On Apathy, or an Anti-Manifesto Adumbrating All Things Contingent and Trite

by James D. Poborsa

Apathy is a ruse… an indignant ruse…

Yet apathy has its merits, as it at once maintains and punctures the banality of the everyday with the detached indifference and tepid contemplation necessary for overcoming its seemingly callous grip. To be intellectually apathetic is not to feign indifference or refrain from thetic discourse; rather, it is to bring the vicissitudes underlying any particular problematic to light. It is not a call to inaction, but instead the realisation of complexity. Academic life can at times engender the most poignant feelings of marginalisation, as though ones very existence were buttressed by the cajoling of an elevated few, while at the same time rendering ones voice wholeheartedly ineffective and benign. Years of cautious and meticulous study, sequestered in spaces detached from the concerns of others, one begins to feel as though this very marginalisation will develop into a permanent and irrevocable consignment – a resignation so solidly entrenched that it becomes malignant. But that is the challenge: how to effect some meagre measure of change in light of this overtly tempting docility? I have no interest in revolution, no grand desire to sweep away the fruits of tradition, no penchant for the radical, no desire to uncover the beyond of the beyond, that ebullient tautology. Yet nor would I wish to passively accept the dominance of received wisdom. Therein lies the quandary: can there be meaningful action in the absence of a desire to fundamentally instantiate some radical degree of change? Is it enough to engage in critique, or promote that which one feels to be the most progressive path? Will anyone care to listen?

While my academic research concerns itself with the rigourous extrapolation and interpretation of historical detail, due primarily to the institutional requirements necessitated by the discipline – indeed, a certain reduction to disciplinary docility is everywhere evident – I feel as though my writing in this context often lacks a certain poetics of expression. Any pretense towards even the subtlest of rhetorical nuances, usually and somewhat ironically through the detailed and heavily textual analysis of theoretically driven problematics, forecloses the possibility of institutional belonging. Though despite this seeming reticence towards the empirical, I have come to thoroughly appreciate the tremendous importance placed upon historical detail. An exhaustive knowledge of ones object, its relation to others within a developmental topology and contextually presented as somehow historically significant, is of tremendous importance. Yet historical significance is so often a product of institutional power, the very form of which elevates the seemingly mundane to a position of authority. One must perpetually strive to displace this institutional framing, the spectre of which impinges upon the possibility of experiencing everyday life differently. And it is towards this possibility that I gaze – intently, yet with an innate sense of detachment. I am interested in an aesthetic which elevates texture and detail, and combines an appreciation of the antique with the critical distance of the contemporary. Do I believe that the subtle pleasures emanating from quiet contemplation must of necessity coexist with the voice on the rostrum; that the goal of academic life is to radically alter our conditions of possibility? Yes, but I have no desire to occupy the rostrum.

This is therefore a manifesto which eschews the very validity of the manifesto, and instead finds merit in the simple fact of having a voice, and being heard. The most effective riot is the one you never see or hear, but which works its way into the texture of the everyday as though it were never there

James is a doctoral candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, whose research examines the relationship between contemporary Chinese photography, aesthetic theory, and the intellectual politics of modern and contemporary China. He has previously taught modern and contemporary East Asian art in the Department of Art, and modern Chinese history in the Department of East Asian Studies.

2 thoughts on “On Apathy, or an Anti-Manifesto Adumbrating All Things Contingent and Trite

  1. James,

    Such a beautiful and wonderful anti-manifesto. I wish I could write with such concise eloquence- witness my own manifesto, in which I had to diagnose the systemic failings of late capitalism in order to find an anchor for my own voice within our contemporary moment.

    And yet your manifesto hits upon many of the same problems that I think both Sean and I have raised as well, from the possibility/desire for historical change to the position of the intellectual in society to of course the weighty feeling of marginalization that can at times define one’s life in the academy. Your prose captured it far better than my own:

    “Academic life can at times engender the most poignant feelings of marginalisation, as though ones very existence were buttressed by the cajoling of an elevated few, while at the same time rendering ones voice wholeheartedly ineffective and benign. Years of cautious and meticulous study, sequestered in spaces detached from the concerns of others, one begins to feel as though this very marginalisation will develop into a permanent and irrevocable consignment – a resignation so solidly entrenched that it becomes malignant.”

    You put it so beautifully. And here I think we need to look straight into the face of that “permanent and irrevocable consignment” that is academic marginalization and reply with a definitive and unequivocal “no”. We refuse the notion that research, no matter how historically rooted, cannot speak to our contemporary concerns and desires. We refuse the notion that writing need to be opaque and dense in order to be sophisticated. We refuse to limit our community to specialists within fields, but recognize that the specialist is only valuable in so much as he can speak to a broad audience and their concerns.

    I think this gets down to three central questions:

    1) The audience for whom we write
    2) How we communicate (i.e. the language we use; the media we use)
    3) The forum in which we strive to do our work (where are we releasing our work? In which venues? For what purposes?)

