Moving Beyond Disgust: How to Fight the Man

I was at my friend Hilary’s apartment when I first got to hear news coverage of the Occupy Movement. (She’s the type of person who Tivos CNN, seriously). They interviewed a number of people participating in the movement along with special commentators. The remark that stood out to me the most was from a commentator who said, “The driving message behind this movement is disgust. I think that is a very powerful message.”

I agree with that commentator, both with his assessment of the Occupy Movement and his comment on the power of disgust. An overwhelming amount of disgust and desperation is usually the force behind every great revolution. But along with disgust and desperation there needs to be vision. That is one thing that the Occupy Movement lacked. Each individual who participated may have had their own vision but there was not a unified vision to bring them all together and to give the movement the power to enact change.

Yesterday, David Brooks in an Op-ed piece for the New York Times, “How to Fight the Man” proposed that my generation, who is disillusioned and disgusted with our institutions, needs to look to the past for vision. I vehemently disagree.

There is much that we can learn in studying the past, especially philosophical movements and utopian ideals. But we should not latch onto those ideals and philosophies as answers for the present because our world has already experienced their failures. By the time Thoreau left the woods he realized his idealism was flawed. Historical communism has revealed the failures of Marx’s vision. Most of our institutions, that are crumbling or bumbling on inefficiently and ineffectually, are Modern projects.

What we need are fresh ideas. What we need are new visions for the future. The generation ahead of mine needs to stop suggesting answers from the Modern past for our Postmodern future. My generation needs to move past disgust and be bold enough to dream up new institutions and new communities.

Since I’ve made this statement, I should share my own vision.  My graduate thesis, into which I poured so much of myself and so much of my passion, answered two important questions for the present. One) How can you propose any answer in a postmodern world in which we are skeptical of anything claiming to be THE answer? Two) What vision can we have for the future?

To answer the first question I proposed a new method of both doing philosophy and constructing institutions and systems. My name for it is a bit of a mouthful: Positioned Reconstructive Deconstruction. We’ll call is PRD.

To understand PRD starts with understanding each word individually and then how they interact together. “Positioned” refers to the awareness that our philosophies and institutions are affected by the specific people, place and culture they are a part of. They do not stand outside of time, or outside of influence.  We affect these things and they affect us. Therefore, positioning involves both relation and physical position.

The word we have to understand next is deconstruction. I’m using the word in two ways. I’m both referring to the literal meaning “to take apart” and the philosophical meaning as coined by Jacques Derrida. Those who know about philosophical deconstruction may see it is an endless spiral of interpretation, in which any wild interpretation is possible. That isn’t an accurate understanding of deconstruction. Derrida once likened deconstruction to embroidering. He wrote, “one considers that to know how to embroider still means to have the ability to follow the given thread…The person who understood nothing of the game who …would feel himself authorized to merely add on; that is to add on any old thing. He would add nothing: the seam wouldn’t hold” (Plato’s Pharmacy). So you see, one cannot just interpret anything entirely as one likes.

For Derrida, deconstruction is a way of opening up a text to more of the possibilities within. It is also a way of opening up the present to more possibilities. Deconstruction does this by reading the past in a new light, taking some of what the past has to offer but also finding something new. At Villanova University he said, that deconstruction is “not the mixture but the tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and, at the same time heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break” (Deconstruction in a Nutshell).

In the context of PRD, deconstruction is a way of taking apart current systems, institutions and philosophies and putting them back together using some of the old pieces and some entirely new pieces. That’s the reconstructive element, as we create something that is both old and new. What we create is both incidentally positioned (because this is a necessary part of reality) but also should be intentionally positioned.  As we deconstruct and reconstruct our institutions, systems and philosophies we need to think about the people, place and culture they will be affecting and that will affect them. Our deconstruction and reconstruction needs to be open to the wants, needs and ideas present in that place.

The systems, institutions and philosophies created through PRD will not be THE answer for all people, at all times, in all places. The truth is that that answer doesn’t exist at all. But these systems, institutions and philosophies can speak into diverse cultures and to diverse people in order to help them create their own. Though each place and all people are different, there are always similarities so that we can relate and aid one another.

Now the the first question is answered. To answer the second question, my vision is that we would strive to revolutionize our local communities, nation and the world through utilizing PRD to create new systems, institutions and philosophies fit for our polycentric* and postmodern present.

You might be thinking, PRD sounds nice but it isn’t practical. It is no more realistic than Thomas More’s Utopia. To be honest, I think you’re dead wrong. The beauty of it is that it actual is practical. What was impractical was the modern idea that any rational model could fit anyplace. History proved that wrong.

If you look closely in the U.S., you’ll see business and communities popping up all over the place that are utilizing PRD without even realizing it. One of the loudest examples is Whole Foods. The co-founder and CEO, John Mackey**, champions both a new kind of capitalism, he calls Conscious Capitalism, and a new model of business that believes business serves a higher purpose than profit. Both his version of capitalism and business model are positioned reconstructive deconstruction of the old systems.

For example, Mackey states, “Human nature isn’t just about self-interest. It includes sympathy, friendship, love, and the desire for social approval. As motives for human behavior, these are at least as important as self-interest. For many people they are more important.” Without completely discarding self-interest, but putting it in its place among other motivations, along with assuming an awareness the humans are communal, conscious capitalism is more holistically framed.

Integrated into his business model, this means that Whole Foods does not operate on the basis of self-interest but on mutual interest and mutual benefit. It seeks to create value for all involved: customers, team members (employees), vendors, investors and the community. It accomplishes this by developing relationships, creating a positive and supportive environment, believing in the value of the work they do and incorporating philanthropy and community initiatives into the business.

Furthermore, profit is not the end goal of conscious capitalism or of a business. In an interview he said, “Making high profits is the means to the end of fulfilling Whole Foods’ core business mission. We want to improve the health and well-being of everyone on the planet through higher-quality food and better nutrition, and we can’t fulfill this mission [without the resources of] higher profits…Just as people cannot live without eating, so a business cannot live without profits. But most people don’t live to eat, and neither must a business live just to make a profit.” To demonstrate that Whole Foods is not operating for profits alone, Mackey’s yearly salary is a dollar now that he can afford to live without a salary.

In short, conscious capitalism realizes capitalism’s potential for unleashing creativity and creating value while stripping away some of the dehumanizing and destructively utilitarian aspects. His business model is efficient and effective, while also cultivating human and ecological thriving. There are ways in which both Mackey and Whole Foods can be critiqued, of course. The beauty of this vision is that our institutions and systems don’t all have to be exactly the same. Even so,  what our nation and our world needs are more people like Mackey. Protest is not half as powerful as action. It is people like him, and businesses like his that will improve our nation. They will not take us back to some perfect picture of the past but bring us forward into a better future.

* Polycentric has become one of my favorite words. It means that we live in a world that has many centers of perspective and influences instead of one dominant one (in the past the rich, educated white male acted as the dominate center of perspective and influence).

**If you’re interested in learning more about Whole Foods you can check out this video and this article.

4 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Disgust: How to Fight the Man

  1. in certain ways this reminds me of much of Benhabib’s work. rather than closing of questions of universals (particularly democratic and human rights), she wants them embedded within localized interests, rather than in abstract notions of what national/political/philosophical identity looks like.

    one thing i would question in my reading of you here is the notion of ‘new’ ideas. i would agree with you that the way forward isn’t to simply–as recommended in the NYT article–put a historical label on ourselves. i would, however, agree that we do very much need rootedness in our dissension. perhaps i should say ‘intentional’ rootedness. which brings me back to my critique. i’m resistant to the idea that we can place ourselves in a sort of intellectual vacuum and come up with ‘new’ ideas. we’re always rooted in something, externally influenced. for instance the image you mentioned of of taking what we have, keeping the good aspects, and adding our own addictions/improvements is basically a Hegelian dialectic. and Hegel in his own right didn’t just dream that up himself. copernicus didn’t dream up his heliocentric model. people as early as aristarchus in the 3rd century BC had been toying with the idea, they were just rejected. I think a lot of my resistance to this relates to religious questions. we see john piper calling out n.t. wright for arguing from the standpoint of a tradition rather than working straight from scripture. piper is of course completely ignoring the fact that his own hermeneutic and his own cultural resistance to tradition is itself owed to the broader reformed tradition he comes from. and we hear francis chan telling us that if we lived on a desert island and read the new testament to learn about what the church is, the church of our day would be unrecognizable to us. again, ignoring that the bible itself is not read on a desert island, it is a gift to and of the church.

    all this to say i generally agree with your framework, but i just wonder if fancying ourselves as inventors of new ideas and new systems is counter-productive in that there is the real danger of doing the opposite of what you argue, by disembedding us from the concrete, historically formed, local mileu we are trying to reform.

  2. There is some genuine thinking going on here, good stuff Lindsey!

    Firstly, I would love to hear more about your thesis, or read it if that is possible. Sounds awesome.

