Prof. Anat Biletzki
Editorial Note: The Bursting of Anat Biletzki's Bubble
Anat Biletzki, recently retired from the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, has been a leader of the radical activist cohort. A veteran member of the Communist Party, she has spent virtually her entire academic career fighting for causes ranging from labor issues to the creation of a bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state. It comes thus as a surprise that in her retrospective essay Bubble, Biletzki sounds a somewhat pessimistic note with regard to her life work.
She uses Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to discuss the notion of a bubble- a solipsistic creation of the mind - to discuss the concept of a political bubble. Biletzki defines this bubble as an ideational projection of the political self into a certain sphere of social reality; a “social-political world is made up of countless, yet still identifiable bubbles that engage with one another relationally and associatively- that is to say, there is an inherent disconnect of political identity between groups that is aptly portrayed by the bubble metaphor—separate but possibly touching, visible to one another but afflicted with various degrees of blindness.”
Moving on to place herself –a scholar-activist- in the “bubble world,” Biletzki dwells on a certain contradiction in her “bubblehood.” On the one hand, she is a member of the Ivory Tower bubble, a somewhat pejorative term denoting a willful disassociation from society. On the other hand, she is part of an activist academic bubble that took up the call of Antonio Gramsci to change social reality.
There are two steps in creating the academic- activist project. The first is derived from, the “intellectual, academic fundamentals” by which Biletzki means critical theory and social-cultural radicalism. “The bubble’s modus operandi is nothing if not critical. Criticism, in certain well-known quarters, provides the means but becomes the end for the bubble’s agenda. Viewing everything outside the bubble as open to critique, inhabitants of the bubble censure far more than the simple targets—the powers that be or conventional political authorities—that have been traditional objects of political unrest. Indeed, all institutional authorities, along with their yea-sayers and cheer-leaders, are dissected in critical discourse: government, of course, and also the courts, the police, and the media. More significantly, the culture itself (its agents and participants) are [sic] brought up for critical analysis and subsequent reproach.” Indeed, Biletzki expressed full satisfaction with the academic part of the project, writing: “ It is thought-provoking that these properties of the political bubble—critique and radicalism—are not independent of, and actually derive from, the intellectual, academic fundamentals that have contributed to the grounding of the bubble’s political progressivism. “ For those not well versed in the critical lingo, “political progressivism” aims replacing liberal democracy and market economy with a political system that bears more than a passing resemblance to the former Soviet Union.
The second step is reshaping other bubbles in the image of the bubble inhabited by radical activist scholars. But the difficulty of changing reality outside the radical bubble gives Biletzki a pause. She recalls three bubble-bursting episodes; in 2004 conference in Jerusalem, Judith Butler, a leading critical philosopher, declared that the tens of thousands of progressive Jews such as Jewish Voice for Peace or the Tikkun community will silence “a much smaller number of AIPAC supporters. She sadly reflects that eight years later, AIPAC is strong as ever.
A March 2009 conference in Boston, attracted 350 scholars and activists supporting the One State Solution (OSS), a capacity crowd, creating “gratification and optimism that energized the conference’s participants; “only two years earlier supporters of the OSS could all fit into a phone booth. “ Here again, the conference did not create much momentum for OSS, leading Biletzki to comment that “350 people do not make a revolution.”
Even the signature Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling for such actions towards Israel to force it out of the territories, did not deliver as promised, in Biletzki’s view. While activists forced the closing of the Ahava store in London, the OECD—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—invited Israel to join and co-signed an accession agreement.
These and other disappointments lead Biletzki to pose the Lenin question- “What is to be done?” Her answer is highly compelling.
Biletzki admits that there were some who counseled moderating the bubble. “One recommendation often made towards members of the bubble is to soften the critique and moderate the radicalism, thereby being more relevant to effecting change.” Yet she rejects this suggestion out of hand. In her opinion, “the change needed can only be attained by reaching outside the bubble while insisting on the ethical and critically political principles that justifiably create its internal import.” Even by the standards of the famously vague critical philosophy, this is more than a platitude than a blueprint for action. Biletzki admits as much: “I do not contend here that one can draft a straight, unproblematic line connecting the intellectual-academic sphere and that of action, political action, so to speak, by merely engaging in political activism of sorts. Such a step does not address the problem of bubblehood; it can even reinforce the divorce between bubble mentality and the polis accentuating the difference between politics “on the ground” and bubble-talk about politics.”
