Friday, October 30, 2009

Žižek's Afterward to Marcus Pound (1)

From Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eeerdmans Publishing Co.), pp. 145-149:

The Counterbook of Christianity

Slavoj Žižek

What can I add to the book that provides a precise critical reading of my continuous struggle to come to terms, as an atheist, with our Christian legacy? The only honest thing to do is to "dot the i," as it were, with a concise version of what I perceive as the Communist core of the Christian ethical revolution.

Let me begin with a simple mental experiment with two of Hitchcock's late masterpieces. What if Vertigo were to end after Madeleine's suicide, with the devastated Scottie listening to Mozart in the sanatorium? What if Psycho were to end seconds prior to the shower murder, with Marion staring into the falling water, purifying herself? In both cases we would get a consistent short film. Vertigo would be a drama of the destruction caused by the violently obsessive male desire: it is the very excessive-possessive nature of male desire that makes it destructive of its object--(male) love is murder, as Otto Weininger knew long ago. Psycho would be a moral tale about the catastrophe prevented in the last minute: Marion commits a minor crime, escaping with the stolen money to rejoin her lover; on the way she meets Norman, who is like a figure of moral warning, rendering visible to Marion what awaits her at the end of the line if she follows the path taken; this terrifying vision sobers her up, so she withdraws to her room, plans her return, and then takes a shower, as if to cleanse her of her moral dirt. In both cases, it is thus as if what we are first lured into taking as the full story is all of a sudden displaced, reframed, relocated into, or supplemented by another story, something along the lines of the idea envisaged by Borges in the opening story of his Fictions, which culminates in the claim: "Un libro que no encierra su contra-libro es considerado incomplete" [A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete]. In his 2005-2006 seminar, Jacques-Alain Miller elaborated on this idea, referring to Ricardo Piglia. Piglia quoted as an example of Borges's claim one of Mikhail Chekhov's tales whose nucleus is: "A man goes to the casino at Monte Carlo, wins a million, returns to his place and commits suicide."

If this is the nucleus of a story, one must, in order to tell it, divide the twisted story in two: on the one hand, the story of the game; on the other, that of the suicide. Thus Piglia's first thesis: that a story always has a double characteristic and always tells two stories at the same time, which provides the opportunity to distinguish the story that is on the first plane from the number 2 story that is encoded in the interstices of story number 1. We should note that story number 2 appears only when the story is concluded, and it has the effect of surprise. What joins these two stories is that the elements, the events, are inscribed in two narrative registers that are at the same time distinct, simultaneous, and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories. The inversions that seem superfluous in the development of story number 1 become, on the contrary, essential in the plot of story number 2.

There is a modern form of the story that transforms this structure by omitting the surprise finale without closing the structure of the story, which leaves the trace of a narrative, and the tension of the two stories is never resolved. This is what one considers as being properly modern: the subtraction of the final anchoring point that allows the two stories to continue in an unresolved tension.

This is the case, says Piglia, with Hemingway, who pushed the ellipse to its highest point in such a way that the secret story remains hermetic. One perceives simply that there is another story that needs to be told but remains absent. There is a hole. If one modified Chekhov's note in Hemingway's style, it would not narrate the suicide, but rather the text would be assembled in such a way that one might think that the reader already knew it. Kafka constitutes another of these variants. He narrates very simply, in his novels, the most secret story, a secret story that appears on the first plane, told as if coming from itself, and he encodes the story that should be visible but becomes, on the contrary, enigmatic and hidden.

Back to Hitchcock's Vertigo and Psycho. Is this not precisely the structure of the narrative twist/cut in both films? In both cases story number 2 (the shift to Judy and to Norman) appears only when the story seems concluded, and it certainly has the effect of surprise; in both cases the two narrative registers are at the same time distinct, simultaneous, and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories. The inversions that seem superfluous in the development of story number 1 (like the totally contingent intrusion of the murdering monster in Psycho) become essential in the plot of story number 2.

