On Mindfulness [i]
We are living through a conjuncture which almost defies conjunctural analysis, where politics are taking an increasingly toxic turn and we are indeed entering uncharted waters. Against this background, the propagandists of neo-liberalism urge us to cultivate ‘resilience’ and ‘mindfulness’ as a way of seizing and surviving the present moment. Mindfulness in particular has been popularised as a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, a way of promoting well being by enabling people suffering from anxiety or depression to become more aware of internal mental states and their relation to external circumstances. As currently promoted, it consists in a mishmash of cognitive behaviour therapy (is that glass of water half full or half empty?), a variety of body therapies and with just a dash of Zen Buddhism and existentialism for those who like an exotic philosophical edge to their therapeutic culture. Its core self-help message is to forget about the past and future, and instead concentrate on living fully in the present. [ii]
At the same time the massive take up of mindfulness as an idea means that it cannot just be dismissed as a con, it does address a very real need, experienced by many people in these precarious and uncertain times, to find some solid and common ground on which to build meaningful lives. There was a recent report which suggested that the Brexit mess is having a detrimental effect on many people’s mental health, and not only EU citizens and other immigrants who are living in the UK and worried about their future status[iii].
So there is more to the mindfulness movement than capitalist ideology. It is perhaps worth noting that Marx himself, although clear that spirituality as expressed in religious doctrine and institutions was a form of false consciousness, nevertheless saw it as ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering’. He famously went on ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right 1843, his italics). As an ironic footnote to Marx’s view, we have seen the spectacular rise in opiate addiction and related mental health issues in ex-industrial areas where the chapel and religious non-conformity was once a pillar of working class community life, and one of the springs of struggles for social justice and a better life.. By no coincidence populations in these same areas are being targeted by the NHS with mindfulness programmes as a cost effective way of dealing with the psychological fallout from the hollowing out of community support systems by neo-liberal policies.
Given these caveats, I began to cast around for another way of understanding and using the concept. Inevitably I came across the treatise with that title written by Martin Heidegger, in the late 1930s[iv]. Influenced by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Hegel’s phenomenology Heidegger set out to delineate an attitude of mind which was at once historically grounded and attuned to the exigencies of being in the world. It was not about being immersed in the practical sensuous activity of the moment, he would have been horrified by rave culture, or striving to become detached from it (he was no Buddhist); he was talking about cultivating an awareness of being always and already embedded in and limited by the temporal, spatial and linguistic conditions of human existence, including mortality.
For Heidegger it was about asking how the self could be grounded, and for him this was not about self knowledge, or introspection but something more primordial. He wrote ‘ it is questionable whether through reflecting on ourselves, we can ever find our self’. That is why the German title (Besinnung) which normally means consciousness or reflection, has here been translated as mindfulness. He also anticipates the way in which the term might be exploited for other purposes:
‘ Coming from the overcoming of metaphysics, mindfulness cannot become inflexible as the finished product of a system, or as an edification.’
Heidegger’s vision of human ontology is that it occupies a space in between the umwelt (the material environment and the world of nature),) and the lebenswelt ( the world of lived experience and culture ), and this in between space is where we live and where we always and already find ourselves in the midst of things(in media res). It is also a relation between the hidden and the manifest, truth and untruth. This is the space where mindfulness must be rooted and exercised, and which must be protected against the foreclosures of technicist or bureaucratic solutions to human problems. It’s a space of dialogue with the past and the future as well as the present and is thus always open to the contingencies of time and history:
Heidegger’s view of the human project is here quite close to that of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, who wrote in his Prison Notebooks: ‘The starting point of critical elaboration is the question of what one really is, “knowing thyself” as a product of historical processes to date which have deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory – therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’[v] Gramsci and Heidegger might seem strange bedfellows but in this respect they do seem to share some common ground, namely that to ‘know thyself and to thine own self be true’ it is a necessary, if not sufficient condition to know about the world in which you live.
If critical mindfulness is to be about making and continually adding to such an inventory then it probably needs to draw on the work of Gregory Bateson whose collection of essays Steps to an ecology of mind, published in 1973 gave me the subtitle for my book. For Bateson, ‘mind’ is not a set of faculties (like imagination, memory, or perception) housed in a skin-encapsulated ego, but something formed and continually transformed by our interaction with others and, just as importantly with nature [vi]. In other words, what we need to be mindful of as we go about the business of making critical sense of the world and our place in it, is how implicated we are in the social structures we are trying to change and the environment which sustain us. We certainly should strive to be the change we want to see, otherwise we have no skin in the game, but unless we are as aware as possible of the limits and conditions of our struggles we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past, whether as tragedy or farce. That is what being woke is all about.
