A Reply to Kinsman

We thank Gary Kinsman for helping to open up a broader discussion about some of the issues that we discussed in our last editorial. We look forward to seeing this discussion taken up by others in future issues of the journal, but here would like to clarify some key points in our initial argument which we think Kinsman has misinterpreted.

Kinsman’s anxiety about the use of national mythologies misses the point that the archives we refer to are established and are in fact already widely in use. We are not trying to valorize them, but rather to seek to understand why (as in the case of the movement around Obama) so many people referred to archives as indexes of their own unrealized desires. That is, to the extent that radicals should “identify” with mythologies, we should do so on the basis not of their manifest but of their latent content. This approach rests on the notion (which is far from unwarranted) that the desire people feel toward a myth arises not from the object itself but from its promise – however partially this is realized.

In the case of gay marriage, for example, it may well be that people want to get married. However, marriage itself is – in the bourgeois context – a property relationship that is humanized through evocations of love. In describing their desire, most people orient to the myth of love rather than to marriage as contract law. People actually want love and have settled for its substitute object. This does not mean that they will be happy with the object. However, even if it is presented as the only available referent for the desire within the existing field, it still becomes possible to move people toward considering how to change the field itself. Significantly, we are arguing that this process begins by trying to understand their desire to get married (even though we may find this desire misguided) and recognizing that what they wanted was not the object acquired through the property relation but the fulfillment of their desire.

With respect to Gramsci: the reason that we seem to move toward national myths is because these are the constitutive ground of bourgeois hegemony today. Kinsman is right to suggest that it can be useful to find other wish images. However, precisely because the myth is the constitutive base of hegemony, it remains necessary to critically accept its content as our starting point when trying to do mass work.

By conceiving of the problem as one of alternate content, Kinsman fundamentally misses what the struggle for hegemony involves. In his discussion of the connection between hegemony and myth, Gramsci argued that the goal of the revolutionary movement is to exhaust every partial resolution and strategy of deferral available to those societies constituted – and maintained – through the suppression of historic contradictions.

Achieving this requires that we push these strategies to their logical conclusion, which means starting from within them. Only when the wiggle room has been exhausted does the possibility of a decisive confrontation arise. And if the hegemonic struggle has been carried out effectively, people will orient to the revolutionary organization because it stands as the defender of the desires whose actualization was thwarted by the hegemonic process of bourgeois substitution and deferral. One of the reasons that Kinsman seems to miss this point is because it seems he hopes to valorize those desires that either do not find expression in the available archive of mythical resolutions or that cannot yet be imagined because the conditions of their articulation have yet to be realized.

The problem with proceeding in this way is that it suggests that the realization of a desire is best achieved through its concrete expression. However, this ignores the fact that people’s articulation of their desire is always already happening within the hegemonic context and, as such, is likely to become bound to an available object. But, properly speaking, desire is not object oriented. It arises from a lack whose proper field of resolution is not consumption but production. The content of this production cannot be imagined in advance; it only becomes visible ex post facto. The project of hegemony, then, is not to find an appropriate object. Instead, it is to systematically make every object orientation unendurable in its insufficiency. Only then can there be a true historic confrontation with lack.

Proceeding in this way does not indicate a political reorientation for UTA. First of all, at no point does the editorial disavow the importance of pedagogical experiments. Instead, it tries to consider the question that does not get considered. It is easy to agree with what everyone already says. However, doing this does not get us much further when trying to move our politics forward. In this sense, the structure of the editorial is fully consistent with what we have always done: ask difficult and unresolved (and potentially unresolvable) questions, draw upon the acquisitions of the revolutionary tradition to see how far we can get by applying them to current problems, and try to open new fields of enquiry by breaking with the intellectual laziness of activist orthodoxy.

This orthodoxy is fully evident in Kinsman’s comments, especially when he asks whether national mythologies will be taken up from the standpoint of those who have been oppressed by them. There is no doubt that the position of oppression is an important standpoint from which to locate contradictions within national myths (and it is for this reason that we bothered to cite Sartre who noted that, in the course of their national liberation struggle against the French, Algerian militants “still spoke of our humanism, but only to reproach us with our inhumanity”). However, strategically, what is needed is not to valorize the experience of oppression but rather to find means of resolving the contradiction within the myth itself. The question our editorial asked was by what means can “the content” of our lives become identical to “the phrase” that animates bourgeois humanism?

It’s important to remember that the Algerian revolution (like every revolution in history) did not disavow the reference points that shaped it in the first instance. Instead, it recognized in these objects the practical material with which it could actualize new conditions for the resolution of desire. This initial orientation to the promise of myths is later supplanted, through the course of struggle, by a more deliberate political reckoning. However, this would not have been possible if a mass revolutionary movement did not first pass through the stage of object orientation to these myths.

The difference between the poles of emphasis that arise between the editorial and Kinsman’s comments is not therefore whether or not to use myths, or even what the scale or origin of these myths should be. Rather, it is whether or not we are currently in a position to produce anything. Activists who are satisfied with their small prefigurative experiments will consider the question irrelevant. For those of us who remember the incredible potential (in both the sense of power and possibility) of the movements prior to September 11, it will be clear that myths (both radical as well as conservative, national as well as pre- and post-national) were and will continue to be central to any truly substantial political mobilization – as was patently evident with the electoral and social movement that sprung up around Obama.

If the goal is to work “within, against, and beyond,” it is strategically necessary to recognize that, as in any labour process, certain steps must be completed before others can reasonably begin.

In solidarity and struggle,
The UTA Editorial Committee