Saturday, February 16, 2019
The rise of populism, nativism and nationalism in recent years has challenged perceptions of what ordinary people want from politicians. Some see the anti-establishment trend as a rejection of centralised power. Others suggest the real hunger is for a moral authority that appears to be lacking in today’s capitalism.
Among the latter group is Slavoj Zizek, a Marxist philosopher at the University of Ljubljana. He criticises the appeal of political correctness, questions the ability of markets to survive without state intervention and excoriates what he sees as the ulterior motives behind fair-trade coffee.
His latest book, “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight”, explores the changing nature of social progress in what he calls an “era of post-humanity”. Mr Zizek responded to five questions as part of The Economist’s Open Future initiative. His replies are followed by an excerpt from the book.
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The Economist: What do you mean by “the era of post-humanity”? What characterises it?
Slavoj Zizek: It is not primarily the automatisation and robotisation of the production process but much more the expanding role of science, machines and digital media in social control and regulation. The detailed registration of all our acts and habits enables the digital machine to know ourselves, even our psyche, better than we know ourselves. In this way, social control no longer needs to be exerted in the old “totalitarian” mode, through open domination—we are already manipulated and regulated when we act freely, just following our needs and desires.
But there is another feature which justifies the term “post-humanity”: the prospect of the direct link between our brain and the digital network. When this happens, we lose the basic distance which makes us human, the distance between external reality and our inner life where we can “think what we want.” With my thoughts, I can directly intervene in reality—but the machine also directly knows what I think.
In the last years of his life, Stephen Hawking experimented with a technology to communicate with the world—his brain was connected to a computer, so that his thoughts could choose words and form sentences, which were then relayed to a voice synthesizer to be spoken aloud. Fredric Jameson noted that, today, it is much more easy to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This sarcastic insight is today becoming reality: it looks that, in some new form, capitalism will effectively survive the end, not of the world, but of humanity.
The Economist: Brexit and the rise of populist politicians seem to show that voters want to be protected from the harder edges of globalisation. So, back to Jameson’s thought, is it still easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the free-market consensus associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan?
Mr Zizek: As with fascism, I think that populism is simply a new way to imagine capitalism without its harder edges; a capitalism without its socially disruptive effects. Populism is one of today’s two opiums of the people: one is the people, and the other is opium itself. Chemistry (in its scientific version) is becoming part of us: large aspects of our lives are characterised by the management of our emotions by drugs, from everyday use of sleeping pills and antidepressants to hard narcotics. We are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers, our very emotions are “outsourced” to chemical stimulation. What remains of the passionate public engagement in the West is mostly the populist hatred, and this brings us to the other second opium of the people, the people itself, the fuzzy populist dream destined to obfuscate our own antagonisms.
The Economist: In 1968, Jacques Lacan told student protesters in Paris that “what you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.” Does the appeal of populists and so-called strong-men reflect a desire for authority that liberal democracy can't provide?
Mr Zizek: Yes, but in a way different from the one that Lacan had in mind in his pessimist reading of the 1968 turmoil. For Lacan, the consequence of 1968 was the decline of the old (directly authoritarian) figure of the master and the rise of a new master figure, than of the expert—what Lacan baptised the “university discourse.” Just think about how today economic measures are justified—not as an expression of political will and positive social vision but as a consequence of neutral knowledge: it has to be done, this is how markets work.
Just recall how the experts in Brussels acted in negotiations with Greece’s Syriza government during the euro crisis in 2014: no debate, this has to be done. I think that today’s populism reacts to the fact that experts are not really masters, that their expertise doesn’t work—again, just remember how the 2008 financial meltdown caught the experts unprepared. Against the background of this fiasco, the traditional authoritarian master is making a comeback, even if it is a clown. Whatever Trump is, he is not an expert.
The Economist: Do you want a new master?
Mr Zizek: Surprisingly, YES, I do want it. But what kind of master? We usually see a master as someone who exerts domination, but there is another, more authentic, sense of a master. A true master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, his message is not “You cannot!”, nor “You have to…!”, but a releasing “You can!”—what? Do the impossible, ie, what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation. And today, this means something very precise: you can think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives.
A master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom. When we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we “always-already” wanted without knowing it). A master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly—for to gain this access, we have to be pushed from outside, since our “natural state” is one of inert hedonism; of what Alain Badiou called the “human animal.”
The underlying paradox here is that the more we live as “free individuals with no master,” the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities. We have to be pushed or disturbed into freedom by a master.
The Economist: You have argued for the "occupation" of the digital grid, but how can ordinary people hold big tech firms to account if only a tiny fraction of us are capable of comprehending an algorithm?
Mr Zizek: True, we—the majority—don’t understand the details of algorithms, but we can easily understand how we are controlled by the digital grid. Moreover, I don’t think the experts themselves fully understand how the digital grid really works, plus those who exploit their knowledge also do not know the technical details.
Do you think that when Steve Bannon mobilised Cambridge Analytica, he understood the algorithmic details of its work? Or take ecology: to grasp global warming and the ozone hole, you need science which most of us don’t understand, but we nonetheless can fight against the prospect of ecological catastrophe.
There are risks of manipulation here, of course, but we have to accept them. We have to abandon the naïve faith in the spontaneous wisdom of everyday people as a guideline of our acts. That’s the paradox of our era: our most ordinary daily lives are regulated by scientific knowledge, and the dangers of this (often invisible) regulation can be fought only by a different knowledge, not by New Age wisdoms and common sense.
