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 29, 2019
Slavoj Zizek, "The battle for Europe's soul may be lost – the fight against the populists will be about starting afresh"
Europe lies in the great pincers between America and Russia who both want to dismember it. The problem is how to remain faithful to the continent’s emancipatory legacy
Earlier this month, a group of 30 writers, historians and Nobel laureates – including Bernard-Henri Lévy, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa and Adam Michnik – published a manifesto in several newspapers all around Europe. They claimed that Europe as an idea is “coming apart before our eyes”.
“We must now fight for the idea of Europe or see it perish beneath the waves of populism,” they wrote. “We must rediscover political voluntarism or accept that resentment, hatred and their cortege of sad passions will surround and submerge us.”
This manifesto is deeply flawed: just carefully reading it makes it clear why populists are thriving. Its signatories – the flower of the European liberal intelligensia – ignore the unpleasant fact that the populists also present themselves as the saviours of Europe.
In July last year, just after attending a stormy meeting with EU leaders, Donald Trump spoke of the European Union as the first in the line of “foes” of the US, ahead of Russia and China. There was a rush to condemn this claim as irrational (“Trump is treating the allies of the US worse than its enemies,” etc.); instead we should ask some simple questions. What bothers Trump so much about EU? Which Europe is Trump talking about?
When he was asked by journalists about immigrants flowing into Europe, Trump answered as befits the anti-immigrant populist that he is: immigrants are tearing apart the fabric of European ways of life; they pose a danger to European spiritual identity. In short, it was people like Hungary’s Orban or Italy’s Salvini who were talking through him. One should never forget that they also want to defend Europe.
So which Europe is it that bothers Trump as well as the European populists?
It is the Europe of transnational unity, the Europe vaguely aware that, in order to cope with the challenges of our moment, we should move beyond the constraints of nation-states. It is the Europe which also desperately strives to somehow remain faithful to the old Enlightenment motto of solidarity with victims, the Europe that is aware of the fact that humanity is today One, that we are all on the same boat (or, as we say, on the same Spaceship Earth). The Europe that believes another’s misery is also our problem.
We should mention here Peter Sloterdijk who noted that the struggle today is how to secure the survival of modern Europe's greatest economico-political achievement, the social democratic welfare state.
According to Sloterdijk, our reality is – in Europe, at least – “objective social democracy” as opposed to “subjective” social democracy: one should distinguish between social democracy as the panoply of political parties, and social democracy as the “formula of a system”.
In a 2009 article, Sloterdijk wrote that the social-democratic formula “precisely describes the political-economic order of things, which is defined by the modern state as the state of taxes, as infrastructure-state, as the state of the rule of law and, not last, as the social state and the therapy state.”
“We encounter everywhere a phenomenal and a structural social democracy, a manifest and a latent one, one which appears as a party and another one which is more or less irreversibly built into in the very definitions, functions, and procedures of the modern statehood as such.”
This Idea that underlies united Europe got corrupted, half-forgotten, and it is only in a moment of danger that we are compelled to return to this essential dimension of Europe, to its hidden potential.
Europe lies in the great pincers between America on the one side and Russia on the other who both want to dismember it: both Trump and Vladimir Putin support Brexit, they support eurosceptics in every corner, from Poland to Italy.
What is bothering them about Europe when we all know the misery of the EU which fails again and again at every test: from its inability to enact a consistent politics about immigrants to its miserable reaction to Trump’s tariff war?
It is obviously not this actually-existing Europe that rankles but the idea of Europe that rekindles against all odds and becomes palpable in moments of danger. The problem for Europe is how to remain faithful to its emancipatory legacy when it is threatened by the conservative-populist onslaught. So how is that to be done?
In his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the great conservative T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what has to be done today: the only way to really defeat populists and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to perform a sectarian split from liberal democracy’s main corpse. Sometimes, in other words, the only way to resolve a conflict is not to search for a compromise but to radicalise one’s position.
Back to the letter of the 30 liberal luminaries: what they refuse to admit is that the Europe whose disappearance they deplore is already irretrievably lost. The threat does not come from populism: populism is merely a reaction to the failure of Europe’s liberal establishment to remain faithful to Europe’s emancipatory potential, offering a false way out of ordinary people’s troubles. So the only way to really defeat populism is to submit the liberal establishment itself, its actual politics, to a ruthless critique from the standpoint of that "social-democratic formula" that the establishment betrayed in its neo-liberal turn.
This does not mean that we can simply return to the good old "welfare state" times: the only way to resuscitate the "formula" for Europe is to reinvent it in a much more radical form, a form that fits today's predicament with its new ecological and social challenges. The only way to redeem what is worth saving from the past is to move forward.
Friday, January 25, 2019
Sunday, January 20, 2019
In his Television, Lacan evokes the “exit from the capitalist discourse,” but the context in which he does it is crucial: he posits the psychoanalyst “in relation to what was in the past called: being a saint”1 , and, after some qualifications of the excremental subjective position of a saint, he concludes: “The more one is a saint, the more one laughs; that’s my principle, to wit, the way out of capitalist discourse — which will not constitute progress, if it happens only for some.”2 What characterizes a saint is thus not his high moral stance (Lacan explicitly mentions his rejection of distributive justice) but his distance from every symbolic identity, his withdrawal from the domain of exchange, of reciprocity, of word’s bond. What this means is that one shouldn’t make too much out of Lacan’s “anti-capitalism”: exit from capitalist discourse is clearly reserved “only for some”, it’s the exception which seems to confirm the universal rule… But is this all, or can we use Lacan’s theory to draw more radical conclusions for the emancipatory struggle? Let’s begin with a brief account of what one might clumsily call the “libidinal economy” of today’s global capitalism.
Within the coordinates of the hegemonic ideology, global capitalism appears as a limitless cycle of expanded self-reproduction that threatens to swallow everything in its crazy dance, undermining all traditional fixed forms of social life, in psychoanalytic terms: as a libidinal regime which suspends the reign of law/castration. A multiplicity of ideological forms then impose themselves which promise to constrain the socially destructive effects of this dynamics, i.e., to enable us to have the cake (of capitalist dynamics) and eat it, from traditional religious and moral systems (“Asian values,” etc.) to ecology. This opposition – limitless capitalist expansion versus its external limits – is, however, a false one: it ignores the limit (antagonism) that is immanent to the capitalist system, and that propels its very limitless expansion. From the libidinal standpoint, capitalism is a regime of perversion, not psychosis: it disavows castration, it does not exclude or suspend it:“capitalism entails a generalization of the perverse jouissance at the level of the social link, an insurmountable horizon, in which a thousand perversions may blossom, while the general social framework remains unchangeable: the closed world of commodity form, whose polymorphous nature enables the processing, integration and neutralization of all forms of antagonism. The capitalist subject mocks castration, declares it an anachronism and a remainder of the phallocentric universe that the postmodern has overcome once and for all. Castration, and consequently psychoanalysis, is considered to be merely one of those famous grand narratives, whose end needs to be acknowledged. In the end, this position conceives capitalism as a vicious circle, from which it is impossible to break out.”3One has to make a choice here – generalized perversion or psychosis? A pervert is not psychotic, it does not rely on the autism of jouissance: in perversion, castration is disavowed, not excluded/ suspended, it remains operative as the absent point of reference – the more the subject disavows it the more its weight is felt. Unfortunately, Lacan himself seems to oscillate here, sometimes he talks about capitalism as perversion, sometimes as a psychotic “foreclosure,” as in the following Deleuze-sounding lines:“What distinguishes the capitalist discourse is this – Verwerfung, rejection from all the fields of symbolic, with all the consequences that I have already mentioned. Rejection of what? Of castration. Every order, every discourse that aligns itself with capitalism leaves aside what we will simply call the matters of love.”4This is why global consumerist capitalism is in its basic structure Spinozean, not Kantian: it effectively appears as a flow of absolute immanence in which multiple effects proliferate, with no cuts of negativity/castration interrupting this flow: “Capitalism rejects the paradigm of negativity, castration: the symbolic operation that constitutes the subject as split and decentralized.”5 It is in this sense that contemporary capitalism is “post-political,” and, consequently, the “return of negativity, in the guise of castration, can serve as a minimal localization of the political dimension of psychoanalysis.”6
However, “autism of jouissance” is definitely not the norm in contemporary permissive-hedonist capitalism, but rather its excess, a surrender to unconstrained consummation whose exemplary cases are drug addiction and alcoholism. The impasses of today’s consumerism provide a clear case of the Lacanian distinction between pleasure and enjoyment: what Lacan calls “enjoyment (jouissance)” is a deadly excess over pleasure, i.e., its place is beyond the pleasure-principle. In other words, the term plus-de-jouir (surplus- or excess-enjoyment) is a pleonasm, since enjoyment is in itself excessive, in contrast to pleasure which is by definition moderate, regulated by a proper measure. We thus have two extremes: on the one hand the enlightened hedonist who carefully calculates his pleasures to prolong his fun and avoid getting hurt, on the other hand the jouisseur proper, ready to consummate his very existence in the deadly excess of enjoyment – or, in the terms of our society, on the one hand the consumerist calculating his pleasures, well-protected from all kinds of harassments and other health threats, on the other hand the drug addict (or smoker or…) bent on selfdestruction. Enjoyment is what serves nothing, and the great effort of the contemporary hedonist-utilitarian “permissive” society is to incorporate this un(ac)countable excess into the field of (ac)counting. One should thus reject the common sense opinion according to which in a hedonistconsumerist society we all enjoy: the basic strategy of enlightened consumerist hedonism is on the contrary to deprive enjoyment of its excessive dimension, of its disturbing surplus, of the fact that it serves nothing. Enjoyment is tolerated, solicited even, but on condition that it is healthy, that it doesn’t threaten our psychic or biological stability: chocolate yes, but fat free, coke yes, but diet, coffee yes, but without caffeine, beer yes, but without alcohol, mayonnaise yes, but without cholesterol, sex yes, but safe sex…
We are here in the domain of what Lacan calls the discourse of University, as opposed to the discourse of the Master: a Master goes to the end in his consummation, he is not constrained by petty utilitarian considerations (which is why there is a certain formal homology between the traditional aristocratic master and a drug-addict focused on his deadly enjoyment), while the consumerist’s pleasures are regulated by scientific knowledge propagated by the university discourse. The decaffeinated enjoyment we thus obtain is a semblance of enjoyment, not its Real, and it is in this sense that Lacan talks about the imitation of enjoyment in the discourse of University. The prototype of this discourse is the multiplicity of reports in popular magazines which advocate sex as good for health: sexual act works like jogging, strengthens the heart, relaxes our tensions, even kissing is good for our health.
