April 25, 2006

Dis-identity politics


The discussion of V for Vendetta - on Pinocchio Theory in particular - has been far more interesting than the film deserved. Yes, there is a certain frission in seeing a major Hollywood movie refusing to unequivocally condemn terrorism, but the political analysis in the film (as in the original comic) is really rather threadbare. That is Moore's fault; it can't be blamed on the Wachowskis. Like all of Moore's work, V for Vendetta is considerably less than the sum of its parts. I've complained before of finding Moore's continual efforts to reassure himself and his readers of their erudition - every time you are about to succumb to the fictional world, it's as if Moore taps you on your shoulder and say, 'We're too good for this, aren't we folks?' - highly distracting and irritating.

As for V for Vendetta's politics - apart from the subjective destitution scenes, they amount in large part to the familiar populist ideology which maintains that the world is controlled by a corrupt oligarchy that could be overthrown if only people knew about it. Steven says that 'rather than trying to please all demographics, [the film] identifies a deeply religious, homophobic, ultra-”patriotic,” imperialistic surveillance state as the source of oppression'. But isn't this precisely 'appealing to all demographics', since few homophobic fascists will identify themselves as homophobic fascists, and it's hard to imagine anyone warming to Hurt's foaming-at-the-mouth ranter, still less voting for him. Postmodern fascism is a disavowed fascism (cue the BNP leaflet delivered through my door when I lived in Bromley, photograph of a smiling kiddywink, slogan: 'My daddy's not a fascist'), just as homophobia survives as disavowed homophobia. The strategy is to refuse the identification while pursuing the political programme. 'We of course deplore fascism and homophobia, but...' The Wachowskis' government bans the Koran, but that is the last thing that Blair and Bush would ever do; no, they will praise Islam as a 'great religion of peace' while bombing Muslims. Blair's authoritarian populism is far more sinister than V for Vendetta's pantomime autocracy precisely because Blair is so successful at 'presenting himself as the reasonable, honest bloke on the side of the common man'. Similarly, Bush's linguistic incompetence, far from being an impediment to his success, has been crucial to it, since it has allowed him to pose as a 'man of the people', belying his privileged Harvard and Yale-educated background. It is significant in fact that class is not mentioned at all in the film. As Jameson wryly notes in 'Marx's Purloined Letter', it is not 'particularly surprising that the system should have a vested interest in distorting the categories whereby we think class and in foregrounding gender and race, which are far more amenable to liberal ideal solutions (in other words, solutions that satisfy the demands of ideology, it being understood that in concrete social life the problems remain equally intractable).'

The climactic scenes of V for Vendetta, in which the people rise up (by this time, against no-one) made me think, not of some great political Event, but rather of the Make Poverty History campaign - a 'protest' with which no-one could possibly disagree. The comparison with Fight Club does V for Vendetta no favours; the targets of Tyler Durdon's terrorism were not the fusty symbols of the political class but the franchise coffee bars and skyscrapers of impersonal capital.

I'm no fan of the Wachowskis' Matrix, but it succeeded in two ways that V for Vendetta never will. The Matrix has become a massively propagated pulp mythos (whereas who but academics will think about the V for Vendetta film a year from now? It'll be a year after that until academics recognize that the far more fascinating and sophisticated Basic Instinct II is worthy of study). More importantly, it suggested that what counts as 'real' is an eminently political question.

That ontological dimension in what is missing from the progressive populist model, in which the masses cannot but appear as a dupes, fooled by the lies of the elite but ready to effectuate change the moment they are made aware of the truth. The reality, of course, is that the 'masses' are under few illusions about the ruling elite (if anyone is credulous about politicians and 'capitalist parliamentarianism', it is the middle classes). The Subject Supposed Not To Know is a figure of populist fantasies - more than that: the duped subject awaiting factual enlightenment is the presupposition on which progressive populism rests. If the most crucial political task is to enlighten the masses about the venality of the ruling class, then the preferred mode of discourse will be denunciation. Yet, this repeats rather than challenges the logic of the liberal order; it is no accident that the Mail and the Express favour the same denunciatory mode. Attacks on politicians tend to reinforce the atmosphere of diffuse cynicism upon which capitalist realism feeds. What is needed is not more empirical evidence of the evils of the ruling class but a belief on the part of the subordinate class that what they think or say matters; that they are the only effective agents of change.

