November 25, 2007

Marxist Supernanny


(‘Marxist Supernanny’ was a phrase Dejan used in respect of the dear departed Little Lord Lack, who in the end was neither a Marxist or a Supernanny, although he no doubt had a Nanny or two.)

Nothing could be a clearer illustration of the famous failure of the Father function, the crisis of the paternal superego in late capitalism, than a typical edition of Supernanny. The programme offers what amounts to a relentless, although of course implicit, attack on postmodernity’s permissive hedonism. Supernanny is a Spinozist insofar as she takes it for granted that children are in a state of abjection. They are unable to recognise their own interests, unable to apprehend either the causes of their actions or their (usually deleterious) effects. But the problems that Supernanny confronts do not arise from the actions or character of the children – who can only be expected to be idiotic hedonists – but with the parents. It is the parents’ following of the trajectory of the pleasure principle, the path of least resistance, that causes most of the misery in the families. In a pattern that quickly becomes familiar, the parents’ pursuit of the easy life leads them to accede to their children’s every demand, which become increasingly tyrannical.

Rather like many teachers or other workers in what used to be called ‘public service’, Supernanny has to sort out problems of socialization that the family can no longer resolve. A Marxist Supernanny would of course turn away from the troubleshooting of individual families to look at the structural causes which produce the same repeated effect.

The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to based on rejecting. In a culture in which the ‘paternal’ concept of duty has been subsumed into the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children’s absolute right to enjoyment. Partly this is an effect of the increasing requirement that both parents work; in these conditions, when the parent sees the child very little, the tendency will often be to refuse to occupy the ‘oppressive’ function of telling the child what to do. The parental disavowal of this role of is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of 'gatekeepers' to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego - the stern father in the home, Reithian superciliousness in broadcasting - is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results from a refusal to challenge or educate? A question as massive as this cannot of course be answered in one post, and what follows here will require a great deal of further elaboration. In brief, though, I believe that it is Spinoza who offers the best resources for thinking through what a 'paternalism without the father' might look like.

In Tarrying with the Negative, Zizek famously argues that a certain Spinozism is the ideology of late capitalism. Zizek believes that Spinoza’s rejection of deontology for an ethics based around the concept of health is allegedly flat with capitalism’s amoral affective engineering. The famous example here is Spinoza’s reading of the myth of the Fall and the foundation of Law. On Spinoza’s account, God does not condemn Adam for eating the apple because the action is wrong; he tells him that he should not consume the apple because it will poison him. For Zizek, this dramatizes the termination of the Father function. An act is wrong not because Daddy says so; Daddy only says it is ‘wrong’ because performing the act will be harmful to us. In Zizek’s view, Spinoza’s move both deprives the grounding of Law in a sadistic act of scission (the cruel cut of castration), at the same time as it denies the ungrounded positing of agency in an act of pure volition, in which the subject assumes responsibility for everything.

In fact, it is Spinoza has immense resources for analysing the affective regime of late capitalism: its dissolving of agency in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants, its blitzing of the nervous system with images. (Spinoza remains the pre-eminent philosopher of image addiction). It is precisely Spinoza’s avoiding of the heroic Oedipal dramaturgy to which Zizek is so attached that enables him to give a plausible account of how responsibility can be attained rather than assumed. Spinoza’s diagnosing of the Father-God of theism as an anthropomorphic fantasy anticipates the psychoanalytic insight that the infant phantasmatically posits a castrating Father figure in order to cover over the impossibility of total enjoyment (‘If it were not for him, I’d have everything I want’). (And far from being the One hallucinated by Hegelian dementia, the Spinozist God is better understood as a desolated Zero. ‘The true formula of atheism is that God is unconscious,’ Lacan declares; and Spinoza’s God is exactly that: not a distributed, pantheistic omnipresence, but the cosmos as catatonic mechanism.) The most important difference between Spinoza and Lacan does indeed concern the question of pathology. If Spinoza aims to cure the individual of their addictions and fixations, Lacan believes that they can only be managed or sublimated. Spinozist joy consists in a calm contemplation of the impersonal mechanism of the cosmos, including your self; very different from Lacanian jouissance. But the idea that pathology can only ever be sublimated, never eliminated, that the subject can only ever circulate around objects that will never satisfy it, but which it can never give up pursuing – is, if not the ideology of late capitalism, then its metapyschology.

Late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programmes like ‘You Are What You Eat’, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives. But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. (When will there be a Channel 4 programme called ‘You Are What You Read?’) What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to better decorate their neo-liberal burrow, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers, or those hectored by coprophiliac crank Gillian McKeith are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the 'consentimental' regime of what Adam Curtis calls the ‘empire of the self’. In an excellent interview – which I’m indebted to reader Daryl Hutchings for drawing to my attention to – Curtis berates the way in which contemporary media is increasingly a machinery that is organised around the manipulation of affect.

