correspondance critique

Continuously Curious Open Letters

Concept

Correspondance Critique is the online presence of the spirit which has animated the two contributors’ exchanges from their first encounter. Three years onward C- and P- remain in an ongoing conversation, questioning each other on issues connected to politics, film, history, art, society, literature, gender, theory, sex and music. This platform intends to share these interrogations and open up the discussion to others. It takes the form of alternating submissions from each author. Inspired by the erotic potential of the letter in Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it transposes a time-tested means of communication to the interactive sphere of the internet in a bid to seduce, challenge, and explore new arenas together.

Invitation to respond

We welcome responses from readers in the comment section to the themes introduced in the submissions. Please bear in mind that if you wish to enter the discussion, you should use the same format of person-to-person (letter-style) correspondence. We invite personal contributions only, strictly no advertisement allowed.

Disclaimer

This content is purely based on personal opinion and is not affiliated in any way to a political party or any other organisation

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London, 15 July 2015

Dear C-,

Exactly 226 years and one day ago today, a group of rioters stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and freed all the inmates often unjustly incarcerated there. More than any other event taking place during these turbulent years, this popular outburst became a symbol of the French Revolution. The latter was also a foundational moment for contemporary France. A new nation rose out of popular anger, new ideals emanating from enlightened thinkers, great enthusiasm and blood. You may rightfully wonder why I chose to open our correspondence on such a radical note. Simply since I believe that such an event (as understood by the philosopher Alain Badiou) is needed today. The ideological break which constitutes the event of a Revolution, and out of which a collective truth and metaphysical cohesion among people emerge should be a guiding light for all of us navigating in the increasingly foggy life-world of capitalistic democracy. Attempting to spark an event of the scale of the French or October Revolution is, however, not sufficient. We must look at the aftermath of these events, pay attention to the very moment when they entered the process symbolisation through which they were inscribed in the national (as well as individual, local and global) imaginary. Your account of the Marxist conference you attended was fascinating in that regard. While you were originally seduced by the egalitarian structure of the debate, your enthusiasm was altered when you sensed the need of militants to express their personal attachment to the proletarian realm and their rejection of ‘cultural’ Marxism and intellectualism more generally. To me, what you experienced is an outcome of the materialisation of an idea (Marxism-Leninism), which possesses truth-value, into a dogma made out of the same marble as the statues of Roman emperors. In that case it is not the great military power and virile strength of great leaders which is symbolised and subsequently fetishised, but the event of proletarian revolution itself. One may even go further and see the need of these ‘comrades’ to justify belonging to the proletariat as an application of identity politics to the Marxist world: what I am about to say has substance based on my family history, gender, sexuality, race etc… The substantial core of Marxism has been frozen into an unalterable monolith by history and symbolisation, and what is left is the romanticism of the mere revolutionary gesture. It is my conviction that the success of a future revolutionary event depends upon our ability to resist the metamorphosis of vibrant ideas and radical actions into a burdensome dogma.

To respond to the final point of your letter, I would argue that the personal is Political and un-anecdotal to the extent that one has a thought, idea or conviction about the right way to organise society which transcends the self and the current ideological orthodoxy. Someone who is unwilling to think beyond her or his self-interest and cannot position her/himself on what should be considered right or wrong in society is fundamentally apolitical. The act of refusing to engage with ideas which transcend the self may be conscious or unconscious, but in either case it will reduce the personal to the anecdotal by limiting one’s existence to mere personal experiences. These experiences may be described by an external observer (Philosopher, artist, journalist, social scientist…) as being illustrative of a certain political struggle, but this does not in any way politicise the subject. The apolitical subject abandons his/her body and collective life to the projections of others, subcontracting any sense of substantial political existence. In other words, I believe that intent is a crucial step in the constitution of a political subject. Someone who does not think politically is political as far as his/her body becomes a mirror on which the political intents of others are reflected. Of course political subjects are not immune to these projections, but they regain some level of autonomy by politicising their subjectivity, making their life un-anecdotal through transcendental thinking.

Being a man, I was extremely interested to know more about the way you were raised and the kind of parental pressure you experienced as a child and teenager. I am always amazed by the extent to which the female body and existence is appropriated by others (not only men but also other matriarchal figures). The female body seems to be a disputed territory on which desires (sexual, romantic, sado-masochistic, economic) as well as projections (patriarchal, matriarchal, societal), continually crash into like asteroids crash on a satellite. From my point of view, it is as if others are constantly attempting to take any form of agency out of you. As we both know, the appropriation of women comes in different shapes, from unbearable violence to complex social mechanisms at work in western countries. I think that the status of women in so-called ‘egalitarian’ societies is far from uncontroversial. I would like to know what your opinion on women’s oppression in western democracies is outside of the traditional feminist prism of the all powerful patriarch. Do you think that feminism can exist without this daunting patriarchal figure?

