Sunday, November 29, 2009

Properly Dialectical Procedure

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), excerpts from pp. 231-241:

Against Historicism

[....] As Derrida argues so cogently in 'White Mythology', it is not sufficient to claim that 'all concepts are metaphors', but that the very difference between a concept and a metaphor is always minimally metaphorical, relying on some metaphor. Even more important is the opposite conclusion: the very reduction of a concept to a bundle of metaphors already has to rely on some implicit philosophical (conceptual) determination of the difference between concept and metaphor--that is to say, on the very opposition it tries to undermine. We are thus forever caught in a vicious cycle: true, it is impossible to adopt a philosophical stance which is free of the constraints of everyday naive lifeworld attitudes and notions; however, although it is impossible, this philosophical stance is simultaneously unavoidable. [....]

We should always bear in mind this delicate Derridean stance on account of which he avoids the twin pitfalls of naive realism as well as of direct philosophical foundationalism: a 'philosophical foundation' to our experience is impossible, yet necessary--although all that we perceive, understand, articulate, is, of course, overdetermined by a horizon of pre-understanding, this horizon itself remains ultimately impenetrable. [....]

In other words, the ultimate lesson of deconstruction seems to be that one cannot postpone the ontological question ad infinitum. That is to say: what is deeply symptomatic in Derrida is his oscillation between, on the one hand, the hyper-self-reflective approach which denounces the question of 'how things really are' in advance, and limits itself to third-level deconstructive comments on the inconsistencies of philosopher B's reading of philosopher A, and, on the other, direct 'ontological' assertions about how differance and archi-trace designate the structure of all living things and are, as such, already operative in animal nature. One should not miss the paradoxical interconnection of these two levels here: the very feature which forever prevents us from grasping our intended object directly (the fact that our grasping is always refracted, 'mediated', by a decentred otherness) is the feature which connects us with the basic proto-ontological structure of the universe....

So deconstruction involves two prohibitions: it prohibits the 'naive' empiricist approach (let us examine the material in question carefully, then generalize hypotheses about it...), as well as global non-historical metaphysical theses about the origin and structure of the universe. [....]

On a different level, this circular mutual implication which is characteristic of deconstructionism proper is also discernible in political philosophy. [....] In human society, the political is the englobing structuring principle, so that every neutralization of some partial content as 'non-political' is a political gesture par excellence. At the same time, however, a certain excess of non-political violence is the necessary supplement to power: power always has to rely on an obscene stain of violence--that is to say, political space is never 'pure', it always involves some kind of reliance on 'pre-political' violence.

The relationship between these two implications is asymmetrical: the first mode of implication (every violence is political, grounded in a political decision) indicates the overall symbolic overdetermination of social reality (we never attain the zero-level of pure violence; violence is always mediated by the eminently symbolic relationship of power), while the second mode of implication indicates the excess of the Real in every symbolic edifice. Similarly, the two deconstructionist prohibitions/implications are not symmetrical either: the fact that we can never leave behind the conceptual background (that in all deconstruction of the Conceptual we rely on some notion of the opposition between concept and metaphor) indicates the irreducible symbolic overdetermination, while the fact that all concepts remain grounded in metaphors indicates the irreducible excess of some Real.

This double prohibition that defines deconstructionism bears clear and unambiguous witness to its Kantian transcendental philosophical origins (which, to avoid misunderstanding, is not meant as a criticism here): is not the same double prohibition (on the one hand, the notion of the transcendental constitution of reality involves the loss of a direct naive empiricist approach to reality; on the other, it involves the prohibition of metaphysics, that is, of the all-encompassing world-view that provides the noumenal structure of the Whole universe) characteristic of Kant's philosophical revolution? In other words, one should always bear in mind that Kant, far from simply expressing a belief in the constitutive power of the (transcendental) subject, introduces the notion of the transcendental dimension in order to answer the fundamental and irresolvable deadlock of human existence: a human being strives compulsively towards a global notion of truth, of a universal and necessary cognition, yet this cognition is simultaneously forever inaccessible to him. [....]

Concrete Universality

[....] We can see how, in this precise sense, suture is the exact opposite of the illusory self-enclosed totality that successfully erases the decentred traces of its production process: suture means that, precisely, such self-enclosure is a priori impossible, that the excluded externality always leaves its traces--or, to put it in standard Freudian terms, that there is no repression (from the scene of phenomenal self-experience) without the return of the repressed. More precisely, in order to produce the effect of self-enclosure, one must add to the series an excessive element which 'sutures' it precisely in so far as it does not belong to the series, but stands out as an exception, like the proverbial 'filler' in classificatory systems, a category which poses as one among the species of a genus, although it is actually just a negative container, a catch-all for everything that does not fit the species articulated from the inherent principle of the genus (the 'Asiatic mode of production' in Marxism). [....]

The ultimate philosophical example here is that of the subjective versus objective dimension: subjective perception-awareness-activity versus objective socio-economic or physiological mechanisms. A dialectical theory intervenes with a double short circuit: objectivity relies on a subjective surplus-gesture; subjectivity relies on objet petit a, the paradoxical object which is the subject's counterpoint. [....] On the one hand, we should accept the lesson of Kant's transcendental idealism: out of the confused multitude of impressions, objective reality emerges through the intervention of the subject's transcendental act. [....] On the other hand, the Lacanian objet petit a is the exact opposite of the Master-Signifier: not the subjective supplement which sustains the objective order, but the objective supplement which sustains subjectivity in its contrast to the subjectless objective order: objet petit a is that 'bone in the throat', that disturbing stain which forever blurs our picture of reality--it is the object on account of which 'objective reality' is forever inaccessible to the subject.

