exceptionalism, narcissism and postmodernity

I presented a paper at a conference at Brock University in March – “Thinking About Animals: Domination, Captivity, Liberation”. Whilst my paper was directed at animal activists, it had a broader undercurrent. Much of what I was raising I have seen widespread in activist circles.

My paper was titled Animal Liberation: symbolic action, un/civil disobedience & the use of fear. In this paper I was commenting on tactics adopted actions across the board – as I think the title indicates. The immediate context of this was the publishing if Lee Hall’s Capers in the Churchyard – animal rights advocacy in the age of terror (Nectar bat Press) and radio interview with Steve Best on Animal Voices in September 2006. I made my views about the interview known with these later posted on the Animal Voices website. In the paper, I made significant reference to the edited volume Terrorists or freedom fighters – reflections on the liberation of animals (Lantern Press).

The crux of my paper (which I hope to have published soon, including an audio recording – details will be added) was very critical of progressive activists, specifically those of what might be considered the ‘Seattle’ generation – in reference to the WTO demonstrations (N30) 1999. What I have noted, and I was drawing from activism well beyond N30 and in different locations, is that a relational narcissism is present and persistent in grass-roots activism today. This relational narcissism is a result and embodiment of American Exceptionalism – somewhat ironic given that which we profess to be trying to achieve.

All of this is, however, not the focus of this post. The conference afforded great opportunities to network and meet others with similar interests. It was the paper given by John Sambonmatsu (a late addition keynote speaker) that I drew much from. Both his ability to articulate academic theory (and praxis) in an absorbable manner and the content of what he presented were more than refreshing.

The basis of my critiques gelled with much of what John presented and I was pleased that John was able to come to my session and question some of my positions. With John’s closing keynote address immediately after that session, we arranged to go out for a refreshing beverage and some food.

At the conference John had made copies of his 2004 book The Postmodern Prince – critical theory, left strategy and the making of a new political subject (Monthly Review Press). I was on hand to pick-up the last copy, though offered it to someone else who was after it. My intent was to pick up a copy off John directly or later. John had no other copies with him and I finally picked up a copy this week.*

I am only two chapters into this book and finding much of what he presents very challenging, though with a sound basis. I am pretty certain I will need to re-read the entire book at least once through after this read. He is very critical of the New Left (what emerged from 60s radicalism) and the postmodern turn in academia (when he derided postmodernism at the Brock conference I could not help but let out a chuckle and some applause).

Whilst challenging, I am enjoying reading this book. It differs from much of what I have read over the last 6 months. Whilst I want to be challenged, I hope that John’s critique of Foucault (Chapter five) does not derail the work in my dissertation that I hope to submit very soon…

That said, I think it offers much to think about for progressive activist-thinkers. I think it would be valuable reading for activists more broadly, though the terminology and assumed knowledge is substantial making it less approachable for non-academics. Upon finishing, I hope to be able to write a concise account in an approachable manner.


* I also picked up a copy of something I have wanted to read for a little while – Peter Gelderloos’ How non-violence protects the state (South End Press). I have heard numerous criticisms of this work, though thought it worth a look at.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *