Ideology


Over at Dominic’s blog Poetix, a curious character who refers to himself as “Beckett” makes the following remarks in response to recent criticisms of Badiou unfolding in the blogosphere:

Indeed, where are they going … neo-liberal defensiveness – and its irritatingly ponderous and increasingly hysterical academic apologists – moves in ‘mysterious’ ways …

[ie Between attempts to ‘neutralize’ Orientalism (so utterly defeating the point of the original defence), between attempts to re-formulate an unhinged neo-liberalism as a “weaponised non-dialectical negativity” or “Xenoeconomics”, between dissmissing Badiou (and Zizek) for all the, at this point nauseatingly, wrong reasons, between … the continuing refusal to confront ideology … it’s all getting a bit sad and passive on the blogosphere …]

Would it be amiss for me to point out this gent is profoundly confused? Presumably Beckett understands himself to be defending Badiou. Yet at the center of Badiou’s political project, and, for that matter, Zizek’s, is a critique of identity politics. There is something deeply perplexing about someone who seems to ardently support Zizek’s and Badiou’s conception of the political defending Said’s critique of Orientalism. Clearly Beckett is here referring to my recent posts on Orientalism. What Beckett seems to miss in this critique is that the object wasn’t prejudices and essentialisms directed at Eastern cultures, but bad social theory that itself performatively does the very thing it claims to be denouncing.

Apparently if one finds fault with Badiou or Zizek’s accounts of the political, they immediately fall into the category of “neo-liberalism”. It seems to me that the motivation of such critiques, however, is instead something quite different. On the one hand– and independent of questions of politics –there are genuine reasons for finding fault with the metaphysical and ontological claims of Badiou and Zizek. Both, in my view, fall into the anti-realist camp. It seems to me that there is a strong tendency within French inflected Continental philosophy to subordinate all questions of philosophy to political imperatives. As a result, one is supposed to choose their ontology, metaphysics, or epistemology on political grounds rather than grounds that directly pertain to these questions. I suspect that this suturing of the philosophical to the political has more to do with academic insecurities pertaining to the place of philosophy and cultural studies in the contemporary world (having lost a lot of ground in the last three centuries) than anything to do with these questions themselves.

On the other hand, within the domain of politics, I find it difficult not to wrinkle my nose in amusement at Beckett’s charge of an unwillingness to confront ideology. Beckett seems to be of the view that politics unfolds through critiquing ideology. However, having witnessed twenty years of critiques of ideology I’m led to wonder what critiques of ideology have ever done to really change anything. The conception of politics as ideology critique seems to largely result among bookish academics that believe it is books and discourses are the primary real and who are therefore persuaded that change takes place through books and discourses. Like the obsessional– who might this obsessional be? –who talks endlessly precisely to avoid saying what really should be said, this conception of the political endlessly dissects various narratives and cultural formations to create the illusion of acting without ever hitting the real. Indeed, there’s a very real sense in which those literary studies types so delighted by Zizek seem to be more motivated to find a justification for writing about their favorite movies and television shows rather than changing social organization in any significant way.

The critique of Badiou and Zizek on political grounds has little to do with the attempt to defend neo-liberalism, and everything to do, I think, with the manner in which both exclude the domain of political economy from the field of the political. In the case of Zizek we get the assertion of a parallax between economy and politics without ever getting any substantial analysis of economic issues. In other words, one half of the parallax always gets short shrift. In the case of Badiou we are directly told that the domain of economy falls entirely outside of politics. In both cases we get the comfortable analysis of signifying formations, meaning, etc., but never much in the way of concrete engagement with the world. In my view, time would be better spend reading Harvey but that requires paying attention to drearily boring things like actual numbers, trends, economic phenomena, etc., and lacks the narcissistic self-gratification of thinking oneself as a subject of truth procedures or engaging in a “radical act”. What we thus get is a profound contradiction between the form and content of these discourses, the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement. At the level of content and statement there is the declaration of a certain radicality that purports to be seeking to undermine “capitalism” (whatever that might mean… as if capitalism were an “entity”). Yet at the level of form and enunciation, we instead get a form of theorization and a mode of comportment towards the social world that functions to insure that everything remains in place just as it was before. Was it a critique of ideology that led to certain recent changes in American politics? Weren’t these critiques all over the place for the last eight years? Why did things begin to give in 2006? Better to understand the workings of an assemblage or a network to target the key points or nodes in that network than to tarry with the foam that floats up from those networks at the level of discourses.

