Saturday, August 29, 2015

Celebrating Our American Heritage!

For a Fool
On earth the wise man makes the rules,
And is the fool's advisor,
But here the wise are as the fools,
(And no man is the wiser).

For One Who Gaily Sowed His Oats
My days were a thing for me to live,
For others to deplore;
I took of life all it could give;
Rind, inner fruit, and core.

For a Wanton
To men no more than so much cover
For them to doff or try,
I find in death a constant lover;
Here in his arms I lie.

For a Preacher
Vanity of vanities,
All us vanity; yea,
Even the rod He flayed you with
Crumbled and turned to clay.
Countee Cullen, "Epitaphs"

Friday, August 28, 2015

To Rusty Bloggers...

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

. . . . .

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.
T.S. Eliot, "Whispers of Immortality"

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Play it Again, Sam!

Zizek's most extensive explanation of ideological identification is to be found in the chapter Che Vuoi? of Sublime Object. He offers there a three-part account of the workings of ideology that in many regards corresponds to the three stages in the constitution of the master-signifier. In a first, instinctive conception of identification, we see it as taking place on the level of the Imaginary, in which we identify with the image of the Other. It is an image in which 'we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image repeating 'what we would like to be' (SO, 105). It is an image that we feel potentially reflects us: movie stars, popular heroes, great intellectuals and artists. However, as Zizek emphasizes, not only is this not factually true - we often identify with less-than-appealing characters - but this Imaginary identification cannot be grasped outside of Symbolic identification. In Symbolic identification, we identify not with the image but with the look of the Other, not with how we see ourselves in them but with how we are seen by them. We see ourselves through the way that others see us. We do not identify directly with ourselves but only through another. Zizek provides an example of this in Sublime Object when he speaks of religious belief. Here we do not believe directly but only because others do. We do not believe ourselves, but others believe for us. As Zizek writes: 'When we subject ourselves to the machine of a religious [we might also say social] ritual, we already believe without knowing it; our belief is already materialized in the external ritual; in other words, we already believe unconsciously' (SO, 43).

We find another example of this Symbolic identification in Woody Allen's film Play it Again, Sam, in which a neurotic and insecure intellectual (played by Allen) learns life lessons from a fictitious Bogart figure, who visits him from time to time. At the end of the film, in a replay of the famous last scene of Casablanca, after an affair with his best friend's wife, Allen meets her at an airport late at night and renounces her, thus allowing her to leave with her husband. When his lover says of his speech: 'It's beautiful', he replies: "It's from Casablanca. I've waited my whole life to say it." And it is at this point that the Bogart figure appears for the last time, saying that, by giving up a woman for a friend, he has 'finally got some class' and no longer needs him' (SO, 109). Now, the first point to realize here is that the Allen character is not so much speaking to the woman in this final scene as to Bogart. He is not acting selflessly in forsaking her but in order to impress Bogart. That is, he does not identify with Bogart on the Imaginary level - with whatever qualities he possesses - but with the Symbolic position he occupies. He attempts to see himself from where he sees Bogart. As Zizek writes: "The hero realizes his identification by enacting in reality Bogart's role from Casablanca - by assuming a certain 'mandate', by occupying a certain place in the intersubjective symbolic network" (SO, 110). More precisely, he identifies with Bogart's seeming position outside of the symbolic order. It is his apparent difference from other people that changes everything about him and converts those qualities that would otherwise be unattractive into something unique and desirable. It is just this that we see at the end of the film, when Allen has his last conversation with Bogart, telling him that he no longer needs him insofar as he has become like him: "True, you're not too tall and kind of ugly but what the hell, I'm short enough and ugly enough to succeed on my own" (SO, 110).

However, this Symbolic is still not the final level of identification. Like every other master-signifier (freedom, democracy, the environment), Bogart always falls short, proves disappointing, fails to live up to his promise. As a result, we are forced to step in, take his place, complete what he is unable to. (It is this that we see at the end of the film when the Allen character says that he no longer needs Bogart.) And yet this is not at all to break with transference but is its final effect. (It is just when Allen is most 'himself' that he is most like Bogart.) As we have already seen in 'Why is Every Act?', it is not simply a matter of identifying with some quality or gaze of the Other as though they are aware of it. Rather, the full effect of transference comes about through an identification with something that the Other does not appear aware of, that seems specifically meant for us, that comes about only because of us. To use the language of the previous section, we do not so much identify with the Other as holder of the symbolic (as differentially defined from others, as master-signifier) as with what is in the Other 'more than themselves' (with what is different from itself, object a). If in the Imaginary we identify with the image of the Other, and in the Symbolic with the look of the Other, here in this final level we return almost to our original look upon the Other. Or it is perhaps the very undecidability as to whether the Other is looking at us or not that captivates us and makes us want to take their place.

To put this another way, because symbolic authority is arbitrary, performative, not to be accounted for by any 'real' qualities in its possessor, the subject when appealed to by the Other is always unsure (SO, 113). They are unsure whether this is what the Other really does want of them, whether this truly is the desire of the Other. And they are unsure of themselves, whether they are worthy of the symbolic mandate that is bestowed upon them. As Zizek writes:
The subject does not know why he is occupying this place in the symbolic network. His own answer to this Che vuoi? of the Other can only be the hysterical question: "Why am I what I'm supposed to be, why have I this mandate? Why am I... [a teacher, a master, a king...]?" Briefly: "Why am I what you [the big Other] are saying that I am?" (SO, 113)
And this is an ambiguity, a 'dialectic' (SO, 112), that Zizek argues is ineradicable. It is always possible to ask of any symbolic statement, like Freud's famous joke about a man telling another man he is going to Cracow when he is in fact going to Cracow (SO, 197): what does it mean? What is it aiming at? Why is the Other telling me this? It is always possible to find another meaning behind the obvious one. It is never possible to speak literally, to occupy the Symbolic without remainder, to have the empty place and what occupies it fit perfectly. It is a mismatch that Zizek associates with a certain enunciation outside of any enunciated. As he writes:
The question mark arising above the curve of 'quilting' thus indicates the persistence of a gap between utterance [the enunciated] and its enunciation: at the level of utterance you are saying this, but what do you want to tell me with it, through it? (SO, 111)
In other words, there is always a certain 'gap' or 'leftover' in any interpellation - but it is not a gap that can be simply got rid of, for it is just this that makes interpellation possible, that is the place from where it speaks. It is a gap that is not merely an empirical excess, something that is greater than any nomination - this is the very illusion of the master-signifier - but a kind of internal absence or void, a reminder of the fact that the message cannot be stated in advance but only after it has been identified with, is only a stand-in for that differentiality which founds the symbolic order. It is not something 'outside' or 'beyond' ideology, but that 'difference' that allows the master-signifier's naming of its own difference. (That is - and this is brought out by Zizek's successive parsing of Lacan's 'graph of desire' (SO, 100) in Che Vuoi? - if the Symbolic makes the Imaginary possible, so this other dimension, that of the Real, makes the Symbolic possible.) As Zizek says of this relationship between ideology and what appears 'outside' of it:
The last support of the ideological effect (of the way an ideological network of signifiers 'holds' us) is the non-sensical, pre-ideological kernel of enjoyment. In ideology, 'all is not ideology (that is, ideological meaning)', but it is this very surplus which is the last support of ideology. (SO, 124)

There is thus always a gap between interpellation and any defined symbolic meaning. Any named cause can only come up short; there is always a difference between enunciation and utterance. And yet, as we saw with the master-signifier, interpellation works best when it appears mysterious, nonsensical, incomplete, not only to us but even to the Other. For it is just this that appears to open it up to us, allow us to add to it, make it our own. It is just in its lack and unknowability that it calls upon us to realize it, take its place, say what it should be saying. However, as we saw in our Introduction, whatever we do in response to it will always in retrospect be seen to be what it was already about. It is in its 'emptiness' that it is able to speak to all future interpretations of it, that any 'going beyond' is able to occur only in its name. It is not so much a match between a subject entirely contained within the Symbolic and a master-signifier that quilts the entire social field without remainder that we have here, but a match between a subject that feels themselves outside of the Symbolic and a master-signifier that is always different from itself. We identify not so much with any enunciated as with the position of enunciation itself. The fact that the Other does not have it, is divided from itself, is not a barrier to identification but its very condition, for just as we are completed by the Other, so this Other is completed by us. As Zizek writes:
This lack in the other gives the subject - so to speak - a breathing space; it enables him to avoid total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with the lack in the other. (SO, 122)
This is the ambiguity of that fantasy with which Zizek says we fill out the gap in interpellation, just as that 'sublime object' fills out what is missing in the master-signifier. And, as with the master-signifier, the particular fantasy that Zizek takes up in order to analyse this is the anti-Semitic one. That is, in terms that almost exactly repeat what we said earlier about a certain 'in Jew more than Jew' that supplements the master-signifier of the Jew, so here with interpellation there is a kind of fantasy that behind any actual demand by Jews there is always another, that there is always something more that they want (SO, 114). But, again, the crucial aspect of this fantasy - as we have seen earlier with our mythical Jewish neighbour, Mr Stern - is that Jews themselves do not have to be aware of this. This is the meaning of Zizek's argument connecting Jews as the privileged target of such racist fantasies and the particular form of their religion. He is precisely not making the point that there is anything actually in their beliefs that would justify or explain these fantasies, but rather that the Jewish religion itself 'persists in the enigma of the Other's [that is, God's] desire' (SO, 115), that this Other is also a mystery to Jews themselves, that to paraphrase Hegel the mystery of the Jews is a mystery to Jews themselves. Nevertheless, it is this fantasy that Jews somehow do know what they want that operates as a supplement to interpellation. It attempts to fill out the void of the question Che vuoi? with an answer. And even if we have to speak for the Other ourselves, admit the knowledge they do not recognize, this is not to break the anti-Semitic fantasy but only to render it stronger. The very incompleteness of our interpellation, the fact that things make no sense to us or that we can take a cynical distance on to the values of our society, is not at all to dispel the promise of some underlying meaning but only to make us search for one all the more.

And yet, if this distance from society and our positing of the Other are how we are interpellated, all this can also be read another way, as opening up a certain 'outside' to the system. It is not simply a matter of doing away with the ideological fantasy but of thinking what makes it possible. For if the Jew as fantasy, just as the Jew as object a, is able to recoup otherness and return it to the system, it also points to something else that would be required to make this up. That is, if the Jew as object a or fantasy allows the master-signifier or interpellation to be named as its own difference, it also raises the question of what allows it to be named. And it is this, finally, that Lacan means by his famous statement that 'There is no Other of the Other' (E, 311). It does not mean that there is no guarantee to the Other but that there is no final guarantee, that any such guarantee would always have to be underwritten in turn from somewhere else. It means that the same element that closes off the system also opens it up, in a kind of infinite regress or psychotic foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father. And it is at this point, as we say, that the entire system becomes ambiguous, that the same element that provides an answer to the Che vuoi? also restates the question (SO, 124). 6 And what this in turn raises - in a theme we pursue throughout this book - is that, beyond thinking of the Jew as an exception that allows the universal to be constituted, we have the Jew as the sinthome of a drive: the universal itself as its own exception (ME, 49). It is close to the ambiguity of Zizek's own work, in which the critique he proposes of the system almost repeats the system's own logic; but in repeating the system in this manner he also opens it up to something else. Again, taking us back to questions we first raised in our Introduction - that we can reveal the 'emptiness' at the heart of the Symbolic only by filling it in; that it is never to be seen as such but only as a retrospective effect - we would say that not only is any act or positing of the Symbolic only a repetition of it, but that it is only through such a repetition that we might produce an 'act'.
- Rex Butler, "Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier?"

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June
We stood beneath an amber moon
And softly murmured someday soon
We kissed, and clung together there
Tomorrow was another day
The morning found me miles away
With still a million things to say
Now, when twilight dims the sky above
Recalling thrills of our love
There's one thing I'm certain of
Return I will to old Brazil

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Our A.D.D. World

Not long ago, the writer of these lines,
In the mad pride of intellectuality,
Maintained "the power of words"--denied that ever
A thought arose within the human brain
Beyond the utterance of the human tongue:
And now, as if in mockery of that boast,
Two words--two foreign soft dissyllables--
Italian tones, made only to be murmured
By angels dreaming in the moonlit "dew
That hangs like chains of pearl on Hermon hill,"--
Have stirred from out the abysses of his heart,
Unthought-like thoughts that are the souls of thought,
Richer, far wilder, far diviner visions
Than even the seraph harper, Israfel,
(Who has "the sweetest voice of all God's creatures,")
Could hope to utter. And I! my spells are broken.
The pen falls powerless from my shivering hand.
With thy dear name as text, though hidden by thee,
I cannot write--I cannot speak or think--
Alas, I cannot feel; for 'tis not feeling,
This standing motionless upon the golden
Threshold of the wide-open gate of dreams,
Gazing, entranced, adown the gorgeous vista,
And thrilling as I see, upon the right,
Upon the left, and all the way along,
Amid empurpled vapors, far away
To where the prospect terminates--_thee only_!
E.A. Poe, "To Marie Louise" (excerpt)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Bottoming Out?

When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows-mender? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life, stol'n hence, and left me asleep? I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom. And I will sing it in the latter end of a play before the duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
- William Shakespeare (Bottom), "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Sublime Donald Trump?