One can thus well imagine, along these lines, Psycho remade by Hemingway or Kafka. Exemplary of Hemingway's procedure is "The Killers," his best-known short story that, on a mere ten pages, reports in a terse style the arrival of two killers to a small provincial city; they occupy there a diner, awaiting a mysterious "Swede" whom they have to kill. Swede's young friend escapes from the diner and informs him that two killers are on the way to murder him, yet Swede is so desperate and resigned that he sends the boy off and calmly awaits them. The "second story," the explanation of this enigma (what happened to Swede that he is ready to calmly await his death), is never told. (The classic film noir based on this story tries to fill in this void: in the series of flashbacks, the "second story," the betrayal of a femme fatale, is told in detail.) In Hemingway's version, Norman's story will remain hermetic: the spectator will simply perceive that there is another (Norman's) story that needs to be told but remains absent--there is a hole. In Kafka's version Norman's story would appear in the first plane, told as if coming from itself: Norman's weird universe would have been narrated directly, in the first person, as something most normal, while Marion's story would have been encoded/enframed by Norman's horizon, told as enigmatic and hidden. Just imagine the conversation between Marion and Norman in his private room, prior to the shower murder: the way we have it now, our point of identification is Marion, and Norman appears as a weird and threatening presence. What if this scene were reshot with Norman as our point of identification, so that Marion's "ordinary" questions would appear as what they often effectively are, a cruel and insensitive intrusion into Norman's world?

This is how, from a proper Hegelo-Lacanian perspective, one should subvert the standard self-enclosed linear narrative: not by means of a postmodern dispersal into a multitude of local narratives, but by means of its redoubling in a hidden counternarrative. (This is why the classic detective whodunit is so similar to the psychoanalytic process: in it, also, the two narrative registers--the visible story of the discovery of crime and its investigation by the detective, and the hidden story of what really happened--are "at the same time distinct, simultaneous, and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories.") And is one of the ways to conceptualize class struggle not also such a split between the two narratives that are "at the same time distinct, simultaneous, and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories"? If one starts to tell the story from the standpoint of the ruling class, one sooner or later reaches a gap, a point at which something arises that doesn't make sense within the horizon of the story, something experienced as a meaningless brutality, something akin to the unexpected intrusion of the murdering figure in the shower scene from Psycho. In 1922 the Soviet government organized the forced expulsion of leading anti-Communist intellectuals, from philosophers and theologians to economists and historians. They left Russia for Germany on a boat known as the "Philosophy Steamer." Prior to his expulsion, Nikolai Lossky, one of those forced into exile, enjoyed with his family the comfortable life of the haute bourgeoisie, supported by servants and nannies. He "simply couldn't understand who would want to destroy his way of life. What had the Losskys and their kind done? His boys and their friends, as they inherited the best of what Russia had to offer, helped fill the world with talk of literature and music and art, and they led gentle lives. What was wrong with that?"

To account for such a foreign element, one has to pass to "story number 2," the story from the standpoint of the exploited. For Marxism, class struggle is not the all-encompassing narrative of our history, it is an irreducible clash of narratives--and does not the same go for today's Israel? Many peace-loving Israelis confess to their perplexity: they just want peace and a shared life with the Palestinians: they are ready to make concessions, but why do Palestinians hate them so much, why the brutal suicide bombings that kill innocent wives and children? The thing to do here is of course to supplement this story with its counterstory, the story of what it means to be a Palestinian in the occupied territories, subjected to hundreds of regulations of the bureaucratic microphysics of power--say, a Palestinian farmer is allowed to dig a hole in the earth no deeper than three feet to find a source of water, while a Jewish farmer is allowed to dig as deep as he wants.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

On President Obama

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 107-110:

One should note here that the French Revolution generated enthusiasm not only in Europe, but also in faraway places such as Haiti. The enthusiasm felt there was not just that of the Kantian spectator, but took an engaged, practical form at a key moment in another world-historical event: the first revolt of black slaves fighting for full participation in the emancipatory project of the French Revolution.

