“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action comes, stop thinking and go in.”
― Napoleon Bonaparte
[From Sotiris Triantis]
In a previous article here on the PEL blog 'Don’t Act. Just Think’: A Short Comment on Slavoj Zizek’s Critique of Activism, I argued that thinking is not enough in order to effect radical change in collective problems such as poverty, oppression or unemployment. In this article I argue that collective actions are not only vital in modern societies but that they are the cornerstone of every deliberative process. Social and political thought consists in activist movements.
I begin with this assertion: collective actions can make people start thinking. In contrast an individual’s thought (if unexpressed) does not make other people think or act. In the public sphere citizens use multiple media (images, video, text) that can create social coordination and action. All these can play the role of an externalized mind and the internet now acts like media's global memory. The internet can be seen as a medium that offers food for thought and not only as a passive platform of content consumption and commerce.
Zizek in the aforementioned video mentions that the majority of protests should be characterized as “pseudo-activist” demonstrations with no elements of fruitful change or creation:
Don't get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure. Do something. Let’s do it, and so on. So, no, the time is to think. [...] In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.”
At this point, there is no objection that we should start thinking. But how is it going to happen? Don’t people need stimuli which will serve as ‘food for thought’? Any protesting images may play a highly awakening symbolic role in mass psychology. Even if collective actions (and here is the core point of my disagreement with Zizek’s view) are not perfectly planned down to the last detail, their existence in today’s public sphere is crucial because their digital "imagization" can alert a large amount of the population. But in order for these revolutionary scenes to be created, we need activism.
Paralysis by Analysis
Most philosophers prefer to think analytically and not synthetically - they might have an outstanding ability of analyzing situations but most of the times they are tragically incapable of suggesting solutions. When Zizek was asked about what he would do if he was about to make decisions in a governmental level he claimed that his job is not to suggest solutions but to criticize the solutions proposed by the responsible ones (politicians). Here we could shortly bring to our mind the view of Konrad Adenauer - the great post-war Chancellor of Germany - who believed that if intellectuals were about to govern any state then that state would be destroyed. One suitable answer to those who fantasize a perfect world but do not encourage any action towards something better is the following phrase from Roland Barthes: “The only given is the way of taking.”
― Sotiris Triantis
Wayne Schroeder says
In the Year of Dreaming Dangerously (YODD) Zizek takes the events of 2011 (actually beginning with the financial collapse in 2007-8 and spilling into 2012 forward) and attempts to interpret them as a (Hegelian) totality.
A couple of quotes from YODD:
“Ignore all ‘patriotic’ worries about the motherland in danger, cooly step back and observe the deadly imperialist dance while laying the foundations for the future revolutionary process.” (p. 109, resistance just energizes the opposition in Zizek’s opinion)
“What we need is a subject who combines the dedication of Jack Bauer [rogue counterterrorist agent, 24], the inventive pragmatic spirit of Stringer Bell [a drug lord’s top general and strategic planner, The Wire] and the innocently malicious joy of Homer Simpson.” (p. 125)
In the final two chapters Zizek offers some hope for transformation, as opposed to reforming, domestic and global orders. He suggests (quite similar to Badiou) that what is needed is a new fiction to offer an alternative vision of society (hard thinking).
Wayne Schroeder says
Zizek comes from a rich political history: Between 1988 and 1990, he was actively involved in several political and civil society movements which fought for the democratization of Slovenia, most notably the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. In the first free elections in 1990, he ran as candidate for Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia (an auxiliary institution abolished in the constitution of 1991) for the Liberal Democratic Party. He is not your typical intellectual (or typical anything).
Sebastian Bobadilla says
I don’t get your title. Digitization of the real? Isn’t the real unrepresentable per definition? How can it be digitalized?
As for activism versus thought, I think you mention correctly that this is an old opposition. What I haven’t figured out is why division of labor is not taken into account on this issue. Our evermore specialized society enables the existence of fulltime intellectuals. However, it is clear we cannot all participate in this role (fulltime that is).