The Sublime...marks the moment at which something emerges out of nothing - something new that cannot be accounted for by reference to the pre-existing network of circumstances. We are dealing here with another temporality, the temporality of freedom, of a radical rupture in the chain of [natural and/or social] causality... When, for example, does the experience of the Sublime occurr in politics? Whem 'against their better judgement', people disregard the balance sheet of profits and losses and 'risk freedom'; at that moment, something that, literally, cannot be 'accounted for' in terms of 'circumstances' miraculously 'becomes possible'... The feeling of the Sublime is aroused by an Event that momentarily suspends the network of symbolic causality.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Ticklish Subject, the Absent Centre of Political Ontology"


O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die;
Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink!
-William Shakespeare (Antipholus of Syracuse), "Comedy of Errors" (excerpt)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hating Capitalism

In the early Spring, when icy waters flow from snowy hills,
and the crumbling soil loosens in a westerly breeze,
then I’d first have my oxen groaning over the driven plough,
and the blade gleaming, polished by the furrow.
The field that’s twice felt sun, and twice felt frost,
answers to the eager farmer’s prayer:
from it boundless harvest bursts the barns.
But before our iron ploughshare slices the untried levels,
let’s first know the winds, and the varying mood of the sky,
and note our native fields, and the qualities of the place,
and what each region grows and what it rejects.
Here, wheat, there, vines, flourish more happily:
trees elsewhere, and grasses, shoot up unasked for.
See how Tmolus sends us saffron fragrance,
India, ivory, the gentle Sabeans, their incense,
while the naked Chalybes send iron, Pontus rank
beaver-oil, Epirus the glories of her mares from Elis.
Nature has necessarily imposed these rules, eternal laws,
on certain places, since ancient times, when Deucalion
hurled stones out into the empty world,
from which a tough race of men was born.
Come: and let your strong oxen turn the earth’s rich soil,
right away, in the first months of the year,
and let the clods lie for dusty summer to bake them in full sun:
but if the earth has not been fertile it’s enough to lift it
in shallow furrows, beneath Arcturus: in the first case
so that the weeds don’t harm the rich crops, in the other,
so what little moisture there is doesn’t leave the barren sand.
- Virgil, "Georgics" (BkI:43-70 Spring Ploughing)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Scapegoated for Neoliberalism

The entry of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party into a coalition government in Austria has been greeted with expressions of horror from the entire spectrum of the 'legitimate' democratic political bloc in the Western world. From the social democratic Third Way to the Christian conservatives, from Chirac to Clinton - not to mention, of course, the Israeli regime - all voiced 'dismay' and announced a diplomatic quarantine of Austria until the plague should disappear. Establishment commentators naturally hailed this demonstrative reaction as evidence that the anti-fascist consensus of post-war European democracy holds firm. But are things really so unequivocal?

Plain to see, in fact, is the structural role of the populist Right in the legitimation of current liberal-democratic hegemony. For what this Right - Buchanan, Le Pen, Haider - supplies is the negative common denominator of the entire established political spectrum. These are the excluded ones who, by this very exclusion (their 'unacceptability' for governmental office), furnish the proof of the benevolence of the official system. Their existence displaces the focus of political struggle - whose true object is the stifling of any radical alternative from the Left - to the 'solidarity' of the entire 'democratic' bloc against the Rightist danger. The Neue Mitte manipulates the Rightist scare the better to hegemonize the 'democratic' field, i.e. to define the terrain and discipline its real adversary, the radical Left. Therein resides the ultimate rationale of the Third Way: that is, a social democracy purged of its minimal subversive sting, extinguishing even the faintest memory of anti-capitalism and class struggle.

The result is what one would expect. The populist Right moves to occupy the terrain evacuated by the Left, as the only 'serious' political force that still employs an anti-capitalist rhetoric - if thickly coated with a nationalist/racist/religious veneer (international corporations are 'betraying' the decent working people of our nation). At the congress of the Front National a couple of years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen brought on stage an Algerian, an African and a Jew, embraced them all and told his audience: 'They are no less French than I am - it is the representatives of big multinational capital, ignoring their duty to France, who are the true danger to our identity!' In New York, Pat Buchanan and Black activist Leonora Fulani can proclaim a common hostility to unrestricted free trade, and both (pretend to) speak on behalf of the legendary desaparecidos of our time, the proverbially vanished proletariat. While multicultural tolerance becomes the motto of the new and privileged 'symbolic' classes, the far Right seeks to address and to mobilize whatever remains of the mainstream 'working class' in our Western societies.

