May 26, 2006

Why are you so afraid of class?


Zizek's lecture at Birkbeck yesterday, the first in a series of Lateral Introductions to Lacan, was devoted to the big Other.

He began with another, timely swipe at Bobonoism. (He noted, by the way, that in every single country in which the Liberal Communist essay was published, a final paragraph, in which he quoted Brecht's idea that, once someone has proven themselves to be a Good Man, we will take them outside and shoot them with a Good Gun, was always removed. One editor even suggested that Zizek might have been misinterpreted as advocating violence....The very thought of it!) He argued that the familiar, facile gesture of guilt-mongering pseudo self-abnegation - every time I type a sentence, ten children are dying in Africa - is the very form of ruling ideology. What it amounts to, he contended, is a form of anti-intellectualism: don't think, just do it. One might add that, even considered in brutely pragmatic terms, twenty years of not thinking, just doing has had little effect on the situation in Africa or elsewhere.

There was actually an interesting convergence between much of what Zizek said and Steve Shaviro's current preoccupations. Zizek used the language of virtuality to describe the big Other, and said that the best formulation of the death drive was provided by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition. Zizek's description of capitalism - that it is, in the Heidegerrian sense, 'worldless', i.e. an 'abstract matrix' that will reconstitute itself in any possible world - was also highly reminiscent of Deleuze-Guattari's account in Anti-Oedipus.

Zizek's examples of the big Other in politics, yesterday as so often before, typically come from Stalinism. It seems to me, though, that the critique of bureaucratic unreason should be targeting the Stalinism that is integral to the current mode of capitalism. The standard line on Stalinism has been to think of it as State Capitalism, and to regard market Stalinism as some deviation from the 'true spirit' of capitalism. But perhaps it would be better to regard Stalinism as being inhibited by its association with a social project like socialism; perhaps, that is to say, the essential form of Stalinism can only emerge in capitalism. Compare, for instance, Old Labour with New Labour; there may have been elements of Stalinist ideology in Old Labour, but in terms of formal organization, it is clear that target-orientated, business-friendly New Labour is far more Stalinist than the Old Labour party ever was. The reason that capitalist bureaucracy often escapes notice, never mind rebuke, is that the critique of bureaucracy has concentrated on its centralizing tendencies. But, as Kafka well understood, distributed, rhizomaniac bureaucracy is far more pernicious and tenacious than its punctual, disciplinary variant. All of this has been very concretely brought out for me by a number of recent experiences:

1. The OFSTED inspection. (I should point out, for readers who are unaware of the ins-and-outs of the British education system, that OFSTED stands for the 'Office for Standards in Education'; it goes without saying that, despite its impressively neutral-sounding name, OFSTED's function is to enforce compliance with the Blair's government's Control agenda.) Under the old system, a college would have a 'heavy' inspection once every four years or so, i.e. one involving many lesson observations and a large number of inspectors present in the college. Under the new, 'improved' system, if a college can demonstrate that its internal assessment systems are effective, it will only have to undergo a 'light' inspection. But the downside of this 'light' inspection is obvious - surveillance and monitoring are outsourced from OFSTED to the college and ultimately to lecturers themselves, and become a permanent feature of the college structure. The diference between the old/heavy and new/light inspection system corresponds precisely to Kafka's distinction between ostensible acquital and indefinite postponement. With ostensible acquittal, you petition the lower court judges until they grant you a non-binding reprieve. You are then free from the court, until the time when your case is re-opened. Indefinite postponement, meanwhile, keeps your case at the lowest level of the court, but at the cost of permanent exertion and anxiety.

In any case, it is not as if the 'light' inspection is better for staff than the heavy one. The inspectors are in the college for the same amount of time as they were under the old system. The fact that there are fewer of them does nothing to alleviate the stress of the inspection, which has far more to do with the extra bureaucratic window-dressing one has to do in anticipation of a possible observation than it has to do with any actual observation itself. The inspection, that is to say, corresponds precisely to Foucault's account of the virtual nature of surveillance. The effect of not knowing whether you will be observed or not produces an introjection of the surveillance apparatus. You constantly act as if you are always about to be observed.

