requiem for certainty

The Question and the Arrow

with 13 comments

Speaking of Occupation. We are witness today, directly and actually, to an unprecedented global occupation movement.  The motion of this movement is putting the question to the dominant forms of political organization characterizing our historical present.

In speaking of this movement, I would not propose to speak to the movement and most certainly not for the movement.  Rather I would like to position myself today as someone who speaks with the movement from a position that is alongside the movement parallel to it.  I shall not presume to state what the movement is about (speaking for) nor what the movement should be about (speaking to), but only about some of the things that this occupation is directly and actually doing, as seen from a space that is parallel to and adjacent with occupation (speaking with).

The parallel and adjacent position from which I shall be speaking is that of political philosophy.  You might think of we political philosophers as those of your friends (and frienemies) who get paid to be obsessive over contemporary politics, and especially the conditions thereof.  In speaking of the mobilization that is taking place with the occupations, the role of the political philosopher is that of helping to make sense of this mobilization by articulating some of the concepts that would be adequate to its conditions.  It is in this sense that I write from a position that is right up next to (adjacent) and tracking along with (parallel) the occupations.  What I would like to say, then, are only a few things about what the occupation provokes and excites, but also disturbs and afflicts, in a space adjacent and parallel to it.

Two Simple Ideas. I will attempt to speak today to only two ideas.  The first is this: the occupation provokes us to think about politics as a practice of problematization, or what might more simply be described in terms of the idea of politics as questioning.  The second idea is this: the occupation provokes us to think about politics as a practice that is procedural as much as it is substantive, or what I might more simply describe in terms of the idea of politics as involving processes that concern how we do what we do.

These two ideas are both relatively simple.  One is the idea of question.  The other is the idea of process.  These are simple ideas in that everybody understands them.  But the simplicity of an idea should not be mistaken for its unimportance.  The most elegant and influential ideas are often the most important.  Let me give an example, or rather two.

Take as a first example the idea of democracy—an idea that is quite simple to us today.  The idea that the means of governance of a people should be directly reliant upon those people who are governed is after all not extraordinarily complex.  You can state it a simple phrase: the governed should be their own governers.  This idea of ‘governed governers’, what philosophers like to call in their fancier terms ‘conditioned conditioners’ (i.e., that which is conditioned also contributes conditions to its own conditioning), is relatively simple and straightforward.  Democracy says simply that if you are governed, then you should be part of that which governs you.  The impact of this idea, however simple it may be, has been profound and lasting.  It is at the very heart of our greatest modern ideal of freedom, which offers another useful example of a simple idea.

For freedom, like democracy, is a relatively simple idea whose impact and importance simply cannot be overstated.  Anybody who does not understand democracy cannot understand freedom.  And anybody who does not understand freedom is in desperate need of the help that can be offered by those of us who do.  The help we can lend is not primarily philosophical or conceptual, as if we can help people become free by telling them what freedom is.  Freedom is a practice.  Freedom is a doing.  You cannot be free unless you are acting freely.  You cannot be free unless you are making yourself so.  To think otherwise is to mistake freedom for comfort or happiness or the satisfaction of desire, none of which is freedom, though they may sometimes be involved in it.

Questioning. The first of the two ideas I would like to speak about concerns questioning.  My idea is that occupation may be usefully seen as a practice of what I might call ‘problematization’ or ‘becoming-problem’.  To situate this a little bit, allow me to make a theoretical distinction common among political philosophers.  At the heart of democratic practices of freedom are two profound kinds of struggle or labor that necessarily require one another.  These are the struggle of questioning and of reforming.  Political struggle and the act of political critique almost always involves both of these processes.  I like to think of these processes as interdigitated.  On the one hand we have acts of putting questions to political organizations and on the other hand we have acts of reforming political organizations.  Situated one on each hand, these processes reach out for one another and in gaining grasp of each other they thus interdigitate.

So my first idea is just the simple one that occupation is at the present juncture an intervention in the spirit of this first process of problematization of questioning.  Occupation is in the first place and primarily about putting a question, at least for now.  Though the time of questioning and the time of reforming are interdigitated, there are events and actions in which one of these properly comes to the fore.  There are durations, not just moments of time but long and real stretches of human action, in which questioning is the proper form for critical political mobilization to take.

