On “conference communism”

Some thoughts in closing

Fol­low­ing the ap­pear­ance of my be­lated re­port on “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” a couple days ago, I re­ceived a num­ber of ap­pre­ci­at­ive com­ments, e-mails, and replies. It would seem I wasn’t alone in my rather low opin­ion of these con­fer­ences. A few of the people who sent me notes to this ef­fect caught me genu­inely off guard; it al­ways feels vin­dic­at­ing to know that oth­ers agree with you.

Pre­dict­ably, however, the re­sponses that came in from the speak­ers who ac­tu­ally par­ti­cip­ated in the event, es­pe­cially those who had been singled out for cri­ti­cism, were less than ap­pre­ci­at­ive. Some seemed to take it all quite per­son­ally — and one of them, George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, went so far as to de­friend me on Face­book. Was a bit sur­prised by it, to be hon­est; I’d al­ways thought he had pretty thick skin, oth­er­wise. For the most part, I think, I’d re­frained from the ad hom­inem at­tacks and man­aged to keep my re­marks strictly ad rem. Maybe he felt that by at­tack­ing his cre­den­tials to speak on a giv­en sub­ject, I was thereby in­dir­ectly at­tack­ing his char­ac­ter. This was not my in­ten­tion.

Congress of Soviet deputies, 1918

Either way, it’s not like it mat­ters. I’d an­ti­cip­ated it any­way. Just goes to show you can’t please every­one.

Nor­mally, I’d let sleep­ing dogs lie. But since Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er sub­sequently ac­cused me of mis­rep­res­ent­ing the event (call­ing my re­port “lit­er­ally fant­ast­ic”), and my own re­ac­tion to it at the time, I think it might be good to set the re­cord straight. He wrote in the com­ment thread at­tached to the link I pos­ted:

Oh wait, you for­got the part where you were mock­ing Jord­ana [Rosen­berg] on Face­book be­fore her talk even star­ted. Whoop­sie.

In­deed, dur­ing the con­fer­ence I had made a single snide re­mark based on the title of her pa­per — “The Mo­lecu­lar­iz­a­tion of Sexu­al­ity: Cap­it­al­ist Ac­cu­mu­la­tion and the On­to­lo­gic­al Turn” — which I felt was hor­ribly con­vo­luted and jar­gon­ist­ic. Yet, as I went on to in­dic­ate in my re­port, her pa­per ended up be­ing one of the two presen­ted that I felt were really worth­while.

This was why I wrote:

Un­ex­pec­tedly, the pa­per I ex­pec­ted to hate the most turned out to be much bet­ter than I’d an­ti­cip­ated Jord­ana Rosen­berg…had a couple things the oth­er pan­el­ists lacked: stage pres­ence, and an un­canny sense of tim­ing…Plus, it be­came clear in the course of her ex­pos­i­tion that many of the terms in­cluded in the title of her talk were pre­cisely those that she meant to cri­ti­cize.

Out of curi­os­ity, I checked back on what I’d said at the time. Asked how “the pa­per on sexu­al­ity” went, I re­spon­ded:

The pa­per on sexu­al­ity was ac­tu­ally bet­ter than I an­ti­cip­ated, though I (un­der­stand­ably) entered the talk with very low ex­pect­a­tions. The speak­er had more cha­risma than the oth­ers, whose per­son­al­it­ies are more the equi­val­ent of a dead moth.

[My re­capit­u­la­tion of Rosen­berg’s ar­gu­ment:] It was an im­man­ent cri­tique of vari­ous spec­u­lat­ive/meta­phys­ic­al and on­to­lo­gic­al ver­sions of queer the­ory from the per­spect­ive of a more Marx­ist-in­flec­ted queer the­ory. Some of the jar­gon was un­avoid­able, prob­ably be­cause the lan­guage of the au­thors she was cri­ti­ciz­ing was so opaque.

Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er was un­im­pressed by this ex­plan­a­tion, and thus sar­castic­ally re­marked:

Ah, makes total sense then. Nev­er­mind. It makes per­fect sense to mock the title of a pa­per be­fore the au­thor even opens her mouth. It also makes per­fect sense to write a blog post about a same-day face­book post that you mis­un­der­stood and were cor­rec­ted about. It all makes sense.

