In recent days I’ve been rereading Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology in preparation for an article I’m gearing up to write, and have been struck by certain features of his analysis of anti-semitism and various structural aspects of my recent kerkuffle with Anthony Paul Smith and Adam Kotsko over at Weblog (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). That’s a lot of “heres”, and the discussion spread to other blogs such as Long Sunday and the Cynic Librarian as well. As frustrating as this discussion was, I feel that it was ultimately productive and I do feel that Anthony, Adam, and I finally did reach a place where something like a discussion might be possible sans all the transferential issues that were previously clouding the conversation. Indeed, I think Adam Kotsko’s most recent post on the issue, along with Jodi Dean’s post, came finally to ask the right sorts of questions, adopting a far more analytic stance with regard to the issue. If I can say that I found this discussion productive despite all the frustration, vitriol, and acrimony that accompanied much of it, then this is because it functioned as something of an encounter for me. And as Deleuze puts it in Difference and Repetition,

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple or a demon. It may be grsped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering. In whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition. In recognition, the sensible is not at all that which can only be sensed, but that which bears directly upon the senses in an object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived. (139)

That is, an encounter is that which disrupts the logic of recognition, of the familiar, thereby performing a sort of naturalized “transcendental epoche“, and offering the possibility of a break from assumptions. For me one of the most valuable things about the rhizosphere or blogosphere is that it provides such fertile grounds for these types of encounters. I cannot speak for anyone else, but in my own case I find that there’s a sort of occupational hazard in the isolation that accompanies traditional scholarly research. There’s a way in which one becomes a sort of solipsist, believing that the entire world thinks as you do, such that any deviation from this way of thinking is seen as an idiosyncratic error, not as an opening onto an entirely different way of encountering the world. That is, I come to assume that others share my same frame. In the rhizosphere, by contrast, you discover how little this is true.

In reviewing the non-discussion that took place, one of the most striking things I find is the manner in which we directly engaged the claims of one another. Rather than taking a step back as an analyst might and wondering what desire might animate this or that claim and how it might function as a symptom responding to a particular deadlock, we instead directly tried to refute and contest one another. An alternative would have been to analyze the manner in which “Christian Fundamentalist” and “Secular Atheist” function as symptoms of two different discourses, referring to a fundamental antagonism at the heart of the social movements that employ these rhetorics. In his analysis of anti-semitism, Zizek writes,

…there are two complementary procedures [for] the ‘criticism of ideology’:

  • one is discursive, the ‘symptomal reading’ of the ideological text bringing about the ‘deconstruction’ of the spontaneous experience of its meaning– that is, demonstrating how a given ideological field is a result of a montage of heterogeneous ‘floating signifiers’, of their totalization through the intervention of certain ‘nodal points’ [I employed this form of analysis over at I Cite in response to Adam or Anthony’s claim that Hitler only used Christianity cynically, when I tried to argue that we can not refer evocations of a master-signifier to some hidden essence that would allow us to determine which form of social practice is the true or false one];
  • The other aims at extracting the kernel of enjoyment, at articulting the way in which– beyond the field of meaning but at the same time internal to it –an ideology implies, manipulates, produces a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy.

To exemplify this necessity of supplementing the analysis of discourse with the logic of enjoyment we have only to look again at the special case of ideology, which is perhaps the purest incarnation of ideology as such: anti-semitism. To put it bluntly: ‘Society doesn’t exist‘, and the Jew is its symptom.

On the level of discoruse analysis, it is not difficult to articulate the network of symbolic overdetermination invested in the figure of the Jew. First, there is displacement: the basic trick of anti-semitism is to displace social antagonism into antagonism between the sound social texture, social body, and the Jew as the force corroding it, the force of corruption. Thus it is not society itself which is ‘impossible’, based on antagonism– the source of corruption is located in a particular entity, the Jew. This displacement is made possible by the association of Jews with financial dealings: the source of exploitation and of class antagonism is located not in the basic relation between the working and ruling classes but in the relation between the ‘productive’ forces (workers, organizers of production…) and the merchants who exploit the ‘productive’ classes, replacing organic co-operation with class struggle.

This displacement is, of course, supported by condensation: the figure of the Jew condenses opposing features, features associated with lower and upper classes: Jews are supposed to be dirty and intellectual, voluptuous and impotent, and so on. What gives energy, so to speak, to the displacement is therefore the way the figure of the Jew condenses a series of heterogeoues antagonisms: economic (Jew as profiteer), political (Jew as schemer, retainer of a secret power), moral-religious (Jew as corrupt anti-Christian), sexual (Jew as seduer of our innocent girls)… In short, it can easily be shown how the figure of the Jew is a symptom in the sense of a coded message, a cypher, a disfigured representation of social antagonisms; by undoing this work of displacement/condensation, we can determine its meaning.