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From “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity,” by Slavoj Zizek.
In a hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, where I recently stayed, my companion inquired if smoking is permitted in our room, and the answer she got from the receptionist was unique: “Of course not, it is prohibited by the law. But you have ashtrays in the room, so this is not a problem.” The contradiction (between prohibition and permission) was openly assumed and thereby cancelled, treated as inexistent, i.e., the message was: “It’s prohibited, and here it is how you do it.” When we entered the room, a further surprise awaited us: an ashtray with the sign of the prohibition to smoke…
Maybe, this incident provides the best metaphor for our ideological predicament today. I remember a similar incident from my military service 40 years ago. One morning, the first class was on international military law, them among other rules, the officer mentioned that it is prohibited to shoot at parachuters while they are still in the air, i.e., before they touch ground. In a happy coincidence, our next class was about rifle shooting, and the same officer taught us how to target a parachuter in the air (how, while aiming at it, one should take into account the velocity of his decent and the direction and strength of the wind, etc.). When one of the soldiers asked the officer about the contradiction between this lesson and what we learned just an hour before (the prohibition to shoot at parachuters), the officer just snapped back with a cynical laughter: “How can you be so stupid? Don’t you understand how life works?” What goes on today is that a dissonance is openly admitted and for that reason treated as irrelevant, like our example of the ashtray with the sign of prohibition of smoking. Recall the debates on torture – was the stance of the US authorities not something like: “Torture is prohibited, and here is how you do a water-boarding.”?
The paradox is thus that today, there is in some way less deception than in a more traditional functioning of ideology: nobody is really deceived. One has to avoid a crucial misunderstanding here: it is not that prior to our time we took the rules and prohibitions seriously while today we openly violate them. What changed are the rules which regulate appearances, i.e., what can appear in public space. Let’s compare the sexual lives of two US presidents, Kennedy and Trump. As we know now, Kennedy had numerous affairs, but the press and TV ignored all this, while Trump’s every (old and new) step is followed by the media – not to mention that Trump also speaks publicly in an obscene way that we cannot even imagine Kennedy doing it. The gap that separates the dignified public space from its obscene underside is now more and more transposed into public space, with ambiguous consequences: inconsistencies and violations of public rules and openly accepted or at least ignored, but, simultaneously, we are all becoming openly aware of these inconsistencies.
Excerpted from “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity”.
Thursday, February 14, 2019
Friday, February 8, 2019
- Slavoj Zizek, "Toxic masculinity can be heroic, and here are the women that prove it"
In Greek mythology, Antigone displayed all the traits we now freely criticise
When I try to explain to students what “free associations” mean in the psychoanalytic treatment, I regularly refer to the well-known saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”
When a psychoanalyst asks a patient to “freely associate”, i.e. to suspend control of the conscious ego and say all that comes to mind, does that psychoanalyst not demand almost the exact opposite?
The patient must throw out the baby (the ego) and keep only the bath water of free associations. The idea is, of course, that this “dirty water” will bring out the hidden truth of the sane and healthy ego itself. Don’t forget that the dirt in the water comes from the baby, not from outside!
Does the same not hold also for many fake ecologists? They are obsessed by healthy “sustainable” dwellings in clean green habitat, ignoring the dirty water that freely floats in the polluted surroundings. If one wants to deal with pollution in a serious way, the first thing to do is to focus on the dirty surroundings and to analyze how our isolated “sustainable” habitats merely export the pollution to their environs.
Perhaps, we should adopt the opposite approach, along the lines of what they are doing in Japan: concentrate as much pollution and population in big cities, so that they function as dirty babies in (relatively) clean water.
Another example: the sheer number of paedophiliac crimes that took place in the Catholic church all around the world, from Ireland and Pennsylvania to Australia. These are crimes committed by members of an institution which propagates itself as the moral compass of our society, and they compel us to reject the easy idea that the Church could simply throw out the bad priests and keep the good.
There is an “institutional unconscious”; an obscene, disavowed underside that sustains the public institution. It is not simply for the sake of conformity that the church has tried to hush up its pedophilia scandals; rather, in defending itself, the church is defending its innermost obscene secret.
Perhaps the clearest example was provided by the recent debate on toxic masculinity. In the response to the recent Gillette ad about making men less violent, and better, we often heard the idea that the ad was not directed against men, just against the toxic excess of masculinity. In short, the ad just signalled that we have to throw out the dirty bath water of brutal masculinity.
But there are problems here. Let’s take a closer look at the list (proposed by the American Psychological Association) of features supposed to characterise “toxic masculinity”: suppressing emotions and masking distress; unwillingness to seek help; propensity to take risks even if this involves the danger of harming ourselves. I don’t see what is so specifically “masculine” about this list.
Does this not fit much more a simple act of courage in a difficult situation where, to do the right thing, one has to suppress emotions, where one cannot rely on any help but take the risk and act, even if this means exposing oneself to harm?
I know many women – as a matter of fact, more women than men – who, in difficult predicaments, have not succumbed to the pressure of their environment and instead set about acting in just this way. To take the example from Greek mythology: when Antigone decided to bury Polynices, did she not commit exactly an act which fits the basic features of “toxic masculinity”?
She definitely suppressed her emotions and masked her distress, she was unwilling to seek help, she took a risk which involved great danger of harm to herself. In our age of politically correct conformism, such a stance poses a danger.
