Promise Me

ESSAY BY RAHEL JAEGGI

What does it mean to be committed? What kind of relationship is commitment and what does it involve? Commitment can be shown to a person, but also to a thing, an idea or an institution. Being committed means something between faithfulness and loyalty, duty and attachment, solidarity and dedication. When you are committed, you settle on something. The expression "committed relationship" expresses the decision to live your life together exclusively and a financial commitment defines an investment.

What you do is then more than a passing fancy, but determines who you are and will be and under what conditions you will act in the future. Being committed is the opposite of indifference – an indifference that cannot be affected by anything, not by the world, not by others. It means the identification with a thing and is thus the opposite of the attitude that is connected to the world merely by the ruthless pursuit of one's own interests.

Last but not least, commitment is a reminder of the attitude of engagement. The "engaged intellectual" not only tries to understand the present, but to change it. Committed is the one who not on observes, but intervenes. The committed intellectual is someone for whom theory and practice have always been closely interwoven: Political practice is then a precondition for theoretical reflection, just as this reflection is a precondition for motivating and enabling new strategies and practical interventions. Such an approach means not only analyzing, but also taking sides, without being biased.

A commitment is not only about what already exists, but about what could or should exist.

Why is it necessary to emphasize something like commitment? When you pursue a project, you just pursue it. If you are interested in something, you stick to it. If you love your friends or partners, you do everything to spend your life with them. But a commitment is more than just a status description, it is a promise. Being committed means that you stand up for something and pursue something, even against all odds. A commitment is not only about what already exists, but about what could or should exist. In this sense it is an anchor into the future. A bond that guides what you do.

Commitment then means standing up for each other and for a cause, taking the promise of solidarity seriously. And as with solidarity, commitment is not a feeling, but a practice. This practice can manifest itself in institutions. And the institutions, conversely, are a precondition for the existence of this practice. It is the moment of founding and of the new that appears here. That which I commit to might not yet exist – but it comes into being with this very act. It would therefore be a misunderstanding to see commitment as a conservative secondary virtue. Commitment to a cause, a project, creates a new reality just as much as it responds to the problems of the existing one.

THE NEW INSTITUTE – an institute that is not only new itself, as an institution, but that wants to bring about the new, in the form of social change, depends on the commitment of all participants. And it has its right to exist in that it commits itself – not to existing certainties and institutions, but to what is still possible and uncertain. Commitment as committing oneself to an exploratory movement: That sounds paradoxical. But it is precisely the attitude that the crisis of our present demands.


Rahel Jaeggi is the founding director of The Humanities and Social Change Center at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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