Consider the lone body of an anonymous Chinese student standing inert before a tank whose long barrel flashes its ugly teeth straight at his chest—this student has no chance of defeating the tank or of making the tank do otherwise, except of course by questioning the tank and asking the tank to doubt itself.  Consider the bright black bodies of those poor Southerners who sat with determination at a lunch counter or on a section of the bus labeled ‘not for blacks’—these citizens had no chance of overturning the law by way of their political disobedience, except of course by questioning the polity itself and making the society that made those laws doubt itself.  Consider the fragile bodies of those courageous Americans who centuries ago thought it worthwhile to stand up for, fight for, and if need be die for an idea and practice that to many in their world seemed laughable and absurd—these citizens had no chance of overturning by themselves a system of monarchial authority so as to make room for the practice of democratic freedom, but what they could do and did do is put the question to the old system of absolutism and demand that it justify itself in the face of relentless questioning.  Contesting an army, a society, an empire.  These are acts of courage that must have felt so lonely at the time but have in time become for us the very paradigms of solidarity.  These are vivid examples from our political history of the time of doubt in which we once again find ourselves.

In 1948 the American political philosopher and democratic champion John Dewey quoted a prominent scientist of his day who had written of our overwhelming need for a “Ministry of Disturbance” to put the question to a self-governing population that is all too easily tempted by the long and slow drift toward complacent depoliticization.  The function of a present-day ministry of disturbance should be to afflict the unafflicted, to disorder the orderlies, to contest the uncontested, to substitute energy for apathy, and to relentlessly put questions to all those who put themselves in the position of having the answers.  Occupation is quickly becoming not just a ministry of disturbance but a whole barrage of ministries of disturbance.

If that idea is helpful for us today, and I think it is, then we should perhaps try to think of and practice occupation as an act of problematization.  It is for this reason that I hope that those involved in occupation linger for as long as they can in the time of the question mark.  I hope they let that moment last for as long as they can, as we can, as you can.  The occupiers will be chastised for having no direct vision, for not offering solutions, and for not making any particular demands that are capable (or not) of being satisfied.  And I hope that the occupation can sustain the courage to resist that childish chastisement.  As soon as the work of the various visioning committees is done, and a platform is forwarded in terms of tangible solutions, the occupation will have lost much of what today gives it its leverage, mobility, and force.  The time for that will eventually come.  But that time is not yet here.  For our practices of politics are today in desperate need of questions.  We are awash in answers, solutions, proposals, policies, and visions—I do not know about you but I myself am drowning in answers as I find myself shouted down from almost every corner by those who would pose to know the best way forward.  So many in our midst today like to pretend that they know how to make things right, most often by claiming to know how to keep things the way that they are in their fundamentals.  We are so rarely prepared to put the question to our current forms of political organization.  This is why it is important that we shine bright lights on the unasked questions of the present.  We should force the issue in refusing to accept any and all easy solutions, slick platforms, and mere courtesy acknowledgments.  By lingering in the question mark, we refuse the ugly temptations to think that solutions to our deepest problems are easy, available, and always just around the corner.

My hope is that some may find the courage and stamina to let the symbol of the occupation be a question mark—and to let occupation be a bright symbol of the question that we should continuously and vigilantly put to power wherever we find it being exercised, including of course by ourselves.  This brings me directly to my second simple idea.

Proceeding. Who are we questioning?  To whom are we putting the question?  Is the doubt that the occupation inflicts upon our current political organization a doubt about the kinds of outcomes of our political organizations or is it also a doubt about the procedures that lead us to these outcomes?

To situate my second idea, allow me to return to political philosophy and offer a second distinction that is commonly adverted to amongst my friends and frienemies who are philosophers.  Political philosophers like to distinguish ‘procedure’ from ‘substance’ when they talk about politics.  Nobody thinks procedure and substance are entirely distinct.  But the point of the political philosophers is just that too many of us fail to make this distinction where it counts most.

As an example of the substantive aspect of politics, consider the ethical ideal of equality.  Much of what the occupation is about is a substantive ideal of equality that is not being met by our current political organizations.  Inequality is rampant.  It is destructive.  It is too often violent, because it acts as a condition for the reproduction of violence.  Inequality by itself cannot possibly be unjust—certain inequalities are a fact of birth.  What is unjust rather are forms of political organization that pass on or reproduce inequalities so as to entrench and deepen them—the inequalities of birth need not lead directly to the massive structural inequalities of life.  The occupation movement is to be admired for the bright question it puts to the fact of the reproduction of inequalities that is doggedly defended by our current forms of political organization.

