Discipline, Thought, RED

April 8, 2009

In the last Issue of Upping the Ante there was a review of Defense of Lost Causes that I pointed out to a few of you. For the next issue I was asked by one of the editors to write a response to the review in the form of a letter. In an attempt to avoid a ‘battle of the egos’ I wrote something more-or-less unrelated to the review… and was told to rewrite it. What I ended up with was something that I think has a few good points in it, but nonetheless serves as an intellectual battle cry (though a weak one).

This is exacerbated by the edited version of the letter that is to be published later this month (or early the next). Below is the full version of my letter, as well as the author’s response to that response. The letters are posted here that the dialogue might continue. (The author will soon be added as an admin to the blog.)

As letters, they have the interesting strangeness of being directed to a non-person, the journal as such. I’d like to continue in that vein. Like the speaker of the house in the Canadian Parliament, “dear UtA” can act as the “symbolic medium” by which we discuss, without having to attack each other at the level of the ego… (“Mr Speaker, my worthy opponent…”)

[On second thought, ‘the speaker’ probably stands as the ego-ideal through which to attack another ego…]

Of risks and wagers… (BoTG)

Dear UTA,

In his review of Zizek’s Defense of Lost Causes (UTA 7) Note Bene makes some good observations. However, in his comments on some of Zizek’s ideas he does not go all the way, failing to deliver the full weight of what Zizek says. In other respects he goes too far, drawing conclusions that Zizek would not. Part of the reason for this can be opened up with reference to Freud: In the Interpretation of Dreams Freud describes how a room full of patients in a doctor’s office will pick up another patient’s unconscious tick as a way of avoiding their own unconscious conflicts. This is true, in part, of Note Bene‘s piece. He, like Zizek, offers statements as if they are questions. He, too, uses the words ‘wager’ and ‘risk’ without giving full reference to the significance of these terms – something I will attempt to provide below.

It is his relation to Zizek’s reference to ‘wagers’ and ‘risks’ that keeps Note Bene from going far enough. Note Bene writes that “Ontology and politics are incommensurable but complimentary.” However, in Heidegger’s Nazi engagement Zizek sees “the right step (albeit in the wrong direction),” the step made being the politicization of ontology. Zizek builds upon this to the point where he aligns Heidegger’s “ontological difference” (the difference between “things” and the “essence” they all share) with Lacan’s “Real” (an exclusion that founds an order). As is often the case, he gets there by showing that it is the divide that separates the existing order from itself that makes that order possible. For instance, CUPE 3903 is not simply itself, but split between being a union and a wing of the state; its existence is tied with that of its adversary. This is where Zizek’s constant use of ‘wager’ comes in: it is not that ontology and politics are complimentary, but that there is no order that is not based in the contingent act of the subject. As a classic example, it is Marx’s assertion that capitalism is not something that has existed for all time, is not a product of a natural evolution, nor does it just suddenly appear. Instead, the social relation that belies it had to be imposed by one group of people at the expense of another.

In this light, “ontological difference” does not simply mean a divide between “things” and the “essence” they all share. Instead, “things” take on an “essence” through the imposition of that essence by the subject. Capitalism’s “Real” is thus the imposed social relation that makes things make sense, and peoples’ refusal to acknowledge it. To combine the union and Marxist examples, the union is split between the state and itself in the insistence that the financial support of the state is the solution to the problem (i.e. York as simply a partner in bargaining) rather than seeing the state as that which maintains the problem (the continued imposition of a social relation).

As is perhaps well known, Zizek steals the ‘wager’ from Pascal and takes from it its inherent twist. The wager takes the following form: in giving up on worldly passions and believing in God one will gain infinitely. Before accepting the wager one wants to guarantee the outcome in the form of proofs of God’s existence. However, it is only in taking it that one finds certainty. To begin, then, it appears as though not only what one has is risked, but the outcome is as well. And here comes the twist: in the end, that gain seems certain, the loss nil and God is proven to exist. What Zizek takes from the ‘wager’ is that certainty and order are the effect of acting on what you have proved to unconsciously believe by doing it, and in-so-doing you create the big Other in the form of a new order.

When Note Bene writes that “almost anything is possible if we are willing to accept the risk of failure,” the terms he uses miss out on this fundamental premise. It is less that one accepts that one will fail and more that one assert a situation’s unconscious truth in the doing. In ‘acting’ one gives up on the “the Other” and its ability to provide and takes onto themselves responsibility for everything. This is the true “risk” of the wager: what Zizek calls “subjective destitution,” in which you lose everything you thought you had and from there reach not infinite gain but complete loss, a clean slate from which to exercise “creative sublimation.” In this sense even “gain” and the “big Other” are eliminated from the equation because a new order has yet to be founded. This is what didn’t happen in the recent strike. Instead of giving up on the “Other” in the form of labour law and continuing the strike as a “wildcat,” the union gave in to being legislated back to work, affirming a belief in the legitimacy of the state.