The consensual form of politics in our time is a bi-polar system that offers the appearance of a choice where essentially there is none, since today poles converge on a single economic stance - the 'tight fiscal policy' that Clinton and Blair declare to be the key tenet of the modern Left, that sustains economic growth, that allows us to improve social security, education and health. In this uniform spectrum, political differences are more and more reduced to merely cultural attitudes: multicultural/sexual (etc.) 'openness' versus traditional/natural (etc.) 'family values'. This choice - between Social Democrat or Christian Democrat in Germany, Democrat or Republican in the States - recalls nothing so much as the predicament of someone who wants an artificial sweetener in an American cafeteria, where the omnipresent alternatives are Nutra-Sweet Equal and High & Low, small bags of red and blue, and most consumers have a habitual preference (avoid the red ones, they contain cancerous substances, or vice versa) whose ridiculous persistence merely highlights the meaninglessness of the options themselves.

Does the same not go for late-night talk shows, where 'freedom of channels' comes down to a choice between Jay Leno and David Letterman? Or for the soda drinks: Coke or Pepsi? It is a well-known fact that the Close the Door button in most elevators is a totally inoperative placebo, placed there just to give people the impression they are somehow contributing to the speed of the elevator journey - whereas in fact, when we push this button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when we simply pressed the floor button. This extreme case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor for the role accorded citizens in our 'postmodern' political process. Postmoderns, of course, will calmly reply that antagonisms are radical only so long as society is still - anachronistically - perceived as a totality. After all, did not Adorno admit that contradiction is difference under the aspect of identity? So today, as society loses any identity, no antagonism can any longer cut through the social body.

Postmodern politics thus logically accepts the claim that 'the working-class has disappeared' and its corollary, the growing irrelevance of class antagonisms tout court. As its proponents like to put it, class antagonisms should not be 'essentialized' into an ultimate point of hermeneutic reference to whose 'expression' all other antagonisms can be reduced. Today we witness a thriving of new multiple political subjectivities (class, ethnic, gay, ecological, feminist, religious), alliances between whom are the outcome of open, thoroughly contingent struggles for hegemony. However, as thinkers as different as Alain Badiou and Fredric Jameson have pointed out, today's multiculturalist celebration of the diversity of lifestyles and thriving of differences relies on an underlying One - that is, a radical obliteration of Difference, of the antagonistic gap. (The same, of course, goes for the standard postmodern critique of sexual difference as a 'binary opposition' to be deconstructed: 'there are not two sexes but a multitude of sexes and sexual identities'. The truth of these multiple sexes is Unisex, the erasing of Difference in a boringly repetitive, perverse Sameness that is the container of this multitude.) In all these cases, the moment we introduce the 'thriving multitude' what we effectively assert is its exact opposite, an underlying all-pervasive Sameness - a non-antagonistic society in which there is room for all manner of cultural communities, lifestyles, religions, sexual orientations. The reply of a materialist theory is to show that this very One already relies on certain exclusions: the common field in which plural identities sport is from the start sustained by an invisible antagonistic split.

Memory-traces of labour

Of course, even to mention terms like 'class' or 'labour' is enough to invite the reproach of 'economic essentialism' from the postmodernists of the Third Way. My first reaction to the charge is: why not? If we look around the world today, we soon see how handy a dose of this out-of-date way of thinking can be. The lands of former 'socialism', which the ideology of the moment still finds so hard to assign to their place in its scheme of things, offer particularly rich examples. How else should we conceive the connexion between the two mega-powers, the United States and China, for example? They relate to each other more and more as Capital and Labour. The US is turning into a country of managerial planning, banking, servicing etc., while its 'disappearing working class' (except for migrant Chicanos and others who mainly toil in the service economy) is reappearing in China, where a large proportion of American goods, from toys to electronic hardware, are manufactured in ideal conditions for capitalist exploitation: no strikes, little safety, tied labour, miserable wages. Far from being merely antagonistic, the relationship of China and US is actually also symbiotic. The irony of history is that China is coming to deserve the title of a 'working class state': it is turning into the state of the working class for American capital.

Meanwhile, the failed 'real Socialist' venture has left another legacy in Europe. There, the idea of labour (material, industrial production) as the privileged site of community and solidarity was especially strong in East Germany. Not only was engagement in the collective effort of production in the GDR supposed to bring individual satisfaction, but problems of private life (from divorce to illness) were held to be put into their proper perspective by discussion in the workplace. This notion is the focus of what is arguably the ultimate GDR novel, Christa Wolf's Divided Heaven. It is to be confused neither with the pre-modern idea of work as a ritualized communal activity, nor with the romantic celebration of older industrial forms of production (say, elegies for the authenticity of the English miners' lives in the manner of How Green Was My Valley), still less with any proto-fascist cult of craft work (along the lines of The Meistersinger). The production group is a collective of modern individuals who rationally discuss their problems, not an archaic organic community.

