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I had originally intended this as a comment on JJ’s recent critique of Zizek’s theology (which is really a theological critique of ideology, via Marx, Hegel, et al. — the usual players). However, it’s thorough enough that I think it’s more suited for posting. Maybe we can start a ‘conversation’ of sorts this way.

You’re right that there seems something false, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing and even ‘obscurantist,’ ironically, in Zizek’s theological (and other) work. He does make glaring omissions, and he always uses the critique of capitalism as the ultimate excuse to take potshots. It’s a painfully obvious crutch. If he weren’t so good at theory in general, it’d be an embarrassment.

It’s true, as you say, that many on the far-Right use the notion of the supreme, ‘sacred’ right to one’s own (irrefutable) beliefs/opinions in order to avoid criticism. However, they also use this in defense of what they truly believe to be real facts (think of Creationism). The obsession with reading the Bible as fact, regardless of the evidence, does not mean that fundamentalist Christians cling to belief despite facts, despite the inaccuracy of the Bible. They’re still obsessed with facts and not belief. It’s just that they develop their own facts against any reasonable position, and they claim that the Bible is the ultimate source of facts. They’re still very anti-Kierkegaardian. There’s only one way to God, and it’s through their own, bizarre facts.

I think the same could be said of the misogynist, homophobic, etc., strains in fundamentalist Christianity. These beliefs are based on what they assert to be facts. It’s as if anything they don’t like, they can say they don’t like it because they Bible tells them they shouldn’t (the ultimate proof of this false reliance on the Bible as an authority is that, ironically, they add their own ¨facts¨ to the Bible when it doesn’t say something they want it to say about a form of social life that’s alienating to them).

In a way, it’s very risky what Zizek is doing. He’s bypassing the critique of the specific problems with the fundamentalist beliefs in order to critique the basic form they take, their ideological ‘matrix.’ This leaves open the possibility that those specific problems will continue. In other words, the ultimate way to bring down the fundamentalists wouldn’t be to convince them of the ridiculousness of their theories (since obviously that’s failed time and again). It would be, rather, to meet them head-on, on their own terms, take what they believe, and criticize how they themselves do not even follow their own legacy, how they themselves, if they wanted to be good Christians, wouldn’t cling to their ¨facts¨ (see how that’s more appealing to them, to hear a critic who’s ostensibly like them? — even though, yes, Zizek is an atheist). By accepting their terms, he could begin to start a successful dialogue with them (if one can speak this generously about such a confrontational personality). In a way, I think this is what reviewers mean when they say Zizek is ¨the most dangerous philosopher in the West¨ — he’s doing great work, but his ideas are so radical, it’s risky and dangerous for even the Left to follow them.

Of course, then the question becomes, well, is he actually speaking to the Right at all? That is up for debate. I think I’d say he’s actually not at all speaking to them… so, perhaps I’ve just contradicted myself… hmm, maybe Hegel has something to say about that?

But to continue anyway, as far as Zizek’s real audience, here’s my argument for why he’s actually speaking to the Left. The type of rhetoric that goes on in far-Right and fundamentalist Christian discourse is so disturbing, it almost seems hopeless to continue to critique it. It’s just astounding. People won’t listen to reason. And when there’s a new critique, whether an article or a documentary, etc., the author’s always preaching to the choir… no one who needs convincing is actually going to be convinced. So in some ways, frankly, I think that Zizek is right to avoid making criticisms that seem very important to us. He’s said somewhere that the way to triumph is to symbolically ¨castrate¨ the far-Right so that, all of a sudden, ¨their voices will get a little bit higher,¨ meaning that no one will listen to them. It’s like giving someone the cold shoulder. Sometimes that’s more effective, I think, than directly confronting them. So I think  Zizek’s ultimate concern is to help the Left formulate its own project, to convert more and more people already on the Center or the Center-Left to the radical Left. Then, maybe, we’ll be a majority, and the conservatives simply won’t have an effective platform?

I’ve always had suspicions about Zizek’s ‘theories.’ I keep thinking that there’s gotta be a reason for it — that there’s wisdom behind all the weirdness. But my doubts keep lingering. I usually defer to his word because I haven’t done nearly as much study as he has. And sure, he’s just as fallible as anyone else. But I think you’re right on some points. He does seem to misread, or misleadingly read, several philosophers. I haven’t read as much Kierkegaard as you have. And I might dive back into it.


