I mean this both as a diagnosis of the social moment, and as a description of my private life.
In my private life, which is to say in my personal relationships, multiple things have happened over the last year, the last month, the last few days, which have revealed to me two things: just how brittle any apparent community consensus really is, and to what extent the majority of folks’ political views are grounded more in antagonism and opposition to some big other (i.e. “US Imperialism”), rather than in a cross-contextual commitment to a set of values and principles. I’m amazed at just how many “left wing” folks are ready to equivocate between Trump and the existing American elite. I’m also amazed at how my Facebook wall remains full of posts about refugees that appear to be set in 2003 (meaning, they take the US invasion of Iraq as the contemporary crime to be opposed). I’m stunned at an old friend’s flirtation with the alt-right, to the point where she wouldn’t deny being a Trump supporter. I’m floored by my inability to have real conversations with people I disagree with, that don’t break down into metaphysical-like opposition, and I have to mobilize huge amounts of emphasis on human relations to avoid fracturing (I think this is what Victor Turner referred to as “anti-structure). Unfortunately, there isn’t always enough anti-structure to go around.
In my observation of the political environment, political issues in general appear more and more to have this fracturing character. The election, that goes without saying. But other things too – Syria, the Jordan Peterson controversy. It’s starting to seem like the normal paradigm for discursive politics is one of characterizing any substantial critique of your position as symptomatic of a person being subhuman. Peterson in theory is against this (and his lectures on authoritarianism I believe remain relevant and helpful), and yet in his public life he practices precisely what he denounces: standing as a sort of prophet of the apocalypse, he is unable to heed any criticism of himself, and dismisses those who oppose him with a logic eerily similar to anti semitism (this secret kabal of neo-marxists, as a subconscious collectivity are conspiring to take over the university and the country).
On the topic of Syria, the levels of abandonment are just appalling. This week has brought a series of major breakthroughs for the regime in Aleppo. This is, many are saying, really the end to the Revolution. And I don’t mean to say no one cares – there is tons of mainstream media coverage. But in terms of my Facebook feed, only the usual suspects continue to post about Syria. I haven’t seen a single person who doesn’t regularly post about Syria post anything this week about the increasingly genocidal situation in Aleppo. Actually that’s not true, one person did today, sharing a post I had made about the Canadian government’s attempt to get a UN General Assembly Resolution through to call for a stop to the slaughter and aid to the residents of East (Rebel-held) Aleppo. A topic which, by the way, I have not heard discussed by anyone, despite its obvious relevance for Canadians. For the most part, what I continue to see are a kind of de-contextualized leftist fetishism – posts about Castro, posts about how if white people didn’t want to deal with immigrants they shouldn’t have colonized the globe.
Some folks have argued that the concept of “virtue signalling” is itself virtue signalling, but I don’t think that’s true. Actually what this comes down to is the question: is it possible to act authentically, or is all action a priori a kind of performance constructed for an audience. Or, in other words, is it relevant whether one’s performance is self-consciously a performance, is there any difference between conscious and non-conscious forms of manipulation? I would say that there is, and anyone who says there isn’t is lying because you can’t deal with people in every day life without assuming they are being genuine with you – and when you realize someone is being manipulative, it totally changes the way you deal with them. This means Butler is wrong about performativity, and that people like Goffman and Turner have a much better understanding of it. Which is to say, an understanding of performativity that understands “performance” as one mode of human behaviour amongst others, rather than the character of human action as such.
Is there a link between the left’s adoption of Butler’s theory of performativity over the dramaturgical tradition and the current atmosphere of the acceleration of social fracture? Perhaps if we add to this its stepchild on the right – the post-truth. Or, “truthiness” – Colbert has argued that post-truth is a rip off of his earlier concept, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s right. This is also a practical implementation of the post-structuralist insight that there is no limit to the number of ways you can interpret a text, although I think fewer on the right have actually read Derrida. Except, on the right, it isn’t that authenticity doesn’t matter (i.e. no distinction between performativity and genuine utterances), but rather that it’s all that matters, a kind of back to late 18th century France emphasis on the genuineness of aesthetic feeling (quick: someone tell the Trump supporters that their aesthetic epistemology set off the French Revolution). But it amounts to the same thing: instead of virtue signalling that depends on the absence of hypocricy, you have the direct appeal to gut feeling, which is allowed to be hypocritical (see: the election of Trump despite his constant exposure as a hypocrite). In both cases there is no room for third parties to critique the relationship between word and object: in the first case because the word links primarily to a holistic, non-contradictory system of articulated beliefs, and in the second because the word links primarily to an aesthetic capacity for judgement which, because it exists in a world of contradictions, can’t be held accountable for making mistakes.
Of course, all these fracturings, there is a social-science tendency in me to want to be able to read them as symptomatic of underlying processes, an example of which I have just put forward. But at the same time, the articulation of those processes in discourse re-inforces, more often than not, versions of those same fracturings. A vicious cycle between normativity and knowledge increases the difficulty of articulating the problems which need to be worked on. The caricaturizing of the description of problems as the problem turns solutions into problems, and poses as solutions remedies which themselves propagate problems.
I want to continue to believe in the power of language to comprehend complex processes taking place in social and political life. And, I want to continue to believe in the common humanity of my brethren as their ability to undertake such a comprehensive project together, both discursively and in practical engagement on levels like community building, collective discussion and political organizing. But it is become increasingly difficult to hold this belief. I’m feeling the need to restrict this level of activity to increasingly tight circles of friends – in essence, to people who stand on the same side as me on a whole set of these fragmented political issues, as well as on the same side as me in terms of the attitude towards fragmentation as such (which is itself a divisive position). This feels like a defensive step. A step in the direction of preservation rather than enhancement. A step on the trail of conservatism, rather than boldly pursuing social progress. A step to the right?