Sure, I support people taking professional risks in the name of their political convictions. But while I agree that Zizek’s lifestyle doesn’t make him a hypocrite, I would also point out that it solidly refutes the notion that Zizekian ideas are somehow just too dangerous for academics to espouse. Apparently there’s no surer road to success than being Zizek.
If we’re talking academic success, I’d argue that Zizek is far more of a “public intellectual” than he is an academic. His official post at Ljubljana is more of a sinecure than an actual academic position. It involves no teaching responsibilities, nor does it require him to be in situ for any significant portion of the academic year. How many US universities would promote faculty who accept no teaching responsibilities and spend most of their time abroad, presenting public lectures at other universities as well as at various non-academic forums, and publishing most of their books and articles outside the peer-review system? Zizek is the fantasy of the academic as intellectual free agent, liberated from the disciplinary mechanisms of the tenure-track. As to his ideas, espousing them is one thing, acting on them is another. He was pretty popular until his review of 300, which appears to go “too far” in its call to action. Now, at least among this group, he’s suddenly dangerous, a reactionary. That’s was the funny thing to me, and what motivated my comments, that the line between safe and dangerous appears to be drawn at the issue of political action.
H. is not distinguishing here between ascetic discipline and ideological discipline. If he just wants us to purchase fewer products, that’s fine by me. If, on the other hand, he wants to subordinate x number of revolutionaries to y number of revolutionary leaders, which is what Zizek wants, then my response is a puzzled demand to know how such structures differ from existing hierarchical and fascistic structures.
I don’t think the issue is one of asceticism at all, unless perhaps we’re using the word in the technical sense that Foucault used it, as dedicated self-work. Our labor should be determined by our project--as should our pleasure. That means desiring our desire, taking responsibility both for it and for the situation we find ourselves in. In this context, “hedonism” means a relation to desire that enables its objective correlates, its objects petit a, to dominate us, and for which we are willing to make self-compromising sacrifices (the bad kind of sacrifices) that do nothing to challenge the injustices of the status quo. In contrast, Zizekian “discipline” and “sacrifice”--and this interpretation is not only based on his comments in the 300 review--simply mean posing to ourselves the hard questions: What do we really want? And are we willing to follow through with it, to accept all of the consequences of pursuing it? If there’s renunciation involved in this, it can only be determined by the course of our commitment to the desire/project, not a priori. In Nietzsche’s formulation: By doing, we forego. Or, what we do determines what we forgo. Again, I think Zizek’s point is not to assert the value of discipline and sacrifice in and of themselves (“fun is counter-revolutionary!”), but simply to reaffirm their necessary connection to any committed action. And I think that’s a connection that needs reaffirming, especially for those of us for whom a certain level of material comfort mutes the exigency of taking action. Being committed means changing our lives; changing our lives means re-appropriating/reconstituting our desire; re-appropriating/reconstituting our desire means experiencing a kind of “living death,” which is why we so often resist it when it is not imposed upon us from without. Given this resistance, what exactly is so bad about affirming the value of “sacrifice” (empty in itself), consciously chosen, consciously determined, and subordinated to the collective goal of establishing a minimum of freedom for all humankind?
Can it go wrong? Sure. But what is worse--taking the risk or not taking it at all? That is all I think Zizek was going for in “celebrating” the Spartans: despite the very real possibility of failure, the acted anyway, they refused to compromise themselves. And that is the precise definition of the authentic political act.
As for ideological discipline, I explicitly rejected the Leninist vanguard intelligentsia model in favor of the “network” model of anarco-syndicalism, which was an inspiration for both Sartre and Hardt/Negri, if not for Habermas. And the more I consider it, the less I’m convinced that Zizek’s own goal in reviving Lenin is to re-establish Lenin’s proposal for the creation of a revolutionary party. On the contrary, I think Zizek’s turn to Lenin is simply aimed at reaffirming the centrality of the political, that is, of fully committed political intervention in a situation for the purpose of changing its parameters altogether. That’s a question of what, not how. As Zizek puts it in his essay “On Belief”:
The return to Lenin is the endeavor to retrieve the unique moment when a thought already transposes itself into a collective organization, but does not yet fix itself into an Institution (the established Church, the IPA, the Stalinist Party-State). It aims neither at nostalgically reenacting the “good old revolutionary times,” nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to “new conditions,” but at repeating, in the present world-wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of initiating a political project that would undermine the totality of the global liberal-capitalist world order, and, furthermore, a project that would unabashedly assert itself as acting on behalf of truth, as intervening in the present global situation from the standpoint of its repressed truth.
