An Interview with Bradley Coufal (archive 2012)

Skepoet: I discovered your blog through Douglas Lain podcast and he described you as venturing into activism after really getting into Zizek:  What prompted that exactly?

Bradley Coufal: I had been reading Zizek for a few years before going to graduate school. At the University of New Mexico I studied with Adrian Johnston who is a student of Zizek’s. I decided to leave the university for a number of reasons but the primary one had to do with a fundamental gap between what I was studying (German Idealism into the history of the Marxist tradition) and the intuitions in which I found myself (a university system that is basically functioning as a debt creating apparatus now that mortgage based debt had busted). Not the mention the sort of contradictions I found in studying a history of thought which is said to support and benefit the working class while hiding away in classrooms. A part of me just wanted to really get out there and talk to people about these things. I may return to the university in the future but for now I’m doing other things. I still study philosophy and am constantly reading so it’s not a major change for me.

Skepoet: Has #occupy helped clarify any of your thinking in that regard?

Bradley Coufal: Clarify my thinking in what regard? Sorry, I just want to be sure I’m clear on what you’re asking.

Skepoet: Sorry for the vagueness, clarify your thinking in regards to applying your philosophical background to a particular praxis?

Bradley Coufal: I want to make clear that I am not one of those Marxists who think if we could get everyone to understand Marx then revolution would surely happen. I believe philosophy, the true philosophy, is about always attempting to antagonize in the sense of posing questions and positions which force a particular logic to confront its own contradictions and limitations. Philosophy’s most powerful function is to undermine another position on it’s own accord-by it’s own standards. I think the Marxist tradition, at least with regard to something like ideology, is about recognizing the elicit claims (of capitalism) while, at the same time, expounding the implicit symptoms of (capitalism’s) mystification and attempt to situation them so the destabilizing contradictions become more apparent. In my discussions and speeches at occupy I have taken this approach. I noticed that much of what occupiers recognize as problems are merely symptoms of a systemic problem. What I have attempted to do thus far is give some very clear arguments and lines of thought that (hopefully) bring some of this to light for others. My point of departure with many classic Marxists is that I do not think contradiction necessarily entails a dialectical movement to some greater form of freedom. I think there is now, more than ever, the possibility of, one the one hand, a contradiction being, itself, the ground for a structure of hegemony or, on the other hand, the overcoming of a contradiction instantiating something far worse in order to maintain some semblance of the former structure. I would like to note here that when I talk about people recognizing symptoms of capitalism as problems I do not mean structures of oppression or power such as race, gender, etc. I am referring strictly to those socioeconomic and political symptoms at the heart of the occupy movement (government/corporate ties in particular). Sorry if that didn’t quite answer your question. To sum it up I think the greatest thing philosophy can do is recognize a historical position as having formulated a number of answers based on some structure of thought functioning as a source of mystification and proceeding to provide the questions to those answer in a way that subverts that mystification. It’s a field whose sole purpose is to provide a reading of another field in a way that could not be given from within said field. Right now politics is in need some philosophy.

Skepoet: Do find that this produces cognitive dissonance in the people you talk to?

Bradley Coufal: I hope so.

Skepoet:  How important do you think an Althusserian concept of ideology is key to liberal reformism in Occupy?

Bradley Coufal: For liberal reform, itself, to function as a position I do not think it’s important at all. My interest in Althusser’s (and Lukacs’s) depiction of ideology is with regard to recognizing the ideological structure of the state, the dominating class, or whatever does not simply exist “out there”. With regard to occupy I am a bit torn, here. I do not think it is necessarily key that everyone understand that ideology is wrapped up with subjectivity and that it’s the air we breathe but it would surely help. On the other hand I think there is the risk of people assuming that recognizing this, in thought, is tantamount to overcoming it. Althusser even makes clear that those who assume they are outside ideology are the most ideologically trapped. For me, I think we Marxists can recognize this (Althussarian) position and act as if we are not anti-humanists in order to engage subjects to confront that which they have subjected themselves to in order to form an identity.

Skepoet:  Do you find working within a consensus framework helpful, limiting, or both?

Bradley Coufal: As far as the consensus framework I am, again, torn. It’s exciting to see all voices being engaged but, and maybe this is me being a bit of an asshole, I find a lot of the back and forth among occupiers to be a waste of time. I have heard some criticism for this attitude but I am in no way interested in some pseudo-relativist, one love sort of thing where we all agree that we all have to listen and understand each and every voice and the rest of it. I have found a great deal of people involved with Occupy Austin to be idiots and to deny my position as a possibility would be to undermine the (one love) position I just described. This is something I find interesting at times. One will make the claim that all positions are valid until someone has the position of “I do not care about your position because it’s wrong and here’s why…”. Suddenly, then, all talk about preserving all voices is ended. I want to unpack this spontaneous urge to allow the seemingly vacant position of authority to act as an authority against positions demanding a position be taken. I think Lenin was onto this same sort of thing. At some point we do have to say yes/no.

Skepoet:  Do you think banality in a lot of back and forth is because a lack of historical reference or the fact that a lot of these people are getting a voice for the first time or a bit of both?