It is also with the reference to the possible that Note Bene again doesn’t quite go far enough: the above is not to suggest that one must believe that “almost anything is possible.” It is instead that what becomes possible in the revolutionary moment is that which is not possible from the perspective of the existing system. Hence Zizek’s adoption of the slogan “politics is the art of the impossible.” A true politics would completely change the liberal-democratic frame of what can be done, and knows not what creations might take its place.

Finally, there is the moment where Note Bene goes too far. He writes that “contrary to those preaching more action, Zizek’s prescription highlights the need for finite planning and disciplined commitment to a concerted program.” While Zizek’s work may lead us to highlight this, there is a step that must come first: “talk.” This is the latter half of the title of a piece Zizek has written for the London Review of Books (October 2008) in regards to the worldwide corporate bailouts that began with Brown’s Britain. The theoretical gist is that one cannot have a concerted program, one can’t do anything without first devising the terms with which it can be thought and discussed – otherwise all action will fall within the framework of the (liberal-democratic) possible. And it is this that is Zizek’s contribution to political action: one must first and foremost break through the deadlocks of one’s own position. In the recent tumult that was the CUPE 3903 strike, for example, the left was caught in the deadlocks of ‘vanguardism’: alternatively worried about slipping into autocratism (in the sense of telling people what to do) or letting people make all their own decisions – which tend to fall within the frame of labour-law and the givens of bargaining. That is, 3903’s left fell into the deadlocks of the 90 year old debate about “spontaneity” without finding a solution. In this sense, then, it might be surmised that such a thinking on the part of the left would itself qualify as an act.



So? (NB)

Dear UTA,

BotG‘s response is a welcome supplement to my review of In Defense of Lost Causes (UTA 7). My hope was to incite some kind of argument or exchange on the matter of lost causes and on my sampling of relevant trajectories from Žižek’s project. That BotG undertakes a short, running analysis of the CUPE 3903 strike is notable because he demonstrates what to “do” with Žižek in a more circuitous way: avoid some enforced, tight-fitting box around an actual political or material problem; and avoid prescribing a proper “Žižekean” approach.

Given BotG‘s specific points of criticism, I’ll address them directly. First, on drawing conclusions that Žižek would not: so? While the review is a discussion of the book, it’s also intended to provoke and push slivers under the nails of UTA readers looking for a way out with the critical equipment in hand.

Second, BotG argues that I didn’t go far enough in relation to Žižek’s conception of “wagers” and “risks.” Like BotG, I acknowledge that Žižek develops the idea of risk and politics in ontological terms. The risk and wager of entering the constituted “political”—based on a zero-level of polemos or struggle—requires a movement into a empty place that is not covered by the safety of symbolic-social containers to which we all—as activists, radicals, self-hating fence-sitters—subject ourselves. This is exactly why the ontological form of democracy is abstract, fleeting, and contingent; an occupation rather than an enforced and engineered system that pacifies and domesticates antagonism through the promise and invitation of representation for subjects.

BotG writes, “This is the true ‘risk’ of the wager; you lose everything you thought you had but gain a clean slate from which to engage in what Žižek calls ‘creative sublimation.’” I agree with him but I’m not sure he picks up on what I’d call the material violence of really-existing precarity, as in: the current situation is not dire, desperate, nor crucial enough for the roaming cadres of self-proclaimed radical activists to lay it on the line. For example, take the 3903 strike. The false antagonism between (and the overlapping cover of) the neoliberal university and the representational-democratic power of an academic labour union become matters, by and large, unwinding within the zone “Included.” Certainly, opposing and fighting the political economic mandate of casualized, flexploitative cognitive capitalism is worthwhile and is an issue in which many of our friends and colleagues are invested. However, I’m not sure any “clean slate” is possible for those seeking guarantees either for careers, reliable income, or some stable site from which to stage radical democracy and intellectual, social, and economic emancipation.

Bataille wrote about expenditure without returns and this is, I think, the fear of many with energy to burn: effort, risk, and utter failure, which would ironically make a move toward qualifying as an adequate political failure in Žižek’s defense of lost causes. Recall the objective of the lost causes defended: the courage to take on and endorse a state-form other than the current liberal-capitalist-parliamentary type with its attendant biopolitical guarantees of welfare and well-being, economic meltdown or not.

While I agree that one needs to better consider the actual constitution of the risk-takers—as in, not assuming some easy “We, together in solidarity”—and the very nomination of “the current situation”—For whom? Facing what material pressures? Territorialized in what environments?—I agree with Žižek to the extent that so long as the goods are serviced, relatively good pasture will make for fat and ultimately complacent, insulated, and assured sheep. This is exactly where we ought to take Žižek’s advice about disavowal and intellectual honesty and discard the safe cover available via the diagnosis of symptoms, repression, and drives endlessly circling their object-targets.

Third, BotG argues that I don’t go far enough with the notion of “the possible” and that I go too far with respect to my suggestions about “disciplined commitment” and a “concerted program.” For me, both of these criticisms are connected, if only because I’m inclined to answer them in relation to the explicit historical project Žižek discusses at the end of the book.