Gaze and voice are inscribed into the field of normative social relations in the guise of shame and guilt. Shame is obviously linked to the Other’s gaze: I am ashamed when the (public) Other sees me in my nudity, when my dirty intimate features are publicly disclosed, etc. Guilt, on the contrary, is independent of how others see me, what they talk about me: I am guilty in myself, the pressure of guilt comes from within, emanating from a voice that addresses me from the core of my being and makes me guilty. The opposition gaze/voice is thus to be linked to the opposition shame/guilt as well as to the opposition Ego Ideal / superego: superego is the inner voice which haunts me and culpabilizes me, while Ego Ideal is the gaze in view of which I feel ashamed. These couples of oppositions enable us to grasp the passage from traditional capitalism to its hedonist-permissive version that predominates today: the hegemonic ideology no longer functions as Ego Ideal whose gaze makes me ashamed when I am exposed to it, the Other’s gaze loses its castrative power; it functions as an obscene superego injunction which makes me guilty (not when I violate symbolic prohibitions but) for NOT fully enjoying, for never enjoying enough.
When, exactly, does the objet a function as the superego injunction to enjoy? When it occupies the place of the Master-Signifier, i.e., as Lacan formulated it in the last pages of his Seminar XI, when the short-circuit between S1 and a occurs.7 The key move to be accomplished in order to break the vicious cycle of the superego injunction is thus to enact the separation between S1 and a. Consequently, would it not be more productive to follow a different path: to start with the different modus operandi of the objet a which in psychoanalysis no longer functions as the agent of the superego injunction – as it does in the discourse of perversion? This is how Jacques-Alain Miller’s claim of the identity of the analyst’s discourse and the discourse of today’s civilization should be read: as an indication that this latter discourse (social link) is that of perversion. That is to say, the fact that the upper level of Lacan’s formula of the discourse of the analyst is the same as his formula of perversion (a – $) opens up a possibility of reading the entire formula of the discourse of the analyst also as a formula of the perverse social link: its agent, the masochist pervert (the pervert par excellence), occupies the position of the object-instrument of the other’s desire, and, in this way, through serving his (feminine) victim, he posits her as the hystericized/divided subject who “doesn’t know what she wants” – the pervert knows it for her, i.e., he pretends to speak from the position of knowledge (about the other’s desire) which enables him to serve the other; and, finally, the product of this social link is the Master-signifier, i.e., the hysterical subject elevated into the role of the master (dominatrix) whom the pervert masochist serves.
In contrast to hysteria, the pervert knows perfectly what he is for the Other: a knowledge supports his position as the object of his Other’s (divided subject’s) jouissance. For that reason, the formula of the discourse of perversion is the same as that of the analyst’s discourse: Lacan defines perversion as the inverted fantasy, i.e. his formula of perversion is a – $, which is precisely the upper level of the analyst’s discourse. The difference between the social link of perversion and that of analysis is grounded in the radical ambiguity of objet petit a in Lacan, which stands simultaneously for the imaginary fantasmatic lure/ screen and for that which this lure is obfuscating, for the void behind the lure. Consequently, when we pass from perversion to the analytic social link, the agent (analyst) reduces himself to the void which provokes the subject into confronting the truth of his desire. Knowledge in the position of “truth” below the bar under the “agent”, of course, refers to the supposed knowledge of the analyst, and, simultaneously, signals that the knowledge gained here will not be the neutral “objective” knowledge of scientific adequacy, but the knowledge which concerns the subject (analysant) in the truth of his subjective position. Recall Lacan’s outrageous statements that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological; along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls…), their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological – because it represses the true reason WHY the Nazis NEEDED anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. So, in the case of anti-Semitism, knowledge about what the Jews “really are” is a fake, irrelevant, while the only knowledge at the place of truth is the knowledge about why does a Nazi NEED a figure of the Jew to sustain his ideological edifice.
But is perversion for this very reason not closer to the University discourse? For Lacan, a pervert is not defined by the content of what he is doing (his weird sexual practices). Perversion, at its most fundamental, resides in the formal structure of how the pervert relates to truth and speech: the pervert claims direct access to some figure of the big Other (from God or history to the desire of his partner), so that, dispelling all the ambiguity of language, he is able to act directly as the instrument of the big Other’s will. In this sense, both Osama bin Laden and President Bush, although political opponents, share the structures of a pervert. They both act upon the presupposition that their acts are directly ordered and guided by divine will. And Stalin is to be added to this series: a Bolshevik is not a subject but an object-instrument of historical necessity. It is the sadist pervert himself who occupies the place of the object, i.e. who assumes the position of the pure object-instrument of the Other’s jouissance, displacing the division constitutive of subjectivity onto the other, onto his victim. (In this respect, the sadist perversion is very close to obsessional neurosis, with the only (yet crucial) difference that the sadist pervert is active in order to generate the Other’s jouissance, while the obsessional neurotic is active for precisely the opposite reason, i.e. in order to prevent the Other’s enjoyment – pour que ca ne bouge pas dans l’autre, as they put it in French.) Such a position of the knowledge of the agent is what defines the University discourse, so if we are to understand the libidinal economy of capitalism, it is crucial to raise the question of the link between capitalism and the University discourse.
The thesis on “inherent transgression” does not amount to a simple commonsense point that a set of values, laws, etc., in order to survive, must accommodate itself to the complexity of real life, tolerate compromises, etc. What distinguishes superego shadowy rules from this kind of worldly “wisdom” is that (1) the superego paralegal network is experienced as obscene, permeated with enjoyment, and (2) for that reason, it must remain publicly non-acknowledged, i.e. its public revelation disintegrates the system. Or, to put it in yet another way, superego shadowy unwritten rules are the remainder of the original lawless violence which founded the rule of Law itself – this violence is not something present only at the beginning, it must be here all the time in order for the rule of law to maintain itself. Superego unwritten rules are the synchronous aspect of the diachronous process of the imposition of law through the lawless act of violence – or, rather, this diachronous process, the story of the “original crime”, is the narrativization of the necessary, structural, synchronous incoherence of the law.
The unique impact of The Matrix (movie) resides not so much in its central thesis (what we experience as reality is an artificial virtual reality generated by the “Matrix,” the mega-computer directly attached to all our minds), but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate the energy (electricity) for the Matrix. So when (some of the) people “awaken” from their immersion into the Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not the opening into the wide space of the external reality, but first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a foetus-like organism, immersed in the pre-natal fluid… This utter passivity is the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects – it is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately instruments of the Other’s (Matrix’s) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance like batteries. Therein resides the true libidinal enigma of this dispositif: WHY does the Matrix need human energy? The purely energetic solution is, of course, meaningless: the Matrix could have easily found another, more reliable, source of energy which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of the virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is: the Matrix feeds on the human’s jouissance – so we are here back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of jouissance. This is how we should turn around the state of things presented by the film: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation, is effectively its exact opposition, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being.
The intimate connection between perversion and cyberspace is today a commonplace. According to the standard view, the perverse scenario stages the “disavowal of castration,” and isn’t cyberspace also a universe unencumbered by the inertia of the Real, constrained only by its self-imposed rules? And is not the same with Virtual Reality in The Matrix? The “reality” in which we live loses its inexorable character, it becomes a domain of arbitrary rules (imposed by the Matrix) that one can violate if one’s Will is strong enough… However, according to Lacan, what this standard notion leaves out of consideration is the unique relationship between the Other and the jouissance in perversion. What, exactly, does this mean? Recall Pierre Flourens’s claims that the anaesthetic works only on our memory’s neuronal network: unknowingly, we are our own greatest victims, butchering ourselves alive… Isn’t it also possible to read this as the perfect fantasy scenario of inter-passivity, of the Other Scene in which we pay the price for our active intervention into the world? There is no active free agent without this fantasmatic support, without this Other Scene in which he is totally manipulated by the Other. A sado-masochist willingly assumes this suffering as the access to Being. Therein resides the correct insight of The Matrix: in its juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion – on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other hand, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity.8 It is only against this background that we can properly understand how the late-capitalist permissive-hedonist discourse motivates subjects with the“demand for jouissance without castration – vivre sans temps mort, jouir sans entraves, to recall the famous graffiti from 1968 – is the productive ground for the jouissance of the system. Life without boredom (dead time) and enjoyment without restriction (or without castration) inaugurate a new, more radical and invisible form of exploitation. Of course, the inevitable truth of creativity, mobility and flexibility of labour is the creativity, mobility and flexibility of the capitalist forms of domination.”9One should note how this stance of constant “creativity, mobility and flexibility,” in which work and enjoyment coincide is shared by late capitalist subjectivity as well as by the Deleuzian and other grass roots direct democracy movements. Youtube is lately full of sites in which ordinary people present a recording (usually one hour long) of themselves accomplishing some ordinary chore like baking a cake, cleaning a bathroom, or painting their car – nothing extraordinary, just a regular activity whose predictable rhythm engenders a soothing effect of peace in the viewer. It is easy to understand the attraction of watching such recordings: they enable us to escape the vicious cycle of the oscillation between nervous hyper-activity and bouts of depression. Their extraordinary nature resides in their very ordinariness: the totally predictable everyday chores are more and more rare in our frantic daily rhythm.
One has to make a step further here and raise a more specific question: if “the inevitable truth of creativity, mobility and flexibility of labor is the creativity, mobility and flexibility of the capitalist forms of domination,” how, precisely, are the two identified (or, rather, mediated)? We are dealing with permissive capitalism focused on intense untrammeled enjoyment, a capitalism whose libidinal economy disavows castration, i.e., a capitalism which no longer relies on the paternal Law and is celebrated by its apologists as the reign of generalized perversion. Consequently, since the core of perversion is defined by the couple of sadism and masochism, the question to be raised is: how does the libidinal economy of permissive hedonist capitalism relate to this couple? In general terms, the difference between sadism and masochism concerns the status of shame: the goal of sadist’s activity is not just to make the victim suffer but to cause shame in the victim, to make him/her ashamed of what is happening to him/her. In masochism, on the contrary, the victim no longer experiences shame, it openly displays its jouissance. So even if in a masochist performance the same thing goes on as in a sadist exercise – say, a master beating its victim -, the line separating the two gets blurred since“behind its contract a subversion of domination took place. The subject, who can enjoy in the position of the object, is the only true master, while the apparent executor is merely a prop, a subject for whom the contract presupposes not to enjoy. The contract demands a castrated master, deprived of the power to cause shame.”10In short, the gaze of the Master (big Other) no longer gives birth to shame and is no longer castrative but gets itself castrated: impotent, unable to control or prevent the servant/victim’s jouissance. However, this impotence is deceptive:“subjects offer themselves to the regime’s gaze and shamelessly exhibit jouissance, not knowing that the regime in the position they assume establishes the continuity between jouissance and labor. Once in the position of surplus-object, the students are themselves studied by the regime’s gaze.”11Is it then true that “the masochist would indeed be the perfect subject of capitalism, someone who would enjoy being a commodity among others, while assuming the role of surplus labor, the position of the object that willingly satisfies the systemic demands”12? Is it true that “the capitalist regime demands from everyone to become ideal masochists and the actual message of the superego’s injunction is: ‘enjoy your suffering, enjoy capitalism’”13? The problem here is: can the contract between capitalist and worker really be compared with the masochist contract? The first and obvious big difference is that in the labor contract, capitalist pays the worker (in order to extract from him surplus-value), while in the masochist contract, the victim pays the “master” to do the work, i.e., to stage the masochist performance which produces surplusenjoyment in the victim. Is then the proletarian masochist the secret master who binds the Master-capitalist by a contract to torture him in order to gain his own surplus-enjoyment? While this version has to be rejected, one should nonetheless assert its underlying principle: jouissance IS suffering, a painful excess of pleasure (pleasure in pain), and, in this sense, jouissance effectively IS masochist. (Recall that one of Lacan’s definitions of jouissance is precisely “pleasurein-pain”: the surplus that transforms pleasure into jouissance is that of pain.) However, one should also recall that the masochist contract sets a limit to the excess, thereby reducing the masochist spectacle to a sterile theatrical performance (in an endless circular movement of postponement, the spectacle never reaches a climax) – in this sense, the masochist spectacle is rather a kind of “pleasurisation” of jouissance, in contrast to sadism which goes to the end in brutality (although, again, there are also masochists who go to the end in torturing…)
Furthermore, how does class antagonism inscribe itself into the capitalist discourse? Insofar as it functions as University discourse, things are clear: the capitalist is the agent of knowledge who dominates workers, and the product of this domination is $, the proletarian pure subject deprived of all substantial content. However, what happens insofar as it functions as Hysteric’s discourse? To put it bluntly, which is the class determination of the hysteric as the agent of the capitalist discourse? Is the hysteric the proletarian as the product of the university discourse? And is then the Master he (the hysteric) provokes the capitalist (who pretends to act as a bearer of knowledge, a rational manager organizing the production, but whose truth is being the Master who exerts domination)? But what if the obverse also holds, i.e., what if the capitalist is a hysteric caught in the infernal self-propelling cycle of extended reproduction, provoking his own true Master, the Capital itself? And what if the true agent of knowledge is the worker who keeps running the production process through his know-how? In short, what if the tension between the University discourse and the Hysteric’s discourse runs diagonally across both poles of the class antagonism, dividing each of the two?
Consequently, when we talk about “capitalist discourse,” we should bear in mind that this discourse (social link) is split from within, that it only functions if it constantly oscillates between two discourses, discourse of University and discourse of Hysteria. Therein resides the parallax of capitalism which can also be designated in the terms of the opposition between desire and drive: hysterical desire and perverse drive. The overlapping element of the two is $ (subject), the product of the University discourse and the agent of the Hysterical discourse, and, simultaneously, S2 (knowledge), the product of the Hysterical discourse and the agent of the University discourse. Knowledge works on its other, object, and the product is the subject, $; the axis of the impossible is the way this subject relates to its Master-Signifier that would define its identity. In the reversal to the discourse of hysteria, the agent is now the subject who addresses its other as the Master-Signifier, and the product is knowledge about what the subject is as an object; but since this knowledge is again impossible, we get a reversal into the discourse of University which addresses the object. It’s the twisted structure of the Moebius band, of course: progressing to the end on one side, we all of a sudden find ourselves on the other side. (And is the other axis not the axis of Master and Analyst, with objet a and S1 as the overlapping elements? One should also note that each of these two couples combines a masculine and a feminine sexual logic: masculine university versus feminine hysteria, masculine master versus feminine analyst.) Does this intertwining of two discourses not provide the underlying discursive structure of the double aspect of modernity, the hysterical logic of incessant expanded subjective productivity and the university logic of domination through knowledge? That is to say, what we perceive as “modernity” is characterized by two different topics. First, it is the notion of subjectivity as a destabilizing force of incessant self-expansion and self-transcending, as the agent possessed by an insatiable desire; then, there is the specifically modern form of control and domination whose first embodiment is the baroque absolutist state, and which culminated in the XXth century “totalitarian” state analyzed by Foucault (discipline and punish), Adorno and Horkheimer (instrumental reason, administered world), etc., the form which entered a new stage with the prospect of digital control and biogenetic manipulation of human beings. In its ideological aspect, this duality appears in the terms of the opposition between individualist libertarianism and state control. It is crucial not to reduce the parallax structure by way of reducing one topic to the other – say, by way of dismissing the self-expanding subjectivity to an ideological illusion that obfuscates the truth of total control and domination, or by way of simply identifying the two topics (the self-expanding subject asserts its power through control and domination).
One has to make a step further here. The parallax split of the capitalist discourse is grounded in the fact that capitalism remains a master discourse, but a master discourse in which the structure of domination is repressed, pushed beneath the bar (individuals are formally free and equal, domination is displaced onto relations between things-commodities). In other words, the underlying structure is that of a capitalist Master pushing his other (worker) to produce surplus-value that he (the capitalist) appropriates. But since this structure of domination is repressed, its appearance cannot be a(nother) single discourse: it can only appear split into two discourses. Both University discourse and Hysterical discourse are the outcome of the failure of the Master’s discourse: when the Master loses its authority and gets hystericized (which is another name for questioning his authority, experiencing it as a fake), authority reappears in a displaced way, de-subjectivized, in the guise of the authority of neutral expert-knowledge (“it’s not ME who exerts power, I just state objective facts and/or knowledge”).
