What is Political?

When I was a kid, I was what I considered "political" — I read The New York Times, I was in touch with the Communist Party, I read Che and Lenin (sort of), I was a conscientious objector (under Reagan, to get Federal student loans, I had to register for the draft. How creepy is that?), and sought to lead a revolution in my high school (somewhere, there is video of me ranting into a microphone on a window ledge to a group of no doubt confused fellow students; to complete the picture, I had a substantial jewfro: see above).

Some time in my sophomore year of college, thanks to a heady concoction of Nietzsche, Foucault, and LSD, I abandoned this political stance.  I may have had my formal reasons for doing so but it came down to the fact that is just felt false — because it was false, even if it felt so real. Bathos is a bitch like that. I was regurgitating ideology, repeating familiar narratives with their compelling but cloying sentimentality — Why can't we all be free?

As an adult — or whatever it is I am at 42 —,  I once again consider myself political. But in a very different way.

At first, my politics began as local, everyday action.  I began driving like there were other people on the road, letting in drivers pulling out of driveways. And I've always been civic minded — heeding line etiquette, giving up my seat on BART for anyone in need, offering to help the blind.  But I began to see such actions as political, as shaping the way people interact — and isn't that politics?

But there are other things, too.  In conversation, I try to avoid cliches or letting other people utter them, steering the dialogue into uncharted territory.  Because it is cliche that shuts us down, keeps us in the familiar world of what was rather than the emerging world of what might be at every moment. I taught for many years, doing my darndest to foment the best kind of revolution: a revolution of generous multiplicity. I write, of course, trying to steer thinking into new territory — and mostly to foster a love, or at least an appreciation, for thinking differently.

(Writing this now it seems so, well, lame.  Hmn.)

And then there are structures that coerce us, discourses that define us, often without our even knowing but just as often while thoroughly aware and annoyed and frustrated. I negotiate the discourses of masculinity, work, fatherhood, adulthood, son-hood, ex-husbandhood, etc. We are each nodes within networks that exceed us, ways of thinking and talking that are taken for granted as just the way things are, just what we do and hence are the very (insidious) structures of power.

This yields a very real politics of me, the politics that I am.  I am — and methinks we all are — a veritable polyphony of voices, attitudes, beliefs, actions.  Everything I do negotiates and distributes so many different factors — my sense of authenticity, my conscience, my desires, my fears, everything I've ever thought, been taught, believed.  All of my — all of our — individual reckonings of our histories is a making of history, is political.  Everyday, in multiple ways, we wrestle these discourses.

In the dating world, for instance, there are certain assumptions about what a relationship is, how it should proceed: drinks, a meal, sex, meet friends, go away together, move in together, get married, breed.  Now, we may not all do this or want this. But you can't deny that this is an assumption which means any deviation from it becomes precisely that — a deviation rather than, say, the particular way a relationship may function.

Burroughs says that what we call politics is just the matador waving his red flag and, bulls that we are, we charge only to meet air.  Or, if we're lucky, we nail the matador in the ass.  But the bull fight doesn't change.  Isn't it obvious by now that voting for one douchebag is the same as voting for any of those douchebags?  (Douchebag is, without a doubt, one of the more hilarious words.)

If we see politics, then, as happening at the level of discourse — the level of how we talk about things, what we consider true and what we consider deviance — then art, film, the media in all forms is political from the get go.

So it's not that the political is solely personal or private.  On the contrary, politics is the way the individual meets the world — meets others, meets ideas, meets him or herself. 

This would shift political thought and political commentary rather dramatically.  Rather than asking yourself, "Who will I vote for?", ask yourself,  "What assumptions do I make as I wake and ready myself for the day? As I consider my future, my history, my love, my life?"

Philosophy and art and critique are the real politics.  Which explains why they are never taught and are shit on so thoroughly. 


chloe said...

Normally I read your blog posts and completely miss the point that you are trying to make and get annoyed and then wait for you to explain them to me later, but since I'm already annoyed at you for reasons previously discussed I will offer this comment and say that I completely disagree, Daniel. Your politics (and lack thereof) and your world are 100% centered on you, specifically, how your girlfriend, son, mom, sister and postman inconvenience you, whether or not the supermarket checker acknowledged YOU (and your charms), that you come up with the perfect quip so that the young and impressionable are duly charmed/impressed/admired and so forth. Its all about you you you. And just as I wish you had more natural compassion for others, their feelings, etc., I guess it make sense that you really don't care about society/the world outside the 4 mile radius in which you live, that you don't care (and don't care that you don't care) about the Keystone Pipeline (instead you'd rather mock Obama), that Bhutan (or half the other countries in the world) exists, that 2/3 of Apple's jobs are outsourced (and that there is a shocking labor imbalance in this country - even though you yourself panic about money all the time but pride yourself on working as little as possible), that the public education system in California/US is going to shit (even though you have a child in said education system)... I could go on and on. I clearly know next to nothing about Deleuze and Burroughs and Nietzsche but it seems like you might actually find a bit more meaningful pleasure in expanding your horizons a little bit. Isn't it a bit boring to just think about yourself all day long? The cosmos must get a bit lonely when you're the only one in it.