    As for your post:

    Concerning OWS, I share your feelings about their “resentment.” Though I would not couch this with a lack of unified vision. I found the resentment unhelpful in the same way Nietzsche found resentment in his day unhelpful. It deflects the blame and responsibility upon some other figure. When they came out with their “resolution” – which consisted of a list of what “they” (the evil [yet unnameable] people of WS) did to “us” [occupiers] – I kept asking the question: “Who is ‘they’?” The problem with OWS was that it was resentment towards an anonymous power, thus no possibility for justice.

    As for the concern for vision. I disagree with you a little bit in regards to the need for a unified vision. In fact, I would say that is a very Modern, revolutionary critique of the movement. I find this ironic considering your slam on the NYT article on traditions. I would make the claim that OWS was a “postmodern” protest. It actually wasn’t a “lack” of vision, but rather an “abundance” or “plurality” of vision. As opposed to protests and revolutions of the past that squandered difference for unity under “capitalism”, “socialism,” “communism,” and so on, this protest united under a polyvocal concern for the way the world is developing.

    Now, that does not mean OWS is the end all say all. Rather, it is the beginning. This leads me to your attempt at a positive contruction. I am confused by your juxtaposition of the NYT writer and your own project of PRD. It seems that by taking up the task of deconstruction and then reconstruction you would have to admit the utilization of traditions past. Though this obviously isn’t the depth of argument being made in the NYT article, I find it still more helpful than not. As for the details of PRD I am still a little fuzzy, it seems like a long term for simply the function of deconstruction. Maybe if you could flesh out for me the specific functioning of reconstruction, I would have a better idea of where you heading.

    On to Whole Foods. If postmodernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives”, one of the “big stories” that needs to be deconstructed is that of capitalism. I find the Whole Foods example very lacking. This is what Zizek called Capitalism with a Human Face. In which we can settle our feeling ethical obligation while simultaneously satisfying the desire for consumption. I won’t go deep into this, I just find Whole Foods to be a band-aid over a crack in the dam. It also makes me skeptical of a genuine deconstruction in your project if Whole Foods is an example of its functionality. I will leave these things to be discussed further after clarification.

    As I said in the beginning, this is some much needed genuine thinking through of the problems that face our contemporary situation. Keep it up!

  3. I would just say anyone bringing “New” ideas to the table needs to know/look at History (the past) really well. Our country has a history of coming up with “New” ideas that have already been done on some level and failed. People need to look at the past carefully, learn from it, and then come up with something new for going forward.

  4. You acknowledged, in the post that followed, how the term ‘new’ did n’t perfectly communicate your meaning here. This relates to Derrida’s embroidery metaphor – if we can’t pull the threads through the right holes (i.e., understand how to embroider by the observation and practice in the embroidery discourse-community) then our ‘new’ way falls apart when the thread is pulled taut.

    ‘Fresh’ and ‘new’ are n’t the same in general discourse. The energy it will take to explain what is new, or more likely distinctively fresh/alive, while showing that the lessons of history are n’t ignored out of hand, might be better spent if the terms more clearly reflect your meaning. Qualifications become necessary to describe all you are not saying, when you mean to speak and to speak afresh.

    I ‘m understanding your choice of ‘positioned’ as ‘local’. Our experiences and context are formed within a limited series occasioned by our dominant influences and our critical reflections and responses by way of action. Location naturally implies relation but a position seems to naturally fit best on a Cartesian plane.

    I can’t appreciate approaching polycentrism ahistorically. Value shifts and cultural clashes trace throughout history. We are more likely to have a balanced view of the present if we can follow the outlines left by prior embroiderers (and as we work within but critical of such frameworks we are being truly polycentrist insofar as we acknowledge or location, have access to comparisons of the prior results of prejudices enacted (thinking of Gadamer’s historically effected consciousness), and practice cross cultural dialogue in acknowledging the locations of the past as legitimate).

    ‘The answer doesn’t exist at all’ – I agree, but would point out that the question was illegitimate (not your question, but the quest of modernity).

    Overall, I appreciate much of the sentiments of this post. I would like to know what your take is then on the proper role of ‘disgust’ because it seems like we need to empower capitalists with values without considering the values expressed by a capitalist system. Acknowledging polycentrism without analyzing values critically and what it costs to enact them seems, to critique generalities with generalities, well, it does n’t seem like dialogue and I doubt its efficacy.

    Interesting discussion – I look forward to seeing PRD evolve as a useful concept for you!

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