But even if the formation of a vanguard party is not really part of the agenda, does that mean the only alternative is spontaneous political organization/action? Can there be no consciously organized and adhered to political project beyond the centralized, hierarchical model of the party? Can we not deliberate priorities and strategies in a non-coercive way without those deliberations ultimately taking on a life of their own and substituting themselves for action?
In an aside, Joseph writes:
I’d point out that although H. rejects valorizing sacrifice in itself, the whole first half of his paragraph does just that, suggesting some kind of naive solidarity between dreamed-up ascetics and oppressed laborers.
No, I wasn’t trying to express some sort of immediate identity with the oppressed masses. That certainly would be naïve. Then again, I wasn’t really talking about solidarity in the first place. I was talking about the complex but ultimately economic mediations that connect the populations of the global South to those of the global North. If these mediations presently unite us, it’s a union of antitheses. Whether I like it or not, the social character of my private participation in the current mode of production implicates me in the exploitation of others. Granted, recognizing that reality doesn’t immediately change it, but it does make me responsible for it, it makes that reality my reality, and thus enables me to choose solidarity as a project--that is, not something to simply be posited, but something to be diligently worked towards. Awareness is only an initial moment, though at the same time a necessary one. Merleau-Ponty formulated this tension quite elegantly:
[I]t is likely that a man such as Lenin identified himself with revolution and eventually transcended the distinction between intellectual and worker. But these are the virtues proper to action and commitment; at the outset, I am not an individual beyond class, I am situated in a social environment, and my freedom, though it may have the power to commit me elsewhere, has not the power to transform me instantaneously into what I decide to be. Thus to be a bourgeois or a worker is not only to be aware of being one or the other, it is to identify oneself as a worker or bourgeois through an implicit or existential project which merges into our way of patterning the world and co-existing with other people.
That said, one of the things I really appreciated about Joseph’s original post was his foregrounding of the tension between the emotional-temporal state of desire and that of work. The Stimmung of revolution is urgency. The Stimmung of labor is patience. A truly emancipatory praxis needs to hold both in productive unity. A topic for further investigation.
consumerism is not identical with pleasure. Zizek really is inhabiting some sort of Puritan fever dream if he thinks that sex or loud music are founded on the oppression of the masses.
No, rock ‘n’ roll and sex don’t exactly oppress the masses. But neither can they (in their present forms) be completely divorced from the functioning of the current consumerist economy. I wouldn’t call myself a Puritan--let alone a feverish one--but I happen to think that repressive desublimation is a very real thing, and something to be fought against. If we want to be more than post-historical animals, I think we must take up again the struggle against the contentment, the complacency that constantly tempts our material investment in existence in the current “biopolitical” paradigm (Hardt/Negri’s sense, not Foucault’s). At any rate, I personally think there is a truly spiritual pleasure to be found in struggle.
That said, am I advocating here some sort of consumerist asceticism? Of course not. Marx:
Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation.
Am I advocating then some sort of ethical consumerism? On the contrary, I’m actually trying to shift focus away from problems of individual consumption and towards those of social production.
This is where I think Joseph misreads me. Elsewhere, he writes:
I just don’t think that canceling my subscription to Netflix is going to resolve the troubles in Bangladesh…
And that’s true. But if that’s the only alternative we have, then our situation is bleak indeed. But that wasn’t the kind of action I was advocating here. The kind of action I was advocating was the committed (i.e. sustained) action of a determinate and organized project that intervenes in the situation to transform its presuppositions. I brought up the examples of Onfray and NIACE, not that of a shopper at Target choosing to buy organic dishwashing soap. I also brought up Badiou’s work with l’Organisation politique. I could also have mentioned the GIP (Group d’Information sur les Prisons), the prisoners’ rights organization founded by Foucault in 1971. From the GIP’s manifesto:
We live in a society of “custody.” They tell us that the system of justice is overwhelmed. That is easy to see. But what if the police are the ones who have overwhelmed us? They tell us that the prisons are overcrowded. But what if the population is over-imprisoned? There is very little information published about prisons; it is one of the hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark compartments of our existence. It is our right to know. We want to know. That is why, with magistrates, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and psychologists, we have created an association for information about prisons.
