Key words for a new era

Published online 18 March 2012.

This diary is an adventure in the reconstruction, for a new era, of Raymond Williams’ project of “Keywords.”  I don’t know how many of you remember Keywords.  Keywords was a glossary offering a cultural analysis of words — by viewing different cultural senses of a word, Williams hoped, one could see the social relations involved in usage.

Williams’ book, however, was published in the early 1980s, and things have changed significantly since then.  Below are three proposed entries — I would ask that, in the comments section below, you put forth entries of your own, in which cultural senses of a word demonstrate the merits of its re-examination.

Left:  The dictionary tells us that the political “Left” consists of:

( often initial capital letter ) of or belonging to the political Left; having liberal or radical views in politics.

But there really isn’t a political Left in American politics today — not after the collapse of the Soviet model and the rise of neoliberalism.  The idea that “the Left” is now in fact conservative dates back at the latest to the social thinker Anthony Giddens, who argued in the 1980s that the proper obligation of “the Left” in this era was to preserve the social safety net that had built up in the era of social democracy.  Moreover, there is also the “death of the liberal class” as suggested by Chris Hedges, in which the social safety net must see its endless modification and remodification in the name of “realism” (see below).  Meanwhile the real radicals are the Tea Partiers, whose agenda contains little in common with what would be traditionally called “liberal” or “radical.”  The Tea Partiers argue the agenda once ascribed to the Reagan Right in the 1980s.The term “progressive” runs into the same difficulty.  Dictionary.com offers “progressive” as “favoring or advocating progress,  change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters: a progressive mayor.”  The problem, of course, is that “progress” in this era is to some extent regressive — progress (for instance) means creating an economy that will continue to support the investment habits of the 1% in an era of declining global growth.  Thus from the Kyoto Protocol to the PPACA to Dodd-Frank, one can observe “progressive” legislation intended largely to sustain profit opportunities for speculators out of the political capital of progressive issues.

Privilege: here the dictionary tells us that a “privilege” is “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.”  The word “privilege” became a staple of the “consciousness raising” activities of participants in identity politics through lists of what constituted white privilege and/or male privilege.

The items on the lists of privilege appear to have their consciousness-raising force through the suggestion of a possible utopian reality in which “privilege” is so ubiquitous that it is no longer privilege, because it is enjoyed universally and not “beyond the advantages of most.”  So, for instance, I possess a male privilege that “I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are,” but this is consciousness-raising insofar as it suggests a possible reality in which there is no sexual harassment.  (It might also inspire me insofar as I would have sympathy with women.) Absent this utopian suggestion, males such as myself are likely to argue that “sexual harassment exists — deal with it,” unless I have some sympathy with females insofar as they are sexually harassed.  In a context of utopian discussion, on the other hand, privilege becomes an indicator of how far from utopia we in fact are, and perhaps also of why it would be an attractive thing to work to bring utopia to Earth.  Identity politics, however, does not in itself sufficiently oblige white males such as myself to work for utopia.  “Speaking as a white male,” I already have privilege.  I might have sympathy.  What I don’t have is utopia.

Realism: Realism, as the dictionary tells us, is a “interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc.”, and in the arts it is a “treatment of forms, colors, space, etc., in such a manner as to emphasize their correspondence to actuality or to ordinary visual experience.”

But this definition of “realism” does not capture the spirit of realism with which we practice politics today.  What actually happens is closer to what Mark Fisher suggests (in his book Capitalist Realism) is actually going on: we participate in a spooky and fantastic “shadow reality” of money and power and corporate domination while at the same time we express in full openness disdainful opinions that said reality is bogus.  Fisher’s examples of “corporate anti-capitalism” (page 14 of his book) in music, comic books, and protest are only the tip of the iceberg.  Witness, for instance, the voters on this blog, with their pronounced avowals that they WILL vote for Barack Obama this November, and that moreover everyone else here will do so as well, while at the same time these same people openly acknowledge the reality that a vote for Barack Obama will be politically meaningless insofar as it won’t solve most of the problems facing the people today.  Or check out, also for instance, the voices of the reformist Occupiers, who justify a public protest stance by compiling huge lists of political demands which are never going to happen under the current order.

Political realism in this era, then, and Fisher points this out quite succinctly, combines an unrealistic voice-over with a real-life political agenda that is at best merely pre-sell-out.  Since authentic political action favoring the masses in this era (outside of anarchist DIY efforts like guerrilla garden-planting, teach-ins, direct action and so on) is concretely constituted by something we all want but can’t have, its promotion becomes attractive advertising language, and the real action is that which follows the dictates of neoliberalism.  Such a definition of “realism” is indeed appropriate for an era in which culture is constituted by saturation advertising.

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