I've organized my notes under major themes.
ZIZEK AND COMMITMENT
It should be obvious that the term “radical” is now in trouble. The small cluster of blogs, including K-Punk and Antigram, that are most involved with Slavoj Zizek’s “radical” thought (more so, even, than Larval Subjects or Adam Kotsko) have been responding with intelligence and disappointment to Zizek’s review of the film 300, which he thought was a great example of discipline (the good guys) battling hedonism (the bad guys). Of course, Zizek could have done himself a favor by simply not publishing the review, but there is a larger problem here — in the face of a market-driven overload of meaningful pop culture, Zizek has begun to revert to an ideological stance that is exactly that of Vladimir Lenin circa What Is To Be Done?, and thus has made himself politically irrelevant despite his semblance of up-to-the-moment cultural engagement.
To my mind, the paroxysms of outrage that Zizek’s recent review of 300 provoked amongst certain members of the left academic blogosphere have only confirmed the basic truth of his argument that a truly progressive prioritization of values, in the current postmodern academic environment, is effectively impossible, because no one is willing to take responsibility for what a totally committed choice to pursue real social justice might actually entail--like, say, loss of job security. “If revolutionary action doesn’t include working full-time towards academic tenure--then no, thanks!”
As I took it, Zizek’s whole point in his review of 300 was that, while this may appear to be a false choice to us--i.e. securing a comfortable academic liberal bourgeois lifestyle vs. committing ourselves to political engagement/struggle--it’s not for them. For the majority of the world, it’s not a choice at all. Destitution is a necessity. So which side of history are we on? Zizek’s point is not to valorize sacrifice in itself, but to recognize that our “hedonism” is, in its current state, dependent upon the deprivation of others. The real political goal that Zizek is advocating here is not a fascistic state founded on a discipline fetish--how strange!--but a world where, to paraphrase/parody Marx, the hedonism of each is the condition for the hedonism of all. But to work towards realizing that project we’d have to surrender the privileged hedonism we enjoy now--subtended as it is by military imperialism and the exploitative practices of global capital--to enjoy a more democratic hedonism later.
To preempt the potential ad hominem attacks on Zizek, I’ll admit that there’s a certain disjunct in Zizek between his position of enunciation--e.g. the extravagantly paid guest lectures, the handsomely remunerated piece for the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, the Brazilian super-model girlfriend, etc.--and the enunciated content, but that doesn’t invalidate the content. And at any rate, it’s far less of a disjunct with Zizek than with most academics of a leftist bent, especially in the US. This contention holds even more for Badiou, whom LarvalSubjects criticizes here for being skimpy on the concrete details of radical commitment, offering only “platitudes of fidelity” instead. Maybe on the printed page, but in real life since ‘68 Badiou has been involved with activist groups like the post-Maoist l'Organisation Politique, who have pushed for, among other things, immigrant rights.
THEORY AND REALITY
I think this is a problem across the board in continentally influenced forms of theory, whether we’re talking about literary theory, political theory, philosophy, and so on. Often I find myself reading texts that are pervaded by some grand vision of revolutionary political transformation and I find myself thinking of my neighbors, my students, family members, existing infrastructure, etc., and I just wonder how such a grand vision can even be enacted concretely in practice. I then find myself suspecting that these political theories are more about ego and being superior, than about enacting any sort of real world change and are more about shoring up one’s academic standing and cred than the world.
Instead of continuing to parse Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, et al, perhaps we should start devoting some of our attention to the abundant situated literature that’s being produced by the very real social movements we academics for some reason continue to strenuously deny exist. For instance, you might check out some of the websites for the activist groups listed under the “Contacts” section of Naomi Klein’s website nologo.org. You might also check out web resources like SolidarityEconomy and Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.
The oppressed aren’t stupid and they aren’t mute. They don’t need speaking for. They’re not a given “in-itself” waiting for us hyper-educated academic “for-ourselves” to properly theorize into a meaningful project. It smacks of obscene arrogance to think that the marginalized, the exploited, the oppressed of the world are incapable of reflecting on their situation in a sophisticated and nuanced way. Let’s stop treating them as inert objects, and start listening to them, start recognizing what they have to say. And, who knows, maybe even enter into dialogue with them. This is where I part ways with Zizek and his advocacy of the top-down Leninist intelligentsia qua vanguard model. I’m with Sartre and Habermas, Hardt and Negri instead: mutual recognition + intersubjective communication amongst groups-in-fusion= common value formation, i.e. the only horizon of a truly democratic, emancipatory, and transformative praxis.
