And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The FBI, or the New Committees of Public Safety...

...are they now too afraid to risk, Liberty?
- #ReleasetheMemo
What is our aim?
It is the use of the constitution for the benefit of the people.
Who is likely to oppose us?
The rich and the corrupt.
What methods will they employ?
Slander and hypocrisy.
What factors will encourage the use of such means?
The ignorance of the sans-culottes.
The people therefore must be instructed.
What are the obstacles to their enlightenment?
The paid journalists who mislead the people every day by shameless distortions.
What conclusion follows?
That we ought to proscribe these writers as the most dangerous enemies of the country and to circulate an abundance of good literature.

The people- what other obstacle is there to their instruction?
Their destitution.
When will the people be educated?
When they have enough bread to eat, when the rich and the government stop bribing treacherous pens and rogues to deceive them and instead identify their own interests with those of the people.
When will this be?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Moral Hazards of Science


Science, attempting to decaffeinate Morality since Newton first discovered "gravity".
Remember folks, if "Science" killed G_d, and G_d is dead, then so's the Devil!...???
Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.
- Ambrose Bierce

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Once more unto the Abyss, Dear Friends!

Once more unto the abyss, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'The Abyss for Harry, England, and Saint George!'
- Shakespeare (amended), "Henry V (Act III Sc i)"

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Song for the Immortal FreeThinke

Upon a darkened night
the flame of love was burning in my breast
And by a lantern bright
I fled my house while all in quiet rest

Shrouded by the night
And by the secret stair I quickly fled
The veil concealed my eyes
while all within lay quiet as the dead

Oh night thou was my guide
of night more loving than the rising sun
Oh night that joined the lover
to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other

Upon that misty night
in secrecy, beyond such mortal sight
Without a guide or light
than that which burned so deeply in my heart
That fire t'was led me on
and shone more bright than of the midday sun
To where he waited still
it was a place where no one else could come

Oh night thou was my guide
of night more loving than the rising sun
Oh night that joined the lover
to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other

Within my pounding heart
which kept itself entirely for him
He fell into his sleep
beneath the cedars all my love I gave
From o'er the fortress walls
the wind would brush his hair against his brow
And with its smoothest hand
caressed my every sense it would allow

I lost myself to him
and laid my face upon my lover's breast
And care and grief grew dim
as in the morning's mist became the light
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
there they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
there they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
The spirit only occupies itself with objects so long as there is something secret, not revealed, in them.
- Hegel
My sole occupation is love.

All my occupation now is the practice of the love of God, all the powers of soul and body, memory, understanding, and will, interior and exterior senses, the desires of spirit and of sense, all work in and by love. All I do is done in love; all I suffer, I suffer in the sweetness of love.


When a soul has advanced so far on the spiritual road as to be lost to all the natural methods of communing with God; when it seeks Him no longer by meditation, images, impressions, nor by any other created ways, or representations of sense, but only by rising above them all, in the joyful communion with Him by faith and love, then it may be said to have found God of a truth, because it has truly lost itself as to all that is not God, and also as to its own self.
- St. John of the Cross

The Ugly Sublime

Edouard Manet, "Lunch on the Grass" (1863)
Art, religion, and (philosophical) science are for Hegel the three progres­sive modes of the (self-)appearance of the Absolute, and the first problem here is that this progression does not quite work: The three terms are not at the same level. The pairing of art and thinking has a long tradition, reaching back to Heidegger’s Dichten und Denken, but why is religion added as a separate entity? Hegel himself often treats art and religion as aspects of the same self-deploying entity – for example, ancient Greek art is for him religion in the form of art, religion that finds its appropriate expression in art. Religion intervenes here as an uncanny intruder, a monstrosity of the supernatural in natural terms. Should the starting point not be religion rather than art? Was what we today consider art not historically first part of a religious or sacred experience? And is not the emergence of art in its independence, and not as part of the experience of the sacred – a process that reaches its peak only in modernity – strictly correlative to the rise of philosophy and (later) science as an autonomous mode of thinking no longer rooted in religion? Is, then, the pairing of Dichten und Denken itself the outcome of the withdrawal of religious experience?

The progress from art through religion to science moves in the direc­tion of Ver-Innerung, of recollection or internalization: It ends when the Spirit no longer needs the external medium of Vorstellung to express itself but deals with itself directly in the form of Spirit. This is why every preoccupation with deep mysteries, with unfathomable secrets to be disclosed to the initiated, and so forth is a sign that Spirit has not yet truly found itself: “The spirit only occupies itself with objects so long as there is something secret, not revealed, in them” (VPAII, 234/I, 604). This is why, from a Hegelian standpoint, one should reject absolutely the Schellingian and Heideggerian topic of an impenetrable, self-withdrawing Ground (Erde, Earth, in Heidegger). Both of them insist on the unsurpas­sable character of man’s finitude: Because of this finitude, we are forever caught in a struggle; we can never reach the Absolute at peace with itself (and this also holds for the Absolute itself, which is caught in this struggle). And, from the Hegelian standpoint, one should also reject Schiller’s and Schelling’s assertion of art as higher than philosophy as the only adequate rendering of the Absolute, of the harmonious identity of subject and object, ideal and real, freedom and necessity, reflection and spontaneity, activity and passivity (in contrast to philosophy or rational thinking, which privi­leges the subject and reflection).

According to Hegel’s (in)famous diagnosis, with the rise of moder­nity, “the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of the spirit.” Even if excellent works are produced, “we bow the knee no longer” (VPA I, 142/I, 103). This thesis of Hegel’s acquired new content with the rise of what he could not forecast: the secular capitalist civilization that elevates scientific reason into the highest form of reason (not in the Hegelian sense of Wissenschaft, but in the Anglo-Saxon sense of positive science relying on experiments). Today, with the emergence of cogniti­vism and the brain sciences, the circle is somehow closed; the human mind itself has become an object of neurobiology; and although the representatives of the experimental sciences as a rule dismiss Hegel’s thought as the high point of speculative madness, as an artistic-obscurantist phenomenon that has nothing to do with science proper, Hegel’s thesis that art is no longer the supreme expression of spirit survives this scathing critique. Even cognitivists who admire art or frequently refer to it (Sacks, Damasio) do so in a benevolently condes­cending attitude – what matters is science, not art.

The Romantic reaction to modern scientific civilization invites us “to bend the knee anew” (as Pippin [2014a, p. 139] wrote apropos of Heidegger); in what is today often referred to as the “postsecular” spirit, it endeavors to reenchant reality, and to elevate art into (one of) the harbinger(s) of the ultimate truth about our lives inaccessible to science. (Another strategy is, of course, to search in the latest sciences themselves for the signs of their overcoming of the “mechanistic paradigm.”) One should be unambiguous here: Such reenchantments are a fake, a pleasing aesthetic game.

With Hegel against Hegel

So what are we to do? Robert Pippin’s goal in his After the Beautiful is “to see what Hegel missed, but see it in his terms” (Pippin 2014a, p. 61). The problem with this approach is, of course, how to avoid the naive and thoroughly pre-Hegelian distinction between an empirical, “historical Hegel” and the “true Hegel,” the Hegel true to his notion, or rather, at the level of his notion: Is not, for Hegel, the historical actualization of a notion its truth, the deployment of its actual potentials, so that his mode of thinking totally prohibits all reference to an ideal over against its historical realization? The fundamental limitation of the “historical Hegel,” the “blind spot in his treatment of modernity,” is formulated by Pippin in proto-Marxist terms: It is his “failure to anticipate the dissatis­factions that this ‘prosaic’ world … would generate, or his failure to appreciate that there might be a basic form of disunity or alienation that his project could not account for, for which there was no ‘sublation’ or overcoming yet on the horizon” (p. 46).

For Pippin, Hegel’s thought involves another limitation, which con­cerns the form of art itself; his conclusion – the end of art in its essential role – “is not motivated by anything essential in Hegel’s account and represents a misstep, not an inference consistent with Hegel’s overall project” (pp. 22-3). So when Hegel correctly claims that in our age, “art invites us to intellectual consideration” (VPA I, 26/I, 11), he under­mines the notion of art as intuitive and affecting, opening up the possibi­lity of a different kind of art, an art that is “explicitly self-reflexive and exploratory” (Pippin 2014a, p. 42), involving interpretive effort. (And, incidentally, the counterpart of this reflexivization ofart is that philosophy itself becomes “artistic.”) The bad luck with so-called conceptual art (which seems a perfect example of “art inviting us to intellectual con­sideration”) is that, as a rule, it works only as hapax: You do it once, you make your point, and it is over (there is only one pissoir for Duchamp, only one white square on black surface with Malevitch; we gain nothing by repeating the production of such objects). Hegel’s fateful limitation was thus that his notion of art remained within the confines of classical representative art. He was unable to consider the possibility of what we call abstract (nonfigurative) art (or atonal music, or literature that reflex­ively focuses on its own process of writing, etc.).

The truly interesting question here is in what way this limitation – remaining within the constraints of the classical notion of representative art – is linked to what Pippin views as Hegel’s other limitation, his inability to detect the alienation/antagonism that persists even in a modern rational society where individuals attain their formal freedom and mutual recog­nition. In what way – and why – can this persisting unfreedom/uneasiness/ dislocation in a modern free society only be properly articulated, brought to light, in an art that is no longer constrained to the representative model? Is it that the modern uneasiness, unfreedom in the very form of formal freedom, servitude in the very form of autonomy, and more fundamen­tally anxiety and perplexity caused by that very autonomy reach so deep into the very ontological foundations of our being that it can only be expressed in an art form that destabilizes and denaturalizes the most elementary coordinates of our sense of reality?