Re­gard­ing the titles of vari­ous aca­dem­ic pa­pers, maybe oth­ers are less pre­ju­diced than I am. For my part, I con­fess that whenev­er I see titles like “Con­ver­sa­tions with En­rique Dus­sel on Anti-Cartesian De­co­lo­ni­al­ity & Pluriver­sal Trans­mod­ern­ity” (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), my eyes glaze over. Should I with­hold judg­ment? Prob­ably. But it’s hard not to fear the worst in such in­stances. I’ve read far too much bull­shit not be wary.

Any­way, to per­haps grant this whole med­it­a­tion some sense of clos­ure, I’ll just add a couple thoughts. If I’m a bit un­fair to the “con­fer­ence com­mun­ists” to rib them for their aca­demi­cism, it’s likely be­cause at­tend­ing these events can be like hold­ing up a really un­flat­ter­ing mir­ror on one’s own in­tel­lec­tu­al in­terests and pur­suits. Noth­ing’s worse than that gnaw­ing sus­pi­cion: “What if this is how I sound whenev­er I talk about x, y, or z? Hope some­body shoots me if I do.”

The Communist Party meets in Madison Square Garden

Be­sides, once you at­tend enough of these con­fer­ences and sym­po­sia you be­gin to re­cog­nize all the ir­rit­at­ing buzzwords and tired habits of thought. At such events, you’re lucky if there’s even one per­son who’s say­ing something ori­gin­al or in­ter­est­ing. Yeah, they’ll all re­as­sure each oth­er after each talk about how “im­port­ant” or “ground­break­ing” they think each oth­er’s re­search is. It’s a thor­oughly ex­haust­ing af­fair. The old say­ing is true: Fa­mili­ar­ity breeds con­tempt.

And it’s not like it’s the con­fer­ence com­mun­ists’ fault that their at­tempts to the­or­ize (and some­how thereby re­vive) com­mun­ism for the 21st cen­tury prove in­ad­equate or fall short. There’s no “real move­ment” ab­ol­ish­ing the ex­ist­ing state of things today. Or if there is, none that I can see. In­cid­ent­ally, that’s why I en­joyed Jason Smith’s pa­per; at least he was look­ing for a pulse out there in nas­cent forms of struggle. Jord­ana Rosen­berg’s es­say I thought provided a very smart cri­tique of the­or­et­ic­al tend­en­cies that ex­tend well bey­ond the realm of sexu­al polit­ics and queer the­ory, as these are areas in which I’m hardly an ex­pert. See­ing it in writ­ten form would be help­ful also, as it all went rather fast.

I should add, also, that I think the con­fer­ence might have gone much bet­ter if Gav­in Walk­er had been able to at­tend and de­liv­er his pa­per. Bruno Bos­teels’ sub­sti­tu­tion was a last minute de­cision, from what I un­der­stand, and he came through pretty well. Even if I pre­ferred the Par­is Com­mune as an ob­ject of thought.

Alain Ba­di­ou et al. might even be in­ad­vert­ently right that com­mun­ism is noth­ing more than an “idea” today. Lately, I’ve be­gun to feel like it’s more like a beau­ti­ful dream that someone once had, one which seemed at the time an im­man­ently and im­min­ently ap­proach­ing real­ity. Since that time, however, the dream has all but dis­sip­ated. That’s where we stand. We can do no oth­er.

7 thoughts on “On “conference communism”

    • That’s a difficult question to answer. Probably the material conditions, since if these conditions were removed there’d be no chance of communism’s realization, even if all of humanity had some idea of what they’d want the world to look like. But the “subjective” factor of class consciousness is an absolute prerequisite as well.

      • Of course you are right and today class consciousness is sorely lacking, or slumbering under the surface. The word dream in your post ticked something off about Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project. Leafing through Convolutes K and L, I wondered if there is not something there that is of relevance to your remark on dreams. Take just these two:

        “The imminent awakening is poised, like the wooden horse of the Greeks, in the Troy of dreams.” [K2,4]

        I have loads of work to do, so I cannot seem to find the time to study Benjamin properly at the moment, so this is no more than some loose thoughts. But it has always seemed to me that he was on the right track, to take a concrete historical case and go from there (the urphanomenen method). Also, if there is a degree of continuity in material conditions, there would be some continuity in dreams as well.

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