50 shades of activism


All that remains is (my and our) humanist hope, without proof.
(Ingrid Hoofd)

You got to give for what you take
(George Michael: Freedom)

Let me start by unequivocally saying that I have very little patience—bordering on disdain—for activism. Not for what it stands, nor what it is fighting, for the causes are almost always good, and, at the risk of sounding patronizing, well-meaning—but the fact is that activists take themselves too seriously. And as a result, they become—one wants to say ironically, but I suspect that the lack of irony is precisely the problem here—as dogmatic, pedantic, dare one say totalitarian, as the causes they purport to fight.

So, it was with some pleasure that I read Ingrid Hoofd’s claim that “this book … is hence itself somehow also possibly a ‘disloyal’ piece of activism.” (5) More importantly, only “somehow”: for, if it was a proclamation that it is, it would have been too certain; thus, back in the same problem. However, it is this uncertainty, this tension, that Hoofd masterfully maintains—without claiming any mastery over the slippery term, “activism”—that continually sustains a thinking of activism; keeping in mind that “it is not possible to discern neatly between a theory and its object, as theory is always engaged in the co-construction of its object of study.” (18) A thinking that never claims to fully understand, to prescribe; a thinking that—echoing thinkers that Hoofd clearly admires, such as Baudrillard, Butler, Derrida, Virilio, Heidegger, amongst others [1]—continues to think itself as thinking.

And it is precisely this that opens the possibility of thinking “activism” as something other—not in any oppositional, dialectical, sense—than an act that “speeds up production.” [2] A thinking that “urgently” asks us all to “slow down”: maintaining the “inconsistency between urgency and its deferral [that] is exemplary of the humanist aporia today.” (18) This is not a slowing down that is contrary to speed, to speeding up—for that would merely bring us back under oppositional, dialectical, logic—the very logic that Hoofd is bringing our attention to—but rather a slowing down that challenges the very imperative to produce, to do more, to be an activist that is active.

Hoofd’s challenge to us, to activists, to activism itself, is not just to do by not doing (that would be too banal) but rather, to not do by doing. Where activism is a passivity that challenges the very system itself; by whispering, I would prefer not to. A fatal strategy; where passivity invites the system to imbue meaning where there is none—which may “to everyone’s surprise announce the arrival of radical otherness.” (111)

Not just “to give for what you take,” but more radically, refusing the game of direct exchange by giving everything, seducing the system by making oneself a void, an abyss: opening the possibility for “deceleration [precisely] by implicating itself in acceleration.” (110) For, if the auto-immunity of speed is the anticipation of deceleration, one has to then “be more fatal than it” (Baudrillard), be even faster than it: not by producing more than it, but precisely by being more empty than it. Here, we must never forget that the genius of capitalism is precisely in its being whatever you want it to be: therefore, one must never make the mistake of attempting to analyse it, and give it meaning, but one must have even less meaning than it. Not insist on being a subject: for that, as Hoofd points out, not only ends up “mystifying resistance as authentic, forget[ing] that resistance is inscribed in the techno-logic of acceleration today” (21) but, even worse, elevates the subject into a central position where (s)he is no longer responding to the world (s)he is proclaiming to think, but rather is now is the very world itself.

Instead, one should become an object.

Which is, of course, impossible: that is, if one were to attempt to be logical, stay within the confines of reason. But the true radicality of Ingrid Hoofd’s thinking is her call for imagination. Not an imagination that is peripheral, superfluous, dressing on top, but imagination that is the root of all thought; not a root that is an origin, but a performance of thought, a thinking of thought itself. In other words, if thought is the relationality between two objects, imagination is the pre-relational relationality of thought. [3]

Thus, if the charge is that my reading of Hoofd—or even worse, the title of my reading—is frivolous, you are clearly missing the point.

For, if one listens carefully, Hoofd’s serious critique calls for playfulness, humour. One must never forget that laughter, even as it may be a disciplining mechanism, may also puncture, rupture. Once unleashed, laughter can also spread, infect, certainly affect; more importantly, in ways that remain unknowable, uncalculable, mysterious, accidental even, almost certainly “without proof” (11); where all that can be known, is that one has laughed.

And what else is laughter other than an act of passivity, an opening to the possibility of another, a passivity that challenges, that invites every other to join in, that exemplifies the paradoxical tension between discipline and indiscipline.

Laughter: or, an alter-activism par excellence.

Ingrid M. Hoofd
. Ambiguities of Activism: Alter-Globalism and the Imperatives of Speed. New York: Routledge, 2012.


[1] Here, anyone who complains about my having listed more men than women writers might want to consider the notion that female writing resides not in body parts but in one’s approach to writing. Or, if you prefer not to take my word for it, read Hélène Cixous ‘Laugh of the Medusa’ in Signs Vol. 1 no.4. translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen (Summer 1976): 875-893.

[2] “Aktivist here meant ‘a person who through a substantial increase of achievement and through new work techniques speeds up production’ (my emphasis) while Activistenbewegung (activist movement) meant ‘a movement that fosters the highest possible increase in production of a business’ for the glory of the state.” (Hoofd, 7: channeling the Duden Deutsches Unversalworterbuch, edition 1989)

[3] For a meditation on pre-relational relationality, please see my Reading Blindly. New York: Cambria Press, 2009.

Jeremy Fernando
is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School, where he is also a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought. Currently, he is attempting to conceive an aesthetics of being languid.

%d bloggers like this: