Bubble : Anat Biletzki

Other Political Bubbles

Neither of these Wittgensteinian bubble-like scenarios was meant as the political bubble-situation that invigorates our quandaries. Both, however, gesture to the intuition I am trying to articulate concerning political bubbles: the amalgamation of a solipsistic proclivity for (what is considered by the solipsist to be) the real world and the epistemic, but more so, linguistic prison within which inhabitants of bubbles conduct their discourse. Examples abound, so, returning to Wittgenstein and his instruction to collect reminders and reverting once again to personal-anecdotal fashion, let us briefly observe three such poignant bubble-instances.16 The first was a conference which took place in 2004 in Jerusalem and at which Judith Butler presented the opening address. Butler began her lecture with a startling appraisal of the size and power of the progressive Jewish community in the U.S., saying that groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or the Tikkun community numbered tens of thousands of supporters, while AIPAC represented a much smaller number of (admittedly wealthy) persons. Eight years later it is instructive to note that AIPAC still commands far more allegiance (of both policy makers and American Jews) than any progressive Jewish group.

The second example of bubblehood occurred in March 2009, at another conference in Boston, where scholars and activists supporting the One State Solution (OSS) for the Zionist-Palestinian conflict filled to capacity a lecture hall of 350 people. One of the conference speakers remarked that only two years earlier supporters of the OSS could all fit into a phone booth; this was representative of the gratification and optimism that energized the conference’s participants. It is instructive to note, however, that polls today place supporters of the OSS as a peripheral, marginal group with no political presence to speak of. That is to say, 350 people do not a revolution make.

Finally, our third bubble-instance has to do with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling for such actions towards Israel as the ultimate tool for condemning its continuing mistreatment of the Palestinians. One outstanding achievement of the BDS movement was the ousting, following a campaign by activists, of the Israeli cosmetics company Ahava (complicit in the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank) from its London store in the fall of 2011. It is instructive to note that during the same period that the movement was celebrating the success of the boycott campaign against Ahava not only did the British Museum refuse to end its scientific research cooperation with the company, but the OECD—the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development—invited Israel to join and co-signed an accession agreement. Yes, BDS is successful; but might it be no more than a successful bubble?17

So what is a political bubble? A political bubble is the epistemological and behavioral space of—usually—politically-conscious persons that prevents them from correctly gauging their power and influence, leading to a false optimism, an internally self-reflective discourse, and, in the case of academia, an awkward and sometimes even convoluted remove from real political life. There is an inherently paradoxical essence to a political-intellectual bubble: its bubblehood belies its purported intellectual interest in the political. In fact, being in an intellectual political bubble seems to be a matter of a priori self-immolation: we shall talk, think, discuss, dissect, construct, and even recreate the political without making place or space for real contact with it. Academic conferences, programs, and projects that inhere in such intellectual contexts can be, and have been, straightforwardly described as rarefied. But can politics be rarefied? The political demands plebeian partnership, does it not?

What is to be done? At the risk of abusing popular (albeit still rarefied) clichés, we can certainly embrace Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: instead of continuing to be merely another incarnation of traditional philosophers who interpret the world, even the political world, the point must be to change it. One recommendation often made towards members of the bubble is to soften the critique and moderate the radicalism, thereby being more relevant to effecting change. That is not the recommendation I propose. Rather, the change needed can only be attained by reaching outside the bubble while insisting on the ethical and critically political principles that justifiably create its internal import. I do not contend here that one can draft a straight, unproblematic line connecting the intellectual-academic sphere and that of action, political action, so to speak, by merely engaging in political activism of sorts. Such a step does not address the problem of bubblehood; it can even reinforce the divorce between bubble mentality and the polis accentuating the difference between politics “on the ground” and bubble-talk about politics.

Unfortunately, we might be faced with the fact that there is no theoretical solution of this paradox on offer, no conceptual resolution. Rather, there can only be a change in practical discourse, i.e., in the conversation within bubbles and accordingly in academic-political praxis. Returning to Wittgenstein yet again, there might only be a version of his ultimate answer when asked for (theoretical) foundations: “This is simply what I do.”18 So true to “assembling reminders,” I now turn to a final example, one more description of the splendid possibility of stepping out of a bubble.

16. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §127; These instances all relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a context with which I am familiar enough to, literally, collect reminders.

17. The store in London is not the only material BDS achievement regarding Ahava. Note should also be taken of additional Ahava hardships in Japan and Norway and many more BDS accomplishments regarding other products and venues. These do not impinge on my substantive point of comparison between relative effects of the BDS and other powerful parties; The judgment of the shortcomings of bubblehood—be it of radical Jewish groups, the OSS, or the BDS—does not in any sense reflect my support for or positive valuation of these groups and movements. On the contrary.

18. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §217.

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