Therein perhaps resides the ultimate cause of Ostalgie, a continuing sentimental attachment to the defunct 'real Socialism' of the former GDR - the sense that, in spite of all its failures and horrors, something precious was lost with its collapse, that has now been repressed once again into a criminal underground. For in the ideological sensibility of the West today, is it not work itself - manual labour as opposed to 'symbolic' activity - rather than sex, that has become the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye? The tradition, which goes back to Wagner's Rheingold and Lang's Metropolis, in which the working process takes place in dark caves underground, now culminates in the millions of anonymous workers sweating in Third World factories, from Chinese gulags to Indonesian or Brazilian assembly lines. Due to the invisibility of all these, the West can afford to babble about the 'disappearance of the working class'. Crucial to this tradition is a tacit equation of labour with crime: the idea that hard work is a felonious activity to be hidden from public view.

Thus the only place in Hollywood films where we see a production process in all its amplitude is in the genre of thriller where the hero penetrates the master criminal's secret domain, and sees a hidden installation of furiously concentrated labour (distilling and packaging drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York, etc.). When the arch villain, after capturing Bond or his like, typically takes the hero on a tour of his monstrous enterprise, is not this vision of some vast, illegal production-complex the nearest American equivalent to the proud socialist-realist images of the Soviet epoch? Bond's role, of course, is to escape and blow up the whole assemblage in a spectacular fireball that returns us to the daily semblance of our life in a world cleansed of the working class. What is abolished in the final orgy of such violence is a certain utopian moment in Western history, when participation in a collective process of material labour was perceived as the ground of an authentic sense of community and solidarity. The dream was not to get rid of physical labour, but to find fulfilment in it, reversing its biblical meaning as a curse for Adam's Fall.

In his short book on Solzhenitsyn, one of his last works, Georg Lukács offered an enthusiastic appraisal of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novella that depicted for the first time in Soviet literature daily life in a gulag (its publication had to be cleared by Nikita Khrushchev in person). Lukács singled out the scene in which, towards the end of the long working day, Ivan Denisovich rushes to complete the section of wall he has been building; when he hears the guard's call for all the prisoners to re-group for the march back to the camp, he cannot resist the temptation of quickly inserting a final couple of bricks into it, although he thereby risks the guards' wrath. Lukács read this impulse to finish the job as a sign of how, even in the brutal conditions of the gulag, the specifically socialist notion of material production as the locus of creative fulfilment survived; when, in the evening, Ivan Denisovich takes mental stock of the day, he notes with satisfaction that he has built a wall and enjoyed doing so. Lukács was right to make the paradoxical claim that this seminal dissident text perfectly fits the most stringent definition of socialist realism.

Perduring in the palace

Yugoslavia offers another variant of postmodern misconceptions of post-communism which cast more light on the West than on the former East. 'Enlightened' liberal states seem baffled by the reaction of rulers like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein to the campaigns against them. They appear to be impervious to all external pressures: the West bombards them, chips off parts of their territory, isolates them from their neighbours, imposes tough boycotts on them, humiliates them in every way possible, and yet they survive with their glory intact, maintaining the semblance of courageous leaders who dare to defy the New World Order. It is not so much that they turn defeat into triumph; it is rather that, like some version of a Buddhist sage, they sit in their palaces and perdure, occasionally defying expectations with eccentric gestures of almost Bataillean expenditure, like Milosevic's son opening a local version of Disneyland in the midst of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, or Saddam completing a large amusement park for his elite nomenklatura. Sticks (threats and bombings) achieve nothing, and neither do carrots. So where have Western perceptions gone wrong? Our theorists, projecting onto these regimes a stereotyped opposition of rational hedonistic pursuit of happiness and ideological fanaticism, fail to take note of a more apposite couple: apathy and obscenity. The apathy that pervades daily life in Serbia today expresses not only popular disillusion in the 'democratic opposition' to Milosevic, but also a deeper indifference towards 'sacred' nationalist goals themselves. How was it that Serbs did not rally against Milosevic when he lost Kosovo? Every ordinary Serb knows the answer - it's an open secret in Yugoslavia. They really don't care about Kosovo. So when the region was lost, the secret reaction was a sigh of relief: finally, we are rid of that over-rated piece of soil which caused us so much trouble! The key to the readiness of 'ordinary' Serbs to tolerate Milosevic lies in the combination of this kind of apathy with its apparent opposite, an obscene permissivity. Here is how Aleksandar Tijanic, a leading Serb columnist who was even for a brief period Milosevic's minister for information and public media, describes 'the strange symbiosis between Milosevic and the Serbs':