As an example now of the procedural aspect of politics, consider the various ways in which we might seek to achieve equality in the context of current political organization.  We might seek to lessen inequality by demanding of the government that it implement more progressive taxation.  We might seek to lessen inequality by demanding of corporations that they not be unfairly privileged by government subsidies or exceptional exemptions that the humble citizens of the middle and lower class do not enjoy.  We might seek to lessen inequality by demanding of our communities that they more firmly stand against inequality by implementing direct local measures.  We might, lastly, seek to lessen inequality by demanding of our very selves that we do what we can to stand against inequality and to further equality in whatever ways come within our capacity—think here not only the charity of money but also of the democracy of labor, energy, and effort that the occupy movement so excellently exemplifies.

In putting a question to our current forms of political organization, then, one might rightly find themselves excited by the work they see taking place in the context of the occupation movements.  One might see, for example, that the occupations are as much about questions of political procedure as they are about issues of political substance.  Seen this way, what occupy enacts is the idea that our political problems today include not only substantive problems of inequality, violence, racism, sexism, classism, and crony capitalism, but also problems of the process of democratic freedom itself, insofar as we live in a democratic state that is so frozen over as to lack almost in its entirety the energies of democratic dynamics.  A state describes a position of being still, perhaps even of being stuck.  A dynamic describes a position of motion, and of transition.  Democracy is all about transitions.  Let us not allow democracy to be state-ified.  Let us rather make it as dynamic as it can be.  There never has been a democratic state: but rather only democratic practices of state-making.

One way of making democracy dynamic is not to think of political questions as questions that are primarily directed at the state, as if our mobilization can be reduced to a petition to the state to bring about some ideal state.  Think of these questions as being directed, rather, everywhere.  They are directed at the state and the corporations.  But they are also directed at our communities, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our counties.  Lastly, and I would insist most importantly, let these questions also be directed at our selves.  What are we doing?  How are we lessening inequality?  Or how are we furthering it?  What are we doing to actually and directly make freedom in our midst?  These are among the most interesting, because most radical and most self-searching, questions that the occupations are raising.

In 1982 the French political philosopher and resistance agitator Michel Foucault wrote of the importance of a “politics of our selves”.  Foucault’s point was just that our political procedures and processes are embodied not only in institutions and concrete material realities, but above all in the humble everyday actions we undertake to reproduce them.

If this idea is helpful, and I think it is, then we should be prepared to accept and act on the difficult idea that the protest of our politics must also be a protest of our selves.  This claim might seem oblique or obtuse.  But it is not.  All politics is ultimately democratic politics in that it always depends ultimately on those who are involved and engaged.  If our political organizations are not what they should be, this persists only insofar as we let it.  To the extent that we remain passive and lethargic, slip into what used to be masterfully referred to as political ‘drift’, then we lose the gain that is democracy.  We must protest against who we are such that we do not get torn along by the drift.  In protesting who we are, we also put ourselves in a position to protest all that is around us.  This is exactly what occupation does.  Think of who you were only six weeks ago.  Are you not now a protest to where you were, what you did, who you had become?  Are we now not all on the verge of becoming a protest to ourselves?  Occupy yourself, many have said.  That self-protest would be at one and the same time a protest against the processes we find ourselves enmeshed in makes perfect sense.  The only way to protest the system is to refuse one’s complicity in it.

The protest of who we have allowed ourselves to become is exactly what democracy looks like.  More than anything else, democracy is the antipathy of apathy.

A Symbol. Occupation is the problematization of our political selves.  Occupation is not a stance or a position—and insofar as every position is capable of reversal, one should be thankful that occupation has not yet become just one more position on the map.  Occupation is not a solution or a proposal—and insofar as every solution is all too easily refused and refuted by our current political organizations one should be thankful that occupation has not yet become just one more proposed proposal.

I would like to think of the occupations as a volley of question marks and arrows.  If this symbol is helpful, then we should at least remind ourselves that it is difficult to overestimate the power of a question in motion.  A question in motion is among the weightiest forces in the entirety of human action.  If you do not believe me, you need only ask yourself if you really do not believe me.


