One of the things I will never understand are those who complain privately to one another, yet never speak to those in charge about what vexes them. It seems to me that there are those who believe that they can effect change in the world around them and those who do not. Nor is this an issue of being a realist. Rather, there is a very real sense in when these respective subjective positions are existential structures, perhaps “existentiales” in Heidegger’s sense of the word, or are fundamental ways of relating to the world or “shapes of consciousness” similar to what Hegel describes in the Phenomenology.

Responding to an upsetting situation we’re both living through, a good friend recently wrote me the following, responding to a risky email I had posted publicly:

Well, your email was certainly eloquent. And thanks for the complementary words about me and our friendship. I truly envy your passionate, uncompromising spirit. You remind me of Kierkegaard. I tend to be much more lukewarm, in the Biblical sense, keeping my head down and tolerating the slide into the Dark Ages–hoping it won’t be too dark or last too long. I also try to “cultivate my garden” and find little satisfactions, assuming that most people in positions of leadership are incompetent and/or corrupt, it’s always been this way, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I just don’t have the guts to jump into the fray like you do.

I love and admire my friend very much, but I don’t know whether to weep in despair, feel deep and sad empathy for his sense of powerlessness, or wring his neck in frustration. Does he not see that it is this very belief that allows us to slip into the Middle Ages? Doesn’t he see that it is his very belief that he can’t do anything about it that prevents anything from being done about it? Often Zizek talks about the choice to choose. This idea sounds enigmatic, like some mystery that we’re supposed to unlock akin to that of the sound of one hand clapping, but really I think Zizek is referring to something like what I’m describing here. My friend has already made his choice, prior to being in any situation requiring choice at all, and because of his choice (at the fundamental existential level) he experiences himself as being unable to choose (at the ontic situational level). Existentially he fundamentally experiences himself as someone divested of all choice save that of tending his garden and trying to maintain peace of mind. What sad passions.

One of the themes repeated throughout my writings on the organization of political groups and struggle is that communication is not simply about something, communication is something. My friend has very little power alone. I have very little power alone. Others in our situation have very little power alone. But, at the risk of sounding “precious”, our voice together has an enormous amount of power.

In the Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant says that we must imagine ourselves in a “kingdom of ends” so as to act ethically. By a “kingdom of ends” Kant roughly has something in mind like a world where all rational agents are 1) treated as ends in themselves and never as means to an end, and 2) a kingdom in which everyone acts according to the categorical imperative. Kant’s idea is as follows: If I don’t think of myself as living in a kingdom of ends I will perpetually ignore my duty as I will wager on what I believe the motives of others are. For instance, the categorical imperative tells me that I have a duty to engage in acts of charity (I’ll spare you the reasoning). However, since I’m accustomed to the fact that many recipients of charity often use the money I give them for drugs and alchohol, rather than food and getting out of their state of homelessness, and because I see these things as immoral, I violate the principle of charity because of the motives I attribute to others in need. By contrast, if I thought of myself in a kingdom of ends I would unfailingly do my duty as I would see everyone else as following the categorical imperative.

A similar line of reasoning seems to underly political activism. Perhaps we could evoke something like the “kingdom of activists” or “the kingdom of anarcho-desiring machines” or the “kingdom of subjects who have fidelity to the event” as a pre-condition for engagement. That is, engagement is only possible on the condition that we act is if all subjects are engaged, even if this is clearly not the case. If I do not speak up, then this is because I assume that others will not speak up. If others do not speak up, I will be left there dangling in the cold, or, worse yet, shot or imprisoned because of what I have enunciated publicly. Reasoning this way, no one speaks up and we slide into the middle ages. But how am I to know whether, in speaking up– and more importantly, in speaking well –I do not give others the courage to speak up? And how do I know whether, as a result of speaking up, and generating courage, we do not transform a snowball into an avalanche that transforms the entire coordinates of the situation? I have to believe this. I have to have this fantasy. I have to believe that words, speech, can change the world or prevent the slide into the middle ages. Perhaps it is just my own megalomania, my need to feel important. Perhaps I am just too young and haven’t yet been pummled hard enough as a consequence of my voice. Or perhaps I have chosen to choose and to not simply accept things as they are, but to will a more humane, tolerant, rational world.

Since we’re talking about the Middle Ages, it seems appropriate to tell a vulgar joke drawn from Zizek. Somewhere Zizek tells the story of two serfs, husband and wife, walking down a dirt road with one another. A nobleman comes galloping down the road and demands his noble right of prima nachte with the serf’s pretty young wife. To add insult to injury, he commands the serf to hold his testicles while he takes the man’s wife. After the nobleman has had his way and left, the husband begins to laugh hysterically. The wife, dismayed at her husband’s laughter after she was just brutally raped, in front of her own husband, no less, demands to know what he’s laughing about. The husband spits with mirth, “I didn’t hold his testacles!”

I love the complainers. I love my students who challenge me about this or that assignment, or those who complain about the political order or their workplace conditions. Yet too often our complaints function in much the same way as the serf’s little bit of stolen jouissance. We console ourselves, saying that the joke is really on the nobleman, that the nobleman will now walk about all day with soiled testicles. Yet really everything remains the same. That wife is still raped, and the two of them still live in a world where noblemen have rights such as prima nachte. Complaints do not count for much if they’re not addressed to the nobleman, and it’s difficult to challenge the nobleman if we do not form collectives. We need better speech, more direct speech, more potent and powerful forms of speech. We need, above all, to speak. But most importantly of all, we must learn to see that we aren’t powerless; or rather we must give ourselves the choice to choose. This, in part, is what traversing the fantasy means. Besides, what happens when even our garden is taken away?

After a day of speaking and encouraging others to speak, I need to eat my dinner, drink a glass of wine, and fall into bed. I saw them speak once I spoke, those who had not spoken, and I saw change begin to occur before my very eyes. There’s no underestimating the power of a good, well-expressed, argument.