Daniel Coffeen said...

There's nothing like a series of very personal attacks criticizing me for having politics that are too personal.

dg said...

I don't know Chloe.

Like you, I don't understand most of what DC says either.

I'd like some evidence that humans are wired to care about anything other than themselves and a small group around them. I think we're still nomadic hunters.

If you truly cared about the things you write about, you wouldn't be writing and reading DC's stuff: you'd be out doing something about them/it.

What DC is is honest; and it scares the crap out of the bourgeois.

jem said...

That's an interesting reading, Chloe. A self-centric world view seems natural to me because I'm the biggest part of the world I can trust. I'm closest to "me" so I can speak for myself with some assurance. Centering one's world view on another is an interesting idea but the application seems daunting. For example, how should I know what the others think, feel, and are in the same way I know myself? Speaking personally for a moment, how does this mode of living affect your politics in such a way that you prefer a focus on the aforementioned Keystone Pipeline, Bhutan, et al? How do you choose those causes to center on rather than some other position?

Rob K-S said...

Chloe, that is not at all an interesting reading. I don't understand why you can't just read this essay and then move on with your life. You couldn't possibly lodging this type of attack on every solipsist that exists so why pick this fight here? And in such a mean way? I'm commenting because I felt a intense sadness when I read your response.

I think that if someone was just as self-involved, it might actually allow them to benefit their community by actually producing something of value: themselves. Writing isn't meant to excoriate, it's meant to pass through. It is not possible to disagree with this essay because it is asking for no agreement in the first place. Either you take a piece of it a build a better life, or move on.

drwatson said...

Jesus - I hate this thread. I'm sorry, and me saying this is probably going to conflate the problem. Her critique is impassioned and fuck, Coffen's admitted half of what she says.

At the same time, I think (man it feels so weird to talk about you as a person, I don't know you as a person, I just like the way you write and think - so please bear with this) that Coffeen isn't a solipsist. Honestly, I'm excited when I see a comment on my blog from him (you?).

I don't want to hate someone for disagreeing and I refuse to. Her point is the counter point to the argument. She's saying - fuck, stop thinking about the self and think about the community. And I can't disagree with that. I'd only say that I think when Coffeen (you?) were explaining your politics that you WERE thinking about the external. Just that your external wasn't abstract - it wasn't "The Congo" it was this particular old person on the bus. This particular blind person.

I think dismissing the dissent makes all of us just as bad as everything we want to critique - do we want a monolithic reading? Well, hell no we don't.

So it's obvious that the critique is personal - that's what I don't want to touch. But I am very sympathetic to the disparity between the personal and the communal.

I don't know what else to say. This thread is what I'd classify technically as a "motherfucker."

drwatson said...

Pardon some horrible grammatical mistakes - sorry I wrote this quickly and without much thought. And then I feel bad saying "you've admitted half as much." I hope that's taken in a very particular, generous way. I look forward to reading this blog and I also look forward to the comments, even when they are dissenting. Though again, if something's too personal it becomes hard to engage it.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ah, Dr - and you all — are brave to take this one on. I commend you. Alas, it's a personal thing very oddly played out in a public venue. I'm not sure why exactly. I could have deleted the comment but I think it's more interesting to leave it as it has me thinking about karaoke and the spectacle as the site of engagement in today's world of wall postings and endless exhibitionism.

But it's post-exhibitionism as it's always already exhibited.

In some way, perhaps, this site — in both senses — is where the personal needs to be played out.

Anyway, methinks we can move on....

Plasmatron-7 said...

I think the argument in this thread is almost entirely linguistic. The point of contention isn't the theme of Dr. Coffeen's post at all, but is instead over whether his interpretation of the word 'politics' to include an individual's everyday relations with every individual he encounters is accurate-- or whether 'politics' necessitates a grander, zoomed-out view that incorporates the whole of human society.

I don't have the answer to that, but I can say that a practical daily application of the latter definition must be almost paralytically cumbersome. Must every man or woman process all of those variables every time he or she makes any decision? Any person who is capable of ACTUALLY doing so must indeed have a mind worthy of admiration. in reality, though, I think most of our politics are humble and interpersonal and small-in-scope, and we hope that if enough of us conduct ourselves well on that scale, a cumulative effect will be had upon the grander one.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I think that's well put, Plasmatron, and thanks for joining in.

