On Intellectual Action

I live concepts. Most days are spent reading, interpreting, critiquing, affirming, deconstructing, reconstructing, and so on and so forth. Thinking and writing is a form of labour: with the former, I whittle away at a conceptual mass, excavate its contours, chip away at its connections, expose cracks, trace further linkages… With the latter, it’s a kind of constructive form of decomposition: you confront yourself with an unshapely block of one’s thoughts, armed with a loose image of what it might turn out to be, and begin to carve, adapting in the process. Maybe that metaphor isn’t quite right; maybe it’s more of a puzzle, or Scrabble. You constantly assemble and reassemble pieces, switching clauses, scratching out mistakes, flipping the thing head to toe — but without a fixed notion of what the end result will be.

One can come up with whatever thingly metaphors one likes, but thingly metaphors they are. Intellectual labour is a form of labour, but in a complicated sense. I don’t do it out of compulsion (despite the deadlines), and I don’t do it as a mere instrument. But it’s also not quite play. It’s not Scrabble or a puzzle, because those activities seem to be solely ends in themselves. Unless one is a particularly messianic puzzler, it’s hard to say that one plays puzzles to have some other wider effect on the world and our ways of life. It may be the case that participating in a game has other instrumental purposes, to impress some suitor by showing off my chess skills; or one might hold, in however indirect a manner, that the more people play Connect Four the better the world might be. But intellectual work — at least the type of intellectual work I engage with, which is largely, at the risk of sounding grandiose, that of Critical Theory — seems to be at once an end in itself, since I do truly live and breath for these concepts, and ultimately gains its purpose from having some kind of effect on the world, some kind of political effect — a form, in other words, of intellectual action.

But there is here an immediate conflict. Intellect and action are, in some sense, in tension with one another (“Don’t just think, do!”, “Don’t just do, think!”). If I think something, do I make some effect on the world? I make some effect on my internal state, of course, and depending on how well my will corresponds to that internal state, that might change my actual action in the world. But given the radical opposition my internal state has to the objective world — given that, to speak with Adorno, the whole is the false, and late capitalism is a mad totality whose structures I oppose in toto — my will certainly does not match this. I despise the money laundering and sycophancy of HSBC, but I still bank with them. I accept that meat eating has terrible effects on the environment, but I remain omnivorous. Now, I would in part rationalise this — and I think actually correctly — by saying that: well, it’s impossible to fully escape from the moral irrectitude of late capitalism, given that that would require complete escape, a Unabomber-esque conversion to a woodland hermit, so I must draw the line somewhere. I vote with my conscience, I don’t consume egregious amounts of consumer dispensables, etc. And, perhaps more importantly, that the causes of this moral or rectitude are structural, and that the effects I will have as an individual are utterly irrelevant, and not where the causal dynamics lie. I can live off grid and not use fossil fuels, but Exxon will continue to burn the earth alive. The hermit option is then a form of ineffective narcissism, a retreat into moral purity, that leaves the machine whirring on the same spot.

So if intellectual action is an action, then, it must relate to others in some way. The fact is that my ideas do not exist in a vacuum; I interact with others, proselytising and propagandising. One could say conversation is not politics, but most of politics is in fact conversation: in Parliaments, in shareholder meetings, in union offices. The second important fact is that I engage in intellectual labour within a concrete instititional setting, academia, which has (or should have) a certain function in relation to the rest of the social totality. My ideas will — hopefully, and to whatever extent — affect the ideas of others within this institutional nexus, diffusing through and altering theoretical corpus’ and the larger field. Of course, one hopes that these are in turn diffused into the social body in one way or another: one always acts in the world via a set of concepts, and academia aims, in very general terms, to affirm or replace this set, and thus make change in the world by changing the way we think about it. But this all pivots on that ‘one way or another’. If there aren’t effective channels between academia and broader society, then it might just amount to another kind of eremitism: one escapes the corporate world (although, as marketisation consolidates, increasingly in vain) by retreating into the Ivory Tower. The machine whirrs on the same spot (but at least it is adequately conceptualised).