The GIP does not propose to speak in the name of the prisoners in various prisons: it proposes, on the contrary, to provide them with the possibility of speaking themselves and telling what goes on in prisons. The GIP does not have reformist goals; we do not dream of some ideal prison; we hope that prisoners may be able to say what it is that is intolerable for them in the system of penal repression. We have to disseminate as quickly and widely as possible the revelations that the prisoners make--the sole means of unifying what is inside and outside the prison, the political battle and the legal battle, into one and the same struggle.
Closer to home (i.e. contemporary US academia), I could have cited activists scholars like Mike Davis or Angela Davis. Or the Public Sociology project, led by Michael Burawoy of UCB. Or the even more committed Sociologists without Frontiers.
Elsewhere, I’ve endorsed Klein’s work as a journalist/activist collaborator. I could also mention Christian Parenti, as socially conscious journalist cum historian who happens to hold a Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics. There’s the collaborative project Reporters without Frontiers. Or the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), an offshoot of the Center for Public Integrity.
What characterizes all of these examples is the combination of the metis of a particular intellectual trade with organized action. The discipline of specialized training with the discipline of committed involvement in an ongoing praxis-process.
To present the alternative--as is so often done--as one between resigned quietism and ethical consumerism (both of which are thoroughly individual endeavors) testifies to the current impoverishment of political imagination, which is what I believe Zizek is trying to challenge.
At any rate, these examples are meant to be engaged with, not simply emulated. To paraphrase Julien Gracq’s comment about art: in politics there are no rules, only examples. Choose your own choice. But the important thing is to choose. As long as affirmation or negation take place solely within the abstract realm of consciousness or theory, history is effectively at an end, disillusionment is inevitable.
ROLE OF THE ACADEMY
H. writes that I responded “by exhibiting denial” to the suggestion that academia upholds middle-class values. He quotes me on the necessity of academic thought to class-consciousness, and on the association of academia (at other times, in other places) with the aristocracy and the proletariat, then writes: "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." First of all, don’t psychologize. With a debate like this, one is either passionately involved, or merely condescending. Everything touches a nerve, as H. notes at the very beginning of his post.
Actually, I wasn’t trying to psychologize. My claim that Rich’s comment touched a nerve was not directed at Joseph’s response but at tomemos’, which I immediately quoted:
I’ve gotten well sick of having my values described as “middle class.”
I felt the language there was strong enough to warrant an emotional characterization. But I should say that I didn’t take this emotion as indicative of a strictly personal state of mind, but rather of an impersonal habitus characteristic of academics. (And I am not including myself out here.)
At any rate, the argument that was coming through to me in this discussion was that the academy can’t possibly serve middle-class interests because it promotes radical values in its curriculum. And I just don’t think that argument holds. To me, modern academia is governed by a structural contradiction that forces it to effectively function in the interests of a class society: on the one hand, yes, it has come to promote radical democratic values through its curriculum, but on the other hand it continues to frustrate the social realization of those values through its admissions process, funding, accreditation system, administrative bureaucracy, relations to government and industry, etc.
I acknowledged that tomemos held universal access to education as an ideal, but the fact that the institutional mechanisms I mention above were nowhere addressed in the discussion (except maybe by Rich) as essential impediments to that ideal was what prompted my critique.
It’s also what prompted my mention of Bourdieu, to which Joseph responds:
this is the moment that gave me the most heartache, because if these debates, ostensibly about human suffering, become about a more serious return to this or that thinker, then their objective truth is really academic will-to-power, and nothing else.
No, it wasn’t my intention to engage in some kind of academic will-to-power. Certainly, I myself am not immune to many of Bourdieu’s criticisms of academic intellectuals. For instance, it doesn’t take a lot of procrustean butchery to fit me into his category of the “adolescent,” i.e. the grad student in a relatively marginalized field of the social-sciences/humanities whose attitude of revolt adheres to a kind of utopian voluntarism. All the same, his work has made me vigilant about the complicity of the academy in the reproduction of social and economic inequality, and the need to examine empirically the specific coordinates of that complicity. Unfortunately, that’s a point that often gets lost in these debates. I think that the fullest knowledge of a situation, theoretically-framed but empirically-grounded, is an indispensable aid to action engaged with it. For me, that’s become one of the essential tasks of the ongoing project of enlightenment: to re-synthesize emancipatory reason and instrumental reason. And that’s been the chief motivation for me in starting this blog, to construct/dispense knowledge of our concrete situation in all its concreteness, not simply in terms of those trends that are negating our possibilities, but more especially in terms of those that are negating back in active and concrete ways.