Obama's electoral victory in the US belongs, at a certain level, to the same line. One can and should entertain cynical doubts about the consequences of Obama's victory: from a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will turn out to be a "Bush with a human face," making no more than a few minor face-lifting improvements. He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode ans thus possibly even strengthen the US hegemony, damaged as it has been by the catastrophe of the Bush years. There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with such a reaction--a key dimension is missing. It is in light of the Kantian conception of enthusiasm that Obama's victory should be viewed not simply as another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all its pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came through of Obama's victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, for that instant of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

The reason that Obama's victory generated such enthusiasm was not only the fact that, against all the odds, it really happened, but that the possibility of such a thing happening was demonstrated. The same goes for all great historical ruptures--recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the communist regimes, we somehow did not "really believe" that they would disintegrate--like Henry Kissinger, we were all too much victims of a cynical pragmatism. This attitude is best encapsulated by the French expression je sais bien, mais quand meme--I know very well that it can happen, but all the same (I cannot really accept that it will happen). This is why, although Obama's victory was clearly predictable, at least for the last two weeks before the election, his actual victory was still experienced as a surprise--in some sense, the unthinkable had happened, something which we really did not believe could happen. (Note that there is also a tragic version of the unthinkable really taking place: the Holocaust, the Gulag . . . how can one accept that something like that could happen?

This is also how one should answer all those who point to the compromises Obama had to make to become electable. The danger Obama courted in his campaign is that he was already applying to himself what the later historical censorship applied to Martin Luther King, namely, cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his eligibility. There is a famous dialogue in Monty Python's religious spoof The Life of Brian set in Palestine at the time of Christ: the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that the Romans have brought only misery to the Jews; when his followers remark that they have nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, and so on, he triumphantly concludes: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, education, medicine, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" Do the latest proclamations by Obama not follow the same line? "I stand for a radical break with Bush's politics! OK, I pleaded for full support for Israel, for continuing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for refusing prosecutions against those who ordered torture, and so on, but I still stand for a radical break with Bush's politics!" Obama's inauguration speech concluded this process of "political self-cleansing"--which is why it was such a disappointment even for many left-liberals in the US. It was a well-crafted but weirdly anemic speech whose message to "all other peoples and governments who are watching today" was "we are ready to lead once more"; "we will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense."

During the election campaign, it was often noted that when Obama talked about the "audacity of hope," about a change we can believe in, he relied on a rhetoric which lacked any specific content: to hope for what? To change what? Now things are a little clearer: Obama proposes a tactical change destined to reassert the fundamental goals of US politics: the defense of the American way of life and a leading role internationally for the US. The US empire will be now more humane, and respectful of others; it will lead through dialogue, rather than through the brutal imposition of its will. If the Bush administration was the empire with a brutal face, now we shall have the empire with a human face--but it will be the same empire. In Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he tried to reach out to the Muslim world, he formulated the debate in terms of the depoliticized dialogue of religions (not even of civilizations)--this was Obama at his politically-correct worst.

Nevertheless, such a pessimistic view falls short. The global situation is not only a harsh reality; it is also defined by its ideological contours, by what is visible and invisible within it, sayable and unsayable. Recall Ehud Barak's response to Gideon Levy for Ha'aretz, more than a decade ago, when he was asked what he would have done had he been born a Palestinian: "I would have joined a terrorist organization." This statement had nothing whatsoever to do with endorsing terrorism--but it had everything to do with opening a space for a dialogue with the Palestinians. Remember Gorbachev launching the slogans of glasnost and perestroika--no matter how he "really meant" them, he unleashed an avalanche which changed the world. Or, to take a negative example: today, even those who oppose torture accept it as a topic of public debate--a major regression in our common discourse. Words are never "only words": they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.

