Zizek


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.

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inquisition-wheelIn listening to the daily flood of new documented insights about the former Bush Administration’s “Enhanced Interrogation Technique” practices, one of the most frustrating elements of the whole discussion is that it has been pitched in terms of the question “does torture work or not?” Although it strikes me as obvious that torture does not work– one need only read the first volume of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to get this –the truly frustrating thing about the whole debate is that it shouldn’t be a debate at all. Why don’t we see more people standing up and saying “It doesn’t fucking matter whether or not it works! It’s wrong!” Not only are there countless utilitarian reasons as to why this is bad policy, there is the, above all, the simple point of our own dignity and the dignity of other humans. However, perhaps part of the reason such a debate is so upsetting has to do with the very nature of topics and how they function in the social field. All of this brought me to reflect on a passage from Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful Reality of the Mass Media today. Luhmann writes:

Topics… serve the structural coupling of the mass media with other social domains; and in doing this they are so elastic, and so diversifiable that the mass media are able to use their topics to reach every part of society, whereas the systems in the inner social environment of the mass media, such as politics, the economy or law, often have difficulty presenting their topics to the mass media and having them taken up in an appropriate way. The success of the mass media throughout society is based on making sure that topics are accepted, regardless of whether there is a positive or a negative response to information, proposals for meaning-making or recognizable judgments. Interest in a topic is frequently based precisely on the fact that both positions are possible [my emphasis]. (12 – 13)

stem_cellIt’s a real pity that Luhmann’s sociological theory has not gotten more attention, though not a surprise given the difficulty of some of his work. In works like his monumental Social Systems, Luhmann following the work of Maturana and Varela in biology and cognitive science, sought to understand the social field as a dynamic, autopoietic system composed of nothing but events that both produce and reproduce the system in time. Luhmann’s heretical sociological thesis was that the social is composed of nothing but communications. In other words, in the parlance of autopoietic systems theory, individuals and persons do not belong to social systems, but rather belong to the environment of social systems. They are, as it were, entirely outside social systems. As a result, communications are not, according to Luhmann, the product of persons, but rather communications are the product of other communications. Persons can irritate social systems– Luhmann’s technical word for “stimulate” –but persons as such never provide information— difference that make a difference –for social systems. This is because what counts as information is always based on a code that is self-referential in character. If the codes determining whether or not something counts as information (an event) is self-referential in character, that is because information does not belong to the environment of the system– it is not in the “things themselves” –but is rather constituted by the system itself. Put otherwise, there must be an “ontogeny” of information that is system specific. In short, systems are “organizationally closed”. Just as the elements of a biological cell both are a product of and reproduce the cell itself, and just as the cell is only selectively open to an environment or other cells about it, social systems are characterized by an organizational closure that renders them only selectively open to the world about them.

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fn3ontoOne of the most attractive, problematic, and astonishing features of Badiou’s ontology is his strictly extensional understanding of sets or multiplicities. A set is not defined by its members sharing a common predicate or quality, nor by the relations among members of the set. Rather, a set is defined strictly by its extension or the members that belong to that set. From the standpoint of 20th Century French and German Continental philosophy, this thesis cannot but be a heresy, for the predominant trend in Continental thought has been a relational conception of entities. Whether we are speaking of language as a diacritical set of negative oppositions as defended by the structuralists and the post-structuralists, or Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where entities, the ready-to-hand, are defined by the relational networks to which they belong, the predominant trend has been to treat beings as bundles of relations such that the entity is nothing apart from its relations. In a spirit similar to Deleuze’s declaration that relations are always external to their terms, Badiou will have none of this. For Badiou entities are not defined by their relations and there are no intrinsic or internal relations that define the being of the entity. Rather, they are simply defined by their relations.

From the standpoint of both Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where each entity is thought as a “being-in” belonging to the worldhood of the world defined by an ensemble of relations defining meaning, or from the standpoint of structuralist and post-structuralist thought where the entity is an ensemble of internal relations from which it cannot be detached, or from the standpoint of Hegelianism where, as Hegel painstakingly shows in the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, where the entity simply is its relations or mediations, this move cannot but appear stunning. For what this extensionalist conception of sets authorizes is combinations of subsets in whatever order we might like. This, in short, is what the axiom of union tells us. What the axiom of union allows– if I understand it correctly (I’m sure Dominic will educate me if I don’t, thankfully) –is the construction of whatever sets we might like based on those elements belonging to our initial set. Thus, if I have a set composed of an umbrella, an apple, and the moon ({umbrella, apple, moon}), I certainly have a set composed of the apple and the moon ({apple, moon}), or a set composed simply of the apple ({apple}).

equalizer_category_theoryNow all of this sounds silly and unremarkable so long as we don’t contrast Badiou’s extensional notion of sets with the relational ontologies that have predominated during the 19th and the 20th century. If to be an entity is to be a bundle of internal relations, it follows that entities cannot be grouped in any way we might like. Rather, a model of the world based on internal relations dictates that each entity necessarily has a place within an Order and that the entity is nothing apart from this order. Thus the phoneme {c} is nothing apart from other phonemes such as {p}, {b}, {f}, etc., by virtue of the differentiality that allows it produce different senses at the level of the signifier: cat, pat, bat, fat. Insofar as these phonemes take on their value (in the linguistic sense of “value”) differentially in relation to one another, they are nothing independent of their relations to one another. This is what it means to say that each entity takes on a place within an Order. The Order is the totality of internal relations defining a system or structure, whereas the places are locations within that Order relative to the other terms. Because the relations are internal to the various beings in the Order, there is thus a Law that governs these beings and exhausts their being, legislating how they can and cannot act.

