Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What Matters Most

Here is my favorite Žižek quotation:
"The division it mobilizes is not the division between two well-defined social groups, but the division, which runs 'diagonally' to the social division in the order of Being, between those who recognize themselves in the call of the Truth-Event, becoming its followers, and those who deny or ignore it."
The Ticklish Subject, p. 227

A More Balanced Portayal of Marx

As compared to Marx the Social Thinker and Marx the Revolutionary, Marx the Philosopher and Marx the Historian are the least represented in the English-speaking academy. References to three main texts would help to portray Marx the Philosopher more adequately. The three Marx's pieces where his philosophical genius showed itself at his best are, of course, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte, Theses on Feuerbach and Das Kapital.

In the Anglo-American academia, Marx the Historian is usually represented by his vision of the Laws of History in a trivial chain like: "labor – the progress of production – the modernization of the means of production – more surplus – different distribution – reconsideration of the socio-productive relations – reshaping the relation of ownership – reshaping society – different ideology – different spiritual life – etc.".

On Marx's Capital

In 1867, the first volume of Marx’s magnum opus Das Kapital was published in Hamburg. Marx’s analyses of capitalism were rigorous and comprehensive. The work dealt with important Marxian concepts such as the division of labor (and a description of the degeneration of the social lives of workers to a thing-like status as mere tools of capitalists), surplus value (the observation that workers do not receive the use-value, but only the exchange-value of their labor), and the industrial reserve army (the account of how unemployment harms workers but tends to benefit capitalists by keeping down the price of labor). However, these detailed analyses and evaluations of existing capitalist societies stand in stark contrast to the comparatively superficial treatment of his conception of the economic workings of socialism.

As Lenin once said, "Marx did not leave us a 'Logic' (with a capital 'L'), but he did leave us the logic of 'Capital'". Above all political and economical implications, Das Kapital is the place where Marx's original Dialectic appears in its full difference from Hegel's (Dialectical) Logic. For Marx, such a single and abstract "Dialectical Logic" is impossible because humans deal each time with "the specific logic of a specific subject" ("die eigenthümlishe Logik des eigenthümlishen Gegenstandes", as Marx said once in Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). So the dialectical "flow" of categories, each one into the next one, appears here primarily as the self-movement of Capital and production, and not as a self-movement of "pure" logical entities. Structurally, this opens a way to detecting various kinds of dialectical oppositions and contradictions, and also various kinds of measures and quantity/quality relations (structural options both neglected in Hegel's Logic).

In addition, Marx's "logic of Capital", as compared to Hegel's Logic, presupposes a different ontological status for logical concepts, and even a different status for dialectical demonstration (the latter is actually represented by the text of Das Kapital as a whole). To put the point in one statement, Marx's "logic of Capital" proved out to embody a kind of "materialistic Dialectic" which was not only ontologically but even structurally different from the one developed in Hegel's Logic. For me personally, this methodological implication of Das Kapital seems to exceed in its philosophical importance all that had been said there about the "division of labor", "surplus value" etc.

A question of translation regarding Marx's Theses on Feuerbach

While in Brussels in 1845 Marx jotted down some notes which he called Theses on Feuerbach. Engels described this work as “the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook”. He and Engels together would later enlarge these notes into a book, The German Ideology. Marx was persuaded by Feuerbach’s arguments that Hegel’s philosophy was rationalized religion, and that in Hegelianism humans are the self-alienation of God. Feuerbach argued that, on the contrary, God is the self-alienation of humans. Marx’s critiques of Hegelianism relied on Feuerbach’s work: Marx argued that it is not primarily abstract mental labor, but rather the natural interactions with real objects and other humans that constitute humanity. However, Marx claimed that Feuerbach forgot historical development in his criticisms of Hegel: “As far as Feuerbach is a materialist he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history he is not a materialist”. Marx’s synthesis of Feuerbach’s materialism and Hegel’s historicism is often referred to as “historical materialism”.

But in addition, this text (Theses on Feuerbach) is where Marx's vision of human essence had been expressed most aphoristically. I mean, of course, the beginning of the sixth thesis that goes in German as: "…das menschliche Wesen ist kein dem einzelnen Individuum innewohnendes Abstraktum. In seiner Wirklichkeit ist es das Ensemble der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse".

In recent English translation the same text goes like: "…the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations." (Translated by Cyril Smith 2002, based on work done jointly with Don Cuckson;

I cannot comment on this translation because I cannot decide whether the meaning of the German word “Wirklichkeit” is adequately represented by the English word “reality”. Obviously, these words have quite different etymological connotations and, are also different in meaning. In my opinion, "actually" would be much closer to what Marx seems to have in his German mind; "in fact" or "in its truth" or "verity" might also be possible substitutes for "in reality". Anyway, this text used to be one of the most famous of Marx's statements in Soviet Philosophy. It is indeed telling.

