Answering the question: What is to be done?

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The question ʻWhat is to be done?ʼ, Adorno remarked, frequently ʻsabotages the logical progress of knowledge that alone allows for changeʼ . However, despite being always-already-inscribed within the imperatives of instrumental rationality, it is, he acknowledged, nonetheless ʻunavoidableʼ.1 This is especially so for the Left, and for a radical philosophy that is obliged to consider what ʻanti-capitalismʼ might mean today, beyond its rhetorical functioning as placeholder for a desired solidarity of opposition to the current state of things.

Of course, if this question continues to haunt the Left it is because of the canonical status assured it by Lenin. Published just two years into the last century (its recent centenary deafeningly silent), What is to be Done? was the essential communist handbook of organizational tasks for the first part of the twentieth century at least. The relation of its conception of the party to Marxʼs remains contentious, as does the degree of its debt to Blanquist–Jacobin ideas of revolutionary conspiracy. But it is certain that little could be less compelling or fashionable today – Slavoj Žižekʼs liberal-baiting bid for an ambiguous revival of ʻLenin contra Leninismʼ notwithstanding. Indeed, in the intellectual milieu of the Leftʼs own global ʻtheoryworldʼ,2 there is near universal agreement that any idea of the party as the privileged organizational form of militant activism has long since outlived its moment.

Unavoidable as it may well be, then, the very question ʻWhat is to be done?ʼ can seem somewhat quaint under present circumstances. It implies a sense of collective political power and purpose that few can currently muster. Which begs the question of what it means that it should be asked again today, not in the troubled context of ʻthe socialist projectʼ – as even Adorno might still have understood the promise embodied in that phrase – but in that of an art event, itself conceived under the sign of a certain ʻradicalityʼ? What does this mean for politics and for art, and for the current relationship between them? In what sense might it be ʻin art and its mediationʼ that we would find ʻembeddedʼ a ʻglobal complex of cultural translationʼ, which, so Roger Buergel claims, ʻsets the stage for a potentially all-inclusive public debateʼ? And what does this suggest about the role played by cultural forms within current reconfigurations of political identities, desires, and conditions of possibility in an emergent global capitalist modernity?

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