October 13, 2012
August 29, 2012
In the second half of this article, we return to Afshin-Jam’s book The Tale of Two Nazanins to briefly unpackage how a lack of intellectual sophistication and integrity has resulted in the exceptionalization of otherwise normative apolitical interventions and the triumph of mediocrity. When Afshin-Jam seeks to connect herself with those she perceives as being the downtrodden and wretched, she only discovers isolation, and when she wants her voice to remain independent and impartial, she is caught in a network of discursive and practical dependence. As emblematic of a dominating segment of the Iranian-Canadian human rights community, this type of condition, when combined with misguided reactions to Iranian-based activities in Canada (i.e. the supposed inroads being made by the Islamic Republic), only helps to instigate forces that seek to expand the West’s exploitative hegemony over the Middle East.
Let us return to the coincidence of names to unpackage this further. Rather than maintaining the pure coincidence of having her first name be the same as a young Iranian woman who was in dire need of communal support, the co-author of The Tale of Two Nazanins attempts to force a false identity. For Hegel, a false identity involves a forced union. “The one subjugates the other. The one rules, the other is subservient. The unity is forced, and forced into a relative identity. The identity which ought to be absolute, is incomplete. Contrary to its philosophy, the system has turned into a dogmatism.” This relative identity is perfectly reflected in an early part of the book when Afshin-Jam, knowing next to nothing about the young woman, wonders “what Nazanin in Iran is looking at.” In point of fact, the former cannot adequately respond to this question without compromising the feeling that was “stir[ring] deep” within her at the time, the sense that there was “some deep connection to this young woman with the same name as me.” It is structurally germane that after posing this question, Afshin-Jam reminisces about memories that are exclusively hers, cut off from Fatehi’s world, and it is in this shift of focus back to the self that we find an indirect answer to the question posed. Afshin-Jam’s take on that which the Iranian Nazanin is looking at is an instance of a subjective reckoning in which a pre-established but factitious sense of unity is shattered by its own incoherence. In other words, she is isolated or ‘independent’ from her–Fatehi’s election by Afshin-Jam was purely arbitrary.
The fundamental cleavage that exists between the two Nazanins at the beginning of the book is precisely what “dogmatism” means for Hegel: “Dogmatism consists in the tenacity which draws a hard and fast line between certain terms and others opposite to them. We may see this clearly in the strict ‘either–or’: for instance, the world is either finite or infinite; but one of these two it must be. The contrary of this rigidity is the characteristic of all Speculative truth.” The arbitrary election of Fatehi was in actuality Afshin-Jam’s own self-election, precisely due to the coincidence of names.
What we are left with is someone who wants to dogmatically assume an organic unity with the world (by identifying with those who are subject to human rights abuses) but by doing so from an independent standpoint. However, she appears to be failing even in this latter respect and it is from here that the first failure we just described becomes possible. On July 25, Afshin-Jam complained that a Maritimes journalist contributed to a trend that has been rendering her nameless due to her high-profile marriage to current Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay and, to a lesser extent, the aforementioned Miss Canada title. Traditionally, the wives of Canadian politicians are meant to be not so much passive, but rather be silent pillars of support for their husbands. Additionally, being crowned Miss Canada has contributed to her political positions becoming concealed behind a facade of appearances (or are they appearances in themselves?). Unfortunately, this runs contrary to the pledge that she made during the Miss World competition that “If I win … I would use my platform to speak on global issues so that people would see our interconnectedness, not our separateness.” While her initial aim (regardless of whether she won or not) was to become interconnected with the wretched, she has in actual fact integrated herself into the impersonal and anonymous world of discursive dependence in which one’s features are expunged under the weight of the watered down injunction to ‘uphold human rights.’ Thus, in those instances where Afshin-Jam wants to be interconnected, she is isolated, and in those instances where she wants to be independent, she is chained to specific ideological norms.
This deadlock, when combined with the irrational compulsion to simply ‘do something,’ has resulted in her becoming complicit in a whole series of measures and machinations that will eventually result in greater hardships for the Iranian people. By adopting the age-old activist mantra to publicize matters as quickly and effectively as possible, Afshin-Jam and her colleagues have sparked the dissemination of platitudes and paranoia, matters that play perfectly into the hands of conservative think-tanks, news organs and governments that are keenly interested in ratcheting up a jingoistic and uncompromising foreign policy which only seeks the full pacification and submission of the Iranian nation.