This already brings us to the next feature, that of universality and its exception. The properly dialectical procedure, practised by Hegel as well as by Freud in his great case studies, can be best described as a direct jump from the singular to the universal, bypassing the mid-level of particularity [....] When Freud deals with a case of claustrophobia, he always embarks on a search for some singular traumatic experience which is at the root of this phobia: the fear of closed spaces in general is grounded in an experience of.... [....]

From the standpoint of empiricist cognitivism, of course, such a short circuit immediately gives rise to a host of critical questions: how can Freud be so sure that he has picked on a truly representative example? Should we not at least compare this case with a representative sample of other, different cases, and so verify the universality of the concept in question? The dialectical counter-argument is that such careful empirical generalization never brings us to a true universality--why not? Because all particular examples of a certain universality do not entertain the same relationship towards their universality: each of them struggles with this universality, displaces it, and so on, in a specific way, and the great art of dialectical analysis consists in being able to pick out the exceptional singular case which allows us to formulate the universality 'as such'. Just as Marx articulated the universal logic of the historical development of humanity on the basis of his analysis of capitalism as the excessive (imbalanced) system of production (for Marx, capitalism is a contingent monstrous formation whose very 'normal' state is permanent dislocation, a kind of 'freak of history', a social system caught in the vicious superego cycle of incessant expansion--yet precisely as such, it is the 'truth' of the entire previous 'normal' history), Freud was able to formulate the universal logic of the Oedipal mode of socialization through identification with the paternal Law precisely because he lived in exceptional times in which Oedipus was already in a state of crisis.

The basic rule of dialectics, therefore is: whenever we are offered a simple enumeration of subspecies of a universal species, we should always look for the exception to the series. [....]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Against Judith Butler (4)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 308-310:

Perhaps the ultimate object of contention in our debate is the status of the (Lacanian) Real--so let me begin by reiterating what I perceive to be the core of the problem. Butler's critique relies on the opposition between the (hypostatized, proto-transcendental, pre-historical and pre-social) 'symbolic order', that is, the 'big Other', and 'society' as the field of contingent socio-symbolic struggles: all her main points against Laclau or me can be reduced to this matrix: to the basic criticism that we hypostatize some historically contingent formation (even if it is the Lack itself) into a proto-transcendental pre-social formal a priori. For example, when I write 'on the lack that inaugurates and defines, negatively, human social reality', I allegedly posit 'a transcultural structure to social reality that presupposes a sociality based in fictive and idealized kinship positions that presume the heterosexual family as constituting the defining social bond for all humans' (JB, pp. 141-2). If we formulate the dilemma in these terms, then, of course,

[blockquote from Butler] the disagreement seems inevitable. Do we want to affirm that there is an ideal big Other, or an ideal small other, which is more fundamental than any of its social formulations? Or do we want to question whether any ideality that pertains to sexual difference is ever not constituted by actively reproduced gender norms that pass their ideality off as essential to a pre-social and ineffable sexual difference? (JB, p. 144)

This critical line of reasoning, however, only works if the (Lacanian) Real is silently reduced to a pre-historical a priori symbolic norm, as is clear from the following formulation: 'The formal character of this originary, pre-social sexual difference in its ostensible emptiness is accomplished precisely through the reification by which a certain idealized and necessary dimorphism takes hold' (JB, p. 145). If, then, sexual difference is elevated into an ideal prescriptive norm--if all concrete variations of sexual life are 'constrained by this non-thematizable normative condition' (JB, p. 147), Butler's conclusion is, of course, inevitable: 'as a transcendental claim, sexual difference should be rigorously opposed by anyone who wants to guard against a theory that would prescribe in advance what kinds of sexual arrangements will and will not be permitted in intelligible culture' (JB, p. 148). Butler is, of course, aware how Lacan's il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel means that, precisely, any 'actual' sexual relationship is always tainted by failure; however, she interprets this failure as the failure of the contingent historical reality of sexual life to actualize the symbolic norm. Consequently, she can claim that, for Lacanians, 'sexual difference has a transcendental status even when sexed bodies emerge that do not fit squarely within ideal gender dimorphism'. In this way, I 'could nevertheless explain intersexuality by claiming that the ideal is still there, but the bodies in question--contingent, historically formed--do not conform to the ideal' (JB, p. 145; emphasis added).

I am tempted to say that, in order to get close to what Lacan aims at with his il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel, one should begin by replacing even when in the above quote with because: 'sexual difference has a transcendental status because sexed bodies emerge that do not fit squarely within ideal gender dimorphism'. That is to say, far from serving as an implicit symbolic norm that reality can never reach, sexual difference as real/impossible means precisely that there is no such norm: sexual difference is that 'rock of impossibility' on which every 'formalization' of sexual difference founders. In the sense in which Butler speaks of 'competing universalities', one can thus speak of competing symbolizations/normativizations of sexual difference: if sexual difference may be said to be 'formal', it is certainly a strange form--a form whose main result is precisely that it undermines every universal form which attempts to capture it. If one insists on referring to the opposition between the universal and the particular, between the transcendental and the contingent/pathological, then one should say that sexual difference is the paradox of the particular that is more universal than universality itself--a contingent difference, an indivisible remainder of the 'pathological' sphere (in the Kantian sense of the term) which always somehow derails, throws off balance, normative ideality itself. Far from being normative, sexual difference is therefore pathological in the most radical sense of the term: a contingent stain that all symbolic fictions of symmetrical kinship positions try in vain to obliterate. Far from constraining the variety of sexual arrangements in advance, the Real of sexual difference is the traumatic cause which sets their contingent proliferation in motion.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Laclau: dialectics and contingency (3)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 227-230:

The second aspect of Laclau's critique of my reading of Hegel is that I do not sufficiently take into account the gap between the Hegelian project in its fundamental dialectical principle and what Hegel actually accomplishes: Hegel's theoretical practice often differs from his 'official' self-understanding--in what he does, he often relies on (disavowed) rhetoricity, contingent tropes, and so on. To this, I am tempted to answer that the split Laclau is talking about is already discernible in the very fundamental Hegelian project itself, which is thoroughly ambiguous. Let me simply mention what may appear to be Hegel's utmost 'logocentric' notion, namely, the notion of totality: one should bear in mind that this notion does not designate simply a total mediation accessible to a global subject but, rather, its exact opposite, best exemplified by the dialectic of the Beautiful Soul: 'totality' is encountered at its purest in the negative experience of falsity and breakdown, when the subject assumes the position of a judge exempt from what he is passing a judgement on (the position of a multiculturalist critic of Western cultural imperialism, of the Western pacifist liberal horrified at the ethnic violence in fundamentalist countries)--here the message of 'totality' is simply: 'No, you are involved in the system you pretend to reject; purity is the most perfidious form of cheating.'... So, far from being correlative to the Universal Subject, 'totality' is really experienced and 'actually exists' precisely in the negative shock of failure, of paying the price for forgetting to include oneself in the situation into which one intervenes. Furthermore, I think that here we are not dealing with a simple case of misreading Hegel: the fact that Laclau tends to reduce the properly Hegelian dialectic of necessity and contingency to the simplified standard notion of contingency as the external/empirical mode of appearance of a 'deeper' underlying Necessity indicates some inherent inconsistency in his theoretical edifice, an inconsistency in the relationship between the descriptive and the normative--here is Laclau's answer to my criticism on this point:

[quotation from Laclau] I have been confronted many times with one or other version of the following question: if hegemony involves a decision taken in a radically contingent terrain, what are the grounds for deciding one way or the other? Žižek, for instance, observes: 'Laclau's notion of hegemony describes the universal mechanism of ideological "cement" which binds any social body together, a notion that can analyse all possible sociopolitical orders, from Fascism to liberal democracy; on the other hand, Laclau none the less advocates a determinate political option, "radical democracy".' I do not think this is a valid objection. It is grounded in a strict distinction between the descriptive and the normative which is ultimately derivative from the Kantian separation between pure and practical Reason. But this is, precisely, a distinction which should be eroded: there is no such strict separation between fact and value. A value-oriented practical activity will be confronted with problems, facilities, resistances, and so on, which it will discursively construct as 'facts'--facts, however, which could have emerged in their facticity only from within such activity. (EL, pp. 79-80) [end of quotation from Laclau]

I think two levels are confounded here. I fully endorse Laclau's argument against the strict distinction between the descriptive and the normative--in fact, I myself refer to a similar example of how the Nazis' 'description' of the social situation in which they intervene (degeneration, the Jewish plot, a crisis of values...) already depends on the practical 'solution' they propose. In Hegelese, it is not only, as Marx put it, that '[m]en make their own history; but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past'; it is also that these circumstances or 'presuppositions' are themselves always-already 'posited' by the practical context of our intervention in them. In this sense, I fully endorse Laclau's point that 'the question: "If the decision is contingent, what are the grounds for choosing this option rather than a different one?", is not relevant' (EL, p. 85): there are no ultimate 'objective' grounds for a decision, since these grounds are always-already retroactively constructed from the horizon of a decision. (I myself often use the example of religion here: one does not become a Christian when one is convinced by reason of the truth of Christianity; rather, only when one is a Christian can one really understand in what sense Christianity is true.) My point, however, is precisely that it is Laclau's theory of hegemony itself which relies on an unreflected gap between the descriptive and the normative, in so far as it functions as a neutral conceptual tool for accounting for every ideological formation, including Fascist populism (one of Laclau's favourite examples). Of course, Laclau would have answered here that the universal theory of hegemony is not simply neutral, since it already involves the practical stance of 'radical democracy'; but again, my answer would be that, precisely, I do not see in what specifically inherent way the very universal notion of 'hegemony' is linked to a particular ethico-political choice. And--as I have already argued in my first contribution to this debate--I think the key to this ambiguity is the unresolved question of the historicity of the assertion of historicism/contingency itself in Laclau's (as well as Butler's) theoretical edifice.

Laclau: dialectics and contingency (2)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 226-7:

Where, then, do I locate my difference with Laclau? Here, the above-mentioned oscillation between 'mere terminological misunderstanding' and 'radical incompatibility' is even stronger. Let me first deal with some points which may seem to concern mere terminological or factual misunderstandings, as is the case with Laclau's critical remark about my advocacy of the Cartesian cogito. With regard to my reference to the 'forgotten obverse, the excessive, unacknowledged kernel of the cogito, which is far from the pacifying image of the transparent self', Laclau's claim is that I deprive the cogito of its Cartesian content and Lacanize the tradition of modernity, 'like calling oneself a fully fledged Platonist while rejecting the theory of forms' (EL, p. 73). To this criticism I am first tempted to respond, in a naive factual way, that my position is by no means as 'eccentric' as it may sound: there is a long tradition within Cartesian studies of demonstrating that a gap forever separates the cogito itself from the res cogitans: that the self-transparent 'thinking substance [res cogitans]' is secondary, that it already obfuscates a certain abyss or excess that is the founding gesture of cogito--was it not Derrida himself who, in his 'Cogito and the History of Madness', highlighted this moment of excessive madness constitutive of cogito? So when Laclau refers approvingly to Kierkegaard's notion of decision ('As Kierkegaard--quoted by Derrida--said: "the moment of the decision is the moment of madness". And as I would add [which Derrida wouldn't]: this is the moment of the subject before subjectivization' [EL, p. 79], I--while, of course, fully endorsing his approval--would insist that this 'moment of madness' can be conceptualized only within the space opened up by the 'empty', 'non-substantial' Cartesian subject.