In this respect then, Obama has already demonstrated an extraordinary ability to change the limits of what one can say publicly. His greatest achievement up to now is that, in his refined non-provocative way, he has introduced into public speech topics which had hitherto been de facto unsayable: the continuing importance of race in politics, the positive role of atheists in public life, the necessity to talk with "enemies" like Iran or Hamas, and so on. This is just what US politics needs today more than anything, if it is to break out of its gridlock: new words which will change the way we think and act.

Many of Obama's acts as president also already point in this direction (his educational and healthcare plans, his overtures to Cuba and other "rogue" states, for example). However, as already noted, the real tragedy of Obama is that he has every chance of turning out to be the ultimate savior of capitalism and, as such, one of the great conservative American presidents. There are progressive things that only a conservative with the right hard-line patriotic credentials can do: only de Gaulle was able to grant independence to Algeria; only Nixon was able to establish relations with China--in both cases, had a progressive president done these things, he would have been instantly accused of betraying national interests, selling out to the communists or to terrorists, and so on. Obama's predicament seems to be exactly the opposite one: his "progressive" credentials are enabling him to enforce the "structural readjustments" necessary to stabilize the system.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Socialism or Communism? (3)

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 97-99:

Fidelity to the communist Idea thus means that, to repeat Arthur Rimbaud, il faut etre absolument moderne--we should remain resolutely modern and reject the all too glib generalization whereby the critique of capitalism morphs into the critique of "instrumental reason" or "modern technological civilization." This is why we should insist on the qualitative difference between the fourth antagonism--the gap that separates the Excluded from the Included--and the other three: it is only this reference to the Excluded that justifies the use of the term communism. There is nothing more "private" than a state community which perceives the Excluded as a threat and worries how to keep them at a proper distance.

In the series of four antagonisms then, that between the Included and the Excluded is the crucial one. Without it, all others lose their subversive edge--ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, biogenetics into an ethical issue. One can sincerely fight to preserve the environment, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, or oppose the copyrighting of genes, without ever confronting the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded. Furthermore, one can even formulate certain aspects of these struggles in the terms of the Included being threatened by the polluting Excluded. In this way, we get no true universality, only "private" concerns in the Kantian sense of the term. Corporations such as Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favor among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities; the trick is that they sell their products with a progressive spin. One buys coffee made with beans bought at above fair-market value, one drives a hybrid vehicle, one buys from companies that ensure good benefits for their staff and customers (according to the corporations own standards), and so on. In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian battling against poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.

There is another key difference between the first three antagonisms and the fourth: the first three effectively concern questions of the (economic, anthropological, even physical) survival of humanity, but the fourth is ultimately a question of justice. If humanity does not resolve its ecological predicament, we may all vanish; but one can well imagine a society which somehow resolves the first three antagonisms through authoritarian measures which not only maintain but in fact strengthen existing social hierarchies, divisions and exclusions. In Lacanese, we are dealing here with the gap that separates the series of ordinary signifiers (S2) from the Master-Signifier (S1), that is, with a struggle for hegemony: which pole in the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded will "hegemonize" the other three? One can no longer rely on the old Marxist logic of "historical necessity" which claims that the first three problems will only be solved if one wins the key "class" struggle between the Excluded and the Included--the logic of "only the overcoming of class distinctions can really resolve our ecological predicament." There is a common feature shared by all four antagonisms: the process of proletarianization, of the reduction of human agents to pure subjects deprived of their substance; this proletarianization, however, works in different ways. In the first three cases, it deprives agents of their substantial content; in the fourth case, it is the formal fact of excluding certain figures from socio-political space. We should underline this structure of 3+1, namely the reflection of the external tension between subject and substance ("man" deprived of its substance) within the human collective. There are subjects who, within the human collective, directly embody the proletarian position of substanceless subjectivity. Which is why the Communist wager is that the only way to solve the "external" problem (the re-appropriation of alienated substance) is to radically transform the inner-subjective (social) relations.