This returns us to the question of reflexive impotence. Class power has always depended on a kind of reflexive impotence, with the subordinate class's beliefs about its own incapacity for action reinforcing that very condition. It would, of course, be grotesque to blame the subordinate class for their subordination; but to ignore the role that their complicity with the existing order plays in a self-fulfilling circuit would, ironically, be to deny their power.

'[C]lass consciousness,' Jameson observes in 'Marx's Purloined Letter', 'turns first and foremost around the question of subalternity, that is around the experience of inferiority. This means that the 'lower classes' carry around within their heads unconscious convictions as to the superiority of hegemonic or ruling-class expressions or values, which they equally transgress and repudiate in ritualistic (and socially and politically ineffective) ways.' There is a way, then, in which inferiority is less class consciousness than class unconsciousness, less about experience than about an unthought precondition of experience. Inferiority is in this sense an ontological hypothesis that is not susceptible to any empirical refutation. Confronted with evidence of the incompetence or corruption of the ruling class, you will still feel that, nevertheless, they must possess some agalma, some secret treasure, that confers upon them the right to occupy the position of dominance.


Enough has been already been written about the kind of class displacement people like myself have experienced. Dennis Potter's Nigel Barton plays remain perhaps the most vivid anatomies of the loneliness and agony experienced by those who have been projected out of the confining, comforting fatalism of the working class community and into the incomprehensible, abhorrently seductive rituals of the privileged world. 'A drive from nowhere leaves you in the cold,' as the Asscociates sang in 'Club Country'. 'Every breath you breathe belongs to someone there.'

There is a Cartesian paradox about such experiences, in that they are significant only because they produce a distanciation from experience as such; after undergoing them, it is no longer to conceive of experience as some natural or primitive ontological category. Class, previously a background assumption, suddenly interposes itself - not so much as a site for heroic struggle, but as a whole menagerie of minor shames, embarrassments and resentments. What had been taken for granted is suddenly revealed to be a contingent structure, producing certain effects (and affects). Nevertheless, that structure is tenacious; the assumption of inferiority constitutes something like a core programming which makes sense of the world in advance. To think of oneself as capable of doing a 'professional' job, for instance, requires a traumatic shift in perspective, and if there are confidence crises and nervous breakdowns, they will be very often the consequence of the core programming intermittently reasserting itself.

The real lesson to draw from Potter's Barton plays is not the fatalist-heroic one about the agonies of the charismatic individual confronting intransigent social structures. The plays have to be read instead against class-as-ethnicity and for class-as-structure; in any case, as they make clear, the occult machineries of social structure produce the visible ethnicities of language, behaviour and cultural expectations. The plays' demand is not for a re-acceptance into the rejecting community, nor a full accession into the elite, but for a mode of collectivity yet to come.

Potter's challenges to naturalism then, become far more than mere PoMo trickery. His foregrounding of the way in which fictions structure reality, and of the role that television itself plays in this process, brings to the fore all the ontological issues that worthier, more traditional social realist writers conceal or distort. There is no realism, Potter suggests, beyond the Real of class antagonism.

Now is perhaps the time to address two good questions that Bat mailed in response to the reflexive impotence post. First, Bat asked, is the situation for French teenagers different from that of their British counterparts? This is easily dealt with, since, after all, it was the very problem with which the post aimed to deal. French students are far more embedded in a Fordist/ disciplinary framework than are British students. In education and employment, the disciplinary structures survive in France, providing some contrast with, and resistance to, the cyberspatial pleasure matrix. (For reasons I will explore in more depth shortly, this is not necessarily for the best, however.) Bat's second question raised more important issues; doesn't talking about reflexive impotence reinforce the very interpassive nihilism it supposedly condemns? I would say that the exact opposite is the case. I've had more mail about the reflexive impotence post than any other; mostly, actually, from teenagers and students who recognize the condition but who, far from being further depressed by seeing it analysed, find its identification inspiring. There are very good Spinozist and Althusserian reasons for this - seeing the network of cause-and-effect in which we are enchained is already freedom. By contrast, what is depressing is the implacable poptimism of the official culture, forever exhorting us to be excited about the latest dreary-shiny cultural product and hectoring us for failing to be sufficiently positive. A certain 'vulgar Deleuzianism', preaching against any kind of negativity, provides the theology for this compulsory excitation, evangelizing on the endless delights available if only we consume harder. But what it is so often inspiring - in politics as much as in popular culture - is the capacity to nihilate present conditions. The nihilative slogan is neither be 'things are good, there is no need for change', nor 'things are bad, they cannot change', but 'things are bad, therefore they must change.'