Furthermore, I claim that democracy itself--what Claude Lefort called the 'democratic invention' can also emerge only within the Cartesian space. The democratic legacy of the 'abstract' Cartesian cogito can best be discerned apropos of the pseudo-'feminist' argument for a more prominent role for women in public and political life: their role should be more prominent since, for natural or historical reasons, their predominant stance is less individualistic, competitive, domination-oriented, and more co-operative and compassionate... The Cartesian democratic lesson here is that the moment one accepts the terms of such a discussion, one already concedes defeat and also accepts the pre-democratic 'meritocratic' principle: there should be more women in public life not because of any particular positive female psychological properties, but on account of the simple democratic-egalitarian principle (what Balibar called égaliberté): women have the right to a more prominent role in public decision-making simply because they constitute half the population, not on account of any of their specific properties.

Leaving aside the question of how to read Kant (I also think there is an aspect of Kant that is totally obliterated by the standard academic image of him), let me go on to a further difference between Laclau and me which may also appear to be grounded in a simple terminological and/or factual misunderstanding, albeit already in a more ambiguous and problematic way. This difference is clearly discernible in Laclau's criticism that in my reading of Hegel I do not take into account Hegel's panlogicism, that is, the fact that Hegel's philosophy forms a closed system which radically reduces contingency, since the passage from one position to the next is always, by definition necessary:

"accepting entirely that the Absolute Spirit has no positive content of its own, and is just the succession of all dialectical transitions, of its impossibility of establishing a final overlapping between the universal and the particular--are these transitions contingent or necessary? If the latter, the characterization of the whole Hegelian project (as opposed to what he actually did) as panlogicist can hardly be avoided." (EL, p. 60)

For me, Laclau's opposition is all too crude, and misses the (already mentioned) key feature of Hegelian dialectics: the ultimate mystery of what Hegel calls 'positing the presuppositions' is the mystery of how contingency retroactively 'sublates' itself into necessity--how, through historical repetition, an initially contingent occurrence is 'transubstantiated' into an expression of a necessity: in short, the mystery of how, through 'autopoietic' self-organization, order emerges out of chaos. Here Hegel is to be read 'with Freud': in Freud also, a contingent feature (say, a traumatic sexual encounter) is elevated into a 'necessity', that is to say, into the structuring principle, into the central point of reference around which the subject's entire life revolves.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Laclau: dialectics and contingency (1)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 223-5:

I have a suspicion that the philosophical aspect of this political disagreement between Butler and Laclau on the one side and me on the other finds its expression in our different stances towards the notion of 'essentialism'. Butler and Laclau rely fully on the opposition essentialism/contingency; they both conceive of 'progress' (if this term is still defensible) as the gradual passage from 'essentialism' to the more and more radical assertion of contingency. I, however, find the notion of 'essentialism' problematic, in so far as it tends to condense three different levels of resistance to total fluidity: the imaginary 'essence' (the firm shape, Gestalt, which persists through the incessant flux of change); the One of the Master-Signifier (the empty signifier that serves as the container for the shifting significations: we are all for 'democracy', although the content of this term changes as a result of hegemonic struggles), and the debilitating Sameness of the Real (the trauma that resists its symbolization and, as such, triggers the very repetitive process of symbolization). Is not Butler's criticism of Lacan the exemplary case of how the term 'essentialism' implies the progressive reduction of the latter to the former level: first, the Sameness of the Real is reduced to a 'fixed' symbolic determination (Butler's point that sexual difference as real equals a firm set of heterosexual normative symbolic determinations); then, the symbolic itself is reduced to the imaginary (her thesis that the Lacanian 'symbolic' is ultimately nothing but the coagulated, 'reified', imaginary flux).

The problem with 'essentialism' is thus that this critical designation shares the fatal weakness of the standard procedure of philosophical rejection. The first step in this procedure is the negative gesture of totalizing the field to be rejected, designating it as a single and distinctive field, against which one then asserts the positive alternative--the question to be asked is the one about the hidden limitation of this critical totalization of the Whole that one endeavors to undermine. What is problematic in Kantian ethics is not its formalism as such but, rather, the fact that, prior to Kant's assertion of the autonomous formal moral Law, he has to reject every other foundation of ethics as 'pathological', relating to some contingent, ultimately empirical notion of the Good--what is problematic is this reduction of all previous ethics to the utilitarian notion of the Good as pathological, serving our pleasure... (against this, Sade, as the truth of Kant, asserts precisely the paradoxical possibility of a pathological-contingent attitude which works against one's well-being, finding satisfaction in this self-blockage--is not the point of the Freudian death drive that one can suspend the rule of utilitarian egotism on 'pathological' grounds?).

In much the same way, is not Derrida's 'metaphysics of presence' silently dominated/hegemonized by Husserl's subjectivity as the pure auto-affection/self-presence of the conscious subject, so that when Derrida talks about 'metaphysics of presence', he is always essentially referring to the Husserlian subject present-to-itself? The problem with sweeping philosophical oppositions (all the others against me and possibly my predecessors) therefore lies in the problematic totalization of all other options under one and the same global label--the multitude thus totalized is always secretly 'hegemonized' by one of its particular species; in the same way, the Derridean notion of the 'metaphysics of presence' is secretly hegemonized by Husserl, so that Derrida in effect reads Plato and all the others through Husserl. And it is my contention that the same goes for the critical notion of 'essentialism'. Let us take the case of capitalism itself: against the proponents of the critique of global capitalism, of the 'logic of Capital', Laclau argues that capitalism is an inconsistent composite of heterogeneous features which were combined as the result of a contingent historical constellation, not a homogeneous Totality obeying a common underlying Logic.

