Putting aside for a moment the confounding case of the twentieth-century vanguards, it’s fair to say that intellectuals, left or otherwise, are generally weak activists. We—left intellectuals—tend to have funny ideas about political struggle, and the record of activism on the academic Left is not an especially illustrious one. (By Left, I should indicate at the outset that I mean systemic opposition to capitalism today, and a tradition that reaches back— genealogies will always be specious—to, say, the Diggers in 1640s England. Within these generous parameters, we each—I use the first-person plural deliberately—will mark high and low points.) Political ineptitude is an occupational hazard of intellectual work, which inevitably, and for good reasons, requires us to freeze our objects of study to examine their logical, formal, theoretical, empirical qualities. The very rigor of these freezing and thawing procedures often leads notionally left intellectuals (and notionally left is what most of us are most of the time) to a facile appreciation of those who do the real work of activism, or to a simplistic complaint about the theoretical impoverishment of those same putatively real workers. Perhaps as often, it inspires shrill or emotionally laden expressions of political enthusiasm in otherwise sober scholarly settings: declarations of allegiance to a position without any precise referent. Distant appreciation and condemnation in themselves are merely frustrating, and empty gestures are usually harmless. But I take these oozings of affect to be an unfortunate and integral part of our current situation, in which intellectual opposition to capitalism is largely produced within an academic environment that obscures or neutralizes connections between the conditions of academic work and the conditions tout court. The latent assumption that something is happening over there, in the realm of real politics, is troubling; it suggests a need to attend to the question of a peculiarly spatialized political desire. Where are left intellectuals looking when they look to purportedly real politics? [End Page 795]
We’ve been looking for something, or so it seems, since the beginning—at least since the term activism was first used (in English) to describe the dissatisfied “brain proletariat” of early twentieth-century Japan in the March 1920 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. According to the Atlantic, the intensity of industrialization in the wake of the Meiji Restoration had fundamentally damaged traditional Japanese social and political institutions; elites were “chilled” by the specter of revolution, and a so-called brain proletariat, “restless, alert, dissatisfied, repressed,” had taken “the ear of the silent thousands who are doing the manual labor of Japan.” This brain proletariat wore many colors, “from Buddhist passivism to Bolshevist activism—but through them all runs the red thread of a new discontent, of criticism of everything that has been and is. It resents even its former prides and affections.”1
Discontent, resentment, brainy preparedness: the mere obverse of resigned passivity. When it emerges as a cant term of magazine culture, activist activity already looks different from other activity: it is in-between work, neither properly proletarian (and therefore, the old saw goes, inherently revolutionary) nor respectably intellectual. Activists look to be people without a proper place: neither pure workers nor owners, neither pure hands nor brains. “Activism” is the political work of those who have no spontaneous political location, or whose political location is specifically that of the intellectual. Pierre Bourdieu—too bitter, too confidently scientistic, but for those reasons a bracing judge—would eventually call this position the dominated of the dominant. Ressentiment is its watchword, misrecognition its default MO.2
To accept the Atlantic’s judgment would be a mistake: the article is a grotesque example of U.S. imperialist “analysis” fumbling toward cataclysm in the Pacific. But it nevertheless focuses attention on something crucial to activist practice. For intellectuals whose formation wasn’t primarily about revolutionary activity, “activism” is the work that is never quite enough of a good thing. Almost, but never enough: directed outward, elsewhere, purportedly beyond the academic situation. The problem isn’t the wishful reach, it’s that looking over there licenses too many of us to ignore the situation over here: in the...