Yet, at the “end of the analytical day,” - in her words- Biletzki, retreats to her bubble, pronouncing it to “splendid possibility of stepping out of a bubble.“ Referring to the movie Examined Lives populated by pantheon of critical philosophers - Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Žižek, Cornel West, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Avital Ronell, and Judith Butler. She writes that at the end of the film, “Butler has done her philosophy; the realization of the other has been the acting out of her “lecture.” Stepping out of the bubble—was she ever in it?—she has enacted her philosophy morally and politically. This is how she does philosophy; this is how she does politics. This is simply what she does.”
For someone who just admitted that the people who live in a bubble can suffer from blindness, this declaring is nothing short of delusional. Biletzki needs to be reminded that she and all her fellow philosophers have lived in the Ivory Tower bubble, supported by taxpayer money and the governments that they love to trash. They also live in liberal democracies – another subject of their radical critique – that gives them the freedom to do all the trashing. This would not have been the case if they lived in a communist country which Biletzki has tried so hard to create.
Bubble : Anat Biletzki
Is “bubble” a concept, except in the trivial sense in which every word ensconced in quotes becomes a concept, or rather a “concept”? More pertinently, is it a political concept? Is the philosophical exercise of making it a political concept a legitimate exercise, or, does such an exercise run the professional risk of philosophical facetiousness? And, bounding over the philosophical hazards, are we not enjoined to also explicitly and essentially explicate the political in “political concept”? Of the many concepts entertained in a project of lexicon-building, “bubble” appears especially suspect of being an interloper. We aspire to lay this suspicion to rest; “bubble” will satisfy the criteria of being a political concept precisely, even if indirectly, by our recognition of political bubbles.
Let us begin, then, with differential diagnosis, pinpointing those bubbles of ostensibly ordinary discourse which will not serve this exercise. Think of famous bubbles, and invariably what comes to mind are Macbeth’s witches intoning—
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
(Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1)
It is, also, in another Macbethian locus that we ascertain another, somewhat different, yet still common bubble association:
The earth hath bubbles . . . Whither are they vanish’d?
Into the air; and what seem’d corporal melted
As breath into the wind. Would they had stay’d!
(Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)
These infamous bubbles have the grammatical form of either a plural noun or a verb: ‘bubbles’, rather than a single bubble, are their natural mode of reference. Activity, rather than passivity, is their wont. Accordingly, the word’s literal meaning (assuming that we are on safe ground referring to literal meanings) connects plural noun and verb, as does Macbeth—bespeaking movement, noise, effervescence, tension, temporariness, ephemerality, transience, and a wavering between positive and negative dispositions that arise from precisely our indecision enveloped by all the above. More so, the bubbles that are thus perceived, as actively bubbling, have a tendency to either appear as empty to begin with or to vanish into consequent emptiness, sometimes even bursting or exploding into nothing. It is this impermanence that makes bubbles so conducive to a certain metaphorical use on the heels of the literal, material meaning of “bubble.”
I submit that is the conventional meaning of “economic bubbles” now so much with us. When performing upon the economic stage, these bubbles have a veritable and far longer history: from the Dutch tulip bubble in the seventeenth century, through the South Sea bubble in the eighteenth century, the Australian land bubble in the 1880s, the Poseidon nickel bubble of 1969-1970, the dot com bubble of the turn of the twenty-first century, to, of course, the most recent housing bubble. Professional labeling and theoretical explanations conspire to yield a multiplicity of categories of bubbles that enrich the discussion in economics: stock and property bubbles, speculative bubbles in general, market bubbles, price bubbles, financial bubbles, and so on.1
So ubiquitous is the economic use of “bubble” that the original literal use and derived metaphorical use have merged, creating a key economic term to be used in new literal environs. One can easily adduce suggested definitions of bubbles in the context of economics that have left the metaphor behind, such as the very succinct “a bubble is an upward price movement over an extended range that then implodes”—or the more rigorous sounding: “a bubble is an asset market event where prices rise, potentially with justification, rise further on the back of speculation, and then fall dramatically for no clear reason when the speculation collapses.”2 Clearly, the familiar predicates of literal bubbles as enumerated above are facilely utilized for the economic metaphor and the metaphor, morphing back into literality, does fitting explanatory service. Still, although it seems intuitively robust, this is the wrong metaphor for our present endeavor; that is to say, ours is a different bubble.
In the realm of politics, we are afforded a very dissimilar metaphorical bubble. Macbeth’s bubbles, like those of economics, with their attendant associations of transitory, mobile, plural and wispy entities, are not the political bubble entertained here. Instead, I turn to two other unique facets of bubblehood3—touching upon a singular, insular bubble rather than plural bubbles and emphasizing, instead of fleeting movement into nothing, the self-enclosing of a bubble: its insularity, its closing off from the outside world, and, nevertheless, its transparent membrane, which preserves a visual, but no more than visual, link between its inside and the outside. These will be the traits of bubbles that make them not only susceptible to political (conceptual) use but undeniably and essentially political bubbles.
A methodological detour: Philosophy is the language game devoted to providing a rational, critical analysis of concepts. If “bubble” is a philosophical concept, then its philosophical treatment demands a rational, critical analysis. Notice the conditional; it suggests that a bubble’s conceptual ontology is what gives rise to the kind of (rational, critical) employment attempted here. If “bubble” is not an existing concept in the context of philosophical interest adumbrated here, then the exercise is moot. So, admittedly there is a presupposition of concepthood that underlies our analysis. Furthermore, beyond this presupposition, we are working under a motivational objective: not only is “bubble” a concept, but it is a political concept; and that postulate makes this philosophical project cohere with its political agenda. Put differently, it is precisely the political that bids us make our rational, critical stance politically significant. In other words, the question ‘what makes “bubble” a political concept’ is now translated into ‘what is a “political bubble”’?
When philosophers use a word—“knowledge,” “being,” “object,” “I,” “proposition/sentence,” “name”—and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language in which it is at home?—What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.4
Wittgenstein, somewhat maligned (and, I dare say, misunderstood) and often unfairly flattened out unto merely linguistic terms in investigations of “concepts,” provides our tangible, operational tool in this examination of bubble.5 Pursuing answers to the questions above that drive this investigation, there will be no pretension here of a theoretical endeavor at determining the essence of political bubbles. My method will be one adhering to Wittgenstein’s admonition to describe by description and example rather than explanation (though I will eschew his further conclusion: “don’t think, look!” in the search for understanding).6 An amassment of instances will expose us to political bubbles and will thus bring us to a better understanding of “bubble,” and this will be an understanding that derives from something other than unadulterated theoretical explanation. This is not to say that we will be reneging on rational, critical analysis; on the contrary, it will be a Wittgensteinian meandering among the exemplars of political bubbles that will provide the rational, and more so, the critical analysis needed for both philosophical and political understanding.
1. James Montier, “Running with the Devil: The Advent of A Cynical Bubble” in Social Science Research Network.http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.489262, accessed April 2012.↩
2. Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000) cited in John Simon, “Three Australian Asset-Price Bubbles,” in Asset Prices and Monetary Policy: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the H.C. Coombs Centre for Financial Studies, Kirribilli on August 18-19, 2003, ed. Anthony Richards and Tim Robinson (Sydney: Economic Group, Reserve Bank of Australia, 2003), 17.http://www.rba.gov.au/publications/confs/2003/simon.pdf, accessed April 2012; Simon, “Three Australian Asset-Price Bubbles,” 17-8.↩
3. These are distinct from plurality and activity. Whether they be contrary to these characteristics, complementary, or simply indifferent is worthy of another investigation. Still other questions, arising in the philosophy of language, might address the question of why there are two such different types of bubbles in ordinary parlance.↩
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), §116.↩
5. See for example Adi Ophir, “Concept,” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon. http://www.politicalconcepts.org, accessed April 2012. For a strikingly different assessment of Wittgenstein on concepts see Gordon Baker, “Wittgenstein: Concepts or Conceptions?” The Harvard Review of Philosophy IX (2001), 7-23.↩
6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §66.↩
Let me begin with the first instance of description; let me tell a story. It is a personal narrative and as such pretends not to objective scientism. In the spring of 1977 elections were held in Israel, accompanied by the usual raucous, strident, hectic, intensive political campaigns, but this time with a historical twist. Prior to 1977, since the establishment of the State of Israel and even earlier, the reigning political powers in the country had consisted of the traditional, (self-perceived) Socialist, Zionist, labor parties (in various forms and offspring)—led by MAPAI (Mifleget Po’alei Eretz Israel—Party of the Land of Israel Workers), and later MA’ARACH (various labor party-coalitions). On the right there were several centrist and right-wing parties (Independent Liberals, General Zionists, Herut, Likud) and suddenly there was realistic talk of their ascendancy. Alongside left- and right-wing parties there had always been a contingent of religious parties not aligning automatically with either.