On the matter of “talk,” I agree with BotG but argue that for Žižek, a plan and the good fundamentalism of indifference is altogether necessary. Idle, groundless, and dangerous talk leading to severe and terrifying action may indeed provide a “pratico-pragmatic” opening that may differ greatly from whatever comes afterward. Nothing is self-evident or set and, certainly, “the creations that might take its place cannot be known prior to their emergence.”Yet, the spark that is unrealizable and impossible from “the standpoint of present” still requires some nomination about the timely necessity of an act. It is still generally a responsive and rationalized move, even if it does bear fruit in the form of “creations that can’t be known prior to their own emergence.” The premise: something needs to be done to avert some future crisis; some action or event must emerge to mitigate the risk of that future scenario being actualized. In academese, it’s a confluence of Benjamin, Badiou, Agamben, and Heidegger’s version of Hölderlin, where the saving power grows amid the danger.

In effect, this is the kernel of Žižek’s book: invite and take terrifying risks now based on the nomination of a terrifying future-past that hurtles towards one positioned in the standpoint of the present. In a strange way, Žižek is a risk theorist advancing emancipatory politics and radical egalitarianism via the pure means of pre-emption.

Safely covered by several big Others,

Note Bene

The east bank of Saskatoon

Thinking in Red (BoTG)

Dear UtA,

Though I am disappointed that the longer version of my letter had to be chopped down to fit the available space in the journal (and thereby taking away a great deal of the force of the argument), I am much obliged to you for creating a link on your site to the extended version of not only my own letter, but also that of my ‘opponent.’ With any luck, we will as a consequence see some additional voices join the fray.

To begin I’d like to address the question of why I thought it was important to point out that one shouldn’t draw conclusions that Zizek would not (as NB puts it, ‘So?’). While there is pressure from UtA to write in such a way as to make various authors relevant for activists, to conclude that Zizek “highlights the need for finite planning and disciplined commitment to a concerted program” misses what is even more important about his work for that audience: while he suggests that discipline should be considered a real option for today’s left, this is not to say that we should, by necessity, all become more disciplined. This would be to transform what is part of an analysis of the (amourphous, perhaps even non-existent) ‘Left’ into a prescription for the left. Zizek’s more fundamental insight is that one should stop and analyse the deadlocks of one’s involvement in a situation; analysis of one’s particular situation might well lead one to conclude that discipline is the wrong answer. If we take seriously Zizek’s claim that people’s political actions often serve to ensure that nothing really change, one cannot use Zizek’s specific claims to prescribe any other political action than analysis. Any particular action must be based on analysis made by one who is actually engaged in that struggle (an assertion that Zizek makes in several places with reference to Georg Lukacs).

I have to also (and more strongly) disagree with the statement that “the current situation is not dire, desperate, nor crucial enough for the roaming cadres of self-proclaimed radical activists to lay it on the line,” and the further conclusion that no clean-slate “is possible for those seeking guarantees either for careers, reliable income, or some stable site from which to stage radical democracy and intellectual, social, and economic emancipation.” I disagree not because the situation is dire and growing more so – it has just been announced that with last month’s job losses at 68,000 Canada’s unemployment rate has risen to 8% – but because this falls into the trap, set in the 1890’s, of the immiseration thesis (aka Bernstein’s economism). Marx’s basic thesis is not that the proletariat has to be materially impoverished to reach its revolutionary potential, but that the commodification of labour makes everyone – including capitalists, who are nothing but (in Marx’s own translated words) “the representatives of capital” – ‘poor’ in their alienation from their potential. The “material violence” that NB wants to acknowledge is not the stripping away of material goods, as he seems to suggest, but the more fundamental violence of working to get paid (producing for money and not for personal use): the social relation that subordinates all human activity to the ups and downs of the market is the founding violence of capitalism and it is that violence that belies all relations within it. It is not our material wellbeing that serves as our revolutionary potential, but our shared subjection to this violence. The potential exists for every capitalist to become an Engels, as well as for every worker (employed or not, ‘aristocratic’ or not) to do the same. Otherwise we buy into the thesis that one’s economic position determines one’s consciousness absolutely and without the possibility of change – unless precipitated by one of economic condition.

NB may have arguments other than those of Marx or Lenin (or Lukacs, or…) to make his claim, but it is not via Zizek that he can. In “The walk to Slavoj’s apartment,” a special feature of Zizek! (Astra Taylor’s documentary), Zizek makes the following comments in regards to some graffiti he passes in the street: “This is the idiotic left. This is what I hate. It’s not that deep. It says [the graffiti was not in English] ‘the greatest enemy of freedom is the satisfied slave.'” I suggest he says this for the reasons I give above.

In addition, and perhaps more to the point, Zizek makes the argument that a revolution that will bring about the universal political inclusion of all people will not be in the mode of a Kantian non-pathological, purely formal enactment of moral freedom. I.e. people need not be stripped of all their being, all their ‘pathological content’ before a revolutionary moment, which is what the immiseration thesis suggests. Instead, it is by raising some contingent object “to the level of the Thing” that makes a revolutionary Act possible, and that the Act is itself the immiseration of the subject, their ‘subjective destitution.’ The order is here reversed.