While it’s difficult to directly demonstrate the relationship between transformations in ideas and transformations in political and economic structures, certainly these intellectual transformations produced through writing and teaching play a deeply important role in historical dynamics, no?
And elsewhere, in response to Rich’s suggestion that the academy effectively serves bourgeois interests, tomemos writes:
I didn’t say that teaching is inherently politically functional, only that it can and should be so.
Certainly, education can be a form of engaged praxis, and one of the most important. Nevertheless, if we’re really convinced the masses need our education, why settle for assuming a pre-established research/teaching position within the current structures of academia, which are clearly designed to reproduce existing social hierarchies, not subvert them? Despite the “radicalization” of US academic curricula, the socio-economics of higher education (as well as of the secondary educational system that feeds it) are actually becoming less democratic.
Nevertheless, in response to Rich’s characterization of academic values as “middle-class” values, Joseph exhibits denial:
The academy does not represent “middle-class” values; frankly, without the academic traditions of sociology, political science, literature, and history, neither you nor anyone else would have the slightest idea what a phrase like “middle-class values” was supposed to mean. At different times, in different places, the academy has tried to shoulder the perspective of the proletariat [???] or tried to defend a notion of aristocracy.
Aristocracy? Yes, if by that we mean the haute bourgeoisie. Proletariat? Never, except in words. But Rich’s suggestion clearly touched a nerve, which is telling. Tomemos writes:
I’ve gotten well sick of having my values described as “middle class.”
To which Rich replies, naively:
one of the relics of cultural Marxism that I’d like to toss in the dustbin is the strange idea that middle-class values are bad.
In truth, both tomemos and Rich are correct here. Middle class values aren’t bad, per se. But as Hegel or Marx would say, the truth of those values lies in their democratic universality, which has been negated by the actually existing middle-(to upper-middle-)class. It’s the abstractness of the privileged expression of bourgeois values--in themselves universal--that renders them untrue, not the values themselves. So, for example, freedom (a quintessential bourgeois value) is good, but “freedom without opportunity”--which is the way this value has so far been concretely realized--“is a devil’s gift,” in Chomsky’s pithy formulation.
In theory, at least, tomemos recognizes this:
Ideally I’d want the whole world to have (or at least have access to) the sort of education and self-consciousness you describe as “middle-class.”
Key word here, however, is ideally. Tomemos appears not to recognize that the restricted access that presently characterizes higher education--the abolishment of which is summarily relegated to the realm of the utopian--effectively renders his values false, no matter how sincerely he holds them. And that makes them determinately bourgeois. As does denying one’s objective complicity in the system one subjectively rejects, which happens to be an excellent example of those "middle-class habits of thought" that Joseph claims he "wouldn’t know how to populate…with content."
The negation of the truth of bourgeois values in academic education is effected through concrete mechanisms designed to reproduce disparate distributions of capital (cultural as well as economic): linking of local public school funding to property taxes; linking of federal public school funding to individual school test scores; use in admissions evaluations of competitive aptitude tests, which favor those who can afford the costly private prep courses; exorbitant (and ever increasing) tuition, even for public schools, which necessitates for many students either the taking on of second jobs or heavy students loans w/substantial rates of interest (subsidized by the gov.t but ultimately benefiting private financial institutions); the vertical integration of academy and business, especially in the sciences (public-private partnerships that gear research/curricula towards current human resource needs of tech and biotech industries); use of BA/BS’s and MA/MS/MBA’s to scale pay; etc. etc.
So while tomemos can complain that we left-leaning academics are
accused of being fifth columnists every time we turn around
the reality is that until we stop challenging merely the curriculum (abstract values), and start challenging these concrete mechanisms of social reproduction--which effectively negate any emancipatory potential that change in curriculum might bring with it (“Think critically! So you can get a good grade in this course, keep up your GPA, graduate cum laude, and get a good entry-level job at an investment firm…”)--what real threat do we pose?
Maybe we should take a page from Michel Onfray and his founding of a free university in the south of France aimed primarily at the working-class and immigrants. The British organization NIACE is pursing similar ends, with its project of “emancipatory learning.” To pursue these alternatives would be to make what Zizek would call truly “free” choices: choices that breaks out of the horizon of existing choices. But how many of us are willing to risk our jobs that way?
economics by itself is truly, truly bad at helping us understand what it is that we want to do and why it is that we want to do it.
Later, and in a similar spirit, Joseph writes:
the exclusive focus on the economy still tends to pull us away from literature. Radical movements that tackle issues of race and gender do intersect with literature and philosophy, and may not be specifically economic in nature.