We find traces of this classical feminine figure of courage in today’s popular culture, notably in two TV series, Homeland and The Killing.
The heroine of Homeland is Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder involved in fighting terrorism. Her strict sense of justice compels her to violate many rules and get in conflicts with her superiors which even endanger her life. It’s similar with inspector Sarah Lund, the heroine of the superb Danish series The Killing, another borderline character who reacts violently to the hypocrisy of the establishment and ends up being totally excommunicated. God give us as many of these toxically-masculine women as possible in real life!
There is an delicious old Soviet joke from the “Radio Yerevan” genre: a listener asks “Is it true that Rabinovitch won a new car on lottery?”, and the radio answers: “In principle yes, it’s true, only it wasn’t a new car but an old bicycle, and he didn’t win it but it was stolen from him.”
Does exactly the same not hold for toxic masculinity?
Let’s ask Radio Yerevan: “Is masculinity really toxic?” We can guess the answer: “In principle yes, it’s true, only this toxic content is not specifically masculine at all, plus it stands for what is often the only reasonable and courageous way to act.”
Thursday, February 7, 2019
For me, the name ‘Patricia Highsmith’ designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a ‘Christ among philosophers’). I learned a lot about her from Andrew Wilson’s biography, a book which strikes the right balance between empathy and critical distance. Wilson’s interpretations of her work, however, are often vapid. Can one really take seriously remarks such as: ‘Highsmith’s fiction, like Bacon’s painting, allows us to glimpse the dark, terrible forces that shape our lives, while at the same time documenting the banality of evil’? Much more pertinent are the observations he quotes, such as Duncan Fallowell’s perspicuous characterisation of Highsmith as ‘a combination of painful vulnerability and iron will’. Or the anecdotes that illustrate her complete lack of tact, her openness about her fantasies and prejudices (although a leftist, she preferred Margaret Thatcher to the usual feminist bunch). Or the ethico-political grounds – already, in 1954, she was describing the US as a ‘second Roman Empire’ – on which she based her decision to make her home in ‘old Europe’. As Frank Rich put it, she ‘made a life’s work of her ostracisation from the American mainstream and her own subsequent self-reinvention’.
Wilson’s book provides a lot of material for what Freud called ‘wild analysis’. We learn, for example, that five months before Highsmith was born, her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine; she later told her daughter about this, with the comment: ‘It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat.’ It’s tempting to see Highsmith’s liking for the smell of what might have been the agent of her own extinction as an expression of the Oedipal wish to return to her mother’s womb – in other words, of the wish not to have left the womb in the first place and, therefore, not to exist. Such speculations pale into insignificance, however, when you compare them with the wealth of Highsmith’s fictional universe, which is very much more compelling than any secret that might be unearthed by a pseudo-Freudian search of her own experiences for a key to the morbid world portrayed in her fiction. The greatest challenge for a Freudian reading of Highsmith lies elsewhere: to explain how writing for her was literally what Lacan would have called her sinthome, or the ‘knot’ that held her universe together, the artificial symbolic formation by means of which she preserved her sanity by conferring a narrative consistency on her tumultuous experience. In her masterpiece, Those Who Walk Away, the hero’s wife justifies her suicide with the words: ‘The world is not enough.’ It was her writing that enabled Highsmith herself to endure in such a world.
It’s often said that in order to understand a work of art we need to know the historical context in which it was made. The lesson of Highsmith, however, is not only that too much historical context can prevent you from making proper contact with her work but that, in her case, it isn’t the context that explains the work but the work that enables us properly to understand the context. The task in reading Highsmith is not to understand her novels in the light of her biography, but to explain by reference to her books how she was able to survive in her ‘real’ life.
Even her first published work (the short story ‘Heroine’, the novel Strangers on a Train), displays an uncanny completeness: everything already in place, no further growth needed. Her only conspicuous failure as a writer is her lesbian novel, first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as The Price of Salt in 1952, then reprinted in 1991 under Highsmith’s own name as Carol. The cause of this failure is, paradoxically, that the novel comes too close to Highsmith’s real-life traumas and concerns: as long as she was compelled to articulate these obliquely, the result was outstandingly successful; the moment she addressed them directly, we got a flat and uninteresting novel.
In Those Who Walk Away, Highsmith takes the most narrative genre of all, crime fiction, and imbues it with the inertia of the real, the lack of resolution, the dragging-on of ‘empty time’ characteristic of life itself. In Rome, Ed Coleman makes an unsuccessful attempt to murder his son-in-law, Ray Garrett, a failed painter and gallery-owner in his late twenties, whom he blames for the recent suicide of his only child, Peggy, Ray’s wife. Rather than flee, Ray follows Ed to Venice, where he is wintering with Inez, his girlfriend. What follows is Highsmith’s portrayal of the symbiotic relationship of two men inextricably linked by mutual hatred. Ray is haunted by guilt at his wife’s death, and is ready to let Ed’s violent intentions take their course. In accordance with his death wish, he accepts a lift in a motor-boat from Ed; in the middle of the lagoon, Ed pushes him overboard. Ray pretends he has been drowned and assumes a false name and identity, thus experiencing both an exhilarating freedom and an overwhelming emptiness. He roams through a wintry Venice like one of the living dead. Those Who Walk Away is a crime novel with no actual murder, merely a failed attempt at one: there is no clear resolution – except, perhaps, Ray and Ed’s resigned acceptance that they are condemned to haunt each other for the rest of their lives.