Unfortunately for us, Iranian-Canadian human rights activists have taken the helm of opposition efforts here in Canada. Activism of this variety is considered to be a profession geared toward social change but due to the sporadic and tediously repetitious nature of the human rights polemic, this profession has been able to reduce the debate to such pathetically narrow and specious parameters that any semblance of a possible creative intervention is deemed counter-productive and menacing.
August 26, 2012
An assessment of Zizek in relation to Althusser… which totally sidesteps the issue of ideology as ontology rather than epistemology (i.e. practice/comm fet/symbolic as ideology [Zizek] vs meconassance/state etc./imaginary [Althusser]). I.e. once again Althusser takes the place of Marx.
The discussion of Fichte in chapter 3 of Less Than Nothing gets at this same point: it’s not just a solipsitic I in relation to an alienating world that is the issue (i.e. being immersed in the symbolic as an external imposition) but one’s own practice being the source of that alienation…. (or something like that)
August 24, 2012
This blog revolves around the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood, David McNally, Robert Brenner, Heide Gerstenberger, and others.
August 16, 2012
On the first page of the sefirst chapter of Less Than Nothing Zizek comments that should one find film evidence depicting the gassing of people at a Nazi Concentration camp it would have to be destroyed because it would be obscene and ‘disrespectful towards the victims’ (23). He uses this as a way to open up a discussion of how the truth need not be exposed in some sort of raw, empirical fact to be truth, but that truth can instead be found in form – that is, truth can be found in appearances. In the case of the represenation of the Shoah, this means that an aesthetic peice depicting the trauma of the events need not be a realist masterpiece, but would be better served by a fragmented, inconsistent presentation that demonstrates the effect of the trauma on those effected (he uses Jorge Semprun’s The Long Voyage as an example).
This is to introduce what is ostensibly the basic question of many of his books: what is the relationship of the ‘immaterial’ (i.e. freedom and the subject) to the ‘material’? (See pages 144-5 of Less Than Nothing; See also his comments on Badiou and the Event, two posts below). This is what ‘Vacillating the Semblances’ (the title of chapter 1) and the reference to Plato is all about: the ideal, the forms, exist, just not in the way that Plato understood (or that we usually take him to have understood). That is, ‘appearance is essence’ – there is no empirical ‘trauma’ hidden behind the appearance; nor are the forms hidden away in some other plane or world. The truth is already with us.
It should come as no suprise that this is very close to Marx’s discussion of the commodity/value form: regardless of how you twist and turn a commodity you’ll not find an ounce of value in it, and yet value’s there. The truth of capitialsm’s suppsed self-valorization is not in price, not in the empirical fluctuation of prices as brought on by supply and demand, but in the form of the commodity itself; or, more acurately, in the highest development of the value-form – (capitalist) money. Because of the social relations of capitalism commodities (or use values) become the embodiment of the ‘real abstraction’ that enables us to compare unequal things (use values) as if they all contained something equivalent (exchange value).
(This is the basic thesis of Evald Ilyenkov’s “The Ideal”, recently translated by SPT Grad Alex Levant and published in the most recent issue of Historical Materialism. See also the first third of ‘interlude 1′ of Less Than Nothing.)
For Marx, of course, this form hides that it is labour-power that drives capitalism forward, instead making it appear (and in so appearing actually is) that value is the subject, the free agent, of capitalist societies (check out the last few pages of chapter 4 of Capital). This is of course the alienation, the inverted world, that must be overcome. Just as for Zizek the fragmented timeline of Semprun’s novel renders the truth of the horror of the Shoah, in taking the appearance seriously, in looking at form, Marx realizes that the ‘inconsistencies’ of capitalism (i.e. crises) are not the product of some outside influence desturbing the smooth flow of the economy, but inherent to the thing itself.
Making this comparison (between Zizek and Marx) points to a potential problem with Zizek’s use of the concentration camp to make this point. Value is absolutely ideal or ‘immaterial’ – i.e. it exists only in the social act of exchanging commodities and can nowhere actually be seen, tasted, heard, etc. on its own – whereas traumatic crimes have an empirical existence: there could be film footage of the inside of a gas chamber. To bring in a Canadian example: there was footage of Bernado and Homolka committing their crimes, which was destroyed by the government of Ontario only after it was viewed by judge and jury. Currently there are calls from lawyers of the victims of Col. Russell Williams to have the photographs, etc., that he took of his crimes destroyed. (There is a paper by the Deputy Minister of Justice, published in 1998, that deals with this – see below.) In what sense, then, do we have something here that is ‘immaterial’?