The very fact that art plays a key role within an epoch means that in this epoch Spirit is not reconciled with itself – this is why it still needs sensual embodiment (in a work of art). Consequently, Hegel prophesied the end of art because he failed to perceive radical antagonisms that persist in the apparently nonantagonistic self-reconciled bourgeois society where individuals are condemned to lead a prosaic everyday life. However, Pippin’s critique of the Hegelian reconciliation in a modern rational state is deeply ambiguous: Does the persistence of art mean that art – authentic and relevant art – is only possible in an unreconciled society, as it sounds when Pippin emphasizes that Hegel did not see the antagonism in modern society and links this failure to the persistence of art? (Recall the modernist dream of a reconciled society in which art disappears as a separate institution since it overlaps with real everyday life itself.) Or is it that art persists in its very concept even in a fully reconciled society? Or – a third option – is it that the persistence of art signals that reconciliation is not possible for a priori reasons?

What one should further bear in mind is that the Hegelian reconcilia­tion is ultimately the reconciliation with failure itself, not a peaceful state in which antagonisms are overcome. The illusion is not that of the enforced “false” reconciliation that ignores the persisting divisions; the true illusion resides in not seeing that, in what appears to us as the chaos of becoming, the infinite goal is already realized: “Within the finite, we cannot experience or see that the purpose is truly attained. To accomplish the infinite purpose is thus merely to sublate the illusion [or deception: Täuschung] that it is not yet accomplished” (EL §212 Z). In short, the ultimate deception is to fail to see that one already has what one is looking for – like Christ’s disciples who were awaiting his “real” reincarnation, blind to the fact that their collective already was the Holy Spirit, the return of the living Christ.

Returning to Pippin, the dissatisfaction in modern prosaic life is what modern art (in painting from Manet to Cézanne, Picasso, etc.) registers. So, again, Hegel’s “greatest failure” is that he
never seemed very concerned about [the] potential instability in the modern world, about citizens of the same ethical commonwealth potentially losing so much common ground and common confidence that a general irresolvability of any of these possible conflicts becomes ever more apparent, the kind of high challenge and low expectations we see in all those vacant looks … He does not worry much because of his general theory about the gradual actual historical achievement of some mutual recognitive status, a historical claim that has come to look like the least plausible aspect of Hegel’s account and that is connected with our resistance to his proclamations about art as a thing of the past. (Pippin 2014a, p. 60)
And Pippin himself designates as the core of this new dissatisfaction class division and struggle (here, of course, class is to be opposed to castes, estates, and other hierarchies). A fundamental ambiguity thus charac­terizes the disturbing and disorienting effect of Manet’s paintings: Yes, they indicate the “alienation” of modern individuals who lack a proper place within a society traversed by radical antagonisms, individuals deprived of the intersubjective space of collective mutual recognition and understanding; however, they simultaneously generate and reflect a liberating effect (individuals they depict appear as no longer bound to a specific place in the social hierarchy), as well as an immanently artistic progress in freedom as reflexive awareness of the activity one is involved in. In other words, the modern, prosaic world is the world of the rational state, freedom, and mutual recognition (even if this freedom is merely formal, masking deeper class antagonisms), while the premodern uni­verse is the world of hierarchic nonmutual order. Nicolas Bourriaud wrote in his introduction to Foucault’s booklet on Manet:
What vouches for Manet’s painting is the definite birth of an individual exiled from his certainties regarding his place in the world … The viewer is commanded to position himself as an autonomous subject, lacking the possible means to identify himself or to project himself into the artwork he confronts. (Bourriaud 2009, pp. 16-17)
For Pippin, the most direct sign of this disorientation is the perplexed gaze of the painted individual, an expression characterized as one of “looking without seeing.” The gaze is directed outside the frame, addres­sing us viewers, but we are treated “as if invisible or at the least irrelevant, occupying no important presence in the subject’s vacant or bemused look” (Pippin 2014a, p. 48). With this perplexed gaze, Manet is not just a precursor to impressionism; he effectively reaches beyond impression­ism and points toward modern art proper (expressionism and abstract painting). The perplexed gaze of the painted individual thus unsettles the viewer as well, making his/her gaze uncertain, simultaneously dislocated (moving, looking at the painting from more than one standpoint since what he sees is impossible to see from one standpoint) and fixed into the unpleasantly exposed position of a voyeur.

However, there is more lurking beneath the surface here. In The Luncheon on the Grass, Manet’s best-known painting, we see two couples, including two naked women, one in back, knee-deep in water, engaged in what appears a kind of postcoital cleansing (this association was often noted), and a nude in front just sitting on the grass with the expression of “looking but not seeing.” With whom did the one in back have sex, the silent man or the talking, gesticulating one? Visually, the nude in front and the silent man sitting behind her are a couple, so it must be that the talking man is the one who performed the act and is not flirting with the other woman – or is he covering up his failure to perform the act by his excessive activity? The situation remains ambiguous, but the perplexed, distracted gaze of the naked woman in front remains the gaze of a (sexually) nonsatisfied woman, so that the painting’s subtitle could well have been Iln’y a pas de rapport sexuel.

Far from being excessive, this reading is confirmed by the general feature of Manet’s nude paintings. They are clearly to be conceived as a repetition of classical desexualized nude paintings – a repetition with a twist, of course, that is, what matters is the difference with regard to the classical model. Manet’s nude Olympia (1863-1865) repeats Reclining Venus (Ingres, 1822), and what this repetition renders palpable is “the impossibility (under the emerging conditions of a capitalist society’s self­representation) of any continuation of the tradition of the nude in paint­ing, the impossibility, the immediate lack of credibility, of that abstraction from particularity, the desexualizing idealization and so relatively inno­cent address to the beholder” (Pippin 2014a, p. 77). In short, Manet’s Olympia “is not a nude; she is a naked individual” (ibid.). The same bodily position of the left hand (covering the vaginal area) in Ingres indicates tender shame, while in Manet it designates a prostitute’s repose and is as such vulgarly eroticized. All the obscenity of class, power, and sex brutally invade the space of the painting, and it is crucial to note that the effect of the repetition of Ingres in Manet is retroactive; it is not only that Ingres’s Venus is replaced by a prostitute, it is that Ingres’s Venus itself loses its innocence and becomes (visible as) a prostitute.

A further feature that manifests this irruption of obscenity in Olympia is the disturbing effect of its light. As Foucault pointed out, there is no discernible source of light within the space depicted by the painting, so that it is as if light emanates directly from us, the viewers. Our gaze at Olympia is the source of the extra-strong light, which means that our possessive erotic gaze makes her visible – in short, we are her customers, our looking at her is like the look of the tourists or potential customers at the prostitutes displayed in the windows in Amsterdam’s Red Light district. This brings us back to the topic of the gaze and its vicissitudes in painting. Hegel is fully aware of the disruptive power of the gaze, its exceptional status in the totality of a human body. For Hegel, the form of a human body is
a totality of organs into which the Concept is dispersed, and it manifests in each member only some particular activity and partial emotion. But if we ask in which particular organ the whole soul appears as soul, we will at once name the eye; for in the eye the soul is concentrated and the soul does not merely see through it but is also seen in it. Now as the pulsating heart shows itself all over the surface of the human, in contrast to the animal, body, so in the same sense it is to be asserted of art that it has to convert every shape in all points of its visible surface into an eye, which is the seat of the soul and brings the spirit into appearance. – Or, as Plato cries out to the star in his familiar distich: “When thou lookest on the stars, my star, oh! would I were the heavens and could see thee with a thousand eyes,” so, conversely, art makes every one of its productions into a thousand-eyed Argus, whereby the inner soul and spirit is seen at every point. And it is not only the bodily form, the look of the eyes, the countenance and posture, but also actions and events, speech and tones of voice, and the series of their course through all conditions of appearance that art has everywhere to make into an eye, in which the free soul is revealed in its inner infinity. (VPA I, 203-4/I, 153-4)
The weird thing is that the image of the thousand-eyed Argus “is not one of the beautiful but is rather monstrous, ugly even” (Pippin 2014a, p. 101); so how can such an outstandingly ugly image stand for the metaphor of how a beautiful work of art functions?1

Let us proceed step by step. First, why many eyes? From the Freudian standpoint, only one answer is possible. In the same way that, according to Freud, the image of multiple penises in a dream signal castration (of the One), thousands of eyes cannot but signal the castration of the (one) Gaze. And the same goes for social life: The principal antagonism, when foreclosed or excluded, returns as a multiplicity. Does the same not hold for class antagonism, which, when occluded by the appearance of class balance (collaboration, mutual support, and complementarity – the cor­porate vision of society as a social body where every organ has its proper role to play), returns in the multiplicity of social separations and hierar­chies? (The same goes for the statues and paintings of Indian gods and goddesses with dozens of hands – what this signals is the lack of the one real Hand.) Bourgeois society generally obliterates castes and other hier­archies, equalizing all individuals as market-subjects divided only by class difference, but today’s late capitalism, with its “spontaneous” ideology, endeavors to obliterate the class division itself by proclaiming us all “self­entrepreneurs,” the differences among us being merely quantitative (a big capitalist borrows hundreds of millions for his investment, a poor worker borrows a couple of thousand for his supplementary education). The expected outcome is that other divisions and hierarchies emerge: experts and nonexperts; full citizens and the excluded; religious, sexual, and other minorities.Therein resides the lie of humanist universalism – or, as Carl Schmitt stated it brutally: “Whoever invokes ‘humanity’ wants to cheat” (Schmitt 1996 [1932], p. 54). Cheating here means simply obfuscating the antagonism in the very core of “humanity” (and thus covertly taking part by way of privileging one side in the antagonism).