Highsmith recognised that true art lies not simply in the telling of stories, but in the telling of how stories go wrong, in rendering palpable the interstices in which ‘nothing happens’. In art, the spiritual and material spheres are intertwined: the spiritual emerges when we become aware of the material inertia, the dysfunctional bare presence, of the objects around us. It emerges after a murder attempt goes wrong and the would-be murderer and his victim are left stupidly staring at each other. Highsmith, more than any of her rivals, was responsible for elevating crime fiction to the level of art.
This feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers etc, like the famous resting place for old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest. That’s where the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker lies, with its post-industrial wasteland in which wild vegetation takes over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and stray cats and dogs wander the overgrowth. Nature and industrial civilisation overlap, but in a common decay: a civilisation in decay is being reclaimed, not by an idealised, harmonious Nature but by nature which is itself in a state of decomposition. The irony is that it should be an author from the Communist East who displayed such great sensitivity towards this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. But perhaps the irony displays a deeper necessity, hinging on what Heiner Mueller called the ‘waiting-room mentality’ of Communist Eastern Europe:
There would be an announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20,’ and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 20.10.’ And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting-room, thinking, it’s bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation: basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won’t be coming. And yet somehow, it’s good to hear him announced all over again.
The effect of this Messianic attitude was not that people continued to hope, but that, when the Messiah never arrived, they started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings; in contrast to the West, where people are always frantic and never properly notice what goes on around them. In the East, people were more closely acquainted with the waiting-room and, caught up in the delay, experienced to the full the idiosyncrasies of their world, in all its topographical and historical detail. One can easily imagine Ray or Ed getting stuck at an East German railway station.
Can we imagine a proper hero in this landscape, someone who could walk these decrepit streets and counteract their inertia? Highsmith’s answer is Tom Ripley, the hero of five of her novels. Ripley is a difficult character to swallow; we can tell just how difficult from the failure of the four cinema versions of books in which he appears. First, there was Alain Delon in René Clément’s Plein soleil (1959, based on The Talented Mr Ripley, except that in the film, to Highsmith’s dismay, the police arrest Ripley at the end); next, Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977, based on Ripley’s Game); then, in two strangely symmetrical remakes, Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and John Malkovich in a new Ripley’s Game by Liliana Cavani (2003). Although, on their own terms, all four are good movies, their Ripley is not Highsmith’s Ripley because they somehow humanise his inhuman core: Delon is a demoniac European; Hopper an existentialist cowboy; Damon an emotionally unstable American brat; while Malkovich displays his usual decadent, ironic coldness.
Who, then, is the ‘real’ Ripley? The contrast is most perspicuous in Minghella’s film. Tom Ripley, a broke young New Yorker, is approached by the magnate Herbert Greenleaf, in the mistaken belief that Tom was at Princeton with his son Dickie. Dickie is off idling in Italy, and Greenleaf pays Tom to go there and bring him back, so that he can take his rightful place in the family business. Once in Europe, however, Tom becomes more and more fascinated by Dickie, and the easy-going upper-class society he inhabits. Tom should not be thought to be homosexual: Dickie is not an object of desire for Tom, but the ideal desiring subject, the subject who is ‘supposed to know’ how to desire. In short, Dickie becomes Tom’s ideal ego, a figure with whom he can identify in his imagination: the repeated sidelong glances he casts at Dickie betray not a desire to have him, but to be like him. To resolve his predicament, Tom concocts an elaborate plan. On a boat trip, he kills Dickie, assumes his identity and manages things so that he will inherit his money, too. Once this is accomplished, the false Dickie disappears, leaving behind a suicide note praising Tom. Tom can now reappear, throwing any suspicious investigators off the scent, and earning the gratitude of Dickie’s parents. Finally, he leaves Italy for Greece.
The novel was written in the mid-1950s, but in it Highsmith foreshadows today’s rewriting of the Ten Commandments as recommendations which we don’t need to follow too blindly. Ripley stands for the final step in this process: thou shalt not kill, except when there is really no other way to pursue your happiness. Or, as Highsmith herself put it in an interview: ‘He could be called psychotic, but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational . . . I consider him a rather civilised person who kills when he absolutely has to.’ Ripley isn’t an ordinary American psycho: his criminal acts are not frenetic passages à l’acte, or outbursts of violence in which he releases the energy accumulated by the frustrations of daily life. His crimes are based on simple pragmatism: he does what is necessary to attain his goal (a quiet life in an exclusive Paris suburb). What is so disturbing about him is that he seems to lack even an elementary moral sense: in daily life, he is mostly friendly and considerate, and when he commits a murder, he does it with regret, quickly and as painlessly as possible, in the way one performs any unpleasant but necessary task.
Highsmith’s Ripley transcends the stock American motif of an individual’s radical reinvention of himself, his capacity to erase the traces of the past and assume a new identity. Minghella’s movie betrays Highsmith in this respect, Gatsbyising Ripley into a new version of the self-recreating American hero. In a telling difference between the novel and the film, Minghella has Ripley experience the stirrings of a conscience, whereas in the novel such qualms are simply not part of his make-up. This is why making Ripley’s gay desires explicit in the film also misses the point. Minghella implies that while, back in the 1950s, Highsmith had to be more circumspect in order to make her hero palatable to the public at large, today we can be more open about such matters. Ripley’s coldness is not a manifestation of his gayness, however; it is the other way round. In one of the later Ripley novels, we learn that he makes love once a week to his wife, Heloïse, as a regular ritual, with nothing passionate about it. Tom is like Adam before the Fall: according to St Augustine, he and Eve did have sex, but only as an instrumental act, like sowing seeds in a field. One way to read Ripley is as an angelic figure, living in a universe which as yet knows nothing of the Law or its transgression (sin), and thus nothing of the guilt generated by our obedience to the Law. This is why Ripley feels no remorse after his murders: he is not yet fully integrated into the symbolic order.
