Non-Signifying Differences


“It may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of existence” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 75). A little earlier they write, “There is not the slightest reason for thinking that modes of existence need transcendent values by which they could be compared, selected, judged relative to one another. On the contrary, there are only immanent criteria. A possibility of life is evaluated through itself in the movements it lays out and the intensities it creates on a plane of immanence: what is not laid out or created is rejected. A mode of existence is good or bad, noble or vulgar, complete or empty, independently of Good and Evil or any transcendent values: There are never any criteria other than the tenor of existence, the intensification of life” (74).

Yet it is hard, is it not? It is hard to find those tenors of life that are inherently affirmative, where we are not beset by a dark malaise. When I was young I was so blissfully ignorant. When Lacan talks about the imaginary, one of the things he has in mind is the way in which we treat others as being like us, as thinking in the same way, as having the same values, beliefs, and views. I really can’t say that I was aware of “otherness” when I was young. For me the first real shock of otherness came in 2000, with the election of George Bush; but even more strikingly it came following September 11th, when I watch my fellow countrymen rally around this president’s ideology, falling for just about every trick George Orwell had described in his novel 1984. Here, before my eyes, I saw everything Orwell had described materializing and I wondered how we could be so stupid, how we could forget so easily. All my assumptions about the world and people evaporated, and I no longer knew what thoughts lurked behind the twinkling eyes of those about me. It seemed that the worst nationalistic, repressively religious, fascist madness had been loosed upon the land… And if not the worst, at least seeds of madness that could easily become the worse.

It is difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention. Everything in this world seems as if it is upside down, as if viewed through Caroll’s looking glass. In our media, the good and just are endlessly portrayed as the dangerous and wicked. Partial truths are transformed into the total truth, so that uncomfortable truths might be ignored. Perhaps the worst thing about rhetoric– of the sophistical sort –is that it works. In other affairs, whether education, health care, the so-called “war on terror”, economic issues, etc., it seems that we never miss the opportunity to make the stupid decision where policy is concerned, perpetually ignoring the complexity of situations for simplified, idiotic solutions that exacerbate our problems. Moronic administrators rule our institutions who perpetually have only the most dim understanding of what it is they’re administrating; and worse yet, these administrators all too often are filled with dark, fascist desires. But the despair produced by the stupidity of these “solutions” is not simply a result of the way in which they pose problems poorly or simplify the complex, but rather it is the way in which this stupidity is also the function of cruelty, mendacity, hatred, or ressentiment. These “solutions” are all too often a will to wound, rather than a will to produce flourishing. Lurking in the background is always the interests of money and privilege, and we seem to bow readily to these things, despite the fact that we vastly outnumber those in whom the wealth is concentrated. Most of us don’t even get angry about this, but see it as perfectly natural, assuming those who enjoy wealth, power, and privilege acquired these things through their own sweat and hard work, making them inherently superior, while the rest of the world is simply poor and morally inferior. And then, all around, we see ugliness, stupidity, and cruelty in the form of hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, ressintement, and all the myriad ways we find to torture one another. Meanwhile, in those endeavors that ought to be guided by a shared desire for justice, more equitable and finer living conditions, the joy of intellectual inquiry and discovery, and the production of beauty, ego, rivalry in the imaginary, gets in the way and petty feuds emerge between rival tribes, striving to stake out their own turf and ensure that they’re recognized (which, as Hegel pointed out, also entails the obliteration of the other). It is not enough that an idea be remarkable or interesting on its own, but it must be expressed in the framework of one’s own territory and no other: only phenomenology! only Anglo-American philosophy! Only deconstruction! Only Lacan! Only Deleuze and Guattari! Yes, it’s difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention.

I suppose that if I am having these thoughts, then I have grown sick. Rather than discovering my own “immanent criteria” as Deleuze and Guattari describe (my cats don’t seem too troubled with the madness of the world and are thus masters of immanent evaluation), I measure the world against some transcendent standard of what I unconsciously believe it ought to be. I have transcendence folded into my thought, like a tain behind the mirror, infecting me with sickness and fatigue, filling me with despair. It seems that philosophy comes in too flavors: there are revolutionary practices of philosophy that seek to transform the world and eradicate this stupidity, superstition, cruelty, brutality, and injustice, and there are those philosophies that seek some peace of mind that might allow us to endure all of this ugliness. I wish I could somehow expel these “oughts” from my thought.