In the case of the 3903 strike, we might surmise that the demand for job security was such an ‘object.’ In one of his earlier papers Zizek writes that

even if the object of desire is an illusory lure, there is a Real in this Illusion: the object of desire in its positive nature is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real, which is why there is more truth to unconditional fidelity to one’s desire then in resigned insight into the vanity of one’s striving (Interrogating the Real, 339).

The demands of 3903 could well be taken as vain when considering the relative affluence of its members. However, where “the place” that demand “occupies” is that of class struggle (i.e. that which Zizek has designated as our “Real” for quite some time now) we can surmise that if we, as members of 3903, had been “fidelious” (thanks to The Thing for that one!) to our demands, we well might have seen ‘a movement in the underground’ – i.e. the disruption of our fundamental fantasy under capital (commodity-fetishism, the commodity-form applied to labour).

We might even say this is what in part makes an Act appear impossible from the perspective of 3903’s present: how could those privileged students and professors possibly give up their privilege? Only an Act will tell.

A problem with this view, however, is Zizek’s assertion that he has moved beyond an ‘Antigone-esque’ version of ethics…

Lastly, the “nomination of a terrifying future-past” with which NB ends his response to me needs to be addressed because it stands as a significant problem in Zizek’s “explicit historical project” (NB). I may misunderstand what NB means here, but I’m going to take it to mean Zizek’s relation to today’s problems. DoLC (page 459) ends with the formulation that NB alludes to, but it has to be recognized that Zizek does so with reference to “the impending ecological crisis.” As is evident in his earlier works, as well as The Ticklish Subject and continuing in DoLC, Zizek has an affection for the environmental movement. It seems to me that it’s a displacement of a Marxist concern with economic crises: In The Ticklish Subject Zizek argues that it is the politicization of the economy that will make all other struggles -“feminist, ecological, and so on” (356) – more effective. In the same chapter of Ticklish he also says that the economy, too, holds the potential for an Event (and he repeats this in Parallax View). Yet, rather than talking about ‘the impending economic crisis’ as something we should first “…perceive as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourself into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past… counterfactual possibilities…upon which we then act today,” in Defense of Lost Causes he talks about the (I’m forced to sound crazy here and say:) imaginary impending ecological crises.

The displacement, onto the environment, of the logical conclusion (based the history of Marxism to which he is in large part indebted) that we should look at the economy as the site of inevitable crises is uncanny in its formulation at the end of Tarrying With the Negative, where he writes that “… the hitherto underestimated ideological impact of the coming ecological crisis will be precisely to… sap this unconscious belief in the ‘big Other’ of power: already the Chernobyl catastrophe made ridiculously obsolete such notions as ‘national sovereignty…” (237). This was written in 1993. What we have now in the economic crisis is Greenspan admitting he never would have believed that the pursuit of self-interest can lead to catastrophe; members of the CIA have reported that the single largest threat to the United States’ foreign endevours are the social fall-out of the crises; financial meltdown has leapt across national barriers and bankrupted at least one sovereign nation and deeply damaged many, many more.

This displacement becomes more obvious when considering where this comment happens: it closes the final chapter of the book (Tarrying), which is a discussion of the rise of nationalisms in Yugoslavia. It fills the place where one might expect a discussion of why there existed a vacuum in which these nationalisms could arise in the first place. What caused the events in Yugoslavia was an economic downturn which precipitated a crisis in the Yugoslavian economy that saw the IMF (and a whole host of other international interests…) come calling. There were also labour uprisings that were put down, labour uprisings that could have been the beginning of something else. Instead, what was “self-managing” Yugoslavia is now very-capitalist Slovenia et al.

Even if we were to apply the logic of “a terrifying future-past” (NB) to the economy the problem of its validity persists. How is one to make an analysis when the crisis in question is merely a projection into the future that can be nothing other than a fantasy scenario, not a concrete situation (notice it’s always the coming crisis)? In The Ticklish Subject Zizek himself writes, with reference to “risk society” theories, that one knows only that the crises caused by the things we’ve done to ourselves and the planet will be fatal – not what they will actually be. His problem with risk theory is, as I’ve already mentioned, the gap it leaves to be filled by the politicization of the economy, the realization that it holds the potential for an Event. The only way that I can make sense of this is to say that the future should not be thought in terms of positing some imaginary catastrophe to come, but in terms of the present. Rather than seeing a crisis happening in the future, we must always assume the crises is now. This way we have a concrete situation to analyse and upon which to base actions.

With this in mind it would be interesting to look at the final chapter of DoLC and its concern with the denaturalization of nature and compare it to the denaturalization of the laws of capitalism – Marx’s project from the beginning of Capital.

In Red ink (6:55),


The Circling of Drive (NB)

Dear UTA,

Having been nominated NB – nota bene, “take note” – I make a small note and then address BoTG’s concerns. I want to be more concerted and concise but BOTG’s caused me problems.

