Friday, July 20, 2007

There's a Specter Haunting Theory--

--the specter of existentialism….

I want to thank larvalsubjects for taking the time to respond to my previous post. Again, I apologize for the irate tone I had adopted there; my goal sincerely was to open up dialogue, not shut it down, and I’m happy that I succeeded despite my own heavy-handed efforts. I also apologize to larvalsubjects for his inability to directly comment here--I’m new to blogging and failed to realize that my default settings prohibited anyone without a blogger account to post a comment. That’s been changed.

Below are some of my responses to his responses:

Larvalsubjects writes:

All too often values of discipline and sacrifice, rhetoric of discipline and sacrifice, have been associated with fascist, dictatorial, and totalitarian regimes. Are these really the sorts of doors that we wish to open? Why not instead the valorization of values such as equality, justice, fraternity, freedom?

I agree, equality, justice, fraternity, freedom are indeed wonderful things, and should be valued first and foremost. But what does it actually mean to value equality, justice, fraternity, freedom? What value do those values have if they’re not given determinate content through praxis, through tranformative action oriented within the horizon of a collective project? How can they not be otherwise rendered untrue? As Sartre says:

the only way to determine the value of [an] affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and defines it.

But in performing such an action one must simultaneously take into account the fact that

man is in an organized situation in which he himself is involved. Through his choice, he involves all mankind, and he can not avoid making a choice…

Larvalsubjects overlooks the central point in my defense of Zizek, which is that in its present form, the hedonism of the global North, both as a value and as a practice, negates its own emancipatory potential, because the social production that subtends it entails the systematic exploitation/deprivation of others. Refusal to engage with that fact--to recognize this “organized situation”--amounts to condoning it. I.e. consciously registering the facticity of a situation means taking responsibility for it--which means in turn that if I fail to do anything to change it I must accept it as if it were my choice. The point I felt Zizek to be making in his review was that, given this actual situation of global capitalism that we find ourselves in, the truth of emancipatory hedonism can only be found in the form of its opposite, action qua discipline and sacrifice. But far from being ends in and of themselves (as in the case of fascism), the value of discipline and sacrifice here is determined solely within the horizon of a totalizing project whose real end is establishing, in Sartre’s words, “for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life” (his emphasis, not mine). The values of discipline and sacrifice can be emancipatory when--but I’ll agree only when--they take the creation of a truly universal, democratic hedonism as their content. I.e. the only thing to be sacrificed here is our complicity in a system that exploits others while asking us to sacrifice nothing except our willingness to work towards liberating those others from that exploitation. To reclaim that willingness--to sacrifice the sacrifice--means “disciplining” both our desire and our labor, which means nothing more than taking back control of our desire and our labor, something that can be done only at great risk--like risking the failure of simultaneously securing, in our careers, a comfortable material existence for ourselves. That’s not an abstract risk, but one presented to us by our concrete situation (qua academics, or whatever other profession we’re involved in).

And until we recognize this situation in all its concreteness and take responsibility for it, the objective substance of our existence will continue to effectively negate our values, however laudable they may be in the abstract.

So if there’s a theoretical issue here, for me it’s not one of a choice of master-signifier--or if it is, it’s about the relation of the master-signifier to actual praxis. The issue, that is, is recognizing the dialectical relations of valuation and action, belief and socio-material reality, and their effective contradiction in the present situation. This is the essence of Marx’s critique of ideology:

[The] transformation of history into world-history is not indeed a mere abstract act on the part of the ‘self-consciousness,’ the world-spirit, or of any other metaphysical specter, but a quite material, empirically verifiable act, an act the proof of which every individual furnishes as he comes and goes, eats, drinks and clothes himself….

Cp. this with Locke’s solution to the problem of the perpetuation of the social contract, i.e. the fact that generations that did not take part in the original formation of the contract are nevertheless still bound by it: every time you take advantage of the roads (a secondary effect of the conditions of order and property established by the contract), you’re implicitly ratifying the contract.

Marx again:

[The material conception of history] is not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice and accordingly it comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism…but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which give rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history….

Finally:
The sum of productive forces…is the real basis of what philosophers have conceived as ‘substance’ and ‘essence of man,’ and what they have deified and attacked: a real basis which is not in the least disturbed, in its effect and influence on the development of men, by the fact that these philosophers revolt against it as ‘self-consciousness’ and the ‘Unique.’


