The Platypus Synthesis: History, theory, and practice
Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 12–14, 2009. (Audio recording.)
Ian Morrison, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society
WHAT IS PLATYPUS?
Platypus was set up as an attack on thought-taboos. From the start, we’ve rejected the usual Left culture, which preaches the struggle against the common enemy and focuses all of its energy on demonizing this or that Right-wing clique. In quite the opposite way, we have chosen instead to elucidate the conservative character of our time, and the obvious weakness of the Left, perhaps even its total disappearance, not as a question of bodies on the ground, but as the logical by-product of the Left’s ideological murkiness, as an utter lack of clarity about the world we live in, and moreover as an all-pervasive stigmatization of debate and critique. In the past it may have seemed as if philosophers had hitherto only interpreted the world, but today it seems that people seeking to change the world have stopped interpreting it.
Given our philosophy, it should come as no surprise that our project started as a reading group, hoping to decode the overlapping social imaginations that cover the present with a thick fog. Our initial point of departure was an exploration of the disconnection between the Old and New Left, as well as a study of how this confusion plays out in our time. And, pessimistically, we’ve come to believe that it is entirely possible that the Marxist tradition will be eclipsed during our lifetimes — that is if it hasn’t already been eclipsed — unless the ban on debate and critique about the Left’s history is lifted. The difficulty in addressing the history of the Left is complex, of course, and our world has produced a plethora of shields against this, not least of which is the dogmatism of the pseudo-“Left.” Today, we can neither read the classics of revolutionary Marxism as a road map, nor can we necessarily reject their insights. Because part of the problem is that it is simply not possible to know more about revolutionary change than those did in times past who actually struggled to bring their thoughts to the light of day. So, as an estimation of our time, we are interested in exploring the fetters and taboos that impinge on exploring the highest aspirations for human freedom, which we believe are located in the Marxist tradition.
In late 2006 we began to move outside of our reading group model and started hosting events. As you all know, this was during the Iraq war, in which our project was inevitably bound up. At our first public event we sparked a much-needed conversation about “imperialism,” perhaps the least-understood topic of our time, not least because it serves as mask for a great deal of confusion by acting as a superficial point of shared agreement. We feel that our project has been vindicated by that fact that almost no other group sought to bring out this debate, even though the concept, “imperialism,” found its way on to almost every placard and banner during this time. And yet it is not at all self-evident how one would overcome this problem of misunderstanding “imperialism” while continuing to denounce it. If it were, we would have long since overcome it. For this reason, we believe that one needs to trace the historical changes, especially of ideas like “imperialism,” and not paper-over the problems in the typical anti-intellectual manner of the “Left.” Yet, so profoundly deep-rooted is the hatred for change, the hatred for a thoroughgoing critique, that our project was mistaken to be pro-war, as if to raise a single question would blow over the Left’s house of cards. And perhaps this single question mark will bring the house of cards down. So much the better, in our opinion, for the inability to understand a phenomenon like “imperialism” is as much a part of conserving it as anything else. Perhaps the inability to understand, in fact, is the most important part in perpetuating imperialism. Our project would like to raise that possibility.
Recently, we’ve also attempted to start a public conversation about how people are mobilized: for what ends, and under what psychology? We have addressed this through an interrogation of some of the other key buzz words the Left likes to throw around, namely Resistance, Reform and Revolution. And we have found that in the virtual world the Left lives in it is not at all easy to articulate these supposedly strict delineations. Following this discussion, we tried to interrogate the rather abstract notion of “movements” — another mysterious, almost occultist thing we are all supposedly clear about.
In our brief history, we have covered a large range of topics including: the conflict in Israel/Palestine; the catastrophe in South Asia; changes in the character of racism; and most recently, in reaction to the recently dubbed economic crisis, we asked working class organizers how their work has been affected. And we’re going to cover a range of other topics at our convention this weekend.
I should say, in order to make myself clear, that we find all these questions deeply ambiguous. In all these conversations we have avoided making the typical predictions and reciting the usual clichés. We refuse to dress up every social movement as revolutionary for our own psychological satisfaction, or see every catastrophe, be it economic or militaristic, as an opportunity, if only for protest. We have decided instead to set up a space for people to take a backwards glance: to work through ideas in an open manner; to finally take a sober look at reality; and, hopefully, transcend the misplaced pessimism and optimism, in favor of a critical approach to our time.
This has also inspired us to publish the Platypus Review. Like our public events it is not a venue simply for Platypus members or other people close to our project. We are hoping to create a clearinghouse for reflections on the Left, for anyone willing to break out of the typical conformity and the blind obliviousness of protest culture.
Platypus has been forging a conversation about the Left that we believe would otherwise not happen. The groups which fall under the banner of the “Left” today, are nothing if not professionals at ignoring each other. They use a vast array of techniques to serve this end, whether it is overtly ignoring each other, or the endless platitudes on shared ground carefully calculated to avoid any real debate. Platypus emphatically rejects the idea that the struggle simply goes on.
For Platypus, the movement is nothing if the goal appears as a farce. This is why we say: “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” | P