Back to the academy. To the comments on its history, Joseph responds:
“Academia” is not limited to the last thirty years in the United States and Europe. There have been academies wholly devoted to revolutionary Marxist thought, with Russia (at least during Lenin’s tenure) and Cuba being the most obvious examples. If the academy was merely a tool of the haute bourgeoisie, then it would have to have been simultaneous with the advent of the bourgeoisie and market capitalism. Its history goes much further back.
I’d agree, the history of the academy is a long and complex one. And as far back as Abelard, there’s been something of a radical core to the project. The word university itself refers to the fact the first academies (in Europe) were legally-recognized corporate-collective organizations expressing common interest between teachers and students over against establishments like the church and the state. And the emergence of the important notion of “objective” knowledge is certainly tied to the emergence of academics as a distinct social group.
Nevertheless, for much of its history the university has served to produce professional elites (doctors, lawyers, theologians, scientists, engineers, managers, analysts, etc.) culled largely from the ranks of the third estate and whose expertise is made to serve the interests of church, state, or (more recently) organized capital. Call them organic intellectuals or mandarins or state nobility or what have you, but the function that these professionals have served and continue to serve (and not necessarily consciously) is to ensure that the system continues to work in both its hegemonic and in its direct mode of domination. (I’d argue this characterization also holds for the USSR, which to my mind was not a revolutionary communist society, but a bureaucratic state-capitalist one.)
Furthermore, with the rise, starting in the Renaissance, of alternative centers of learning/knowledge-production (the humanist schools, the learned/scientific societies, the salons, the military academies, the vocational schools), the academy has striven to defend its privileged position in the educational field and to maintain the cachet of the knowledge it produces/disseminates by restricting access to it even further. The push towards the “democratization” of university education that began in earnest in the early 20th century has certainly posed a significant challenge to the elitist nature of the academy, but nominal diversity alone hasn’t yet radically altered either the academy’s socio-economic structure or its socio-economic function.
I’ll admit, I’m being schematic here, but I think I’m expressing a kernel of truth, which is to some extent confirmed by the socio-economic issues explicitly confronted by the alternative higher-education projects I referenced.
As to those projects, Joseph writes:
These admirable people aren’t risking their jobs; they’re founding universities in countries that invest substantially more in higher education per capita.
Onfray refused to take the classic French academic cursus honorum. His university is financially supported in part from the proceeds from the sale of his many books, most of which are written for a general, not scholarly audience. He also teaches at his university, offering courses on the counter-history of philosophy. Eschewing the safety of a conventional post in the academic establishment, he’s self-employing his capital and his labor together in a project to empower the disadvantaged. NIACE is an independent, non-profit organization; its members include people like Jane Thompson, formerly of the working-class-aligned Ruskin College, Oxford, who has spent her life devoted not to achieving tenure but to enacting the principles of Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed.”
As to national investment in education: both of the ventures I cited aim to address deficiencies in their respective national educational systems, and to do so outside of establishment initiative, financing, or regulation. So while it’s true that in England and particularly in France education in general is far more socialized than in the US and receives far more state subsidization, I don’t see how differential per capita investment in education between US and EU really has anything to do with the issue.
What the issue is really about is summed up neatly by Sartre: “It is evident that the rejection of the principle of authority by the masses themselves and the exercise of a constant auto-critique as well as a critique directed against institutions and politics, implies that greater and greater social groups have access to culture…” And I truly believe that that has to be a ground-up operation, not a top-down one.
Which brings us to...
BREAD AND ROSES
To my remarks about materialism, Joseph writes:
art is not a “function” of economics, except when the excesses of literary production and consumption are glossed over with superficial appeals to the markets that currently organize them.
I never used the word “function”; in fact, I explicitly rejected economic determinism in its most reductive form. Nor did I say that art wasn’t important, or that it lacks an essential, critical function. Though it’s not my field, I happen to teach literature as a TA, and if were to be stuck on a desert island, and had to choose between having with me Capital or Moby-Dick, you can rest assured I’d pick the latter. If anything, I think the problem is that the negation that art can effect is too much of a free-floating negation. I intervened in this part of the discussion because it seemed to me that once again the critique of political economy was being shunted in favor of what continental philosophy has already been doing for decades: a kind of guerilla art criticism which, while brilliant and inspiring, has hitherto not been able to organize effective interventions in what Spengler* called the “big actualit[ies]” of our world-historical moment, the hard realities of capital markets, labor conditions, real estate, bureaucracy, the military, the criminal justice system, the production of technology, etc. I think that the emancipatory values art can embody can be activated only in conjunction with work towards changing the social conditions that impede the realization of those values, and that means foregrounding issues of political economy in our analyses.
