Monday, June 26, 2017

Totality ‘exists’ insofar as one pays the price for forgetting to include oneself in the situation

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.

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