On Marx's Philosophical Anthropology

In the spring and summer Marx worked on his first systematic critique of bourgeois political economy, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte, 1844. In this work Marx argued that alienation has an economic base, and he identified three types of alienation in capitalist society: the alienation of the worker from the products of his labor, the alienation of the worker from himself, and the alienation of people from one another. He argued that the equality of opportunity allowed under communism would lead to greater fulfillment of human potentiality and the overcoming of alienation in a more cooperative society.

In the best Soviet comments, this work is represented as the cornerstone of Marx's original philosophical anthropology. Marx regards a human subject as a conscious creature who is, due to his/her consciousness, not equal to his/her own living activity. This "outsidedness" towards his/her own existence gives him/her an option to treat the world universally and to behave freely. Treating the world like this, humans re-create consciously the material world around them and create their own "second nature". This process is where the phenomena of "labor" and "production" appear. Thus, labor becomes for Marx the universal way of human beings to be human, and that is why the alienation of labor products in a class-divided society seems to Marx as a crime against the very human nature. In my view, later on this "anthropological turn" of the still young Marx will become the deepest philosophical fundamental of Das Kapital.

On Žižek’s Tarrying with the Negative

In Tarrying with the Negative Žižek argues--against deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler--that Hegel makes thematic a fundamental negativity that prevents dialectical synthesis. He convincingly develops his reading of Hegel through Lacan and, in the process, shows that nationalistic identity is based on a gap or negativity that allows the illusion of consistency and harmonious synthesis. The mythic point of origin around which nationalisms revolve is actually nothing but a hole or rupture that is positivised through the actions of believers in a way that camouflages the real and present antagonisms within any regime. Put simply, nationalist mobilizations are based on a sublime illusion.

Žižek shows in what sense philosophy involves a stepping back from relativistic orientations, a radical distancing from the artificial and contingent character of all master signifiers. He shows how Lacan (like Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Marx) accomplishes this abstraction from starting points: philosophy reinvents theory by revealing current presuppositions about the conditions of possibility for truth. Žižek elaborates the Hegelian theme of “tarrying with the negative” in order to show how ruptures and paradigm shifts in theoretical systems are homologous to the analysand’s efforts to come to grips with trauma through psychoanalysis.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Žižek’s Re-inscription of Hegel (1)

Žižek’s Hegel is fully aware that various, competing attempts to adequately define any concept are all doomed to fail: any conceptual synthesis is disrupted from within by an indefinable ‘something’ that proves to be essential to the very concept in question. If Žižek’s reading of Hegel strikes you as far-fetched, then remember that Kant already realized that being is not a predicate; that is, that existence cannot be reduced to the conceptual properties of entities. Žižek’s interpretation of German Idealism reveals correspondences not only with Lacanian psychoanalysis, but also with recent Anglo-American philosophy (e.g., the work of Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam).

In Reference to Žižek’s For They Know Not What They Do

Žižek’s critique of global liberal capitalism—and its ideological supplement, so-called pluralist “democracy”—hinges on the fact that the possibility of true democracy has long since been foreclosed by global capital. Thus, whereas today’s far Right blatantly violates constitutional law in order to further the interests of an elite few, today’s liberal pseudo-leftists continue to promote identity politics, thereby equating class struggle with any other political struggle. In short, the Left today tacitly assumes that global capitalism is here to stay, in spite of the fact that the upheavals and crises of late capitalism are in the process of making religious fundamentalism and populist nationalism global phenomena.

But against such accommodation with capitalism, Žižek’s For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor opens up the space for an ethical-political act which breaks free from vulgar, egotistic bourgeois life. And in light of the looming ecological catastrophe, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the fact that late capitalism has excluded, disempowered, and disenfranchised more and more workers around the world, Žižek’s message is shifting the very terrain of contemporary political discourse. And his message, in a nutshell, is this: certain kinds of interventions in the symbolic dimension (e.g., in the realm of shared, public practices) can produce changes in the Real. Put simply, this means that in the decisive political act of a revolutionary collective—if we act as if the choice is not forced and choose the impossible—a community of believers in a cause, by acting together, may change the very coordinates of the situation and redefine the parameters of meaning.