Milosevic generally suits the Serbs. Under his rule, Serbs have abolished working hours. No one does anything. He has allowed the black market and smuggling to flourish. You can appear on state TV and insult Blair, Clinton, or any other 'international dignitary' of your choice . . . Milosevic gave us the right to carry weapons, and to solve all our problems with weapons. He gave us the right to drive stolen cars . . . Milosevic changed the life of Serbs into one long holiday, making us all feel like high-school pupils on a graduation trip - which means that nothing, but really nothing, of what you do is punishable. [1]

Marx long ago emphasized that the critical test of a historico-materialist analysis is not its ability to reduce ideological or political phenomena to their 'actual' economic foundations, but to cover the same path in the opposite direction - that is, to show why these material interests articulate themselves in just such an ideal form. The true problem is not so much to identify the economic interests that sustain Milosevic, as to explain how the rule of obscene permissivity can serve as an effective ideological social bond in today's Yugoslavia. Of course, Milosevic's rule also yields an unexpected bonus for the nationalist 'democratic opposition' in the country, since for the Western powers he is a pariah who embodies all that is wrong in Yugoslavia. The opposition is therefore counting on his death as the moment when, Christ-like, he will take upon himself all their sins. His demise will be hailed as the chance of a new democratic beginning, and Yugoslavia accepted again into the 'international community'. This is the scenario that has already taken place with the death of Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. Ignoring the ominous pomp of his funeral, Western commentators dwelt on the way his personal obstinacy had been the main obstacle to the democratization of Croatia, opening up a fair prospect for the future of the nation - as if all the dark sides of independent Croatia, from corruption to ethnic cleansing, had now magically vanished, interred forever with Tudjman's corpse. Will this be Milosevic's last service to his nation, too?

Expelling the material realities of sweated labour, collective production and anomic licence from its visions of the East, the official imaginary naturally has no time for traces of the working class in the West. In today's political discourse, the very term 'worker' tends to have disappeared from sight, substituted or obliterated by 'immigrants'- Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Mexicans in the USA, etc. In the new vocabulary, the class problematic of exploitation is transformed into the multiculturalist problematic of 'intolerance of the Other', and the investment of liberals in the particular rights of ethnic minorities draws much of its energy from the repression of the general category of the collective labourer. The 'disappearance' of the working class then fatally unleashes its reappearance in the guise of aggressive nativism. Liberals and populists meet on common ground; all they talk about is identity. Is not Haider himself the best Hegelian example of the 'speculative identity' of the tolerant multiculturalist and the postmodern racist? Now that his party has reached office, he takes pains to stress the affinity between New Labour and the Austrian Free Democrats, which renders the old oppositions of Left/Right irrelevant. Both forces, he notes, have jettisoned old ideological ballast, and now combine a flexible market economics, determined to dismantle statist controls and free entrepreneurial energies, with a politics of care and solidarity concerned to protect children and help the elderly and disadvantaged, without reverting to dogmas of the welfare state. As for immigration, Haider contends his policies are more liberal than those of Blair. [2]

There is both truth and falsehood in such claims. Once in power, Haider - blatantly an opportunist rather than a genuine 'extremist' - would no doubt perform quite conventionally. After all, in Italy his homologue Fini, till recently a fervent admirer of Mussolini, is now the most respectable of democratic statesmen, whose reputation the whole Italian establishment - from President Ciampi and Prime Minister D'Alema downwards - has rushed to defend against 'anachronistic' slurs from Schröder. But for the moment, Haider is still a demagogue whose attraction in Austria is based on remaining an outsider. His self-comparisons with New Labour are to that extent deliberately misleading, designed to cover up the xenophobic kernel of his populism. They belong to the same series as attempts by Afrikaans politicians of old to present apartheid as just another version of identity politics, devoted to safeguarding the rich variety of cultures in South Africa. Ernesto Laclau has taught us the distinction between the elements of an ideological construct and the articulation which gives them their meaning. Thus fascism was not characterized simply by a series of features like economic corporatism, populism, xenophobic racism, militarism and so on, for these could also be included in other ideological configurations; what made them 'fascist' was their specific articulation into an overall political project (for example, large public works did not play the same role in Nazi Germany and New Deal America). Along the same lines, it would be easy to show that Haider's manipulation of a menu of free-market and social-liberal dishes is not to be confused with the Third Way: even if Haider and Blair do propose a set of identical measures, these are inscribed in different ideological enterprises.