There was a time, of course, when ideas — particularly of the critical variant I am engaged in — were deeply connected to social struggles. Revolutionary parties had their organic intellectuals and party theorists; Rosa Luxembourg taught at the SPDs night school, and Marx and Engels were instrumental in the Second International. It is partly a consequence of the decomposition of the working classes, and their concomittant integration into capitalism, that intellectual action turns in on itself, huddled around university campuses and esoteric conferences. The problem, then, goes deeper than the nature of the academe, but also to the fate of the organised labour movement, capitalism’s gravediggers, who no longer wish to pick up their spades, let alone learn about them. But it also goes to the ‘tendency in the rate of intelligence to fall.’ The general coarsening of public debate — its occupation by corporate attack dogs, billionaire media barons, and stupefying reality TV — is not a discursive environment conducive to the diffusion of intensive intellectual labour. Indeed, all the tendencies are in the opposite direction: toward increasingly parcellised and trivial forms of ‘content’, to be consumed in 10 seconds or less and to be forgotten quicker than that. The structural imperatives built into our media apparatus — which is, as it were, our collective ‘thinking’ organ (or should be) — also works against any kind of socially-active intellectual action, because it decreases the receptivity of people to forms of thinking that require sustained and reasoned engagement, rather than transient distractions.

Such are the obstacles; the machine whirrs on the same spot. But this makes the importance of intellectual action even greater. If the agents of emancipation are not poised to emancipate, and if the educative function of the public sphere does not educate, is now not the time to think clearly and deeply about the structural blockages making this so? And, indeed, the possible ways out of it? Yes, but this statement, left as it is, probably imposes some very strict criterion as to what can or cannot be considered legitimate intellectual action. The ideal-type here would address directly exactly those two strategic questions, to theorise, for instance, how exactly the mass culture apparatus (amongst other firewalls) breaks our critical-agentive faculties, how this apparatus might be broken, and those faculties re-composed. But this can be articulated in different disciplines, at different theoretical registered — policy registers; strategic registers; sociological registers; philosophical registers — and it would be easy to assume that, the farther one gets along that succession, the less valuable one’s intellectual activity is.

Yet I do not want to condone a philistinism here: the abstraction of philosophy is not inimical to intellectual action, so long as one believes that that abstraction actually helps us clarify the premises and terms on which other, more terrestrial registers might operate on, such that there is some merit to that old notion of philosophy as the mother or arbiter of the humanities. On the other hand, one must always be sure that this abstraction is illuminating more than obfuscating: can it disclose certain things about a concrete situation that might not have been disclosed otherwise? Or does it simply recapitulate textual disagreements or precede from idealised first-principles in a way more mystifying than enlightening? Even here, though, we should ward against anti-intellectualism: we need textual disagreements, because the intellectual labour of other great thinkers, whose value, ultimately, comes from their capacity to disclose certain social problems, must be interpreted correctly. The point is, in any case, that there is a fundamental action orientation here that generates a tension between direct applicability and consumability, and the professional and practical necessities of rigorous intellectual labour, a tension that can never, I think, be decisively resolved.

But then we’re also left with a final question: if intellectual activity should be guided towards the exposing of domination and illuminating paths to emancipation, and if this must be carried out without descending into self-defeating philistinism, performed instead with an integrity and rigorousness that does not shy away from, but affirms, complexity, then is the question not one of translation, of communication? Is it not one of identifying different points of contact and mediums through which the ideas generated in the lecture halls can connect to real struggles and different people? I think the answer is yes; but I cannot know for sure, in part because the possibilities of such intermediary processes rely on things other than thought — that is, in the actions of organisers, communication platforms, creatives, and political educators (but which themselves, then again, must be adequately conceptualised) — and in part because it’s 2:35am, and I have to go to sleep.

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Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor

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22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.