[This text was originally published as an introduction to the Taking Care section of Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics.]
In my book Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, I wrote about a group of activists who attend something referred to only as “the meetings.” What exactly the meetings are is never made entirely clear. However, a few things are explained. The meetings take place in a dystopian near future in which the activists in attendance have good reason to fear that, if they were to engage in effective acts of protest or civil disobedience, they would be arrested, tortured and perhaps killed. Their weekly gatherings are therefore a kind of refuge from this harsh reality. A place to talk, reflect, attempt to re-invent the left and prepare for a time when activism will be effective once again. When that time comes, because of the ongoing discussions that make up the meetings, they will have considered all options and be ready. Many readers saw these meetings as a satire on the ineffectiveness of the current left, but this was definitely not my intention. (In fact, at the end of the book, I break the fourth wall to explicitly state that I do not want the book to be read in only this manner.) The idea for the meetings had far more to do with my own personal frustration, with looking at the desperate state of the world and not knowing what to do, where to start, how real long-term change might begin and continue.
I remember first reading The Critique of Cynical Reason by Peter Sloterdijk, how I was fascinated by the concept of ‘enlightened false consciousness’, that we can clearly see all the structural inequalities we take part in perpetrating but still do little or nothing to change them. Or, on a slightly different register, I often think of an anecdote I once heard about Charles Mingus, who regularly began his concerts by playing the Duke Ellington standard Can’t Get Started. When asked why, he would apparently reply: ‘because that’s my problem in life, I can’t get started.’ All of this is a way of speaking around the fact that I have enormous sympathy for, and curiosity about, anyone who can get started. Who finds ways to break the inertia of relative privilege and set off on the endless and impossible task of improving the world. I don’t feel qualified to judge what might be more, or less, effective strategies in such matters. I fear that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ but, at the same time, also embody a much greater fear of my own ineffective paralysis.
We might say that all of the texts and projects in the following chapter take place on the other side of the line from where I stand. I am on this side of the line, along with much of the world’s population, where I’m definitely not doing enough (if I’m doing anything at all), and they are on the other side, where they are doing at least something, if not quite a bit more than that. On the other side of the line many strategies are invented and become possible. From WochenKlauser’s “concrete improvements of existing social circumstances” to Minerva Cuevas’s offering of “unexpected products”; from Michal Murin’s rehabilitation of his old friend Milan Adamčiak, assisting him from homelessness towards a renewed artistic practice, to Christoph Schlingensief’s equal treatment of superstar and differently abled performers; from the vacuum cleaner’s act of starting his own mental health institution and detaining himself within it to the necessary design-based paradigm shift that is Permaculture.
Again and again, I feel I am reading about events a little bit further along the path than I am. (Or, since I don’t particularly believe in progress, a little bit further around the circle that will endlessly continue unless our complete extinction cuts its short.) This feeling reminds me of the well-known last lines from Rilke about gazing at the Archaic Torso of Apollo: “for here there is no place
/ that does not see you. You must change your life.” It might be a simplified reading, but I have always seen these lines to mean that experiencing great art leads towards the realization that the way one is living is not nearly enough. ‘You must change your life’ doesn’t suggest that there is only one right answer, only one possible change, a right way and a wrong way and you must choose correctly. It is more about opening possibilities, opening up a window and letting in some air, wondering anew what can and cannot become part of our more general reality.
Notions such as care, kindness and compassion might help us find a basis for where such personal shifts can take place. Here we are in a territory of fragile humanism, about as far away from the ‘no future’ punk rock nihilism that was one of my personal entry points into art and creativity. If I can get past my anxiety that all punks become boring hippies in the end, I can see that conceptual strategies that allow for more generous social relations, to put it rather bluntly, often feel good when you take part in them. In their book On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor suggest that Freudian or Hobbesian conceptions of people as inherently selfish or cruel turn our gaze away from something we already know: that behaving with kindness towards others occurs continuously, on all levels of society, and is in fact highly pleasurable. We are capable of selfishness but equally capable of generosity. The suggestion that we are not, or that one quality is more prominent in human nature than the other, is little more than propaganda for selfishness.