Specifically economic in nature? Perhaps not. But if they aren’t fundamentally economic in nature, how can they be considered truly radical? Marx was right--economics, understood as the “mode of production of material life,” is the fundamental determinant of our existence. That’s not “economism”; it’s the simple recognition of fact. The struggle for subjective recognition must be simultaneously the struggle to control the means of reproducing one’s objective material existence. That was Hegel’s monumental insight in The Phenomenology of Spirit--the full significance of which of course was not lost on Marx: the Lord-Bondsman situation is mutually untenable: the Lord refuses to employ his own labor in reproducing his own objective existence, while the Bondsman must alienate his own labor for the reproduction of the material existence of the Lord. Only when the two labor together, equally in the production of a common material existence can full and mutual recognition occur.
Postmodernists like to dream of a society consisting primarily of values, symbols, desires, subjectivities, and discourses referencing only themselves, a society where the material constraints of existence have become immaterial. I’d love to know where to find it. The de-industrialization of the US economy and the outsourcing of “real” production to the Third World has no doubt made this rather perverse fantasy more plausible. But it’s still false. True, many postmodernists express intense interest in the “body” as a determinant of the real. But Eagleton’s quip is apropos here--that postmodernists are only concerned with the body when it’s erotic or coupling, not when it’s starving or laboring.
Only a reductive take on the notion of economic determination conceives it as a reductive one. Determination negates transcendence, but doesn’t eliminate it. But there can be no transcendence, no freedom, without a determinate situation to transcend, without facticity. The real issue is not whether material/economic relations are important, but how they are important, in any given historical moment. In particular it’s crucial to understand the ways in which material/economic relations serve to mediate consciousness (self and self, self and other) and thus to simultaneously perpetuate social violence (symbolic as well as real) and suggest the means of overcoming such violence.
It’s ironic--but also revealing--the sense that academics have that they are somehow immune from such mediation. Apparently Bourdieu is less popular now in grad school than Deleuze, Zizek, or Agamben. But we’d do well to take him seriously, and submit our current habitus to scrutiny. CR is right to point out the narrow market for academic works, but the question isn’t just who are we producing for, but also what makes our production possible?
Finally, Rich asks:
What is the current economics that the left would suggest? In terms that would tempt people to replace the somewhat still workable system we have now?
In fact, such alternative economic models already exist. I’d recommend starting with Robin Hahnel’s book Economic Justice and Democracy. I’d also suggest the website Z-net, which is a forum devoted to envisioning practical means towards realizing a more participatory economy. You might also be interested in the economics-oriented radio programming of the Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer. Finally, there’s the extensive economic analysis on the leftist blog-zine Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice.
Apropos comments by CR and Joseph: economic ideas do influence reality, but only in conjunction with political power. As Zizek put it, ironically paraphrasing Clinton: “It’s the political economy, stupid!” The neo-liberal rhetoric on the right about free-markets etc. has effectively masked capital’s necessary manipulation of political power for economic ends. It’s time the left in the US woke up to that. The state’s the prize--it always has been. On this score, take a look at economist Dean Baker’s book The Conservative Nanny State, available free online as an e-book. To get a more detailed sense of the ongoing cash-nexus between private interests and public policy, check out the excellent in-depth coverage to be found at The Center for Public Integrity.
I should add, while we’re on the subject of “fact,” that the Democratic Party has had the facts on its side for my entire life, and nonetheless lost power at a moment when the consequences were absolutely horrific. They lost power because they were consistently unable to put the facts in a compelling rhetorical frame, and found themselves trapped within discourses of “morality” and “responsibility” invented by reactionary politicians, conservative think-tanks, and other wordsmiths.
Please, let’s put a stop to this whole “culture war” argument concerning the failure of the Democratic Party in the US. The DP didn’t lose because it was “trapped in a discourse”; it lost because the Republican Party was ruthless in imposing discipline on itself and in exploiting any and all means of acquiring power. And let’s not fool ourselves: the DP may not be as fully in the pocket of Big Business as the RP--indeed, the “fair and balanced” lobbying policy that capital used to pursue has largely been jettisoned in the past half-decade in favor of exclusive RP sponsorship--but it certainly isn’t innocent. You don’t need Chomsky--though Profits over People is a good primer--to realize the complicity of the DP in the construction of our current imperial neo-liberal (dis)order. For sure, that began under Clinton, in the ‘90s. But pace Thomas Frank, exactly when was the Golden Age of labor-oriented DP politics? The Cold War and the “liberal consensus” effectively killed internationalism in the US. It’s only been in the past decade or so--i.e. concomitant with the rise of neo-liberal globalization--that labor has started to revive it. And is it a coincidence that this revival has more or less coincided with the emergence of the first viable third party on the left in over a century, the Green Party?