The Ugly Gaze

So let us return to the (ugly) gaze that emanates from the painting, the way the painting we are looking at “returns the gaze.” Insofar as this gaze, the blind spot of the painting, is an ugly “phallic” protuberance, an excess that disturbs the painting’s harmony (as is the case with Holbein’s Ambassadors, where the blind spot is the ugly, prolonged anamorphic stain in the lower part of the painting), a work of art has to obfuscate this stain in its very heart if it is to become beautiful. This, for Lacan, is beauty – the domesticated ugliness of the gaze. The painter
gives something for the eye to feed on, but he invites the person to whom this picture is presented to lay down his gaze there as one lays down one’s weapons. This is the pacifying, Apollonian effect of painting. Something is given not so much to the gaze as to the eye, something that involves the abandonment, the laying down, of the gaze. (Lacan 1978, p. 101)
Gaze disturbing, ugly. “The problem is that a whole side of painting – expressionism – is separated from this field” (Lacan 1978, p. 101).

The image of thousand-eyed Argus is not the only case of ugliness in ancient Greece. There is (at least) also the (in)famous gigantic statue (the “colossus of Rhodes”) that stood above the entrance to the port; it was considered so disgusting with its large genitals and so on that it was taken as a divine punishment when a storm destroyed it. Where does this ugliness in ancient Greek art come from?

An answer is provided by Hegel, who does not conceive the ancient Greek miracle as emerging out of nowhere, but is fully aware of the violence of the break with preceding tradition that enabled it. The Greeks
certainly received the substantial beginnings of their religion, culture, their com­mon bonds of fellowship, more or less from Asia, Syria and Egypt; but they have so greatly obliterated [getilgt] the foreign nature of this origin, and it is so much changed, worked upon, turned round, and altogether made so different, that what they, as we, prize, know, and love in it, is essentially their own … The foreign origin they have so to speak thanklessly [undankbar] forgotten, putting it in the background – perhaps burying it in the darkness of the mysteries which they have kept secret [geheim] from themselves. They have not only done this, that is they have not only used and enjoyed all that they have brought forth and formed, but they have become aware of and thankfully [dankbar] and joyfully placed before themselves this at-homeness [Heimatlichkeit] in their whole existence, the ground and origin of themselves. (VGPI, 174/I, 150-1)
So there is nothing new for Hegel in the “Black Athena” thesis. As Rebecca Comay has noted, he even describes the way Greek art relates to its predecessors in terms of a “conquering” (siegen), “repression” (zuruckdrangen), “abolition” (fortfallen), “expunging” (tilgen), “annihila­tion” (vertilgen), “effacement” (Ausloschung), “erasure” (Verwischung), “stripping away” (Abstreifung), “excision” (abschneiden), “concealment” (verstricken) – of what? Of “the ‘Orient’ or its prehistoric avatar – animal, bodily, ugly, stupid” (Comay 2014, p. 126).

The notion of the Greek miracle as the outcome of organic sponta­neous self-generation is thus an illusion grounded on brutal repression – and, as always with Hegel, these repressed origins return in the fatal flaw of classic Greek art that is the obverse of its very achievement. And we should not be surprised to learn that this repression takes the form of the exclusion of the gaze. A Greek statue is the perfect human form, the balance of body and spirit – however, as such, it has to be without gaze: Their eyes are flat, pure surfaces, not the punctual window into the depth of the soul, since such a crack in the bodily surface would disturb its unity, its harmonious beauty. This is why Greek statues do not yet display subjectivity proper:
If we compare this vocation of romantic art with the task of classical art, fulfilled in the most adequate way by Greek sculpture, the plastic shape of the gods does not express the movement and activity of the spirit which has retired into itself out of its corporeal reality and made its way to inner self­awareness … What [these sculptures] lack is the actuality of self-aware sub­jectivity in the knowing and willing of itself. This defect is shown externally in the fact that the expression of the soul in its simplicity, namely the light of the eye, is absent from the sculptures. The supreme works of beautiful sculpture are sightless, and their inner being does not look out of them as self-knowing inwardness in this spiritual concentration which the eye discloses. This light of the soul falls outside them and belongs to the spectator alone; when he looks at these shapes, soul cannot meet soul nor eye eye. (VPA II, 131-2/I, 520-1)
However, as we have just seen, within Greek art itself, this excluded (foreclosed even) excess of gaze returns as a disturbing multitude: The whole body of a Greek statue becomes a surface with hundreds of eyes. But it is only in later Romantic art that this excess returns. Modern subjectivity is the return of the monstrous dimension excluded from the ancient Greek harmonious art. This is why the category of beauty is no longer central for modern art: In it, we pass from the Beautiful to (differ­ent modalities of) the Sublime.

The passage from Greek beauty to the Christian sublime and then to the outright explosion of the Ugly as an aesthetic category was first system­atically deployed by Karl Rosenkranz, editor and scholar of Hegel, author of his first “official” biography, although himself a reluctant Hegelian, in his Ästhetik des Häßlichen (Aesthetics of the ugly2). Rosenkranz’s start­ing point is the historical process of the gradual abandonment of the unity of True, Good, and Beautiful: Not only can something ugly be true and good, but ugliness can be an immanent aesthetic notion, that is, an object can be ugly and an aesthetic object, an object of art. Rosenkranz remains within the long tradition from Homer onward that associates physical ugliness with moral monstrosity; for him, the ugly is das Negativschöne (the negatively beautiful): “The pure image of the Beautiful arises, shining all the more against the dark background/foil of the Ugly” (Rosenkranz 1853, p. 36). Rosenkranz here distinguishes between a “healthy” and a “pathological” mode of enjoying the Ugly in a work of art: To be aesthetically enjoyable and, as such, edifying and permissible, ugliness has to remain as a foil of the beautiful – ugliness for the sake of itself is a pathological enjoyment of art.

Ugliness is as such immanent to Beauty, a moment of the latter’s self­ development. Like every concept, Beauty contains its opposite within itself, and Rosenkranz provides a systematic Hegelian deployment of all the modalities of the Ugly, from the formless chaos to the perverted distortions of the Beautiful. The basic matrix of his conceptualization of the Ugly is the triad of the Beautiful, the Ugly, and the Comical, where the Ugly serves as the middle, the intermediate moment, between the Beautiful and the Comical: “A caricature pushes something particular over its proper measure and creates thereby a disproportion which, inso­far as it recalls its ideal counterpart, becomes comical” (Rosenkranz 1853, p. 145).3

A whole series of issues arises here. First, can this third term not also be conceived as the Sublime, insofar as the ugly in its chaotic and over­whelming monstrosity that threatens to destroy the subject recalls its opposite, the indestructible fact of Reason and of the moral law? The Sublime can appear (turn into) ridiculous, and the ridiculous can appear (turn into) sublime, as we learned from Chaplin’s late films.

Second, the notion of the Ugly as the foil for the appearance of the Beautiful is profoundly ambiguous. It can be read (as it is by Rosenkranz) in the traditional Hegelian way: The Ugly is the subordinated moment in the game the Beautiful is playing with itself, its immanent self-negation which lays the (back)ground for its full appearance. Or it can be read in a much stronger, literal sense, as the very (back)ground of the Beautiful, which precedes the Beautiful and out of which the Beautiful arises. This is the reading proposed by Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory: “If there is any causal connection at all between the beautiful and the ugly, it is from the ugly as cause to the beautiful as effect, and not the other way around. If one originated in the other, it is beauty that originated in the ugly and not the reverse” (Adorno 1984a, p. 75). Adorno’s point here is twofold. First, concerning the notion of art, the Ugly is the “archaic” or “primi­tive” chaotic (Dionysian) life substance that a work of art “gentrifies,” elevates into the aesthetic form, but the price for this is the mortification of the life substance. The Ugly is the force of life against the death imposed by the aesthetic form. Second, with reference specifically to the modern era in which the Ugly became an aesthetic category, Adorno claims that art has to deal with the Ugly “in order to denounce, in the Ugly, the world which created it and reproduces it in its image” (Adorno 1984a, p. 72). The underlying premise here is that art is a medium of truth, not just an escapist play of beautiful appearances. In a historical situation in which the Beautiful is irreparably discredited as kitsch, it is only by presenting the Ugly in its ugliness that art can keep open the utopian horizon of Beauty.

A third point that arises is, what if the reversal of the Ugly into the Comical (or the Sublime) does not occur? Herman Parret describes such an option with regard to the Kantian Sublime: If the overwhelming pressure of the Ugly gets too strong, it becomes monstrous and can no longer be sublated/negated into the Sublime.