Just some “food for thought” ;P
Wayne Schroeder says
In Year of Dreaming Dangerously where Zizek is addressing “the difficult question of how to fight the system without contributing to its enhanced functioning,” he explains his “Don’t act, think!” position in contrast with Kant’s position of “Don’t think, obey!”
So the logical opposite of this Kantian position is “Don’t obey [do what others tell you to do], think [with your own head].” (p. 4)
This observation is made in the context of also arguing against Kant’s position in “What is Enlightenment”: where Kant argues for individual reason as a solution to despotism since “a revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism . . . or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking.”
Zizek holds this “private” position of “just think” as anemic and argues for the “public use of reason” combined with an “engaged subjective position” as the only way for “adequate ‘cognitive mapping’ of our situation.” (p. 5)
I can’t say that I see the benefit in arguing for either side of this old problem concerning the prime movers history. Hegel says its ideas, Marx says its material. It’s both. Certain material circumstances provoke certain types of ideas and I think its quite obvious that some ideas lead to actions that we can not deny, in retrospect, were related to those preceeding ideas. To try and decide which entity is the prime mover is absurd. A human life is a chain of intermittent thinking and acting, the two constantly playing off of eachother. So if we are to make a claim as to what causes what, we need to pick a starting point and this I think is rather problematic. Because if i am going to say thought A caused action B I am making this claim in total ignorance of all the previous associated thoughts and actions that brought me to that moment. However I know this isn’t exaclty where you were taking this argument so i will try and say something that will be more relevant to the conversation.
“But how is it gonig to happen? Don’t people need stimuli which will serve as ‘food for thought’?”
I think that, by necessity, in all displays of public activism, there is a motivational force which is ideational in nature at work, i.e. there were thoughts that anticipated the public assembly. How else did they come together? And how can activism that lacks any corresponding ideas provoke someone to act fruitfully, we interpret phenomena via concepts, it is helpful if the activists can get the public on the right track because often people are inclined to misinterpret these kinds of events. But, to go back to my previous point, there were also certain corresponding material conditions among the public which preceeded the ideas which precceded the activism. So again, when trying to determine what is more important, I just see a kind of historical infinite (not actually infinite) regress here concerning causes and effects.
I can see how in the minds of many acting is seen as superior to thinking. Its easy to imagine that for a large percentage of our actions, especially for events like political rallies, there are some preceeding and corresponding ideas. However, its not at all clear that all ideas lead to some sort of corresponding action, but to infer from this that ideas are subordinate to action I think is incorrect. Concerning what kinds of ideas inspire action and how they do it is, I believe, a very complex issue. I would say it has something to do with belief. To what extent does a given idea captivate us? How much do we believe in its truth, utility, profitablility and how are these judements shaped by our existing beliefs and psychology?
But I will emphasize that I don’t disagree with you on the importance of activism, which is essentially what it appears you are arguing for, and I don’t think Zizek would either. However I don’t really see the need to argue against the importance of ideas. Activism is great, its big, intense and seductive which is what can make it such an effective catalyst in disseminating a certain kind of motivational force throughtout the public. However, I am weary of these kinds of displays when they lack some articulated premises, critiques or objectives. The same speed-of-light mediums which can work so well as public think tanks and assemblage organizers can also turn viciously and rather effectively against certain social movements (I’m thinking more about major news outlets here). This is particularly devasting to movements who lack some ideational structure to correspond with their activism because there are many powerful instutions who are wont to, and will, misrepresent, stigmatize and ridicule these positive movements in ways that can be, unfortunately, quite influential on your average person or if you will, on Das Man.
I think you took the video a little too seriously. He just meant we need to think more, whilst making a joke-reversal of “don’t think, just act”. Just like how when Adorno said “no poetry after Auschwitz” he didn’t literally mean nobody should write poetry. they’re both being a bit poetic