So instead of applying the concept of mindfulness to the adaptive strategies of an individual psyche, my idea is to extend it in the opposite direction, and use it to refer to the articulation of public and private matters of concern through patterns of human feeling and understanding which inhabit us by virtue of our location in particular times and places. In that form it is not about filling our heads with more and more information, or emptying our minds of everything that would distract us from the task in hand. Rather it is a way of focussing more precisely on stresses and strains within the body politic as these affect us in everyday life – for example, in understanding more concretely how issues of race, gender, generation and class shape the most intimate registers of our being in the world.
In Waypoints, which consists of writings occasioned by recent political and personal events, I am trying to begin to map out one possible ecology of critical mindfulness in the hope that this might serve as a small but timely antidote to the mindlessness currently being promoted through our corporate and social media in their knee response to the grave political, economic and environmental crisis in which we find now ourselves[vii].
One example of this lack of mindfulness is the current distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit. We are in fact dealing with a spectrum of negotiating positions and a constellation of possible and largely unpredictable outcomes, but the deployment of this binary opposition serves to polarise public debate in a way that renders absolute what are in fact relative and shifting points of argumentation. The very distinction relies on a phallocentric model of the body politic: on one side, strong minds are placed in virile bodies, and associated either with the hard-nosed or the hard hearted; on the other side are the weak and the feminised, who are ‘soft in the head’, their malleable minds supposedly filled with ‘flaccid’ arguments. A somewhat similar set of associations is wrapped around the distinction between hard and soft Left, the former linked to the assertion of rigid and intransigent ideologies, the latter to equivocal or reformist stances towards capitalism. It is not just that such categorisations fail to address the complexity of the issues and make common ground difficult to sustain, but that they perpetuate a way of thinking and doing politics that is increasingly anachronistic and alienates the very people to whom this politics is nominally addressed.
Another example of the current lack of political mindfulness is the inflationary use of the term ‘conspiracy theory’. Historically the term was coined to describe explanations of structural (political, social or economic) processes which attributed them to some all -powerful but secret human agency –viz the ‘Elders of Zion’ or ‘The Illuminati’ – working in concert as ’hidden hands’ to manipulate and/or control events to their own advantage. In effect the term is self-contradictory, because the definition of a theory is that it attempts to establish the true state of affairs, by applying logical norms of induction or deduction to the evidence in order to establish and/or test a working hypothesis. A theory is in principle falsifiable or at least modifiable. In contrast conspiracy ‘theories’ accumulate and interpret evidence selectively in a way which always and already supports the conspiratorial hypothesis and is not subject to revision. In that sense a conspiracy theory is a prime example of mindlessness[viii].
However today in the so called ‘post truth’ era, the term itself is being bandied about in an entirely mindless way to brand the arguments of political opponents as irrational, irrespective of whether or not they are evidentially based, or simply delusional. This is possible because the distinction between fact and fiction has become so blurred in so much social media reportage and political discourse. The fact is that the complex global processes through which local, immediately perceptible, structures of power and inequality are reproduced are as difficult to grasp conceptually by those subjected to them as they are to control politically through any democratic apparatus. The networks of patronage and influence, not to mention bribery and corruption, through which the interests of economic, social and political elites are often pursued, are indeed largely hidden in the sense of being deliberately rendered impenetrable to systems of public surveillance, regulation, and accountability. Under these circumstances the projection of totalising power onto malign figures is an unconscious representation of this ‘other scene’ of politics. Conspiracy theories simply take as a literal statement of fact what is a metaphorical truth: that the deep principles of social causation and consequence have been rendered opaque while, at the same time, the hegemonic forms of common sense which provided a fix on events have begun to unravel. The political unconscious rules OK[ix].
Ironically it is only in the operational discourse of law, where the charge of conspiracy is routinely used by the state to attribute collective responsibility to individuals for certain actions (extinction rebellion), while outlawing many types of social combination, that we can clearly see the performative impact of conspiracy theory, and indeed its institutionalisation. In a final twist to the tale, the Left critique of conspiracy theories tends to overlook the existence of conspiratorial attitudes and indeed a whole occult tradition of sectarian political organising which exists in its own back yard, especially in the anarchist and Trotskyite traditions.[x]
A final example of something that should in principle enhance critical awareness, but in practice promotes mindlessness is the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ or CA. Initially the term was used to describe the way in which subaltern cultures were exploited, misrepresented and disrespected as sources of exotic interest or investment by cultural elites, usually in colonial or neo-colonial settings. So it referred to the systematic pilfering of cultural artefacts by museums, and to practices such as ‘blacking up’ by white actors and musicians in minstrel shows to portray stereotypical and often derogatory images of African Americans[xi]. Increasingly though it has become a portmanteau term for any kind of exchange in which elements of one culture are borrowed and transformed by another. It conflates cases of real subsumption (or expropriation) where the conditions of exchange are unequal, as in practices of cultural assimilation, with cases of formal subsumption ( or appropriation) where there is an attempt to borrow, copy or emulate some element of a culture by someone who does not claim a birth right to its exclusive use but who sees it as an opportunity to enlarge the means of expression[xii]. By attaching the term ‘appropriation’ to all such borrowings, irrespective of context, they get condemned as a form of identity theft or infringement of intellectual property rights.