This brings us to subjective destitution, which, unlike Steve Shaviro, I think is a precondition of any revolutionary action. The scenes of Evey's subjective destitution in V for Vendetta are the only ones which had any real political charge. For that reason, they were the only scenes which produced any real discomfort; the rest of the film does little to upset the liberal sensibilities which we all carry around with us. The liberal programme articulates itself not only through the logic of rights, but also, crucially, through the notion of identity, and V is attacking both Evey's rights and her identity. Steve says that you can't will subjective destitution. I, however, would say that you can only will it, since it is the existential choice in its purest form. Subjective destitution is not something that happens in any straightforward empirical sense; it is, rather, an Event precisely in the sense of being an incorporeal transformation, an ontological reframing to which you must assent. Evey's choice is between defending her (old) identity - which, naturally, also amounts to a defence of the ontological framework which conferred that identity upon her - and affirming the evacuation of all previous identifications. What this brings out with real clarity is the opposition between liberal identity politics and proletarian dis-identity politics. Identity politics seeks respect and recognition from the master class; dis-identity politics seeks the dissolution of the classifactory apparatus itself.

That is why British students are, potentially, far more likely to be agents of revolutionary change than are their French counterparts. The depressive, totally dislocated from the world, is in a better position to undergo subjective destitution than someone who thinks that there is some home within the current order that can still be preserved and defended. Whether on a psychiatric ward, or prescription-drugged into zombie oblivion in their own domestic environment, the millions who have suffered massive mental damage under capitalism - the decommisioned Fordist robots now on incapacity benefit as well as the reserve army of the unemployed who have never worked - might well turn out to be the next revolutionary class. They really do have nothing to lose...


Dominic Fox writes:

'Dennis Potter lived just down the road from me in Ross-on-Wye, where I
spent my teens. I mean literally down the road: you could just about
see his house from mine. Not that one ever saw Potter himself, who was
somewhat of a recluse.

"To think of oneself as capable of doing a 'professional' job, for
instance, requires a traumatic shift in perspective, and if there are
confidence crises and nervous breakdowns, they will be very often the
consequence of the core programming intermittently reasserting

Potter's own autobiographical sketch in "Occupying Powers" (the James
MacTaggart Memorial Lecture he gave in 1993, most famous for his
characterisation of Birt and Hussey as "croak-voiced daleks") includes
IIRC the comment that his psoriasis (and depression) flared up -
cripplingly - at just the moment when the ambitious, eager young
Oxford graduate was about to embark on a Barton-style career in
politics himself.

I'm sure one could recruit Potter to the cause of Militant Dysphoria...'


Reader Leigh Phillips poses some interesting questions:

'I wonder if it is true that 'British students are, potentially, far more likely to be agents of revolutionary change than are their French counterparts. The depressive, totally dislocated from the world, is in a better position to undergo subjective destitution than someone who thinks that there is some home within the current order that can still be preserved and defended'. This seems to me to be little more than an example of the 'hungry belly theory of revolution', that is to say, the more fucked up things are, the better they are. There are two quick things to say against this. One, no one knows precisely what event or circumstance ultimately acts as the revolutionary catalyst - the French students' erstwhile forebears, the 68 generation, kicked off events at the tale end of a period of unprecedented distribution of wealth (the post-war keynesian consensus). Meanwhile, citizens of many countries in Africa are simply so fucked - have such hungry bellies - that mere survival comes before abstract thoughts of resistance. Two, defence of social gains - even if those gains result in the co-optation of resistance/exhaustion of revolutionary energy - as the French students are doing, is, in advance of 'The Glorious Day', if there ever is one, A Good Thing in itself. Otherwise, one is reduced to consciously voting for the most reactionary option possible in the hope that ever greater oppression and exploitation will ultimately result in resistance/revolution. This itself is a re-expression of the substitutionist ideology of 'V' you rightly criticise, for it is still a form of 'waking up' the ignorant masses.'

Some quick answers:

1. The students I am talking about are not necessarily economically 'hungry'. What they suffer from is an existential impoverishment. The issue is not objective at all - objectively, they live in one of the wealthiest countries of the world - but subjective (in the existentialist sense).

2. The French situation is not a social gain. At best, it has avoided a social loss. But as I've argued before, the immobilization model plays into the hands of the capitalist realism by implying that the only alternatives to neo-liberal policies are backward-looking.

3. The masses are not 'ignorant', but they do need waking up from the depressive trance of reflexive impotence. It is not knowledge they lack, but belief.

Posted by mark at April 25, 2006 10:33 AM | TrackBack