Paradoxically, the price Ripley pays for this is his inability to experience sexual passion. In one novel, he sees two flies copulating on his kitchen table and squashes them in disgust. Minghella’s Ripley would never have done anything like this. Highsmith’s Ripley is disconnected from the realities of the flesh, disgusted at biological life’s cycle of generation and corruption. Marge, Dickie’s girlfriend, sums him up very effectively: ‘All right, he may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life.’ One is tempted to claim that, rather than being a closet gay, Ripley is in fact a male lesbian. Tom Ripley was not a mask for Highsmith so much as her externalised ego; we learn from Wilson’s book that she even changed her name to Patricia Highsmith-Ripley and signed her mail with ‘Tom (Pat)’. It is rather like the old Taoist idea that a man dreaming he is a butterfly is also perhaps a butterfly dreaming it is a man. Was Highsmith dreaming that she was Ripley or was she Ripley dreaming that he was Highsmith the novelist?
Minghella’s Ripley makes clear what’s wrong with trying to be more radical than the original by bringing out its implicit, repressed content. By looking to fill in the void, Minghella actually retreats from it. Instead of a polite person who is at the same time a monstrous automaton, experiencing no inner turmoil as he commits his crimes, we get the wealth of a personality, someone full of psychic traumas, someone whom we can, in the fullest meaning of the term, understand.
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
In some Leftist circles, the exploding growth of homeless refugees gave rise to the notion of “nomadic proletariat.” The basic idea is that, in today’s global world, the main antagonism (the “primary contradiction”) is no longer between the capitalist ruling class and the proletariat but between those who are safe beneath the cupola of the “civilized” world (with public order, basic rights, etc.) and those excluded, reduced to bare life. “Nomadic proletarians” are not simply outside the cupola but somewhere in-between: their premodern substantial life-form is already in ruins, devastated by the impact of global capitalism, but they are not integrated into the global order, so that they roam in an in-between netherworld. They are not proletarians in the strict Marxian sense: paradoxically, when they enter developed countries, the ideal of most of them is precisely to become “normal” exploited proletarians. Recently, a refugee from Salvador who tried to enter the US on the Mexico-US border said to the TV cameras: “Please, Mr Trump, let us in, we just want to be good hard workers in your country.”
Can the distinction between proletarians proper (exploited workers) and the nomadic (less than) proletarians be somehow blurred in a new more encompassing category of today’s proletarians? From the Marxian standpoint, the answer is a resounding no. For Marx, proletarians are not only “the poor” but those who are, by way of their role in the production process, reduced to subjectivity deprived of all substantial content; as such, they are also disciplined by the production process to become the bearers of their future power (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Those who are outside the production process – and thereby have no place in a social totality – are treated by Marx as “lumpenproletarians,” and he doesn’t see in them any emancipatory potential at all. He rather treats them with great suspicion, as the force which is as a rule mobilized and corrupted by reactionary forces (like Napoleon III.).
Things got complicated with the victory of the October Revolution when Bolsheviks exerted power in a country where not only a large majority of the population were small farmers (and the Bolsheviks gained power precisely by promising them land!), but also where, as a result of violent upheavals during the civil war, millions of people found themselves in the position (not of classic lumpenproletarians but) of homeless nomads who were not yet proletarians (reduced to the “nothing” of their working force) but literally less-than-proletarians (less-than-nothing). Their massive presence is the central topic of the work of Andrei Platonov who described in detail their way of life, elaborating a unique “materialist ontology of poor life.” From the standpoint of the “ontology of poor life,” the parallel between Beckett and Platonov is fully relevant: is the experience of “poor life” also not the core of Beckett’s great trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, Unnameable? The entire topic as well as the details of Malone Dies clearly relate to the French peripeties during the German occupation and its aftermath: the Nazi and collaborationist control, terror and oppression, the revenge against collaborationists and the way refugees were treated when returning home and recuperating. What gives such a power to the novel is precisely that these three domains are condensed into a single suffocating experience of a displaced homeless individual, an individual lost in the web of police, psychiatric and administrative measures.