I didn't think I was making a private/public distinction. In fact, I thought I was breaking it down by claiming that a) private action is public action; and b) public discourse shapes private action/thought/behavior.

And I'm not sure I meant to say that politics is only discursive, only personal. I just wanted to shift what we mean by politics to include other foci, other kinds of behavior other than reading the newspaper and kvetching about republicans, whatever they are. To wit, my next blog entry....

Plasmatron-7 said...

Just realised the implications of what I just said.

Are politics fractal?

Plasmatron-7 said...

Ah, yes. I didn't mean to imply that your interpretation of politics was purely personal; I wanted to say that your interpretation was INCLUSIVE of personal politics. Which is what you just said. I just wanted to weigh in on this rat's nest of a comment thread in order to address the impracticality (not to mention un-human nature) of the kind of selflessness that Chloe seemed to advocate. I.e., I think that to a certain degree, the most we can do is prune the pointy bits from our selfishness, and try to direct what remains toward making things generally more pleasant for ourselves and those with whom we interact.

E.g., selfishly using wit and charm to elicit a smile from a cashier ( a thing ot which I am personally guilty) may be selfish, but it brings a bit of joy to both of you, thereby increasing society's overall happiness-quotient.

jem said...

Upon review, I realize my post could be read in a tone of insincerity which wasn't intended. I really do find these communal political stances interesting. I'm used to being selfish so I frame my world that way. I'd rather see someone in need, slip them some cash, and disappear. When it's just me I'm accountable; I feel as if I'm the only one noticing that one person's suffering so I alone must act - now!

I admit I see some appeal to communal politics in the same way religion can be appealing. Millions of people condense like drops of rain to cause a communal flood. If the flood ends a drought, each member will say they ended a drought. If the flood destroys a local economy, each member will say they were just one of many who were misled. A communal stance requires faith, bestows amnesty, and promises glory. And that's very tempting but also very easy.

But it's a complex world covered in complex people and there are obviously other ways to be. I welcome the chance at a new perspective.

DC: dredging of the personal aside, I think this thread was quite interesting. Thank you for allowing it to play out.

Mat said...

"Isn't it obvious by now that voting for one douchebag is the same as voting for any of those douchebags?"

If it was obvious, would you even need to say it? And I would like to think that its not obvious because no two douchebags are the same in their douchebaggry.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Mat: Ah, yes, but by invoking the obvious, I try to implicate those who would think otherwise. Rhetoric is not always about logical clarity. To wit, two douchebags are, precisely, the same in their douchebaggry. They may differ in other ways, such as the expression or mode of said douchebaggry — or competence, assholicity, etc. But your rhetorical gesture is well noted.

Will Conley said...

I feel that every text needs a hook. And as you say, Dan, people interact with texts based whether they are "good company." Well, for me, the hook of the text that is that Berkeley Rhetoric podcast and this blog (combined in the text that is my head) was that you said you don't vote. Bam, I'm hooked.

This post teases that out a little more. The attack that followed was inevitable, although I was a little disheartened that it would happened around your thoughts. There is no sacred space for the "alternatively political," to coin a phrase.

I have told people I do not vote, and I have often said that there is no such thing as a lesser of two evils. The reactions I get are quite standardized. It's amazing how many people exist on this planet for so few political opinions. If one wants evidence that proves humans are capable of sharing, just look to the sameness of their political opinions. Town bicycles, those few opinions. We're generous like that, humans.

I have often said that America -- and I specifically use that word, "America," to the exclusion of anything else I could say -- is a religion. That is, it will one day be looked on by historians as a religion, and schoolchildren will only vaguely recall that it may once have been a "nation." I don't say this pejoratively. I just say it.

Furthermore, the post-World War, post-nuke, post-Cold War, post-911, pre-Apocalypse mentality of the year 2012 is one of creeping panic. As a result, we are seeing more and more fundamentalists getting louder and louder and clinging tighter and tighter to their religions as they fill up with an unnamed dread. Specifically, this goes for Muslims, Christians...and Americanists.

Americanists believe wholeheartedly in the "sanctity" of the founding "fathers"; the system of "checks and balances"; the "vote" (read: penance); the flag (cross); the Constitution (bible) and so on and so forth.

A true atheist does not vote. And that just kills the fundamentalists. They will call you selfish, they will revile you, and worst of all, call you "apathetic." That's regardless of how many blind people you help, even when no good Americanist would even see them.

So, long story long? I'm not the least bit surprised you were personally attacked. And now, I'm not even disheartened. Just proven right.

God it feels good to be so right. ;)