April 16, 2011

Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them.

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I am really not trying to be cynical. Actually I think the dilemma to some degree flows from the very nature of politics. One thing the explosion of the avant-garde did accomplish was to destroy the boundaries between art and politics, to make clear in fact that art was always, really, a form of politics (or at least that this was always one thing that it was.) As a result the art world has been faced with the same fundamental dilemma as any form of politics: the impossibility of establishing its own legitimacy.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

It is the peculiar feature of political life that within it, behavior that could only otherwise be considered insane is perfectly effective. If you managed to convince everyone on earth that you can breathe under water, it won't make any difference: if you try it, you will still drown. On the other hand, if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were King of France, then you would actually be the King of France. (In fact, it would probably work just to convince a substantial portion of the French civil service and military.)

This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence. No king would openly admit he is king just because people think he is. Political power has to be constantly recreated by persuading others to recognize one's power; to do so, one pretty much invariably has to convince them that one's power has some basis other than their recognition. That basis may be almost anything— divine grace, character, genealogy, national destiny. But "make me your leader because if you do, I will be your leader" is not in itself a particularly compelling argument.

In this sense politics is very similar to magic, which in most times and places—as I discovered in Madagascar—is simultaneously recognized as something that works because people believe that it works; but also, that only works because people do not believe it works only because people believe it works. For this is why magic, whether in ancient Thessaly or the contemporary Trobriand Islands, always seems to dwell in an uncertain territory somewhere between poetic expression and outright fraud. And of course the same can usually be said of politics.

- David Graeber, The Art World as a Form of Politics



[You can read the entire David Graeber essay here.]



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1 comment:

Martin Lemieux said...

This is an incredibly interesting article. Thank you.