Like all forms of obsessional thought, these sorts of political theory believe in the omnipotence of thought, ignoring the manner in which forms of social organization require their telephone wires, highways, electricity, sites of exchange, etc. As a result, they perpetual miss the real infrastructures that organize bodies and render social relations impossible, instead believing that the important things are the electrical pulses that travel along those telephone lines, i.e., the messages. It is remarkable to observe, however, how quickly the content of those messages change when, for example, a shift in these infrastructural phenomena takes place, e.g., the collapse of the economy. Perhaps there is a confusion of causes and effects here.

In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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It seems to me that within contemporary academia, there is a good deal of anxiety among philosophers as to just what the vocation of philosophy is. Just as Kant famously observed that “time was when metaphysics was the queen of philosophy”, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, among continental philosophers especially, that “time was when philosophy was the queen of the sciences”. Any honest appraisal of philosophy today cannot fail to acknowledge that philosophy has been dethroned from its privileged position among the various disciplines. Where Kant could still teach geography, anthropology, physics, and philosophy, seeing all of these disciplines as, in effect, a part of philosophy, for us today philosophy has increasingly become pared down and marginalized in such a way that it often appears, to the outsider, as a sort of archaic curiosity. The various sciences, both as forms of serious research and in popular culture, have taken on the mantel of answering the questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Thus, when the layman searches for answers to the question of the fundamental nature of reality, he generally looks not to the tradition of philosophy, but to popular science texts such as the works of Brian Green, Frijtof Capra, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Where philosophy pursues a game of one upsmanship, presenting ultra-radical, whizbang critique to end all critiques, these figures dogmatically present their various accounts of the nature of reality. When the layman looks for answers to the most fundamental and basic questions of ethics, to the classical questions of Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, the layman looks not to the ethicist, but to the psychologist and self-help books or to mystogogues selling their latest permissive snake-oil. When the layman looks for answers to questions of politics, they look not to political philosophy, but to popularized works of the social sciences. Everywhere it appears that philosophy has become eclipsed by other disciplines, such that in its own disciplinary practice it becomes addressed only to other professional philosophers addicted to something like Magister Ludi’s glass bead game.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to rather tiresome and reactionary attitudes among philosophers. It is not uncommon to find a sort of “Luddite” mentality among philosophers, where the world is implicitly described as fallen, where the Enlightenment is seen as the pivot point where this fall took place, and where thought prior to this period was a Golden Age. The vocation of philosophy thus becomes a “recollection” or “retrieval” of this forgotten truth, of this ground of all grounds, that has been lost through the fall into the natural attitude initiated by the Enlightenment. As a result, philosophy in the classroom, journals, and books becomes the history of philosophy and the retrieval of this truth from errancy. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that far from denouncing a decisive errancy of thought, this posture is instead based on a combination of envy at the triumph of one philosophical school over the others (a victory that is very carefully suppressed and denied), self-importance, insecurity, and a phobia towards all things mathematical and scientific.

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In physics, thermodynamics (from the Greek θερμη, therme, meaning “heat” and δυναμις, dynamis, meaning “power”) is the study of the conversion of heat energy into different forms of energy (in particular, mechanical, chemical, and electrical energy); different energy conversions into heat energy; and its relation to macroscopic variables such as temperature, pressure, and volume. Its underpinnings, based upon statistical predictions of the collective motion of particles from their microscopic behavior, is the field of statistical thermodynamics, a branch of statistical mechanics. Roughly, heat means “energy in transit” and dynamics relates to “movement”; thus, in essence thermodynamics studies the movement of energy and how energy instills movement. Historically, thermodynamics developed out of need to increase the efficiency of early steam engines. Typical thermodynamic system, showing input from a heat source (boiler) on the left and output to a heat sink (condenser) on the right. Work is extracted, in this case by a series of pistons.