Now we come to an interesting conclusion: if capitalism is characterized by the parallax of hysteria and university discourses, is then resistance to capitalism characterized by the opposite axis of master and analyst? The recourse to Master does not designate the conservative attempts to counteract capitalist dynamics with a resuscitated figure of traditional authority; it rather points towards the new type of Communist master (Leader) emphasized by Badiou who is not afraid to oppose the necessary role of the Master to our “democratic” sensitivity: “I am convinced that one has to reestablish the capital function of leaders in the Communist process, whichever its stage.”14 A true Master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, his message is not “You cannot!”, also not “You have to…!”, but a releasing “You can!” – what? Do the impossible, i.e., what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation – and today, this means something very precise: you can think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives. A Master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom: when we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we always-already wanted without knowing it). A Master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly – to gain this access we have to be pushed from outside since our “natural state” is one of inert hedonism, of what Badiou called “human animal.” The underlying paradox is here that the more we live as “free individuals with no Master,” the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities – we have to be pushed/disturbed into freedom by a Master.15 Novalis, usually perceived as a representative of the conservative turn of Romanticism, was well aware of this paradox, and he proposed an extreme version of the infinite judgment: monarchy is the highest form of republic, “no king can exist without republic and no republic without a king”:“the true measure of a Republic consists in the lived relation of the citizens to the idea of the whole in which they live. The unity that a law creates is merely coercive. […] The unifying factor must be a sensual one, a comprehensive human embodiment of the morals that make a common identity possible. For Novalis, the best such mediating factor for the idea of the republic is a monarch. […] While the institution might satisfy our intellect, it leaves our imagination cold. A living, breathing human being […] provides us with a symbol that we can more intuitively embrace as standing in relation to our own existence. […] The concepts of the Republic and monarch are not only reconcilable, but presuppose one another.”16Is not Badiou making a similar claim when he underscores the necessity of a Leader? Novalis’s point is not just the banality that identification should not be merely intellectual (the point made also by Freud in his Mass Psychology and Ego Analysis); the core of his argumentation concerns the “performative” dimension of political representation: in an authentic act of representation, people do not simply represent (assert through a representative) what they want, they only become aware of what they want through the act of representation: “Novalis argues that the role of the king should not be to give people what they think they want, but to elevate and give measure to their desires. […] The political, or the force that binds people together, should be a force that gives measure to desires rather than merely appealing to desires.”17
However, no matter how emancipatory this new Master is, it has to be supplemented by another discursive form. As Moshe Lewin noted in his Lenin’s Last Struggle,18 at the end of his life, even Lenin intuited this necessity when he proposed a new ruling body, the Central Control Commission. While fully admitting the dictatorial nature of the Soviet regime, he tried“to establish at the summit of the dictatorship a balance between different elements, a system of reciprocal control that could serve the same function – the comparison is no more than approximate – as the separation of powers in a democratic regime. An important Central Committee, raised to the rank of Party Conference, would lay down the broad lines of policy and supervise the whole Party apparatus, while itself participating in the execution of more important tasks /…/. Part of this Central Committee, the Central Control Commission, would, in addition to its work within the Central Committee, act as a control of the Central Committee and of its various offshots – the Political Bureau, the Secretariat, the Orgburo. The Central Control Commission /…/ would occupy a special position with relation to the other institutions ; its independence would be assured by its direct link to the Party Congress, without the mediation of the Politburo and its administrative organs or of the Central Committee.”19Checks and balances, the division of powers, mutual control… this was Lenin’s desperate answer to the question: who controls the controlers. There is something dream-like, properly fantasmatic, in this idea of CCC: an independent, educational and controlling body with an “apolitical” edge, consisting of best teachers and technocratic specialists keeping in check the “politicized” CC and its organs – in short, the neutral expert knowledge keeping in check the party executives… However, all hinges here on the true independency of Party Congress, de facto already undermined by the prohibition of factions which allowed the top party apparatus to control the Congress, dismissing its critics as “factionalists.” The naivety of Lenin’s trust in technocratic experts is all the more striking if we bear in mind that it comes from a political who was otherwise fully aware of the all-pervasiveness of political struggle which allows for no neutral position. However, Lenin’s proposal cannot be reduced to this dimension; in “dreaming” (his expression) about the mode of work of the CCC, he describes how this body should resort“to some semi-humorous trick, cunning device, piece of trickery or something of that sort. I know that in the staid and earnest states of Western European such an idea would horrify people and that not a single decent official would even entertain it. I hope, however, that we have not yet become as bureaucratic as all that and that in our midst the discussion of this idea will give rise to nothing more than amusement. / Indeed, why not combine pleasure with utility? Why not resort to some humorous or semi-humorous trick to expose something ridiculous, something harmful, something semi-ridiculous, semi-harmful, etc.?”20Is this not an almost obscene double of the “serious” executive power concentrated in CC and Politburo, a kind of non-organic intellectual of the movement – an agent resorting to humor, tricks, and cunning of reason, keeping itself at a distance… a kind of analyst. To properly locate this reading of Lenin, one should take note of the historicity inscribed into Lacan’s matrix of four discourses, the historicity of the modern European development.21 The Master’s discourse stands – not for the pre-modern master, but – for the absolute monarchy, this first figure of modernity that effectively undermined the articulate network of feudal relations and interdependences, transforming fidelity to flattery, etc.: it is the “Sun-King” Louis XIV with his l’etat, c’est moi that is the Master par excellence. Hysterical discourse and the discourse of University then deploy two outcomes of the vacillation of the direct reign of the Master: the expert-rule of bureaucracy that culminates in contemporary biopolitics which ends up reducing the population to a collection of homo sacer (what Heidegger called “enframing,” Adorno “the administered world,” Foucault the society of “discipline and punish”); the explosion of the hysterical capitalist subjectivity that reproduces itself through permanent self-revolutionizing, through the integration of the excess into the “normal” functioning of the social link (the true “permanent revolution” is already capitalism itself). Lacan’s formula of four discourses thus enables us to deploy the two faces of modernity (total administration; capitalist-individualist dynamics) as the two ways to undermine the Master’s discourse: the doubt into the efficiency of the Master-figure (what Eric Santner called the “crisis of investiture”22) can be supplemented by the direct rule of the experts legitimized by their knowledge, or the excess of doubt, of permanent questioning, can be directly integrated into social reproduction as its innermost driving force. And, finally, the analyst’s discourse stands for the emergence of revolutionary-emancipatory subjectivity that resolves the split into university and hysteria: in it, the revolutionary agent (a) addresses the subject from the position of knowledge which occupies the place of truth (i.e., which intervenes at the “symptomal torsion” of the subject’s constellation), and the goal is to isolate, get rid of, the Master-Signifier which structured the subject’s (ideologico-political) unconscious.
Or does it? Miller23 has recently proposed that, today, the discourse of Master is no longer the “obverse” of the discourse of the Analyst; today, on the contrary, our “civilization” itself (its hegemonic symbolic matrix, as it were) fits the formula of the discourse of the Analyst: the “agent” of the social link is today a, surplus-enjoyment, the superego injunction to enjoy; this injunction addresses $ (the divided subject) who is put to work in order to live up to this injunction. If there ever was a superego injunction, it is the famous Oriental wisdom: “Do not think, just DO IT!” The “truth” of this social link is S2 , scientific-expert knowledge in its different guises, and the goal is to generate S1 , the self-mastery of the subject, i.e., to enable the subject to “cope with” the stress of the call to enjoyment (through self-help manuals, etc.)… Provocative as this notion is, it raises a series of questions. If it is true, in what, then, resides the difference in the discursive functioning of the “civilization” as such and of psychoanalytic social link? Miller resorts here to a suspicious solution: in our “civilization,” the four terms are kept apart, isolated, each operates on its own, while only in psychoanalysis are they brought together into a coherent link: “in the civilization, each of the four terms remains disjoined […] it is only in psychoanalysis, in pure psychoanalysis, that these elements are arranged into a discourse.”24
However, is it not that the fundamental operation of the psychoanalytic treatment is not synthesis, bringing elements into a link, but, precisely, analysis, separating what in a social link appears to belong together? This path, opposed to that of Miller, is indicated by Giorgio Agamben who, in the last pages of The State of Exception,25 imagines two utopian options of how to break out of the vicious cycle of law and violence, of the rule of law sustained by violence. One is the Benjaminian vision of “pure” revolutionary violence with no relationship to the law; the other is the relationship to the law without regard to its (violent) enforcement – what Jewish scholars are doing in their endless (re) interpretation of the Law. Agamben starts from the right insight that the task today is not synthesis but separation, distinction: not bringing law and violence together (so that right will have might and the exercise of might will be fully legitimized), but thoroughly separating them, untying their knot. Although Agamben confers on this formulation an antiHegelian twist, a more proper reading of Hegel makes it clear that such a gesture of separation is what the Hegelian “synthesis” effectively is about: in it, the opposites are not reconciled in a “higher synthesis” – it is rather that their difference is posited “as such.” The example of Paul may help us to clarify this logic of Hegelian “reconciliation”: the radical gap that he posits between “life” and “death,” between life in Christ and life in sin, is in no need of a further “synthesis”; it is itself the resolution of the “absolute contradiction” of Law and sin, of the vicious cycle of their mutual implication. In other words, once the distinction is drawn, once the subject becomes aware of the very existence of this other dimension beyond the vicious cycle of law and its transgression, the battle is formally already won.
