May 02, 2007

Permissive hedonism and the ascesis of Positivity


Steve Shaviro and Daniel have both written interesting posts - far more interesting than their object of analysis deserves - in response to Zizek's embarrassing 300 piece.

What irks and disappoints about Zizek's tiresome reversal of the 'accepted leftist orthodoxy' on 300 is not so much the reversal itself, but the poverty and banality of the concepts it has yielded. Not every standardly-held view is worth reversing, and the meagre conceptual fare that Zizek's contrarian stance has produced proves that this is the case in repsect of 300. (The one thing that can be said in favour of Zizek's article is that it gives no comfort to Stekelmanism; at least, he is not claiming that 300 is entirely devoid of political implications.) The celebration of discipline is deeply dubious. 'In today's era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently "Fascist" about these values.' But, as Daniel asks, 'Could a party that held discipline and the spirit of sacrifice as values - as opposed to simply strategic/organizational principles - really be called a leftist party?' (We'll leave aside the fact that Zizek, whose writing has become increasingly repetitive and poorly organized, seems temperamentally ill-disposed to be an advocate of discipline.)

Then there is the astonishingly naive attempt to present the Greeks of the film as proto-Communists: 'A programmatic statement towards the end of the film defines the Greeks' agenda as "against the reign of mystique and tyranny, towards the bright future," further specified as the rule of freedom and reason - sounds like an elementary Enlightenment program, even with a Communist twist!' As Daniel rightly points out, 'no power, no matter how brutally fascistic, ever actually declares itself to be for the reign of mystique or tyranny. Even Hitler himself took pains to declare that the Reich was for peace...' (All of which reminded me of perhaps the only amusing moments in the otherwise dismal Mitchell and Webb television series, where the two play Nazis who - looking at the skull insignia on their caps - begin to suspect that they might be the Bad Guys. Zizek is acting like the exact opposite of this - an archetypal ideological dupe who, hypnotised by rhetoric about 'the bright future', ignores the (racist, homophobic, authoritarian) behaviour of those who mouth such slogans. Or he is like a man who goes into a bank expecting it to be 'caring', simply because its advertising has told him that it is.)

Both Daniel and Steve are uneasy about Zizek's apparent privileging of 'hedonist permissivity' as the most important bulwark in capitalism's ideological armoury; Daniel because 'the Western political system really revolves far more fundamentally around the grim ideology of the atomized nuclear family, and its accompanying fetish of the glorious, innocent child, than it does on the promise of a sexual utopia', Steve because '[b]y identifying “hedonist permissivity” as the problem — when it is really just a product of the forces of capital accumulation — [Zizek] in effect gives the exact same analysis of postmodern capitalism as the fundamentalist Christian right does, and offers a pseudo-solution (discipline and the spirit of sacrifice) that, like theirs, only serves to preserve the world market system from its own disaggregating tendencies.' However, if capital accumulation is to be tackled, then presumably discipline and organization would have to play a significant part in any successful anti-capitalist struggle - but, precisely, as Daniel says, as strategic necessities rather than as 'values' in themselves. In any case, the dreamwork suturing of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism described by Wendy Brown means that BOTH 'permissive hedonism' and 'the family' function as ideological imperatives in the currently dominant configuration, even if their co-existence generates enormous tensions, with the result that, crudely put, the family is ideologically defended, but economically dismantled. (It is worth reinforcing that Edelman's emphasis is not so much on the family as on the figure of the Child specifically: according to Edelman, it is the Child - as the embodiment of 'reproductive futurism' - which marks the horizon of acceptable political aspiration.)

A final word on the negative. If I'm not convinced by Steve's rejection of Zizek's mechanical 'labour of the negative' in the name of the Deleuzean interdiction on negativity, it is because I have long found Deleuze's abjuring of the negative equally as wearisome as Zizek's brandishing of dialectical negativity. Deleuze's hectoring call to renounce all negativity constitutes an 'ascesis of the positive' that chimes in all too well with contemporary capitalism's obligatory positivity. (In this respect it is the equivalent in philosophy of what Popism - or better Poptimism - is in pop criticism.) Even the attack on the 'reactive' seems flat with Business Ontology's insistence that we become vigilantly pro-active. Negativity in Deleuze is usually understood in terms of pathology; Deleuze's work may well have overcome Good Sense, but at its worst it remains in thrall to a dreary and reductive model of Good Health, which it prosecutes with all the zeal of a happy-clappy Anglicanism. And, as Infinite Thought is wont to argue, what is the philosophical basis for the rejection of the negative if not the emptiest of tautologies: positivity is good because it is positive, negativity is bad because it is negative.

What is required is an account of the negative far more subtle than is currently blasted from Zizek's unwieldly blunderbuss. Thankfully, Ray Brassier has provided such an account in his recently completed Nihil Unbound, about which far more must be said in the near future.



Quick as a flash, Steve Shaviro replies; Larval Subjects enters the fray...

Posted by mark at May 2, 2007 02:28 PM | TrackBack