Having an opponent who is not (yet, or ever?) an adversary or nemesis makes for an interesting exchange that may even bump up or border on, at some point, that dangerous, idle talk, or perhaps even a plan (the status of which we disagreed last time). That said, that BoTG has to have strong disagreements with me invites the question as to whether this friction itself a measure of real divergence or of minimal disagreements. In order to continue this exchange, I have to disagree, which is to say that disagreeing offers me some safety in, first, conceding with the convention of disagreement along with, second, the opportunity to pursue whatever further oppositions we encounter in our cooperative dispute

I suspect I’m too schematic for BOTG’s liking, and perhaps he sees me as falling prey to a reading that extracts useful kernels from the Zizek standing-reserve. Plus, BOTG makes some good points and in responding to some of the glancing blows, I’m not sure if I’m talking past him here.

Regarding BoTG’s concerns about not drawing conclusions faithful to Zizek, “so what” may have been flippant. Yet, I’m curious about the interpretation of discipline. I don’t mean behaving or taming, or obedience to some governor of proper political action and neither does Zizek; rather than installing a prescription for the Left, what I’m getting at is something like a resolution to continue, to follow-through. Is this not, then, “the going all the way?”

Discipline is not necessary in the sense of making assertions or evaluations about a correct Act and adhering to such assertions or prescriptions. Yet, discipline is necessary to undertake and stay with the political action of analysis. I’m not arguing for a domestication of any kind of becoming moment or a reigning in but rather a continuance of movements already undertaken when one is, as BOTG says, actually engaged….

On the matter of actually-existing precarity, I wasn’t arguing that a real or actual sinking into misery of we happily-covered subjects is what is required to call-forth an Event. Rather, I was suggesting — perhaps wrongly — that people can afford politically to stop their engagements on a dime (i.e., can be undisciplined). My point isn’t to quibble about what constitutes the pathological content to be stripped nor whether things are sufficiently crucial but to suggest that looking for cover throughout will only ensure ongoing consequentialism and prevent any kind of demand from being made or met.

[On this matter, one shouldn’t be too hard on “the vanguardists” (who are such based on terms of nominal observation made by an onlooker) who continue to push and remain engaged and who want a “new people” to wage a situated struggle.]

Following from this, I shave down BoTG’s main point to this: don’t rely on the impending crisis, don’t even think it as a future past, and don’t hold up the crisis or coming catastrophe to justify any Act. We’re already in the middle and using an impending crisis is the best of the worst kinds of cover to justify an Act or action.

The impending crisis is the guarantee to act and this is precisely the problem. The “crisis” closes the open – in short, ideological disavowal. The Real is, then, always available but we seem to tell ourselves otherwise as we wait for the crisis to which we must respond.

“Justification” is perhaps too wilful for BoTG; maybe generate or motivate or excite or incite to action. On this matter, I understand BoTG’s point. Certainly, and I concede, if we wait for some proper measure of sufficient “dire-ness”, for some indicator or register to relay a start-time, we may as well pack our bags. If we are always-already “poor” in our potential and already share in subjecting ourselves to fantastic “founding violence of capitalism”, then anytime is a good time, and anytime is a good opening. On the matter of a “subjective destitution” in relation to the current containments to which we subject ourselves, yes: “Only an Act will tell.”

Yet, in one’s own analysis of a situation, one may not even know the stake of an Act so long as one is engaged. Is this, then, and instance where no nomination or intent is required? Zizek certainly wouldn’t say so, as the “more action at all costs” (forgive them, they know not what they do) seems to me to be the target of much of his criticism. Yet, is there not some faith here in the ability of acts to self-organize themselves, the autopoietic theory of proper political acts with no calculated eye to the stakes or to the risks – with the “noumenal as phenomenal qua phenomenal”? Is this the operational terrain of choice: remain engaged but indifferent, stay attuned…Is this the discipline required – faith in some neo-natural theory of ongoing political turbulence, which sounds like Marxist catastrophism?

To add, I pose a Zizek-like question: But is there not something here in relation to the drive to Act and the goals and aims of the Act? Zizek recounts Jacques Alain-Miller’s description of the (Lacanian) drive’s aim and its goal (IDOL 150): the aim of the drive is the desired object itself, its target; yet the goal of the drive is to circle the object, to sustain the drive itself, to prevent the actualization of desire…The object is a chaotic attractor around which the drive orients itself and “releasement” (Heidegger) from this drive actually requires the drive’s “excessive stuckness”; that is, it must break in its circling, get bogged down, stuck, trapped. In effect, the drive has to get trapped to reach fulfill its aim. While not wanting to reduce this crudely, is the Act the target or the drive?



Connected to BoTG’s discussion of of human potential and the invocation of human development outside the containment of capital – and hence, a possibly “inhuman” conception of emancipation and egalitarianism – see Lebowitz’s commentary and presentation of Venezulan edition of “The Path to Human Development”.

