Friday, May 14, 2010

the strategical point of strategy

A recent visit to the comrades in Leeds provided several interesting discussions, including on the subject of strategy - obviously one which it is possible for surrealists to have different opinions on, but perhaps not as different as it first may seem, once a number of demarcations and distinctions have been sorted out. I'd like to relate a couple of points from that discussion to the usual themes of the Icecrawler with methodology and epistemology.

First of all, it must be noted that surrealism embodies a fundamental "antipragmatism" or "antiinstrumentalism" that it shares with anarchism. There is no widely accepted term for this attitude (it might just as well be called antileninism or antiloyolism which both sound rather more specific, and I'll be grateful for suggestions of more general terms) but its application is clear: the aims do not justify the means, because means that are alien to the aims will effectively twist the aims and make the original aims unattainable, while on the other hand, if the means are congenial with the aims they will embody the aim so that they will become meaningful in themselves and not just instrumental. The classic political instance is of course the insistence that freedom will not be attained by authoritarian means, which has at different times been applied against political violence, conspiracy strategies in general, bureaucratic party-building, parlamentarist strategies, self-sacrificing duty ethics, etc etc. In recent decades, the latter application has been among the most popular, after the situationists' (and especially Vaneigem's) pregnant formulations against the activist ethos. (It must be noted however that situationist thought is clearly not unanimous on this point, and Debord's embracing of the hardcore "loyolist" Clausewitz is a case in point.) It is fundamental to the anarchist concept of "direct action", it partly coincides with what different leftist group call anti-authoritarianism and autonomy (or, for some, even libertarianism), it has to do with Fourier's concept of work, with Marx's so-called humanism, it certainly has a lot to do with the dreaming, the rage, and the emphasis on creativity in the tradition of romantical anticapitalism as continued in large parts of modernism and specifically in surrealism. While never being explicitly formulated as such, this was also the issue underlying the political conflicts in surrealism in the 20s and 30s, with the surrealists insisting that revolutionary politics didn't make specifically surrealist experimentation and dreaming obsolete but quite the opposite, and that the resurrection of bourgeois morality and lifestyle in the Soviet Union as well as the mad and bloody power tactics of Stalin meant betraying communism.

As a mere parenthesis, we can note that an inverted loyolism is often presented as the "democratic" spirit today - when the means justify the aims. Anyone who plays according to the rules, obeys laws, appears peaceful, wears a suit, votes, writes letters to the editor, and pleas to the politicians in office, instead of taking things in one's own hands, is then considered good, regardless of the implications of one's ideas. (Elsewhere I have considered this in the context of modern varieties of humanism, and called it "repressive coward humanism".)

This basic strategic concern is related to the purely philosophical distinction between intention ethics and effect ethics, but as a philosophical distinction the latter does not have any immediate applications. An intention ethics emphasises that good intentions are what counts in the end, regardless of the outcome, and an effect ethics emphasises the opposite. The instrumentalist approach is largely fitting with an effect ethics, but an anti-instrumentalist approach could be formulated as either, and very often real contradictions emerge along other lines.

Consider for example how the activist ethos of self-sacrificing for the cause very often serves as a rigid ethical principle independent of whether it achieves any effects whatsoever, often being remarkably untactical and unpragmatic, in the end amounting to "heroic" duty ethics, a principled effacing of individual oddities and "low desires", and a pure voluntarism - making the frenziedly manifested good will everything, and thus ending up in some kind of intention ethics.

There are also other options, of course. There is a broad concept of a "whole human" activist, which was not uncommon in many parts of the early workers movement and went on in parts of anarchism and recently had a brief blossoming in the globalist movements of the 00s. This is about affirming an offensive political content in collective self-organising of everyday life and of demanding a full life in general, coinciding with revolutionary implimentations of humanism (there a numbers of contradictive implimentations of the notoriously ambiguous concept humanism...) and of the classic refusal to make a sharp distinction between personal and political.

But then, the antipragmatism of the anarchists is very often presented as ethics, that is, an abstracted principled doctrine of how to implement good life and fair order. The obvious points inherent in anarchism, remarkably often very effective, are easily available for any thinking person, they even border to the simplistic. In fact, very often their actual subversive effects are due to the unexpected complications and the character of pure obstruction of the application of these simple principles in a rigid way regardless of circumstances and without strategical concerns. An anarchist is always right. Because the anarchist will emphasise these eternal abstract principles rather than take risks and make assessments of circumstances. There is no risk of failure for eternal principles because there are no circumstances that actually put them to test. An anarchist is always right, and will very often be completely uninterested in drawing empirical conclusions, and very often let all opportunities pass through their openmindedly spread fingers like golden sand. This is the very strength and impotence of anarchism all in one.