There are other bizarre effects. Since OFSTED is now observing the college's self-assessment systems, there is an implicit incentive for the college to grade itself and its teaching lower than it actually deserves. The result is a kind of postmodern capitalist version of Maoist confessionalism, in which managers and lecturers are required to engage in constant symbolic self-denigration. At one point last year, when our line manager was extolling the virtues of the new, light inspection system, he told us that the problem with our departmental log-books was that they were not sufficiently self-critical. But don't worry, he urged, any self-criticisms we make are purely symbolic, and will never be acted upon; as if performing self-flagellation as part of a purely formal exercise in cynical bureaucratic compliance were any less demoralising.

2. A couple of days ago, when I was placing union's post-Inspection union bulletin in staff drawers, a manager came up to me and hissed, 'issuing another leaflet saying that managers should be sacked, are you?' I pointed out that the last bulletin had stated nothing of the sort; it had simply stated that 'too great a proportion of the college's resources are devoted to management salaries'. He responded by huffing and puffing that he was a union member too, was I suggesting that the union does not represent managers? I paused before replying that it was the other way around: the issue is whether as a manager he feels that he can represent collective interests as opposed to his own class interests. If he cannot, then he might want to consider his position in the union. Faced with this, he repeated 'class interests....' and shook his head. What did this gesture mean? That there are no class interests? Difficult to argue that when senior managers received a 15% pay rise last year and we are being made redundant this year. Or perhaps he was suggesting that he couldn't possibly have any class interests? More likely, his dismissal meant that one does not talk about class any more. As Zizek pointed out yesterday, this move - 'one does not do X' - is crucial to the operations of the big Other. (As Zizek said, it is perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which the majority of people do something, but one still does not.)

3. On Tuesday, I participated in a Natfhe lobby in the cybergothic fortress of the Houses of Parliament. Union members and college Principals were making a case against the FE cuts. No doubt because they had their own agenda ('managers should be left to manage'), the Principals were most vociferous in their assaults on what one of them characterised as the self-sustaining, self-generating bureaucracy which is voraciously but surreptitiously consuming the funds for Further Education. The Learning and Skills Council, the unelected, unaccountable quango at the heart of the FE funding labyrinth, came in for particular attack. An MP then remarked that, yes, the Learning and Skills Council is a difficult body to deal with... Who does control it, then, if it is not answerable to members of parliament? Here was a classic example of one of the central mysteries of the big Other: namely, how does the order itself emerge? On the face of it, it is not clear how particular directives have generated themselves, since they are not there in government policy itself. The answer is that the LSC 'interprets' the instructions issued by the Department for Education and Skills. These interpretations then become indirect discourse, i.e. they are what the big Other thinks. It is of course in the nature of bureaucracy that no-one involved in it can say, 'I commanded this'; the decision is always-already made by some other party. The Castle proliferates laterally as well as upwards...

We're invited to believe that the worst effects of Stalinism arose from its 'dogmatic' intransigence; but it is precisely because so much was left open to interpretation that its Terror was so pervasive. As Zizek reiterated yesterday, even the Nomenkultura themselves - including Stalin and Molotov - had to interpret a complex series of social semiotic signals. Contrary to neoliberal ideology, which pretends that outsourcing leads to greater efficiency and reduced bureaucracy, every time a relatively centralized bureaucratic body is broken up, the effect is always to increase both Control and confusion (and isn't one of Kafka's great lessons that the two are inseperable?) This is not, needless to say, an argument for a return to the 'good old days' of centralized bureaucracy; the real alternative to rhizomatic bureaucracy is workers gaining control of their own working conditions and practices.


Turning away from politics for a moment, Zizek conjectured yesterday that only the unsent letter arrives at its destination. Citing an example from a Ted Hughes biography, he asked, why does one keep an unsent letter? The answer is obvious: because the big Other can see it. This immediately put me in mind of the opposite case, as exemplified by David Kelsey in This Sweet Sickness. Kelsey's love affair with Annabelle is conducted almost entirely through letters, but these letters, though sent, are not really intended to be read, at least not by their ostensible addressee. What makes Kelsey a psychopath is not that he is unaware of the other, but that for him only the big Other exists. The same is true of Tom Ripley; Ripley cares little about the fact that particular individuals have inklings about his murderous past, so long as 'general opinion' (i.e. the big Other) is kept ignorant. When I asked Zizek about this, he repeated his argument that Anthony Minghella's film had distorted the Ripley character by humanising and sexualising him. When I observed that Minghella had shifted the dynamic from class to sexuality, Zizek agreed, but found the Chair hurrying him to move on to the next question.

'Why are you so afraid of class?' Zizek demanded. 'The big Other noticed your haste...'

Posted by mark at May 26, 2006 12:28 AM | TrackBack