Also, a trodden-on line from Agamben in (1998) Homo Sacer:

Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality (beyond the steps made in this direction by Spinoza, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality, a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable. (44)

One may add to “sovereignty” the “governmentalization” of the state (Foucault) and the biopolitical economy of the conditions of still-neoliberal capitalism…


5 Responses to “Discipline, Thought, RED”

  1. nbjack said

    Dear UTA,

    Having just finished reading Foucault’s 1977-78 lectures Security, Territory, Population, it’s worthwhile (for me) to connect his work to Zizek’s work on the systemic violence of neoliberal capitalism , questions of the state (and, therefore, bio-power and governmentality), and what Zizek describes as his scepticism (in 2007) of “the Leftist anti-State logic.”

    Quickly: Going back to Foucault isn’t simply lip-service: there is much in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 The Birth of Biopolitics lectures that bears on this (here) discussion (especially the idea of conducts and revolutionary counter-conducts that make intelligible the functions of a state and the art of government). For instance, regarding the questions of more or less discipline, consider Foucault’s comments on his “theoretical morality” versus the calculation of strategists (which Michael Senellart highlights in his essay on the 1977-78 course context):

    (…) the strategist is the man who says, “What does a particular death, a particular cry, a particular revolt matter when compared to the great necessity of the whole, and, on the other hand, what does a general principle matter in the particular situation we are living?”, well, it is immaterial to me, whether the strategist is a politician, a historian, a revolutionary, a follower of the shah or of the ayatollah; my theoretical morality is opposite to theirs. It is “antistrategic”: to be respectful when a singularity revolts, intransigent when power violates the universal. (STP 376)

    The idea of power violating the universal is in-line and anticipates the Zizek-Ranciere- Badiou notion of politics vis-à-vis Lefort’s universal “empty space”, which has to be entered democratically by one (or One) undertaking a political Act.

    Notably, Senellart’s essay on the course context includes a couple of worthwhile statements. From Foucault in 1982:

    Is there an adequate socialist governmentality? What governmentality is possible, strictly, intrinsically, and autonomously socialist governmentality? In any case (…) if there is a real socialist governmentality, it is not hidden in socialism and its texts. It cannot be deduced from them. It must be invented. (STP, 371)

    Is there an adequate socialist governmentality beyond some renewed form of Keynesian capitalism or the biopolitics of provisional welfare that quiets politics? In 1983, Foucault asks:

    Do socialists have a problematic of government or do they only have a problematic of the state? (STP 371)

    So, against strategic planning but for a problematic of governmentality; perhaps aware both that “discipline is the wrong answer” and that some diagram be established, not as an object from which to deduce and (re)constitute the Act, but to provide with some honesty a plan for government invented beyond the enclosure of neoliberalism and the impoverished relations of capitalist political economy.

  2. battleofthegiants said

    Dear UtA,

    There is something to be said, as does NB, about speaking past an other – perhaps more so when that speaking is with someone I’ve never met and for whom I was called to be a rival. When asked to respond to NB’s appraisal of Zizek’s book I explicitly attempted to write something that was wholly unrelated to what he had published. It was an attempt to avoid any sort of rivalry that was in turn explicitly rejected by they who asked for it. Instead, I was pulled into a mirror-relationship whereby I could at best speak past an other and to myself, finding in that relation the faults I see elsewhere.

    Our mirror-rivalry is, of course, mitigated by symbolic recognition – here on at least two levels. First at the level of the ‘letter’ as a medium of ‘symbolic exchange,’ and second at the level of a ‘paternal authority’ where what we are fighting over is not a mother’s love but the word of the father. It seems to me, however, that perhaps for one of us Zizek is already dead (Where I prefer to refer to In Defense of Lost Causes as DoLC, I notice that NB has dubbed it IDOL – raising it to the level of a Freudian totem… and eliminating the ‘cause’) for the other the process of murder is ongoing.

    But let me turn from more speculative musing and to slightly more concrete assertions. The question of discipline is an important one. It is possible to reduce it to a definition that sounds like ‘ceding not on one’s desire,’ which NB’s formulation suggests (“a resolution to continue, to follow-through”), and which Zizek does in part do in his writings on Lenin. It need also be remembered, however, that ‘discipline’ cannot remain at the level of abstraction. Zizek helps this idea along with reference to 300, a film seen by many as an American treatise on fascism that Zizek preferred to read as a work of leftism. In his review of the film he suggests that discipline differs in its composition depending on where one finds it. He quotes Badiou: “The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power – all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.” He continues in his own words, commenting that “In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently ‘Fascist’ about these values.” In this way, then, ‘discipline’ is precisely the question of how we organize ourselves. To reduce it to an empty, abstract ‘acting together,’ or of a ‘resolution to continue’ is of little help in the quest for actual organization.

    I would even argue that the problem of organization still exists for those who ‘have nothing but their organization’. It seems to me that Zizek (and perhaps Badiou, too) is here thinking of the world’s monster slums, and I’m not convinced people in the world’s slums are organized. In his “Planet of Slums” (I haven’t read the book-length version) Mike Davis points out that there is in fact very little happening in these places other than the exploitation of self and others. Davis seems to think that religious organizations might have some pull, but I’ve read elsewhere that even religious organizations are not that successful in organizing people. Organization might be all some of these people have, but it doesn’t mean they’re doing it.

