The Cult of Lived Reality: Reflections on the 2016 Ruth First Memorial Lecture


The 2016 Ruth First Memorial Lecture was held in mid-August. Its theme was “Violence and Rage”. Presentations were given by Lwandile Fikeni, Leigh-Ann Naidoo and Nolwazi Tusini. We find in the transcripts of these presentations, particularly those given by Mr. Fikeni and Ms. Naidoo, disconcerting but increasingly familiar ideas.

In their presentations, we encounter not only a justification of political violence, but the glorification and eroticisation of terror. There is no call for all people to work together to battle injustice. Instead, we read about hallucinations of a future where violence has cleansed the world of injustice. We are not asked to empathise with violent students, but to praise their aesthetic performances of rage. And so it goes, page after page, each line more contorted than the last.

I have previously written about #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, raising concerns about the violence that can flow from some of the key ideas imbibed by their “leaders”. I will not repeat myself. Rather, I want to explore a reason why some of the people who articulate and act on these ideas—why a loud, but thankfully still small group of people—who I will refer to here as “woke folk”, behave with a religious, bible-thumping rage.

Two Kinds of Rage

An important reason for much of the anger we see amongst students and ordinary people is the fact that they experience racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty and other injustices daily. These are real, pervasive problems. They demand our immediate attention. People courageous enough to confront these problems do so with passion—even rage. This is understandable and warranted. I am angry too. To this extent, they have my strong support.

But, there is another reason for the apoplectic anger of some—for the violent, revolutionary rage they try to glorify. This form of rage is different from the anger that comes from experiencing injustice. Its reason for being is different. This reason and this form of rage are my concern here.

God is Dead, Long Live God

What is the source of this form of anger—this violent, revolutionary rage? In part, I think, it arises from a failure to deal adequately with an experience that often accompanies the fact that we are self-conscious. Let me try to explain.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke claimed that “the mind will not endure a void”. He believed that as self-conscious creatures we require absolutes, unquestionable givens, to function as the structure within which our thinking takes place; to provide the foundations from which all our deliberation and action can proceed. Without these intellectual and practical constraints, he thought, we exist in a void, subjected to what Kant referred to as a “mad freedom”.

Historically, these absolutes existed in the forms of religion and tradition. During the Enlightenment, however, skepticism came to occupy a central place in our idea of truth. Over time, this idea and its attendant method of reasoned elaboration acquired a privileged status in our thinking about the world. This led to the undermining and, for many who belonged to the educated and ruling elites, eventual disintegration of the authority of religion and tradition.

It is this disintegration that Nietzsche, when later reflecting on these events, was referring to when he spoke of the death of god. He meant that the old absolutes that had formed the shared basis on which our thinking and acting proceeded were no longer credible.

With this death of god, we were left in the void.

But, no sooner had he died than he was resurrected in various forms. For Nietzsche, the death inspired his electrifying, evangelical and horrifying nihilistic vision. Others, like Burke about century before, doubled-down on tradition and religion. For others still, refuge was sought in "reason" or in "matter". It is the second of these last two groups—theorists who searched for new absolutes in the “universal laws” of the material world—that is relevant for our purposes.

A Short History of Woke Folk

Famously, Marx claimed to have turned Hegel on his head, in that Marx adopted much of Hegel’s conceptual framework, but substituted “matter” for “reason” as the driving force of history.

For the uninitiated, this will mean little. What must be understood is that for Marx our ideas and our institutions (values, principles, beliefs, commitments, laws, rules, system of government, etc.) are not the product of our capacity to reason. Ultimately, they are determined by the material conditions of the world in which we live. This is a universal law. For Marx, the material conditions that determine our ideas and institutions arise from the specific relations of production.

Since the mid-20th century, European and US academics have mechanically reproduced versions of Marx’s ideas (some more faithfully than others). Our universities have been heavily influenced by these theorists—especially post-colonial theorists like Fanon, Césaire and Sartre; theorists of power like Foucault; and more recently critical theorists who focus on law, race, feminism and gender.

What distinguishes members of this New Left, in essence, is the emphasis each places on the material conditions they think determines our ideas and institutions. Some still speak about economics, but others focus on race, sex, sexuality, gender, etc. More recently, we hear about intersectionality—the idea that all material conditions, all past experiences, go towards determining the content of our ideas and the forms of our institutions.

Through the New Left, woke folk have imbibed certain Marxist ideas. Of these, the most important is this subordination of reason to matter. An aspect of this idea that is critical to understanding their violent, revolutionary rage is captured in the term “lived reality”.

The Cult of Lived Reality

For woke folk, the concept of lived reality means at least two things. First, others cannot legitimately question the fact of our personal experiences or sensations, that is, how we feel in a given moment. Second, others cannot legitimately question the subsequent articulation—the recollection, packaging and telling as stories or as a narrative—of these experiences to others or ourselves.