However, is this vision not again a case of our late capitalist reality going further than our dreams? Are we not already encountering in our social reality what Agamben envisages as a utopian vision? Is the Hegelian lesson of the global reflexivization-mediatization of our lives not that generates its own brutal immediacy which was best captured by Etienne Balibar’s notion of excessive, non-functional cruelty as a feature of contemporary life, a cruelty whose figures range from “fundamentalist” racist and/or religious slaughter to the “senseless” outbursts of violence performed by adolescents and the homeless in our megalopolises, a violence one is tempted to call Id-Evil, a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological reasons? All the talk about foreigners stealing work from us or about the threat they represent to our Western values should not deceive us: under closer examination, it soon becomes clear that this talk provides a rather superficial secondary rationalization. The answer we ultimately obtain from a skinhead is that it makes him feel good to beat foreigners, that their presence disturbs him… What we encounter here is indeed Id-Evil, i.e., the Evil structured and motivated by the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between the Ego and jouissance, by the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance in the very heart of it. Id-Evil thus stages the most elementary “short-circuit” in the relationship of the subject to the primordially missing object-cause of his desire: what “bothers” us in the “other” (Jew, Japanese, African, Turk) is that he appears to entertain a privileged relationship to the object – the other either possesses the object-treasure, having snatched it away from us (which is why we don’t have it), or he poses a threat to our possession of the object. What one should propose here is the Hegelian “infinite judgment” asserting the speculative identity of these “useless” and “excessive” outbursts of violent immediacy, which display nothing but a pure and naked (“nonsublimated”) hatred of the Otherness, with the global reflexivization of society; perhaps the ultimate example of this coincidence is the fate of psychoanalytic interpretation. Today, the formations of the Unconscious (from dreams to hysterical symptoms) have definitely lost their innocence and are thoroughly reflexivized: the “free associations” of a typical educated analysand consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of their disturbances, so that one is quite justified in saying that we have not only Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian… interpretations of the symptoms, but symptoms themselves which are Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian…, i.e. whose reality involves implicit reference to some psychoanalytic theory. The unfortunate result of this global reflexivization of the interpretation (everything becomes interpretation, the Unconscious interprets itself) is that the analyst’s interpretation itself loses its performative “symbolic efficiency” and leaves the symptom intact in the immediacy of its idiotic jouissance.
Perhaps, this is how the capitalist discourse functions: a subject enthralled by the superego call to excessive enjoyment, and in search for a Master-Signifier that would constrain his/her enjoyment, provide a proper measure of it, prevent its explosion into a deadly excess (of a drug-addict, chain smoker, alcoholic and other –holics or addicts). How, then, does this version of the analyst’s discourse relate to the analyst’s discourse proper? Perhaps, one reaches here the limit of Lacan’s formalization of discourses, so that one should introduce another set of distinctions specifying how the same discourse can function in different modalities. What one should do here is distinguish between the two aspects of objet a clearly discernible in Lacan’s theory: objet a as the void around which desire and/or drive circulate, and objet a as the fascinating element that fills in this void (since, as Lacan repeatedly emphasizes, objet a has no substantial consistency, it is just the positivization of a void. So in order to enact the shift from capitalist to analyst’s discourse, one has just to break the spell of objet a, to recognize beneath the fascinating agalma, the Grail of desire, the void that it covers. (This shift is homologous to the feminine subject’s shift from Phi to the signifier of the barred Other in Lacan’s graph of sexuation.)
What, then, is our result? Perhaps, it is wrong to search for a capitalist discourse, to limit it to one formula. What if we conceive capitalist discourse as a specific combination of all four discourses? First, capitalism remains Master’s discourse. Capital, the Master, appropriates knowledge, the servant’s savoir-faire extended by science, keeping under the bar the proletarian $ which produces a, surplus-enjoyment in the guise of surplus-value. However, due to the displacement of the standard of domination in capitalism (individuals are formally free and equal), this starting point splits into two, hysteria and university. The final result is the capitalist version of the analyst’s discourse, with surplus-enjoyment/value in the commanding post.Notes
1. Lacan, p. 15.
2. Ibid., p. 16
3. Tomšič, 2015, p. 151
4. Lacan 2011, p. 74.
5. Tomšič, 2015, p. 151-2.
6. Ibid., p. 152.
7. See Lacan 1979.
8. For a more detailed reading of The Matrix, see Chapter VI of Žižek 2007.
9. Tomšič 2015, p. 228.
11. Ibid., p. 227.
12. Ibid., p. 228.
13. Ibid., p. 229.
14. Personal communication (April 2013).
15. It’s not as easy as it may appear to be a true Master – the problem with being a Master is the one formulated succinctly by Deleuze: si vous etes pris dans le reve de l’autre, vous etes foutu (If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked up!). And a Master definitely is caught in the dream of others, his subjects, which is why his alienation is much more radical than that of his subjects – he has to act in accordance with this dream-image, i.e., he has to act as a person in another’s dream. When Mikheil Chiaureli, the ultimate Stalinist director, held a screening of The Vow (Klyatva, 1946) for Stalin, the latter disapproved of the ending scene in which he is shown kissing Varvara’s (the heroine’s) hand. Stalin told Chiaureli that he never kissed a woman’s hand in his life, to which Chiaureli gave a perfect reply: “The people know better what Stalin does and doesn’t do!” Good for him that this reply didn’t cost him his head (probably because he was Stalin’s drinking buddy).
16. Novalis, Glauben und Liebe, quoted from Ross 2008, p. 27.
17. Ibid., p. 27
18. See Lewin 2005 (translation of the French original published in 1968)
19. Ibid., p. 132.
20. “Better Few, But Better,” available online at www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1923/ mar/02.htm.
21. Lacan deploys the matrix of four discourses in Lacan 1996
22. See Santner 1996.
23. See “La passe. Conférence de Jacques-Alain Miller,” IV Congrès de l’AMP – 2004, Comandatuba – Bahia, Brasil.
25. See Agamben 2004..
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Turned cartwheels cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray
And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale
She said, there is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as wellve been closed
She said, Im home on shore leave,
Though in truth we were at sea
So I took her by the looking glass
And forced her to agree
Saying, you must be the mermaid
Who took neptune for a ride.
But she smiled at me so sadly
That my anger straightway died
If music be the food of love
Then laughter is its queen
And likewise if behind is in front
Then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
Seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straightway quickly
And attacked the ocean bed
Friday, January 18, 2019
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Slavoj Žižek, "Slavoj Žižek interview: “Trump created a crack in the liberal centrist hegemony”"
The Marxist philosopher on why catastrophe gives him hope.
In an era of stagnant productivity, Slavoj Žižek is a notable outlier. Since 1972, the Slovenian philosopher – and self-described “complicated Marxist” – has published more than 80 books and essay collections, including Living in the End Times, Opera’s Second Death, Organs without Bodies and, most recently, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity.
I am reminded of Stalin’s apocryphal quip on Soviet arms production: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” A poster of the dictator accompanied by the slogan “welcome to welfare” – hangs semi-ironically in Žižek’s apartment in Ljubljana.
When I meet Žižek – dressed in a nondescript T-shirt and faded jeans – in central London, he explains: “You know what made it possible? It’s not a joke: communist oppression.” In 1971, having accepted a job as an assistant researcher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s oldest and largest university, he was denied academic tenure after the Yugoslav authorities deemed his Master’s thesis to be “non-Marxist”.
Žižek was then unemployed from 1973-77 (“I survived through translations”) before eventually becoming a researcher at the university’s Institute for Sociology and Philosophy. “I’m still there…I’m completely free, I do nothing specifically for them, all they want from me is a list of publications. Without this last moment of communist oppression, what would I have been? An unknown, shitty professor in a small department.”
He is certainly known: the 69-year-old “Elvis of cultural theory” is the subject of a 2005 film Žižek! and a peer-reviewed academic periodical, the International Journal of Žižek Studies. But though he is lionised by some as a brilliant iconoclast – whose work fuses Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian idealism and pop culture – he is derided by others as a charlatan.
Interviewing Žižek is like trying to catch a writhing eel – his mind is destined to dart in unexpected directions (one monologue encompasses Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, “how to go further than Mandela without becoming Mugabe”, Lenin’s “Last Testament” and Jim Carrey’s The Mask). Like Oscar Wilde, whom he admires, Žižek is serious about frivolous things and frivolous about serious ones. “The left is in a very tragic situation,” he tells me in his resonant accent. “The new capitalist organic intellectuals – people like Bill Gates – even they say capitalism has its limits, we will have to find something new… But does the left really have an alternative vision? What they mostly talk about is global capitalism with a human face.”