“It is sad to be ready and not be called. But it is tragic to be called and not be ready.” — Livingston Taylor

This is Taylor’s aphorism for aspiring musicians. His message is actually very simple: always have a one-minute piece prepared so you can be ready to play anytime you’re asked.

Yet what a clear illustration of the subject’s commitment to the Symbolic! Psychoanalysis, forward ho!

One wants recognition from the Master-Signifier. It is sad to work for this in vain, to be ready and yet ignored. But it is tragic, in the original sense of the word — exemplified in the character of Antigone — to be called, recognized by the Master-Signifier as part and parcel of the Symbolic, and yet to be unable to heed that call, unable to participate. Antigone’s role was one that everybody in the community could relate to; her tragedy was archetypal.

Comedy is something different. It is the opposite of archetype; it is incongruity. This is because the comic character is anomalous; he knows no role, follows no cultural script. Comedy results when the subject is in neither a sad nor a tragic position. He is oblivious to any sort of “call” and thus also to the work to be done to prepare to heed said call. The comic subject doesn’t recognize the Symbolic, doesn’t identify with his relation to the Master-Signifier. The comic character is ignorant. He is without guilt, without attachment — without commitment.

This post is a bit anachronistic, considering our recent focus on #OWS. It’s something I wrote as a reflection on a reading of Žižek’s Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, from our postmodern philosophy course, one of the last I took as a senior at Kalamazoo College. It’s been on my hard drive for quite a while and I’d like finally to put it up. So here goes. Warning: it’s fairly short, but dense. For a more exciting Žižek text related to this, scroll to the bottom; I link to an article there. . .

People use Hegel’s dialectical triad to describe numerous phenomena, perhaps most notably the history of modernity: modern thought progresses through (1) a premodern attachment to a supernatural or metaphysical essence, (2) a modern, hyper-rationalist attachment to scientific paradigms, and (3) a postmodern, qualified rationalism which understands its limitedness.

Žižek distinguishes these three stages based on their different qualifications of the concept of “form:” each ideological paradigm is characterized by its attachment to a particular relation between a stated form or prototype (e.g., a literary genre, scientific paradigm, or political ideology) and (2) that which is said to characterize the form. This ideological change, mapped onto the history of modernity, is the movement as follows: form / essence, form / matter, and form / content.

First, an entity posits a simple notion, a form “in itself,” one with no other source of verification; this is the couple form / essence, in which form is determined tautologically by an a priori essence, an eternal or Platonic ideal that precedes even the existence of the form — it “is,” because it should be.

Second, the notion sees itself reflected in an external material reality that challenges the assumptions of its original “essence;” this is the couple form / matter, according to which the notion seeks to determine its form based on an a posteriori empirical (usually scientific) investigation of the material truth of its premises, which it revises based on evidence.

The third and final movement is determinate reflection, in which the notion posits itself as a manipulation of matter, not a pure representation of it; this is the couple form / content: instead of using empirical evidence to provide a substantial ground for itself, the notion realizes that this material reality can never be captured “in itself,” can never be accounted for in its totality by form, is always subject to the limitations of the presuppositions of the formal operations used for studying material reality, and thus matter only serves as the manipulable substratum through which the form posits a particular content that is always an incomplete representation of the underlying matter.

Content is the “oppositional determination” of form; it is the misstep which indicates the incompleteness of the form: content and form are two sides of the same coin. It is because form is able to manipulate matter, the purely empty universal, existing beyond any formal appropriation of matter, that content exists at all. The “pathology” of any purportedly closed system of ideology — capitalism, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, etc. — is that the form itself never comes into question; we simply continue the search for a truest possible content that would revise the form to match a better picture of reality, rather than analyzing the form itself as a limitation beset with flawed presuppositions.

Modern ideologies tend to operate at this second stage, the level of form / matter: we can avoid capitalist financial catastrophes by discovering a safer way to invest in the market; we can avoid racism or ethnocentrism by showing the cultural-historical or genetic similarities of all human beings; we can avoid sexism by showing that males and females are equally smart and capable. All of these rely on the second type of formal relation; they make use of science to investigate material reality in order to develop a closer and closer formal approximation to that reality. The problem with this, as Zizek points out, is that these systems don’t challenge their own presuppositions. What if, after all, the market can’t function without wild speculation, or races and ethnicities really do have discreet genetic or cultural-historical markers, or the sexes really do differ in major ways?