The starting point for most thermodynamic considerations are the laws of thermodynamics, which postulate that energy can be exchanged between physical systems as heat or work. They also postulate the existence of a quantity named entropy, which can be defined for any system. In thermodynamics, interactions between large ensembles of objects are studied and categorized. Central to this are the concepts of system and surroundings. A system is composed of particles, whose average motions define its properties, which in turn are related to one another through equations of state. Properties can be combined to express internal energy and thermodynamic potentials, which are useful for determining conditions for equilibrium and spontaneous processes.

With these tools, thermodynamics describes how systems respond to changes in their surroundings.

From Wikipedia.

When the Ontic Principle, Latour’s Principle, the Principle of Irreduction, and the Hegemonic Fallacy are taken together, they can be understood as making the case for the introduction of something like thermodynamics into ontology. The Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation. The Principle of Irreduction states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. And finally the Hegemonic Fallacy states that it is illicit to reduce all difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference. While the thermodynamic dimension of the Ontic Principle does not exhaust the signification of this principle, it nonetheless captures one important aspect that follows from this principle. Insofar as, ontologically, there is no difference that does not make a difference, it follows that difference requires work both for the entity making the difference and the entity upon which the difference is made. Both of these differences are involved in the interactive process of those objectiles entering into an assemblage with one another.

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In many respects it can be said that Žižek is a consummate ironist with all of the problems attendant to irony as a rhetorical strategy. In this respect, his rhetorical strategy is not unlike that of Socrates’, where he rhetorically strives to always turn the question back to the questioner, getting them to question their own assumptions behind the question, shifting the frame of the question (and therefore the possibilities following from the question) itself. Through this rhetorical maneuver Žižek strives to effect a sort of transcendence of reigning conditions and ideology, introducing new alternatives into the social system. In this respect, Žižek’s texts can be thought as not unlike Plato’s famous allegory of the cave (which Žižek often references), where the participants, the interlocutors, cease playing the ideological game (trying to name what image will appear on the wall next), and instead leap into an entirely different game. It was this that I tried to argue in my article “Symptomal Knots and Evental Ruptures” (warning pdf), where I attempted to argue that where Badiou’s political strategy consists in the affirmation of an undemonstrable event and the truth-procedures that follow from that declaration, Žižek’s political strategy consists in trying to force the event, to produce the event, or in opening a void space within the hegemony of the ideological structure where new alternatives become available.

As an ironist, just when you think you’ve pinned down his position, he reverses everything and articulates yet another position contradicting the first. Hence the sense that he never gets anywhere. The paradox is that the more Žižek tries to disavow and undermine this position of being the subject-supposed-to-know, the more he tends to provoke transference in his audience, convincing them that he must contain some secret (just as Socrates’ interlocutors invariably thought that he knew and was just withholding the answer).

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I do think that while I do not agree with the notion of revolution as the only aim of politics (advocating a more classically Marxist position pertaining to tendencies populating the social field and their possibilities), and while I find Žižek’s references (and often celebration of) figures like Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, etc., as well as violence distasteful, this talk of revolution does serve a rhetorically important function within debates over political theory. In other words, in the absence of the belief that society can be fundamentally transformed and that we should commit ourselves to the project of transforming society– i.e., a desire for the real or impossible –we descend into a pacifying neo-pragmatism not unlike that of Critchly or Rorty, where we become apologists for liberal democracy and all of its attendant problems. Under this neo-pragmatic liberal democratism, any form of engagement envisioning an alternative form of society is excluded a priori as necessarily doomed to produce disaster and simultaneously as impossible. There is thus a closure of political possibility and the best we can hope for is a pacifying “communicative action” that dare not work for something else.

One of Žižek’s points is that liberal democracy is every bit as obscene and brutal as these other political systems so often denounced within western democracies as being “the worst”. The problem is that Žižek doesn’t do the necessary legwork in order to demonstrate this. Yes he shows the ideological mechanisms creating the straight-jacket of capitalism and liberal democracy as the only alternative, but he doesn’t do a very good job demonstrating just what is so obscene about liberal democracy and capitalism. To see this you need to read someone like Naomi Klein or other empirically oriented writers who document the actual effects of this system. It is disappointing that many of the theorists working in the post-Althusserian tradition of structuralist Marxism (and ultimately in the Gramscian tradition of Marxist thought where everything eventually came to be reduced to the cultural or semiotic register) look down on this sort of hard empirical and historical work practiced by people like David Harvey or Naomi Klein.