On Žižek’s book The Ticklish Subject

The Ticklish Subject is one of Žižek’s most challenging and substantial books; it is a nuanced elaboration of Žižek’s Hegelian-Lacanian understanding of subjectivity. The book traces through the history of modern philosophy the disavowed truth of subjectivity, or, to put it in extremely simplified terms: the hidden functioning of the unconscious. Žižek brings together--with extraordinary subtlety--Hegelian dialectics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and a Leftist critique of capitalism. But what, or rather who, is the ticklish subject? Žižek’s answer is that you are. The individual human being, in both its purely personal dimension and its transcendent universality, is the subject under investigation in this text. One of the primary achievements of The Ticklish Subject is to show that even the most intimate personal experience involves a potentially emancipatory universal dimension.

Plato as proto-Hegelian? Troubling Play (SUNY Press, 2005)

Plato's Parmenides shows that very general oppositions transcend definition precisely because they are fundamental to the process of discursive definition itself. The troubling play Parmenides demonstrates for Socrates indicates that these pairs of opposed archai (beginnings, origins) are signposts of the bounds of being. But an archē may not be thought: the fundamental oppositionality with which thought begins may be given various names, but each of these singular terms is defined (ambiguously) in opposition to its other, by way of differences of function within an ideal nexus.

Moreover, the ideal matrices themselves share in this indefinable heterogeneity. The form has singular meaning in dialectical differentiation from more fundamental archai oppositions, in differentiation from other forms, and by contrast with its own various instantiations; for the disclosure of any particular meaning occurs only within the context of human orientations toward entities in the world. The upshot is that a complete matrix of ideas--an ideal whole--cannot be thought, not even by a god. Furthermore, we do not know the archai, but live them; we cannot think fundamental oppositionality, but we cannot think without it.
--Troubling Play: Meaning and Entity in Plato's Parmenides, p. 7

Remarks on Žižek’s book Looking Awry

Fantasy fills out the void or “black hole” of the Real. However, although imaginary projections or constructions may serve as efforts to escape the Real or to avoid the Real of desire, such efforts are doomed from the outset. Žižek shows why by articulating several different modalities of the Lacanian Real. One such modality is the return of the Real. That the Real returns may be seen once we consider how there are certain facts that we really already know, even though we still do not believe them: "The current attitude toward the ecological crisis is a perfect illustration of this split: we are quite aware that it may already be too late, that we are already on the brink of catastrophe (of which the death throes of the European forests are just the harbinger), but nevertheless we do not believe it. We act as though it were only an exaggerated concern over a few trees, a few birds, and not literally a question of our survival."
Slavoj Žižek Looking Awry, pp. 27-8.

Remarks on Lacan and on Žižek’s The Parallax View

Lacan changed the course of psychoanalysis by supplementing Freud’s emphasis on the biological aspect of human existence with inquiries into the symbolic and linguistic character of human interrelations. Lacan showed that because any human subject is split from within by the acquisition of language, the human subject is barred from itself by entry into the symbolic order. As a result, human desire is not simply a function of biology, but is de-centred insofar as it involves imaginative projection—the dimension of fantasy—and the attempt to become whatever it is that the other desires most. As an interpreter of Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, Žižek also engages with theology and political discourses, in order to revive the subversive core of both Christianity and Marxism. He is a leftist and, in addition to Lacan, was strongly influenced by Hegel, Marx, and Freud. The overall strategy of Žižek’s work is to bring together German Idealist philosophy and the most fundamental insights of psychoanalysis.

In The Parallax View, Žižek reads philosophical, scientific, and political theories in light of fundamental Hegelian and Lacanian insights. To put it succinctly, he deploys dialectical thinking and psychoanalytic categories to analyze contemporary culture and to reinvigorate a Marxist critique of capitalist globalism. Žižek discloses the functioning of an irreducible negativity, and shows how the recognition of this gap (for example, between the enunciated content and the act of enunciation) may enable us, on the one hand, to reflectively distance ourselves from the ideological manipulations of late capitalism while, on the other, avoiding the deadlock of a globalized suspicion.

On Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology

A successful ideology allows its adherents to behave as though some irreducibly external and indefinable central term (God, Freedom, New World Order, Democracy) actually names some transcendent thing. The paradox is that although no sublime object is ever ‘there’ in any subject’s experience, nevertheless this indefinable central term is taken by the subject to be that which gives coherence to the entire field of all possible experiences. As a result, although any ideology is inherently incomplete and inconsistent, the very indefinability of the master signifier is tacitly assumed by believers to prove the validity of the system. This implies that any subject’s experience, any social system, and any regime or culture is unified by fantasy projections that are then externalised as unreflective behaviours. Consequently, postmodernist claims that we live in a post-ideological condition are not only false but dangerously misguided. On the contrary – as Žižek’s substantial analyses of contemporary culture demonstrate - if anything, today’s postmodern subjects believe more than ever. In fact, the anti-Enlightenment, Nietzschean tendencies of postmodernism (cynicism, indirections and distantiations, idiosyncratic and mutually exclusive interpretations of the same text) are symptomatic of the contemporary subject’s inability to overcome alienation.