The best I can come up with is that it is our relationship to trauma that is immaterial, that the form of that relationship somehow embodies the freedom of the subject, be it in ‘inverted’ or ‘alienated’ or ‘unconscious’ in form. Herein, then, perhaps resides a different problem: why is this ‘mode of coping’, this ‘survival mechanism’ (LTN, 23) acceptable? The sort answer is that in the long run it isn’t: there is no big Other, and ‘survival mechanisms’ (be they obsessive, hysterical, perverse, or psychotic) obfuscate that fact. If the truth is in the fragmented form it is only there potentially in that it leaves the trauma unapproached, leaves it as the ‘sublime’ that threatens to swallow everyting up if one gets too close.
Somewhere in The Sublime Object of Ideology Zizek points out that the concentration camp was first used by the English. This is to say that while the Shoah is unquestionably awful it should not be treated as the ‘absolute evil’ – i.e. a big Other that is to be left uninspected so it can stand as a guarantor of our (liberal, western democratic) being. It’s symyomatic that when when one wants to point to an unchallengable horror one turns to the Nazi concentration camp and the Gulag (see for example page 33 of LTN). These have become fetishes, the ‘last thing we see’ before we discover what’s behind them – that the concentration camp and the GULAG (properly speaking it should be all-caps, as it’s an acronym for the name of the prison system – bet you didn’t know that, fetishist!) are the outcomes of a liberal-democratic civilization based on brutal colonization and slavery. As Ward Churchill somewhere points out, the Nazi’s based a lot of their racial policy on the way the Americans wiped out American Indians; similarly, in his Liberalism: A Counter History Losurdo argues against the historicist reading of liberalism that puts all its horrors down to deviations from it’s true nature to assert that it’s fundamentally based on a master-race ideology.
In this example, then, the immaterial is the system of coping with the Real/the trauma – i.e. the Symbolic. The question I’ve been raising is about the status of that trauma. In the conclusion of Less Than Nothing Zizek writes that ‘..what the law ultimately hides is that there is nothing to hide, that there is no terrifying mystery sustaining it (even if the mystery is that of a horrible founding crime or some other form of radical evil), that the law is grounded only in its own tautology’ (972).This comes after him arguing that one should not take the Real/trauma to be the thing-in-itself and reduce the Symbolic to mere semblance. Rather, the only way to change the Real is via the semblance, via the Symbolic. Turned slighly, this is also to say that the actual hold the trauma has on us is not because of some inherent quality of that trauma but because of our relation to it (and thereby the creation of it’s specific character) via the Symbolic.
The above quote can (to a degree) be taken as a reproach to Laclau who distances himself from Marx through two veins of argument that he sees in his thought – one concerning the ongoing exploitation of the working class and the other relying on the founding crime of capitalism. Rejecting the labour theory of value Laclau opts to stick with Marx on the basis of the latter: one can demand social change because the social is founded in a spectacular crime. Zizek, however, sticks with the labour theory of value, as can be seen both in the opening chapter of SOI and the long chapter dedicated to Marx in Living in the End Times. Based on that we might say this: yes, there was a founding crime – the brutal ousting of the peasants from the land, colonialism, etc., such that ‘capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’ (from the section entitled ‘so called primitive-accumulation’ in Capital, 926). The solution, however, is not for the capitalist and the colonialist to make ammends, but to destroy the logic that has come into being and now exists independantly of it. Ammends are of course offered in the form of mere verbal appologies… and, of course, money. Giving First Nations peoples tort money for being forced into residential schools and giving band councils some share of the profits from the exploitation of their land will to some degree improve their living conditions. It will not , however, give their ancestors back their lives nor will it allow traditional ways of life to be reborn, prevent further exploitation of their land, or address the myriad other problems with the Reserve system. Rather, it pulls them further into the circuit of capital. Likewise, the solution to the trauma of the concentration camp is the historical destruction of the liberalism and capitalism that lead to it.
This is all to say that it is not some empirical disaster/crime/trauma that is the focus of Zizek’s or Marx’s analysis (even though the latter takes great pains to show how capital destroys the body of the worker, the planet, other nations…). Rather, the central focus is on how the immaterial functions and how it can be used to change the world.