I do not think, however, that Žižek genuinely advocates the violence he often glorifies, or the totalitarianism he so often celebrates. What I think he’s doing is trying to make alternative possibilities available within political discourse. Proof of this, I think, can be seen in his recent article on Obama (here and here). A standard radical leftist stance, premised, as it so often is on a sense of cynicism and distrust of any establishment power, might be that we should reject Obama or should not have voted for him as he will simply be a continuation of the same. Badiou goes so far as to argue that we shouldn’t vote at all as this confuses the domain of the political with the state. A radical leftwing Žižekian political activist might argue that support for Obama amounts to giving way on one’s revolutionary desire, betraying that desire, and therefore betraying the cause (objet a). Yet surprisingly in his writings on Obama we find Žižek defending support for Obama as one avenue through which the coordinates of the symbolic can be changed even if, at the level of policy, these policies continue to support standard liberal democratic and capitalist platforms. This defense alone should give us significant pause in our interpretation of just what Žižek is up to.

Of course, the problem is, as Nathan asks, what happens when irony is not understood as irony?

UpdateBryan, over at Velvet Howler, presents an excellent response to my post on Žižek’s political strategy.

As Dr. Sinthome goes on to explain, Žižek’s key rhetorical tactic used to subvert conformist liberal democratic discourse is irony. This involves something peculiarly Žižekian, something that is palpable in every book he has written and every article he has published. The first move involves a rejection of the (typically hegemonic) liberal response to a given issue. One might think that, given Žižek’s political commitments, the next move would be to assert the far Left/Marxist view to counter the liberal position. Instead, Žižek often takes a stance that is uncomfortably close to the right-wing position, but then argues that the right-wing position simply makes a much stronger case for the far Left position.

Read the rest here. The piece is very rich and contains far more than this brief passage.

Update 2:Mikhail of Perverse Egalitarianism adds his own scathing rejoinder in a style only Mikhail can pull off.

Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy

In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.

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As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.

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I sometimes feel as if I go through a sort of eternal return, where I repeat things I have said before yet experience myself as having just thought them for the very first time. Hopefully, despite these repetitive iterations, despite these re-loops of loops, each iteration is nonetheless somehow producing something new or allowing some other thought to emerge that, for whatever reason, could not before emerge. As Spinoza argues, ideas can only produce ideas. Yet why is it that ideas sometimes get fixed or repetitive like a skipping record? Why is it, I wonder, that we obsess over certain themes and ideas– almost as if our life is a musical variation –such that we perpetually return to these things without realizing that we’re doing so? The Bird and the Bee song: “Again and again and again and again… Do it again! Do it again!” In his preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Badiou remarks that in a true work of philosophy,

…it is possible to detect the sense of something new– texts which respond to the question: “What wound was I seeking to heal, what thorn was I seeking to draw from the flesh of existence when I became what is called ‘a philosopher’?” It may be that, as Bergson maintained, a philosopher only ever develops one idea. In any case, there is no doubt that the philosopher is born of a single question, the question which arises at the intersection of thought and life at a given moment in the philosopher’s youth; the question which one must at all costs find a way to answer. (After Finitude, vi)

This is a surprisingly Deleuzian thought for Badiou; one that almost stands in contradiction with his charges of a Deleuzian “aristocratism” in The Clamor of Being. I do not know that I follow Badiou in the thesis that the wound is unique to the philosopher, but, as I argued in Difference and Givenness, I would certainly agree that the wound– what I there called “the encounter” –is constitutive of thought. To think is to be wounded. That is to say, to think is to be out of step with the world, to not be at home in the world, to experience the world as unheimlich. We think because we are not at home and perhaps the degree of our homelessness marks the degree of our thought’s intensity… Unless we are consumed by a homelessness so profound that it ends in catatonia or mute autism. Thought then would be a way of attempting to sublate or overcome that wound, that crack that prevents any adaptation to the world.

