Utopian, Practical: What DREAM Is Our One Demand?

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Paul Goodman Changed My Life

Utopian, Practical: What DREAM Is Our One Demand?

Is the flower of revolution budding on our lawn? Paris ’68 has journeyed by way of Seattle ’99 and made it to New York 2011 as the #occupation of Wall Street appears to have legs. Kalle Lasn, who wrote the book on culture jamming, was already one of my heroes for giving us Adbusters magazine and Buy Nothing Day. The meme-warrior’s beautiful dream of Tahrir on the Hudson is coming to life in a powerful action the media cannot ignore or, apparently, understand. “Why don’t they make any demands?” the pundits cry. Out of their mouths, the question is inane and prosaic, but in the Adbusters promotional image, the same question is profound and poetic. Tell us, ballerina on the bull, “What is our one demand?” How can we distill the dream to a sentence?

And as we speak of dreams: I commend to you a meditation on political dreaming by one of today’s crackerjack New York intellectuals, Stephen Duncombe of NYU. Occupy Wall Street makes his 2007 book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy appear downright prescient. Duncombe trenchantly identifies a key dilemma facing U.S. liberals and progressives today. The box we’ve folded ourselves into is a box of conventional rationality. Thinking won’t get us outside this box since our thinking is the problem; we’ll have to dream our way out. Duncombe argues for dreampolitik, a politics that craftily wields the power of imagination, desire, and the razzle-dazzle of pop culture spectacle.

Conservatives successfully employ the lessons of Ronald Reagan and Roger Ailes—in politics, you win by crafting compelling stories and pushing people’s emotional buttons. Meanwhile, liberals have become the boring ones stuck in our reality-based community. What happened to I Have a Dream? The Democrats offer no winning story because their strategies have gotten bone-dry and their leaders have lost touch with their own dreams, let alone ours. The only contemporary progressives Duncombe views as dream-worthy are the radical culture jammers; the another-world-is-possible types: the people occupying the dreamspace where that other world is already becoming real, while working on the ground to clear the path for that new society. Duncombe was himself involved in some of the best, and funniest, radical meme-warrior street theatre of the past decade, things like the world trade protests, the Billionaires for BushReclaim the Streets, and Reverend Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping (now the Church of Earthalujah). We should take a page from these pranksters, Duncombe says, but turn it up a few notches and start producing big, seductive, beautiful, ethical, participatory spectacles that mobilize our desires and common dreams. Isn’t that exactly what’s taking place at Zuccotti Park?

The philosophy of dreampolitik jibes perfectly with the spirit of Paul Goodman’s artistic activism. Viewers of PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE will catch on to the befuddlingly radical pranksterism behind Paul and Percival Goodman’s modest proposal to ban cars from Manhattan, or the idea of tiny schools Goodman brought to his neighborhood school board—25 kids, a teacher, a student teacher, a parent, and a teenager. Elsewhere he writes about creating schools without school buildings—why not let the community, the city be the campus? In the film, political philosopher Michael Walzer explains how Goodman liked to use “the sly pretense of being a moderate” to provoke people into noticing the irrational arrangements of “normal” social reality and questioning what Goodman called “the ‘nothing-can-be-done’ character defense.”

Goodman’s 1962 book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals is the clearest expression of his tactical practical methodology. The book intersperses “moderate” interventions, like his proposals for urban youth work camps, eliminating obscenity laws, and banning cars from Manhattan, with social criticism that examines why such ideas get branded “utopian”:

Naturally, we who are beguiled by the sirens of reason, animal joy, and lofty aims, fail to notice how far out into left field we sometimes stray; but we are most out of contact in naively believing that, given simple means and a desirable end, something can be done.