Socialism or Communism? (2)

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 95-97:

As Michael Hardt has put it, if capitalism stands for private property and socialism for state property, communism stands for the overcoming of property as such in the commons. Socialism is what Marx called "vulgar communism," in which we get only what Hegel would have called the abstract negation of property, that is, the negation of property within the field of property--it is "universalized private property." Hence the title of the Newsweek cover story of February 16, 2009: "We are all socialists now," and its subtitle, "In many ways our economy already resembles a European one," is fully justified, if properly understood: even in the US, the bastion of economic liberalism, capitalism is having to re-invent socialism in order to save itself. The irony of the fact that this process of coming to "resemble Europe" is further characterized by the prediction that "we [in the US] will become even more French" cannot but strike the reader. After all, Sarkozy was elected as French president on a platform of finally finishing off the tradition of European welfare-state socialism and rejoining the Anglo-Saxon liberal model--and yet the very model he proposed to imitate is now returning to just what he wanted to move away from: the allegedly discredited path of large-scale state intervention in the economy. The much-maligned European "social model," decried as inefficient and out of date under the conditions of postmodern capitalism, has tasted its revenge. But there is no reason for joy here: socialism is no longer to be conceived as the infamous "lower phase" of communism, it is its true competitor, the greatest threat to it. (Perhaps the time has come to remember that throughout the twentieth century social democracy was an instrument mobilized to counteract the communist threat to capitalism.) Thus the completion of Negri's title should be: Goodbye Mr. Socialism ... and Welcome, Comrade Communism!

What the communist fidelity to the proletarian position involves is thus an unambiguous rejection of any ideology implying a return to any kind of prelapsarian substantial unity. On November 28, 2008, Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, issued a public letter on the subject "Climate Change: Save the Planet from Capitalism." Here are its opening statements:

"Sisters and brothers: Today our Mother Earth is ill....Everything began with the industrial revolution in 1750, which gave birth to the capitalist system. In tow and a half centuries, the so-called "developed" countries have consumed a large part of the fossil fuels created over five million centuries....Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under Capitalism we are not human beings but consumers. Under Capitalism Mother Earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world." (Evo Morales, "Climate Change: save the planet from capitalism," available online [....])

The politics pursued by the Morales government in Bolivia is on the very cutting edge of contemporary progressive struggle. Nonetheless, the lines just quoted demonstrate with painful clarity its ideological limitations (for which one always pays a practical price). Morales relies in a simplistic way on the narrative of the Fall which took place at a precise historical moment: "Everything began with the industrial revolution in 1750..."--and, predictably, this Fall consists in losing our roots in mother earth: "Under Capitalism mother earth does not exist." (To this, one is tempted to add that, if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that, precisely, mother earth now no longer exists.) "Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world"--meaning that our goal should be to restore a "natural" balance and symmetry. What is thereby attacked and rejected is the very process that gave rise to modern subjectivity and that obliterates the traditional sexualized cosmology of mother earth (and father heaven), along with the idea that our roots lie in the substantial "maternal" order of nature.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Socialism or Communism? (1)

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 94-95:

Such apocalyptic proletarianism is, however, inadequate if we want to deserve the name of "communist." The ongoing enclosure of the commons concerns both the relation of people to the objective conditions of their life processes as well as the relation between people themselves: the commons are privatized at the expense of the proletarianized majority. But there is a gap between these two kinds of relation: the commons can also be restored to collective humanity without communism, in an authoritarian-communitarian regime; likewise the de-substantialized, "rootless" subject, deprived of content, can also be counteracted in ways that tend in the direction of communitarianism, with the subject finding its proper place in a new substantial community. In this precise sense, Negri's anti-socialist title, Goodbye Mr. Socialism, was correct: communism is to be opposed to socialism, which, in place of the egalitarian collective, offers an organic community (Nazism was national socialism, not national communism). In other words, while there may be a socialist anti-Semitism, there cannot be a communist form. (If it appears otherwise, as in Stalin's last years, it is only an indicator of a lack of fidelity to the revolutionary event.) Eric Hobsbawm recently published a column with the title: "Socialism Failed, Capitalism Is Bankrupt, What Comes next? The answer is communism. Socialism wants to solve the first three antagonisms without addressing the fourth--without the singular universality of the proletariat. [The four antagonisms, from p. 91 of Žižek's First as Tragedy, then as Farce, are "the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called 'intellectual property'; the socioethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, the creation of new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums." Socialism doesn't address new forms of apartheid.] The only way for the global capitalist system to survive its long-term antagonism and simultaneously avoid the communist solution, will be for it to reinvent some kind of socialism--in the guise of communitarianism, or populism, or capitalism with Asian values, or some other configuration. The future will thus be communist ... or socialist.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Our Only Hope

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 156-157:

[....] from the US to India, China and Japan, from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East to Western and Eastern Europe. They are disparate and speak different languages, but they are not as few as may appear--and the greatest fear of the rulers is that these voices will start to reverberate and reinforce each other in solidarity. Aware that the odds are pulling us towards catastrophe, these actors are ready to act against all odds. Disappointed by twentieth-century Communism, they are ready to "begin from the beginning" and reinvent it on a new basis. Decried by enemies as dangerous utopians, they are the only people who have really awakened from the utopian dream which holds most of us under its sway. They, not those nostalgics for twentieth-century "Really Existing Socialism," are our only hope.

The fact that Deleuze, just before he died, was in the middle of writing a book on Marx, is indicative of a wider trend. In the Christian past, it was common for people who had led dissolute lives to return to the safe haven of the church in old age, so they might die reconciled with God. Something similar is happening today with many anticommunist Leftists. In their final years, they return to communism as if, after their life of depraved betrayal, they want to die reconciled with the communist Idea. As with the old Christians, these late conversions carry the same basic message: that we have spent our lives rebelling vainly against what, deep within us, we knew all the time to be the truth. So, when even a great anti-communist like Kravchenko can in a certain sense return to his faith, our message today should be: do not be afraid, join us, come back! You've had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it--time to get serious once again!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 154-155:

There is only one correct answer to those Leftist intellectuals who desperately await the arrival of a new revolutionary agent capable of instigating the long-expected radical social transformation. It takes the form of the old Hopi saying, with a wonderful Hegelian twist from substance to subject: "We are the ones we have been waiting for." (This is a version of Gandhi's motto: "Be yourself the change you want to see in the world.") Waiting for someone else to do the job for us is a way of rationalizing our inactivity. But the trap to be avoided here is that of a perverse self-instrumentalization: "we are the ones we have been waiting for" does not mean we have to discover how it is we are the agent predestined by fate (historical necessity) to perform the task--it means quite the opposite, namely that there is no big Other to rely on. In contrast to classical Marxism where "history is on our side" (the proletariat fulfils the predestined task of universal emancipation), in the contemporary constellation, the big Other is against us: left to itself, the inner thrust of our historical development leads to catastrophe, to apocalypse; what alone can prevent such calamity is then, pure voluntarism, in other words, our free decision to act against historical necessity. In a way, the Bolsheviks found themselves in a similar predicament at the end of the civil war in 1921: two years before his death, when it became clear that there would be no imminent European-wide revolution and that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin wrote:

"What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of the West European countries?" (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, Moscow: Progress Publishers 1966, p. 479.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Contingency, Necessity, and the Act

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 151-152:

If--accidentally--an event takes place, it creates the preceding chain which makes it appear inevitable: this, and not commonplaces on how underlying necessity expresses itself in and through the accidental play of appearances, is in nuce the Hegelian dialectic of contingency and necessity. In this sense, although we are determined by destiny, we are nonetheless free to choose our destiny. According to Dupuy, this is also how we should approach the ecological crisis: not to appraise "realistically" the possibilities of catastrophe, but to accept it as Destiny in the precise Hegelian sense--if the catastrophe happens, one can say that its occurrence was decided even before it took place. Destiny and free action (to block the "if") thus go hand in hand: at its most radical, freedom is the freedom to change one's Destiny.