There is no guarantee out their in the world that our ideologies or paradigms are sound. The fact that we seem to go on forever finding a better picture of things shows that we run up against a deadlock when it comes to understanding material reality: there is always something that, despite our best efforts, eludes our grasp. What is the best economic system? What is the best way to think of race and ethnicity, or national identity, or sex and gender? These things are inherently ungraspable. The Lacanian point is that any system of knowledge (the Symbolic order) will always run up against the Real, the deadlock of explanation.

This facet of human existence — uncertainty — is that which separates (and distinguishes) us from the rest of the universe. We are more than things, because we reflect on our situation (we can never grasp the world outside of thought; we don’t have the immediate sensation of “being” that an unthinking animal has); but we are not gods, because thought is always flawed (the Understanding simply can’t grasp all potential phenomena; we can’t conceive of the entirety of the universe like a deity could). Rather, we are stuck in the middle ground.

Ideology is false inasmuch as it denies this fact: it takes as knowable that which we can’t ever know. Think of these two examples: on the one hand, we have scientism or logical positivism, which tries to hold up human intelligence/rationality (pure thought) as the ultimate authority, as a god; on the other, we have deep ecology, spiritualism, or Zen, all of which try to hold up the un-thought (pure being/nature) as the ultimate authority. This is a false dichotomy. It is stuck at the level form/matter, instead of form/content. We need to get to the point where ideology becomes comical and ironic.

One of the quickest and most exciting reads on this is an article on Kierkegaard and belief in which Žižek discusses the paradoxes of human existence by giving two different readings of Antigone — one tragic, the other comic.

In homage to #OWS, let me say that I think the protestors are breaking out of the vicious cycle of the second type of relation, form / matter; the form itself is under interrogation.

It is absolutely essential that Occupy Wall Street protestors reject the call to submit a list of demands.

Protestors don’t need to answer to anyone except themselves. They are a symptom of a diseased society. They’re taking to the streets to bring this disease to everyone’s attention, and, in particular, to hold up a mirror to those in power. If the current regime fails, it will be because the rift that finally has been brought to light in a concentrated effort will have made the system collapse under its own weight, because of its own internal contradictions. Everything is collapsing from within. The protestors are just the ones courageous enough to wake people up before it’s too late.

They are not using Us vs. Them logic. That is the exact opposite of what they are saying. They are saying that everyone is part of the same system. They are the 99% reminding the 1% that they too (the 1%) are part of the system. That’s why the protestors represent something Universal. They are speaking for everyone. Everyone is in this. The protestors have just brought to the light of day what others want to stifle and suppress and block from sight, what others are too cowardly or stupid or selfish to face. There are no demands that need to be submitted. The protestors’ responsibility is only to list their grievances, which are the grievances of an entire society.

To submit a list of demands would be to acknowledge the Us vs. Them logic, which has no place in this. It would be a cop-out, an unfair bargain — a purchase of a toxic asset, if you will. It is the responsibility of those in power to legitimate their rule, to justify the way they’re running things. That’s the protestors’ demand: for those in power to answer for themselves, to answer for the deterioration of the society we all share. Those in power have to answer to the protestors, not the other way around. Those in power should be submitting their suggestions for how they’re going to get us out of this (since they have the power to do so). That’s what the protests are fighting for. And that’s why they have to keep growing. The stronger the message, and the longer it’s delivered, the harder it will be to ignore. We’re all neighbors, after all.

As a final word, I want to comment on the remarks of one protestor, a 35-year-old history teacher, interviewed by the New York Times for this piece on the issue of demands. He quotes Frederick Douglass as saying, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” . . . . But #OWS has already made their demand. Mr. Douglass’ point is that people shouldn’t be lazy and wait for others to take action. “Demand” in that case meant “raise your fist in the air.” Abolitionists didn’t need to write up a list of demands. Their demands were well-enough “articulated” through action; they were there for everyone to see, out in the streets. Their demands were grievances, not suggestions (unless you count the suggestion to end the cause of the grievances — “we hate slavery; end slavery” — a pretty simple formula for making demands that #OWS has already used a million times over).

A demand is as much an act as a proposal. The burden of writing up a proposal is in the hands of those who created the situation, not the ones responsible enough to criticize it.