For Žižek, social democracy is insufficient, but it is perilous to prescribe a fixed alternative. “We have to reject whatever remains in Marxism of historic teleology… Socialist revolution produces its own mess, it goes wrong. I’m globally a pessimist but what gives me hope is precisely this catastrophic situation. Because in such catastrophic situations you have to be creative, you have to improvise. That’s why I don’t trust leftists who have these simple solutions.”
I ask if he is attracted by the notion of “luxury communism”: an automated economy in which humans are sustained by a state-funded universal basic income. “Don’t underestimate envy,” Žižek says. “Ayn Rand saw one thing very clearly: if you abolish money, it’s very difficult not to restore direct, interpersonal relations of domination. We saw this through the Soviet Union – they had money under Stalin but it wasn’t crucial; what was crucial were the perks you got as a writer, access to luxury homes and so on.
“How will relations among us be regulated? Who will have power? Don’t give me this stupid shit about self-organisation of the people, I don’t believe in it.” (Žižek last year delivered a lecture entitled “a plea for bureaucratic socialism”.)
Žižek was most recently excoriated by liberals for his endorsement of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But when I press him on Trump’s misdemeanours, he is defiant. “The chance of intervening militarily against Syria and North Korea would have been much higher under Hillary Clinton… Are we aware that there wouldn’t be this democratic socialism in the US without Trump? I’m horrified at Trump but through him a crack appeared in the liberal centrist hegemony.”
Žižek does not, however, take a similarly optimistic view of Brexit. “I don’t think we can fight global capitalism through stronger nation states. Here I sympathise with [Yanis] Varoufakis.” He adds: “Even if this Europe goes to hell, transnational bodies like this are the only thing that works.”
What of Žižek’s own health? During appearances last year his face was semi-paralysed, leading to fears that he had suffered a stroke. This was, he explains, the result of nerve inflammation, before raising his T-shirt to show me where doctors removed a cancerous tumour from his liver. Having endured a season in hell, to quote Arthur Rimbaud, Žižek is at ease again.
He credits writing with saving him from a premature death. “I remember when I was in a great crisis 30 years ago, some love affair went wrong [Žižek has been married three times], I was really on the edge of suicide. Writing performed the same role as psychoanalysis. How can I kill myself if I have to finish a new book and a text and so on?”
Slavoj Žižek wants to live, but not happily. “I’m against happiness – happiness is for wimps,” he remarks at the close of our conversation. “I want to be traumatised to work.”
Slavoj Žižek, "False solidarity: Alfonso Cuaron's Roma"
My first viewing of Roma left me with a bitter taste: yes, the majority of critics are right in celebrating it as an instant classic, but I couldn’t get rid of the idea that this predominant perception is sustained by a terrifying, almost obscene, misreading, and that the movie is celebrated for all the wrong reasons.
Roma is read as a tribute to Cleo, a maid from the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City working in the middle-class household of Sofia, her husband Antonio, their four young children, Sofia’s mother Teresa, and another maid, Adela. It take place in 1970, the time of large student protests and social unrest. As already in Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron maintains distance between the two levels, the family troubles (Antonio leaving his family for a younger mistress, Cleo getting pregnant by a boyfriend who immediately abandons her), and this focus on intimate family topic makes the oppressive presence of social struggles all the more palpable as the diffuse but omnipresent background. As Fred Jameson would have put it, History as Real cannot be depicted directly but only as the elusive background that leaves its mark on depicted events.
So does Roma really just celebrate Cleo’s simple goodness and selfless dedication to the family? Can she really be reduced to the ultimate love object of a spoiled upper-middle class family, accepted (almost) as part of the family to be better exploited, physically and emotionally? The film’s texture is full of subtle signs which indicate that the image of Cleo’s goodness is itself a trap, the object of implicit critique which denounces her dedication as the result of her ideological blindness. I don’t have in mind here just the obvious dissonances in how the family members treat Cleo: immediately after professing their love for her and talking with her ‘like equals’, they abruptly ask her to do some house job or to serve them something. What struck me was, for example, the display of Sofia’s indifferent brutality in her drunken attempt to park the family Ford Galaxie in the narrow garage area: how she repeatedly scratches the wall with chunks of plaster falling down. Although this brutality can be justified by her subjective despair (being abandoned by her husband), the lesson is that, due to her dominant position, she can afford to act like that (the servants will repair the wall), while Cleo, who finds herself in a much more dire situation, simply cannot afford such ‘authentic’ outbursts – even when her whole world is falling apart, the work has to go on…
Cleo’s true predicament first emerges in all its brutality in the hospital, after she delivers a stillborn baby girl; multiple attempts to resuscitate the infant fail, and the doctors give the body to Cleo for a few moments before taking it away. Many critics who saw in this scene the most traumatic moment of the film, missed its ambiguity: as we learn later in the film (but can suspect now already), what truly traumatizes her is that she doesn’t want a child, so a dead body in her hands is good news.
At the film’s end, Sofia takes her family for a holiday to the beaches at Tuxpan, taking Cleo to help her cope with her loss (in reality, they want to use her there as a servant, although she just went through a painful stillbirth). Sofia tells the children over dinner that she and their father are separated and that the trip is so their father can collect his belongings from their home. At the beach, the two middle children are almost carried off by the strong current until Cleo wades into the ocean to save them from drowning even though she herself does not know how to swim. As Sofia and the children affirm their love for Cleo for such selfless devotion, she breaks down from intense guilt, revealing that she had not wanted her baby. They return to their house, with the bookshelves gone and various bedrooms reassigned. Cleo prepares a load of washing, telling Adela she has much to tell her, as a plane flies overhead.
After Cleo saves the two boys, they all (Sofia, Cleo and the boys) tightly embrace on the beach – a moment of false solidarity if there ever was one, a moment which simply confirms that Cleo is caught into the trap that enslaves her… Am I dreaming here? Is my reading not too crazy? I think Cuaron provides a subtle hint in this direction at the level of the form. The entire scene of Cleo saving the children is shot in one long take, with the camera moving transversally, always focused on Cleo. When one watches this scene, one cannot avoid the feeling of a strange dissonance between form and content: while the content is a pathetic gesture from Cleo who, soon after the traumatic stillbirth, risks her life for the children, the form totally ignores this dramatic context. There is no exchange of shots between Cleo entering the water and the children, no dramatic tension between the danger the children are in and her effort to save them, no point-of-view shot depicting what she sees. This strange inertia of the camera, its refusal to get involved in the drama, renders in a palpable way Cleo’s disentanglement from the pathetic role of a faithful servant ready to sacrifice herself.
There is a further hint of emancipation to come in the very final moments of the film when Cleo says to Adela: ‘I have much to tell you.’ Maybe, this means that Cleo is finally getting ready to step out of the trap of her ‘goodness’, becoming aware that her selfless dedication to her family is the very form of her servitude. In other words, Cleo’s total withdrawal from political concerns, her dedication to selfless service, is the very form of her ideological identity, it is how she ‘lives’ ideology. Maybe explaining her predicament to Adela is the beginning of Cleo’s ‘class consciousness’, the first step that will lead her to join the protesters on the street. A new figure of Cleo will arise in this way, a much more cold and ruthless – a figure of Cleo delivered from ideological chains.
But maybe it will not. It is very difficult to get rid of the chains in which we not only feel good but feel that we are doing something good. As T.S. Eliot put it in his Murder in the Cathedral, the greatest sin is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Monday, January 14, 2019
The Czech-born writer Milan Kundera once wrote an entire book about an atmosphere where one joke made in bad taste can ruin your life. It's no joke now, as denouncing colleagues becomes normal in the US.
Recently, the boffins at the American Psychological Association (APA) proclaimed “traditional masculinity” as toxic.
With no apparent shame, here are the exact words they used:“Traits of so-called ‘traditional masculinity,’ like suppressing emotions & masking distress, often start early in life & have been linked to less willingness by boys & men to seek help, more risk-taking & aggression - possibly harming themselves & those with whom they interact.”
What makes this statement really dangerous is the mixture of ideology and ostensibly neutral expertise: a strong ideological gesture of excluding phenomena considered unacceptable is presented as an impartial description of medical facts.
How can one not recall here the notorious Serbsky institute in Moscow (thriving even now!) which, in the Soviet years, was well known for categorizing dissidence as a form of mental illness?
And exactly the same happens when we designate masculinity as “toxic,” under the cover of medical expertise. It amounts to the imposition of a new normativity, a fresh figure of the enemy.
Indeed, if, in the old days of heterosexual normativity, homosexuality was treated as illness, it is now masculinity itself which is medicalized and turned into a sickness to be fought. Thus, all the references to power, patriarchy and oppression of women cannot obfuscate the ideological brutality of the operation.
Plus, the fact the APA is involved makes it clear we are not dealing with an excess of “Cultural Marxism” because the APA is the psychological wing of the medical establishment. So, we are talking about nothing less than a shift in the mainstream ideological hegemony.
The contours of this shift become clear the moment we take a closer look at the list of features supposed to characterize “toxic masculinity”: suppressing emotions and masking distress, unwillingness to seek help, a propensity to take risks even if this involves a danger of self-harm.