My answer to this is the reference to the Hegelian logic of the retroactive reversal of contingency into necessity: of course capitalism emerged from a contingent combination of historical conditions; of course it gave birth to a series of phenomena (political democracy, concern for human rights, etc.) which can be 'resignified', rehegemonized into a non-capitalist context. However, capitalism retroactively 'posited its own presuppositions', and reinscribed its contingent/external circumstances into an all-encompassing logic that can be generated from an elementary conceptual matrix (the 'contradiction' involved in the act of commodity exchange, etc.). In a proper dialectical analysis, the 'necessity' of a totality does not preclude its contingent origins and the heterogeneous nature of its constituents--these are, precisely, its presuppositions which are then posited, retroactively totalized, by the emergence of dialectical totality. Furthermore, I am tempted to claim that Laclau's critique would have been much more appropriate with regard to the very notion of 'radical democracy', to which Laclau and Mouffe regularly refer in the singular: does this notion not actually cover a series of heterogeneous phenomena for which it is problematic to claim that they belong to the same genus: from the feminist, ecological, etc. struggle in developed countries to the Third World resistance to the neoliberal New World Order?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Against Judith Butler (3)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 222-3:

It is crucial to get the precise idea of what Butler is claiming here: her notion is that since ideological universality (the space of interpellation), in order to reproduce itself and retain its hold, has to rely on its repeated assumption by the subject, this repetition is not only the passive assuming of some mandate, but opens up the space of re-formation, resignification, displacement--it is possible to resignify/displace the 'symbolic substance' which predetermines my identity, but not totally to overhaul it, since a total would involve the psychotic loss of my symbolic identity. This resignification can work even in the extreme case of injurious interpellations: they determine me, I cannot get rid of them, they are the condition of my symbolic being/identity; rejecting them tout court would bring about psychosis; but what I can do is resignify/displace them, mockingly assume them: 'the possibilities of resignification will rework and unsettle the passionate attachment to subjection without which subject-formation--and re-formation--cannot succeed.

My aim is not to deny that such a practice of resignification can be very effective in the ideological struggle for hegemony--does not the success of The X Files provide an excellent illustration of this? What happens in this series is precisely that the standard formula of alien threat and invasion is 'resignified', reset in a different context. Not only does the content of this threat offer a quasi-encyclopedic 'multiculturalist' combination of all possible myths and folklores (from Eastern European vampires and werewolves to Navajo spectral monsters); what is even more crucial is the setting of these apparitions: derelict suburbs, half-abandoned country houses or lonely forests, most of them in a North of the USA (no doubt conditioned by the fact that, for economic reasons, most of the exteriors are shot in Canada)--the privileged sites of the threat are the outcasts of our society, from Native Americans and illegal Latino immigrants to the homeless and junkies in our cities. Furthermore, the government itself is systematically presented as an ominous network, penetrated by secret organizations which deny their existence, ambiguously collaborating with the aliens....

There is, however, a limit to this process of resignification, and the Lacanian name for this limit, of course, is precisely the Real. How does this Real operate in language? In 'Pretending', J.L. Austin evokes a neat example of how pretending to be vulgar can itself become vulgar: when I am with people who have rigid standards of behaviour, I pretend to be vulgar and, as part of a social joke, start to use obscene language or refer to obscene content. My pretending to be vulgar will in fact be vulgar--this collapse of the distinction between pretending and being is the unmistakable signal that my speech has touched some Real. That is to say: apropos of what kind of speech acts does the distance between pretending and being (or, rather, actually doing it) collapse? Apropos of speech acts which aim at the other in the Real of his or her being: hate speech, aggressive humiliation, and so on. In such cases, no amount of disguising it with the semblance of a joke or irony caan prevent it from having a hurtful effect--we touch the Real when the efficiency of such symbolic markers of distance is suspended.

And my point is that in so far as we conceive of the politico-ideological resignification in the terms of the struggle for hegemony, today's Real which sets a limit to resignification is Capital: the smooth functioning of Capital is that which remains the same, that which 'always returns to its place', in the unconstrained struggle for hegemony. Is this not demonstrated by the fact thaat Butler, as well as Laclau, in their criticism of the old 'essentialist' Marxism, none the less silently accept a set of premisses: they never question the fundamentals of the capitalist market economy and the liberal-democratic political regime; they never envisage the possibility of a completely different economico-political regime. In this way, they fully participate in the abandonment of these questions by the 'postmodern' Left: all the changes they propose are changes within this economico-political regime.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Against Judith Butler (2)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 221:

Along these lines,Lacan triumphantly rewrites the Freudian 'stages' (oral, anal, phallic...) not as biologically determined stages in libidinal evolution, but as different modes of the dialectical subjectivization of the child's position within the network of his or her family: what matters in, say, the anal stage is not the function of defecation as such, but the subjective stance it involves (complying with the Other's demand to do it in an orderly way, asserting one's defiance and/or self-control...). What is crucial here is that it is this Lacan of radical and unlimited resignification who is at the same time the Lacan of the paternal Law (Name-of-the-Father) as the unquestionable horizon of the subject's integration into the symbolic order. Consequently, the shift from this early 'Lacan of unlimited resignification' to the later 'Lacan of the Real' is not the shift from the unconstrained play of resignification towards the assertion of some ahistorical limit of the process of symbolization: it is the very focus on the notion of the Real as impossible that reveals the ultimate contingency, fragility, (and thus changeability) of every symbolic constellation that pretends to serve as the a priori horizon of the process of symbolization.

No wonder Lacan's shift of focus towards the Real is strictly correlative to the devaluation of the paternal function (and of the central place of the Oedipus complex itself)--to the introduction of the notion that paternal authority is ultimately an imposture, one among the possible 'sinthoms' which allow us temporarily to stabilize and co-ordinate the inconsistent/nonexistent 'big Other'. So Lacan's point in unearthing the 'ahistorical' limit of historicization/resignification is thus not that we have to accept this limit in a resigned way, but that every historical figuration of this limit is itself contingent and, as such, susceptible to a radical overhaul. So my basic answer to Butler--no doubt paradoxical for those who have been fully involved in recent debates--is that, with all the talk about Lacan's clinging to an ahistorical bar, and so on, it is Butler herself who, on a more radical level, is not historicist enough: it is Butler who limits the subject's intervention to multiple resignifications/displacements of the basic 'passionate attachment', which therefore persists as the very limit/condition of subjectivity. Consequently, I am tempted to supplement Butler's series in her rhetorical question quoted above: "How would the new be produced from an analysis of the social field that remains restricted to inversions, aporias, reversals, and performative displacements or resignifications...?