I think a solution to a great many of the contradictions and shortcomings of this perspective will come via the concept of methodology. Methodology is choosing the right method for each task, and specifically through its central position in science, it concerns formulating your questions and designing your methods in congruence, so that the outcome of your undertaking will give you an answer to your specific question whatever happens. Of course it would be very difficult and probably boring to designate life as rigidly as that, but I think a more general application of methodological concern is to make sure to take risks, to try to spark off dynamics, that will have something to teach us regardless of what the specific outcome will be. And if we disregard the obvious psychological fear of failure in many anarchists, I think this does lie in the anarchist concept of "direct action" too; no meaningful actions are strictly instrumental, in that they are depending on attaining a particular distant goal; all meaningful actions do attain something in themselves. The concept of "direct action" usually envisions this as by manifesting and fulfilling our wishes and desires, and concretely changing circumstances for the better. For the experimentally and methodologically minded it might just as well be about just releasing dynamics, in order to widen the field of possibilities, open for the unexpected, which might change things dramatically, perhaps in a particular direction that will coincide with particular desires, perhaps not, and in either case will be an interesting experience to analyse and build upon. In science, there is no such thing as failure, because negative results are just as informative as positive results are. This is the particular scientific dynamic of experiment and failure. Instrumentalist minds opposed to open-ended experimentation will often regard this as "irresponsible", perhaps especially those who are prone to authoritarian politics. If we disregard the aspect of mere psychological control need in such an attitude, it nevertheless remains quite irrelevant: any serious activity that seriously wants to change things will definitely take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, by learning from them and acting further upon them, and responsibility is in no way necessarily connected with being able to predict consequences, In social relationships, in history just as well as science and in poetry, this is certainly true: the predictable is far less interesting than the unpredictable.

So, the political application of this, I consider strategy. It is merely a methodological formulation, based in theory, in individual desire, in collective dynamics, and the analytical response integrating these factors, of an interventional implementation of experiment and failure. Strategy is for causing dynamic effects that will move beyond ones control in an interesting direction and, while doing that, allow for conclusions. That is politics, that is theory, that is the so-called "art of creating situations". In that sense, surrealism in its concrete manifestations will have to be strategic, regardless of whether it will be consciously directed on the political level or not.

Now, considering strategy does not necessarily imply a lot of things that anti-strategic minds consider it to. First of all, there is of course a simple distinction between strategy and tactics, which can be formulated in very different ways, but for most people, strategy is long-term and tactics is short-term, strategy is choosing methods and tactics is choosing rhetorics and presentation in particular situations, negotiations. General antipragmatism may motivate a despise of tactics (it may be debasing, psychologically destructive, and obstructive to real communication to nervously-servilely or authoritarianly adapt one's message to one's prejudices about the recepients), but not of strategy (which is more about how to actually implement ones ideas and possibly change things at all). And of course, strategical thinking does not imply any one particular strategy. For example, surrealism is not a proselytising movement, it does not seek to maximise the number of adherents and does not try to persuade people. This is however not an antistrategical move but exactly a strategical one: surrealist activity is dependent on each participant's individual passion, original perspective and individual path of approaching surrealism, therefore it has little use for proselytes. But then, admitting this necessarily minoritary character of surrealism and affirming the chance moment in its adhesions, does not in any way contradict the fact that there might be good to increase the contact surfaces with other people, to communicate and invite to communication via internet and public events, simply to increase the probability of the rare chance hits! It does also not favor such extroversion regardless of circumstances, it makes it a strategical question for consideration.

Surrealism's political implications, and the immediate social relevance of its organisation, are I think twofold. It is about manifesting a glimpse of a possible other society and about encouraging uncontrolled dynamics that open up new possibilities. Of course surrealism wants to be effective in that. But it is not willing to go to instrumentalism (loyolism), to do all kinds of boring and bad stuff, including imposing on itself a demand to formulate it in some other language than its own, in order to achieve those effects, because that would be detrimental to its passion, its spirit, its health. It is not necessarily the case that wide attention, especially mass medial attention, will actually increase that efficiency, in fact it is obviously very often the opposite, the public sphere has a dynamic of its own which has a tendency to swallow up creative input for its own means. Surrealism wants to involve all those that are seriously interested and capable of making serious contributions, but it does not want to proselytise and collect souls. For me, it seems like an inevitable conclusion, that the interventions and the organisation are best served by conscious concerns about how to relate to the contemporary situation and how to communicate with people outside the group (primarily with the seriously curious and with friends, in the second place with the general public): this is what I call strategy. These will have to be, as I see it, methodological and experimental rather than either "irresponsibly" instrumental or legitimacy-obsessed ethical, in order to be truly congruent with surrealism.

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