Written by Colin Koopman

November 7, 2011 at 3:17 am

Posted in occupy

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13 Responses

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  1. This is terrific, Colin–I’m very glad to have read it! From my perspective, you’ve nailed precisely what’s exciting and important in the Occupy movement.


    November 7, 2011 at 6:19 am

  2. Colin have you had a chance to think/write about the tensions between our desires for popular/democratic involvement/rule and the emerging/enmeshed complexity of many of our practices/problems and our related dependence on experts? To shift from a gut sense of things being wrong to doing something to fix it seems to call out for understanding/know-how, but we are largely ignorant about matters like high finance and such and as always the devil is in the details. So many of our cognitive biases seem very ill-suited to both owning our not-knowing and to making room for, and attending to, complexity, that without the kinds of early childhood socialization/education that Dewey and others have called for, largely in vain, how do our procedures equip us to do/be better adapted/suited to our environs?


    November 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    • The drift toward expert-driven democracy is, to my mind, the nub of what this is all about. We’ve allowed ourselves to slip towards slogan forms of democracy and capitalism that are run by and ruled by self-proclaimed experts who have, on anybody’s estimation, proven themselves to be quite incapable of the things they claim to hold expertise on. In a way, then, what I take occupy to be questioning is the standard assumptions about the right way to proceed toward what you call a “fix”. It might be that the standard range of solutions are no longer workable such that we need very fresh and new kinds of approaches. I doubt that existing expert classes are prepared to help us innovate such radically new forms. Hence the radicality of occupy.

      Colin Koopman

      November 8, 2011 at 3:46 am

      • so how do we marry desire to ability? clearly our current education systems are lacking both desire and know-how but what sustainable alternatives are there?


        November 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  3. “One might see, for example, that the occupations are as much about questions of political procedure as they are about issues of political substance.”
    -I think it’s important to make the distinction (that lingers here throughout) between purpose(s) and outcome(s) in the soft sense. The procedure/substance distinction is not one made publicly by most occupiers, hence your not speaking “to” or “for”, but is of course a helpful way that we might think about the movement. I don’t know if it’s the movement’s necessary role to explicate the procedure/substance distinction, and this seems to imply that a non-institutionalized “ministry of disturbance” also needs a translating body: first, to make distinctions and second, to translate these distinctions if they are made through undemocratic media (i.e., technical language, etc).

    “One way of making democracy dynamic is not to think of political questions as questions that are primarily directed at the state, as if our mobilization can be reduced to a petition to the state to bring about some ideal state.”
    -A short bit of complaining: it’s hilarious and a bit disheartening that we need to argue for the democratization of democracy. This comes to one of the main problems I’ve been thinking about lately. Through what mechanisms (procedures) do we problematize a democracy to its members who define it in undemocratic terms and through undemocratic practices, all of which they claim to be democratic? The best I’ve mustered thus far (which is also embarrassingly underdeveloped and simple-minded) is that a re-education of the public’s conception of democracy needs to take place through an enactment of democratic practices in an undemocratic context, in order to highlight the disjunction. To use a simple example, forcing incumbent politicians to debate one-on-one publicly with a moderator who will very strictly call out dishonesty (intellectual, practical, emotional, etc.), followed by a frank and public conversation about what was dishonest about the problematic discourse. But I’m not sure this example is really the best illustration…

    Nathan Pai Schmitt

    November 9, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    • @NPS. Thanks! To the latter point (which to me is the more exciting one), I think your thus-far-mustered idea of re-education (or re-construction) by way of enactment is a very good model for a first step. I take it that the idea is that we need to reconstruct what democracy is by redoing and renewing democratic practice itself. This is so Dewey (but that’s another story).

      I don’t think that the best example, though, is the one you give of a debate moderated by some philosopher-type. I think Occupy itself is a far better example. They are petitioning us to re-examine what we take democracy to be not only by way of protest but also by way of their re-enactment of democratic procedures in terms of the way they themselves practice the occupation.