Against Judith Butler (1)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 219-220:

In what, then, does our difference consist? Let me approach this key point via another key criticism from Butler: her point that I describe only the paradoxical mechanisms of ideology, the way an ideological edifice reproduces itself (the reversal that characterizes the effect of point de capiton, the 'inherent transgression', etc.), without elaborating how one can 'disturb' (resignify, displace, turn against themselves) these mechanisms; I show:

"how power compels us to consent to that which constrains us, and how our very sense of freedom or resistance can be the dissimulated instrument of dominance. But what remains less clear to me is how one moves beyond such a dialectical reversal or impasse to something new. How would the new be produced from an analysis of the social field that remains restricted to inversions, aporias and reversals that work regardless of time and place?" (Judith Butler, p. 29)

In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler makes the same point apropos of Lacan himself:

"The [Lacanian] imaginary [resistance] thwarts the efficacy of the symbolic law but cannot turn back upon the law, demanding or effecting its reformulation. In this sense, psychic resistance thwarts the law in its effects, but cannot redirect the law or its effects. Resistance is thus located in a domain that is virtually powerless to alter the law that it opposes. Hence, psychic resistance presumes the continuation of the law in its anterior, symbolic form and, in that sense, contributes to its status quo. In such a view, resistance appears doomed to perpetual defeat. In contrast, Foucault formulates resistance as an effect of the very power that it is said to oppose....For Foucault, the symbolic produces the possibility of its own subversion, and these subversions are unanticipated effects of symbolic interpellations." (Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, pp. 98-9)

My response to this is triple. First, on the level of exegesis, Foucault is much more ambivalent on this point: his thesis on the immanence of resistance to power can also be read as asserting that every resistance is caught in advance in the game of power that it opposes. Second, my notion of 'inherent transgression', far from playing another variation on this theme (resistance reproduces that to which it resists), makes the power edifice even more vulnerable: in so far as power relies on its 'inherent transgression', then--sometimes, at least--overidentifying with the explicit power discourse--ignoring this inherent obscene underside and simply taking the power discourse at its (public) word, acting as if it really means what it explicitly says (and promises)--can be the most effective way of disturbing its smooth functioning. Third, and most important: far from constraining the subject to a resistance doomed to perpetual defeat, Lacan allows for a much more radical subjective intervention than Butler: what the Lacanian notion of 'act' aims at is not a mere displacement/resignification of the symbolic coordinates that confer on the subject his or her identity, but the radical transformation of the very universal structuring 'principle' of the existing symbolic order. Or--to put it in more psychoanalytic terms--the Lacanian act, in its dimension of 'traversing the fundamental fantasy' aims radically to disturb the very 'passionate attachment' that forms, for Butler, the ultimately ineluctable background of the process of resignification. So, far from being more 'radical' in the sense of thorough historicization, Butler is in fact very close to the Lacan of the early 1950's, who found his ultimate expression in the rapport de Rome on 'The Function and the Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis' (1953)--to the Lacan of the permanent process of retroactive historicization or resymbolization of social reality; to the Lacan who emphasized again and again how there is no directly accessible 'raw' reality, how what we perceive as 'reality' is overdetermined by the symbolic texture within which it appears.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today's Predominant Consensus (circa 2000)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 323-4:

How, then, are we to answer today's predominant consensus according to which the age of ideologies--of grand ideological projects like Socialism or Liberalism--is over, since we have entered the post-ideological era of rational negotiation and decision-making, based upon the neutral insight into economic, ecological, etc. necessities? This consensus can assume different guises, from the neoconservative or Socialist refusal to accept it and consummate the loss of grand ideological projects by means of a proper 'work of mourning' (different attempts to resuscitate global ideological projects) up to the neoliberal opinion according to which the passage from the age of ideologies to the post-ideological era is part of the sad but none the less inexorable process of the maturation of humanity--just as a young man has to learn to accept the loss of grand enthusiastic adolescent plans and enter the everyday adult life of realistic compromises, the collective subject has to learn to accept a withering-away of global utopian ideological projects and the entry into the post-utopian realist era....

The first thing to note about this neoliberal cliche is that the neutral reference to the necessities of the market economy, usually invoked in order to categorize grand ideological projects as unrealistic utopias, is itself to be inserted into the series of great modern utopian projects. That is to say--as Fredric Jameson has pointed out--what characterizes utopia is not a belief in the essential goodness of human nature, or some similar naive notion, but, rather, belief in some global mechanism which, applied to the whole of society, will automatically bring about the balanced state of progress and happiness one is longing for--and, in this precise sense, is not the market precisely the name for such a mechanism, which, properly applied, will bring about the optimal state of society? So, again, the first answer of the Left to those--Leftists themselves--who bemoan the loss of the utopian impetus in our societies should be that this impetus is alive and well--not only in the Rightist 'fundamentalist' populism which advocates a return to grass-roots democracy, but above all among the advocates of the market economy themselves. The second answer should be a clear line of distinction between utopia and ideology: ideology is not only a utopian project of social transformation with no realistic chance of actualization; no less ideological is the anti-utopian stance of those who 'realistically' devalue every global project of social transformation as 'utopian', that is, as unrealistic dreaming and/or harbouring 'totalitarian' potential--today's predominant form of ideological 'closure' takes the precise form of mental block which prevents us from imagining a fundamental social change, in the interests of an allegedly 'realistic' and 'mature' attitude.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Against Liberal Leftists (2)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 127-8:

The problem of today's philosophico-political scene is ultimately best expressed by Lenin's old question 'What is to be done?'--how do we reassert, on the political terrain, the proper dimension of the act? The main form of the resistance against the act today is a kind of unwritten Denkverbot (prohibition to think) similar to the infamous Berufsverbot (prohibition to be employed by any state institution) from the late 1960's in Germany--the moment one shows a minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim seriously to change the existing order, the answer is immediately: 'Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!' The 'return to ethics' in today's political philosophy shamefully exploits the horrors of Gulag or Holocaust as the ultimate bogey for blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement. In this way, conformist liberal scoundrels can find hypocritical satisfaction in their defence of the existing order: they know there is corruption, exploitation, and so on, but every attempt to change things is denounced as ethically dangerous and unacceptable, recalling the ghosts of Gulag or Holocaust....