(…Which is a retort to the comments made in the Guardian’s review of LTN - just because Zizek isn’t talking about particualr empirical instances of exploitation, war, and destruction does not mean he can not be considered as part of a line of Marxists.)
Zizek: Less Than Nothing
CTV News: ‘Williams Evidence should be destroyed’
Deputy Justice Minister’s report: ‘Horrific Video Tapes as Evidence’
The latest issue of Historical Materialism (you can get the actual paper through the Scott Library website)
April 12, 2010
The Centre for Social Justice has a report out on the Crisis and alternative approaches to it and the world… written by some familiar names.
March 25, 2010
Just in case you were wondering about Bruce Fink’s politics… and literary aspirations! … read below.
From Karnac Books in London:
Synopsis: Psychoanalysts make the best detectives! When it comes to divining motives, deciphering ambiguous pronouncements, detecting delusions, and foiling the tricks memory plays, famed French analyst Jacques Lacan – turned self-proclaimed retired Inspector Quesjac Canal – is second to none (apologies to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin, and Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville). Reluctantly drawn into helping hapless New York City police detectives with crimes reported by luminaries like Rolland Saalem, music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and involving prominent personages like Tobias Trickler, Mayor of New York City, and Sandra Errand, Vice-President for North American sales at YVEH Distributors of Spirits, Canal solves cases that are anything but what they appear to be and mends tears of the heart and soul at the same time.
Description: The Psychoanalytic Adventures of Inspector Canal includes three intrigues that weave together psychoanalytic themes, historical mysteries, and contemporary issues in a unique manner. In “The Case of the Lost Object,” the conductor of the New York Philharmonic becomes obsessed about the theft from his Lincoln Center office of the slow movement from a precious original musical score. In “The Case of the Pirated Formula,” a hard-charging businesswoman is determined to stop a Chinese counterfeit version of the famous green Chartreuse liqueur her company distributes from flooding the American market. And in “The Case of the Liquidity Squeeze,” the sex life of the beloved mayor of New York City becomes fodder for public consumption and derision when he is accused of paying for his visits to a so-called massage parlor from public coffers. The psychoanalytic themes of love, desire, and loss intertwine as important relationships develop between Canal and those he assists.
‘Inspector Canal’s missing score wins highest marks on my music stand. Fink gives us here a novel with a witty tempo, combining suspense and intelligent entertainment that are bubbly, light, and tasty – not just like Perrier but with the kind of good taste only French Champagne can deliver. This is the work of a great maestro conducting sophisticated characters with psychological mastery. The reader can only clap enthusiastically and cry “Encore!”’ – Luz Manríquez, Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, winner of the Diapason d’Or in 2008 for “Music for a Summer Evening”
‘Edgar Allan Poe may be the founder of the modern detective genre, but he is also the creator of the most famous French detective begotten by American writers’ imagination: the Chevalier Auguste Dupin. Like Dupin, Bruce Fink’s Quesjac Canal, who lives in an enclave of extreme refinement, where upper-class tastefulness reigns, comes to the rescue of perplexed local inspectors. His approach to solving mysteries is an interesting combination of psychoanalysis (he spontaneously analyzes anyone with whom he comes into contact), flirtatiousness, and reliance on the curative effects of gastronomy. Who could object?’ – Pierre Verdaguer, Professor of French, University of Maryland, author of La Seduction Policière: Signes de Croissance d’un Genre Reputé Mineur (“Detective Seductions: Signs of Growth in a Reputedly Minor Genre”)
Notes about the author(s): Bruce Fink is a practising Lacanian psychoanalyst, analytic supervisor, and Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He trained as a psychoanalyst in France for seven years and is a member of the psychoanalytic institute Lacan created shortly before his death, the École de la Cause Freudienne in Paris. He is also an affiliated member of the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is author of several books on Lacan, including The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance and A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique
February 18, 2010
Ah, I found the reference to the A and a, Matt. Yes, it’s Seminar XX and yes, page 83 is definitely it. And I even have a note about this difference in my book.
My understanding of Lacan’s differentiating of the A from the a, where the A is “what is of the symbolic,” while the a is “what is of the imaginary”, is that the A is the Autre (Other) and the a is the fantasy.
Since woman-as-lack is Other (A) in the sexual relationship, she has a special relation to Other (A). Her relationship to the Other as jouissance is signified as A-barred.
The a, as the objet a, is the fantasy which rests on the feminine (non-phallic) side (Diagram p. 78.)
Thanks for reminding me about this, Matt.