      C Koopman

      November 11, 2011 at 2:38 am

      • Yeah that’s along the lines I was thinking. But this problem of democracy that I’m trying to work through keeps bringing up issues of intentionality that I haven’t solved yet–though I’ve also not yet given it a good go. The point I was trying to get to with that clumsy first point (“translation” etc) is that I don’t know if it’s justified to say that Occupy is “petitioning us to re-examine what we take democracy to be” if the only people who are re-examining it are the people who were already re-examining it in the first place (e.x., broadly, us). I’m not sure most occupiers, if asked, would say that they’re re-examining democracy–probably that they’re doing something that you or I might then describe as enacting the re-examination of democracy. The problem I see is not one of appearance/reality but of intentionality as a (possibly) central characteristic of democracy.

        I need to get further in to Dewey for this because, for a quite a while, I’ve been unable to get around the notion of enforcing democratic deliberation (civic virtue as informed decision making for the general will a la Rousseau) and Rousseau’s line that we must be “forced to be free.” That phrase never sat well, and I think paradoxes are useful insofar as they’re markers that we’re looking at the problem from a less than desirable perspective. Dewey’s notion of intelligence v. trial and error makes this problem harder for me to get past because intelligence seems so tied up with the intention of the actor (embodied by my debate moderator) whereas trial and error lacks the intentionality of intelligence (which seems to me to line up with Occupy).

        Anyway, I obviously have a lot to work on, but at least it’s interesting and exciting stuff.

        Nathan Schmitt

        November 11, 2011 at 4:46 am

        • “Intentionality as a (possibly) central characteristic of democracy” definitely makes sense to me: since democracy is about what we do to and with our selves it matters how we see our selves doing what we are doing. I hadn’t thought about Dewey in this connection but I could see it.

          C Koopman

          November 16, 2011 at 4:29 pm

  4. dmf

    November 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

  5. Colin,

    Wonderful post, and thank you for referencing Dewey! Oh how I miss your Dewey class in politically unpredictable times like these. I especially like when you write, “The function of a present-day ministry of disturbance should be to afflict the unafflicted, to disorder the orderlies, to contest the uncontested, to substitute energy for apathy, and to relentlessly put questions to all those who put themselves in the position of having the answers. Occupation is quickly becoming not just a ministry of disturbance but a whole barrage of ministries of disturbance.” I really think that this paragraph is beautifully written. As you know, public figures like Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Amy Goodman, and even Rorty to some extent, all of whom touched on topics that are of concern to the occupiers, have long been marginalized for occupying a place in our public consciousness that made many feel very uncomfortable. Their very presence and the questions they posed “disordered the orderly.” And, when you think about what makes each of these figures great, it is not any solutions to the problems that they may have come up with, but the constant stream of questioning that they continue to occupy our minds with. Up until now, not enough people listened. However, now that the OWS movement is coalescing into something bigger each day, the questions that they propelled into our singular imaginations are now being pushed into our larger public imagination. You are right to point out that one of the remarkable things about occupation is that it is intentionally ambiguous, and it is precisely this ambiguity that makes it so radical. However, I wonder if you might be too harsh when you say that the chastisements of the OWS movement for not having a clear vision are childish. I can see the worry in these criticisms, as many of the powerful movements that transformed society for the better did have a clear vision, i.e., women’s rights, civil rights, etc. I understand that you argue that these successes only came by these visionaries first putting into question the old oppressive system. I guess my question is can it be possible to oscillate between the problematization and inquiry, on the one hand, and hypothetical solutions on the other?


    November 12, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    • Yes, yes, yes, I agree, Mindy. We have to track two parallel projects: problematization and reconstruction. You are also right to suggest that it would likely be a mistake to see them as chronologically distinct: do your questioning first and take care of your answering later. We need to be always questioning and answering, though I think it helps to think of these as parallel and so separable (not the same as necessarily separate). I guess what I think in the end is that sometimes there is a greater need for problematization, i.e. problematization needs to come to the fore, and other times reconstrcution needs to come to the fore.

      It seems to me that Occupy right now is stronger on the problematization front, and we ought to take that seriously. It may turn out to be the case, for instance, that the reconstructive wing of all this doesn’t come from them. That’s possible. I doubt it’s likely because I do see lots of good ideas at all the Occupy things I’ve been at (very limited). But I also worry that the various ‘vision’ committees worry too much about crafting a utopian aspiration.

      C Koopman

      November 16, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  6. […] a truly great and provocative piece on the Wall Street Occupation, head on over to the blog of my former professor, Colin Koopman. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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