In the leftist camp one could discern more or less radical “leftism,” or, with more descriptive fidelity, less or more moderate leftism, with parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel commonly perceived as the leftist extremists. It was in that general camp of leftism that a certain well-identified, less-moderate community—to which I belonged—resided. And, in fact, there was one party, SHELI (Shalom L’Israel) that became the fulcrum of what was then considered the “real left.”
In the months leading up to the election, SHELI made noteworthy—or so members of that community thought—inroads into the “regular” left, into the bastions of the traditional labor party, even into some liberal quarters, and became the faddish party of choice for intellectuals, academics, even left-leaning yuppies. As surrealistic as it may seem today with the wisdom and cynicism that accompany hindsight, it was not unheard of to articulate the ludicrous, pompous, curiously humoristic statement: “Everyone we know is voting SHELI.” If there was political work to be done in the concrete circumstances of election campaigning it consisted of raising the ante, moving more people leftward, explaining the reasoning behind more radical rather than more moderate leftism, and reinforcing the hype by ensuring actual voting behavior.
In those days I taught mathematics in a state-run facility, a vocational school operated by the Ministry of Labor, training youths mostly from poverty stricken areas, “slums” no less, to be professionals such as electricians, phone technicians, auto mechanics, and the like. I was responsible for their “academic” training, i.e., mandatory courses in English and mathematics; and I spoke with them daily about their lives, their surroundings, their hardships, their lesser and greater ambitions, their hopes for the future. Our conversations were fascinating to me and absorbing to them. It seemed that we were speaking the same language—Hebrew—and connecting through a common culture of a place—Israel. It was therefore fitting and appropriate, I believed, when three days before the elections I explicitly brought up the standard questions in election-times: Were they voting? Who were they voting for?
Planning a genuine political exchange, I had a third question in wait: Why were they voting for whomever they were voting for? Remarkably yet encouragingly, they all answered in the affirmative to the first question. That was, however, only the small surprise. Hot on its heels, far more startlingly, their replies to the second question came forth very naturally, almost automatically, with no sign of hesitation or deliberation: almost all of them informed me that they were intending to vote for LIKUD, Menahem Begin’s opposition right-wing party which had not yet risen to power in Israel; the few who were not of such persuasion were expecting to vote for the large religious party, MAFDAL (Miflaga Datit Leumit—National Religious Party). When, in an initial state of stupefaction, I asked whether anyone was voting SHELI, they wondered what SHELI was. They had not, during the vociferous, ad-saturated, commercial-drenched campaign season, even heard of SHELI!
Instead of my planned third question—why?—another question immediately arose: Was I and everyone in my natural environs the epitome of a (political) bubble existence? Or was it the case that my students were in a (right-wing, religious) bubble, while my (and my friends’) discernment of the political world was the more realistic one, the more true-to-the-facts one? At that point in time—a few days before election results would be ascertained, known, and promulgated—this question was speculative; there was only a bothersome inkling that our predictions, based as they were on personal evaluations of the public mood, might be enormously skewed. But given a story that is an empirical, factual rendition of a historical point in time and which provides us, hence, with a clear criterion for correct answers, such questions now carry nary a speculative doubt: the election results put LIKUD into power with 33 percent of the vote (43 out of 120 Knesset seats), gave the religious parties 17 seats, and squeaked in 2 seats for SHELI—1.6 percent of voters. Everyone we knew was there—but “there” was a bubble.
Can this story be put into more theoretical garb? Can it be generalized? Although Wittgenstein continues to admonish us, cautioning against our “contemptuous attitude toward the particular case” and against the “craving for generalization,” in this case, two types of generalization come to mind.7 A naïve, simplistic path posits that at the basic level of social or political behavior any collection of people identified by a cohesiveness of thought, discourse, or ideology, perhaps based on ethnic, racial, gendered, socio-economic, or religious factors, inhabits a “bubble.” Consequently, at the end of the analytic day, the social-political world is made up of countless, yet still identifiable bubbles that engage with one another relationally and associatively in bubble-fashion; that is to say, there is an inherent disconnect of political identity between groups that is aptly portrayed by the bubble metaphor—separate but possibly touching, visible to one another but afflicted with various degrees of blindness.
