Bubble : Anat Biletzki
Let me begin with the first instance of description; let me tell a story. It is a personal narrative and as such pretends not to objective scientism. In the spring of 1977 elections were held in Israel, accompanied by the usual raucous, strident, hectic, intensive political campaigns, but this time with a historical twist. Prior to 1977, since the establishment of the State of Israel and even earlier, the reigning political powers in the country had consisted of the traditional, (self-perceived) Socialist, Zionist, labor parties (in various forms and offspring)—led by MAPAI (Mifleget Po’alei Eretz Israel—Party of the Land of Israel Workers), and later MA’ARACH (various labor party-coalitions). On the right there were several centrist and right-wing parties (Independent Liberals, General Zionists, Herut, Likud) and suddenly there was realistic talk of their ascendancy. Alongside left- and right-wing parties there had always been a contingent of religious parties not aligning automatically with either.
In the leftist camp one could discern more or less radical “leftism,” or, with more descriptive fidelity, less or more moderate leftism, with parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel commonly perceived as the leftist extremists. It was in that general camp of leftism that a certain well-identified, less-moderate community—to which I belonged—resided. And, in fact, there was one party, SHELI (Shalom L’Israel) that became the fulcrum of what was then considered the “real left.”
In the months leading up to the election, SHELI made noteworthy—or so members of that community thought—inroads into the “regular” left, into the bastions of the traditional labor party, even into some liberal quarters, and became the faddish party of choice for intellectuals, academics, even left-leaning yuppies. As surrealistic as it may seem today with the wisdom and cynicism that accompany hindsight, it was not unheard of to articulate the ludicrous, pompous, curiously humoristic statement: “Everyone we know is voting SHELI.” If there was political work to be done in the concrete circumstances of election campaigning it consisted of raising the ante, moving more people leftward, explaining the reasoning behind more radical rather than more moderate leftism, and reinforcing the hype by ensuring actual voting behavior.
In those days I taught mathematics in a state-run facility, a vocational school operated by the Ministry of Labor, training youths mostly from poverty stricken areas, “slums” no less, to be professionals such as electricians, phone technicians, auto mechanics, and the like. I was responsible for their “academic” training, i.e., mandatory courses in English and mathematics; and I spoke with them daily about their lives, their surroundings, their hardships, their lesser and greater ambitions, their hopes for the future. Our conversations were fascinating to me and absorbing to them. It seemed that we were speaking the same language—Hebrew—and connecting through a common culture of a place—Israel. It was therefore fitting and appropriate, I believed, when three days before the elections I explicitly brought up the standard questions in election-times: Were they voting? Who were they voting for?
Planning a genuine political exchange, I had a third question in wait: Why were they voting for whomever they were voting for? Remarkably yet encouragingly, they all answered in the affirmative to the first question. That was, however, only the small surprise. Hot on its heels, far more startlingly, their replies to the second question came forth very naturally, almost automatically, with no sign of hesitation or deliberation: almost all of them informed me that they were intending to vote for LIKUD, Menahem Begin’s opposition right-wing party which had not yet risen to power in Israel; the few who were not of such persuasion were expecting to vote for the large religious party, MAFDAL (Miflaga Datit Leumit—National Religious Party). When, in an initial state of stupefaction, I asked whether anyone was voting SHELI, they wondered what SHELI was. They had not, during the vociferous, ad-saturated, commercial-drenched campaign season, even heard of SHELI!
Instead of my planned third question—why?—another question immediately arose: Was I and everyone in my natural environs the epitome of a (political) bubble existence? Or was it the case that my students were in a (right-wing, religious) bubble, while my (and my friends’) discernment of the political world was the more realistic one, the more true-to-the-facts one? At that point in time—a few days before election results would be ascertained, known, and promulgated—this question was speculative; there was only a bothersome inkling that our predictions, based as they were on personal evaluations of the public mood, might be enormously skewed. But given a story that is an empirical, factual rendition of a historical point in time and which provides us, hence, with a clear criterion for correct answers, such questions now carry nary a speculative doubt: the election results put LIKUD into power with 33 percent of the vote (43 out of 120 Knesset seats), gave the religious parties 17 seats, and squeaked in 2 seats for SHELI—1.6 percent of voters. Everyone we knew was there—but “there” was a bubble.
Can this story be put into more theoretical garb? Can it be generalized? Although Wittgenstein continues to admonish us, cautioning against our “contemptuous attitude toward the particular case” and against the “craving for generalization,” in this case, two types of generalization come to mind.7 A naïve, simplistic path posits that at the basic level of social or political behavior any collection of people identified by a cohesiveness of thought, discourse, or ideology, perhaps based on ethnic, racial, gendered, socio-economic, or religious factors, inhabits a “bubble.” Consequently, at the end of the analytic day, the social-political world is made up of countless, yet still identifiable bubbles that engage with one another relationally and associatively in bubble-fashion; that is to say, there is an inherent disconnect of political identity between groups that is aptly portrayed by the bubble metaphor—separate but possibly touching, visible to one another but afflicted with various degrees of blindness.
These bubbles may also display volatility, movement and transition. In this sense they are reminiscent of the economic bubbles described earlier. In fact, it is precisely the plurality of bubbles that is stressed here and brought into play as an illustrative portrayal of the political landscape. Thus, neither the SHELI voters or my student voters constituted a solitary bubble, since each could be depicted as a bubble alongside other bubbles, adjacent to, perhaps touching, even influencing one another. Under this bubbly scheme one is liable to talk about “The Tel-Aviv bubble,” “the yuppie bubble,” “the military bubble,” “the intellectual bubble,” “the arts bubble,” “the moneyed bubble.” But this, I believe, is rudimentary and merely serves as an evasion, dodging a deeper assessment of our social geography.8
Proceeding differently, a more nuanced, problematized generalization, or perhaps not a generalization at all, suggests that particular assemblies are more bubble-prone than others. Not all recognizable groups, as groups, are necessarily bubbles, only those that exhibit the blinkered, inward-looking insularity that makes them such. One fitting specimen of this peculiar type of bubble is familiar to us through another metaphor—the “ivory tower.” The “ivory tower” is a veritable label with known historical roots in the Bible, literature, and urban myths. It points to the conscious, even intentional, disengagement of intellectual academia from the real-world and in fact carries a clear, pejorative connotation of elitism.9 As a marker for this particular profession, the metaphorical concept of ivory tower functions within social and academic discourse as a strong moniker, laden with negative value-judgments for a circumscribed group. Its reference is indubitable and easily distinguished from other groups, be they bubbles or not. As a social concept the ivory tower holds a transparently descriptive sense and is unequivocally derogatory. However, concepts which identify such bubbles are neither generalizing conjectures (they point to specific, unique congregations as bubbles), nor are they necessarily political. They are clear and hold no conceptual mystery; they might not deliver a true problematization—and definitely not political problematization.
7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 17-19.↩
8. I do not say that this is not a correct depiction of said geography, only that it is a trivial one.↩
9. Sometimes the ivory tower is identified more closely with the Humanities than with the natural or hard sciences, but it is the reference to academia in general that is more common.↩