We Make Meaning: Politics of Resistance and the Work of Simon Critchley in ‘Impossible Objects’

“We are entering into a period of increasingly massive social dislocations and disorder which harbors within it countless risks, dialectical inversions, defeats, dangers, false dawns and fake defeats. But I think we are all coming to the powerful and simple realization that human beings acting peacefully together in concert can do anything – and nothing can stop them. Something is happening. Something is shifting in the relations between politics and power. We don’t know where it will lead, but the four-decade ideological consensus that has simply allowed the creation of grotesque inequality has broken down, and anything and everything is suddenly possible. What we require now is solidarity, persistence and the endlessly surprising power of the political imagination.”

— Simon Critchley, “What is Normal?” Adbusters Magazine, December 2011.

The year 2011 was a period of emergent and emancipatory possibilities as people took to the streets in cities throughout the world demanding an end to the rule of violence and inequity that has heretofore defined our political and economic realities. From the Arab Spring to the autumnal occupations that swept across the United States, the call for a radical redistribution of power and resources is being heard throughout the world.

Rather than frame their demands within the logic of the ruling political and economic structures, many of these movements are engaged in a performative enactment of the conditions of collective freedom and equality that they seek to realize. While many in the United States have criticized the Occupy Movement for its refusal to come forward with a clear set of demands, to do so would be to appeal to the very structures of power that the movement fundamentally opposes. Moreover, the occupiers’ commitment to direct democracy, mutual aid and self organization, along with their refusal to accept the existing legal and political order are all examples of a form of direct action that creates the conditions of its own demand.

Anthropologist and occupier David Graeber locates the origins of the Occupy Movement’s commitment to direct action and consensus based democracy in political traditions of anarchism. Rather than the violent and nihilistic acts of destruction that have come to be associated with historical anarchist movements, Graeber argues that the object of anarchism is “a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants” (“Occupy Wall Street’s Anarchist Roots”, David Graeber, Al Jazeera, 30 November 2011). He cites Mohandas K. Ghandi as one of the foremost historical proponents of this nonviolent form of political anarchism.

Philosopher Simon Critchley has been writing and thinking about the political efficacy of anarchist practices since the publication of his highly regarded 2007 book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. In Critchley’s philosophical vision, anarchism emerges as a viable political reaction to the conditions of religious and political nihilism that characterize our contemporary cultural moment. Whereas he sees the state as “a limitation on human existence”, he locates the potential for radical, emancipatory political projects in the antiglobalization, antiwar and occupy movements.

When these types of collective actions are at their most effective, they are capable of creating what Critchley describes as the “interstices of the state”, that is “the emergence into visibility of new forms of resistance”. These interstitial spaces are performative in that they bring into being the conditions of their own demand, and they are anarchistic in that they refuse articulation according to the ordering logic of the state’s authority.

Impossible Objects is a recently published collection of interviews with Critchley that provides a nice introduction to his work as a philosopher, activist and author. Critchley’s most famous rubric is an inversion of Aristotle’s claim that “philosophy begins in wonder”. On the contrary, for Critchley, philosophy begins in disappointment. There are two forms of disappointment that he sees as characterizing the contemporary condition of secular human experience: religious and political.

Religious disappointment derives from the Nietzchian assertion that “God is dead”, and in fact, that we have killed him ourselves through our unending pursuit of reason, science and the will to truth. It’s a situation that Critchley describes as the “highest of values devaluing themselves”. Political disappointment results from the inescapable fact of injustice and inequality in the world. Where this twofold failure of meaning leads, potentially, is to a retreat into nihilism. This can be either the passive nihilism of detached bourgeois complacency or the active nihilism of violence, war and terrorism.

For Critchley, the purpose of philosophy is to both accept and work against these conditions of meaninglessness, for “once we have accepted that the meaning of life is ours to make, we make meaning”. And this conception of philosophy, as the production of meaning through thought and action, translates directly into the political activities of the occupiers and resisters who have risen up throughout the world to create their own revolutionary possibilities of meaning.

Impossible Objects details Critchley’s trajectory of thought throughout his career, and it’s a fascinating opportunity to observe the philosopher’s voluminous capacity for critical and engaging observation and argument. While there’s much here that will appeal to the general reader, especially in the discussions of politics and popular culture, a basic knowledge of contemporary cultural theory and continental philosophy will serve one greatly in parsing out the often dense and intricate ruminations that Critchley spews forth page after page. Readers are sure to take issue with some of Critchley’s claims and prescriptions, rather for their obscure philosophical bases, stridently atheistic world view or generally irreverent disposition.

However, it’s hard not to be swept up in the sense of hope and possibility that he brings to his discipline as he turns his eyes outward upon the world, refusing to wallow in the stultifying confines of academic discourse. Topics of discussion range from Critchley’s early work on the role of ethical responsibility in Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, his increasing identification with anarchic forms of political action and resistance, his debate with Slavoj Žižek over the role of the state, direct action and subversive practices of humor, to philosophical considerations of the ‘70s krautrock band Can, and HBO’s TV series The Wire.

When he’s at his best, Critchley is a truly inspiring voice in a field that often devolves into paralysis beneath the weight of its own insatiable will to distill, critique and deconstruct. When read in relationship to the ongoing struggles for democracy and equality that are waging across the planet, his work takes on a new immediacy and vitality, as he seems, in many ways to have his fingers on the pulse of the movement. What worlds of meaning will be conjured forth through these revolutionary actions is yet to be determined and in the end, as Critchley reveals, they are only ours to make.

RATING 8 / 10