Bubble : Anat Biletzki

A Problematized Bubble

We are speaking here of the concept of a political bubble: not a (similar-to-economic) bubble, fleeting and at risk of bursting; not a tautological “bubble” serving as a label for any grouping as opposed to other groupings; and not even a label for a self-enclosed group that may present bubble characteristics sans political purchase. The point of a political bubble must be made perspicuous and we turn to one bubble in particular as our paradigm.10

The bubble of which I speak, when—or if—it functions politically, is a case of problematical, perhaps paradoxical, even self-contradictory leverage. Different from the ivory tower, which is simply recognized via superficial, external pointers (to a professional, academic occupation), this bubble possesses a set of intersecting qualities of intellectuals, academics who are almost exclusively in the Humanities, leftists, postmodernists, artists, and, rarely, a certain very unusual group of radical politicians.11 The outstanding characteristic of this bubble is precisely its political interest, engagement and commitment. Indeed, there is an explicit denial of detachment—this bubble does not, in any sense, consider itself a bubble. On the contrary, the bubble is vociferously preoccupied with conversing about and with the political community. But it is precisely intellectual, academic, artistic, leftist humanists that have succeeded in creating a devastating failure of political awareness by adopting a bubble mentality, a bubble language, a bubble existence, and, contrary to perchance untainted intention, a political bubble behavior. The bubble’s conduct might aspire to activism, but it is self-refuting. The bubble is a political bubble, conscious of its politicality yet unconscious of its bubblehood.

Two fundamental features of this political, ultra-progressive bubble require explicatory elaboration. First: critique. The bubble’s modus operandi is nothing if not critical. Criticism, in certain well-known quarters, provides the means but becomes the end for the bubble’s agenda. Viewing everything outside the bubble as open to critique, inhabitants of the bubble censure far more than the simple targets—the powers that be or conventional political authorities—that have been traditional objects of political unrest.12 Indeed, all institutional authorities, along with their yea-sayers and cheer-leaders, are dissected in critical discourse: government, of course, and also the courts, the police, and the media. More significantly, the culture itself (its agents and participants) are brought up for critical analysis and subsequent reproach. Second: radicalism. The bubble, when it is an authentic bubble, cannot but be radical. It is a radical critique of both political institutions and cultural mores, from the root, and is not satisfied with merely local or topical disparagement. It is rather, insistent on wholesale, extensive and comprehensive change. Such radicalism feeds into the bubble’s critique, guiding it as both means and end and providing the conceptual scaffolding for critical de-con-struction.

It is thought-provoking that these properties of the political bubble—critique and radicalism—are not independent of, and actually derive from, the intellectual, academic fundamentals that have contributed to the grounding of the bubble’s political progressivism. Without rehearsing the steps taken on the road from modernism to the present, I will signal here only to those moments that cater to our paradoxical problematics. The philosophical skepticism born of the Enlightenment, with its attendant rationalism and deep-seated humanism, is sometimes seen as the harbinger of critique and radicalism; but not quite.

Viewed politically, modern liberalism, as an articulation of the Enlightenment, was not an isolationist worldview distinguishing and differentiating the critic from the society that was the object of his criticism. On the contrary, liberalism’s protagonists viewed themselves on a par with the members of their society, as brothers in arms against absolutist authorities, both secular and religious. If anything or anybody could be seen as a bubble it was those absolute authorities, absolutely separate from the group, the nation, the people; it was their bubblehood which was under attack. But it is, paradoxically, the embrace of that skepticism, taken to its logical conclusion and now targeting rationalism and traditional humanism that has taken ultra-progressivism down the road of full-throttled critique and utter radicalism. Logically again, this is the reasonable philosophical move from modernism to postmodernism. But the political move that constitutes the discourse of postmodernism is in part, even in large part, to blame for the current insularity and inscrutability of the political bubble at hand.

Another Detour

Let us return to Wittgenstein for a moment, and to his renditions of two bubbles that may be useful for our understanding of the concept. Famously, the Tractatus has a drawing of a bubble as one of only two illustrations in the book.13 I am speaking of the famous:

Tractatus Eye

No less famous is the conclusion Wittgenstein draws from this bubble:

Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.14

Wittgenstein has here identified the problem of solipsism: it cannot really be distinguished from realism. The solipsist’s world is the real world, or, more to the point, his real world. Whether the objective “real” world and the subjective solipsistic world are one and the same is a matter for genuine analysis, best left to Wittgensteinian exegetes. Such, however, is our grievance against the political bubble at issue here. Being in the bubble, its inhabitants fail to engage—except in insular, critical mode—with a world outside the bubble, since they can only perceive the inside of the bubble.

Like early Wittgenstein, later Wittgenstein does not talk of bubbles, per se. But he is surely aware of the bubble within which philosophers function. He talks not of intellectuals or academics, but specifically of traditional philosophers who are caught in a “picture,” very like our bubble. In his inimitable words: “[A] picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.”15 The important insight here has to do with language use: a habitual, obsessive, communal language-game—call it philosophy—has made us blind to the kind of discourse that is truer to real life. In an enticing extrapolation I submit that our discourse within the academic, intellectual, critical, radical bubble has overwhelmed us, severing our political understanding from political real life.

10. “Perspicuous” harkens, again, to Wittgenstein. Shunning explanations and generalizations, Wittgenstein sees the role of philosophy as making things perspicuous (via examples and reminders) and thereby bringing us to understanding. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §122.

11. I use this word seriously and reservedly. It is not a catchword for contemporary popularity that abides in specific subject areas in academia but rather a reference to a profound philosophical, literary, and historical attitude from which specific political stances are (usually) derived.

12. I cannot do justice here to the enterprise of critical theory; it is the natural abode of bubble critique.

13. Wittgenstein himself does not make use of the concept “bubble” in drawing out these lessons; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. David Pears and Brian McGuinness (New York: Humanities Press, 1961), 5.6331.

14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.64.

15. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §115.

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