There is for Kant a progression from the colossal to the monstrous, i.e. towards the total annihilation of our faculty of presentation. If the colossal can already be considered a sublime correlate, then it remains certainly inside an acceptable limit; with the monstrous, on the other hand, one has passed beyond the acceptable limit, in full terror and total unpleasure. With the monstrous we are in the margin of the acceptable where the imagination is fully blocked to function. It looks as if the monstrous is the Thing, inexpressible and abyssal. The monstrous does violence to subjectivity without submitting it to any legality. (Parret 2009, p. 4)

The Sublime pleasure is a pleasure in unpleasure, while the Monstrous generates only unpleasure – but, as such, it provides enjoyment (Genuss, jouissance). Therein resides the link between enjoyment and disgust:
The “disgust for the object” arises from a certain “enjoyment” [Genuss] in the “matter of sensation” which distances the subject from its purposiveness. Pleasure [Lust] is opposed to “enjoyment” insofar as “pleasure is culture” [wo die Lust zugleich Kultur ist] … “Enjoyment” in matter, in contrast, pro­vokes disgust. In addition, this enjoyment of losing oneself in the matter of “charms and emotions” has a direct impact on the health of our body: it generates disgust which manifests itself in corporeal reactions like nausea, vomiting and convulsions. Pleasure-unpleasure [Lust/Unlust] in the feeling of the sublime has nothing to do with that “enjoyment” [Genuss] destructive of culture and generative of disgust. (Parret 2009, p. 7)

Do we not get here even an echo of what Kristeva calls “abject” (Kristeva 1982)? The object of enjoyment is by definition disgusting, and what makes it disgusting is a weird superego injunction that appears to emanate from it, a call to enjoy it even if (and precisely because) we find it ugly and desperately try to resist being dragged into it:
Kant insists on the non-representability of ugliness in art: “ [in] disgust … that strange sensation, which rests on nothing but imagination, the object is presented as if it insisted, as it were, on our enjoying it even though that is just what we are forcefully resisting.” This is a typically Kantian approach: in a single phrase, there is a gleichsam (as it were) and an als ob (as if). The ugly object has no reasonable effect on the Gemüth. Instead, an excited and dangerously disconcerted imagina­tion petrifies the subject in its corporeity. This is the very essence of disgusting ugliness: it threatens the stability of our corporeity, our body “forcefully resists” the incitement to enjoy that ugliness deceitfully imposes on us. (Parret 2009, pp. 6-7)
This, finally, brings us to the heart of disgust: The object of disgust “threatens the stability of our corporeity”; it destabilizes the line that separates the inside of our body from its outside. Disgust arises when the border that separates the inside of our body from its outside is violated, when the inside penetrates out, as in the case of blood or excre­ment. It is similar with saliva: As we all know, although we can without problem swallow our own saliva, we find it repulsive to swallow again saliva that was spit into a glass out of our body – again a case of violating the Inside/Outside frontier. What distinguishes man from animals is that, with humans, the disposal of excrement becomes a problem – not because it has a bad smell, but because it came out from our innermost. We are ashamed of excrement because, in it, we expose/externalize our innermost intimacy. Animals do not have a problem with it because they do not have an “interior” as do humans. One should refer here to Otto Weininger, who designated volcanic lava as “the shit of the earth” (Die Lava ist der Dreck der Erde). It comes from inside the body, and this inside is evil, criminal: “The Inner of the body is very criminal” (Das Innere des Körpers ist sehr verbrecherisch) (Weininger 1997, pp. 187, 188).

There Are Comedies and Comedies

How, then, can we think with Hegel against Hegel apropos of art after Beauty? Pippin is right to point out that in his proclamation of the end of art (as the highest expression of the absolute), Hegel is paradoxically not idealist enough. What Hegel fails to see is not simply some post-Hegelian dimension totally outside his grasp, but precisely the “Hegelian” dimen­sion of the analyzed phenomenon. The same goes for economy: What Marx demonstrated in his Capital is how the self-reproduction of the capital obeys the logic of the Hegelian dialectical process of a substance-subject that retroactively posits its own presuppositions. However, Hegel himself missed this dimension – his notion of industrial revolution was the Adam Smith-type manufacture where the work process is still that of combined individuals using tools, not yet the factory in which the machin­ery sets the rhythm and individual workers are de facto reduced to organs serving the machinery to its appendices. This is why Hegel could not yet imagine the way abstraction rules in developed capitalism. This abstrac­tion is not only in our (financial speculator’s) misperception of social reality; it is “real” in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes themselves. The fate of whole strata of a population, and sometimes that of whole countries, can be decided by the “solipsistic” speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality. Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than the direct precapitalist socio­ideological violence. This violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but purely “objective,” systemic, anonymous.

And in exact homology to this reign of abstraction in capitalism, Hegel was paradoxically not idealist enough to imagine the reign of abstraction in art. That is to say, in the same way that in the domain of economy he was unable to discern the self-mediating Notion that structures the eco­nomic reality of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption, Hegel was unable to discern the Notional content of a painting that mediates and regulates its form (shapes, colors) at a level that is more basic than the content represented (pictured) by a painting – “abstract painting” mediates/reflects sensuality at a nonrepresentative level:
seeing abstraction as self-conscious, conceptual, not, as with Greenberg, reduc­tionist and materialist. Pollocks and Rothkos are not presentations of paint drips and color fields and flat canvas. They conceptualize components of sensible meaning that we traditionally would not see and understand as such, would treat as given, and this can make sense because the result character of even sensible apprehension, a generalized idealism evident even in the likes of Nietzsche and Proust, has come to be part of the intellectual habits of mind of modern self­understanding, even if unattended to as such. Such is for Hegel the new way nonrepresentational art might matter. (Pippin 2002b, p. 23)
Exemplary here is Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which explores how colors, forms, points, lines, and their interplay directly evoke spiritual inner life (pure emotions), bypassing representative con­tent. One should bear in mind here the gap that separates authentic art from mere decorative art. Nonfigurative decorative art also displays the interplay of forms and colors, but this interplay is not a purveyor of a deeper historical Truth. While Kandinsky’s text is full of naive theosophical theses, two of his points nonetheless hit the mark, bearing witness to the fact that what he calls “Spiritual” is also Spirit in the Hegelian sense. First, the progress of art stands for the progress in freedom: “The greatest freedom of all, the freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute. Every age achieves a certain measure of this freedom, but beyond the boundaries of its freedom the mightiest genius can never go. But the measure of freedom of each age must be constantly enlarged” (Kandinsky 1977, p. 17). And second, it is rooted in its historical moment: “Every artist, as child of his age, is impelled to express the spirit of his age (this is the element of style) – dictated by the period and particular country to which the artist belongs (it is doubtful how long the latter distinction will continue to exist)” (p. 33).

Hegel, of course, does not go in this direction; for him, art after the end of art, art in a reconciled world, has to be comical. What if, however, comedy and radical nonreconciliation do not exclude each other (the reason the best films about the Holocaust are comedies)? Recall how Primo Levi, in If This Is a Man, describes the dreadful selekcja, the survival examination in the camp:
The Blockältester [the elder of the hut] has closed the connecting-door and has opened the other two which lead from the dormitory and the Tagesraum [daily room] outside. Here, in front of the two doors, stands the arbiter of our fate, an SS subaltern. On his right is the Blockältester, on his left, the quartermaster of the hut. Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum into the cold October air, has to run the few steps between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory door. The SS man, in the fraction of a second between two successive crossings, with a glance at one’s back and front, judges everyone’s fate, and in turn gives the card to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us. In three or four minutes a hut of two hundred men is “done,” as is the whole camp of twelve thousand men in the course of the afternoon. (Levi 1987, pp. 133-4)
Right means survival; left means gas chamber. Is there not something properly comic in this, the ridiculous spectacle of appearing strong and healthy, of attracting for a brief moment the indifferent gaze of the Nazi administrator who presides over life and death? Here, comedy and horror coincide: Imagine the prisoners practicing their appearance, trying to hold head high and chest forward, walking with a brisk step, pinching their lips to appear less pale, exchanging advice on how to impress the SS man; imagine how a simple momentary confusion of cards or a lack of attention of the SS man can decide my fate.

This “comical” aspect, of course, causes no laughter – it rather stands for a position beyond comedy and tragedy. On one hand, the Muslim4 is so destitute that his stance can no longer be considered “tragic”: There is no dignity in him that is crucial for the tragic position; that is, he no longer retains the minimum of dignity against the background of which his miserable actual position would have appeared as tragic. He is simply reduced to the shell of a person, emptied of the spark of spirit. If we try to present him as tragic, the effect will be precisely comic, as when one tries to read tragic dignity into meaningless, idiotic persistence. On the other hand, although the Muslim is in a way comic, although he acts in the way that is usually the stuff of comedy and laughter (his automatic, mindless, repetitive gestures, his impassive pursuit of food), the utter misery of his condition thwarts any attempt to present and/or perceive him as a comic character. If we try to present him as comic, the effect will be precisely tragic, as when the sad sight of someone cruelly mocking a helpless victim (say, putting obstacles in the way of a blind person to see if he will stumble), instead of producing laughter in us, generates sympathy for the victim’s tragic predicament. Did not something along these lines happen with the rituals of humiliation in the camps, from the inscription Arbeit machtfrei above the entrance to the gate at Auschwitz to the music band that accompanied prisoners to work or to the gas chambers? The paradox is that it is only through such cruel humor that the tragic sentiment can be generated. The Muslim is thus the zero-point at which the very opposition between tragedy and comedy, between sublime and ridiculous, between dignity and derision is suspended, the point at which one pole directly passes into its opposite. If we try to present the Muslim’s predicament as tragic, the result is comic, a mocking parody of tragic dignity, and if we treat him as a comic character, tragedy emerges.

So maybe Hegel, in his tragic vision, was not able to consider the possibility of a horror worse than tragedy, one that, precisely for this reason, may give rise to comedy, a laughter that is not done from the position of reconciliation, laughing at the vanity of the conflicts that persist, but a laughter through which the subject’s total capitulation and disorientation transpire. In other words, Hegel knew that comedy follows tragedy; what he was not able to imagine is a comedy more horrible than tragedy. So it is not that Hegel jumped too quickly to comedy, to comic reconciliation, and that he should see that the tragedy of alienation and antagonism goes on in the modern world. In the modern world, tragedy passed over to comedy, there is no return to tragic experience, and we should learn to see the horror in terms of comedy, in comedy itself. For Hegel, however, the comedy that fits the modern era concerns what he calls Humanus, art without historical Truth, just depicting ordinary life with its irrelevant conflicts and in this way signaling that the Absolute is reconciled with itself. Modern art transcends itself, but
in this self-transcendence art is nevertheless a withdrawal of man into himself, a descent into his own breast, whereby art strips away from itself all fixed restric­tion to a specific range of content and treatment, and makes Humanus its new holy of holies: i.e. the depths and heights of the human heart as such, mankind in its joys and sorrows, its strivings, deeds, and fates. Herewith the artist acquires his subject-matter in himself and is the human spirit actually self-determining and considering, meditating, and expressing the infinity of its feelings and situations: nothing that can be living in the human breast is alien to that spirit any more. This is a subject-matter which does not remain determined artistically in itself and on its own account; on the contrary, the specific character of the topic and its outward formation is left to capricious invention, yet no interest is excluded – for art does not need any longer to represent only what is absolutely at home at one of its specific stages, but everything in which man as such is capable of being at home. (VPA II, 237-8/I, 607)
In this universe where there are no privileged “great topics” and “any­thing goes,” all conflict has to remain in the domain of comedy:
Absolute subjective personality moves free in itself and in the spiritual world. Satisfied in itself, it no longer unites itself with anything objective and particular­ized and it brings the negative side of this dissolution into consciousness in the humor of comedy. Yet on this peak comedy leads at the same time to the dissolution of art altogether. All art aims at the identity, produced by the spirit, in which eternal things, God, and absolute truth are revealed in real appearance and shape to our contemplation, to our hearts and minds. But if comedy presents this unity only as its self-destruction because the Absolute, which wants to realize itself, sees its self-actualization destroyed by interests that have now become explicitly free in the real world and are directed only on what is accidental and subjective, then the presence and agency of the Absolute no longer appears positively unified. (VPA III, 572-3/II, 1236)
It is interesting to note that the expression l’art pour l’art, which regis­ters art’s full autonomy as an end in itself, not serving any broader social purpose, was coined by Hegel’s French pupil Victor Cousin and is the strict obverse of Hegel’s thesis on the end of art. It is as if art loses its privileged status of the expression of Absolute at the very moment when it asserts its full autonomy. When it finally arrives at what it was striving for – the full emancipation from the sacred, from social utility, and so on – the prize becomes worthless; the emancipation of art turns into the emancipation from art. This is one of the ways to understand why Hegel himself characterized art after the end of art as its self-destruction – and is this not what modern art effectively is, caught as it is in a permanent process of self-questioning that goes up to self-annihilation? But we can also understand it in a different way, as the regression of art into super­ficial comedy. That is to say, does Hegel’s description not fit perfectly the universe of today’s sitcoms, from Seinfeld to Mexican telenovelas? The (social) world is basically reconciled; there are no antagonisms cutting across it, just ordinary people with their everyday, mostly ridi­culous complications. The very form of sitcoms seems to evoke the Hegelian “spurious infinity”: There are no big issues, just melodramatic complications that pop up and disappear. So it seems as if Hegel was here ahead of his time; it is only today that reality has generated a product that fits his description.
[1] One can thus conceive cubism as a kind of inverted Argus: In it, the painting presents an object (say, a human body) as if it is simultaneously viewed from multiple standpoints. In this sense, in cubism the viewer/beholder himself becomes a multi-eyed Argus.

[2] Hässlich: ugly and, literally, worthy of hatred, that which provokes hatred, “hateable.”

[3] Rosenkranz strangely ignores Hegel in his book on the Ugly, although Hegel points the way toward the Ästhetik des Häßlichen when he conceives Romantic art as the art that liberates subjectivity in its contingency (ugliness) and culminates in humor as a way to assume the ugly.

[4] [As recorded by Levi, Muselmänner was inmates’ term for those in the camps who had given themselves over to despair, the “living dead” who were considered prime candidates for the selection described here.—Ed.]
Slavoj Žižek, "Comedy between the Ugly and the Sublime"

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Sir Isaac Newton (1675)
Nicolas Poussin, "Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun" (1658)

Hegel on Donald Trump's Objective Humor

What can we learn from Hegel on Donald Trump and his liberal critics? Quite a lot, surprisingly. In his critical account of Romantic irony, Hegel scathingly dismisses it as an exercise of empty negativity, of the vain subjectivity which perceives itself as elevated over every objective content, making fun of everything, caught in “the hither and thither course of the humor which uses every topic only to emphasize the subjective wit of the author.” “It is the artist himself who enters the material, with the result that his chief activity, by the power of subjective notions, flashes of thought, striking modes of interpretation, consists in destroying and dissolving everything that proposes to make itself objective and win a firm shape for itself in reality, or that seems to have such a shape already in the external world.”1

Today, we can easily recognize in these lines a postmodern intellectual who obsessively “deconstructs” every stable social institution or value. So what does Hegel oppose to this vain irony? Hegel’s point is usually taken as conservative: instead of the all-destroying anarchic irony of the Romantics, one should recognize the Good and the True embodied in social customs, i.e., its own rational core… However, Hegel is much more ambiguous here. First, his basic reproach to subjective humor is not that it is undermining all objective content, not taking it seriously, relativizing it, but that this all-destroying ironic stance is really utterly impotent. It actually threatens nothing; it just provides the ironic subject with the illusion of inner freedom and superiority. When individuals are caught in an impenetrable cobweb of social relations, the only way to assert their subjectivity is the niche of jokes which allegedly demonstrate their inner superiority.

Hegel opposed to Romantic subjective irony a much more radical ontological irony which characterizes the innermost core of dialectics. Apropos Socratic irony, he points out that, “like all dialectic, it gives force to what is — taken immediately, but only in order to allow the dissolution inherent in it to come to pass; and we may call this the universal irony of the world.”2 Perceiving reality as in itself antagonistic, a dialectical approach does not try to undermine it actively; it just lets it be what it is (or claims to be), taking it more seriously than it takes itself, and in this way allows it to destroy itself. This irony is in a way objective, so no wonder that, in a short (and regretfully underdeveloped) passage, Hegel opposes to “subjective humor” what he calls “objective humor”:
When “what matters to humor is the object and its configuration within its subjective reflex, then we acquire thereby a growing intimacy with the object, a sort of objective humor. /…/ The form meant here displays itself only when to talk of the object is not just to name it, not an inscription or epigraph which merely says in general terms what the object is, but only when there are added a deep feeling, a felicitous witticism, an ingenious reflection, and an intelligent movement of imagination which vivify and expand the smallest detail through the way that poetry treats it.”3
We are dealing here with a humor which, by way of focusing on significant symptomal details, brings out the immanent inconsistencies/antagonisms of the existing order. So would it not be legitimate to extrapolate from these indications the idea that the social totality itself is traversed by antagonisms, wrought by comical reversals? Freedom turns into terror, honor into flattery – are such reversals not the stuff of the Cunning of Reason? Can one imagine a more terrifying case of “objective humor” than that of Stalinism, of the comical reversal of great emancipatory hopes into a self-destructive terrorist violence? Was, in this sense, Stalin not the big Jokester of the twentieth century? And is, in our time, individual freedom of choice also not a joke whose truth is the desperate situation of a precarious worker? In view of the fact that the greatest cultural product of the Stalinist era are political jokes, one is tempted to paraphrase Brecht yet again: what is even the best anti-Stalinist joke compared to the joke that is the Stalinist politics itself? Or, closer to our time, what are even the best jokes on Trump compared to the joke that is Trump’s actual politics? Imagine that, a couple of years ago, a comedian were to perform on stage Trump’s statements, tweets and decisions. That would have been experienced as a non-realist exaggerated joke. So, Trump already is his own parody, with the uncanny effect of the reality of his acts being more outrageously funny than most parodies.

Hegel’s critique of subjective humor is more actual than ever today. One of the popular myths of the late Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was that there was a department of secret police whose function was (not to collect, but) to invent and put in circulation political jokes against the regime and its representatives, as they were aware of jokes’ positive stabilizing function (political jokes offer to ordinary people an easy and tolerable way to blow off steam, easing their frustrations).

And, at a different level, the same holds for Trump. Remember how many times the liberal media announced that Trump was caught with his pants down and committed a public suicide (mocking the parents of a dead war hero, boasting about pussy grabbing, etc.). Arrogant liberal commentators were shocked at how their continuous acerbic attacks on Trump’s vulgar racist and sexist outbursts, factual inaccuracies, economic nonsense, etc., did not hurt him at all but maybe even enhanced his popular appeal. They missed how identification works: we as a rule identify with the other’s weaknesses, not only or even not principally with the strengths. Which means that the more Trump’s limitations were mocked the more ordinary people identified with him and perceived attacks on him as condescending attacks on themselves. The subliminal message of Trump’s vulgarities to ordinary people was: »I am one of you!«, while Trump supporters felt constantly humiliated by the liberal elite’s patronizing attitude towards them. As Alenka Zupančič put it succinctly, “the extremely poor do the fighting for the extremely rich, as it was clear in the election of Trump. And the Left does little else than scold and insult them.”4 Or, we should add, the Left does what is worse still: it patronizingly “understands” the confusion and blindness of the poor… This Left-liberal arrogance explodes at its purest in the new genre of political-comment-comedy talk shows (Jon Stewart, John Oliver…) which mostly enact the pure arrogance of the liberal intellectual elite:
1. Quoted from Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. Part 2.
2. Quoted from Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy
3. Quoted from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art. – ed. pdf)
4. Alenka Zupančič, “Back to the Future of Europe” (unpublished manuscript).
- Ippolit Belinski, "Hegel on Donald Trump's Objective Humor"

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Politicization of EVERYTHING

...Cultural Capitalism Continues on the March!

Disturbances in a Cupola

In Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic horror movie The Black Cat (1934), the opposition between the Bela Lugosi character (Werdegast) and the Boris Karloff one (Poelzig) is the one between the two modes of the ‘undead,’ both referring to the previous screen images of the actors — Lugosi is the spectral survivor obsessed with the traumatic past, while Karloff is a machine-like monster, i.e., we have the vampiric undead versus the Frankensteinian monster (this is clearly discernible from their acting: Lugosi’s Dracula-like mannerisms versus Karloff’s wooden gestures). The entire film thus points towards the final theatrically staged sadomasochistic torture scene, in which Lugosi starts to flay the skin off the living Karloff. Is this opposition not that of the class struggle reduced to its minimum, the opposition between the aristocratic vampire and the proletarian living dead? So what form does this flaying take in our times?

In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza, Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the ‘humanitarian’ issue of the refugees — class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by liberal-cultural topics of tolerance and solidarity. With the Paris terror killings on Friday, 13 November, 2015, even the refugee crisis (which still refers to large socio-economic issues) was eclipsed by the simple opposition of all democratic forces caught in a merciless war with the forces of terror — and it is easy to believe what has followed: paranoiac searches for ISIS agents among the refugees, etc. (the media gleefully reported that two of the terrorists entered Europe through Greece as refugees). The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be refugees themselves, and the true winners behind the platitudes in the style of Je suis Paris will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not just by engaging in pathetic shows of anti-terrorist solidarity, but by insisting on the simple cui bono question. There should be no ‘deeper understanding’ of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of ‘their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to European brutal interventions’): they should be characterized as what they are, as the Islamo-fascist obverse of the European anti-immigrant racists — two sides of the same coin.

But there is another, more formal, aspect that should give us pause to think — the very form of the attacks: a momentary brutal disruption of normal life. (Significantly, the attacked objects do not stand for the military or political establishment but for everyday popular culture — restaurants, rock venues and so on.) Such a form of terrorism—a momentary disturbance—mainly characterizes attacks on developed Western countries, in clear contrast to many Third World countries in which violence is a permanent fact of life. Think about daily life in Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon — where are the outcries and declarations of international solidarity when hundreds die there? We should remember now that we live in a ‘cupola’ where terrorist violence is a threat that just explodes from time to time, in contrast to countries where (with the participation or complicity of the West) daily life consists of uninterrupted terror and brutality.

In his In the World Interior of Capital (2013), Peter Sloterdijk demonstrates how, in today’s globalization, the world system completed its development and, as a capitalist system, came to determine all conditions of life. The first symbol of this development was the Crystal Palace in London, the site of the first world exhibition in 1851: the inevitable exclusivity of globalization as the construction and expansion of a world interior whose boundaries are invisible, yet virtually insurmountable from without, and which is now inhabited by the one and a half billion ‘winners’ of globalization. Three times this number are left standing outside the door. Consequently, ‘the world interior of capital is not an agora or a trade fair beneath the open sky, but rather a hothouse that has drawn inwards everything that was once on the outside.’ This interior, built on capitalist excesses, determines everything: ‘The primary fact of the Modern Age was not that the earth goes around the sun, but that money goes around the earth.’ After the process that transformed the world into the globe, ‘social life could only take place in an expanded interior, a domestically and arti cially climatized inner space.’ As cultural capitalism rules, all world-forming upheavals are contained: ‘No more historic events could take place under such conditions — at most, domestic accidents.’ What Sloterdijk correctly points out is that capitalist globalization does not stand only for openness and conquest, but also for a self-enclosed cupola separating the Inside from its Outside. The two aspects are inseparable: capitalism’s global reach is grounded in the way it introduces a radical class division across the entire globe, separating those protected by the sphere from those outside its cover.

The latest Paris terrorist attacks, as well as the flow of refugees, are momentary reminders of the violent world outside our cupola, a world which, for us insiders, appears mostly on TV reports about distant violent countries — not as a part of our reality but encroaching on it. Our ethico-political duty is not just to become aware of the reality outside our cupola, but to fully assume our co-responsibility for the horrors outside it. James Mangold’s Cop Land (1996) is set in Garrison (an imagined New Jersey city across the river from Manhattan), where Ray Donlan, a corrupt Lieutenant of the NY police (played by Harvey Keitel) has established a place in which New York policemen can live safely with their families. When Freddy Heflin, an honest local cop (Silvester Stallone), expresses his moral qualms about Donlan’s mode of operation, Donlan replies
Freddy, I invited men, cops, good men, to live in this town. And these men make a living, they cross that bridge every day to that city where everything is upside down, where the cop is the perp[etrator] and the perp is the victim. The only thing they did was to get their families out before it got to them. We made a place where things make sense, where you can walk the street without fear, and you come to me with the plan to set things right, everyone in the city holding hands, singing ‘We are the World.’ It’s very nice. But, Freddy, your plan is a plan of a boy, it was made on the back of a matchbox without thinking, without looking at the cards. I look at the cards, I see this town destroyed. Now that’s not what you want, is it?
It is easy to see in what way Donlan’s quasi-ontological vision of social reality is false: the group of policemen create their safe haven by withdrawing from the corrupted Manhattan, but it is their full participation in the corrupted crime universe of Manhattan that enables them to keep crime at bay in their own hamlet and sustain their safe and friendly way of life. What this means is that it is their very concern for their safe haven that contributes to the regular reproduction of crime in Manhattan — and the same can be said for all the participants in the Manhattan crime, with the exception of the lowest-level street criminals. Are mafia bosses also not doing what they do to protect their safe family haven? One should note the circularity of this constellation: the effort to create a safe haven and protect it from the crazy world outside generates the very world it tries to protect us from. Do we not encounter exactly the same paradox in Song-do, a new city for quarter of a million inhabitants built out of nothing close to Seoul’s Incheon airport in South Korea, a kind of supreme ideological manifesto in stone? In his report ‘Song-do, the Global City Without Soul,’ Francesco Martone describes how Song-do is built
on 6.5 square kilometers reclaimed from the sea, by a human hand that alters boundaries and morphologies. It would eventually host 250,000 and is rapidly becoming a trendy location to the extent that various soap opera stars moved in to what they would like to see as the Beverly Hills of the East.
As it stands now, however, the city is composed of almost empty futuristic buildings, a few bikers rambling along its wide avenues, construction sites active around the clock. Canals filled with merchant vessels in the background. Walking among these high-rise buildings made of steel and crystal, semi-deserted roads waiting to be filled with cars, is like living in a Truman Show of liberalism with no limit […] A sort of ‘city-state’ where investors enjoy all sort of exemptions, from tax breaks and beyond. A plastic and virtual performance of extreme liberalism, the reification of daily reality, of nature transformed into a consumption commodity, the impossible equation between a Green New Deal and growth, fake stones and trees plucked on at sand, battered by gusts of wind, icy cold in winter, steaming hot in summertime […]

Song-do is today considered and boasted [of] as the show-case of ‘green economy,’ built at the cost of the displacement of a delicate ecosystem where as many as 11 species of migratory birds, among them the ‘Platalea Minor,’ used to live, a site of major importance for the Ramsar convention. Supergreen zero-emission powerplants turn sea tides into energy, destroying fragile coastal habitats. Paradoxically, the world’s biggest tidal wave powerplant, the Siwha Tidal Powerplant, has been registered by the Clean Development Mechanism, set up to reduce emissions and generate carbon credits. ‘A Conflict of Greens: Green Development versus Habitat Preservation — the case of Incheon, South Korea’ is the eloquent title of an article that pointed to the contradiction between green capitalism and ecology. What sort of ecological conversion is possible in an artificial place, where rights are subject to the rule of market and finance? A place that pretends to be a laboratory of a Green New Deal, antiseptic and without soul?

It’ll be those urban extraterritorial spaces, such as IFEX and many more, developed ‘in vitro,’ suspended in space and time, black holes where exemption from labour legislation and tax breaks are the rule, that will represent the new frontier of wildcat liberalism, fuelled by the expoliation of resources elsewhere in the world. The fact of the matter is that Song-do is currently one of those ‘extraterritorial’ spaces, akin to the Export Processing Zones that together with tax havens draw a parallel geography of power, a cobweb of parallel governance, away from public scrutiny, that envisages no anomaly or alternative […] So, Song-do, designed by planning firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, is a city that can be reproduced anywhere in the world, with its Central Park, its World Trade Center, its canals that evoke a futuristic Venice, a technopark and a biocomplex. Electronic closets in hotels offer various options to guests, from automatized enema to butt massages at varying temperatures. Supermarkets sell cosmetics produced with the genetic manipulation of stem cells, to whiten the skin and nurture the illusion of eternal youth.

This new form of a city is, to put it blandly, neo-liberal ideology embodied, an impossible combination of market economy exempted from the state control with the usual ‘progressive’ ecological, educational and health concerns, the result being a ‘green’ environment built on a ravaged natural habitat. To get a full picture, one need only imagine a gigantic transparent cupola (similar to the one in the films Zardoz or Elysium) to keep the city safe from its polluted environs, plus transgender toilets to guarantee that all forms of segregation are left behind (in a city which is itself a segregated area).
-Slavoj Žižek, "The Courage of Hopelessness"

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sound for the Film Nerd

Sex for the Sex Addict

Segregated toilet doors are today at the center of a big legal and ideological struggle. On March 29, 2016, a group of 80 predominantly Silicon Valley-based business executives, headlined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, signed a letter to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory denouncing a law that prohibits transgender people from using public facilities intended for the opposite sex. “We are disappointed in your decision to sign this discriminatory legislation into law,” the letter says. “The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business.” So it is clear where big capital stands. Tim Cook can easily forget about hundreds of thousands of Foxconn workers in China assembling Apple products in slave conditions; he made his big gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, demanding the abolition of gender segregation… As is often the case, big business stands proudly united with politically correct theory.

So what is “transgenderism”? It occurs when an individual experiences discord between his/her biological sex (and the corresponding gender, male or female, assigned to him/her by society at birth) and his/her subjective identity. As such, it does not concern only “men who feel and act like women” and vice versa but a complex structure of additional “genderqueer” positions which are outside the very binary opposition of masculine and feminine: bigender, trigender, pangender, genderfluid, up to agender. The vision of social relations that sustains transgenderism is the so-called postgenderism: a social, political and cultural movement whose adherents advocate a voluntary abolition of gender, rendered possible by recent scientific progress in biotechnology and reproductive technologies. Their proposal not only concerns scientific possibility, but is also ethically grounded. The premise of postgenderism is that the social, emotional and cognitive consequences of fixed gender roles are an obstacle to full human emancipation. A society in which reproduction through sex is eliminated (or in which other versions will be possible: a woman can also “father” her child, etc.) will open unheard-of new possibilities of freedom, social and emotional experimenting. It will eliminate the crucial distinction that sustains all subsequent social hierarchies and exploitations.

One can argue that postgenderism is the truth of transgenderism. The universal fluidification of sexual identities unavoidably reaches its apogee in the cancellation of sex as such. Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the “anonymous kingdom of the Republic.” The only way to be a royalist in general was to be a republican, and, in the same sense, the only way to be sexualized in general is to be asexual.

The first thing to note here is that transgenderism goes together with the general tendency in today’s predominant ideology to reject any particular “belonging” and to celebrate the “fluidification” of all forms of identity. Thinkers like Frederic Lordon have recently demonstrated the inconsistency of “cosmopolitan” anti-nationalist intellectuals who advocate “liberation from a belonging” and in extremis tend to dismiss every search for roots and every attachment to a particular ethnic or cultural identity as an almost proto-Fascist stance. Lordon contrasts this hidden belonging of self-proclaimed rootless universalists with the nightmarish reality of refugees and illegal immigrants who, deprived of basic rights, desperately search for some kind of belonging (like a new citizenship). Lordon is quite right here: it is easy to see how the “cosmopolitan” intellectual elites despising local people who cling to their roots belong to their own quite exclusive circles of rootless elites, how their cosmopolitan rootlessness is the marker of a deep and strong belonging. This is why it is an utter obscenity to put together elite “nomads” flying around the world and refugees desperately searching for a safe place where they would belong–the same obscenity as that of putting together a dieting upper-class Western woman and a starving refugee woman.

Furthermore, we encounter here the old paradox: the more marginal and excluded one is, the more one is allowed to assert one’s ethnic identity and exclusive way of life. This is how the politically correct landscape is structured. People far from the Western world are allowed to fully assert their particular ethnic identity without being proclaimed essentialist racist identitarians (native Americans, blacks…). The closer one gets to the notorious white heterosexual males, the more problematic this assertion is: Asians are still OK; Italians and Irish – maybe; with Germans and Scandinavians it is already problematic… However, such a prohibition on asserting the particular identity of white men (as the model of oppression of others), although it presents itself as the admission of their guilt, nonetheless confers on them a central position. This very prohibition makes them into the universal-neutral medium, the place from which the truth about the others’ oppression is accessible. The imbalance weighs also in the opposite direction: impoverished European countries expect the developed West European ones to bear the full burden of multicultural openness, while they can afford patriotism.

And a similar tension is present in transgenderism. Transgender subjects who appear as transgressive, defying all prohibitions, simultaneously behave in a hyper-sensitive way insofar as they feel oppressed by enforced choice (“Why should I decide if I am man or woman?”) and need a place where they could recognize themselves. If they so proudly insist on their “trans-,” beyond all classification, why do they display such an urgent demand for a proper place? Why, when they find themselves in front of gendered toilets, don’t they act with heroic indifference–“I am transgendered, a bit of this and that, a man dressed as a woman, etc., so I can well choose whatever door I want!”? Furthermore, do “normal” heterosexuals not face a similar problem? Do they also not often find it difficult to recognize themselves in prescribed sexual identities? One could even say that “man” (or “woman”) is not a certain identity but more like a certain mode of avoiding an identity… And we can safely predict that new anti-discriminatory demands will emerge: why not marriages among multiple persons? What justifies the limitation to the binary form of marriage? Why not even a marriage with animals? After all we already know about the finesse of animal emotions. Is to exclude marriage with an animal not a clear case of “speciesism,” an unjust privileging of the human species?

Insofar as the other great antagonism is that of classes, could we not also imagine a homologous critical rejection of the class binary? The “binary” class struggle and exploitation should also be supplemented by a “gay” position (exploitation among members of the ruling class itself, e.g., bankers and lawyers exploiting the “honest” productive capitalists), a “lesbian” position (beggars stealing from honest workers, etc.), a “bisexual” position (as a self-employed worker, I act as both capitalist and worker), an “asexual” one (I remain outside capitalist production), and so forth.

This deadlock of classification is clearly discernible in the need to expand the formula: the basic LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) becomes LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) or even LGBTQQIAAP (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies, Pansexual). To resolve the problem, one often simply adds a + which serves to include all other communities associated with the LGBT community, as in LGBT+. This, however, raises the question: is + just a stand-in for missing positions like “and others,” or can one be directly a +? The properly dialectical answer is “yes,” because in a series there is always one exceptional element which clearly does not belong to it and thereby gives body to +. It can be “allies” (“honest” non-LGBT individuals), “asexuals” (negating the entire field of sexuality) or “questioning” (floating around, unable to adopt a determinate position).

Consequently, there is only one solution to this deadlock, the one we find in another field of disposing waste, that of trash bins. Public trash bins are more and more differentiated today. There are special bins for paper, glass, metal cans, cardboard package, plastic, etc. Here already, things sometimes get complicated. If I have to dispose of a paper bag or a notebook with a tiny plastic band, where does it belong? To paper or to plastic? No wonder that we often get detailed instruction on the bins, right beneath the general designation: PAPER–books, newspapers, etc., but NOT hardcover books or books with plasticized covers, etc. In such cases, proper waste disposal would have taken up to half an hour or more of detailed reading and tough decisions. To make things easier, we then get a supplementary trash bin for GENERAL WASTE where we throw everything that did not meet the specific criteria of other bins, as if, once again, apart from paper trash, plastic trash, and so on, there is trash as such, universal trash.

Should we not do the same with toilets? Since no classification can satisfy all identities, should we not add to the two usual gender slots (MEN, WOMEN) a door for GENERAL GENDER? Is this not the only way to inscribe into an order of symbolic differences its constitutive antagonism? Lacan already pointed out that the “formula” of the sexual relationship as impossible/real is 1+1+a, i.e., the two sexes plus the “bone in the throat” that prevents its translation into a symbolic difference. This third element does not stand for what is excluded from the domain of difference; it stands, instead, for (the real of) difference as such.

The reason for this failure of every classification that tries to be exhaustive is not the empirical wealth of identities that defy classification but, on the contrary, the persistence of sexual difference as real, as “impossible” (defying every categorization) and simultaneously unavoidable. The multiplicity of gender positions (male, female, gay, lesbian, bigender, transgender…) circulates around an antagonism that forever eludes it. Gays are male, lesbians female; transsexuals enforce a passage from one to another; cross-dressing combines the two; bigender floats between the two… Whichever way we turn, the two lurks beneath.

This brings us back to what one could call the primal scene of anxiety that defines transgenderism. I stand in front of standard bi-gender toilets with two doors, LADIES and GENTLEMEN, and I am caught up in anxiety, not recognizing myself in any of the two choices. Again, do “normal” heterosexuals not have a similar problem? Do they also not often find it difficult to recognize themselves in prescribed sexual identities? Which man has not caught himself in momentary doubt: “Do I really have the right to enter GENTLEMEN? Am I really a man?”

We can now see clearly what the anxiety of this confrontation really amounts to. Namely, it is the anxiety of (symbolic) castration. Whatever choice I make, I will lose something, and this something is NOT what the other sex has. Both sexes together do not form a whole since something is irretrievably lost in the very division of sexes. We can even say that, in making the choice, I assume the loss of what the other sex doesn’t have, i.e., I have to renounce the illusion that the Other has that X which would fill in my lack. And one can well guess that transgenderism is ultimately an attempt to avoid (the anxiety of) castration: thanks to it, a flat space is created in which the multiple choices that I can make do not bear the mark of castration. As Alenka Zupančič expressed it in a piece of personal communication: “One is usually timid in asserting the existence of two genders, but when passing to the multitude this timidity disappears, and their existence is firmly asserted. If sexual difference is considered in terms of gender, it is made — at least in principle — compatible with mechanisms of its full ontologization.”

Therein resides the crux of the matter. The LGBT trend is right in “deconstructing” the standard normative sexual opposition, in de-ontologizing it, in recognizing in it a contingent historical construct full of tensions and inconsistencies. However, this trend reduces this tension to the fact that the plurality of sexual positions are forcefully narrowed down to the normative straightjacket of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine, with the idea that, if we get away from this straightjacket, we will get a full blossoming multiplicity of sexual positions (LGBT, etc.), each of them with its complete ontological consistency. It assumes that once we get rid of the binary straightjacket, I can fully recognize myself as gay, bisexual, or whatever. From the Lacanian standpoint, nonetheless, the antagonistic tension is irreducible, as it is constitutive of the sexual as such, and no amount of classificatory diversification and multiplication can save us from it.

The same goes for class antagonism. The division introduced and sustained by the emancipatory (“class”) struggle is not between the two particular classes of the whole, but between the whole-in-its-parts and its remainder which, within the particulars, stands for the universal, for the whole “as such,” opposed to its parts. Or, to put it in yet another way, one should bear in mind here the two aspects of the notion of remnant: the rest as what remains after the subtraction of all particular content (elements, specific parts of the whole), and the rest as the ultimate result of the subdivision of the whole into its parts, when, in the final act of subdivision, we no longer get two particular parts or elements, two somethings, but a something (the rest) and a nothing.

In Lacan’s precise sense of the term, the third element (the Kierkegaardian chimney sweeper) effectively stands for the phallic element. How so? Insofar as it stands for pure difference: the officer, the maid, and the chimney sweeper are the male, the female, plus their difference as such, as a particular contingent object. Again, why? Because not only is difference differential, but, in an antagonistic (non)relationship, it precedes the terms it differentiates. Not only is woman not-man and vice versa, but woman is what prevents man from being fully man and vice versa. It is like the difference between the Left and the Right in the political space: their difference is the difference in the very way difference is perceived. The whole political space appears differently structured if we look at it from the Left or from the Right; there is no third “objective” way (for a Leftist, the political divide cuts across the entire social body, while for a Rightist, society is a hierarchic whole disturbed by marginal intruders).

Difference “in itself” is thus not symbolic-differential, but real-impossible — something that eludes and resists the symbolic grasp. This difference is the universal as such, that is, the universal not as a neutral frame elevated above its two species, but as their constitutive antagonism. And the third element (the chimney sweeper, the Jew, object a) stands for difference as such, for the “pure” difference/antagonism which precedes the differentiated terms. If the division of the social body into two classes were complete, without the excessive element (Jew, rabble…), there would have been no class struggle, just two clearly divided classes. This third element is not the mark of an empirical remainder that escapes class classification (the pure division of society into two classes), but the materialization of their antagonistic difference itself, insofar as this difference precedes the differentiated terms. In the space of anti-Semitism, the “Jew” stands for social antagonism as such: without the Jewish intruder, the two classes would live in harmony… Thus, we can observe how the third intruding element is evental: it is not just another positive entity, but it stands for what is forever unsettling the harmony of the two, opening it up to an incessant process of re-accommodation.

A supreme example of this third element, objet a, which supplements the couple, is provided by a weird incident that occurred in Kemalist Turkey in 1926. Part of the Kemalist modernization was to enforce new “European” models for women, for how they should dress, talk and act, in order to get rid of the oppressive Oriental traditions. As is well known, there indeed was a Hat Law prescribing how men and women, at least in big cities, should cover their heads. Then,
“in Erzurum in 1926 there was a woman among the people who were executed under the pretext of ‘opposing the Hat Law.’ She was a very tall (almost 2 m.) and very masculine-looking woman who peddled shawls for a living (hence her name ‘Şalcı Bacı’ [Shawl Sister]). Reporter Nimet Arzık described her as, ‘two meters tall, with a sooty face and snakelike thin dreadlocks […] and with manlike steps.’ Of course as a woman she was not supposed to wear the fedora, so she could not have been ‘guilty’ of anything, but probably in their haste the gendarmes mistook her for a man and hurried her to the scaffold. Şalcı Bacı was the first woman to be executed by hanging in Turkish history. She was definitely not ‘normal’ since the description by Arzık does not fit in any framework of feminine normalcy at that particular time, and she probably belonged to the old tradition of tolerated and culturally included ‘special people’ with some kind of genetic ‘disorder.’ The coerced and hasty transition to ‘modernity,’ however, did not allow for such an inclusion to exist, and therefore she had to be eliminated, crossed out of the equation. ‘Would a woman wear a hat that she be hanged?’ were the last words she was reported to have muttered on the way to the scaffold. Apart from making no sense at all, these words represented a semantic void and only indicated that this was definitely a scene from the Real, subverting the rules of semiotics: she was first emasculated (in its primary etymological sense of ‘making masculine’), so that she could be ‘emasculated.’”[1]
How are we to interpret this weird and ridiculously excessive act of killing? The obvious reading would have been a Butlerian one: through her provocative trans-sexual appearance and acting, Şalcı Bacı rendered visible the contingent character of sexual difference, of how it is symbolically constructed. In this way, she was a threat to normatively established sexual identities… My reading is slightly (or not so slightly) different. Rather than undermine sexual difference, Şalcı Bacı stood for this difference as such, in all its traumatic Real, irreducible to any clear symbolic opposition. Her disturbing appearance transforms clear symbolic difference into the impossible-Real of antagonism. So, again, in the same way as class struggle is not just “complicated” when other classes that do not enter the clear division of the ruling class and the oppressed class appear (this excess is, on the contrary, the very element which makes class antagonism real and not just a symbolic opposition), the formula of sexual antagonism is not M/F (the clear opposition between male and female) but MF+, where + stands for the excessive element which transforms the symbolic opposition into the Real of antagonism.

This brings us back to our topic, the big opposition that is emerging today between, on the one hand, the violent imposition of a fixed symbolic form of sexual difference as the basic gesture of counteracting social disintegration and, on the other hand, the total transgender “fluidification” of gender, the dispersal of sexual difference into multiple configurations. While in one part of the world, abortion and gay marriages are endorsed as a clear sign of moral progress, in other parts, homophobia and anti-abortion campaigns are exploding. In June 2016, al-Jazeera reported that a 22-year-old Dutch woman complained to the police that she had been raped after being drugged in an upmarket nightclub in Doha. And the result was that she was convicted of having illicit sex by a Qatari court and given a one-year suspended sentence. On the opposite end, what counts as harassment in the PC environs is also getting extended. The following case comes to mind. A woman walked on a street with a bag in her hand, and a black man was walking 15 yards behind her. Becoming aware of it, the woman (unconsciously, automatically?) tightened her grip on the bag, and the black man reported that he experienced the woman’s gesture as a case of racist harassment…

What goes on is also the result of neglecting the class and race dimension by the PC proponents of women’s and gay rights:
“In ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman’ created by a video marketing company in 2014, an actress dressed in jeans, black t-shirt, and tennis shoes walked through various Manhattan neighborhoods, recording the actions and comments of men she encountered with a hidden camera and microphone. Throughout the walk the camera recorded over 100 instances coded as verbal harassment, ranging from friendly greetings to sexualized remarks about her body, including threats of rape. While the video was hailed as a document of street harassment and the fear of violence that are a daily part of women’s lives, it ignored race and class. The largest proportion of the men presented in the video were minorities, and, in a number of instances, the men commenting on the actress were standing against buildings, resting on fire hydrants, or sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk, postures used to characterize lower class and unemployed men, or, as a reader commented on it: ‘The video was meant to generate outrage… and it used crypto-racism to do it.’”[2]
The great mistake in dealing with this opposition is to search for a proper measure between two extremes. What one should do instead is to bring out what both extremes share: the fantasy of a peaceful world where the agonistic tension of sexual difference disappears, either in a clear and stable hierarchic distinction of sexes or in the happy fluidity of a desexualized universe. And it is not difficult to discern in this fantasy of a peaceful world the fantasy of a society without social antagonisms, in short, without class struggle.
[1] Bulent Somay, »L’Orient n’existe pas,« doctoral thesis defended at Birkbeck College, University of London, on November 29 2013.

[2] See https://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2014/11/18/nice-bag-discussing-race-class-and-sexuality-in-examining-street-harassment/.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Sexual is Political"