Implicit in the current sense of appropriation is the notion of culture as a closed system of fixed assets or identities transmitted as unchanging ’tradition’ from one generation to the next. Culture as inherited capital. In reality, most cultures are open systems, are often syncretic, and undergo constant modification, or bricolage, in response to both internal and external pressures. Culture not as capital but as labour. The interdiction placed on mimesis not only negates a fundamental structure of cultural transmission ( children and not only children learning by imitating others), but ignores the way in which mimicry has been and still is used by cultural underdogs to parody the ways of their masters[xiii]. Expropriate the expropriators!
The CA movement can be seen as a form of resistance to the homogenising pressures of globalisation, alias the coca- colonisation of the world. At the same time, the movement’s cult of ‘authenticity’ makes it all too easily complicit with the marketing strategies of multicultural capitalism which have effectively commodified ethnicity as a singular but global brand. Ultimately, the movement is perhaps best understood as a manic denial or defence against the anxiety of influence generated by the fragmentary nature of contemporary identity – we are all made up of many different stories – an attempt to close Pandora’s box after its troubling contents have already escaped into the world.
The Left intelligentsia likes to pride itself on its sophisticated understanding of culture and society. But while it is true that on the whole intellectuals tend to maintain an attitude of critical distance from dominant ‘bourgeois’ norms and values, that does not guarantee immunity from the pressure to conform thinking to pigeon hole categories for the purposes of ideological virtue signaling. The notion of ‘political correctness’ was invented by the Left to indicate, ironically enough, that tendency in its own style of thinking. Raymond Williams was a prescient and ruthless critic of such Leftist orthodoxies and their authoritarian underpinnings. In a late, and until recently forgotten, essay he referred to it as ‘robotic thinking’,
‘which resembles human thinking in everything but its capacity for experience. If you step into the robot’s world, you get your fuel free, and you can immediately grind into action, on one of the paper fronts, where the air stinks of pride, destruction, malice and exhaustion. The first characteristic of the robots is that the world exists in terms of their own fixed points. Are you a Marxist, a revisionist, a bourgeois reformist? Are you a Communist, a Left radical, a fellow traveller? What answer can a man make to that kind of robot questioning? ‘Go away’, I suppose. It seems the only adequate thing to say’.[xiv]
Williams is perhaps being unfair to robots. He was, after all, writing before the advent of AI, where deep machine learning does include a capacity, however limited, for experience, if not to open doors, whether literal or metaphorical. But he anticipated, and would certainly have resisted the mindless assertion of totalising identities, whether based on class, gender, generation or race which currently prevails in so much contemporary political discourse. Unfortunately this trend has been countered by the equally mindless celebration of their de-totalisation[xv]. As a result we have been left with a seemingly undecidable choice in identity politics between affirming ‘healthy happy hybridity’ on one side of the debate and ’pathological purity’ on the other.
Back to Brexit or Reasons not to be cheerful part one
I want to try a little thought experiment to illustrate what I think can be gained by using the approach to mindfulness which I am arguing for. And so I will return to Brexit[xvi].
The allegory of Brexit is becoming clear. It represents a false new dawn, whose augurs are in fact prophets of a very ancient principle of doom: the Brexiteers refuse to begin the work of genuine social change, to rebuild the British economy and society after the perfect storm of neo-liberal austerity. Instead of beginning the long task of transforming the EU into a genuine transnational democracy committed to progressive policies, they offer a retreat into a nativist insularity, which evokes a fake ‘globality’ associated with the ghost of a lost maritime Empire.
One of the more curious aspects of Brexit is that under the surface of the sound and fury of debate, most of it signifying nothing, there is some common, if mutually treacherous ground. If there is one point that all sides to the Brexit debate agree on it is that the whole thing represents a long, seemingly never ending, Ground Hog Day. The Sun, The Financial Times and the Guardian have all used the term to refer to a situation in which, according to the dictionary’ definition ‘a series of events, or non-events is repeated identically day after day’.
The popularity of this term stems from the eponymous film made in 1993 in which a TV weatherman, played by Bill Murray, goes on location to the small town of Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania to film a report about their annual Groundhog Day. This strange event is not at all fictional and in fact takes place on the same day in February every year on a small hill outside the town which rejoices in the name of Gobblers Knob. The ceremony enacts a local legend about the hibernation habits of the groundhog, or woodchuck, who comes out of its lair at the beginning of February. According to the story if the sun is shining the groundhog becomes frightened by its own shadow and retreats back into its hole, presaging the delay of Spring for a further six weeks. On the other hand, if the weather is cloudy, the groundhog takes up residence in the fields and all is well, Spring can be expected to arrive early.
