Several weeks ago, at a PEN talk with Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America and other strokes of genius, he said of the left that it “had become too comfortable with being powerless, with being critics rather than creators.” This struck a chord because, several years ago, after having finished a Masters in history, I decided I wanted to do something impossible–write creatively, not critically–and that because I wanted to be in the game rather than watching from the sidelines. Not only did it look like it might be more fun (and more challenging), it also felt like it might be more real.
But all cultures and subcultures have a tendency towards hermeticism. Being in the arts is much the same. Having swung from the politically-minded, socially-charged struggles of writing Latin American history, I’ve now moved in the other direction and have found myself almost totally cut off from politics, at least in the artistic circles in which I often move. Being political often has the whiff of being dogmatic. At the risk of being too academic here, I think the tendency of the left to be dogmatic relates directly to its tendency to be critics rather than creators. For Adorno, there are two types of criticism: transcendant, which “takes up a position outside society in order to condemn it as a whole…the validity of such a critique depends upon the epistemological self-righteousness of the critic,” and immanent criticism for which a successful work “is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its inner-most structure.” Immanent critique is not purely ideological in the way that transcendent critique is. Adorno advocated for a dialectical critique because immanent critique can get locked in a world of self-reflection (this reminds me of the divisiveness of the left) and does not impact the world. The left has been hamstrung both by being too transcendant and too immanent. But what is happening in Quebec is different.
Christian Nadeau’s open letter to the striking students says just that. In Un Grand Tonnere, he calls the movement the rebirth of the left in Quebec, and I would say it is because of the creativity of the movement that this is the case.
The friends of mine who protest are mostly academics–historians, geographers, critical theorists–or else documentary film makers. But where are the painters, musicians, writers, dancers? And where have I been?
There are many reasons that I’ve been on the sidelines and I’m just starting to put them together now. Some are circumstantial. I was in Italy when the Occupy movement started; I’m in New York now that Montreal’s streets are so alive. But, I think there are two main reasons I stood back. First, I didn’t feel much about the issues. Now, with the student protests in Montreal, I do. Perhaps it is because those streets feel like my streets and the future of students in Quebec feels like the future of my students in Quebec, that I care a lot about what is happening there. But another reason must certainly have to do with the creativity and individuality of the voices. Facebook has a lot to do with it.
I’ve read articles by former employees of the metro system explaining how its ventilation system works, thus making a strong point that the metro shut down of May 10 was not the result of a few smoke bombs (whose fumes would have quickly dissipated) but the calculated effort of politicians to turn the population against the students. I’ve read letters from retired police officers calling on their confreres to be better, from students who have been victimized, from observers whose voyeurism and taunting discredit their attempts to be moral watchdogs.
But the second reason these protests are so thrilling is because of images like this:
It’s called Coupures dans les bonnes places and it’s by artist Melissa Tremblay. Cuts in the right places. It’s beautiful. It’s creative. And it’s political. My piece on Cliché discusses the importance of Art in the movement.