These bubbles may also display volatility, movement and transition. In this sense they are reminiscent of the economic bubbles described earlier. In fact, it is precisely the plurality of bubbles that is stressed here and brought into play as an illustrative portrayal of the political landscape. Thus, neither the SHELI voters or my student voters constituted a solitary bubble, since each could be depicted as a bubble alongside other bubbles, adjacent to, perhaps touching, even influencing one another. Under this bubbly scheme one is liable to talk about “The Tel-Aviv bubble,” “the yuppie bubble,” “the military bubble,” “the intellectual bubble,” “the arts bubble,” “the moneyed bubble.” But this, I believe, is rudimentary and merely serves as an evasion, dodging a deeper assessment of our social geography.8
Proceeding differently, a more nuanced, problematized generalization, or perhaps not a generalization at all, suggests that particular assemblies are more bubble-prone than others. Not all recognizable groups, as groups, are necessarily bubbles, only those that exhibit the blinkered, inward-looking insularity that makes them such. One fitting specimen of this peculiar type of bubble is familiar to us through another metaphor—the “ivory tower.” The “ivory tower” is a veritable label with known historical roots in the Bible, literature, and urban myths. It points to the conscious, even intentional, disengagement of intellectual academia from the real-world and in fact carries a clear, pejorative connotation of elitism.9 As a marker for this particular profession, the metaphorical concept of ivory tower functions within social and academic discourse as a strong moniker, laden with negative value-judgments for a circumscribed group. Its reference is indubitable and easily distinguished from other groups, be they bubbles or not. As a social concept the ivory tower holds a transparently descriptive sense and is unequivocally derogatory. However, concepts which identify such bubbles are neither generalizing conjectures (they point to specific, unique congregations as bubbles), nor are they necessarily political. They are clear and hold no conceptual mystery; they might not deliver a true problematization—and definitely not political problematization.
7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 17-19.↩
8. I do not say that this is not a correct depiction of said geography, only that it is a trivial one.↩
9. Sometimes the ivory tower is identified more closely with the Humanities than with the natural or hard sciences, but it is the reference to academia in general that is more common.↩
A Problematized Bubble
We are speaking here of the concept of a political bubble: not a (similar-to-economic) bubble, fleeting and at risk of bursting; not a tautological “bubble” serving as a label for any grouping as opposed to other groupings; and not even a label for a self-enclosed group that may present bubble characteristics sanspolitical purchase. The point of a political bubble must be made perspicuous and we turn to one bubble in particular as our paradigm.10
The bubble of which I speak, when—or if—it functions politically, is a case of problematical, perhaps paradoxical, even self-contradictory leverage. Different from the ivory tower, which is simply recognized via superficial, external pointers (to a professional, academic occupation), this bubble possesses a set of intersecting qualities of intellectuals, academics who are almost exclusively in the Humanities, leftists, postmodernists, artists, and, rarely, a certain very unusual group of radical politicians.11 The outstanding characteristic of this bubble is precisely its political interest, engagement and commitment. Indeed, there is an explicit denial of detachment—this bubble does not, in any sense, consider itself a bubble. On the contrary, the bubble is vociferously preoccupied with conversing about and with the political community. But it is precisely intellectual, academic, artistic, leftist humanists that have succeeded in creating a devastating failure of political awareness by adopting a bubble mentality, a bubble language, a bubble existence, and, contrary to perchance untainted intention, a political bubble behavior. The bubble’s conduct might aspire to activism, but it is self-refuting. The bubble is a political bubble, conscious of its politicality yet unconscious of its bubblehood.
Two fundamental features of this political, ultra-progressive bubble require explicatory elaboration. First: critique. The bubble’s modus operandi is nothing if not critical. Criticism, in certain well-known quarters, provides the means but becomes the end for the bubble’s agenda. Viewing everything outside the bubble as open to critique, inhabitants of the bubble censure far more than the simple targets—the powers that be or conventional political authorities—that have been traditional objects of political unrest.12 Indeed, all institutional authorities, along with their yea-sayers and cheer-leaders, are dissected in critical discourse: government, of course, and also the courts, the police, and the media. More significantly, the culture itself (its agents and participants) are brought up for critical analysis and subsequent reproach. Second: radicalism. The bubble, when it is an authentic bubble, cannot but be radical. It is a radical critique of both political institutions and cultural mores, from the root, and is not satisfied with merely local or topical disparagement. It is rather, insistent on wholesale, extensive and comprehensive change. Such radicalism feeds into the bubble’s critique, guiding it as both means and end and providing the conceptual scaffolding for critical de-con-struction.
It is thought-provoking that these properties of the political bubble—critique and radicalism—are not independent of, and actually derive from, the intellectual, academic fundamentals that have contributed to the grounding of the bubble’s political progressivism. Without rehearsing the steps taken on the road from modernism to the present, I will signal here only to those moments that cater to our paradoxical problematics. The philosophical skepticism born of the Enlightenment, with its attendant rationalism and deep-seated humanism, is sometimes seen as the harbinger of critique and radicalism; but not quite.