In the film the Bill Murray character finds himself trapped in a time warp reliving the same day over and over again down to the minutest details, from the song on the morning radio show to his evening meal. At first he responds by cynically turning the fact that he knows in advance what is going to happen to his own advantage, but then, since this is a Hollywood movie and it has to have an upbeat ending, he begins to use his foreknowledge to benefit others and as soon as he does so, hey presto! he is released from the loop and re-enters the real world of linear time.
The film cleverly exploits the fact that in the contemporary culture of modernity, dominated as it is by the ideal of progress, and the Ever New, the possibility of ‘time standing still’ is the subject of intense anxiety. To be perceived as ‘old fashioned’, or ‘left behind’, to be ‘yesterday’s news’, a ’has been’ or ’stuck in a rut’ is widely seen as a kind of social death. And of course this has produced a conservative reaction in the form of passeism and retro-chic, amongst those who would like to stop ‘the march of time’ and return to the status quo ante.
The times are out of joint
This response feeds off a widespread cynicism about Progress, summed up in the popular adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. The sense of world weariness, or weltschmerz, which is such a symptomatic feature of our current political culture is not just about the fact that there is a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the state of the world as it is and what we would like it to be; weltschmerz owes its seductive appeal to a split between optimism of the intellect associated with the ideal of Progress and pessimism of the will which has resulted from its demise.
The fact is the permanent revolution of technological innovations driven by consumerism scarcely conceals the profound social stasis of late modernity. At the same time (literally) the compulsion to repeat, which Freud associated with the Death Drive, and which Marx condemned as symptomatic of monotonous alienated labour under industrial capitalism, this has been flipped over into its opposite: repetition has become a libidinally charged pleasure principle encoded in popular music and dance. Rave culture with its immersive beats and chemically induced time trance filled abandoned factories and wharehouses with a whole generation who would never know what it was like to work on a production line, clocking in and clocking out, and for whom a kind of collective mindlessness,however transient, offered some kind of escape from an oppressive present unthinkably absent future.
If a sensitivity to the experience of.déjà vu has developed so strongly, if we feel so often that we have been here before, even though we know we have not, it is no longer (pace Freud ) because we have an intimation of some repressed primal scene of desire to return to that first home which is the maternal body, or (if we are Buddhists) that we are revisiting a site of previous incarnation. Rather it is because the Uncanny actually does describe, albeit unconsciously, our mode of being in time in late capitalism. What appears to be chaotic synchronicity is in fact a chronic oscillation between the habitual and the interruptive; as a result we never quite coincide with ourselves. Yet we still feel trapped in a double bind, in which empty homogeneous clock time, the profane time of capital, offers an anchorage in the world while simultaneously hollowing out any real existential meaning. As a result anything which does not fit in to the mundane tempo of work and rest becomes located in some kind of sacred time, either liminal or cyclical.
The Brexit debate, being stuck in several ruts at once (sovereignty, the Irish question, immigration ) and endlessly reiterating conflicting but equally untenable positions, is thus well equipped to symbolise a wider crisis relating to the impasses of everyday life in late modernity. But it also resonates with a deeper, more existential, question : what realistic principles of hope are available to us in this difficult conjuncture? Or to put it another way what kind of future is within our reach?
Speed up or Go Slow : two Post Brexit futurologies
The Brexit debate is fundamentally about what kind of society and culture we want to live in and for all that it pulls on the tropes of an imagined past, it is predicated on a vision of this country’s future. On the Left there are two competing futurologies. The first is associated with the so called Lexiteers: those who see the EU as a bureaucratic bastion of neo-liberal capitalism, incapable of developing the productive forces of society for the benefit of the many not the few. This argument draws on the work of a group of utopian social philosophers who call themselves “accelerationists”.[xvii] They take their inspiration from Marx’s “Notes on Machines”[xviii] and also, to some extent, from the Italian futurists in the 1920s. They, following Marx, argue that productive forces (technologies) tend to make knowledge ever more socially accessible and shareable for the public good but that this is always being held back by the relations of production, by private ownership and control, by monopolies, cartels, restrictive work practices. Accelerationists advocate going all out for full automation, because in their view that will create the conditions for a new kind of society, in which people are at last freed from monotonous soul-destroying work and will be able to concentrate their energies on doing properly human stuff, like educating and caring for one another, engaging in co-operative enterprises, building their own homes, creative endeavours of every kind. The fluid network society that they see emerging through new information technology has, in this view, the potential to erode, circumvent, and finally replace the hierarchical order of corporate capitalism and state. So their aim is to speed everything up, to accelerate the pace of change and they see the EU as a brake on that process.