The difference between Platonov and Beckett is that, while Beckett renders the experience of homeless refugees as individuals at the mercy of state institutions, Platonov focuses on displaced nomadic groups in a post-revolutionary situation when the new Communist power tries to mobilize them for the Communist struggle. Each of Platonov’s works “departs from the same political problem of how to build communism: of what communism means and how the communist idea meets the concrete conditions and reality of the post-revolutionary society.” Platonov’s answer to this problem is paradoxical, far from the usual dissident rejection of Communism. His result is a negative one, as all his stories are stories of a failure. The “synthesis” between the Communist project and the displaced nomadic groups ends in a void; there is no unity between proletarians and less-than-proletarians:“In Chevengur (1926–28), the orphan Sasha Dvanov becomes a communist in the year of the revolution, joins the Bolsheviks and goes on a party errand to support the revolution in a village. During his long journey, Dvanov discovers ‘communism in one village’, established by poor peasants. The communism of the Chevengur village is accompanied by various absurd experiments with urban planning and farming, permanent terror and hunger. The wandering organic intellectuals are a supplement to the wandering masses, classes and communities, and they are all accompanied in their migration by animals, plants and natural landscape. The protagonist of Dzhan (1936; Soul in English translation), Nazar Chagataev, returns to his native town in Turkestan on a party errand to find the lost nomadic nation Dzhan, from which he had come, in order to establish a socialist order. Dzhan was written after Platonov’s two journeys in Turkmenistan as a member of writers’ delegations. This was during the period when the civil war in Turkestan had just ended and a campaign against traditional nomadic forms of life had been initiated. The task of the delegation was to write an orthodox socialist realist story about a successful ‘civilising’ process in the local communities. The central problem of Platonov’s Dzhan may seem to conform to this brief, narrating as it does the story of a ‘Red Moses’ leading the nomadic inhabitants of the Asian desert to socialism. However, Chagataev goes back to Moscow when his mission has ended and one is left with doubts about the future of communism in the desert. /…/ The most famous work of Platonov, The Foundation Pit (1930), was also created in the context of the first five-year plan. It unfolds by way of a series of meetings between the protagonist Voshchev and the residents of a small provincial town, who are involved in the construction of an enormous proletarian house. While Voshchev challenges the representatives of different class groups, engaging in a Socratic inquiry into truth, the project acquires a more and more grandiose plan, before finally coming to an end with no result.”But we are at the same time as far as possible from the old conservative-liberal critique of revolution as a violent attempt to impose on actual life models that are foreign to it. First, Platonov articulates his despair from the position of an committed fighter for Communism (he was actively engaged with nomadic groups in the 1920s, also at a very practical technical level, planning and organizing irrigation projects, etc.). Second, Platonov is not depicting a conflict between the traditional texture of social life and the radical-revolutionary attempt to change it in the style of Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. His focus is not on the traditional forms of life but on the dispossessed nomads whose lives were already irretrievably ruined by the process of modernization. In short, the radical cut Platonov depicts is not between a “spontaneous” proletarian crowd and organized Communist forces but between the two aspects of the proletarian crowd itself, between the two social “nothings”: the strictly proletarian “nothing” of the modern workers generated by capitalism, and the “less-than-nothing” of those not integrated into the system, not even as its immanent negativity, as is made clear in this short exchange from Chevengur: “‘Who did you bring over to us?’ Chepurny asked Prokofy […] ‘Those are teh proletarians and others’, Prokofy said. Chepurny was disturbed ‘What others? Again the layer of residual swine?’ […] ‘The others are the others. Nobody. They’re even worse than the proletariat.’”
Here are further passages that describe these social “less-than-nothings”:“Platonov’s heroes have different national and cultural backgrounds, but nonetheless they represent the same category: the proletariat. The idea behind ‘the international’ and ‘non-Russian’ faces is the idea of an average multinational proletariat that makes up one class. There is a significant explanation of the ‘non-Russianness’ of nomadic declassed people in Chevengur: ‘This is the true international proletariat: look – they’re not Russians, they’re not Armenians, they’re not Tartars – they’re not anything! I bring you live international’. It is precisely this multinational, and one can even say anti-colonial, perspective that leads Platonov to the deconstruction of the dominant image of the white industrial working class that was so typical among the hardliners in Proletkult.” / “’He saw comrades the likes of whom he had never encountered before, people without any understanding or appearance of class and without revolutionary worth. These were instead some sort of nameless others who lived utterly without significance, without pride, and off to one side of the impending world-wide triumph. Even the age of these others was impossible to grasp, for all that could be made out was that they were poor, had bodies that grew unwillingly, and were foreign to all.’” / “Platonov names his marginal declassed wanderers as ‘handmade people with an unknown designation’, ‘uncounted’, ‘mistakable’ or ‘prochiye’ – ‘others’, in the English translation of Robert Chandler. The Russian word prochiye also refers to the ‘rest’, the ‘remainder’. Thus, the ‘others’ is the rest of the people; they don’t belong to any class category existing in Marxist theory, because they are too poor and detached from normal social life.” / “The other, therefore, refers to someone who remains unaccounted for due to their amorphous and marginal status, but who is also part of a multiplicity which is not countable – part of a scattered and nomadic people, an anomaly of humanity, trapped between life and death, social and biological.”As the last quoted sentence makes clear, one has to avoid absolutely the elevation of prochiye into an original site of productivity, its living presence oppressed by state representation. Prochiye are not the Deleuzian multitude; they are, on the contrary, the “living dead” caught in a non-productive passivity, basically deprived of the very will to be active. This is why we should take the risk to