    TV now tells you what to feel.

    It doesn't tell you what to think anymore. From EastEnders to reality format shows, you're on the emotional journey of people - and through the editing, it gently suggests to you what is the agreed form of feeling. "Hugs and Kisses", I call it.

    I nicked that off Mark Ravenhill who wrote a very good piece which said that if you analyse television now it's a system of guidance - it tells you who is having the Bad Feelings and who is having the Good Feelings. And the person who is having the Bad Feelings is redeemed through a "hugs and kisses" moment at the end. It really is a system not of moral guidance, but of emotional guidance.

    Morality has been replaced by feeling.

In the ‘empire of the self’ everyone ‘feels the same’ without ever escaping a condition of solipsism. ‘What people suffer from,’ Curtis claims,

    is being trapped within themselves - in a world of individualism everyone is trapped within their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations. Our job as public service broadcasters is to take people beyond the limits of their own self, and until we do that we will carry on declining.

    The BBC should realise that. I have an idealistic view, but if the BBC could do that, taking people beyond their own selves, it will renew itself in a way that jumps over the competition. The competition is obsessed by serving people in their little selves. And in a way, actually, Murdoch for all his power, is trapped by the self. That's his job, to feed the self.

    In the BBC, it's the next step forward. It doesn't mean we go back to the 1950s and tell people how to dress, what we do is say "we can free you from yourself" - and people would love it.

Curtis attacks the internet because, in his view, it facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits. But, Curtis claims, the impact of internet lobbies on Old Media is disastrous, since, not only does its reactive pro-activity allow the media class to further abnegate its function to educate and lead, it also allows populist currents on both the Left and the Right to ‘bully’ media producers into turning out increasingly mediocre and anodyne programming.


Needless to say, I think that Curtis’s critique has a point, but it misses important dimensions of what is happening on the net. One of the reasons that I dropped comments boxes was that they started to act as a form of censorship; I became increasingly aware that posts were being warped by anticipation of what some commenters, seldom the most interesting commenters either, might say. Luke Heronbone was ridiculed for saying that comments boxes are ‘too nice’ but this captures a dimension of what is so insidious about them. The tendency in comments boxes and discussion boards is for them to more closely resemble banal sociality – in both its qualities of vacuous convivalitity and boorish aggression – than writing. A kind of commonsense politesse (and its other: personalized antagonism) descends, in which the de-personalising effect of writing is replaced by the comforting role of ‘being a person’, a face, again. I write precisely because it is the most effective way I know of ‘getting out of my face’. (I note the irony of illustrating this piece with faces; faciality is certainly worth a post of its own.) In spite of what postmodernity’s ubiquitious biographism would have us believe, writing allows one to escape one’s personal history: Spinoza (and Althusser, who followed him very closely in this respect) understood that freedom is only possible once we begin to apprehend the structural determinations that engender our illusion of being naturally autonomous subjects. Spinozist joy arises from a slow, careful dismantling of the self – not a temporary obliteration of the self by the use of intoxicants, but a sober, cognitive detachment from the sad passions that once agitated us.

Contrary to Curtis’ account of blogging, though, blogs can generate new networks that have no correlate in the social field outside cyberspace. One of the most interesting aspects of this site for me is the way that it has produced its own audience rather than appealed to an already existing demographic. Ask yourself this: where else could you now encounter a piece like the one you are currently reading except in cyberspace? As Old Media increasingly becomes subsumed into PR, and the consumer report replaces the critical essay, some zones of cyberpsace offer pretty much the only resistance to an otherwise dominant ‘critical compression’.



As Christian Marazzi, Richard Sennett and others have argued, the success of neoliberalism is based on its capturing of working class desires. It was Fordist workers who dreamt of a world less monotonous and predictable, who wanted to own their own homes and have wrest control of own lives from State bureaucracies. Neoliberalism successfully caricatured the Left as the lobby preventing this, the party committed to the Nanny State and its attendant sclerotic and scleroticising bureaucracy. The problem was that the Left fell into the trap, by seeing their dilemma as a choice between ‘sticking to their guns’ and calling for the return of State centralization, or by demonstrating how ‘flexible’ they could be by adopting neo-liberalism wholesale. The development of New Labour is of course the sorry story of how the latter option was pursued. In Brown’s terrifyingly comprehemsive restructuring of himself, of his self - his ‘re-engineering of his soul’ from Presbyterian Socialist to glowering Sinthommosexual to non-paternalist Father of the Nation - we can see the parliamentary Left’s capitulation to neo-liberalism played out in the psyche of one market Stalinist (a gruesome subject that’s well worth a post in itself).