This concept, in terms of which nothing can fully be shared with others, produces an extreme relativism. We are absolutely alone, islands unto ourselves. This is why we sometimes hear the most woke folk insisting that we “recognise the lived truths” of others.

Practically-speaking, the distinction between sensations and narrative, between our feelings and our stories, is crucial. Not only is story-telling relevant to our capacity to access universal facts and ideas, it also finally frames our reality, it shapes our perception of others and the world, and it is vital to our practical evaluation of different choices and decisions.

If narrative can be shared, if we can share history and develop a shared consciousness, the possibility of interrogating others becomes real. If narrative can be shared, it is possible that very different persons can come together and reach agreement on political issues, not as isolated allies but as equal partners. As Njabulo Ndebele told us almost 20 years ago, it is in the possibility of having a shared national story that we might discover a way to unify and reconcile in the manner contemplated by the Constitution.

It is plausible that we cannot interrogate or share our immediate experiences—since our physical and mental sensations might be utterly private. But, this is not clearly so for any subsequent narrative we construct about these experiences. Equipped with shared concepts and our capacity to empathise, our imaginative faculties appear to be ideally suited to performing this function.

For woke folk, though, there is just no discussion to be had about these distinctions and the merits of these ideas. Why?

Ever since the death of god, the collapse of old absolutes, many intellectuals have been left without established constraints or guides. Fearful of the madness that might ensue, they sought replacements. Some found and still find a substitute in the concepts handed down by the post-modern New Left.

It is because the concept of lived reality operates as an absolute, an unquestionable given, that many woke folk close their ears to the possibility that they might be wrong. Because it is an article of faith, they just refuse to question it.

In this refusal, they establish their Cult of Lived Reality.

Violence, Revolution and Rage

Much like their 1789 predecessors, but as Marx predicted, this time farcically not tragically, these cultists have begun to construct their Temples. In the main, they do not do this by creating something new, but by seizing existing public spaces—by creating “safe spaces” in which they hope to find peace, in which they hope to secure salvation.

Of course, only the faithful may enter these Temples, these safe spaces surrounded by the threatening dar al-harb. Like good absolutists, they forcefully resist threats to the sanctity of these spaces—that is, anyone who does not conform to their revealed truths, rituals or canons.

When confronted by people who question their faith, or act contrary to it by trying to participate as equals in political and moral discussion, they react with a desperate, frightened rage:

“Sit down!” they scream, their voices breaking and eyes burning with tears. Moving closer as they realise that their lusted-after enemy is not submitting to their individual commands, they now collectively and convulsively bawl in agonistic rage: “This isn’t your space! You don’t have a voice here! Sit down now!”

What happens next?

In part, Ms. Naidoo explains, reciting from the approved books of common prayer, this depends on whether we are living in the “objective conditions for revolution”. If so, all measures are justified by the cause—by the Revolution.

But, it also depends on the side you fall in the war for their imagined, their hallucinated world.

If you are oppressed, then all of your enemies must be liquidated, regardless of whether they “are in good or bad faith, whether personally they have good or bad intentions”. Such subjective considerations, Césaire glibly informs, are “entirely irrelevant to the objective social implications of the evil work they perform”. Or, in more recent and familiar terms, there is just no time to fret over their “tears”. One does what is necessary, or one gives up—and we know what happens to cowards.

On the other hand, if I am an oppressor (white, rich, heterosexual, cisgender or male, etc.) and if I am also alive to my status, then “my body, as part of the structural violence, must be on the line as well”.

I must have read these words two dozen times. They still horrify me. Written by a woman living in a country plagued by sexual violence, they surely shatter any last illusions about what woke ideology, the Cult of Lived Reality, means in practice.

So intense is her faith, so crippling is her guilt, she looks forward to the day that she can atone for her sin—her existence. When it comes, like the virgins of old she will not wait to be thrown into the volcano. Lest she anger the gods, she will dive in. In her self-sacrifice, she will prove once and for all that she is an ally. In this ultimate submission, she will find her peace.

The metaphysics and ideology of woke folk produces a Cult of Lived Reality. If the cultists are true to the faith, they will be consumed by a violent, revolutionary rage. If they act on this rage, Camus explained, it will always lead to murder or suicide.

The Woking Dead

The speakers at the 2016 Ruth First Memorial Lecture dream of a future where violence, revolution and rage have cleansed the world of injustice.

But, why do they dream at all? There is no need, for we can look to the past. We know what violent, revolutionary rage brings. It does not bring glory, but ignominy. It does not bring pleasure, but pain. Its performance has no positive aesthetic qualities. It is neither beautiful nor sublime. It is petty, ugly and cruel. It brings only death. To paraphrase Adorno, after their revolution there will be no art at all—just ignominy, pain, pettiness, ugliness, cruelty and death.

These folk claim to be woke, but in truth they are dead to the world. They walk about, unthinkingly repeating received phrases, dreaming of a utopia ushered in through the spilling of blood. They must wake up. They must stop dreaming before the nightmare begins.