by the Islamists towards “the West,” as well. So, the situation turns out to be the other way around: coveting what one resents must be a primary feature of experience. It must constitute the very motivating force that subsequently takes different forms – three of the most celebrated among them being communism, Islamism, and a certain type of nationalism exemplified nowadays by Trump.
Capitalism gives the impression of being invincible, precisely because it normalizes ambivalence and institutionalizes it in the form of liberalism as the one and only possible way of life. This “one and only possible way”, however, does not have a name, precisely because it has many names. Under the banner of ambivalence that sustains liberalism and is in turn sustained by it, it doesn’t matter much who one is. To be sure, the image of a society that an Islamist conjures up is different from the one a communist would seek to realize. And, most certainly, nationalists would come up with their own utopia. What unites them is, in fact, these differences that they endlessly “think about”.
It is this peculiar “sameness-in-opposition”, which consists in an ever-growing ambivalence, that may prove a promising avenue for thinking. But we can’t take it up, simply for the reason that it doesn’t make much sense to “think about” it, because one cannot change who he or she has become. We are too late to think about this experience, this ever-fleeting ground of where we stand. Perhaps, though, what I am saying now is misleading. We can think about it and, in fact, we can think about it endlessly, as we have been doing already for quite some time. This is an experience that builds and sustains huge industries—not only entertainment, but also publishing, art and literature. As a matter of fact, the very concept of “industry” seems to presuppose this experience as its existential driving force. There are, in other words, lives, an enormous number of lives at stake. More precisely, what we can’t do is change this experience, this ever-growing ambivalence; it is as if ambivalence has its own agency. Whatever we do, we seem to create only more ambivalence. It is like the second law of thermodynamics: one cannot not produce more ambivalence, but we can “think about” it.
At this point, ceaseless discussions concerning life and thought are something of a platitude. Take, for example, Martin Heidegger, the infamous German philosopher who flirted with Nazism, and the haunting question of whether or not his thoughts can be separated from his life. There is a certain pointlessness in evoking this question, not because it is already a preposterous idea to separate the “where” from the “what” of one thinks. Nor because is it a moot point open to further discussion.
At a visceral level, it seems entirely normal that the thoughts of someone do not have access to where she is, who she is, and how she is. There seems to be no meaningful connection between life and thoughts anymore. You can say anything, write anything, and conduct your own life entirely the other way around, for in the end ambivalence prevails. Glib statements are now hardly noticed. This is the conjuncture where promotional intellectuals rise, who “internalize market-speak, assuming the affect of the smiling Starbucks server, who dare not put off customers.” The scene is almost mythological. The idealists, who advocated this Cartesian separation for centuries, are being devoured by their own principles, revealing that great figures in the history of philosophy had never in fact pursued a life independently from their thoughts (something Fichte knew very well as he averred that “what kind of philosophy one chooses thus depends on what kind of man one is”). Any idea is made possible by a constellation of certain social, emotional and temporal factors, which Fichte didn’t and, perhaps, wouldn’t consider. This doesn’t change depending on whether that idea motivates people to run around the fire or to produce ultra-powerful weapons.
A striking parallel has been suggested recently between the fate of the wearers of clothes and writers which neatly illustrates this point: “It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.” The suffocating presence of ambivalence can be easily discerned on this short analysis.
Being part of the academia, I witness this almost every day. I watch people running around, always tense, trying to publish or secure funding. Who can blame them? (It’s a situation I have been and certainly will be again in the future.) The connection between life and thought or ideas had been asserted over and over again for centuries with a conviction that can only be deemed baffling now. Once this connection has been severed, it seems that, life and thought follow their own respective courses. In effect, the world has been framed as a picture for us, as Timothy Mitchell brilliantly illustrated. In this age of world-picture, we gradually become “freer and freer”, and the distance between life and thought is directly proportional to our expanding “freedom”. Publishing a book, an article, or an opinion piece could thereby become an enterprise entirely different from living as a philosopher, a writer or as a social scientist. The question of what living as a philosopher, writer or as a social scientist even means is no more meaningful than that of being a communist, or an Islamist, or a nationalist. For, when all is said and done, ambivalence, our new token for the absent connection between life and thought, is what prevails.
The only alternative that then seems to remains, which “we” hope would distinguish “us” from “them” (from those communists, Islamists and nationalists) and exempt us from the global experience of coveting what you resent, is to suggest love instead of resentment and to promote hope instead of pessimism. This reminds me of with the lyrics “Though she needs you / More than she loves you.” Would love have any meaning if it emerged out of need? Can hope originate from a lack of alternatives? The main surprise would perhaps be to answer these questions with a “yes, love and hope are precisely these.” Yet the suspicion remains: are we merely circumventing the problem and creating a new Cartesianism that would be no less baffling than the old for those to come?