This, however, is not the whole story. There is also a sense in which Haider is indeed a kind of uncanny double of Blair, his obscene sneer accompanying like a shadow New Labour's big smile. For New Right populism is the necessary supplement of the multiculturalist tolerance of global capital, as the return of the repressed. The 'truth' of Haider's claim does not lie in the identity of New Labour and the New Right, but in the generation of his populism by the zombification of European social democracy at large. In Haider's clinching to Blair - we use the term in the precise sense, of the boxing-ring-the Third Way gets its own message back in inverted form. Participation by the far Right in government is not punishment for 'sectarianism' or a failure to 'come to terms with postmodern conditions'. It is the price the Left pays for renouncing any radical political project, and accepting market capitalism as 'the only game in town'.
[1] 'The Remote Day of Change', Mladina, Ljubljana, 9 August 1999, p. 33.

[2] 'Blair and Me versus the Forces of Conservatism', Daily Telegraph, 22 February 2000.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Why We All Love to Hate Heider"

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Role of Aesop in Plato's Phaedo

I will begin at the beginning, and endeavour to repeat the entire conversation. On the previous days we had been in the habit of assembling early in the morning at the court in which the trial took place, and which is not far from the prison. There we used to wait talking with one another until the opening of the doors (for they were not opened very early); then we went in and generally passed the day with Socrates. On the last morning we assembled sooner than usual, having heard on the day before when we quitted the prison in the evening that the sacred ship had come from Delos, and so we arranged to meet very early at the accustomed place. On our arrival the jailer who answered the door, instead of admitting us, came out and told us to stay until he called us. 'For the Eleven,' he said, 'are now with Socrates; they are taking off his chains, and giving orders that he is to die to-day.' He soon returned and said that we might come in. On entering we found Socrates just released from chains, and Xanthippe, whom you know, sitting by him, and holding his child in her arms. When she saw us she uttered a cry and said, as women will: 'O Socrates, this is the last time that either you will converse with your friends, or they with you.' Socrates turned to Crito and said: 'Crito, let some one take her home.' Some of Crito's people accordingly led her away, crying out and beating herself. And when she was gone, Socrates, sitting up on the couch, bent and rubbed his leg, saying, as he was rubbing: How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head. And I cannot help thinking that if Aesop had remembered them, he would have made a fable about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows, as I know by my own experience now, when after the pain in my leg which was caused by the chain pleasure appears to succeed.

Upon this Cebes said: I am glad, Socrates, that you have mentioned the name of Aesop. For it reminds me of a question which has been asked by many, and was asked of me only the day before yesterday by Evenus the poet—he will be sure to ask it again, and therefore if you would like me to have an answer ready for him, you may as well tell me what I should say to him:—he wanted to know why you, who never before wrote a line of poetry, now that you are in prison are turning Aesop's fables into verse, and also composing that hymn in honour of Apollo.

Tell him, Cebes, he replied, what is the truth—that I had no idea of rivalling him or his poems; to do so, as I knew, would be no easy task. But I wanted to see whether I could purge away a scruple which I felt about the meaning of certain dreams. In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams 'that I should compose music.' The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: 'Cultivate and make music,' said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed. And first I made a hymn in honour of the god of the festival, and then considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet, should not only put together words, but should invent stories, and that I have no invention, I took some fables of Aesop, which I had ready at hand and which I knew—they were the first I came upon—and turned them into verse. Tell this to Evenus, Cebes, and bid him be of good cheer; say that I would have him come after me if he be a wise man, and not tarry; and that to-day I am likely to be going, for the Athenians say that I must.
Given Socrates disdain for the written word expressed in his "Phaedrus" (the myth of Thamus and Thueth, I am somewhat surprised at this "late" desire by Socrates to try his hand at poetry, especially as the author's ability to reminisce would be, in this case, extremely "limited".

But also, IMO, the mystery solves itself "if" you conclude that it was his intention to satisfy himself that he had indeed been right all along to disdain the written account.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Old Movies for Old Folks

Mr. Holmes is a 2015 crime drama mystery film directed by Bill Condon, based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind written by Mitch Cullin and featuring the character Sherlock Holmes. The film stars Sir Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes, Laura Linney as housekeeper Mrs. Munro and Milo Parker as her son Roger. Set primarily during his retirement, the film follows a 93-year-old Holmes who struggles to recall the details of his final case while his mind begins to deteriorate.
- The Farmer gives the film 3.5 stars.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Anudder Mispent Yute!

There was an Old Lady whose folly
Induced her to sit in a holly:
Whereupon by a thorn
Her dress being torn,
She quickly became melancholy.
- Edward Lear

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

I Done Got Old

“You don't stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.”
― George Bernard Shaw