This is the crux of the argument over utopian thinking. It is true that the organized American system has invaded people’s personalities, even though it protects every man’s individuality, privacy, and liberty of choice. For the system has sapped initiative and the confidence to make fundamental changes. It has sapped self-reliance and therefore has dried up the spontaneous imagination of ends and the capacity to invent ingenious expedients. By disintegrating communities and confronting isolated persons with the overwhelming processes of the whole society, it has destroyed human scale and deprived people of manageable associations that can be experimented with.

The capacity to do something rather than nothing, and to do it without coercion, without permission, with free will, individual and collective: this is the key motivation in Goodman’s fusion of artistic, psychological, and political thinking. His ideal is autonomy, or “the inventive, flexible and maturing behavior of the animal initiating and responding in its natural field.” (from “Freedom and Autonomy”) Or, from his World War II-era “May Pamphlet”: “Free action is to live in present society as though it were a natural society…. [including] those natural acts or abstentions which clash openly with the coercive laws: these are the ‘crimes’ which are beholden on a free man to commit…” This is a utopian vision, a dreampolitik, driven by personal psychological emancipation of the kind envisioned by Wilhelm Reich, a major influence on Goodman. It’s also a vision of public life as a kind of performance art: “In the breakdown of repression, the artists do their part by first dreaming the forbidden thoughts, assuming the forbidden stances, and struggling to make sense. They cannot do otherwise, for they bring the social conflicts in their souls to public expression.”

One short piece from Utopian Essays deals squarely with Duncombe’s Dream theme of ethical spectacles. “Designing Pacifist Films,” originally published in Liberation magazine in 1961, is not very successful as a how-to (although reading it, it occurred to me that Dr. Strangelove (1964) does some of what Goodman wants a pacifist film to do). The essay is sharpest when Goodman points out the ways the deck is stacked against making cinema into a vehicle for pacifism. The conventions of narrative, the repellent attraction of violent imagery, the atavistic quality of the dark movie theater, and the psychic structures of fantasy and repression all make it hard to craft effective peace propaganda that will motivate audiences to take action.

At least in the movies. Goodman would agree with Duncombe that subversive/progressive spectacles must be live and participatory and must summon a better world into being. I feel sure if Goodman were alive he would not be missing a minute of the Wall Street occupation. And I think he would find the young people in Liberty Plaza very much to his liking, with the right spirit and community anarchist orientation. People with the courage not just of their convictions but of their dreams.

“Dreams,” Duncombe wrote to me recently, “are what we need to free ourselves from the tyranny of the possible: the thousand and one ways in which we are told everyday that the present is the best we can hope for. We may never actualize these dreams, indeed, the very nature of dreampolitik is that it can not be realized, yet such visions give us a lodestone with which to orient our political compass, a much-needed direction to walk toward. The architect of ‘realpolitik,’ Germany’s 19th century ‘Iron Chancellor’ Otto von Bismark is famous for insisting that ‘politics is the art of the possible.' What we need today, in the 21st century, is a politics that embraces the art of the impossible. I think Paul Goodman realized the progressive potential of this politics earlier than most.”

Paul Goodman, anarchist philosopher-poet extraordinaire, was an Enlightenment rationalist to the core, but he had the cojones to create his own reality, to “prove by experiment that direct solutions are feasible,” to “embrace the art of the impossible,” to practice dreamcraft. And this is part of why so many people said he changed their lives.

And what was his one demand? Remember, all of you holding the plaza, it doesn’t have to sound like a revolution to work like one. Better, perhaps, to make it sound like a perfectly practical, perfectly beautiful dream. People have been tossing you suggestions for how to answer the ballerina’s question: well, here’s two cents worth from Paul Goodman. Mike check!

…in my judgment, the best that is to be hoped for is a tolerable society that allows the important activities of life to proceed… ["Anarchism and Revolution," 1970]

Politically I want only that the children have bright eyes, the river be clean, food and sex be available, and nobody be pushed around. ["Politics Within Limits," 1971]

Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith (rogerkimmelsmith@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, New York. The documentary PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE opens October 19 at New York’s Film Forum.

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