But this metaphoric-metonymic displacement is not sufficient to explain how the figure of the Jew captures our desire; to penetrate its fascinating force, we must take into account the way ‘Jew’ enters the framework of fantasy structuring our enjoyment. Fantasy is basically a scenerio filling out the empty space of a fundamental impossibility, a screen masking a void…

It is now clear how we can use this notion of fantasy in the domain of ideology proper: here also ‘there is no class relationship’, society is always traversed by an antagonistic split which cannot be integrated into the symbolic order. And the stake of social-ideological fantasy is to construct a vision of society which does exist, a society which is not split by an antagonistic division, a society in which the relation between its parts is organic, complementary. The clearest case is, of course, the corporatist vision of Society as an organic Whole, a social Body in which the different classes are like extremities, members each contributing to the Whole according to its function– we may say that ‘Society as a corporate Body’ is the fundamental ideological fantasy. How then do we take account of the distance between this corporatist vision and the factual society split by antagonistic struggles? The answer is, of course, the Jew: an external element, a foreign body introducing corrption into the social fabric…

The notion of social fantasy is therefore a necessary counterpart to the concept of antagonism: fantasy is precisely the way the antagonistic fissure is masked. In other words, fantasy is a means for an ideology to take its own failure into account in advance. (124-6)

I quote this passage at length because it so nicely encapsulates a number of important concepts for social analysis and displays exactly how they might be put to work. Of crucial importance here is the thesis that society does not exist and that a symptom is required in order to render the unbearable antagonism that cleaves the social field bearable. The symptom embodies a number of the elements of the situation-specific conflict (it will differ from social organization to social organization), but in a clothed and encrypted fashion, producing the illusion that these problems could be eradicated if only we could get rid of this particular group. However, as Zizek says elsewhere in the same text, anti-semitism has nothing to do with Jews themselves, but only with taking into account these failures of the ideological fantasy in advance while still rendering the ideological fantasy attractive and persuasive. Zizek is careful to point out that even if there are Jews that actually fit the descriptions of the anti-Semite, it is nonetheless these fundamental antagonisms that are at stake in the anti-semites discourse, not Jews themselves. Hence, perhaps, a reason that racism is sometimes most intense in regions where the hated group are almost entirely absent. It’s as if the racist group intentionally choose a group that doesn’t truly impact their socio-economic existence as a way of insuring that they can continue to hate this group without ever directly facing the possibility of taking action against this group, eradicating them, thereby confronting the trauma that the antagonisms nonetheless persist.

It is in this connection that I would like to suggest that the figure of the Christian Fundamentalist functions as an ideological symptom in many leftwing discourses (as, often, too does the figure of the Jew), while the figure of the Secular Atheist functions as a symptom of a number of rightwing and religious discourses. The point here is not one of being fair and judicious by saying “the left has its symptoms and the right has its symptoms so let’s try to get along”, nor am I suggesting that Adam and Anthony are engaged in a rightwing discourse (though their troubling repetition of themes similar to those expressed by the likes of Horowitz is bothersome), but rather of piercing through a certain set of symptoms so that a more substantial discussion might occur that has little or nothing to do with secularism or religiousity. That is, the aim here is to avoid the fate of Don Quixote. Incidentally, this “Quixotism” functionally works (whatever the intentions of the actors involved) to keep the system in place as it is (as both Adam and Anthony tried to point out in a number of contexts). I believe that this sort of analysis also shows the limitations of identity politics and the discourse of the victim so common in contemporary politics. All of this, of course, raises the additional question: If it is true that society doesn’t exist, that it is irrevocably riddled with antagonisms, what sort of politics should we aim for? Does this not place us in the tragic and pessimistic position of discerning defeat and illusion in any possible political engagement? For Zizek, the answer is one of identifying with the symptom: “To ‘identify with a symptom’ means to recognize in the ‘excesses’, in the disruptions of the ‘normal’ way of things, the key offering us access to its true functioning” (128). The religious believer would here be enjoined to identify with the “secular atheist” qua symptom of a deadlock at the heart of their socio-political aspirations, just as the atheist would be enjoined to identify with the Christian fundamentalist qua symptom. But what, exactly, does this mean at the level of practice? The aim isn’t simply to understand the true functioning of the social system, but rather to change it.