The strategies suggested in this chapter are varied, at times in conflict with each other, very much open to every kind of criticism. When you mix art and politics you open yourself up to a barrage of difficult questions from all sides: that the work is not political enough, that it takes the wrong political position, is naïve, is only a band aid on the problem it seeks to address. Because so many projects along these lines step outside of the safety of an autonomous artistic position, the grounds upon which they can be criticized become increasingly unstable. If I criticize a painting or a novel, the forms my criticism might take are fairly well established and, most of the time, reasonable limits are adhered to. But if I criticize an art project in which addicted, homeless sex workers and politicians are placed together on a boat in order to engage in dialogue, other levels of questioning rapidly, often confusingly, arise. How do I feel about the rights of sex workers? How do I understand sex work in relation to other kinds of work? How do I feel about activists (or artists) engaging with the state? How do I understand the social role of the state? Is it possible, in a short time, to set the parameters for a long-term solution to such a complex, ongoing problem? Where does charity end and empowerment begin? For me, such works have multiple agency: they assist the people more directly involved in the situation while at the same time opening a space in the imagination, suggesting that every social problem has multiple imaginative solutions if only we change our habits of thought.
Of course, changing our habits of thought is not nearly enough. Capitalism is a way of thinking, but is also a system that enriches the lives of few at the expense of the lives of many. To state the obvious: where there is suffering, most likely there is also economic profit. I suggested earlier that ‘kindness towards others occurs continuously, on all levels of society.’ I believe this to be true on an interpersonal level, but it does little to ameliorate the fact that structural inequality will put profit before kindness each and every time. If we start with the metaphor that I am on one side of a line, and on the other side are those who have taken at least the first step towards making small or large improvements; we might also suggest that along with me, on this side of the line, are many who take a considerably more vicious self-interest in maintaining the current status quo, who are working towards building up this metaphorical line into a totalitarian-capitalist prison from which they hope we will never escape. (And who likely wouldn’t put the matter in these specific terms.) Still, obsessing over these cruelties will get us nowhere. We are clearly not going to solve all the problems of the world in one fell swoop. Perhaps the only way is to start is as close to ourselves as possible, one small step after another, working towards situations in which possibilities might increase over time, looking around and feeling where our natural desire to care might be put to best use.
Criticality has become such an unquestioned staple of theory and art. However, it seems to me, a caring attitude does not require us to call upon our most critical selves. A critical outlook is often a defensive position, a desire to rip off the veil of surface appearance and get to the real stuff underneath. Yet not all truths are hidden. At times, surface appearances might be speaking to us so clearly and directly that, obsessed with what else might be there, we do not hear them. An art project that helps a friend in need, a friend who has fallen on hard times might, in offering another alternative, reveal some of the hardness present in this constant need for greater critical insight. To see someone in need, to try to help them, does not require the sophisticated critical apparatus that is so often celebrated as the only basis for complex thought. It only requires a belief that change is possible, the very belief that certain strains of critical thinking so often undermine.
Coming full circle, returning to Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, I can see now that part of the problem, part of the shortcomings within my own thinking, can be found in the title, since the characters in Revenge Fantasies are not truly dispossessed. They are dispossessed in the same way I feel myself to be, as a reasonably privileged, straight white male living in a wealthy country (Canada) currently being run by a government I completely disagree with. I have a certain amount of power that I could direct towards social change but cannot feel exactly what this power is or how I might use it, what other people I might form coalitions with and what specific issues we could organize around. I feel myself to be dispossessed but I don’t see how to bring myself into solidarity with those even more dispossessed than me. If I were to do so, it seems I would be setting off on an unknown path: most likely some (or many) of the people around me would change, as might my worldview. What are the things closest to me to which I can most usefully contribute? How does my misguided sense of dispossession, of alienation, prevent me from doing so? How does it short-circuit my compassion?
By each dealing with one small, yet specific, situation (and in the process bringing themselves closer to it), the projects and desires in this chapter remind us that focusing on immediate concerns, caring about someone or something within reach, can be a way of grounding ourselves. Reality is never just one thing. Luc Boltanski writes: “Reality suffers from a species of inherent fragility, such that the reality of reality must incessantly be reinforced in order to endure.” So many of the images and words that surround us continuously enforce and suggest the idea that, as Thatcher famously pronounced, ‘there is no alternative.’ There is certainly no heaven on earth we will all someday achieve. But there are as many alternatives as we are able to imagine, little pinpricks of hope, shifting moments for potential change. All we need to do is step over the line, take the first step. I wonder if some day I might.