At the level of a bug circling a light II

April 24, 2008

In light of Bill’s comments on reflection, I’d like to add a little bit to my discussion of the quote I posted earlier:

A materialist… tends to repeat one example, returning to it obsessively. It is the particular example that remains the same in all symbolic universes, while the universal notion it is supposed to exemplify continually changes its shape, so we get a multitude of universal notions circling like bugs around the light, around the single example” (“Schalgend, aber…”, 200).

I was thinking the other day about why we get a multitude of universal notions and the answer comes from Zizek’s discussion of Positing, external and determinate reflections in Sublime Object…. I don’t totally get this stuff, but it goes something like this (with reference to Sophocles’ Antigone): he identifies at least two kinds of truth that need to be warded off because they present dangers. The first is a ‘naïve reading’ that supposes itself to have a direct link to the meaning of the text: ‘When Sophocles writes X, he means precisely Y’. This is of course, a truth that proclaims itself absolute and exclusive of all other readings, an a-historical truth. And I think this is what he calls “positing reflection”. The problem for the person asserting this kind of truth arises, of course, when conflicting readings are made apparent.

While problematizing this first take on truth, this second take presents several dangers as well. For one, the ‘absolute truth’ can be taken as inaccessible to we mere mortals, and each truth assembled as one more facet of that inaccessible ‘whole.’ (This, I think, is the ‘external reflection’.) For another, this take on truth can be reduced to ‘local conditions’: that is, they can be brushed aside with the sweeping motion that declares these truths to be limited to the horizon of their discovery – things that were true then, there, or for that person are true then, there, or for that person only. That is, they can be forgotten here, now, and by us, and our own truth’s raised in their place. This applies, I think, to talking about different ‘cultures’ as well as to different ‘personal narratives’: the Greeks had their version of what the world was and it was true to them but irrelevant to us; any person can narrate their ‘subject position’ and attempt to use it as validation for any number of things (a strategy of validation that could potentially be used by anyone, from an oppressed group to a right/left wing zealot).

What Žižek wants to argue is that there is another option, one that allows the objectivity contained in each successive reading to be maintained without falling into a trap. The assertion that truth is relative is in fact a position that can only be taken from a meta-position. That is, the relativist in effect doesn’t assert that each truth is relative to all the others, but that there is a universal observer for whom it is all relative. Well! That sounds mighty… well, mighty well like God! The alternative that Žižek sees, via Lukács, the alternative to a divine keeper of ungraspable truth (the Big O), is that the truth is nothing but the succession of readings, that there is no whole truth ‘out there’ that can be slowly pieced together. Truth is, instead, radically open – there will always be more readings; re-reading will never come to an end. (I think this is the ‘determinate reflection’) Hence “multitude of universal notions circling like bugs around the light.” Truth constantly changes in response to the activity of those imbedded in history; the social and natural worlds change constantly and are never closed (whole). That is, truth is radically ‘now’. Hence “the universal notion…continually changes its shape”.

I don’t think that all these truths are maintained as they are. Instead, I think we can see in all this the old Marxist assertion that historical materialism’s ‘science’ stems from its ceaseless refinement in the face of political praxis. (The question of what exactly Zizek’s ‘praxis’ is raises its head here…)

So what we get is a vision of history that is neither teleological (racing from a beginning to a predetermined end) nor one of pure contingency, but a world in which it is possible (rather, impossible not) to act. That’s what differentiates Bartleby from the ‘beautiful soul’. The beautiful soul thinks that it’s outside of everything, and doesn’t realize that it’s non-action is complicity.

It’s also a world that includes the unconscious – i.e. Sophocles didn’t now what he ‘really meant’ either.

Given this notion of what history is, to say that ‘Bartleby politics’ is to literally ‘do nothing’ is pretty ridiculous. A strike, for instance, is a “I prefer not to” that involves a lot of action. “I prefer not to work for crappy wages, crappy benefits, etc”. The trick is, of course, to channel this into the destruction of Capitalism rather than a fight for better wages and benefits. And, of course, in Parallax… ‘the Act’ Zizek thinks would be the one for today is Bartleby’s assertion.


(All the reflection stuff is from page 213-4 of SOI. The Lukács stuff is from page 174 of Z’s essay as it appears in Tailism and Dialectic).


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