Viewed politically, modern liberalism, as an articulation of the Enlightenment, was not an isolationist worldview distinguishing and differentiating the critic from the society that was the object of his criticism. On the contrary, liberalism’s protagonists viewed themselves on a par with the members of their society, as brothers in arms against absolutist authorities, both secular and religious. If anything or anybody could be seen as a bubble it was those absolute authorities, absolutely separate from the group, the nation, the people; it was their bubblehood which was under attack. But it is, paradoxically, the embrace of that skepticism, taken to its logical conclusion and now targeting rationalism and traditional humanism that has taken ultra-progressivism down the road of full-throttled critique and utter radicalism. Logically again, this is the reasonable philosophical move from modernism to postmodernism. But the political move that constitutes the discourse of postmodernism is in part, even in large part, to blame for the current insularity and inscrutability of the political bubble at hand.
Let us return to Wittgenstein for a moment, and to his renditions of two bubbles that may be useful for our understanding of the concept. Famously, the Tractatus has a drawing of a bubble as one of only two illustrations in the book.13 I am speaking of the famous:
No less famous is the conclusion Wittgenstein draws from this bubble:
Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.14
Wittgenstein has here identified the problem of solipsism: it cannot really be distinguished from realism. The solipsist’s world is the real world, or, more to the point, his real world. Whether the objective “real” world and the subjective solipsistic world are one and the same is a matter for genuine analysis, best left to Wittgensteinian exegetes. Such, however, is our grievance against the political bubble at issue here. Being in the bubble, its inhabitants fail to engage—except in insular, critical mode—with a world outside the bubble, since they can only perceive the inside of the bubble.
Like early Wittgenstein, later Wittgenstein does not talk of bubbles, per se. But he is surely aware of the bubble within which philosophers function. He talks not of intellectuals or academics, but specifically of traditional philosophers who are caught in a “picture,” very like our bubble. In his inimitable words: “[A]picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.”15 The important insight here has to do with language use: a habitual, obsessive, communal language-game—call it philosophy—has made us blind to the kind of discourse that is truer to real life. In an enticing extrapolation I submit that our discourse within the academic, intellectual, critical, radical bubble has overwhelmed us, severing our political understanding from political real life.
10. “Perspicuous” harkens, again, to Wittgenstein. Shunning explanations and generalizations, Wittgenstein sees the role of philosophy as making things perspicuous (via examples and reminders) and thereby bringing us to understanding. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §122.↩
11. I use this word seriously and reservedly. It is not a catchword for contemporary popularity that abides in specific subject areas in academia but rather a reference to a profound philosophical, literary, and historical attitude from which specific political stances are (usually) derived.↩
12. I cannot do justice here to the enterprise of critical theory; it is the natural abode of bubble critique.↩
13. Wittgenstein himself does not make use of the concept “bubble” in drawing out these lessons; Ludwig Wittgenstein,Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. David Pears and Brian McGuinness (New York: Humanities Press, 1961), 5.6331.↩
14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.64.↩
15. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §115.↩
Other Political Bubbles
Neither of these Wittgensteinian bubble-like scenarios was meant as the political bubble-situation that invigorates our quandaries. Both, however, gesture to the intuition I am trying to articulate concerning political bubbles: the amalgamation of a solipsistic proclivity for (what is considered by the solipsist to be) the real world and the epistemic, but more so, linguistic prison within which inhabitants of bubbles conduct their discourse. Examples abound, so, returning to Wittgenstein and his instruction to collect reminders and reverting once again to personal-anecdotal fashion, let us briefly observe three such poignant bubble-instances.16 The first was a conference which took place in 2004 in Jerusalem and at which Judith Butler presented the opening address. Butler began her lecture with a startling appraisal of the size and power of the progressive Jewish community in the U.S., saying that groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or the Tikkun community numbered tens of thousands of supporters, while AIPAC represented a much smaller number of (admittedly wealthy) persons. Eight years later it is instructive to note that AIPAC still commands far more allegiance (of both policy makers and American Jews) than any progressive Jewish group.
