Jodi Dean, over at I Cite, raises the question of what political movements are liable to produce change in their subject’s lives. After a brief discussion of identity politics and its attachment to procedural democratic politics, she concludes with the following:

These days, the only source for transformation seems to be religion. The right gets its energy from its fundamentalist base and religious overtones, but avoids going the extra mile to fascism. The left can’t escape from its envelopment in communicative capitalism–cultural politics is a lot more fun!–and thus abjures any program of political transformation. Besides, cultural revolution seems a bit too scary, the dark underside of left utopian projects–better to accept the liberal framework and advocate half-measures and resistances.

Is it possible to conceptualize, to advocate, a non-democratic program of political transformation with emancipatory and utopian energies today? What would look like? Could it make any promises, hold out any aspirations? Zizek’s emphasis on subjective destitution seems like an important step in this direction–it breaks the binds of identity politics and consumerism in one move. But, how might this sort of destitution figure in a larger kind of solidarity? how might it become a component of a new kind of social link? And what is the next step in conceiving this?

Repeating a comment made over there, I have increasingly found myself skeptical of Zizek and Badiou as accurately theorizing how significant political change takes place. Simply put, I am coming to feel that their understanding of political change is too abstract. Zizek seems to believe that ideology critique will produce a significant transformation of subjectivity such that social subjects become political subjects that can then set about producing significant change in how the social is organized. Badiou seems to wait about for a rupture, an event that cannot be counted within situations, as an impetus for producing “non-interpellated” subjects.

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I do not doubt that there is a great deal to both of these theoretical orientations, but is it enough? What seems to be missing in these accounts is any discussion of concrete social conditions. Zizek appears to put all his emphasis on symbolic interventions. We can think of him as thoroughly Hegelian in the sense that he takes Hegel’s dictum that “all things contain contradictions” seriously and attempts to use this as a way of dislodging stale political deadlocks or oppositions, unfolding their contradictions, and thereby creating a sort of “free space” where another sort of subject might emerge that is no longer locked within the co-ordinates of a situation. Badiou proudly and defiantly departs from Marx, arguing that the event can neither be deduced from a situation nor can what he calls subjects be understood within the context of situations. Rather, the political here is understood to sustain itself through the fidelity of a subject to this undemonstrable event as the subject unfolds all the implications or consequences of this event, reconfiguring the coordinates of the situation. I do not doubt that both of these theories have merit and refer to real dimensions of political engagement, but I worry that they cut off other crucial dimensions of political engagement.

Yet if we look at instances of actual political change, whether on a small scale or on a revolutionary scale, do these forms of analysis hold up? The groups that Dean mentions all find themselves existing in the midsts of significant social contradictions. In the case of identity politics the subjects involved perpetually face physical, economic, and psychological challenges that motivate them to take significant action. Of course, we can and should ask why identity politics has emerged in the way that it has emerged at precisely this juncture and time. I don’t have an answer to this question, though I would like one. The case is not dissimilar with regard to conservative Christian fundamentalism in the United States. If we listen carefully to the fundamentalist, the red thread that runs throughout their discourse is the belief that their way of life is under assault, that their children are being abused and corrupted by contemporary American popular culture and social life, and that they must act if they are to preserve their way of life.

Similar contradictions can be found when we examine other political movements throughout history. The great labor movements, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and the great revolutions all occured in the shadow of tremendous economic upheavals, changes, and wars that seemed to spur these subjects to action; or, at least, act as a catalyst for the emergence and unfolding of new subjectivities.

All of this seems to be ignored in Zizek and Badiou. It is extremely difficult to get people to act and organize if they aren’t significantly uncomfortable. Give people minimum economic security and idle distractions such as really great and really bad films or American Idol, and it seems that while there might be generalized dissatisfaction, a wonder as to whether something better and other might be possible, there is no real impulse to act or form new subjectivities. This inertia is well known, I think, to anyone who has worked to organize people so as to produce change. It’s hard work. The more playful among us have even come up with an expression to describe this work: “herding cats”. It’s one thing to organize a protest or a rally, but to organize people to engage in the ongoing sort of work required for real political change is a daunting task that often falls apart when there aren’t pressing social conditions that give those people little option but to organize. Perhaps this is what Dean is getting at with her reference to subjective destitution: that some transformation of subjectivity is necessary so as to shift one’s fantasy frame from seeing their situation as tolerable and desirable to seeing it as intolerable. But I have my doubts. Increasingly I cannot help but feel that these forms of political theory represent the yearnings of those who harbor visions of revolution filled with discontent at apathy producing prosperity found in first tier countries. Is not the way in which concrete social conditions are ignored and those who would focus on these conditions symptomatic of a sort of disavowal? But perhaps the value of these theories lies not so much in providing genuine and “actionable” political programs, but rather in preserving the dream of revolution and qualitative transformations of the social in times where the conditions for such transformations are far from being ripe. These are melancholy meditations, but I do feel theory needs to become far more concrete.

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