    So, as Zizek points out, we can’t rely on a mere ‘repetition’ of Lenin or his version of discipline. Leninism is no more inherent to discipline than is Fascism. Under Lenin it meant a small, covert cabal of revolutionaries who were willing to do whatever needed to be done in order to bring the proletariat to power. The conditions under which this happened were, of course, particular to Russia: the Russians were under a repressive regime that killed, imprisoned, exiled and censored. While this does, to a degree, happen in Canada, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the conditions here and now are the same as they were in Russia and that we therefore should demand a similar form of discipline, a similar form of organization. This is why Zizek instead calls for a return to Lenin: What is to be done, under our conditions, here and now? What would discipline (organization) look like in a land of permissivity? Why is the left splintered, and under what organizational form might it be brought together?

    To jump directly to a discussion of the state is, then, to miss a step.

    In the Soft-Targets interview Zizek is proposing the same thing as he does in many places, including DOLC. It’s a Marxist-Leninst assertion if there ever was one: seize the state. This is the root of his disagreement with Critchley: you can’t exist in the shadow of the state and use the leeway it gives you as your play-space. Instead, you have to confront the fact that your play-space has a school-master, and this school master needs to be deposed. There’s nothing terribly new about this. The real question, however, is one of how to organize ourselves such that we could seize the state. How the state might be better organized must come afterwards. Or, perhaps, at the same time. Maybe the form of organization created in order to seize the state would itself be transformed into a wider organizational form.

    Zizek does make a suggestion on this count, but it is definitely not related to Lefort’s ideas on democracy. (For more on this, see my post “Lefort and the monarch.”) In his early books Zizek openly argues for liberal-democracy. It is in these same works that Zizek also uses the work of Lefort. “Post Lenin,” however, Zizek explicitly rejects Lefort and liberal-democracy. In Parallax View, for example, he calls Lefort out asking why the ‘open space in the jaw of democracy’ exists in the first place. His answer is in part, of course, that this hole/gap is the space of enjoyment that sustains liberal-democracy, making reference to Kafka’s Odradek to make his point. Here we can clearly see the shift in Zizek’s thinking: in place of a monarch who with their singular will permanently fills this gap (as in For They Know Not and Tarrying), in place of a series of particular wills who fill this space (Lefort’s option), we get a singular, permanent person with no will: Bartleby. “I prefer not to” is the mantra of the Party-as-analyst, who refuses to introduce their own desire into the equation, thereby forcing people to do the work for themselves. In this way, the Party-as-analyst functions as the organizational means to class-consciousness.

    But what is the relation of crises to that of consciousness? In his short comment on the crises in the London Review of Books Zizek suggests that the current crisis is such that “we have to act as if we were free.” He also adds that we need to stop and think before so acting – that is, figure out what to do, rather than just doing it. This because (just as Lenin argues in What is to Be Done?) people tend to fall into the dominant way of thinking rather than seeing new ways of doing things. The problem with the crisis is precisely the opposite of what NB suggests. It is not that the crisis can be used to justify an Act, but that the opening that the crises presents has been sewn-up be the liberal-left and those in power. That is, all the talk is of restoring the smooth running of capitalism in the wake of this crisis (which is not yet a ‘wake’ but still very much a crisis) and/or reinstalling more regulated, Keynesian versions of the state. Socialism has not been presented as a viable option. Instead what we have are governments handing ever more welfare to the corporate sector. To be a little obtuse, the opening the crises presents is being sewn-up via corporate-Keynesianism. The terrain opened by the crises has been seized, hegemonized, but those who caused the problems in the first place – the representatives of capital.

    This is just one more proof that a crisis does not guarantee a change in consciousness. The standard answer to this problem is that of Lenin and Lukàcs: it’s the difference between people knowing that capitalism is an awful system that can be overthrown and actually feeling it (Lenin himself emphasizes this word), the same problem Freud encountered and discussed in “Repetition and Working Through” (according to Zizek so too did Lacan in relation to the symptom… but more on that below). Conscious knowledge will not necessarily result in shaking one’s belief in the system, nor will a crisis (economic or personal). Freud’s solution is that one must relive the trauma in addition to being able to recount its history. Likewise, the revolutionary classes must not only know what the problems are but also be shaken from their unconscious reliance on the system as it exists – they must confront the trauma by living the fight against it. Hence that other chestnut: action radicalizes.

    And this is the root of Zizek’s definition of ideology from the start: They know it (that money is a social relation) yet they are still doing it (acting as if money is magic). Action is more important than conscious thought, but cannot simply be reduced to it – fantasy must be taken into account.