In proposing that sets are defined purely by their extension or their membership, Badiou undermines the thesis that to be is to be a bundle of internal relations. At the level of ontology, there is thus no intrinsic Order that defines entities. Rather, in their stark independence, the elements that make up a set not only can be decomposed into infinite subsets (through a recursive process of taking the power set of each power set), but the elements of each set can be related in a variety of different was or simply taken as singletons, thereby abolishing the notion of intrinsic or internal relations as in the case of Hegel’s logic of essence.

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universeThe new issue of the IJZS, Žižek and Lacan, is now available online. My article introduces a new Lacanian concept (universes of discourse), as well as four new discourses (the discourse of the capitalist, the discourse of biopower, the discourse of immaterial labor, and the discourse of critical theory), showing how Žižek’s mode of engagement is distinguished from psychoanalytic clinical engagement. In addition to that, the appendix develops the other possible 16 permutations of Lacan’s discourse theory. Here’s the abstract:

Žižek’s New Universe of Discourse: Politics and the Discourse of the Capitalist (warning pdf)
Levi R. Bryant

In what way is the thought of Slavoj Žižek to be distinguished from that of Jacques Lacan? This paper argues that the thought of Lacan and Žižek are to be distinguished at the level of the formal structure of discourse. Although Žižek often situates his own theoretical project in terms of the discourse of the analyst, his work occupies an uneasy place in this position insofar as the discourse of the analyst is directed at the singularity of the subject’s symptom, rather than shared political causes. Drawing on his “Milan Discourse” where Lacan presents the discourse of the capitalist, this paper argues that Žižek discourse inhabits the universe of capitalism, rather than the universe of mastery. Through the development of a modified version of Lacan’s discourse of the capitalist, it is shown that it is possible to derive three additional discourses– the discourse of biopower, the discourse of immaterial labor, and the discourse of critical theory –from the initial discourse of the capitalist. A psychoanalytic approach to these discourses using Lacanian discourse theory goes beyond standard accounts of biopolotical production and immaterial labor by revealing the function of the unconscious and real at work in these discourses, thereby opening new possibilities of engagement. Žižek’s theoretical project is shown to be an important cartography of this new universe of discourse, revealing both how the discourses inhabiting this universe contain certain constitutive deadlocks and devising strategies for engagement where the foe– due to the disappearance of the master and new forms of capitalism that can no longer be properly situated in terms of the discourse of the university –is no longer entirely clear.

Other Contributors:

Žižek: silence and the real desert
Rob Weatherill

Female Rivals: Feminism, Lacan & Žižek try to think of something new to say
Kareen Ror Malone

On Reading Žižek: Notes for Lacanian Clinicians (or what to do when a little bit of Žižek gets stuck in the throat)
Carol Owens

Embracing the Paradox: Zizek’s Illogical Logic
Sheila Kunkle

Lacan after Žižek: Self-Reflexivity in the Automodern Enjoyment of Psychoanalysis
Robert Samuels

Happy New Years!

Josh Strawn has written an outstanding response to The New Republic hit piece on Jewcy.com.

Nowhere is the problem with Kirsch’s analysis more apparent than in his attacks on the recent book ‘Violence.’ He tells his readers that Zizek means to tell us that “resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence.” Not so. The author is very clear. He says that his intent is to expand our conceptual understanding of violence beyond it’s more obvious eruptions. He wants to explain violence not as merely the act of violence with which we’re most viscerally and morally aware (what he calls ‘subjective’ violence), but more thoroughly–as inclusive of the network of relations and circumstances that make that violence possible (he calls this ‘objective’ violence). Sure Zizek quotes Lenin’s directive to “Learn, learn, learn.” That doesn’t make him a Bolshevik.

One could, if one were so inclined, shockingly quote from ‘Violence,’ “while [terrorists] pursue what appear to us to be evil goals with evil means, the very form of their activity meets the highest standard of the good.” There you have it ladies and gentlemen, Slavoj Zizek thinks that terrorism embodies the highest standard of the good. Fascist!! This is extremely easy to do, and it suggests the person doing so is only skimming to cherry-pick. More on “form” later, but the difference between an honest reader of Zizek and a detractor on a mission is that the reader would deal with what comes after. Namely, that this point is raised primarily to discuss what’s wrong with terrorism.

Read the rest here.

Of course, I don’t know that it will make all that big a difference as we’ve apparently been told that close reading and pointing out poor reading is an informal fallacy.

Hat tip to Mikhail.

platoscave

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).

06_french_revolution

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.

A searing critique of Zizek’s thought over at The New Republic. Rejoinders?

Via An Und Fur Sich

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