The second position which has gathered increasing momentum in recent years, is in reaction to the very trends the accelerationists wish to accentuate.[xix] Its aim is to construct a new set of “shock absorbers” to protect the fabric of civil society from the destructive impact of both state and market forces, and its focus is mainly around environmental issues[xx]. It is, in part, a critique of the malignant velocities generated by turbo-charged capitalism.
As Jonathan Crary recently reminded us, the 24/7 city is a city where no one sleeps.[xxi] Sleep, where the body and mind slow down, to regenerate vital functions, creates a space and time for dreams or reverie, which remains the last barrier against the full and final capture of our inner lives by the imagery of manufactured desires. To live the dream of capital is to exist in a state of chronic insomnia and stress, as everything that is solid and makes for solidarity in our social world melts into the thin air of cyborg communication.
For those who want time to slow down, the popular anxiety dream of running faster and faster to stay in the same place perfectly captures the futility of life and labour under turbo-charged capitalism. On one side, the constant battle to prevent the rate of profit from falling by producing ever newer, more obsolescent commodities. In a word, a runaway economy underpinned by a throwaway society. On the other, the imperative to continually reinvent ourselves, driven by the terror that unless we continually adapt we will be left behind and thrown on the scrap heap. And what does the constant acceleration of new information produce but mountains of data that are mined for profit but threaten to overwhelm our capacity to make sense of it all?
There is today a growing movement of citizens in revolt against the endless speeding up of everyday life and labour in which there is no time for . Workers vote to go slow, to regain some control over their labour process and mitigate the principles of hyper-exploitation built into new management strategies for measuring productivity. Consumers are rejecting fast foods, in favour of healthier — and that means slower — cooking and eating. Slow sex is advocated in place of speed dating. Conservation areas are preventing slash-and-burn regeneration; the creation of cycle lanes and pedestrian-only areas is slowing the pace of urban life. Feminist argue that the time of nurturing the young and caring for the old follows a much slower but nevertheless urgent tempo, whose rhythms are at variance with the dominant metrics in which ‘time is money’ and what is traditionally women’s work and time is systematically devalued.
So there is a tension on the Left between those who can’t wait for capitalism to consume itself and implode, and those who fear the consequences may bring something far worse, and think that the priority is to develop an alternative way of living, working, playing and consuming if the planet is to survive. A somewhat similar difference has emerged within the Brexit debate between those who cannot wait to get it done so as to move on and those who counsel caution and urge patience until a proper process of public deliberation can take place.
The culture of im/patience and its discontents
Faced with what Gramsci called an ‘organic crisis’ in which the old order is dying while a new one has yet to be born, the culture of the political class is dominated by two complimentary strategies of indecision : pprevarication and procrastination. They are often treated as synonyms but there are important differences in how they operate. Prevarication is a strategy of mystification that attempts to forestall a day of reckoning, by throwing dust in the eyes of those who might deliver such judgments. In legal discourse the term refers to a witness giving contradictory or inconsistent evidence in a way which undermines their credibility and hence make it difficult to reach a verdict. This is a strategy of deliberately unreliable narration which is often deployed by authoritarian states. The Polish philosopher and science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, presciently talked about ‘prevaricated truth’ as a form of authentic fake news, at once true and false[xxii]. He had in mind the Stalinist regime of ‘truth’, (aka ‘Pravda’) under which the countries of the Eastern bloc suffered for so long and through which they sought to postpone the day of political reckoning. It could just as well apply to the Trump l’oeil effect created by the current US president’s tweets that continually undermine the reliability of their own conditions of truth.
In contrast, the practice of procrastination is founded on what we might call the mañana principle: never do tomorrow what you can do the day after, as Mark Twain once put it. It is a way to empower those who lack the authority to legitimately make other people wait, to nevertheless create a delay system that forces them to do just that. This waiting game relies for its effectiveness on creating credible excuses for not performing a task. These excuses function as pseudo-performative statements in that their utterance actually enacts the delay they are referring to. The political filibuster is a classic example, in which a topic is talked out of parliamentary time, so that no vote can be taken on it. As Charles Dickens famously put it: ‘procrastination is the thief of time’.
