Teaser – Strike as Symptom

November 19, 2009

Here’s a few of the opening paragraphs from the Gorgon that I’ve been creating about the strike at York (carefull, you may return to stone, Freud styles):

What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one. – Lacan

What if democracy, in the second sense (the regulated procedure of registering the “people’s voice”) is ultimately a defense against itself, against democracy in the sense of the violent intrusion of the egalitarian logic that disturbs the hierarchical functioning of the social system, an attempt to re-functionalize this excess, to make it part of the normal running of things? – Žižek

Mid-way through our recent struggles a member of 3903 sent an email across a departmental list-serve pleading people to come to their senses and bring the strike to an end, and in so doing admonished people for getting-off “on this labour action stuff.” There were people who called this statement belittling, while another asserted that it needed to be acknowledged that there were in fact people who “got off” on striking. Rather than so quickly dismiss the possibility that “getting off” on political action is productive it is worthwhile considering in what way, in the context of the recent strike, “enjoyment is a political factor.”

Recognizing enjoyment in its political dimensions is, of course, the basis of the work of Slavoj Žižek. Rather than seeing it as an impediment to effective politics, as an obstacle to making rational decisions, he attempts to understand it in both its productive and destructive capacities – capacities that are not as contradictory as they may seem.

For Žižek the ethics of the political culminate in “enjoying one’s symptom.” At one point he evokes an episode from Rysard Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun as an example of this logic. Driving to Onitsha, Nigeria to visit its market, Kapuściński encounters a traffic jam that stays his progress. Stepping out of his car to follow the line of vehicles that waits ahead of him Kapuściński finds the source of the problem: a gaping hole has opened in the road. The only way to continue is to wait to have someone drag each vehicle down into, and then up out of, the muddy crater. Along with the hole, however, he finds a bustle of activity: newly painted hotel signs, vendors and people gathered to simply socialize. Žižek writes that “the hole had become an institution. …a ridiculous contingent and meaningless obstacle triggered a swarm of social activity; people started to enjoy their symptom” (Žižek, 2002, 254).

It’s not hard to see parallels in the recent strike: around the gap that separated us from the administration (and ourselves) arose a social and administrative institution: a new office with new “staff” (i.e. rank-and-file members); large plywood shacks constructed at each of the university’s seven entrances; food and coffee service; pick-up and tear down crews; frequent internal and external communications; radio-banter (who stole the cookies?); collections of media-vans at the main gate; the York is Us collective and the Unit 2 communications group; musicians, actors and a mime that traveled from line to line; the writing and performing of two short plays about the strike; frequent and well attended General Membership- and Steward’s Council-meetings; members of the community delivering doughnuts and stopping to talk (or, it must be admitted, threatening us with knifes, bottles and cars); and last but not least, the creation of new friendships and the continued presence, post-strike, of red felt-squares on the coats and bags of strikers that identify people as members of a political community. As for the hole itself, it should be noted that the York campus was largely empty – the strike was coupled with a lockout, where all classes were cancelled.

[…]

 

Advertisements

Spontaneous Philosophy?

November 10, 2009

I found this in the front window of a newspaper-dispenser on University Ave. I’ve stuck to its caps and formatting.

Capitalism

What is it?

The answer you get to that question depends on who you ask. If you ask a capitalist, you get one answer. If you ask a Communist dictator you get almost the opposite answer. So which on of them are you going to believe?

Capitalists and Communists also have something in common. Both will tell you that: your happiness depends on having material things. It is also undeniable that we can’t be happy as long as we don’t know where out next meal or rent is coming from. These facts can’t be denied, but they can be distorted. Linda McQuaig in her ALL YOU CAN EAT tells us that money alone is not all there is to it. She says on page 104 that this “supposedly reality based concept… turns out to be a distortion.” And this “distortion” is what Capitalism and Communism have in common. The capitalists claim that the ideal government is the one of the capitalists in which the decisions are made by the capitalists and, therefore, they are for people (who are capitalists). Karl Marx has used Hegelian dialectics to show that Communism is the best government possible. Ideally it is the government of the people in which the decisions are made by the people and, therefore, they are for the people. This is the why the former East Zone of Germany was called DDR (Deutshe Demokratishe Republik), the German Democratic Republic. The idea has sold very well but the reality was not what Marx had in mind. But, even then, a real democracy can’t be based on the assumption that the belief in materialism is the only valid one.

In Hegelian dialectics, the thesis is: Power to the capitalist, its antithesis is: Power to the people and their synthesis is: Power to materialism and greed. In both systems, unlimited access of the natural resources of our planet is central.

Linda McQuaig shows us, among other things, that: To go where the capitalists are leading us is heading for disaster. This is why establishing a government, by means of which we can save our planet, has become a matter of life and death. Millions are already dying, partly because of capitalist policies.