And this resistance against the act seems to be shared across a wide spectrum of (officially) opposed philosophical positions. Four philosophers as different as Derrida, Habermas, Rorty and Dennett would probably adopt the same left-of-centre liberal democratic stance in practical political decisions; as for the political conclusions to be drawn from their thought, the difference between their positions is negligible. On the other hand, already our immediate intuition tells us that a philosopher like Heidegger on the one hand, or Badiou on the other, would definitely adopt a different stance. Rorty, who made this perspicacious observation, concludes from it that philosophical differences do not involve, generate or rely on political differences--politically, they do not really matter. What, however, if philosophical differences do matter politically, and if, as a consequence, this political congruence between philosophers tells us something about their pertinent philosophical stance? What if, in spite of the great passionate public debates between deconstructionists, pragmatists, Habermasians and cognitivists, they none the less share a series of philosophical premisses--what if there is an unacknowledged proximity between them? And what if the task today is precisely to break with this terrain of shared premisses?

Against Liberal Leftists (1)

From The New Statesman Interview with Slavoj Zizek - full transcript

available online at

Jonathan Derbyshire

Published 29 October 2009


I always read the liberal anti-communists, liberal leftists - they're interesting, one can learn from them. I read a wonderful essay by Orwell from 1938. There he has a wonderful analysis of the typical leftist liberal. He says they ask for a change, but they do it in a hypocritical way: they ask for a change but it's almost as if to make sure that no real change will happen.

Don't you suspect a little bit that there's something of this in today's typical radical liberal - in today's anti-immigrant campaign for instance? The standard idea is to say, like my friend Alain Badiou in France, "those who are here are from here". That is to say, no check for roots, open to all of them. Legalize everything. The problem is that they know very well that this radical opening will never happen. So it's very easy to have a radical position which costs you nothing and for the price of nothing it gives you some kind of moral superiority. It also enables them to avoid the truly difficult questions. For example, my conflict with my radical leftist friends is when they want total openness and so on. I say to them, are you aware that anti-immigrant are mostly spontaneous, lower working-class attitudes? They talk as if some big imperialist power centre decides to be against immigrants. No! If anything, capital is more liberal about immigrants. So, I think this is not a good thing - I think of all these theorists, like Giddens and Held, who are left-wing, but left within the establishment ...

NS: Would you say that thinkers of that sort, establishment leftists if you like, are insufficiently materialist?

SZ: Exactly, exactly. Apart from their very general anti-capitalist thunder -this is my biggest reproach to them. Despite the financial crisis, we do not have a serious leftist attempt to deal with what, in old Marxist terms, we called the critique of political economy. It's obvious to me that Marx has to be repeated, but repeated not as he was. Isn't it clear today that with all the problems of natural resources, intellectual property and so on, that the whole notion of exploitation, if it has any meaning at all should be radically redefined? I don't see enough work of this sort. I think it's either some kind of an abstract, moralistic politics where you focus on groups which are obviously under-privileged -other races, gays and so on- and then you can explode in all your moralistic rage. Or, another thing that I really hate as a leftist who tries to be a communist - did you notice how the standard academic left likes nothing more than an attempted revolution going on, but far away from where you are? Today it's Venezuela, which is why I like to be critical from time to time of Chavez. It's a very comfortable position: you can do all the dirty work, you struggle for your career, compromises in your country in the west, but your heart is somewhere far away but it in no way affects what you are doing. This is another thing which I think is a fake.

So, if anything was proven by this financial crisis, it is that apart from left-radical Keynesians like Paul Krugman, with whom I'm sympathetic, I don't see any serious counter-proposal by the left.

NS: So we have lost the political economy in Marx?

SZ: There are some marginal good signs - Moishe Postone is one of the few people who really asks the question, what to do with Marx's political economy today? Then there are of course some economists and so on - David Harvey, for example, But the question is not properly addressed and that's very sad. If you read the predominant cultural left, you'd have thought that Marx's Capital is some kind of treatise on commodity fetishism and other cultural phenomena. Sorry, but Marx meant it as a critical theory of society, giving a diagnosis and so on.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009


From "The Interpassive Subject" by Slavoj Žižek, available at


Against this background, one is tempted to supplement the fashionable notion of "interactivity," with its shadowy and much more uncanny supplement/double, the notion of "interpassivity." That is to say, it is commonplace to emphasize how, with new electronic media, the passive consumption of a text or a work of art is over: I no longer merely stare at the screen, I increasingly interact with it, entering into a dialogic relationship with it (from choosing the programs, through participating in debates in a Virtual Community, to directly determining the outcome of the plot in so-called "interactive narratives"). Those who praise the democratic potential of new media, generally focus on precisely these features: on how cyberspace opens up the possibility for the large majority of people to break out of the role of the passive observer following the spectacle staged by others, and to participate actively not only in the spectacle, but more and more in establishing the very rules of the spectacle… Is, however, the other side of this interactivity not interpassivity? Is the necessary obverse of my interacting with the object instead of just passively following the show, not the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passive reaction of satisfaction (or mourning or laughter), so that is is the object itself which "enjoys the show" instead of me, relieving me of the superego duty to enjoy myself… Do we not witness "interpassivity" in a great number of today's publicity spots or posters which, as it were, passively enjoy the product instead of us ? (Coke cans containing the inscription "Ooh!Ooh! What taste!", emulate in advance the ideal customer's reaction.) Another strange phenomenon brings us closer to the heart of the matter: almost every VCR aficionado who compulsively records hundreds of movies (myself among them), is well aware that the immediate effect of owning a VCR, is that one effectively watches less films than in the good old days of a simple TV set without a VCR; one never has time for TV, so, instead of losing a precious evening, one simply tapes the film and stores it for a future viewing (for which, of course, there is almost never time…). So, although I do not actually watch films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction and, occasionally, enables me to simply relax and indulge in the exquisite art of far'niente — as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place… VCR stands here for the "big Other," for the medium of symbolic registration.

