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!

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.

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Psychoanalysis and wealth

August 23, 2009

Psychoanalysis and wealth

Psychoanalysis and wealth

A few rough comments on Zizek’s “Objet a in Social Links”

Zizek begins this paper by writing that critical theory needs psychoanalysis, and the psychoanalytic clinic needs critical theory (107-8). In this paper Zizek is attempting (i.e. beginning – the paper doesn’t come to a conclusion, but appears to be an early version of a chapter from Parallax View) to show that psychoanalysis is revolutionary (110) and needed to achieve social change. This would lead to the conclusion that the transformation of state power (“capitalist power”) is to be achieved via the Party as analyst (though, again, Zizek doesn’t quite get there in this paper).

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From Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx:


All three Marx daughters loved the Victorian parlou game ‘Confessions’ – nowadays often known as the Proust Questionaire – and in the mid-1860s invited their father to submit himself to interrogation. Here are his answers.

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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 »