Recently I’ve been devouring Sharon Crowley’s Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Crowley gives a marvellous discussion of postmodern rhetorical theory in the first few chapters of the book, and then proceeds to give an analysis of the religious right in the United States in the remainder of the book, outlining the rhetorical strategies of this movement, along with the belief system that underlies the political activism of these groups. I was completely unaware of much of what Crowley discusses (especially how many high ranking officials in the Senate and Congress hold these beliefs), and think this book is well worth reading for anyone intent on better understanding both domestic and foreign American policy. The book is downright frightening, in its discussion of the aims of these fundamentalist groups, their organization, the amount of state power they’ve gained, and the manner in which apocalyptism influences foreign and domestic policy, and allows one to think of the world starkly in terms of good and evil, and see one’s everyday life actions as part of a global, cosmic struggle between good and evil where no compromises are to be made.

Doesn’t this sound a good deal like the ethics of truth-procedures Badiou describes in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil? I am not trying to take cheap shots at Badiou, or dismiss him on the basis of guilt by association. I think Badiou (and Zizek with his notion of the Act), has said something of tremendous importance, by emphasizing that it’s necessary to make decisions, that what’s present in the “facts” populating a situation aren’t sufficient for deciding, and that these facts themselves are already tainted by a certain ethics of the status quo. Nonetheless, when encountering the doppleganger of Badiou’s progressive position, I find myself recoiling in horror, as I’m on the receiving end of these reactionary “truth-procedures”. I suddenly find myself thinking that perhaps fidelity to an event isn’t such a good idea, and then I backslide back into the melancholy logics of folks like Derrida and Critchley, who argue that such passionate commitment is destined to produce horror. Then I find myself nowhere to stand, as the pragmatic ethics of moderation advanced under this Arendtian style of argumentation ends up being an apologetics for contemporary capitalism and the destruction and suffering it’s engendered.

At any rate, I came across the following passage this afternoon, which uncannily resonates with so much contemporary theory:

Reporter Ron Suskind recounts an unsettling conversation he had with an unnamed ‘senior adviser’ to George W. Bush. The adviser critiqued Suskin’s residence in the ‘reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ The adviser told Suskind that the world no longer worked that way: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality– judiciously, as you will –we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (171)

As has often been observed by leftest political theorists, it is those on the right, not “liberals” (I do not equate liberals with leftists), that are engaged in genuine politics (which isn’t to say that this politics constitutes a “truth” in Badiou’s sense of the word, only that the political is that domain of exception with regard to governance). For instance, Zizek has often pointed this out in his work since The Ticklish Subject, and has consistently argued that fundamentalism is actually a response to genuine politics in the social sphere (everything today tending to be reduced to governance and the State). The question then becomes that of how politics might be reawakened from a leftist orientation. For instance, in The Ticklish Subject, Zizek argues that in Foucault (and perhaps Deleuze and Guattari) we get marvellous analyses of the dynamics of power and desire, but these analyses are positivistic in the sense that they simply describe things as they are, and do not raise the question of the political in and of itself. Yet we all sense that nonetheless these authors advocate a particular politics, even though their commitment to immanence robs them of the resources to consistently explain why this form of power should be preferred to that. What is need as an explicit positing of these presuppositions, which we get from theorists such as Ranciere, Badiou, Balibar, etc (at least according to Zizek). What we find in the fundamentalism of the right is a utopian yearning, what Zizek calls a non-ideological core, that has been co-opted and distorted so as to ensure that nothing changes (i.e., that capitalism isn’t really challenged).

This disturbing passage resonates in an uncanny way on so many levels. The reference to history’s actors, of course, brings to mind the Marxist understanding of the proletariat, but here as a distorted double or doppleganger, perverted nearly beyond recognition. Reference to “making reality” resonates with autopoietic and dynamic systems theory, that posits observation as the result of the distinctions the system itself draws, thereby undermining any sort of representational conception of knowledge and reality. The official’s disdain for the Enlightenment, liberal tradition of “first examining reality before coming to conclusions”, resonates with Badiou’s distinction between knowledge and truth, albeit as a simulacrum of what Badiou calls a truth, and also echos the postmodern thesis that the idea of a “neutral gaze examining the facts” is itself a myth and exercise of power-dynamics.

Those on the left seem to talk a good deal about these things, whereas those on the right do them (in a highly distorted and disturbing form). It’s a bit like the Irish Bank commercial where the man and woman are getting married and when the minister asks “do you take this woman to be your wife”, the groom goes into a long monologue, examining the ambiguities of the question itself, the ramifications of such a “merger”, etc., etc. The bride stands there crying and a member of the grooms entourage jumps in and says “I do”. The minister quickly pronounces them man and wife, and the commercial ends with the line “less talk, more action”.

I’m not sure what to make of the quote above. My knee-jerk reaction is to suddenly defend truth, the careful analysis of situations, the gathering of facts, reasonable dialogue according to the Enlightenment model, and so on. That is, the conversation above brings me to question my post-structuralist assumptions, and ask myself how something like truth can be preserved. What are some other ways of responding, that wouldn’t consist in simply returning to classical, Enlightenment models? Especially given that these models have lost their persuasive force against the very people where persuasion is so important… The fundamentalists? Or perhaps it’s a question of becoming fundamentalists ourselves, leftist fundamentalists? I have indigestion now.