There is a poetics of waiting which explores some of these temporal complexities and in particular retrieves one its key meanings. To wait originally meant to be attentive to a phenomenon, to stay still, observe and take note of its manifold unfolding. It is in reference to this standpoint that Milton defined the poet’s special vocation: ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’. Before him, Chaucer cautioned that ‘unless ye wait well’ the writer would never be privy to the secrets of the wordsmith’s craft. Keats also warned would-be poets not to ‘reach irritably after fact or reason’, but to ‘stay in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. Ever since, the cultivation of this ‘negative capability’, as Keats called it, has been held up as a key to understanding and encouraging the creative process. The Romantics may have been in revolt against organised religion but they re-invented waiting as a form of spiritual investment. It was left to Mary Shelley to point out that for ordinary mortals, waiting also had its darker side:
Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
What hell it is——
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares,
To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs;
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.[xxiii]
Finally, there is a politics as well as a poetics to these two forms of temporising. As we enter a period of radical uncertainty about the political future of the UK, we can see prevarication and fake prognostication abounding on all sides of the debate. In this context, the positive value of procrastination becomes more apparent. Against those who want to Leave or Remain at any cost – and much of the debate is about the e costs and benefits to all the options on offer – there is much to be said for insisting that the discussion should be prolonged in order for it to become properly democratised, leading to an informed People’s Vote or a second referendum. As part of that process, public deliberation needs to be deepened and widened to include the key issues that underlie Brexit. What kind of civil society do we want to live in: a closed or an open one? What kind of political economy has to be developed: one governed by existing hierarchies of power and wealth or re-organised around horizontal networks of co-operation and mutual aid?
However we are living in a popular culture of radical impatience. What do we want? More of what we want ! When do we want it ? Now!!!. The promise of instant gratification offered by the consumer spectacle constantly hits up against the buffers of austerity politics – more and more people have to wait longer and longer to get their basic needs in housing, health and welfare met; meanwhile while for a whole generation the transition to what they have been taught to expect as the entitlements of adulthood -a semblance of personal autonomy linked to a place of your own to live, a decent, well paying job as a basis for forming stable relationships- all that has been deferred[xxiv].
Capitalism has always manufactured desires that it cannot satisfy, and the Left has hoped that the induced frustration could be politicized in a progressive direction. Yet it has been the populist alt-right that has succeeded in exploiting the current culture of impatience with the status quo. We have just seen how a master prevaricator has managed to exploit public impatience with the strategy of procrastination adopted by the Labour Party with its policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ (aka sitting on the fence) and engineered a situation in which its political agenda is likely to receive electoral endorsement.
The return of the Groundhog
By this point the reader may be justifiably getting impatient. All very interesting but what has any of this to do with the hibernation habits of the inoffensive woodchuck? The short answer is not a lot. The longer is : much more than you would think..
Ground hog Day was brought to the USA by Dutch and German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1890’s. It was originally known as Dachstag or Badgers Day. However there was a distinct lack of Badgers in Pennsylvania, whereas woodchucks were in plentiful supply so the unfortunate creature was recruited to serve as a carrier of seasonal tidings in this transposed rite of passage from Winter into Spring. Groundhog Day is part of locally situated folk knowledge which offers a way of predicting and hence magically controlling the cycles of nature in so far as these are marked by changes in the weather. In the era of the Anthropocene, when the weather is ever more unpredictable and extreme events are becoming the norm, this local custom provides a precise allegory of the global political climate. Meteorological forecasts are continually scanned for signs of global heating while the environmental crisis has created a new social imaginary in which folk devils and moral panics proliferate. The very drive to control nature has made nature uncontrollable.
The groundhog story adds a new dimension, of myth and phantasy, to the repetitive structure of the seasonal ritual. The myth is structured around the opposition between dark and light associated with Winter and Spring, and the ritual transition from one state to the other. The groundhog enacts this transition, it comes out of a dark lair into the light of day but then If the sun comes out, the creature returns to the dark and Spring is postponed, while if the sky is dark with clouds, it remains out in the light of day and Spring will soon be here.
The narrative operator of this reversal of portentous signs is the creature’s shadow. The notion that the groundhog is afraid of its shadow is, of course, an anthropomorphic projection. It is a popular superstition to be afraid of one’s own shadow, that insubstantial projection of the embodied self that mimics one’s every move…..
The shadow is an important trope in many cultures where it often represents the hidden depths of the human psyche, its secret fears and forbidden desires, often associated with sexuality and death. For Carl Jung the shadow was an archetype of the collective unconscious, and represented the darker ‘animal side’ of the psyche, which is repressed and resists the light of consciousness[xxv]. From a Lacanian perspective the shadow signifies the place of the Other, the object petit a, the point at which the symbolic order of language intersects with the unrepresentable real of bodily drives within the field of imaginary narcissistic identifications.
As Julia Kristeva has shown us[xxvi], the Other within the self, other class, other gender, other ethnicity that has been both introjected and disavowed as a source of identification, is what makes us strangers to ourselves, decentered or eccentric subjects in which the social finds a local habitation and a name. The shadow as the collective representative of what lies beyond the reach of the rational calculating ego yet remains within the psyche, has been singularly neglected by social scientists, even those who are interested in the emotional springs of political identifications and behaviour.
