The Fright of Real Crime – Zizek, Truth, and the Empirical
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)