    This is also the question of drive: an Act stems not from either the goal or the aim of the drive (oral, anal, invocatory, scopic), but the death-dimension that is part of every drive. Death drive is not the seizure of the particular objects that act as a lure for desire, nor is it the circling of the gap whose place the object holds. Even the latter is tied to satisfaction: somewhere Zizek likens it to a hand squeezing the air – the taking of pleasure in the failure to attain the object of desire. It is in this way we can say that death drive is “beyond the pleasure principle.” The death-drive is the transformation of the fantasy screen (which makes the enjoyment of an object or the failure to attain it possible) into an object, which breaks the ‘loop’ of drive. Death drive is the realization not of what you think you want nor enjoyment of the specific means by which you get it, but the frame that makes both of these possible, the truth of one’s unconscious.

    It is in this we that we can also understand how the Act is an object. “I think where I am not” (One of Lacan’s modifications of the cogito – see the new preface to The Ticklish Subject): “As a pure cogito, I do not think, I am reduced to ‘(a) pure (form of) thought’ which coincides with its opposite, that is, which has no content and is as such non-thinking” (xxi). This frame of thought is for Zizek commodity fetishism: “the exchange abstraction is not thought, but it has the form of thought” (a quote of Sohn-Rethel in SOI, 19). The end of analysis (which is being described here in terms of the cogito) is not, as this might suggest, to become a commodity – we already are commodities as people who work for a wage. The end of analysis comes when this form, when our relation to the objects of the world, become embodied in a symptom with which we can identify. (We are not to become a commodity, but identify with its form, the social relation.)

    Lacan puts it this way:

    Thought has always been embodied, and we are still aware of that in what seems to be eminently redundant, scrappy and unassimilable, at the level of certain failings that, apparently, seem to owe nothing to anything but the deficit function. It thinks, in other words, at the level where it does not grasp itself as thought at all” (My Teaching, 103).

    That is, what we like to brush off as meaningless mistakes (i.e. slips of the tongue, etc, “seem to owe nothing to anything but the deficit function”) are in fact examples of the unconscious (the form of thought) manifesting itself in our actions. It can be reformulated like this: “The id, the unconscious per se is a thought that does not appear to be, and cannot be taken as, thought without the terrible realization that I am nothing, nothing but the distortion that is my desire, as manifested in my actions (symptoms).” Put in yet another way, “there is nothing behind the veil, my desire is on the surface and I need not look elsewhere for it. Only when I come to realize that my desire is my symptom will I be rid of the pressures of that desire.” This is what the sinthome is: not merely a symptom to be interpreted, but the “synthesis between symptom and fantasy” (SOI, 75), the kernel of the (economic or psychic) ‘system,’ it’s limit, embodied in an object.

    The Act is to be this sinthome, is to be this object, is to traverse the fantasy and thereby end the functioning of the current order of things and open the space for creative sublimation. The Act is not thought, but the unthought as action. If this is what NB means by saying that (death) drive is a ‘sticking,’ then I suppose I agree.

    This limit (the one I’ve just said is ‘embodied in an object’) under capitalism, as Zizek points out, is the capitalist mode of production itself, the forces of production and the fetishized social relations that accompany them. According to Zizek, Lacan’s basic thesis is “that the Freudian unconscious is ‘structured like a language’, and is therefore thoroughly ‘rational’/discursive” (new Preface to The Tick, xx). Likewise, Marx’s basic thesis is that capitalism is a rational system, one that operates according to definite laws (and not on the basis of lying and cheating) and yet none the less leads to ‘irrational’ crises. Which is to say that these crises are not ‘irrational,’ but are an integral part of the whole system and also fully rational. Hence the assertion that “Marx invented the symptom.”

    In asserting that the crisis is now, I was trying to find a solution to the problem of those who appear to be ‘class-conscious’ even when there is no apparent crises. If capitalism is founded on a ‘trauma’ (i.e. so-called primitive accumulation and class antagonism) then one should be able to encounter it in any number of ways. That is, there must be something other than just conscious thought that creates intellectuals and revolutionaries. Perhaps the question is that of the social and not the personal: what will transform the consciousness of many people, and not just a few here and there? The only answer I can muster at this point comes from a consideration of a third and final hackneyed Marx ‘ism’: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (From Marx’s Preface to A contribution to The Critique of Political Economy). If crises are a rational part of the mode of production, then they too must be a (dialectical) determinate of consciousness.

    Which is to say that there is also something to be said for “Marxist catastrophism.”

    In crisis,


  3. sonnyburnett said

    Two comments/questions.

    (1) Were there not a few other responses to this original post (by nbjack) that have since been deleted?

    (2) Am I right in assuming that this “call to be a rival” – an Althusserian interpellation if there ever was one – was heard (and thus endorsed) by Battle, who now fully accepts his combative subjective position with respect to this rivalry? IE, Battle, as per his pseudonym, assumes a theoretical battle-stance in his defense of Zizek against nbjack’s critique?

    Has war now been officially declared?

  4. battleofthegiants said

    1) Moved to the main body of the post
    2) The ‘battle’ is split between ‘the giants.’ Zizek is a lost cause.

  5. sonnyburnett said

    Between the Jolly Green and the one living at the top of (nb)Jack’s Beanstalk?

    Your reply is cryptic. Reminds me of the posts of a certain ‘mukyo’ of month’s past.

    Methinks you are being rather slippery.

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