Bien à toi,

P-

London, 14 July 2015

Dear P-,

Today I attended my first political convention. As I grabbed a seat in the front row of a seminar room in the University College London’s Institute of Education building I became self-conscious about my outfit colour-matching the various red-white-and-black Agitprop posters plastered over the walls. I grew up hearing the word ‘Marxism’ used in hush-hush tones, as the human and economic catastrophe that corrupt Communist governments had produced became a means to forever discredit any critical contribution that this ideology has to offer. On a personal level I have never identified as a politicized person. This I explain in part because I was taught to think of ‘Politics’ in terms of ‘citizenship,’ as emphasis was placed at school on the ‘duty’ to vote. In the economically-privileged and highly-educated country of Switzerland, where the population feels a sense of agency as members of a Direct Democracy, I never felt the sense of political urgency of the systematically oppressed.

The notion of injustice instead came from the forcedly ‘private’ sphere of the home. The first (and female) child of a traditional patriarchal nuclear family, I was fed from a young age that life is ‘unfair’ and to ‘get used to it.’ But whereas in terms of men, the injustice was tied to external events, in terms of women I was to understand that this was ‘Woman’s lot’, in other words inherent. From the youngest age I was aware of concerns over my appearance, as my body became a topic of conversation between my parents interweaved with the idea of ‘finding a good match.’ The chances of this happening would be increased if I acquired the domestic skills which would advertise my ability to be a carer and child-bearer. This was simultaneously paired with a lot of love, attention and support in gaining an education. I was taught to read and write before starting school and always encouraged to engage in self-improving activities such as music or sport. Good school reports were met with praise and encouragement to ‘always do your best, whatever the task.’ This message was particularly enforced in relation to work ethic, as I was recurrently advised to ‘never turn down an opportunity’ and always show willingness towards the teacher/boss. And this is, ultimately, the catch. When I was asked ‘what did I want to do’, this wasn’t as in ‘what is important to me, as a human being/what would make me feel good about being alive.’ Rather, the question was rhetorical, making sure that I’d learnt the lesson that good things (particularly a man) would ensue if I made myself agreeable and available in every way and smiled throughout. Even when I started a PhD over two years ago, there was still the vague hope that I might ‘meet someone’ which would mean I wouldn’t need to complete the programme, as indeed the biological clock is ticking and meanwhile my head is just getting more full of ideas. Somehow the fact that I am pursuing studies, particularly supposedly economically unviable studies in art history, is difficult to view as motivated by passion and professional ambition.

It was precisely the passion and commitment of the Marxist speakers I heard debate about ‘Women’s Liberation’ today which gave me hope. Following a half-hour presentation by an announced speaker, responses were invited with each intervener getting 3 minutes to say her or his piece.  I was impressed by how organised, democratic and mutually respectful the whole discussion was as participants of all backgrounds and ages and gender took the floor. Once the party rhetoric (such as referring to each other as ‘comrade’) was stripped away, I found myself in agreement with a lot of the points raised, with issues such as the role of the family, consent, how to combat verbal and physical abuse, and how to educate your peers and children, particularly in terms of sex and relationships. But as the day wore on and spirits rose with calls of revolution and fists punching the air, I started to notice a problematic repetition. Where were the challenging voices of dissent? The only brave intervener who red-faced posed the prickly question of how to posit a Socialist approach to ending women’s oppression when a member of their own party was being investigated for sexual harassment remained unanswered. The theme of suspicion towards Academia also began to emerge, as speakers criticised those who use the term ‘Marxist’ in relation to theory or ideas which are not simultaneously embodied on the terrain. I was encouraged to act before I had had time to think. I was also identifying a trend of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, as participants seemed to feel the need to assert their working class roots and assure their ‘comrades’ that they were not one of the bad privileged people. I was seeing cracks in the positive message of inclusiveness and unsure how stripping myself of privilege would help advance any cause. We could agree on the slogan ‘Books Are Weapons’ however and so I visited their bookshop before heading off to my ‘Ivory Tower.’ The convention had helped me come to grips with the implications and limitations of the 1970s feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ What I propose instead is that it is crucial that the personal shouldn’t be dismissed as anecdotal.

Bien à toi,

C-