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It is this that is fundamentally missing from accounts of collective assemblages such as we find proposed in Spinoza. Conatus, the endeavor to persist in one’s being, lacks– at least on the surface –the dimension of death drive in speaking-being. While the Spinozist body is indeed excessive rather than homeostatic or adaptive in its active drive to promote its power to act, what seems to be missing is this dimension of repetition, of death drive, that is at odds with action premised on benefit or enlightened self-interest.

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This can be sensed above all in Spinoza’s conception of love, where the madness of love, the willingness to destroy everything else for the sake of love, is entirely absent. Despite the fact that Spinoza asserts love can be excessive, one gets the sense that for him, the difference between a good meal (which he also characterizes in terms of love) and mad love is a difference in degree rather than kind. If, as speaking beings, we are constitutively wounded, divided by language, and therefore subjects of an irrepressible question that we cannot escape, how must we understand collective assemblages and the perils that haunt them? Clearly these assemblages will perpetually be perturbed by the repetition, the eternal return, that haunts the subjects that inhabit these assemblages. On the one hand, this will be one of the prime sources of those lethal identifications with demagogues, tyrants, and dictators where the body of these figures is encountered as an answer to the repetitive question of the wound, as that which can sublate the wound and produce the “heimlich” in the world.

On the other hand, the wound, the death drive, will be the source of our most profound creativity, political struggles, thought, love, invention, etc., as we choose the wound over adaptation. Is there a way to channel the wound, the death drive, in one way rather than another? Certainly this is one of the aims of psychoanalytic practice– to transform painful, paralyzing, and intolerable incarnations of the death drive manifested in the symptom, into productive, liveable, creative symptoms or forms of repetitive jouissance. Witness Joyce.

Or is it, as I asked months ago in another post, that the death drive, the symptom, repetition, jouissance is simply psychoanalysis’ own myth of original sin: a reactionary ideological mystification that argues that lethal and mal-adaptive repetition is natural and necessary, rather than contingent? Spinoza argues that our collective irrationality arises not from original sin, but from a set of cognitive processes that take place at the level of how our emotions function. Death drive is something quite different than the simple confusion of two things that resemble one another as in the case of an object confused with love object or object of hate that shares a quality with these objects without possessing any of the same causal properties, e.g., Hating one’s student named Tom, because one was the victim of a childhood bully named Tom, and failing to realize this completely contingent connection. Death drive is not a confusion, but a sort of ever repeating glitch in a system, that causes the perpetual return of an insistent question that places the subject out of step with the world. One might think of the people obsessed with a certain image in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the image, ultimately, of the mountain), to such a degree that they completely neglected their bodies, families, jobs, and all the rest (viz., they were completely disjointed from the world) trying to figure out why this image would not leave their mind and what it might represent. The difference here, of course, is that for the characters in Close Encounters, they do get an answer. There is no answer to the death drive, only the repeated failure of any and all such answers– Which can be a source of a positive jouissance. “Do it again!”

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From roughly June until a few weeks ago I was in the midst of a deep and black depression. The strange thing was that I did not feel sad, but simply disengaged from everything. I wasn’t, as it were, even aware that anything had changed. I had lost all desire for everything. I no longer read. I felt no inclination to respond to emails. No books, shows, movies, or ideas interested me. Whenever I got a new paper published or received some sort of praise for my book, it left me feeling cold. I had no desire to be around other people. I slept a lot and just walked through the world like a sort of zombie. There was no malice in any of this. If I didn’t respond to an email, it wasn’t because I harbored animosity towards the person. I didn’t respond to anyone unless it was a professional matter I couldn’t ignore. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care.

The worst part is that you blame yourself for this state and experience it as a moral failing. You tell yourself that perhaps your brain has hardened and you simply can’t think fluidly in the way you once did. You tell yourself that you’ve become lazy, ceased caring, etc. Somehow it is something that you’re doing that’s led to this malaise. But just as anger in the midst of a nicotine fit seems absolutely convincing and like a matter of your will, the depression is not experienced as depression, but as some set of choices you are making. Of course, from a psychoanalytic perspective this is because somehow, at some level, you have betrayed your desire and repudiated yourself as a subject. The question is how?