We are more familiar with the formative role of the shadow in children’s literature. In J M Barrie’s story, Peter Pan loses his shadow when he leaves home and his mother forgets him; it literally gets pulled off as he tries to climb through a window to get back into the family house and is only restored when Wendy becomes his new mother and sows it back on. In the Disney version of the story, Peter’s shadow become a daemon which serves as an imaginary companion and mentor, keeping him mindful of his personal circumstances and surroundings. So here the shadow plays an enabling role in helping children who might otherwise feel neglected or abandoned to grow up and relinquish the infantile model of politics as wish fulfillment.
There are however less benign versions. In Adelbert Chamisso’s famous 18th century cautionary tale for children, its anti-hero Peter Schlemihl sells his shadow to the Devil in return for a bottomless purse which enables him to buy as much of everything as he wants. However without a shadow he finds himself shunned by all and sundry, the woman he loves rejects him, and he is plagued by a sense of guilt and worthlessness. Yet when the devil wants to return his shadow to him in exchange for his soul, Schlemihl rejects the proposal and throws away the magic wallet, thus enabling the story to have a happy ending, even though he is condemned to go through the rest of his life shadowless.
From Schlemihl to Schlemiel : Politics ‘Other Scene’
Schlemihl has thus become a byword for someone who strikes a foolish bargain in the desperate quest for personal gain. Translated into Jewish culture however the ’schlemiel’ has become more a figure of fun; it is used to characterize someone who brings bad things on himself without meaning to, who is their own worst enemy, a bungler whose unacknowledged shadow keep sabotaging their best intentions[xxvii]. This blunting of the original story’s sharp moral edge is down to the way in which the schlemiel is twinned with the schlimazel, a figure dogged with misfortune and who may therefor bring bad luck to those around him. Their double act is summed up in the Yiddish joke that the schlemiel is the waiter who is always tripping up and spilling the soup and the schlimazel is the person on whose lap the soup lands.
To bring the story back to Brexit, which has been hanging like a dark shadow over British politics, culture and society for too long, there has been no shortage of commentators who have characterised the relationship between Leavers and Remainers as akin to that between the schlemiel and the schlimazel. I think this works well as an example of the Jewish sense of humour, but analytically it is wide of the mark. The actions of the hard line Brexiteers who have taken over the Tory Party are far closer in attitude to that of the original Schlemihl story. Their pact with the Devil (i.e the EU) takes the paradoxical form of a ‘no deal’ which allows them to attribute any negative consequences to Brussels, and to conjure up a bottomless public purse in order to arrive in the sunlit uplands of a post Brexit Britain free from the shadow cast by the death of any more generous vision of the future. Meanwhile Boris, the blustering bully/buffoon, is not just the schlemiel who is landing all us schlimazels in the soup, that is his cover story. In reality he is a schlemihl who is driving an insanely foolish bargain to secure personal and political advantage. And behind him, of course, stands the shadowy figure of Dominic Cummings, the master strategist and Lord of Misrule, whose design is to turn the political world upside down in pursuit of a populist right wing agenda. It might seem ironic, or just a sardonic calculation, that Brexit was chosen to happen on Halloween (October 31st), when the figures of shadowland are licensed to come out to play; but this is also the occasion when the existential threats and fears which these figures represent are turned into a harmless children’s game. If Brexit is a trick for some people and a treat for others there is surely going to be more to Britain’s leaving the EU than, as Cummings put it ’a walk in the park’.
The political class is full of schlemiels masquerading as schlimazels. But that is not the main problem. The moral of this story is that the compulsion to repeat, symbolized by Groundhog Day, intensifies whenever its relation to the shadow, (ie the destructive aspect of political power), is disavowed and split off from its more creative or productive sources. Whenever the symbolic power of the shadow is disavowed or denied in the name of a fake optimism, there is a return of the repressed and the shadow suddenly materialises where and when we least expect it. It is there in the currently strident assertion of innate entitlements and claims, and it is present in the on- line clash of invisible armies of the night who speak in the name of once-upon- a- time sovereignties and act as if they were back in the nursery where these dreams of self-sufficient fulfillment were first nurtured. The reliance of political identifications on such fictional guarantees of belonging opens up a platform for charismatic populists who combine a libertarian message ‘you can be whatever you want to be ( if you vote for me) with a reassuring authoritarian paternalism ( obey my rules and you will be safe from the consequences of your own desires).
The ‘other scene’ of political life is thus not about the unintended consequences or unpredictable outcomes of particular acts or policies. It points to what lies beneath the surface chain of events and beyond the rhetorics which attempt to give them narrative coherence or ideological meaning. I am talking here about a more unconscious structure of representation which scripts and drives the unfolding of the plot, and which conspiracy theories misrecognize even as they bear witness to its symptomatic effects.