Zizek is thus simply iterating this basic Hegelian-Marxian point here when, on other occasions, he brings up all those examples about European toilets, Tibetan prayer wheels, canned laughter etc: regardless of how much the social and material determinations of our situation might contradict what we “really” (that is, inwardly) believe, regardless of how much we might inwardly disavow them, until we actively strive to transform them, they’ll constitute the effective substance of our beliefs. This is also the idea behind Zizek’s fascination with sci-fi movies about alien possession--disavowed, our own objective existence seems to inhabit us as an alien other, compelling us do and say things we subjectively reject. This idea can be traced back at least to Augustine’s theory of the diremption of the will into free will and the “will” of habit, which contradicts the “free” will: through sin (i.e. loss of total commitment to God, fragmentation of the will through pursuit of centrifugating distractions) our outward existence becomes an infernal machine that we have no control over; we are reduced to being the impotent ghost that haunts it (cp also Dante’s characterization of Satan qua windmill in the Inferno).

This was also the point I was trying to make in my last post in my reading of the Lord-Bondsman relation.

Foucault’s notion of disciplinization--that disciplinization works by dissociating body and mind, alienating the productive forces of the body and inserting them in a network of power where they can function independent of our conscious control--can be read as a further version of the thesis, or as its application on a radical socio-historical level.

In fact, if we perform a somewhat artificial operation and make the “body” in Foucault‘s analysis coterminous with the global population, the hedonism of late consumer capitalism does not constitute the negation of disciplinization at all, but on the contrary is its affirmation in true global form, bringing together in mutual dependency (but also mutual misrecognition) the “liberation” (in the global North) of compulsive behavior under the sign of inwardly multiplying desire and the enslavement (in the global South) of free behavior under the sign of externally imposed necessity. In Augustinian terms, the global North is the sinful habit-body entrapping the global South’s free historical subject.

Back to Zizek, then, in our world-historical situation, the proper negation of the negation of disciplinization would not be its rejection in favor of hedonism--which already in itself subjects us to a regime of disciplinization--but rather the radical appropriation of discipline--i.e. appropriation of discipline for the freely self-determined end of establishing global democracy, bringing subject and body back in alignment with one another.

Of course it should be made clear that in consciously choosing discipline and sacrifice as the proper form of action (though not its content), reflexivity is not thereby excluded. No one--least of all Zizek, I like to believe--wants to create a movement of blind obedience, of mindless, totalitarian conformity. I certainly don’t. That’s why I argue that the true re-appropriation of discipline renders it self-reflexive and self-determining--a creative form of conditioning for praxis. But I think it is important to recognize in any case that the ungrounded and ungroundable choice to commit is the precondition for any meaningful reflexivity. So I agree with larvalsubjects when he writes:

The time will never be right, and certainly the elements populating the situation will never suggest that the time is ripe for revolution.

We cannot know what we want to do until we’ve taken the fateful step and begun doing it. As Hegel put it:

The individual who is going to act seems…to find himself in a circle in which each moment already presupposes the other, and thus he seems unable to find a beginning, because he only gets to know his original nature, which must be his End, from the deed, while, in order to act, he must have that End beforehand. But for that very reason he has to start immediately, and, whatever the circumstances, without further scruples about beginning, means, or End, proceed to action….

In Sartre’s terms:

the revelation of a situation is effected in and through the praxis which changes it. We do not hold that this first act of becoming conscious of the situation is the originating source of an action; we see in it a necessary moment of the action itself--the action, in the course of its accomplishment, provides its own clarification.

The ironic thing is--and this was the point I was trying to make in my original post--people have already proceeded to action, and the action has begun to clarify the situation. I wasn’t trying to criticize larvalsubjects on this point in my original post, and I’m glad that we’re on the same page. But the truth is, the “people who do not yet exist” are us. What’s left to us is to get involved. At the least to enter into active dialogue--I really do want to stress that option, as a concrete possibility of acting. I think of Chomsky, who keeps up continuous private correspondence with various activist groups, including locally-based, socially-responsible religious groups. That’s a good start, I think.

As to larvalsubjects’ comment:

What interests me is how these groups emerged at all, what affects they mobilize, how they have managed to motivate people, what new sorts of subjectivities they produce, and how they have effectively challenged, and arguably transformed, various institutions whether at the governmental level or at the corporate level, and so on. This is what I find missing in so much of the political thought I read.

I wholeheartedly agree: these are essential questions, perhaps the essential questions. I think Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is an excellent source of conceptual tools for thinking about them; it’s a shame it’s been so utterly neglected. I would just warn that pursuing these questions for their own sake, without commitment, risks us falling back into an impotent sociological formalism.

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