*I recognize Spengler’s right-wing pedigree. But I still think he had some interesting things to say.
About my rejection of the “culture war” paradigm in current thinking about American politics, Joseph writes:
This is circular logic, since the Republican Party imposed discipline on itself after first moving farther right, and since one of the “means of acquiring power” was the rhetorical re-shaping of American political discourse.
He then goes on to say, in response to my characterization of the Green Party as a viable third-party:
Nothing, in the history of leftist politics since my 18th birthday, has made me angrier than Nader’s bright-white campaign and his refusal to concede when his failure was assured. George W. Bush’s victory can’t be blamed on Nader, any more than it can be entirely blamed on the corrupt decision of our Supreme Court. But Nader could have tried to prevent it by urging voters in swing states to vote for Gore. The fact that he couldn’t win five percent in solidly Democratic states is a testament to the Green Party’s lack of diversity and vision.
In my defense: I don’t think my argument here is circular, for the same reason I don’t buy the argument that Nader had some role to play in the loss of the DP in 2000. I’ll admit that manipulation of public discourse has been an important weapon in the RP arsenal and has had pernicious effects--I didn’t really mean to dismiss it outright in my original comments. But political discourse has to be situated in relation to the employment of non-discursive means to seize/maintain power. A random sampling of some of those means would include: direct-mailing, media-consolidation, redistricting, selective disenfranchisement (e.g. of Florida prisoners), sweetheart corporate fundraising deals, tactical lawsuits (like the one that brought the election before the Supreme Court), selective enforcement of the Voters’ Rights Act, coordination of federal and corporate policy (esp. through integration of membership of lobbying industry and of federal regulatory bodies), executive legislation (bypassing of deliberative lawmaking through regular use of executive decrees and administrative regulations), use of secrecy to inhibit public scrutiny, partisan federal funding policy/guidelines, etc. etc.
But while the current situation is bad, I don’t think that justifies romanticizing the Clinton-Gore era DP, which oversaw, among other things: the Telecommunications Act, which enabled the current system of corporate media consolidation; NAFTA; the Financial Services Modernization Act, which did away with the New Deal-era regulations prohibiting the integration of banking, insurance, and brokerage services and has enabled oligopolistic control of capital markets; the replacement of the AFDC program with that of the TAFN; the use of the US military in “humanitarian” missions like Somalia and Kosovo, which set the precedent for the preemptive war policy of the Bush Administration; etc. Whatever its faults, at least the Green Party has stood up against these very things, and I find that promising.
BTW, if the idea of ideological discipline imposed for the sake of ensuring the victory of a hierarchically organized party is truly problematic, shouldn’t the accusations by mainstream DP liberals that the Green Party has “betrayed the cause” by involving themselves in politics bother us? Doesn’t that smack just a little of Bolshevism?
In response to comments I made about postmodernism, Joseph writes:
This shoehorns me, or me and some portion of the commenters on that entry, into the world of the postmodern. Yes, I find the single-minded eroticism of certain postmodern systems rather one-sided and lame. However, I also find the asexual sterility of capitalism quite odd. But if the point here is that the hungry want feeding, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that a truly perverse way of disagreeing with me, since it is absolutely beyond dispute and comprehensible to a six-year old.
I’m sorry for the snarkiness of the remarks I made on that subject, and I thank Joseph for putting me in my place. It wasn’t meant as a personal attack. It was only meant to point out the way in which theory itself can obscure the reality its supposed to enable us to grapple with. How objective reality somehow becomes superfluous in theory’s functioning as a discourse, and thus inhibits its revolutionary potential. My motivation for intervening in this discussion was primarily to draw attention to essential realities that for some reason were being passed over in silence. In all the talk about the impotence of continental theory, no one brought up the existence of alternative discourses and practices. In all the talk about the social status of higher education, no one brought up the actual institutional mechanisms of its functioning. In all the talk about political action, no one brought up the human suffering that supposedly such action is aimed to eliminate. I don’t buy the argument that these things are so “obvious” that we don’t need to keep them at the forefront of our thinking. It’s the most obvious that demands the most sustained attention, the most intense scrutiny.