Is the Western liberal academic's obsession with the suffering in Bosnia not the outstanding recent example of interpassive suffering? One can authentically suffer through reports on rapes and mass killings in Bosnia, while calmly pursuing one's academic career… Another standard example of interpassivity is provided by the role of the "madman" within a pathologically distorted intersubjective link (say, a family whose repressed traumas explode in the mental breakdown of one of its members): when a group produces a madman, do they not shift upon him the necessity to passively endure the suffering which belongs to all of them? Furthermore, is the ultimate example of interpassivity not the "absolute example" (Hegel) itself, that of Christ who took upon himself the (deserved) suffering of humanity? Christ redeemed us all not by acting for us, but by assuming the burden of the ultimate passive experience. (The difference between activity and passivity, of course, is often blurred: weeping as an act of public mourning is not simply passive, it is passivity transformed into an active ritualized symbolic practice.) In the political domain, one of the recent outstanding examples of "interpassivity," is the multiculturalist Leftist intellectual's "apprehension" about how even the Muslims, the great victims of the Yugoslav war, are now renouncing the multi-ethnic pluralist vision of Bosnia and conceding to the fact that, if Serbs and Croats want their clearly defined ethnic units, they too want an ethnic space of their own. This Leftist's "regret" is multiculturalist racism at its worst: as if Bosnians were not literally pushed into creating their own ethnic enclave by the way that the "liberal" West has threated them in the last five years. However, what interests us here is how the "multi-ethnic Bosnia" is only the latest in the series of mythical figures of the Other through which Western Leftist intellectuals have acted out their ideological fantasies: this intellectual is "multi-ethnic" through Bosnians, breaks out of the Cartesian paradigm by admiring Native American wisdom, etc., the same way as in past decades, when they were revolutionaries by admiring Cuba, or "democratic socialists" by endorsing the myth of Yugoslav "self-management" socialist as "something special," a genuine democratic breakthrough… In all of these cases, they have continued to lead their undisturbed upper-middle-class academic existence, while doing their progressive duty through the Other. — This paradox of interpassivity, of believing or enjoying through the other, also opens up a new approach to aggressivity: what sets aggressivity in motion in a subject, is when the other subject, through which the first subject believed or enjoyed, does something which disturbs the functioning of this transference. See, for example, the attitude of some Western Leftist academics towards the disintegration of Yugoslavia: since the fact that the people of ex-Yugoslavia rejected ("betrayed") Socialism disturbed the belief of these academics, i.e. prevented them from persisting in their belief in "authentic" self-management Socialism through the Other which realizes it, everyone who does not share their Yugo-nostalgic attitude was dismissed as a proto-Fascist nationalist.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"All Men Are Created Equal"

Symbolic Castration & Radical Autonomy

From Slavoj Žižek's The Sublime Object of Ideology (First published in London by Verso in 1989; page numbers here refer to the edition published by Verso in 1999), p. 122:

[On Lacan's "graph of desire"]

[....] The problem of the second (upper) level is what happens when this very field of the signifier's order, of the big Other, is perforated, penetrated by a pre-symbolic (real) stream of enjoyment--what happens when the pre-symbolic 'substance', the body as materialized, incarnated enjoyment, becomes enmeshed in the signifier's network.

Its general result is clear: by being filtered through the sieve of the signifier, the body is submitted to castration, enjoyment is evacuated from it, the body survives as dismembered, mortified. In other words, the order of the signifier (the big Other) and that of enjoyment (the Thing as its embodiment) are radically heterogeneous, inconsistent; any accordance between them is structurally impossible. This is why we find on the left-hand side of the upper level of the graph--at the first point of intersection between enjoyment and signifier, S(Ø)--the signifier of the lack in the Other, of the inconsistency of the Other: as soon as the field of the signifier is penetrated by enjoyment it becomes inconsistent, porous, perforated--the enjoyment is what cannot be symbolized, its presence in the field of the signifier can be detected only through the holes and inconsistencies of this field, so the only possible signifier of enjoyment is the signifier of the lack in the Other, the signifier of its inconsistency.

Today, it is a commonplace that the Lacanian subject is divided, crossed-out, identical to a lack in a signifying chain. However, the most radical dimension of Lacanian theory lies not in recognizing this fact but in realizing that the big Other, the symbolic order itself, is also barrè, crossed-out, by a fundamental impossibility, structured around an impossible/traumatic kernel, around a central lack. Without this lack in the Other, the Other would be a closed structure and the only possibility open to the subject would be his radical alienation in the Other. So it is precisely this lack in the Other which enables the subject to achieve a kind of 'de-alienation' called by Lacan separation: not in the sense that the subject experiences that now he is separated for ever from the object by the barrier of language, but that the object is separated from the Other itself, that the Other itself 'hasn't got it', hasn't got the final answer--that is to say, is in itself blocked, desiring; that there is also a desire of the Other. This lack in the Other gives the subject--so to speak--a breathing space, it enables him to avoid the total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with the lack in the Other.