Linda McQuaig and Michael Moore, in his movie on CAPITALISM, are right on, in revealing what is wrong with out government(s). But which one do we need, and HOW can we establish it?

See PetersTao.blogspot.com file#4

Zizek & Harper’s Magazine

October 30, 2009

I’ve been missing the boat for some time but leave an offering in supplication.

Having read the recent Jester posting and commentaries, thought it worthwhile to mention Zizek’s appearance  in the October issue of Harper’s: an excerpt from the imminent First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, titled “To Each According to His Greed.”

The only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was unpredictable. Recall the demonstrations that throughout the last decade regularly accompanied meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank: the protesters’ complaints encompassed not only the usual antiglobalization motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, etc.) but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money and how this would all have to end in a crash. It was not only economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who warned of the dangers ahead and made it clear that those who promised continuous growth did not really understand what was going on under their noses. In Washington in 2000, so many people demonstrated about the danger of a financial collapse that the city had to mobilize 3,500 local policemen. What ensued was tear-gassing, clubbing,and mass arrests… (Readings, 15)

Notably, an excerpt from the “terroristic” carnival called the Invisible Committee also finds a home in the same issue right after Zizek, with an excerpt from The Coming Insurrection.

Both question and oppose in varying ratios the litany of calls for autonomy and self-sufficiency in relation to returns to the steady-state, depoliticized harmony of  ‘real economies’, ‘real communities’, and (yes) ‘families,’ the best master signifiers and sanctioned material effects of any ‘return to normal.’

The IC suggest the good family, like the “good” fundamentalism of devoted indifference, is no longer possible, that “the one coming back is not the same that went away.” What good family was there? The small family commando unit (Virilio)?  The pack? The initial martial body and ideal pastoral cell through which oikos was a matter of survival and cellular struggle against lurking vertebrate structures, but became also the biopolitcal confinement ensured via enforced conduct? Or, maybe the family holding out as the good biopolitics of Esposito’s positive content of bios and ways of life prior to whatever invasive colonizations we detect with our theoretical and political registers?

The Master’s Knave: S2 for the good of S1

In 1972 Istvan Meszaros was contracted to take a post at York University as a professor in the Social and Political Thought programme (i.e. my program), but was denied entry and permanent residence to Canada on the basis that his presence was not in the public interest. He was branded a security risk. Though in the end he did successfully take up his position at York, he shortly thereafter left because the Canadian Government made it nigh impossible for the rest of his family to follow him.

Meszaros was a student of Georg Lukács. While Lukács was both a theoretician and a member of a communist government, Meszaros was only the former – he held a position at Sussex University and had a reputation as a respected Marxist scholar. I bring up Meszaros’ case to point to a contrast with the way Marxist thought is treated today: whereas in 1972 left-wing thought was dangerous enough to merit keeping prominent Marxist scholars out of the country, today the Canadian government funds Marxist scholars to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. This contrast demands an answer as to why.

Meszaros and Chavez

Meszaros and Chavez

Read the rest of this entry »

The unambiguous “red” thread (both of Ariadne and Marx) that runs through Zizek’s work is the attempt to rescue universalism from naysayers of all sorts. A major core of this project are his discussions of the importance of the Cartesian subject. At one point, (I can’t remember where) he chastises Adorno and Horkheimer for not being historical enough in their denunciation of Descartes, in their claims that the Cartesian subject is the root of instrumental rationality and the destructive tendencies of modernism. Ellen Wood’s brief treatment of modernity and enlightenment in The Origin of Capitalism is highly enlightening on this point, providing an historical account that separates the universalism of the Enlightenment as it appeared in feudal France from the ideology of improvement that accompanied modern thinking in capitalist England. That is, she attempts to show that some of the core values – notably the progressive values of modernism – are in fact the product of a non-capitalist system, and suggests (she makes a point of making it clear that she does not consider her discussion a fully fledged argument) that the root of instrumental rationality is more likely to be traced to the philosophies produced under a capitalist one.

One of the first divisions that need be pointed out is that ‘bourgeois’ does not (or at least did not) refer to capitalists, but city dwellers. “Bourgeois” in absolutist France, for instance, were professionals, office holders and intellectuals (184). This means that something like the French Revolution, which is held up to be one of the culminating points of the Enlightenment, was not a revolution of a capitalist class over aristocrats but of professionals, etc. who wanted access to the offices of the absolutist state in order to make their fortunes. It is here, of course, that we find the discussion of universal suffrage and the rights of man at the centre of political discourse.