Perhaps now I am in a manic period– I’ve certainly been writing a lot –but something seemed to break a few weeks ago. And even if it is manic, it feels good. It feels good to care. It feels good to write. It feels good to draw connections, to find images to represent things, to read, to dance with others in thought. I began exercising and this seemed to produce significant changes. Who knew? But what was it that brought this on? Why did I fall into this pit? In her beautiful essay, Why Psychoanalysis?, Elizabeth Roudinesco argues that depression, melancholia, is the unique malady of our time, produced by our contemporary ideological conditions and conditions of production.

If neurosis– a loud, noisy, antagonistic symptom in protest of the reigning social order — is the symptom of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, argues Roudinesco, depression is the reigning symptom of an era where great causes have collapsed, where alternatives to the social organization of this world have disappeared, where there is nothing to protest as all norms have collapsed, and where all that is left is the pursuit of happiness, the improvement of one’s body and health, and the endless pursuit of ever new and novel forms of exotic enjoyment. The depressive age is an age where the Soviet Union has collapsed and China has become capitalistic, such that the only [once] credible alternatives to the world of liberal democratic capitalism and the promise of “happiness” and a life without risk, have disappeared. Likewise, with the death of God we get a world closed to transcendent possibilities, to ideals higher than those of appetite.

Insofar as all symptoms are a protest, of sorts, against the Other– a trace of the lack in the Other or the fact that the Other is a sham, a semblance, an impostor, that the Other does not provide the answer or jouissance promised –depression, the disappearance of desire, the fading of desire, is a protest against such a closure where all alternatives have disappeared. But, like so many symptoms, what a painful symptom! Perhaps depression is what occurs in the absence of being able to even articulate what is missing, what is absent. Depression would be a sort of silent speech, a mute speech, that speaks the absence of signifiers worthy of desire. Or better yet, depression would be a marker of that which falls outside of language or that for which there are no signifiers. As such, in the borromean clinic, depression would be located at the intersection between the circles of the imaginary and the real: A mute witness of the imaginary body in response to a certain real that haunts the symbolic.

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Is there a way in which depression can be made active? Is there a way in which this mute withdrawal of the subject from the empty world of “bodies and pleasures”, this existence as undead, as zombie, that capitulates to the closure of possibilities, the absence of alternative, can make this silent and passive resistance an active resistance? Such a resistance would no longer be one that assaults the body of the depressive, such as in the case of the depressive subject that blames himself, but would be a subject that might find a way to reject the idea that happiness, exotic enjoyments, and bodies and pleasures are the only alternatives, the only things, we can hope and live for… Or rather, that we can hope and be dead for.

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Dejan of Cultural Parody Center asks how I respond to the worry that collective assemblages lead to disasters such as some of those that characterized aspects of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. In subsequent discussion he qualifies his question, indicating that he wasn’t suggesting that collective assemblages necessarily lead to this outcome, but was rather asking what proposals or thoughts I might have as to how this might be avoided. However, I do think Dejan hits on a fundamental argument that is extremely common in, at least, the United States when arguing against any form of collective action. My position is that this line of argument is always based on spurious reason. Consequently, since this spurious reasoning is so common I thought I’d take a moment to show just where it goes wrong through a formalization of its reasoning. Roughly the argument runs as follows:

Premise 1: The Soviet Union (or whatever poison you might like to choose) was a social system premised on collective assemblages.
Premise 2: Social Formation X calls for collective assemblages.
Conclusion: Therefore, Social Formation X leads to outcomes identical to those in the Soviet Union.

In the United States, at least (Thatcher gave similar arguments, I believe, in Great Britain, and arguments such as this were used throughout South and Central America to justify deregulation and privatization), we have been beaten over the head by arguments like this so often that we don’t even pay attention to them anymore. Indeed, I so commonly hear claims like this from my students (in completely unrelated contexts), that I almost wonder whether they haven’t become lodged in our DNA, manifesting themselves as “innate truths”. However, when we formalize the argument using a venn diagram we see that the conclusion clearly cannot follow from these premises:

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For those unfamiliar with venn diagrams, they work by spatially representing relations among categories represented in propositions. For universal propositions (“all A’s are B’s) you use shading. For particular propositions (Some A’s are B’s) you use x’s. When you cannot determine the region to which the x belongs in the three circles, you place it on the line separating the regions to indicate that it could be in either of the regions. To determine whether or not a syllogism is valid, you diagram the premises of the syllogism and if the conclusion follows from the premises, then it will appear after you diagram the premises of its own accord.

