Hythlodaeus, over at the new blog Project Enlightenment, has revived the old debate about Zizek’s review of 300. Unfortunately I am unable to respond there as his blog does not accept anonymous comments and I do not have a Google account, so I’ll post a few words here. Hythlodaeus writes:
To my mind, the paroxysms of outrage that Zizek’s recent review of 300 provoked amongst certain members of the left academic blogosphere have only confirmed the basic truth of his argument that a truly progressive prioritization of values, in the current postmodern academic environment, is effectively impossible, because no one is willing to take responsibility for what a totally committed choice to pursue real social justice might actually entail–like, say, loss of job security. “If revolutionary action doesn’t include working full-time towards academic tenure–then no, thanks!”
I cannot speak for everyone regarding what motivated their concerns about Zizek’s valorization of sacrifice and discipline in this review, but for myself the issue was decidedly not one about the loss of job security. I take it as a given that any sort of revolutionary political change will involve significant transformations in how we consume and live. How could it not? Nor did it ever occur to me that somehow this issue has something to do with working full time or tenure. Rather, the issue had to do with convictions about the sorts of values we choose to valorize in revolutionary theory. All too often values of discipline and sacrifice, rhetoric of discipline and sacrifice, have been associated with fascist, dictatorial, and totalitarian regimes. Are these really the sorts of doors that we wish to open? Why not instead the valorization of values such as equality, justice, fraternity, freedom? What is at issue here are the sorts of master-signifiers that come to organize a movement and the manner in which these master-signifiers have a structuring effect on subsequent forms the movement takes. The issue is not one of concerns over giving up one’s hedonistic lifestyle, but about the way in which these master-signifiers function and resonate (see here and here) within a particular historical context. It is surprising that anyone informed by Lacan or Zizek would forget that language does not simply describe, but has a performative reality as well. The issue is not one of whether sacrifice and discipline ought or should or does take place in such movements– clearly it always does –but rather of how a particular movement comes to be structured and organized when signifiers such as this serve as the key, organizing, master-signifiers.
Hytholodaeus goes on to say:
I think this is a problem across the board in continentally influenced forms of theory, whether we’re talking about literary theory, political theory, philosophy, and so on. Often I find myself reading texts that are pervaded by some grand vision of revolutionary political transformation and I find myself thinking of my neighbors, my students, family members, existing infrastructure, etc., and I just wonder how such a grand vision can even be enacted concretely in practice. I then find myself suspecting that these political theories are more about ego and being superior, than about enacting any sort of real world change and are more about shoring up one’s academic standing and cred than the world.
Instead of continuing to parse Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, et al, perhaps we should start devoting some of our attention to the abundant situated literature that’s being produced by the very real social movements we academics for some reason continue to strenuously deny exist. For instance, you might check out some of the websites for the activist groups listed under the “Contacts” section of Naomi Klein’s website nologo.org. You might also check out web resources like SolidarityEconomy and Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.
The oppressed aren’t stupid and they aren’t mute. They don’t need speaking for. They’re not a given “in-itself” waiting for us hyper-educated academic “for-ourselves” to properly theorize into a meaningful project. It smacks of obscene arrogance to think that the marginalized, the exploited, the oppressed of the world are incapably of reflecting on their situation in a sophisticated and nuanced way. Let’s stop treating them as inert objects, and start listening to them, start recognizing what they have to say. And, who knows, maybe even enter into dialogue with them. This is where I part ways with Zizek and his advocacy of the top-down Leninist intelligentsia qua vanguard model. I’m with Sartre and Habermas, Hardt and Negri instead: mutual recognition + intersubjective communication amongst groups-in-fusion= common value formation, i.e. the only horizon of a truly democratic, emancipatory, and transformative praxis.
From Hytholodaeus’ remarks, I cannot tell whether my position is here being criticized or endorsed. For the record, I am on exactly the same page as him regarding the need to focus on real social movements and the way they articulate themselves. I am deeply suspicious of hierarchicalized social movements where the “intellectuals” have the master-plan and set about designing society. On this blog, one of the things I’ve tried to focus on are the emergence of group formations, how they come to be, how they react on existing social structures, and how they come to transform social structures. In short, my view is that there needs to be less focus on critique, interpretation, and analysis, and more focus on those conditions under which groups emerge, nominate themselves, take on structuration, and begin to transform the social field. A political theorists work should be less about determining what is to be done, and more about what is being done, what these emergences are responding to, what potentialities they are introducing, and so on. It is for this reason that I have a certain fascination with fundamentalist religious movements in the United States, political blog collectives such as Moveon.org, Dailykos, Americablog, Atrios, etc, and so on. It is not that I share the politics of these particular groups. Clearly I do not. What interests me is how these groups emerged at all, what affects they mobilize, how they have managed to motivate people, what new sorts of subjectivities they produce, and how they have effectively challenged, and arguably transformed, various institutions whether at the governmental level or at the corporate level, and so on. This is what I find missing in so much of the political thought I read. “Okay okay okay, I agree with these positions and critiques, but… how do you mobilize people to enact these things?” What sort of media must be used to summon a people that don’t exist? What sorts of affects need to be crafted to summon a people that does not exist? What sorts of gatherings and institutions preside over the formation of these new subjectivities? What are the catalysts that lead people to form collectives, groups, movements? I see a lot of critique, I see a lot of analysis, but I don’t see a lot of concrete discussion concerning these very concrete details. Yet, as they say, it’s precisely with regard to these things that the rubber hits the road.
Zizek and Badiou have spent a good deal of time criticizing that variant of Marxist thought that talked endlessly about when the conditions for revolution are ripe. Zizek has characterized this form of thought as the position of the obsessional who is always preparing for the proper moment to make his advances on the woman without ever passing to the act, thereby revealing that his endless preparations are themselves a defense against the act. In this connection, Zizek has valorized the act as the proper corrective to this attitude, arguing that the act must initially fail to inscribe itself in the social field so as to become a signifier (the signifier always requires two, a repetition), thereby opening the field of radical transformation. The time will never be right, and certainly the elements populating the situation will never suggest that the time is ripe for revolution. Badiou has argued something similar with his conception of a completely ungrounded choice that decides membership of the event in the situation. I believe both of these views are positive correctives to a perspective that is always looking to the situation to find those ripe conditions. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the truth-procedure is precisely that hard work of transforming the elements of the situation or engaging in those acts that recode, that evoke, that call for a people that do not yet exist.