offer yet another translation of prochiye: neighbours in all the biblical weight of this term, those who are “others” and precisely as such always too close to as, no matter how far away they are. What makes them too close is that we lack a proper distance towards them because they don’t possess a clear identity, a place in society. The Christian motto “love your neighbour as yourself” acquires here its full weight: true social love is the love for the unaccountable less-than-nothings. But this love can take different forms, and, while the Bolsheviks certainly loved them, wanted to help and redeem them, they followed the model of what Lacan called “university discourse”: prochiye were their objet petit a, and they put all their effort into enlightening them, into changing them in modern subjects. The conflict that lies at the heart of Platonov’s work is thus not a conflict between enemies but a kind of lovers’ quarrel: the Bolsheviks wanted to help the homeless others, to civilize them, and the others (depicted by Platonov) sincerely endorsed the Communist ideals and fought for them, but everything went wrong:“Others in Platonov’s novels are always manipulated by ‘more conscious’ comrades, party leaders and intellectuals, but always unsuccessfully – it is almost impossible to integrate others into the collective body of the workers and to establish a normalised sociality based on the collectivisation of labour and industrial production.”However, Platonov subtly noted that this gap is not just the gap between self-conscious revolutionary force and the inertia of the crowds: while the Bolsheviks focused on the operational aspect of social transformation, the core of the Communist utopia was directly present in the dreams of Others who expected something radically new to arise. Communism was nowhere closer than in the immobility of others, in their resistance to getting caught in concrete operative measures: “the special status of the poor and declassed elements, which unlike the organised workers, the party representatives and the intellectuals, are ready to stay where they are in order to do something radically new. In a way theirs is a life that remains in a state of waiting, and the question is what kind of politics will be established here.” Platonov’s famous inflections of language are also located in this context of the tension between official Party language and the “primitive” speech of the others:“Platonov reflected the historical development of a new Soviet language made of revolutionary slogans, the vocabulary of Marxian political economy, the jargon of the Bolsheviks and party bureaucrats and its absorption by the illiterate peasants and workers. Historical research shows that for most of the post-revolutionary population, especially in the provinces, the language of the party was foreign and unintelligible, so that ‘they themselves perforce began to absorb the new vocabulary […] often garbled its unfamiliar, bookish terms or reconfigured them as something more comprehensible, however absurd’. Thus, ‘“deistvyushchaya armia” – “the acting army” – became “devstvyushchaya armia” – “virginal army” – because “acting” and “virginity” sound nearly identical in Russian; “militsioner” (“militiaman”) became “litsimer” (“hypocrite”).”Is this unique bastard mixture, with all its “senseless” mobilization of sound resemblances that can send off sparks of unexpected truth (in an oppressive regime, policemen ARE hypocrites; revolutionaries ARE supposed to act virginally, in a kind of innocence, freed from all egotistical motives), not an exemplary case of what Lacan called lalangue, language traversed by all social and sexual antagonisms that distort it beyond its linguistic structure? This lalangue emerges through Platonov’s use of two (almost) symmetrically opposed devices: first, “he interprets an abstract ideological definition through the use of the common man, the person from the people, and secondly, he makes an inverse operation, when he overloads the simplest and clearest everyday words and expressions […] with a set of ideological associations’, to such an extent that these words become ‘so terribly improbable and confusing that, finally, they lose their initial meaning’.”
What is the political implication of this loss of meaning? Although interpenetrating, the two levels – official Bolshevik speech and the everyday speech of others – remain forever antagonistic: the more revolutionary activity tried to combine them, the more their antagonism became palpable. This failure is not empirical and contingent, because the two levels simply belong to radically heterogeneous spaces. For this reason, one should also avoid the trap of celebrating the “undercurrent” of Soviet Marxism, the other line suppressed by official Soviet Marxism-Leninism, the line which rejected the controlling role “from above” of the Party and counted on the workers’ direct self-organization “from below,” as was the case with Bogdanov. This other line indicated a hope for a different, less oppressive, development of the Soviet Union, in contrast to Lenin’s approach which laid the foundations for Stalinism. True, the other line was a kind of “symptom” of official Leninist Marxism; it registered what was “repressed” in the official Soviet ideology, but precisely as such it remained parasitical upon official Marxism, i.e., it didn’t stand on its own. In short, the trap to be avoided here is the temptation to elevate the “poor life” of the others into some kind of authentic communal life out of which an alternative to our ill-fated capitalist modernity can emerge. There is nothing “authentic” in poor life of the others; its function is purely negative, registering (and even giving a body to) the failure of social projects, including the Communist one.
And, sadly, the same failure, which is necessary for structural reasons, also characterizes a homologous project of fusing today’s working class and today’s “less-than-proletarians” (refugees, immigrants), i.e., the idea that “nomadic proletariat” is a potential source of revolutionary change. Here, also, one has to fully assume Platonov’s lesson: the tension is not only between the local conservative-racist lower classes and the immigrants. The difference in the entire “way of life” is so strong that one cannot count on easily achieving the solidarity of all the exploited. Perhaps, the antagonism between proletarians and the less-than-proletarian “others” is an antagonism which is in some sense even more unsurpassable than the class antagonism within the same ethnic community. Precisely at this point when the “subsumption” (of others into “our” proletarians) seems the most obvious, and the universality of all the oppressed seems at hand, it slips out of our grasp. In other words, the “less-than-proletarian” others cannot be subsumed, integrated, not because they are too different, too heterogeneous with regard to our lifeworld, but because they are absolutely immanent to it, the result of its own tensions.