The argument above deals only with propositions that are particular in quantity, and therefore uses nothing but “x’s”. For the first premise, the x is to be placed in the intersection of the Soviet Union circle and the Collective Assemblage circle as the first premise asserts a relation between these two classes. We are thus indicating that at least one entity shares the property of being both the Soviet Union and a Collective Assemblage. However, we notice that there are two regions where we can place the x: region 2 or region 4. For this reason, we place the x on the line between these two regions, indicating that we do not know whether it is in region 2 or 4. For the second premise, we now look at the relationship between the circle for some unspecified Social Formation X and the circle for Collective Assemblages. Premise two again asserts an intersection between these two classes of entities. However, once again we notice that there are two regions where our x could appear: region 4 and region 6. Since we do not know whether the social formation in question is in region 4 or region 6, we place it on the line between these two regions to indicate our uncertainty.

If our argument is valid, then we should see an x appear in region 4 at the point of overlap between the circle for Social Formation X and the Soviet Union. What, in fact, do we see? We see that based on our premises it is possible for an x to be in region 2 or region 6; which is to say that there is not a relation of necessity between collective assemblages, social formations, and the Soviet Union, such that the presence of one of these properties or classes deductively entails the presence of the others. The ideological trick thus consists in implying that there is a relation of deductive necessity between collective assemblages and totalitarianism, where there is only a relation of contingency, i.e., a relation that can and often is otherwise.

This argument is, of course, stupid and any school child should be able to immediately see that it is invalid, yet nonetheless people seem to find it extremely compelling or convincing. As Dejan points out, that, in and of itself, should raise all sorts of important questions about human psychology. There is thus, on the one hand, the question of why certain collective assemblages lead to social formations that are totalitarian or fascist in character. And also, on the other hand, the question of how it might be possible to produce collective assemblages that do not lead to these results. Of course, the whole point of such an exercise lies in showing how that which appears natural and necessary is, in fact, contingent such that other forms of life are possible. Reactionary politics and ethics perpetually treats the contingent and historical as necessary and eternal. For example, it is said here in the States that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman and that God would have made same sex couples capable of reproduction had he intended them to marry.” All of this despite massive ethnographic evidence to the contrary. One of the first conditions for change lies in discerning the essential fragility and contingency of social formations. It is only in this way that the social order loses the appearance of being akin to Newtonian laws, trapping us in the iron grip of their necessity.

I apologize to readers for the silliness of this post, but it was fun, at least, to pitch an ideological claim in terms of syllogisms and venn diagrams. Hopefully I’ll be excused for finding lame ways to avoid grading.

thebirds

This semester I have been teaching Spinoza’s Ethics to close out the course. Although I have had bad experiences teaching the Ethics and Leibniz in the past, this year, for some reason, it has been a pure pleasure. Once you are finally able to penetrate the propositions and their supporting arguments, a beautiful structure begins to emerge, where each proposition builds on the previous proposition, gradually building to greater and greater complexity and taking the reader from truths that are almost self-evident and hardly in need of proof (e.g., “Substance is by nature prior to its affections or qualities”), to surprising and disturbing conclusions (that nature and God are identical; that God is not a sovereign ruling over nature and preferring one set of beings over another, but that instead God creates everything that God can create by necessity; that values and morals are not intrinsic to things, but products of how our bodies relate to other bodies in terms of benefit; that there are no purposes or ends to nature, only efficient causes; that God cannot be compelled or persuaded to act, but only acts according to the necessity of his own being; etc). One by one, Spinoza challenges the root claims of traditional theology and organized religion, showing how these claims are in contradiction with God’s essence. In developing these arguments he institutes a thorough-going immanent naturalism sans any dimension of transcendence or vertical being.