Perhaps one of Zizek’s central contributions to the theory of ideology is his account of belief. Previous critiques of ideology had targeted the intentional states of subjects, what they say, or how they explain their own positions. The thesis was that if one can just debunk these propositional attitudes then the subject in question will disidentify with the ideology. For Zizek, matters are quite different. As he puts it quite early in The Sublime Object of Ideology,

In feudalism, as we have seen, relations between people are mystified, mediated through a web of ideological beliefs and superstitions. They are the relations between the master and his servant, whereby the master exerts his charismatic power of fascination, and so forth. Although in capitalism the subjects are emancipated, perceiving themselves as free from medieval religious superstitions, when they deal with one another they do so as rational utilitarians, guided by their selfish interests. The point of Marx’s analysis, however, is that the things (commodities) themselves believe in their place, instead of the subjects: it is as if all their beliefs, superstitions and metaphysical mystifications, supposedly surmounted by the rational, utilitarian personality, are embodied in the ‘social relations between things’. They no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for them.

This seems also to be a basic Lacanian proposition, contrary to the usual thesis that a belief is something interior and knowledge something exterior (in the sense that it can be verified through an external procedure). Rather, it is belief which is radically exterior, embodied in the practical, effective procedure of people. It is similar to the Tibetan prayer wheels: you write a prayer on a paper, put the rolled paper into a wheel, and turn it automatically, without thinking (or, if you want to proceed according to the Hegelian ‘cunning of reason’, you attach it to a windmill, so that it is moved around by the wind). In this way, the wheel itself is praying for me, instead of me– or, more precisely, I myself am praying through the medium of the wheel. The beauty of it all is that in my psychological interiority I can think about whatever I want, I can yield to the most dirty and obscene fantasies, and it does not matter– to use a good old Stalinist expression –whatever I am thinking, objectively I am praying.

This is how we should grasp the fundamental Lacanian proposition that psychoanalysis is not a psychology: the most intimate beliefs, even the most intimate emotions such as compassion, crying, sorrow, laughter, can be transferred, delegated to others without losing their sincerity. (34)

For Zizek, belief is not to be located in our interiority, in our thoughts or theorizations of the world, but rather in what we do. As Zizek puts it a few pages earlier,

…ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’– ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence— that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological’ is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’. (21)

Thus, to give a few examples, if you truly wish to know what a person believes concerning patriarchy and the equality of men and women, or about homosexuality, you look not at what they say about these things, but what they do. It is in this sense that belief is objective, “out there”, rather than something to be located in ones head or conscious thoughts. Chances are a number of people will have very elaborate things to say about the necessity of overcoming gender inequality. Rather, to know what such a person believes, you look at what they do. How is such and such a person’s domestic life organized? How does such and such a person relate to the homosexuals he works with? It is there, in the doing, that the genuine beliefs are disclosed. Imagine, incidentally, this principle consistently applied to political theorists. Perhaps this is the reason I find myself so impatient with theological discussions. All too often the person presents a beautiful, intricate, intellectually sophisticated, philosophically stimulating account of their religious beliefs that has little or nothing to do with a sacred text like the Bible, Koran, or The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Yet strangely, this same person still appears in the pulpit on Sunday, engaging in all the rituals, engaging in confessional, etc, despite the fact that nothing in the traditions and sacred texts resembles anything in their theology. Even more disturbingly, one and the same person ends up participating in an institution and a set of collective practices that are diametrically opposed to their own expressed (interior) beliefs. Where, then, does this person’s belief genuinely lie? In what they say, in their propositional attitudes, or in what they do? Rather than asking whether or not people agree with the doctrines of their church or find them all plausible, one should instead investigate how they vote, what sort of social relations they form in their friendships and professional relationships, what their domestic life is like, where their money goes, etc. It makes little difference, for instance, whether someone believes in the apocalyptic narratives propounded by the leaders of their church if they consistently give money that then goes to political campaigns, placing people in office sympathetic to these views. Does not the expressed belief in these circumstances function as a lure that keeps the subject attached to a set of basically idiotic and often very oppressive social practices? Have we yet had a study of theology based on what people do? I believe we have: it’s call ethnography and sociology. Of course, some will say that these things shouldn’t be worried about, that they are not genuine concerns, and that they constitute mis-spent energy that could be directed to other more pressing political issues. First, this is based on the absurd assumption that political struggles aren’t fought on multiple fronts at once. Second, it is a variant of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, as it fails to take into account that the very struggle against these movements is what has so far kept them in check. Finally, this is a bit like telling GLBT folk, women, and parents concerned about whether genuine science is taught at school that they should just sit back and wait until a later day for their struggles and concerns to be engaged with. “If only those uppity negros would quit causing such a ruckus, always complaining and making people angry at them. If they weren’t constantly speaking up about how bad things are, the natural course of progress would eventually bring about equality many years hence.” This has forever been the call of the crypto-reactionary: it’s not time, people aren’t ready for you to be free yet, just sit put and remain patient. One wonders what could possibly motivate an otherwise intelligent person to advocate such an absurd position.