At an abstract level, Platonov thus raises the question of subsumption (of others into proletariat), and today we are facing the same problem not just with regard to refugees and other migrants (can they be subsumed into the global capitalist order?), but also at a more formal level of what Balibar calls “total subsumption” as the basic tendency of today’s capitalism. This term does not cover only the phenomena of the so-called “cultural capitalism” (the growing commodification of the cultural sphere) but above all the full subsumption, under the logic of the capital, of the workers themselves and the process of their reproduction:“Whereas Marx explained that ‘capital’ ultimately could be reduced to (productive) labour or was nothing other than labour in a different form, appropriated by a different class, the theory of human capital explains that labour – more precisely ‘labouring capacity’ (Arbeits vermögen) – can be reduced to capital or become analysed in terms of capitalist operations of credit, investment and profitability. This is, of course, what underlies the ideology of the individual as a ‘self-entrepreneur’, or an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’.”The issue here is“not so much to describe a growth of markets for existing products; it is much more to push the range of the market beyond the limits of the ‘production sphere’ in the traditional sense, therefore to add new sources of permanent ‘extra surplus-value’ that can become integrated into valorization, overcoming its limitations, because capital is valorized both on the ‘objective’ side of labour and production, and on the ‘subjective’ side of consumption and use.”So, it’s not just about making working force more productive; the point of total subsumption is to conceive of the working force itself directly as another field of capitalist investment: all aspects of its “subjective” life (health, education, sexual life, psychic states…) are considered not only as important for the productivity of the workers, but also as fields of investment which can generate additional surplus-value. Health services do not only serve the interests of capital by way of making workers more productive; they are themselves an incredibly powerful field of investment, not only for capital (health services is the single strongest branch of the US economy, much stronger than defense) but for the workers themselves, who treat paying health insurance as an investment into their future. The same goes for education: besides getting you ready for productive work, it is in itself a field of profitable investment for institutions as well for individuals who invest into their future. It is as if, in this way, commodification not only becomes total but also gets caught in a kind of self-referential loop: working power as the ultimate “source of (capitalist) wealth,” the origin of surplus-value, becomes itself a moment of capitalist investment. Nowhere is this loop more clearly expressed than in the idea of the worker as a “self-entrepreneur,” a capitalist who decides freely where to invest his (meager) surplus resources (or, mostly, resources acquired through loans): into education, health, housing property…
Does this process have a limit? When, in the very last paragraph of his essay, Balibar approaches this question, he strangely resorts to a Lacanian reference, to Lacan’s logic of non-All (from his “formulas of sexuation”):“This is what I call a total subsumption (after ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption) because it leaves nothing outside (no reservation for ‘natural’ life). Or, anything that is left outside must appear as a residue, and a field for further incorporation. Or must it? That is of course the whole question, ethical as much as political: are there limits to commodification? Are there internal and external obstacles? A Lacanian might want to say: every such totalization includes an element of impossibility which belongs to the ‘real’; it must be pas tout, or not whole. If that were the case, the heterogeneous elements, the intrinsic remainders of the total subsumption, could appear in many different forms, some apparently individualistic, such as pathologies or anarchist resistances, others common or even public. Or they may become manifest in certain difficulties in implementing the neoliberal agenda, such as the difficulty of dismantling a Medicare system once it has been legalized.”What Balibar says here is, for a Lacanian, very strange: Balibar condenses (or, rather, simply confuses) the two sides of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, and simply reads exception as non-All: the totality of subsumption is non-All since there are exceptions which resist being subsumed to Capital. But Lacan precisely opposes non-All and exception: every universality is based on an exception, and when there are no exceptions, the set is non-All, and it cannot be totalized. This opposition should be applied to topic of subsumption: one should pass from a search for the exception, for those who resist (universal) subsumption and are as such the “site of resistance,” to endorsing subsumption without exception and counting on its non-All. The subsumption of individual lives to which Balibar refers cannot be reduced to a particular case of the universal capitalist subsumption; they remain a particular case which, on account of its self-relating nature (the working force itself becomes capital), redoubles the production of surplus-value.
In Marx’s critique of political economy there are two main cases of universality through exception: money and the working force. The field of commodities can only be totalized through a special commodity, which functions as a general equivalent of all commodities but is as such deprived of use value; the field of the exchange of commodities only gets totalized when individual producers not only sell their products on the market but when the working force (as a commodity whose use-value is to generate surplus value) is also sold on the market as a commodity. So, maybe there is a third case here: when this commodity which produces surplus-value becomes itself an object of capital investment bringing surplus-value, we get two types of surplus-value, the “normal” surplus value generated by the products of the working force, and the surplus generated by the production of the working force itself.
That is a nice example of Hegel’s insight into how the Absolute always involves self-splitting and is in this sense non-All: with the production of the working force itself as a field of capital investment, the subsumption under capital becomes total. But, precisely as such, it becomes non-All; it cannot be totalized. The self-referential element of the working force itself as a capital investment opens a gap, which introduces imbalance into the entire field. Maybe this gap can function as a source of hope, maybe it opens up the possibility of radical change. The logic of capital gets threatened not from some external non-integrated rest, but from its own inner inconsistency which explodes when subsumption becomes total. Here, I rely heavily on Maria Chehonadskih, “Soviet Epistemologies and the Materialist Ontology of Poor Life: Andrei Platonov, Alexander Bogdanov and Lev Vygotsky“ (unpublished manuscript, from which all non-attributed quotes are taken).
 Etienne Balibar, “Towards a new critique of political economy: from generalized surplus-value to total subsumption,” in Capitalism: Concept, Idea, Image, Kingston: CRMEP Books 2019.
 Balibar, op.cit., p. 51.
4 Op.cit., p. 53.
 Op.cit., p. 57.
Monday, February 4, 2019
-William Butler Yeats, "The Fisherman"
Although I can see him still—
The freckled man who goes
To a gray place on a hill
In gray Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies—
It's long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I'd looked in the face
What I had hoped it would be
To write for my own race
And the reality:
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved—
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer—
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.
Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”