This, then, is how Dupuy proposes to confront the disaster: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities ("If we had done this and that, the calamity that we are now experiencing would not have occurred!") upon which we now act today. We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny--and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past. Paradoxically, the only way to prevent the disaster is to accept it as inevitable. For Badiou too, the time of the fidelity to an event is the futur anterieur: overtaking oneself vis-a-vis the future, one acts now as if the future one wants to bring about were already here.

What this means is that one should fearlessly rehabilitate the idea of preventive action (the "pre-emptive strike"), much abused in the "war on terror": if we postpone our action until we have full knowledge of the catastrophe, we will have acquired that knowledge only when it is too late. That is to say, the certainty on which an act relies is not a matter of knowledge, but a matter of belief: a true act is never a strategic intervention in a transparent situation of which we have full knowledge; on the contrary, the true act fills in the gap in our knowledge.

Žižek Talk Cut Short by Bomb Threat

Slavoj Žižek’s book tour gets a serious interruption at Cooper Union.

October 15, 2009, 7:36 AM GMT

From philosopher and culture critic Slavoj Žižek's personal site:

Slavoj Žižek, dubbed the ‘most dangerous philosopher in the west’ by The New Republic, was rudely cut short by a bomb scare as he spoke to an audience of 800 at Cooper Union last night. Expounding on his new book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Žižek was forced by police to round up his talk and exit the Great Hall along with his hundreds of fans.

Amid the kerfuffle outside Cooper Union as police and security guards made efforts to get stragglers out of the building—several refused to be torn away from a bookstall inside selling copies of Žižek’s numerous books—the renowned Slovenian philosopher continued his talk for a time, signing copies of his newly launched book.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is a call for the Left to reinvent itself in the light of our desperate historical situation. And in the aftermath of last night’s bomb threat, one line in particular from the book’s jacket is worth noting:

The time for liberal, moralistic blackmail is over.

Unfazed by yesterday’s interruption, Slavoj Žižek can be heard on today’s Democracy Now, speaking to Amy Goodman.

Three Divisions of the Proletariat

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 147-148:

It is as if the three components of the production process--intellectual planning and marketing, material production, the provision of material resources--are increasingly autonomized, emerging as separate spheres. In its social consequences, this separation appears in the guise of the "three main classes" in today's developed societies, which are precisely not classes but three fractions of the working class: intellectual laborers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (the unemployed, those living in slums and other interstices of public space). The working class is thus split into three, each fraction with its own "way of life" and ideology: the enlightened hedonism and liberal multiculturalism of the intellectual class; the populist fundamentalism of the old working class; more extreme and singular forms of the outcast fraction. In Hegelese, this triad is clearly the triad of the universal (intellectual workers), the particular (manual workers), and the singular (outcasts). The outcome of this process is the gradual disintegration of social life proper, of a public space in which all three fractions could meet, and "identity" politics in all its forms is a supplement for this loss. Identity politics acquires a specific form within each fraction: multicultural identity politics among the intellectual class; regressive populist fundamentalism among the working class; semi-illegal groupings (criminal gangs, religious sects, etc.) among the outcasts. What they all share is recourse to a particular identity as a substitute for the missing universal public space.

