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

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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.

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 The recognition of the Party by the proletariat is not a pledge of allegiance to certain individuals. It requires, in turn, the recognition of the proletariat by the Party, i.e., not the submission of the Party to ready made opinions of the proletariat, but statutory design of giving them access to political life. This exchange where no one commands and no one obeys is symbolized by the old custom which dictates that in a meeting speakers join their own applause to the applause addressed to them. This happens because they do not intervene as individuals and in their relationship with the listeners there arises a truth which does not belong solely to the speakers, and which they can and must applaud. The Party in the communist sense is this communication, and such a conception of the Party is not a corollary of Marxism but the centre (Merleau-Ponty, “Western Marxism” in Telos, #6, Fall 1970, 140-161).

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).


April 17, 2008

Here are some quotes I’ve come across recently that I think shed some light on some ideas that Zizek works with:

1. I was thinking to myself recently, ‘what the hell does it mean to say that the working class is the ‘excluded’ element in capitalism?’ I found my answer in (surprise!) Marx:

A class must be formed that has radical chains, a class in civil society which is not of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal…, which is, in short, a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat (quoted in the editor’s introduction to The German Ideology, 13).

It comes from “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”

2. This quote is from Lukac’s Tactics and Ethics and in it I think we can see, perhaps, where part of Zizek’s ‘ethical’ position comes from… or at least that it’s not completely new:

This contrast helps greatly to elucidate the tactics of the revolutionary classes and parties: their tactics are not determined by short-term immediately attainable advantages; indeed, they must sometimes reject such advantages as endangering what is truly important, the ultimate objective. But since the ultimate objective has been categorized, not as Utopia, but as reality which has to be achieved, positing it above and beyond the immediate advantage does not mean abstracting from reality or attempting to impose certain ideals on reality, but rather it entails the knowledge and transformation into action of those forces already at work within social reality – those forces, that is, which are directed towards the realization of the ultimate objective. Without this knowledge the tactics of every revolutionary class or party will vacillate aimlessly between a Realpolitik devoid of ideals and an ideology without real content. It was the lack of this knowledge which characterized the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeois class. An ideology of the ultimate goal existed even here, it is true, but it could not be organically integrated into the planning of concrete action; rather, it developed in a largely pragmatic way, in the creation of institutions which quickly became ends in themselves, thereby obscuring the ultimate objective itself and degrading it to the level of pure, already ineffectual ideology. The unique sociological significance of socialism is precisely that it provides a solution to this problem. For if the ultimate objective of Read the rest of this entry »