One of the most common arguments advanced against materialism and the Enlightenment is that it led to the horrors and deaths of the French Revolution, Soviet Stalinism, and the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Given that no one with the possible exception of Zizek wishes to see a repeat of these sorts of events, many recoil from any endorsement of materialism or the Enlightenment, lest they be identified with cold-blooded mass murderers. Rhetorically this entails that the signifier “materialism” goes underground, living a subterranian life, and discussions that take it as foundational that inquiry should seek naturalistic explanations without positing any form of transcendence become more improbable in the public space. I find it interesting, of course, that this criticism seems to come most often from those who are politically oriented with rightwing forms of thought, neoliberals, and those who are defenders of religion. The motivation for religious hostility towards materialism is obvious, as materialism undermines precisely the sorts of myth-based explanations and superstitions that the many religious folk would like to embrace. The principles of the Enlightenment are a threat to conservative orthodoxy due to the anti-authoritarian nature of reason.

I would be delighted to see a discussion about this. To what degree is this criticism legitimate and true? Was it really materialism per se that caused these horrors? What are some effective counter-arguments against these claims? If materialism and the Enlightenment did, in fact, have something to do with these events– i.e., if there was something internal to this sequence of thought that led to these events –in what way must these forms of thought undergo critical re-evaluation without sacrificing the core of these commitments? I personally believe we sacrifice too much, both rhetorically and conceptually, by giving up these words.

This morning I received the following email in response to my post Truth Procedures or Uncanny Doubles and the Postmodern Right.

Two quick thoughts on your post “Truth-Procedures”? Uncanny Doubles or the Postmodern Right

– is the “destruction and suffering” wrought by contemporary capitalism outweighed by its gains (including your ability to sit behind a computer and post philosophical thoughts on technology invented by the military/industrial complex)?

– the conversation quoted (if it took place) also has an uncanny resemblance to Delousses’ interpretation of the Nietzschean Master / Slave dialect.

I find these sorts of reactionary questions fascinating. The questioning of whether the conversation took place is icing on the cake. It underlines the manner in which reporting has come to be thought of as a commodity that one picks and chooses according to their ideological preferences of liking and disliking. Whenever something fails to conform to ones ideological vision it is concluded that it must be a leftwing bias and purposeful distortion. These kinds of questions seem to work according to a sort of “gotcha!” logic. “What a hypocrit! You’ve benefitted from x, while nonetheless having problems with it!” I wonder how the author might respond to an abused child. “Is the destruction and suffering wrought by your abusive father outweighed by its gains (the fact that you exist, went to university, and are now able to do research in the social sciences to prevent child abuse)?” Thanks for the Delousses reference. I assume the author must have been being ironic as his email performs the very nature of postmodernism both with his doubt and by having a signature from a prominent southern author that gives a vigorous defense of being southern (the cover of his book even has a confederate flag) while signing his email with an entirely different name, thereby enacting postmodern theses about the fluid and simulated nature of identity.

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.

Read on
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Digby tells us what we all already knew about the so-called culture wars in the United States:

But let’s be honest here. Lawrence Kudlow and Chris Matthews can drool and grunt all they want about Bill Clinton’s phantom mistress, but if Rudy Giuliani becomes the GOP nominee it means the culture wars are as fake as William Shatner’s hair. Once people realize that, perhaps we can stop talking about how so many people are allegedly against choice, gay rights and other progressive values in this country. Clearly, they don’t care much about any of that, nor do they care about Lieberman’s nonsense about setting a good example for the children. The Christian Right supporting Rudy Giuliani proves that the culture war is nothing but a GOP scam and we can stop obsessively worrying about offending these people with our godless, fancy-pants, big-city ways.