"Economy" as global, generative matrix

Marx interpreted historical developments in terms of dialectical materialism, and argued that the key to understanding political events is inquiry into the conflict of economic interests; this means that the allegedly apolitical character of the economic sphere is an illusion. If this is so, then the locus in the struggle for human emancipation is not simply the realm of politics, but also relations within the system of production. Far from indicating a naive "economism", this is an insight that remains valid today. It was further elaborated in the early twentieth century by Georg Lukacs and theorists of the Frankfurt School of Western Marxism, and more recently by the contemporary Western Marxists Fredric Jameson, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek. As Žižek puts it, the economy functions as a formal structuring principle; it is a global, generative matrix (something like a Kantian transcendental condition of possibility), and is the point of reference of political struggles.

Engels Quote

"The state is nothing but an instrument of oppression of one class by another—no less so in a democratic republic than in a monarchy."
--Friedrich Engels, Preface to Marx’s The Civil War in France

Remarks on Žižek’s Enjoy Your Symptom!

Like feminine subjectivity, the act involves the symbolic undecidability of the Real. The act is not founded in the symbolic register, in ideology, or in any psychological content. The act is founded only in itself; the act is excluded from the intersubjective network of the big Other insofar as it suspends the performative power of words. In an act, symbolic imperatives no longer oblige. Žižek describes the act as “[...] symbolic suicide: an act of ‘losing all,’ of withdrawing from symbolic reality, that enables us to begin anew from the ‘zero point,’ from that point of absolute freedom called by Hegel ‘abstract negativity.’” (EYS, p. 43) The act as symbolic suicide communicates nothing and expects nothing; in the act, the subject renounces support in the symbolic big Other. This renunciation involves a withdrawal so complete that the subject has nothing whatsoever left to lose, not even renunciation itself.

Plato's Republic as critique of ideology

Politically, Plato’s philosophy is aristocratic, but in the Republic, Socrates criticizes the rule of the wealthy. Aristos in Greek means “best”, and the best people, according to Plato, are the morally excellent citizens, not the wealthiest. In Republic Socrates argues that the desire for luxuries causes war and leads finally to the corruption and degeneration of both polis and psuche; whenever the guardians of the polis are corrupted by greed, the culture is in decline, and on the road to tyranny, the worst form of government. Moreover it is in a plutocracy, ruled by the wealthy, that one encounters the “ultimate evil” of utter poverty and homelessness; once a society is injected with the venomous desire for money, the community is filled with fat, lazy drones as well as starving beggars (555e). In short, the ungoverned pursuit of enjoyment paves the way for tyranny and constant war (567a).

The ship of state remains on an even keel when its pilot is guided by the idea of the good. In an ideal polis, the ruling philosopher guardians would be motivated by desire for knowledge and wisdom. They would have no money or luxuries, but would live communally. The auxiliary guardians—military and police—would be motivated by a love of honour. These guardians, like the philosopher kings, would also live communal, frugal lives, without the comforts of home or family. The producing class, those who desire luxuries and pleasures, would have no political power. Plato teaches that righteousness in the individual and justice at large in the polis arise when the desire for enjoyment is held in check by courage and concern for the nation as a whole, and when people live according to their own most characteristic desire (wisdom, honour, or enjoyment).

On Marx's concept of commodity fetishism

Marx’s account of “commodity fetishism” discloses how--in our social exchanges--the commodity assumes the status of a magical object that seems to have uncanny powers. If the labour of an individual produces an item to be exchanged, nonetheless, in the process of social interactions and exchanges, this product takes on an abstract value that is divorced both from the amount of labour involved in its production and the usefulness of the product. For example, a diamond - even if it is found accidentally - might be exchanged for a cottage that is both more useful and required much labour to produce. This abstract exchange value transforms the products of labour into commodities, and the “fetish” is the process of abstraction itself, through which the diamond as commodity appears to us as quite naturally more valuable than a small cottage. This illusory appearance of ‘naturalness’ in the exchange values between things masks the social relations and activities that constitute exchange value. The key point is that social relations are obscured behind a fetish, a fantastic unreflective view of material things as having the power to determine values themselves in the marketplace.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marx Quotes

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

(From Manifest der kommunistischen Partei)

The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

(From Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte, 1844)