The second example of bubblehood occurred in March 2009, at another conference in Boston, where scholars and activists supporting the One State Solution (OSS) for the Zionist-Palestinian conflict filled to capacity a lecture hall of 350 people. One of the conference speakers remarked that only two years earlier supporters of the OSS could all fit into a phone booth; this was representative of the gratification and optimism that energized the conference’s participants. It is instructive to note, however, that polls today place supporters of the OSS as a peripheral, marginal group with no political presence to speak of. That is to say, 350 people do not a revolution make.
Finally, our third bubble-instance has to do with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling for such actions towards Israel as the ultimate tool for condemning its continuing mistreatment of the Palestinians. One outstanding achievement of the BDS movement was the ousting, following a campaign by activists, of the Israeli cosmetics company Ahava (complicit in the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank) from its London store in the fall of 2011. It is instructive to note that during the same period that the movement was celebrating the success of the boycott campaign against Ahava not only did the British Museum refuse to end its scientific research cooperation with the company, but the OECD—the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development—invited Israel to join and co-signed an accession agreement. Yes, BDS is successful; but might it be no more than a successful bubble?17
So what is a political bubble? A political bubble is the epistemological and behavioral space of—usually—politically-conscious persons that prevents them from correctly gauging their power and influence, leading to a false optimism, an internally self-reflective discourse, and, in the case of academia, an awkward and sometimes even convoluted remove from real political life. There is an inherently paradoxical essence to a political-intellectual bubble: its bubblehood belies its purported intellectual interest in the political. In fact, being in an intellectual political bubble seems to be a matter of a priori self-immolation: we shall talk, think, discuss, dissect, construct, and even recreate the political without making place or space for real contact with it. Academic conferences, programs, and projects that inhere in such intellectual contexts can be, and have been, straightforwardly described as rarefied. But can politics be rarefied? The political demands plebeian partnership, does it not?
What is to be done? At the risk of abusing popular (albeit still rarefied) clichés, we can certainly embrace Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: instead of continuing to be merely another incarnation of traditional philosophers who interpret the world, even the political world, the point must be to change it. One recommendation often made towards members of the bubble is to soften the critique and moderate the radicalism, thereby being more relevant to effecting change. That is not the recommendation I propose. Rather, the change needed can only be attained by reaching outside the bubble while insisting on the ethical and critically political principles that justifiably create its internal import. I do not contend here that one can draft a straight, unproblematic line connecting the intellectual-academic sphere and that of action, political action, so to speak, by merely engaging in political activism of sorts. Such a step does not address the problem of bubblehood; it can even reinforce the divorce between bubble mentality and the polis accentuating the difference between politics “on the ground” and bubble-talk about politics.
Unfortunately, we might be faced with the fact that there is no theoretical solution of this paradox on offer, no conceptual resolution. Rather, there can only be a change in practical discourse, i.e., in the conversation within bubbles and accordingly in academic-political praxis. Returning to Wittgenstein yet again, there might only be a version of his ultimate answer when asked for (theoretical) foundations: “This is simply what I do.”18 So true to “assembling reminders,” I now turn to a final example, one more description of the splendid possibility of stepping out of a bubble.
16. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §127; These instances all relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a context with which I am familiar enough to, literally, collect reminders.↩
17. The store in London is not the only material BDS achievement regarding Ahava. Note should also be taken of additional Ahava hardships in Japan and Norway and many more BDS accomplishments regarding other products and venues. These do not impinge on my substantive point of comparison between relative effects of the BDS and other powerful parties; The judgment of the shortcomings of bubblehood—be it of radical Jewish groups, the OSS, or the BDS—does not in any sense reflect my support for or positive valuation of these groups and movements. On the contrary.↩
18. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §217.↩
One More Story
The movie “Examined Life” (2008) is touted as a film that “pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets.”19 The movie follows a number of philosophers (Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Žižek, Cornel West, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Avital Ronell, and Judith Butler) as they talk philosophy “on the streets”—in parks, on Fifth Avenue, in a taxi, at a garbage dump—telling the movie audience about philosophy in general, about their own philosophy, about their thoughts on philosophy and philosophical questions and answers. They are asked very few questions on film (perhaps these were supplied in the run up and preparations for filming). One early query is, “Is philosophy a search for meaning?”—and they give captivating replies, which aim at overstepping the conventional perception of philosophy done in “journals and classrooms.”
Indeed, there is a conscious—artistic?—attempt to bring philosophy out of its bubble by situating the performance of each philosopher in apposite, or at times in intentionally inapposite, material, concrete surroundings. Žižek speaks from inside a garbage dump, Singer is shown in ironically posh environments, Hardt, Ronell and Nussbaum have the backdrop of nature, and West travels through the film in a taxi. But is that really so different from what is done in institutional philosophical venues? Does presenting and engaging in philosophical discourse in a different medium, on diverse stages, really mean moving out of the (academic, intellectual) bubble?