I’ll never cease to be amazed by people who get worked up about gay marraige, homosexuality in general, violence in video games, whether or not there’s prayer in school, or whether or not Walmart says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and actually vote based on such issues. This comment is a gem:

The culture wars are fake. The christian right, the msm, the gop are all too clever and canny (and lazy) to stop using the term as a cudgel against us elite liberals.

When their people are gay, it doesn’t matter. When their people are lying, cheating, stealing, murdering hypocrites, it doesn’t matter. Their best and most respected have been caught red-handed doing every single thing that they supposedly stand against, and it’s never mattered to them. Ever.

Nothing matters to them but acquiring and maintaining power. And, as Digby pointed out before, purging their ranks of the ideologically impure, like a Jim Zumbo.

We’re only gonna win with numbers and accurate vote-counting. And even then, we’ll be the monsters, forcing our sinful lifestyle on their children.

So why when this is so glaringly obvious, are the “culture wars” nonetheless such an effective ideological tool for whipping people up into a frenzy? What desire is at work here such as to draw people into these sad passions and furies?

The stuff about Rudy Guiliani is juicy. Who knew he was so deliciously debauched? Read the rest here.

Tolga has written a beautiful and thoughtful response to Foucault Is Dead’s recent post on communities and my recent post asking what will we have been. There Tolga writes,

OK. I am probably repeating a well-known cliche.

It seems to me, being in positions like “drug cultures, blogsphere” (though I have not been in the former and only reader of your ‘communitiy’) cannot hide the class conflict between the members. On the contrary, you realize it more, exactly because they are attempts to repress it.

Yesterday, I watched the longest mevie I have seen (it was 5.5 hours!), 1900 of Bertolucci. This post reminded me that movie, it just rang a bell. Its entire content was nearly about that conflict occuring between two main characters, the peasant (Depardieu) and patrone (De Niro).

In one scene they “try” to have sexual affair with a whore. In another, they dance with their couples in the same hall. When they are kids, wealthy De Niro desperately makes an effort to mimic the poor kid’s ugly habits: like screwing the earth, touching the face to mud etc. But it cannot be resolved. All these attempts are failures, which made the movie so wonderful to me.

In specific to Sinthome’s remarks about the multitude like continental philosophy blogosphere, as a reader of that community I can basically see those “real” contradictions and as Badiou said in one of his recent interviews:

“Negri remains inside this classical opposition, while using other names: Empire for state, multitude for movement. But new names are not new things.”

Shortly, as an outsider I think the differences are too much to make them that dream like multitude. Since new names are not new things.

Why do some of them prefer linkin Lenin’s Tomb for instance, while some are more intereted in their academic positions? Please, do not misunderstand, I am not judging anyone, just saying that they are rather different in the sense of real.
Sorry, if I got outside of the road. This was a quick light occured to me when I read your post.

First, I am in agreement with Tolga regarding the issue of antagonism. Nothing in my original post, nor, if I can be so bold, in, I think, FiD’s post, was meant to suggest that blogging or counter-cultural communities are somehow a solution to antagonism. Nonetheless, I think Tolga is right to draw attention back to the centrality of antagonism in the formation of these communities. When I evoked the word “multitudes”, Negri and Hardt didn’t even occur to me as, perhaps embarrassingly, they really aren’t central theoretical reference points for me. Perhaps this will change next year when I teach a learning community on empire with one of the anthropologists here at my college, where I plan to torture the students with Empire. Rather, in evoking the term “multitudes” I was instead trying to be polite, and to emphasize that those of us in this little blogosphere come from very different theoretical orientations, backgrounds, forms of employment, and lifestyles, thus underlining that we are not homegeneous, yet still find some way to discourse or engage one another. In fact, I think these differences are a productive principle as they tend to function as a curative to theoretical myopia that, for me at least, sometimes becomes an occupational hazard. If I am to discourse with, for instance, Kenneth Rufo who I very much appreciate, I must take into account our very different reference points. Such an encounter then becomes a creative moment where I’m drawn out of my own theoretical assumptions and become something other than what I was.
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