Which raises the question: what is so specifically “masculine” about this list?
Does it not fit much more as a simple act of courage in a difficult situation where, to do the right thing, you have to suppress emotions because you cannot rely on any help but take the risk and act, even if this means exposing yourself to harm? Obviously, in our age of Politically Correct conformism, such a stance poses a danger.
But What is replacing courage?
A recent experience of mine tells a lot in this respect. I was involved in defending a colleague against an accusation from a graduate student that they had solicited unwanted intimacy between the two.
What shocked me was the career reference which was evoked to render non-problematic the behavior (of the accuser, in this case). I don't know the accuser, I never met him and didn't read anything written by him except his publicly available emails.
My point is: let's suppose all he says is true – he was disgusted and oppressed etc. So why did he fully reciprocate her messages and sometimes even heighten their emotional tone? His repeated answer is a reference to his career, as if this were taken as a given.
Is this “justification by career” really so self-evident? When I made this point, I was predictably accused of not understanding how power functions in US academia – nothing could be less true: from the 1970s when, after graduating, I was unemployed for years (yes, for NOT being a Marxist) ‘til recent times, when I was almost exiled from the US academia and public media because of my "problematic" positions (critique of Political Correctness, etc.).
As a result, I was able to observe how power works in all its guises. I don't expect people to be heroic, I just think that there are certain limits, both professional (betraying one's theoretical vocation – if one has it, that is to say) and private (writing passionate emails to a person one finds disgusting, like the accuser did), that one should not violate.
This is how “toxic masculinity” is left behind in the new Politically Correct atmosphere where one joke made in bad taste can ruin your career but ruthless careerism is considered normal. A new universe of subtle corruption is thus emerging, in which career opportunism and the lowest denouncing of colleagues presents itself as high moralism.
Saturday, January 12, 2019
-Alenka Zupančič, "To enjoy is to trespass"
Ethical and political “correctness” have reached extreme levels recently. This suits the powerful perfectly right now, but may come back to bite them soon.
In a recent commentary, writer Laura Kipnis addressed the ethico-political implications of film critic David Edelstein’s recent travails. Apropos the death of legendary Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, Edelstein made a tasteless “joke” on his private Facebook page: “even grief is better with butter.”
The statement was accompanied by a still of Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando’s infamous anal rape scene from Last Tango in Paris. Edelstein quickly deleted it (before the public outcry broke out, not as a reaction to it!) but actress Martha Plimpton had immediately tweeted it to her followers, demanding “fire him. Immediately.”
Of course, this happened the next day: NPR’s Fresh Air announced that they were cutting ties with Edelstein because the post had been “offensive and unacceptable.” Especially given Schneider’s traumatic experiences during filming, which left her battling depression and drug addiction.
So what are the implications (or, rather, the unstated rules) of this incident? First, “there’s nothing inadvertent about inadvertent offence,” it cannot be excused as a momentary mistake since it’s now treated as revelatory of the true character of the offender.
This is why one such episode is a permanent mark against you, however apologetic you might be. “One flub and you’re out. An unthinking social media post will outweigh a 16-year track record.” The only thing that might help is a long permanent process of self-critical self-examination: “Failure to keep re-proving it implicates you in crimes against women.”
Thus, you have to prove it again and again since, as a man, you aren’t trusted: “men are not to be believed, they will say anything.” And this leads to Kipnis’s bitter conclusion: “maybe it’s time to stop hiding behind the ‘speak truth to power’ mantra, when women have power aplenty – we can wreck a guy’s career with a tweet!”
Naturally, one has to introduce some further specifications here: WHICH women have the power to wreck WHICH guys’ careers? But the fact remains that we are witnessing a tremendous exercise of power unchecked by what would have been otherwise considered reasonable (a fair trial, the right to reasonable doubt...), and if someone just points this out, they are immediately accused of protecting old white men.
Plus the barrier that separates public from private space disappears here:recently, several Icelandic MPs faced calls to resign after they were recorded using crude language to describe female colleagues and a disabled activist. They did this in a bar, and an anonymous eavesdropper sent the recording to Icelandic media.The only parallel that comes to mind here is with the brutal swiftness of revolutionary purges – and, effectively, many MeToo sympathizers evoke this parallel and claim that such excesses are understandable in the first moments of radical change.
However, it is precisely this parallel that we should reject. Such “excessive” purges are not indications that the revolutionary zeal went too far – on the contrary, they clearly indicate that the revolution was redirected and lost its radical edge.
In short, one should struggle to refocus MeToo onto the daily suffering of millions of ordinary working women and housewives. This emphatically can be done – for example, in South Korea, MeToo exploded in tens of thousands of ordinary women demonstrating against their sexual exploitation.
Only through the link between sexual exploitation and economic exploitation can we mobilize the majority: men should not be portrayed only as potential rapists, they should be made aware that their violent domination over women is mediated by their experience of economic impotence.
So, the truly radical MeToo is not about women against men but also about the prospect of their solidarity.
And exactly the same holds for our other big ethico-political problem: how to deal with the flow of refugees?
The solution is not to just open the borders to all who want to come in, and to ground this openness in our generalized guilt (“our colonization is our greatest crime which we will have to repay forever”). Such a stance provides a clinically perfect example of the superego paradox confirmed by how the fundamentalist immigrants react to left-liberal guilt feeling.
Here, the more European Left liberals admit responsibility for the situation which creates refugees, and the more they demand we should abolish all walls and open our gates to immigrants, the more they are despised by fundamentalist migrants.
There is no gratitude in it – the more we give, the more we are reproached that we did not give enough. And it is significant that the countries most attacked are not those with an open anti-immigrant stance (Hungary, Poland etc.) but precisely those which are the most generous.
Sweden is reproached that it doesn’t really want to integrate immigrants, and every detail is seized upon as a proof of its hypocrisy (“You see, they still serve pork at meals in the schools! They still allow their girls to dress provocatively! They still don’t want to integrate elements of sharia in their legal system!”), while every demand for symmetry (but where are new Christian churches in Muslim countries with a Christian minority?) is flatly rejected as European cultural imperialism.
Crusades are mentioned all the time, while the Muslim occupation of large parts of Europe is treated as normal. The underlying premise is that a kind of radical sin (of colonization) is inscribed into the very existence of Europe, a sin incomparable with others, so that our debt to others cannot ever be repaid.
However, beneath this premise it is easy to discern its opposite, scorn – they loath us for our guilt and responsibility and they perceive it as a sign of our weakness, of our lack of self-respect and trust in ourselves.
The ultimate irony is that some Europeans then perceive such an aggressive stance as the Muslim “vitality” and contrast it to Europe’s “exhaustion” – again turning this into the argument that we need the influx of foreign blood to regain our vitality.
In other words, we in Europe will only regain the respect of others by learning to impose limits, to fully help others not from a position of guilt and weakness but from a position of strength.
What do we mean by this strength? Precisely such a strength was displayed by Angela Merkel when she extended the invitation to refugees to come to Germany. Her invitation exuded trust that Germany can do it and that it’s strong enough to retain its identity in accepting migrants.
By this thinking, although anti-immigrant patriots like to pose as strong defenders of their nation, it is their position which betrays panic and weakness – how little trust they must have in German society when they perceive a couple of hundred newcomers as a threat to German identity? Crazy as it may sound, Merkel acted as a strong German patriot while anti-immigrants are miserable weaklings.
If we remain at the level of self-reproach and guilt, we serve perfectly the interests of those in power who foment the conflict between immigrants and the local working class (which feels threatened by them) and retain their superior moral stance.
Indeed, the moment one begins to think in this direction, the Politically Correct Left instantly cries Fascism (see the ferocious attacks on Irish writer Angela Nagle for her outstanding essay ‘The Left Case against Open Borders’.)
To put it in old Maoist terms, the “contradiction” between advocates of open borders and populist anti-immigrants is a false “secondary contradiction” whose ultimate function is to obfuscate the need to change the entire economic system itself. Which, in its present form, encourages migration by creating vast regional inequalities and an endless search for “growth.”
Friday, January 11, 2019
Establishing an Argument's Frame; Q-Why Do "Progressives" Either Denounce Their Own, or in Other Cases "Emphasize" Another's Ethnic/Cultural Identities?
In their eyes, "morality" (justice) always trumps "truth". And they apply justice through class-action trials of historical social arrangements. And this "frames" all arguments with said progressive. In other words, every argument gets "framed" as a moral judgement, and not a question of truth, with their argument framing self-deprecating cultural/ ethnic denunciations establishing them as moral arbiters and authority.
Republicans are the truth party. Democrats are the justice party.
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
The Yellow Vest movement dumbfounded not only the French ruling elites, but also the left intellectuals throughout Europe. This, to be fair, was always the case with every serious revolutionary movement in the last one hundred years. Not one successful revolution was ever “correct” according to the left intellectuals and politicians. The fact that the “Yellow Vests” are treated in a similar fashion could be considered the evidence of significance of the events we are witnessing, and of their potential to initiate serious change in the life of the French society and in the rest of the Europe.