The kind of critical mindfulness I am arguing for in Waypoints seeks to engage with this hidden dimension of political life, and in particular to challenge the phantasmagoric constructs which underpin mythographies of tribal identity and belonging. This will not be achieved by appealing to some higher principle of rationality which turns out to be the prerogative of an intellectual and cultural elite. Or by reintroducing old teleologies which counsel caution or patience because ‘in the long run’ (which never comes) history is on the side of Progress and if we only wait for the right moment, socialism will triumph over barbarism. That approach will only fan the flames of populism, both authoritarian and libertarian, which feeds off the culture of impatience and is pitched against the rule of ‘experts who think they know better’.
Instead we need to evolve a new kind of body political language in which to articulate matters of public and private concern in an emotionally literate way and without reducing one to the other. For this purpose we not only have to abandon the top/down model of change but its bottom/up counterpart which only inverts hierarchy the better to conserve it. Instead we need to build a new set of institutions on the ground which re-connect state and civil society, representative and direct forms of democracy. Citizens assemblies are one emergent form of this new political ecology. There are others. The challenge I have set myself in my next book is to map the limits and conditions of those possibilities in the present conjuncture.
[i] This text is a revised version of a talk given to the Department of Psycho-Social Studies at Birkbeck College in October 2019. I would like to thank all those who attended the seminar for their many useful comments, which I have drawn upon in revising. Especial thanks to Lynne Segal and Ben Gidley for hosting the event. The text also draws on material from my new book.
[ii] For a swingeing critique of the mindfulness movement from a Leftist perspective see Ronald Purser McMindfulness :how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality ( Repeater Books 2019.)
[iii] For a good summary of the impact of Brexit on mental health see Mark Brown https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/there_is_no_new_normal._brexit_and_mental_health_in_the_uk_since_2016_0.pdf
[iv] See Martin Heidegger Mindfulness Bloomsbury 2006
[v] See Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 2005.
[vi] See Gregory Bateson Mind and Nature Heinemann 1994
[vii] Phil; Cohen Waypoints: towards an ecology of political mindfulness eyeglass books 2019
[viii] Nancy Rosenblum and Russel Muirhead A Lot of People are saying :the new conspiracism and the assault on democracy Princeton UP 2019
[ix] [ix] See Frederic Jameson The Political Unconscious: narrative as a social symbolic act (1981) and Etienne Balibar Politics and the Other Scene Verso 2002
[x] See Erica Laglisse Occult features of anarchism PM Press 2019
[xi] See Eric Lott Love and Theft :Black minstrelsy and the American Working Class 2013
[xii] See Bruce Ziff and Pratima Rao (eds) Borrowed Power (1997) for a discussion of different types of cultural appropriation.
[xiii] See Homi K Bhabha The Location of Culture (2004)
[xiv] Raymond Williams ‘The Future of Marxism’ new left review 114 2018
[xv] Post-modern identity politics has been criticised for fetishizing difference and exacerbating conflicts based on them, for ignoring class issues, and the ways in which these divisions intersect. For a good overview of the critical debate see Kwame Anthony Appiah The lies that bind: rethinking Identity (2018) and Linda Nicholson and Steve Seider (eds) Social Post Modernism :beyond identity politics (2015)
[xvi] In my account I am greatly indebted to Bill Schwarz ‘Humbug :Boris Johnson, Brexit and English Populism Soundings 73 2019. See also James Meek Dreams of Leaving and Remaining Verso 2019 and Fintan O’Toole Heroic Failure :Brexit and the Politics of Pain 2019. See also the pieces in Part One of Waypoints
[xvii] See Nick Land Fanged Noumena Urbanomic Media 2013 and Robin Mackay (ed) #Accelerate: The accelerationist reader Urbanonomic Media 2014. Also https://londonfuturists.com. For a more politically focused account see Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams Inventing the Future Verso 2016. For a thoroughgoing critique of the accelerationist position see Benjamin Noys Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism Zero Books 2014 and for a sociological analysis Hartmut Ross (ed) High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power and Modernity Penn State Press 2015
[xviii] Karl Marx Grundrisse: Notes on Machines Penguin 1993
[xx] Its manifesto was spelt out in the novel Slowness by Milan Kundera Vintage 2001
[xxi] Jonathan Crary 24/7: late capitalism and the end of sleep Verso 2013
[xxii] Stanislaw Lem A Perfect Vacuum, Harcourt, 1971
[xxiii] Florence Ashton Marshall, The Life and Letters of Mary Shelley, 1889
[xxiv] See Jenny Silva Coming Up Short : working class adulthood in an age of uncertainty Oxford University Press 2013
[xxv] Marie-Louise von Franz Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales Shambala Editions 2017
[xxvi] Julia Kristeva Strangers to Ourselves Columbia University Press 1991
[xxvii] Ruth Wisse The schlemiel as a modern hero University of Chicago Press 1971