Bradley Coufal: It’s difficult to really answer but I would assume it’s a bit of both. The banality, for me, has come from hearing people basically argue for internalized political campaign slogans and point to all sorts of symptoms of failures of capitalism while providing nothing more than reformist plans of action which assume these symptoms are the result of having improper capitalism rather than “real capitalism”. It’s exciting to hear people finally having a chance to be heard and I fully encourage it but I hope many of the occupiers will leave these GAs with more questions than answers.

Skepoet:  Do you think Occupy has severed a lot of left liberal loyalty to Obama?

Bradley Coufal: I think a lot of former Obama supporters have come to occupy because they had severed their loyalty. I was surprised to have not really met a single occupier who believed Obama, and the Democratic party for that matter, was any different than the other options. If anything can be said to be most in consensus among the GA it is the recognition that there is one party. Some still speak of excuses for why Obama didn’t do this or that but mostly I think this movement has made clear that the liberal democratic system has totally failed if we hold the expectation that representation is democratic.

Skepoet:  So what does this mean practically?

Bradley Coufal: To be honest, I don’t know.

Skepoet:   I appreciate your honesty. Do you see this as moment of re-invigoration for “the left”?   Do you think that Marxism has really made a come back as a viable principle in this. Many are arguing that the anarchists have really been more on top of things than left-liberals or the Marxists in #Occupy?

Bradley Coufal: Here’s what I can say about this from my experience. I think Marxism has had the misfortune of having been trapped in academia for a long time now. Again, this is part of my motivation to get involved in activism. Anarchists seem to, at least here in Austin, make up the majority of seasoned activists so their ability to really organize and make solid decisions does not surprise me. As far as comparing the two I see the situation as this: Anarchism, I think, comes across as a much more accessible system of thought for someone just getting involved in activism or just beginning to revolt against the status quo, even in thought, because it is a system of thought that still maintains the position that ideology, along with all institutions of power, are to be overcome. This brings up back to Lukacs and Althusser. Anarchists, at least those I have met, generally seem to see ideology as an outside force in a way that fails to really take into account some of the more psychological dimensions of it all. In this sense I think it is easier to be an anarchist than a communist because anarchism poses an outright emphasis on individuals (as Western culture already does), seems to equate a recognition of ideological structures with negating said structures, and sets up a sort of either/or with statist/antistatist positions. I realize there is so much to be unpacked here but for the sake of the interview format I am generalizing quite a bit. Nonetheless, I think anarchism has the advantage of being much a much more simplistic position which makes itself appealing to many.

Skepoet:   Do you see occupy moving forward significantly in the winter months?

Bradley Coufal: I am wondering what the winter months will bring for the occupation with regard to the weather. I have been saying for months that the occupations would probably not make it past the winter months simply because it’s going to get too cold in most part of the country to continue occupying these locations 24/7. With that being said I think it is simply the 24/7 aspect of the occupation that will end. I will be interested in seeing how solid the networking and organization has become over the past few months.There are big thing in the works such as the December 12 national port blockades. There has also been a movement across the country to occupy various meetings of institutions of power and mic check them in order to force our voice into these discussions. A great example of this happened about a week ago at the University of Texas where a group of occupiers mic checked a meeting discussing plans to raise tuition costs. It will be these sorts of acts happening on a regular basis along with strategies to infiltrate and (hopefully) attempt to slowly replace these institutions with our own organizations that will really instantiate the occupy movement as a serious political movement. I think Zizek was right when he said, with regard to occupy wallstreet, it is not simply what we are doing here while it lasts that is important but, rather, what we do the day after. We have already proven to ourselves and others that we are fully capable of coming together in a powerful way. All we need to do is continue.

Skepoet:   Do you think the battle over the narrative, which is to say an ideological battle, over the meaning of these events, is going to heat up?

Bradley Coufal: As far as an ideological battle I think these sorts of struggles will come and go. From within the occupations I am happy to see a lot of occupiers maintaining the position that developing a position which speaks for the entire group (in the sense of saying what the group wants and from whom it wants it) is not something they are interested in doing. I think maintaining some ideological fragmentation at this stage is necessarily. As a Marxist I think it is simply a matter of time before the real economic conditions make themselves more and more evident. The weekly discussions I have been involved in often lead to this sort of breaking point apropos the failures of capitalist logic v. those defending this logic (with reformist intentions) based solely on some sort of belief. In the end I do not think it will be a matter of Marxists defining the movement v. anarchists defining it. Those I have met who are at the forefront of the activities here in Austin are fully aware of the retroactive historicism that will come and we are simply trying to understand what we are doing as we do it. I will say, however, that the battle over ideological narrative will most certainly begin being fought between those involved in party politics. If anything I want to urge those involved in the occupations to resist letting this movement be taken over by Obama supporters, Obama haters, etc. We have already gotten this far without the need of these institutions and it will be unfortunate if the occupy movement becomes, for the left, what the Tea Party movement has become for the right.

Skepoet: Thank you for your time.

Bradley Coufal: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to spontaneously work through some questions.

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