The intellectuals treated the “Yellow Vests” with empathy, but at the same time with paternalistic skepticism or even condescending ridicule. Like: the citizens, of course, have a right to protest, but their demands and views are contradictory, while their potential to win this battle is not quite apparent. Moreover, almost all analysts announced that the program, which was put together by the grass-roots movement, cannot be accomplished.
One characteristic example of this critique is the appearance of Slavoj Žižek on Russia Today.
Žižek sees the mass protests in France as an indisputable symptom of the systemic crisis, but then he parrots the ideologues of the ruling class in their denunciation of the program of the movement. The Slovenian intellectual sees the resolution of the problems in the emergence of some sort of socialist bureaucracy (not clear if the bureaucracy has to be of a Soviet or a Scandinavian type), which would save the day. However, it is not clear who would create this bureaucracy, how, and why it would express the interests of the society and the workers.
It becomes apparent immediately that while accusing the “Yellow Vests” of inconsistency, the philosopher contradicts himself each step of the way. The reasoning about the demands of the protesters that are impossible to meet “within the existing system” is an abstraction, which is typical for the intellectuals. They see the system as something completely holistic and unchanging, and therefore any demands that contradict its current condition are declared unrealistic. Žižek condemns populism, but in doing this he calls into question any popular demands and needs expressed by the masses.
Even if we accept Žižek’s thesis about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters “within the existing system”, the question remains: who and how will change this system? The same enlightened bureaucracy, which, by the philosopher’s own admission, exists only in his imagination?
The thesis about the need to change the system completely and at once sounds very radical, but it lacks political substance. Any change in the system consists of tens, and may be even hundreds of concrete steps and measures that simply cannot be carried out simultaneously and at once. Moreover, almost all serious changes involve multiple phases. Transition from one phase to the next could happen in a very short period of time given a revolutionary situation, but the next step is impossible without the first one. For example, creation of a complete system of democratic planning is impossible without taking control of the top levers of the economy. Likewise, implementation of a large scale social investment program requires reforms of the government institutions and changes in the finance laws. Of course, some steps in this direction can be taken, but we must understand that they will not be very effective until a certain critical mass of institutional transformations has been accumulated. This is why any reforms and revolutions, even if they eventually move the society forward, early on are accompanied by ambiguous results, and often by objective worsening of the situation. Most importantly, any transformative measures, any steps to change the society and the state can (and would) be considered partial, insufficient, reformist, and so on. A true understanding of their significance is only possible in the context of the process as a whole.
But let us return to the discussion of the “Yellow Vests”. Why cannot their demands be met? Yes, Žižek makes an important qualification: the demands cannot be met “within the existing system”. But even here he is absolutely wrong. Most of the demands have been realized in the past by Western capitalism, but after the victory of neoliberalism these social advances were abolished. In other words, the protesters are just trying to win back the gains of the working class, which they lost in the last 30 years. Of course, it is impossible to return into 1960s and 70s. The practical work on the restoration of the welfare state would be successful only if it creates new forms and new possibilities for its development. However, we are talking here about something else: the thesis that social reforms are impossible within a capitalist system is just not true. It’s a whole another story that these reforms never result from a good will of the ruling class, but are rather won through the working class struggles.
In order to support his thesis about the contradictory demands of “Yellow Vests” Žižek points out that it is impossible to lower the taxes on the working people and at the same time to increase financing of education, healthcare, social sphere, etc. It is quite telling that this thesis is borrowed from the neoliberal experts. It is famous in Russia as the formula offered by the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was caught on camera talking to the Crimean retirees: “Money is scarce, but hang in there”.
In reality, there are many ways for governments to obtain the money needed for social spending. There is no need to squeeze the working class by excessive taxation. One can create effective state enterprises, and use the profits for social needs. One can increase taxes on large corporations, or at least take away some of the tax benefits the transnationals enjoyed in almost all countries in the last decade. One can reduce the benefits for the upper layers of bureaucracy, and stop wasting resources on the meaningless “prestigious” projects, one can cut spending on the repressive apparatus, or one can fight corruption more effectively. One can stimulate economic growth and increase the wages, so that even when the taxes are cut, the overall budget revenue increases. One may even finance social programs at the expense of budget deficit: contrary to the opinion of liberal pundits, increase in government spending does not automatically lead to a proportional increase in inflation (currently, loans issued by private banks stimulate inflation to a much greater extent than government expences).
While repeating the falsehood of the ruling class apologists about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters, Žižek does not notice that the danger for the elites from the “Yellow Vest” protests comes precisely from the fact that these demands can be easily met even today, even within the existing capitalist economy. However, these demands simply contradict the interests of the ruling elites. In other words, the impossible demands are not the issue; the problem is the class contradictions inherent to capitalism. Only the pressure from the masses on the ruling elites, who time after time were forced to make concessions to the outraged people, allowed any social progress within the existing system.
The same applies to the notorious “inconsistency” of the program of the “Yellow Vests”. Sure, the demands are somewhat contradictory. Nevertheless, this not only does not mean that they are impossible to meet, but, on the contrary, indicates the opposite. A completely consistent and absolutely non-contradictory socio-economic and political program can exist only in the mind of an ideologue, and even then, only if he does not realize the existence of objective contradictions within a socio-historical process or a social structure. Only a mass movement, which combines different social groups and somehow takes into account their diverse interests, is able to attract and mobilize the vast majority of the people. All movements, which managed to change societies, were populist movements. The Bolshevik slogan “Land to the peasants”, which motivated Lenin’s team to take power and win the civil war, originated not in socialist theory, but reflected the real needs of the “petty-bourgeois” peasantry. Without their participation, the revolution did not stand a chance.
A flawless “consistent” program can never be implemented by definition because it will never gather the support of the majority. Even if a “wise dictator” would try to impose it from above, in reality, he would still have to make concessions, given the inconsistency of public interests and the need to maintain the support of a sufficiently large mass of his subjects.
At the same time, the inconsistency of the demands of the “Yellow Vests” is also deliberately exaggerated by the propaganda of the powers that be. From the point of view of the left, the requirement of breaking up of the leading banks looks rather doubtful. Marxist or left-Keynesian economists will certainly say that nationalization of the largest financial institutions and their subordination to public control is much more reasonable from the point of view of the interests of the society. But first, this requirement is not only quite feasible, but does not contradict the logic of the market economy. And secondly, even if it is implemented, nothing terrible would happen. Moreover, the situation would still be much better than it is now, as breaking up the banks would weaken their political power and undermine the control of the government policies by financial capital.
Does everything mentioned above mean that Žižek is wrong about the systemic crisis? By no means. The movement of the “Yellow Vests” really reflects the fact that the system has come to a certain critical point. However, the transition of the society to a qualitatively different condition happens precisely through such “contradictory” uprisings of the people, which historians have been calling revolutions for three hundred years. If the “Yellow Vests” win, if their demands are met in general (and not a single program was ever completely accomplished, certainly, not at once), it will not lead to the abolition of capitalism.
This, on the one hand, will radically change the balance of class forces in the society, and on the other hand, will give rise to new social interests and demands that grow out of the new situation and the new opportunities it will allow.
In fact, we are dealing here with a kind of “transition program” (using the term of Leon Trotsky), with the only difference that it is formulated not by intellectuals and politicians, but spontaneously by the masses themselves.
We can criticize the spontaneous grassroots movements accompanied by inevitable excesses and mistakes as much as we want, but we have to admit that in the conditions of complete bankruptcy of the left political and intellectual community, the masses simply have no choice but to take their fate into their own hands. In other words, the spontaneous politics of the masses is better than the opportunism of politicians and the narcissism of intellectuals.
It is not surprising that for the left intellectuals, including the best (Slavoj Žižek is one of them), such a turn of events is unexpected and unpleasant. Intellectuals can criticize politicians as much as they want, putting themselves above political games, but at some point they may discover that their integrity and the depth of their statements do not give them any trump cards in the eyes of the masses. Moreover, the situation is even worse for public intellectuals than it is for the academics. The latter, at least, do not expect that the people, having seen the light, will call them as new leaders. On the contrary, public intellectuals genuinely confuse their media success and their popularity with public influence. These are not only different, but, in some cases, are the opposite things.
Any progressive mass movement needs intellectuals. The “Yellow Vests” also need them, but not as arrogant teachers and mentors, not as picky judges who evaluate other people’s actions, but as equal and useful comrades.
The right to qualify for leadership in a mass movement must be earned by a practical presence in this movement. Not by past achievements and clever publications, but by constant activity, direct participation in the events and willingness to share with people not only responsibility for the results of their struggle, but also risks (including moral) and failures. It is important to focus not on abstract theoretical correctness, but on the political efficiency and practical success here and now, on the efficiency in the interests of this movement and the block of social forces this movement represents. One needs not to judge or evaluate, but to participate, to struggle, to make mistakes, to correct mistakes and win.
- Boris Kagarlitsky, "The Spontaneous Politics of the Masses: Slavoj Žižek and the Yellow Vests"