The editors were expressing a sentiment … that I shared but hadn’t yet been able to articulate to myself: a disappointment, or irritation, with the existing intellectual alternatives. Also a reminder that there was such a thing as thinking, and that you could fail to do it.
As an environmental activist, I learned early on that the futility of the environmentalist project—the perpetual ecological devastation, the general apathy of the populace—was a great source of dark humor, the kind that galvanized me to keep going. It had better be: if you don’t photosynthesize energy from it, futility will exhaust you to the point of burnout. And burnout means you’ll quit being an activist, which is to say you’ll stop working toward solutions and become a normal citizen who’s merely part of the problem. While it’s tempting to put your feet up and quit fighting, especially when the work is thankless and unpaid, and difficult, and prevents you from living a normal life, and especially when you see plainly this is a struggle you’ll never win, you can’t. Because even if you quit fighting, you’ll never quit thinking. About the importance of a healthy landbase, the avoidable effects of runaway climate change, the horrors of resource extraction. You’ll never quit finding new angles on the problem, if only in your mind, and you’ll never quit wishing there were more people who felt like you did, who were out there photosynthesizing raw ideas into practical solutions. What spurred me to keep going was the darkest joke of all: that I couldn’t quit being an activist because the alternative—thinking and not doing—would surely drive me mad.
The recent issue of The Point asks the question: What are intellectuals for? If we cast aside the flawed notion that certain people are primarily dedicated to intellection, and instead opt for the more inclusive notion that many people are thinking people, if not intellectuals per se, then we can broaden this question to mean: What is thinking for? The Point’s editor Jon Baskin interrogates thinking life vis-à-vis the leftist “little magazines” like Jacobin and n+1 that have cropped up in the last fifteen years. Little though they may be, they form the backdrop of public intellectual life, at least for the left, but, he says,
When everything is political, everything is threatened by the tendency of the political to reduce thinking to positioning. He articulates a longstanding problem for the leftist intellectual, essentially that it is an elitist, leisure-class occupation, the “tension” of which is mirrored in these publications. I share with the author the
disappointment, or irritation, with the existing intellectual alternatives. But the activist in me would argue that when thinking is decoupled from action—when thinking as a lifestyle is not matched by equal will—a surfeit of energy remains, and it irritates.