Wood points out that many of the biggest know Enlightenment thinkers in France were aristocrats, not capitalists, while in England they were closely linked to capitalist expansion. In France, she argues, one finds Cartesian rationalism and rational planning, in England one finds empiricism (think Hume) and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – i.e. the anarchy of the Market. In France, the ideology of universal human emancipation; in England the ideology of ‘improvement’ (i.e. making land profitable). She points to the French “Gardens of Versailles” and English “natural” landscape gardening as the cultural expression of these two versions of modernity.

A formal French garnden

A formal French garnden

An English landscape Garden

An English landscape Garden

While she acknowledges that there were overlaps and cross pollinations, Wood wants to show that the above were the dominant trends and that they accompanied very different economic logics. In this way she seeks to show that the emancipatory legacy of universalism as it appeared in France is worth keeping and shouldn’t be conflated with ‘capitalist logic’ or capitalist ideologies.

It’s worthwhile to note that the classic (Leninist) trivium runs English pragmatism, French politics, German Philosophy: it was Kant who synthesized the rationalism of Descartes and the “radical empiricism” of Hume; it was Hegel (according to Zizek) who was more Kantian than Kant, thereby completing the Kantian project; it was Marx who made Hegel walk on his feet and synthesized English political economy, French political thought (think The Eighteenth Brumaire of L.B., etc.) and German philosophy. Given the argument that Wood presents, the question that must be asked is in regards to the economic situation in Germany – i.e. what was it? That I can’t answer, but I suspect its beginnings can be found in a paper by one of Woods students, George Comninel, in his “Marx’s Context” (History of Political Thought, 21:3, 2000)

From Marx’s introduction to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law:

…the German conception of the modern state, which abstracts from real man, was only possible because and in so far as the modern state itself abstracts from real man or satisfies the whole man in a purely imaginary way. The Germans have thought in politics what other nations have done. Germany has been their theoretical conscience. The abstraction and arrogance of Germany’s thought always kept pace wit the one-sided and stunted character of their reality. So if the status quo of the German political system is an expression of the consummation of the ancien régime, the completion of the thorn in the flesh of the modern state, then the status quo of German political thought is an expression of the imperfection of the modern state, the damaged condition of the flesh itself (Early Writings, 250-1).

The broken body made whole in the imaginary; Germany as superego; and the constitutional monarch as Jesus FTW!

Andrew Kliman has a (draft) paper on the crises.

Here is a link to Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered. Highly recommended.

One of the central tenets of Wood’s book is that capitalism is different from feudalism is several respects – most importantly that under capitalism the market acts a compulsive force, while under feudalism it is and opportunity to be taken; that under feudalism property is “politically constituted” and surplus is extracted via extra-economic means (law, force custom), whereas under capitalism the property relations legitimized by the state constitute it such that the economy becomes its own means of surplus extraction. The consequences of this thesis are felt in regards to the state as well as ‘modernity’.

In the case of the former, one must first take into account the contradictions that are part and parcel of capitalism. Wood mentions at least two: first, proletarianization created a market of people that needed to buy the basic means of survival (where the would previously have made these necessities themselves), but were too poor to pay much for these necessities. Capitalists then had to produce their commodities in large numbers to make these goods cheap enough for these people to afford (i.e. rely on economies of scale). This created the need to increase labour productivity. Based on this Wood concludes that “This was, in other words, the first economic system in history in which the limitations of the market impelled instead of inhibiting the forces of production” (140). Or as Marx describes the significance of capital’s internal contradictions in the 3rd volume of Capital, “the limit of capital is capital itself.” This logic is proven to be that of the other contradiction Wood presents.

Read the rest of this entry »

Somewhere Zizek quips that Hollywood has an element of the soft left in it. I think two recent examples are The International with Clive Owen and Peter Jackson’s latest offering District 9. Both suffer from liberal individualism. In The International this translates into fatalism and in District 9 this translates into an escape into the “big Other.” In the former, Clive Owen confronts a once-idealistic East-German Communist about his aiding and abetting a global bank that directly invests in war mongering. (Another weakness of the film is that in it capital’s evils are reduced to its military investments and actions, rather than seeing that the system itself is exploitation and destruction.) The communist momentarily revives his past idealism and tells Owen that he will help him bring down the bank, but that he (Owen) will have to step outside legal limits in order to make real change.

Read the rest of this entry »

This may not be to people’s tastes, but what about putting together a panel for the upcoming Historical Materialism conference in NYC on Zizek, Marx and Method?

I told you so

The conference is more or less about the resurgence of interest in Marx, so I think a panel on Zizek would be pertinent.

It would also give some focus to the next few rounds of readings…

Marx 100-Mark-1971

P.s. What would Marx have thought of having his face on money??

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…]

Read the rest of this entry »