Spinoza is crafty and devious. What makes his arguments so ingenious and devious is that unlike the materialistic atheist that simply denies the existence of God on materialistic grounds, Spinoza works within the theological tradition, drawing on definitions inherited directly from Aristotle and Medieval Jewish and Christian theology, painstakingly demonstrating that when these definitions and axioms are followed through logically, they entail these conclusions and no others (granting, of course, that his arguments are sound). In other words, Spinoza shows that it is theology itself that leads to these conclusions. As a result, there is something of the uncanny in Spinoza. Just as Freud’s unheimlich is a sort of effect of the heimlich, the homely, the familiar, such that what is familiar suddenly presents itself in a completely unfamiliar way– for example, your image in a mirror begins speaking to you and moving about when you are not –Spinoza takes the familiar concepts of theology, retains them, and completely inverts them in a way that renders them thoroughly unfamiliar, unheimlich, and even a bit terrifying.

Not surprisingly, a number of my students immediately gravitate towards questions of morality in relation to Spinoza’s thought. If, as Spinoza argues, God does not reward nor punish a person for living a moral life, and if, as Spinoza argues, values are a matter of the relation of our body to other bodies in terms of whether these other bodies increase or diminish our power of acting, and if, as Spinoza argues, God has no preference for what is or is not, for how we live our lives, then how can Spinoza have any place for ethics or morality? For example, God creates Jeffrey Dahmer and Dahmer’s existence follows from God’s nature as one of the modes that can exist following from the attributes of extension and thought. Insofar as Dahmer can exist, he therefore must exist by virtue of God’s absolute infinity and the fact that God’s activity is limited in no way. God has no preference for Jesus, Mother Theresa, or Dahmer, but creates all of these modes as they are possible variations of particular attributes (the essence of substance). Any preference for one mode over another arises not from God’s will or desire, but from relations among modes themselves. In other words, one calls Dahmer bad because he diminishes your power of acting by drilling holds in your head and eating your flesh. In short, Dahmer diminishes your power of acting.

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In his introduction to the work of Mao, Žižek writes,

The true victory (the true ‘negation of negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao On Practice and Contradiction, 17)

In what sense is this to be understood as the true victory? After all, the simple fact that the enemy is using your “language” does not count as much of a victory if the structure of power remains the same. However, perhaps we can understand Žižek’s point in terms of making alternatives available, of creating possibilities within the social space that were not there before.

This thesis can be illustrated in terms of games. For the last thirty years it could be said that the reigning economic assumption behind American politics has been that of Friedmanian, unregulated, free trade economics. The net result is that all sides engaged in economic discussions surrounding the political assume this framework as the ground of their policy proposals. Here only one option is available and participants take stands within the framework of this set of rules. The situation is thus analogous to a game of chess. Within a game of chess, the rules themselves aren’t up for debate or discussion. Rather, the rules are themselves agreed upon and remain largely invisible for the players. If a debate does take place, this debate takes place not in terms of a dispute over the rules of the game, but over the tactics as to how best play the game within the framework of those rules. Such has been the case with non-academic political discourses in the United States.

the-chess-player-smaller

A shift in the game thus does not occur at the level of a single game, but only when an entirely new game becomes available, challenging the discourse of the existing game. In this regard, Republicans made a strategic blunder when they chose to brand Obama as a socialist during the last election. In situating Obama as a socialist within the context of the current economic meltdown, they implicitly suggested that another game, another set of possibilities was possible. Rather than simply suggesting that Obama plays the game of chess (neoliberal economics) poorly, they instead suggested that Obama plays an entirely different game, perhaps go, composed of entirely different rules (socialism). In making this move, they undermined their own claim, built up painstakingly over the course of economics, that capitalism today reigns supreme and there are no other credible alternatives.

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My suggestion here isn’t that Obama is a socialist or that he will depart from neoliberal economic policies (I’m skeptical). Rather, what I find interesting is that news shows, editorials, and various pundits are suddenly raising questions of whether unfettered capitalism is the best possible system. What we increasingly hear today is a popular space in which capitalism is being contested or questioned, and a halting groping towards other possibilities is unfolding. It is only when the game itself becomes an object of critique, when it comes to be seen as contingent or something that could be otherwise, that it becomes possible to overturn that game. Absent that we simply have competing tactics within one and the same game, assuming the same rules, goals, and aims.

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