It’s now time – well past time, actually – for the Left to finally disarticulate itself from the big State. Zizek’s piece in the current LRB reiterates his opposition to Badiou’s notion of ‘distance from the State’. But being ‘at a distance from the State’ does not mean either abandoning the State or retreating into the private space of affects and diversity which Zizek rightly argues is the perfect complement to neoliberalism’s domination of the State. It means recognizing that the goal of a genuinely new Left should be not be to take over the State but to subordinate the State to the general will. This involves, naturally, resuscitating the very concept of a general will, reviving – and modernising - the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests. The ‘methodological individualism’ of the neoliberal worldview presupposes the philosophy of Max Stirner as much as that of Adam Smith or Hayek in that it regards notions such as the public as ‘spooks’, phantom abstractions devoid of content. All that is real is the individual (and their families).

The symptoms of the failures of this worldview are everywhere – in a disintegrated social sphere in which teenagers shooting each other has become commonplace, in which mental illness and affective disorders of every kind are proliferating at an alarming degree, in which hospitals incubate aggessive Superbugs - what is required is connect effect to structural cause. Far from being isolated, contingent problems, these are all the effects of a single systemic cause: Capital.

Zizek argues that, now, it is the likes of Microsoft which resist State power, but he fails to draw the lesson from this. Like neoliberalism in general, Microsoft has achieved its global domination not so much by occupying the State as by subordinating the machinery of government to its interests. Far from nationalising Microsoft, as Zizek once called for, the Left should hold up Microsoft as the most spectacular example of the way in which capitalist products and companies are at least as shoddy as those turned out by the nationalised industries that neoliberalism has spent three decades demonising. Microsoft’s domination of the market to the point where market conditions no longer obtain, its ability to foist on its customers inferior products that they only buy because everyone else already has them, could not be further from the neoliberal fantasy of the market as an intelligent mechanism super-sensitive to consumer desire. But, far from being an exceptional case, Microsoft is typical of SF Capital’s anti-market.

It is by now clear that neoliberalism does not provide the conditions for a vibrant culture. Exactly to the contrary in fact. As Curtis argues, the interpassive simulation of participation in postmodern media, the network narcissism of MySpace and Facebook, generates content that is repetitive, parasitic and conformist. Ironically, the media class’s refusal to be paternalistic has not produced a bottom-up culture of breathtaking diversity, but one that is increasingly infantalized. The effect of permanent structural instability, the ‘cancellation of the long term’, is invariably stagnation and conservatism rather than innovation. This is not a paradox. As Adam Curtis’ remarks above make clear, the affects that predominate in late capitalism are fear and cynicism. These emotions do not inspire bold thinking or entrepraneurial leaps, they breed conformity and the cult of the minimal variation, the turning out of products which very closely resemble those that are already successful. Meanwhile, films such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker - plundered by Hollywood since as far back as Alien and Blade Runner - were produced in the ostensibly moribund conditions of the Brezhnevite State, meaning that the USSR acted as a cultural entrepreneur for SF Capital.

The Left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism has signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy, a handing back of control of work and life from rhizomaniac bureaucracies to workers. As Deleuze demonstrated in his essay on Control – whose prescience becomes all the more startling the deeper we sink into late capitalism – post-Fordist capital would not eliminate bureaucracy but alter its form. Bureaucracy is no longer the preserve of a centralised State; it has proliferated into a generalised condition of surveillance-without-a-centre performed by distributed para-State bodies or micro-States which increasingly co-opt the so-called individual into doing their work for them. Far from being some aberration that capitalism’s alleged efficiency will eventually eliminate, late capitalist ‘administration’ is a permanent and ineradicable feature of late capitalism. There is no more prospect of administration receding than there was of the Stalinist State ever decreeing its own withering away.

Zizek’s invocation of Chavez in his LRB piece is typical of a nostalgia for the Father – the stern but good Lawgiver who leads his people into the Promised Land by a heroic act of resistance to the global order - that characterises his own work (the ostensibly playful defence of Stalinism is a part of this) and which continues to hold the Left in general back. The Left needs to give up its belief in Fathers, Good and Bad. We all know that Bush is a puppet not a papa, but political strategy needs to reflect this, by no longer appealing to him – or any other Bad Father figure - as if they were capable of granting its wishes. A mature, rational anti-capitalist politics needs to be able to think beyond the phantasms of the family, to imagine an abstract public space not embodied in the figure of a facialized individual.

Posted by mark at November 25, 2007 02:45 PM | TrackBack