    And of course, as I tried to make clear in my own manifesto, all of these concerns are not designed to invalidate the academy’s reason of being or to brazenly critique academics for not becoming more engaged in public life. The academy is a crucial space of remove in which young minds can be engaged, critical problems can be studied with some scholarly distance, and in which important debates can be had. My undergraduate professors were amazing intellectual and ethical inspirations for me, opening my own sense of historical possibility up wider than I ever thought possible. I fell in love with the idea of the engaged intellectual precisely because of the examples, the guidance, the passionate energy that defined my classroom experience within my undergraduate days. My fervent hope is to impart that same sense of possibility onto my own students.

    So this is not an anti-intellectual attack. It’s simply a question of taking all of the debate, the energy, and the vigor of academic life and making it understandable to a larger overall audience. Taking the critical tools the academy imparts and linking them up with larger overall movements that strive for concrete social changes to improve the quality of life for all people.

    Even literary scholars- indeed, especially literary scholars- have an ethical responsibility to link their sophisticated close readings to the political imperatives of the times. This does not mean to do away with the issue of historical contextualization- of course you need to anchor your work in grounded historical understanding and research. It is only to say that such historical work has to produce something in the here and now- that rigorous scholarship can produce some social effect for readers today, as the move to look back towards the past can be productive for thinking a way forward towards a better future.

    My own sense is that behind all historical work, even the most erudite and seemingly disconnected from our present moment, lies an activist impulse that, however sublimated or repressed, will express itself either directly in the content or indirectly via the form of the work itself. And how could it not? None of us are God. We all write from the vantage point of our contemporary entrapments…the key is to be self-aware of that vantage point and to take it into account as you produce your historical inquiry.

    As for the most haunting part of your manifesto, I will simply quote it in full once again, letting your words speak for yourself:

    “The most effective riot is the one you never see or hear, but which works its way into the texture of the everyday as though it were never there”

    This is achingly beautiful and gives me much food for thought. Indeed, the line itself sends my mind spiraling in a number of different directions.

    First, we can think of all the “riots” that truly did alter social life but that occurred just under our noses, so to speak, as we were blissfully unaware of the fundamental changes taking place. Of course, here I am thinking of the subprime mortgage crisis in the united states, in which a massive shift in how financial capital operated, and how home ownership was being administered, was taking place with very few people taking notice of the incredible systemic risks involved.

    Indeed, the only people who did realize how dangerous this game was were the ones who actually did their research into the underlying financials of the newfangled mortgage-backed securities that seemed to be creating so much profits for the banks. These diligent few realized how toxic these assets were, shorted the market, and made out like bandits. And the entire time we were told that the economy was strong, that real estate would never depreciate, that our regulatory frameworks worked, and that things were getting better and better.

    This leads to the crucial question: what is the next brewing crisis right under our noses that we are so far blind to, which our received wisdom would deny outright, but which is looming to radically change another facet of social life? What is the crisis that, as of yet, has no name, indeed which we lack a critical vocabulary to even diagnose as of yet, but which is going to fundamentally redefine the nature of future social life?

    Second, your last line makes me think of those ideas, desires, inclinations, tics, and sensibilities that are imbedded “in the texture of the everyday” and to which we are, generally speaking, unaware of (“as though it were never there”).

    If social change is about motivating people to act differently, what unconscious investments, desires, and senses do we have that we need to unearth, unmask, and reveal before people can gain a different sense of consciousness and, by extension, act in radically different ways?

    I often think that only with a fundamental change in human subjectivity itself- a fundamental redefinition of who we are, how we relate to others, and what the goals of our labor should be- can we bring about a society in which all violence, injustice, and painful division can cease.

    So does this send us deep into the problem of subjectivity, of motivation, of incentives, and of consciousness? I think it does…because then we can glimpse those revolutionary moments that we didn’t even know occurred, and yet structure how people think/act in their everyday lives.

    Okay, just some food for thought as a response. Really enjoyed the manifesto.

  2. James,

    Just a quick comment on the first section – concerning the merits of apathy. My sense is your playing on the roots of the term- a-pathos or without pathos, and so indicating a kind of non-“emotional” space from which we can engage with material. I love the tension you build between thinking the overwhelming weight that careful consideration requires versus an impetus to affect some moderate amount of change if even at the level of the everyday. But is it fair to characterize the critical break a matter of a-pathy? Couldn’t we see it more as a shift in pathos, a movement of affective registers that does not allow for its registration strictly as “pathos” – an inter-pathos rather than a-pathos? That is, in that moment of realizing the complexity of an object of study, our entire body and its organization is moved out of joint with itself – and that is precisely the space of revolutionary change. The movement of the passions – not their registration in consciousness as “emotion,” but the actual shift in organization of affects – is the source of change at the level of the everyday that we hope for. The inevitable dilemma is that to remain “authentic” to these micro-shifts means letting them remain microscopic and temporary. Their political potential is precisely in their ephemeral nature. So what happens when we push these up to the level of a subject or a state? This points to the transformations in subjectivity Mark ends with in his comment. Is the shift to a macro-level one that marks the end of political expression and the beginning of state dominance? Is the shift to the macro bad?

    At any rate, I wholly agree with you that “the most effective riot is the one we never see” which is why aesthetics is so important. After all, the practice of aesthetics is precisely the play with the inter-pathetic, and offers the best possibility for radical micro-transformations. Unfortunately, there are too many out there who are quiet happy to trounce on these micro-transformations with big transcendental shoes. So how do you guard against these giants?

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