They are all, in a sense, giving a lecture—admittedly, a fascinating lecture, defiant of the formal and orderly template of university lectures. But it is still a lecture. West begins with a quote from Plato about the unexamined life, followed by, “for me philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation.” Ronell invites us to partake of Heidegger (writing about thinking rather than philosophy). Singer, not one to be accused of disinterest in the real world, illuminates the ethical issues that invigorate his thought and connects them to the question, “does life have meaning?” The moral significance of Cosmopolitanism and Humanity is heralded by Appiah. The Capabilities Approach, as a theory of justice, is explicated as relevant to politics by Nussbaum, and Human Nature as essentially changeable is made relevant to politics by Hardt. Žižek’s inimitable style seems to throw us off for a moment, to a different discursive context, but makes its way back to a lecture on ecology. West, the silk thread appearing throughout the movie, challenges the idea of philosophical isolation and elitism when he says, in reply to a question about the necessity of going to school to be a philosopher, “Oh God, no! . . . a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.” But lest we find ourselves too close to the ground, he reinforces the bubble sensation by saying explicitly:
There’s a certain pleasure of the life of the mind that cannot be denied. It’s true that you might be socially isolated, ’cause you’re in the library, at home, and so on, but you’re intensely alive, in fact you’re much more alive than these folk walking the streets of New York in crowds, with no intellectual interrogation and questioning at all.
The movie ends with West exiting the taxi and being recognized—as a star—by a passersby.20
Only one philosopher does something different: Judith Butler’s contribution to the movie can in no way be described or perceived as a lecture or, for that matter, as any familiar model of academic discourse.21 She strolls around San Francisco’s Mission District with Sunaura Taylor, a friend in a wheelchair, talking about subjects that range from disability to bodies, to social mores, to fashion; i.e., seemingly talking about nothing to do with philosophy. She does not explicitly talk about philosophy, and says very little, explicitly,about politics. Beginning with something that sounds like an introduction—to what?—she says, “I thought we should take this walk together and one of the things I thought we should talk about is what it means for us to take this walk together.” She is addressing Taylor, not the audience; she is engaging in dialogue, not presenting her thoughts as a lecturer, an actor, or a star. At no time is this Butler’s show and, in fact, I dare calculate that Taylor takes up more screen time than Butler. When Butler does speak she constantly speaks to Taylor, interrogating her about what she does and what it all means to her.
The conversation is unpredictable, going in diverse directions: to language (what does “taking a walk” mean when one is disabled?); to the physical and social environments that matter for walks; to the social acceptability that is dependent on physical access; to disability as a political issue of social repression; to the idea of self-sufficiency; to movement; to embodiment; to plum trees! And then, when Taylor complains of the cold, they go into a clothing store where the talk turns to clothes and colors and fashion. “It’s gonna be a new show,” says Taylor, “‘Shopping With Judith Butler.’”
All the while the camera plays around, closing up on body parts, some healthy, some less so, some utterly bended, twisted, distorted to the unwarned eye. Suddenly serious again, there is dialogue about social isolation, now in a context which seems its exact opposite. In the only moment devoted to philosophy (as we know it), Butler mentions philosophies of gender and disability and motions towards Deleuze. “A walk can be a dangerous thing,” she says. Dangerous indeed, because Taylor is now enticed to ask a philosophical question, so different, even in wording, than those voiced by the “philosophers.” “When do you count as a human?” And Butler replies,
Do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? . . . Hopefully people will take it up and say yes, I too live in that world, in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs . . . and I want to organize a social and political world on the basis of that recognition.
That is the end of the conversation, its closing words—but that culminating thought, the need of one another, has been on the film-stage all along. Never alone on the screen, Butler has done her philosophy; the realization of the other has been the acting out of her “lecture.” Stepping out of the bubble—was she ever in it?—she has enacted her philosophy morally and politically. This is how she does philosophy; this is how she does politics. This is simply what she does.
19. Internet Movie Database (IMDb). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1279083/, accessed April 2012.↩
20. To dispel any misconstrual let me stress that my report holds no tongue-in-cheek; the admiration for these speakers and, more so, the appreciation I express here are bona fide.↩
21. Butler, a recognized postmodernist, is a paradoxical protagonist of the story, given the context of my diatribe and its focus on, among other things, postmodernism.↩