The proletariat is thus divided into three, each part being played off against the others: intellectual workers full of cultural prejudices against "redneck" workers; workers who display a populist hatred of intellectuals and outcasts; outcasts who are antagonistic to society as such. The old cry "Proletarians, unite!" is thus more pertinent than ever: in the new conditions of "postindustrial" capitalism, the unity of the three fractions of the working class is already their victory. This unity, however, will not be guaranteed by any figure of the "big Other" prescribing it as the "objective tendency" of the historical process itself--the situation is thoroughly open, divided between the two versions of Hegelianism.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Privatization of the "General Intellect"

Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 145-147:

To grasp these new forms of privatization, we need to critically transform Marx's conceptual apparatus. Because he neglected the social dimension of the "general intellect," Marx failed to envisage the possibility of the privatization of the "general intellect" itself--and this is what lies at the core of the struggle over "intellectual property." Negri is right on this point: within this framework, exploitation in the classical Marxist sense is no longer possible, which is why it has to be enforced more and more by direct legal measures, that is, by non-economic means. This is why, today, exploitation increasingly takes the form of rent: as Carlos Vercellone puts it, postindustrial capitalism is characterized by the "becoming rent of profit." (See Capitalismo cognitivo, edited by Carlo Vercellone, Rome: Manifestolibri) And this is why direct authority is needed: in order to impose the (arbitrary) legal conditions for extracting rent, conditions which are no longer "spontaneously" generated by the market. Perhaps therein resides the fundamental "contradiction" of today's "postmodern" capitalism: while its logic is de-regulatory, "anti-statal," nomadic, deterritorializing, and so on, its key tendency to the "becoming-rent-of-profit" signals a strengthening of the role of the state whose regulatory function is ever more omnipresent. Dynamic deterritorialization co-exists with, and relies on, increasingly authoritarian interventions of the state and its legal and other apparatuses. What one can discern at the horizon of our historical becoming is thus a society in which personal libertarianism and hedonism co-exist with (and are sustained by) a complex web of regulatory state mechanisms. Far from disappearing, the state is today gathering strength.

To put it another way: when, due to the critical role of the "general intellect" (knowledge and social cooperation) in the creation of wealth, forms of wealth are increasingly "out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production," the result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but rather the gradual relative transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labor-power into rent appropriated by the privatization of this very "general intellect." Take the case of Bill Gates: how did he become the richest man in the world? His wealth has nothing to do with the cost of producing the commodities Microsoft sells (one can even argue that Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). It is not the result of his producing good software at lower prices than his competitors, or of higher levels of "exploitation" of his hired workers. If this were the case, Microsoft would have gone bankrupt long ago: masses of people would have chosen programs like Linux, which are both free and, according to the specialists, better than Microsoft's. Why, then, are millions still buying Microsoft? Because Microsoft has succeeded in imposing itself as an almost universal standard, (virtually) monopolizing the field, in a kind of direct embodiment of the "general intellect." Gates became the richest man on Earth within a couple of decades by appropriating the rent received from allowing millions of intellectual workers to participate in that particular form of the "general intellect" he successfully privatized and still controls. Is it true, then, that today's intellectual workers are no longer separated from the objective conditions of their labor (they own their PC, etc.), which is Marx's description of capitalist "alienation"? Superficially, one might be tempted to answer "yes," but, more fundamentally, they remain cut off from the social field of their work, from the "general intellect," because the latter is mediated by private capital.

And the same goes for natural resources: their exploitation is one of the great sources of rent today, marked by a permanent struggle over who is to receive this rent, the peoples of the Third World or Western corporations. The supreme irony is that, in order to explain the difference between labor-power (which, when put to work, produces surplus-value over and above its own value) and other commodities (the value of which is consumed in their use and which thus involve no exploitation) Marx mentions as an example of an "ordinary" commodity oil, the very commodity which is today a source of extraordinary "profits." Here also, it is meaningless to link the rise and fall of oil prices to rising or falling production costs or the price of exploited labor--the production costs are negligible; the price we pay for oil is a rent we pay to the owners and controllers of this natural resource because of its scarcity and limited supply.