(I started thinking about this after I read Ernesto Laclau’s article The Philosophical Roots of Discourse Theory, in which he discusses hegemonic relations, specifically the categories of difference and equivalence. There’s obviously much more to be said on #OWS and hegemony).

Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protestors continue to face police brutality. Now is an excellent time to think about the meaning of the institution of the police, and especially its relation to the political. In Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière describes these categories, based on a close reading of Plato’s Republic, as well as numerous other classical and contemporary texts. The difficulty of developing a theory of the political and of democracy cannot be overestimated. Rancière’s work is exemplary in this regard. The following is a basic description he gives of the logic of the police, and of their function, compared to those of the political.

The police enforce “patterns and procedures of ruling that are predicated on a given distribution of qualifications, places, and competencies” (53). This (re)enforcement is anti-political, because true politics negates the status quo. It is the exposure of a rift in society, a dispute within a hierarchy; and in this dispute there appears a re-distribution of social space. Democracy is a form government based on rule by the people, by anyone, regardless of qualification. And because there is no ultimate qualification, power is just temporary, “borrowed” from the people. In order to effectuate a change in power, political conflict is absolutely necessary; political conflict is thus the sine qua non of democratic government. Therefore if the police prevent political action in a democracy, then, paradoxically, they both reinforce and undermine the government, since while they are protecting the current governmental regime, they are also undermining democracy itself, the foundation of that government. The police are there to stifle democratic impulses.

“Police interventions in public spaces consist primarily. . .in breaking up demonstrations. . . .[Their] slogan is: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’. . .[They] assert that the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’, of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens. . . .It consists in re-figuring space. . .It is the instituting of a dispute over the distribution of the sensible” (37). If we are to experience a democratic moment – the anarchic reframing of the sensible – then “power must become political;” that is, it must be challenged, disputed, loosened. And “for that to happen the logic of the police has to be thwarted by the logic of politics” (53).

Look at the photos from #OWS. The aesthetic features are virtually the same as any other protest, worldwide. Police line the streets, watching protestors march, waiting for them to cross the line, literally and figuratively. What police accomplish by giving protestors a specific space in which to protest is the “purification of politics [which] is actually its eviction.” It is a portioning of the sensible into categories which follow a mandated, authorized logic. This logic is what politics itself is meant to disrupt; “the political” is a superfluous “extra” part of social life that shows itself in acts of defiance against an official order.

Democracy in particular is a paradoxical form of government: those who govern have no particular qualification to govern; their qualification is the absence of qualification. They are “unqualified” precisely because in a democracy there is no one particular thing that qualifies someone to govern – whether age, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, intelligence/knowledge, or wealth. The obvious difficulty with this is that modern, actual governments want stability, rather than democracy. They have trouble thinking like the #OWS protestors and their supporters. They have trouble understanding how workers councils and general assemblies work. They have trouble understanding the sense of what all those luminaries who inspired revolutions had to say about running a democratic government. But it’s understandable that governments today don’t think these alternative forms of government are possible. They are stuck, like the rest of us, with huge, militarized nation-states and multinational capitalism. And this is simply unsustainable, at least if we want to avoid dictatorship. That is why what’s happening at #OWS (and around the world) is so important. People don’t really want reform. They want massive change. A revolution. The protestors in this photo put it best:

And so looking at the way the protests are going, one has to ask, why are the police resorting to violence? Perhaps this is because the democratic impulse is too strong. It is humiliating, in a way, to be with the police, watching democracy unfold in the streets and standing on the sidelines, allowing it to roll by; the police are in the absurd position in which their job is to watch the negation of their function. They are there to watch others reject the very purpose of the police, to watch protestors thwart the smooth functioning of the status quo. They are being told to obey orders that threaten their very existence. Sometimes this absurd inactivity becomes too much. Sometimes the contradictions become unbearable, and one’s purpose must be defended, even if it means resorting to violence and making illegal arrests en masse.

But in the same way, it is also humiliating to be a protestor, corralled by the police, watching as the police negate the reason for your protest, watching them reduce the meaning of this Event to a predictable, managed aspect of an illegitimate governmental arrangement, one which you’re attempting to change. I imagine the contradictions mount in the minds of many protestors who turn to violence. Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of this. If we believe in a true politics, if we want to be faithful to the idea of universality, then should we not reject the authority of the police outright? Should violence not be a legitimate form of demonstration, if that violence is directed against the police of the ruling regime?