“But what would it look like?”

In recent years, it’s emerged as the leading academic cliche, the ultimate objection. Asked quizzically or impatiently, good-heartedly or dismissively, in any case it does not invite an answer. “Yes, but what would that look like?” “That sounds good, but I guess I’m wondering: what would it look like?” The question constantly dogs radical thought, calling high-minded abstract thinkers back to the concrete world of mere appearances. Your concepts are all well and good, the question says, but back here in the real world, we need something a little more solid.

Yet it’s not as though contemporary radical thinkers are the first to introduce the idea of transforming the world through abstract concepts. Imagine telling someone in the late Middle Ages that they needed to trade in their hierarchical world order based on bonds of personal loyalty and instead impose a regime based on the formal equality of all and organized around the systematic stockpiling of abstract value. Surely they would be puzzled: “Yes, maybe that would be better — but what would it look like?”

One might object that back then they could point to things that it “looked like” — they had something akin to factories in some places, and mercantile exchange presupposed something like abstract value. Then as now, though, I’m sure the wise, realistic thinkers would dismiss the examples as manifestly inadequate, just as you’d presumably elicit little more than a chuckle if you said, “Well, maybe it would look a little bit like an Occupy encampment” or “Maybe it would look something like open-source software.”

The question isn’t actually asking for a concrete instantiation, however — it exists solely to point up the absurdity of thinking abstractly about hard-nosed, realistic things like politics. It expects silence, but it’s happy to defend the abstract concept itself against the inadequate instantiation if it comes to that. Its power as an objection lies precisely in that radical abstractness.

5 thoughts on ““But what would it look like?”

  1. The best proposals I know for any sort of reform are necessarily concrete. Sorry. This article sets up and knocks down a straw-man: that reform proposals are always vague and abstract until they suddenly break through and happen. Nope, I know plenty of VERY specific proposals for concrete reforms in various areas, and I tend to trust those more than academic blathering. Indeed, here’s a proposal I have: shut down humanities departments, submit the remaining to populist morals committees, and line up and shoot intellectuals who are so judged to be undermining sanity and values.

  2. In “The Rebirth of History,” Badiou has a provocative reflection on this challenge.

    “The movement is forever being asked: What is your programme? But the movement does not know. In the first instance, it wants to want; it wants to celebrate its own dictatorial authority – dictatorial because democratic ad infinitum – when it comes to statement and action. It subordinates the results of action to the value of the intellectual activity of action itself, not to the electoral categories of a programme and results.”

    That neat formulation – “In the first instance, it wants to want” – feels especially necessary.

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