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A prodigious task facing the humanities: The creation of a new vocabulary

How does one articulate and make sense of the momentous changes that have taken place in the last three decades or so across the world, and that have not nearly run their course, if the existing vocabulary in the humanities is rapidly being unmasked as belonging to a different conceptual dispensation or “paradigm” – one that is incompatible with what is in the process of emerging?

To be sure, those thinker-pioneers who were responsible for forging just such a vocabulary, suggesting and anticipating the task that is now becoming clearer – the poststructuralists – are receiving increasing attention in this regard, by a younger generation of thinkers who are addressing some of the pressing issues of our time. I mention these “pressing issues” deliberately, because, while philosophy, or the humanities in general, cannot be prescribed to regarding their field of investigation, it/they would degenerate to mere “armchair” preoccupations if it/they do not take life-changing events in their environing world seriously by addressing them.

It was no accident that Georg Hegel advised the philosophers of his day (the early 19th century) to read newspapers; in the same vein, thinkers in the humanities have to use the internet today to stay informed. More importantly, however, “information” is only the beginning. We are constantly told we live in the “information and knowledge society”. Wrong. We live in the information society, where people seem to “know” less and less, because they rely on their smartphones to access “information” when they need it. Information only becomes knowledge when one makes it one’s own; and I don’t mean only in the form of “facts”.

Facts are only the beginning of thinking and understanding, as was confirmed to me again on two recent occasions when I listened to two unbelievably “informed” speakers, who had all the “facts” of their respective topics at their fingertips. But when I questioned them regarding the meaning and implications of these facts, they were both at a loss, and merely nodded their agreement when I suggested an interpretation. Such an interpretation always requires some theoretical context within which the facts become subject to explanation or interpretation.

The new vocabulary that people in the humanities have continued developing on the basis of the work done by an earlier poststructuralist generation has to do with this, namely a novel understanding of some of the salient facts, in the guise of “events”, that are symptomatic of the transitionary times we live in. In a recent post on the “posthuman”, a concept that is part of the new vocabulary, I commented briefly on this kind of work, but there is much that one could add.

One of the areas of investigation and intellectual investment where the boundaries of the humanities are being shifted, concerns the question of the transformation (not in the narrow, politically correct sense that the word has in South Africa) of the present global system in an encompassing sense, including the economic, political, cultural and ecological. The incredibly creative work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari is indispensable in this regard, as the just published book, Occupy – A People yet to Come (edited by Andrew Conio; Open Humanities Press, London, 2015), amply demonstrates. Commenting on the book’s intended contribution, Conio writes (p. 25):

“This collection of essays presents Deleuze’s unique approach to politics, an approach that begins with a theory of life as flows, refrains and forces … This may sound abstract and tangential to the urgent problems faced by the world today: the destruction of the ecosystem, worldwide immiseration, the return of the despotic Urstaat or ‘empire’ in the capitalist socius … and the multiple layers of control and robbery. The Occupy movement, however, created a new environment in which discussions that might once have seemed impertinent have been gaining a new traction. ‘Occupy’ is a synecdoche for belief in the revolutionary transformation of the capitalist system: a new heterogenic world of protest and activism that cannot be thought in terms of the state, liberal democracy, parliamentary systems, or the hugely compromised nongovernmental organisation (NGO) sector. Nor can Occupy be conceived in terms of class war or vanguard politics. These conceptualisations do not articulate fully where power is held, nor from where revolution may issue. A philosophical vocabulary that would materially inhabit the conditions of our present global world order is needed because the different registers of ontology (the movements of the earth), the social (the people yet to come), epistemology (concept formation), and aesthetics are nevertheless activated on the one single plane that is at considerable remove from the conventional terms of state or royal politics as they are understood today.”

It should be abundantly apparent from Conio’s words that the invention of new words or concepts to grapple with the undeniably urgent issues raised by him, above, is a challenge to all the humanities. Some people I know in critical psychology, education theory, as well as in philosophy, literature, architecture and art (in South Africa) have already embarked on this quest. It should also be clear from his formulation that orthodox Marxism is not up to the task unless it submits its vocabulary of class struggle to creative revision (as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have done) – today’s world is much more complex that the one Marx inhabited.

As an example of such a vocabulary to grasp what is at stake in events like the Occupy movement, one might take note of Claire Colebrook’s telling use, in this book, of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of “minority” and “majority”. In terms of the “normal”, quantitatively oriented conception of “majority rule”-democracy of today, one might think that the “99%” and the “1%”, concepts that have become inseparable from the Occupy movement, denote a “majority” and a “minority”, respectively. Not so, if you have learned from Deleuze and Guattari; in fact, it is the other way around. To clarify this, Colebrook quotes from A Thousand Plateaus (Conio 2015, p. 14), where Deleuze and Guattari write:

“Why are there so many becomings of man, but no becoming-man? First because man is majoritarian par excellence, whereas becomings are minoritarian; all becoming is a becoming-minoritarian. When we say majority, we are referring not to a greater relative quantity but to the determination of a state or standard in relation to which larger quantities, as well as the smallest, can be said to be minoritarian: whiteman, adult-male, etc. Majority implies a state of domination, not the reverse … ”

“In this sense”, Colebrook continues (p. 14), “the 99% remains as a minority … not because they are fewer in number but because their identity has no basis outside the assembling in common”. This brief illustration of the power of novel concepts to grasp what is going on at an event like Occupy may be regarded as a kind of paradigmatic instance of overcoming the paralysis induced by “normal” concepts attached to a “normal” conception of something like democracy.

While it is counter-intuitive in “normal” terms to think of the 99% as a minority, and the 1% as a majority, the two French thinkers have given us the means to do so persuasively: the elites of the world may indeed constitute a minority purely as a quantity, but in terms of standard-setting force or power, they are “majoritarian”, while the 99%, far from representing a majority in terms of power (even if they are so merely in terms of quantity), can rightly be said to be “minoritarian”. Needless to stress, this is the case in South Africa as much as in the rest of the world. And such a “normal” conception of democracy is questionable, and can be questioned by means of a new, and expanding, vocabulary.