May 27, 2005

There is no inherent emancipatory potential in pleasure

By contrast with his exoteric presentation at Birkbeck a week ago, Zizek's lecture at Middlesex last night - aimed 'at comrades' - was a much more focused affair. This time, Zizek stuck to his brief - why are so many Lacanians liberals? - to the letter, with no diversions, half-finished arguments, or crowd-pleasing humour.

Zizek began by repeating the attack on Jean-Claude Milner that can be found here. As he reconstructed Milner's position - Israel is now the structural obstacle to European Unity, filling the position that 'the Jew' used to occupy, I thought: if Milner is right why is Israel in the Eurovision song contest then? Zizek pointed out that, far from being reviled by anti-semites, the state of Israel was enthusiastically applauded by many of them. The Final Solution was only arrived at in the early 40s; before that Hitler had fantasized about removing all Jews to Madagascar, and Eichman had supported Jews being deported to Palestine. Besides, Zizek added, the 'structural obstacle' to European unity is not Israel, but Islam; it is the Muslim who in Europe today occupies the 'position of the Jew'. (Ironic that, for neo-con racists like Mark Steyn it should be Europe itself, Steyn's 'Eurabia' - which in their imagination is incubating a rapaciously reproductive muslim 'bacteria' - should occupy 'the position of the Jew' in relation to thier vision of the world united under American-branded global capital.)

Zizek then proceeded to denounce his former mentor Jacques-Alain Miller, who has become a bureaucrat-advocate of capitalist parliamentarianism, 'fully identifying with administrators' and proferring psychoanalysis as a 'mental repair service' for those afflicted by the malaise of contemporary culture. Zizek read Miller's pathetic, cliched diagnoses of moral and social decline and his bid for psychoanalysts to become 'participants' in a (get out the sick bags) 'culture of respect' as a shameless touting for business. Amping up the sense of crisis was in the vested interest of a respectable, professionalized psychoanalysis which could then offer itself as a 'soft cushion' against the 'hard realities' of capitalism.

Zizek then turned to the pseudo-alternative to this arrant conformism: Simon Critchley's by now tediously familiar 'self-postponing messianism'. For all its supposed radicalism, this post-structuralist politics of impossibility, with its advocacy of 'intimate revolt' (Kristeva), its retreat from the 'beautiful fantasy of the withering away of the state' amounts to an accepting of the terms of Kapitalist 'realism'. But this position - whether advanced by Laclau, Butler or Lyotard - is ambiguous, Zizek rightly observed: was compromise the consequence of contingent, temporary conditions or of an a priori deadlock? Zizek's warning of the dangers of 'pseudo-activity' and participation here, his call for a refusal to engage with the current terms of debate, was reminiscent of Baudrillard's invocation of the non-participating, non-reflecting masses as a 'silent majority'.

Almost as a throway point, Zizek highlighted the most crucial failing of melancholic post-structuralist impossibilism, namely, the persistent equivocation it makes between totalitarianism and closure. (We've all seen this nonsense too many times now whereby a pettifogging literary analysis poses as bravely resisting the 'totalitarian' pressures of positions less afflicted with interpretosis.) Zizek rightly showed that this is a nonsense: both Hitler and Stalin - surely the architects of totalitarianism if anyone was - were in fact obsessed with contingency and strategy. Far from being the rigid enactment of a dogmatic theory, Stalinism was , like Blarism, a 'ruthless pragmatism'. But of course this all presupposes that, when they moralisingly warn of totalitarianism, post-structuralists are thinking of Hitler or Stalin, when in fact they are thinking of F. R. Leavis.

The sustaining fantasy of the party of desire is that its values of flux, undecidability and difference need to be agitated for when in fact they are the ruling ideology. Desirevolution posed no challenge at all to Kapital, which cheefully embraced hybridity and hedonism. It won't surprise any k-punk readers that I heartily endorse Zizek's observation that 'there is no inherent emancipatory potential in pleasure.' The 68ers and their progeny are now the enemy. What is required is a completely burying of the 68 beach under forbiddingly dogmatic theoretical edifices.

Which brings us to Zizek's conclusion, wherein he looked for a way out of the false dichotomy (neo-liberal adjustment versus post-structuralist impossiblism) in the work of Badiou and his readers, such as Peter Hallward. Zizek heartily approved of the basic drift of Badiou's thought, but wondered - and stressed that for him this was a real, not a rhetorical, question - whether there was a gap in Badiou's thought where the economy should be. Marx's innovation, after all, was to have insisted upon the inextricability of politics and economy. Is Badiou's separation of the political from the economic, then, effectively a return to a pre-Marxist picture? To some extent, Badiou's refusal to deal with the economy arises from a principled insistence upon prescription above description.

But the major difference between Badiou and Zizek might be that Badiou deliberately omits economy from his philosophy, whereas Zizek continually gestures towards the economic without ever getting specific. One of Zizek's most valuable contribution to political theory today is his revival of Marx's analysis of the commodity form. In many ways, and Zizek is the first to admit this, Zizek's 'quasi-transcendental' account of the commodity is no more than a very literal reading of Marx. But that is the point: too much quasi-Marxism has lost Marx's chief insight by reading Marx sloppily. His point, as Zizek has tirelessly insisted since The Sublime Object of Ideology, was not that we are 'directly' deceived or mystified by the commodity but - quite to the contrary - that we think of the commodity as an 'ordinary' thing. We have the wrong idea of how in reality things are mystified. Our belief in commodities is an 'objectified belief', a little like that of the man in one of Zizek's oft-repeated jokes who has a horseshoe in his house not because he believes in its power to bring good luck, but because he has heard that it works even if you don't believe.

The question is, though: what does Zizek want? That is to say, how are we to stop believing that we don't believe in the commodity? Or: what are the changes in political-economy Zizek wants to bring about? State socialism is dead not merely empirically, but as a utopia; and the latter, the second death, is more significant. Particular contingent failures wouldn't matter if they didn't reveal a priori problems in the utopian model. Beyond all the analyses of capital's inequities, what remains on the 'left' is a utopia-vacuum and a vocabulary crisis: all of the privileged terms (including 'left' itself) have either been evacuated of meaning, or so successfully appropriated and banalised that they have been drained of positive associations (e.g. 'revolutionary', 'radical').

Utopian thinking has concrete and immediate effects. The point is, it is not as if we live in a world stripped of utopian thinking. What is sorely lacking is a political-economic utopia that would challenge the wrecked neo-liberal utopia we are forced to endure now. That means abandoning vague and nostalgic gestures towards the failed utopias of the past, and beginning to think clearly and specifically about what a genuine alternative to capitalism would look like. Banish once and for all the post-structuralist, postmodern bogeyman. The problem for the left is not the temptation of totalitarianism, but compromise without end. What we need are new prescriptions for an age-old malady.

Posted by mark at May 27, 2005 08:57 AM | TrackBack