Archives for posts with tag: Politics

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).

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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?

In The Fragile Absolute, starting with the chapter “Coke as objet petite a,” Žižek discusses the advent of modernist art. When modernism comes to self-awareness, it is said to enter the realm of the postmodern; thus postmodernism is a stage of modernism. When modernism falls from its lofty heights into the postmodern, anything that reaches the level of a “transgressive excess” cannot any longer have its shattering effect on the values of the age, since these values are no longer so clear. Because the transgressive excess does not have the same shock value as it once did, the excess can be integrated into the traditional spheres of artistic exchange. Take as an example the fact that if you visit NYC, you won’t have any trouble finding a museum that features a piece of trash as a work of art.

That a piece of trash can be elevated to the level of a sublime object, an object of art, bares witness to the cultural reality of the “ever-present threat” that our noblest values will reveal themselves to be nothing more than pieces of shit. This is not simply to say that what we believe is actually a fiction. Rather, the threat includes the risk that our society as a whole cannot maintain its would-be values, that, for example, the government won’t follow through on its promise of justice to the people. Thus the artist’s desperate attempt to answer the question, Is anything sacred anymore? Will we (and I, with this work) accomplish anything of value?, takes the form of the discourse of the hysteric, of the scientist, the investigator and gad-fly philosopher: each of these elusive values is none other than the elusive Lacanian objet petit a, a nothing that captures the gaze of those who long for there to be, in the end, some actual substance in the object.

Thus whereas premodern (traditional) artists attempted to fill the place of the sacred Thing – approaching it, as it were, asymptotically – postmodern artists have first to probe for the mere existence of the Thing, the Void or Place which would theoretically embody the unimaginable Whole, absolutely pure Value itself – beauty, courage, whatever one wants to represent. And because one can no longer take for granted that the value is there as something the community believes and expects to be shown by the masterful artist, the artist’s task is to probe for the existence of the Thing, and, in the process, to provoke and inspire the audience to reveal and acknowledge both their belief in and reliance upon a value of some sort.

That is to say, by placing a piece of trash in the gallery, the artist provokes the viewer, and the viewer responds with a question – Why is this here? Is this gallery not a sacred place? Is there not something that this artwork should embody? And what is it, exactly, that we are supposed to imagine upon viewing this artwork? The artist’s task is thus “to make sure that this Place itself will ‘take place,’” that the gallery will have a meaning (25).

Put simply, the premodern artist had an ideal to shoot for, whereas the postmodern artist doesn’t. Imagine it this way: before, there was a universal standard of beauty and other artistic ideals, whereas today we have fragile, elusive, fleeting instances of these ideals that don’t ever reach consensus.

On to the titular topic: dubstep is the music of our age. It is the shit of musical art. Other radical subgenres merely take to the extreme their parent-genre’s original musical characteristics. Think of punk, metal, and the like: these are desperate attempts to purge everything “pure” and “wholesome” about original rock music, and for that very reason, they remain passionately attached to their parents; it is as if the sole purpose for their performances were to scream “we are NOT that.” Yes, punk rock has a legendary history. It is political, revolutionary music. But dubstep goes further: it is a species of post-apocalyptica. (The gas mask epitomizes the dubstep aesthetic). As such, dubstep heralds the emergence of something other-worldly. It is radically new, independent of any previous generation of music – since it uses new instruments, its sounds literally haven’t been heard before. Thus it is beyond expectation.

And yet for however expansive and awe-inspiring it can be, it isn’t quite pleasant. That is to say, it is far from high culture. Dubstep’s entrance on the musical scene is like the debut of an ugly, scandalous exhibit at the Guggenheim. Pop music, on the other hand, distills to a cheap plastic imitation the aesthetic values expressed in a more sophisticated way by the traditional genres of high-culture art; the simple purity of an autotuned voice is also a form of beauty – thus, pop is kitsch. And of course, dubstream is likewise kitsch.

Considering the violent undertones in some dubstep music, it’s worth asking whether the emergence of the genre reflects the same currents underlying the recent concrete manifestations of Hegel’s “abstract negativity.” Žižek has written about this kind of violence in response to the London riots, here. And after all, West London is the birthplace of dubstep (see artists like Mala, Skream, Caspa, Rusko, and Chase & Status).

(As an aside, dubstep music often features randomly interspersed clips from TV shows and movies, or even just words that originate in the song itself. It is as if dubstep musicians were channeling the media onslaught we come up against every day into their works. In fact, many of these same works have as their principle musical feature a very basic melody/harmony set with a simple “wobble” bass and a variable, occasional treble line. This is a quality reminiscent of ambient music, and yet, simultaneously, we hear multiple intrusions of clips taken from various media, breaking up the omnipresent, streamlined, bulging waves of bass).

Today I read an article Zizek wrote in February, 2010, titled “Against Human Rights,” on Libcom.org, a political blog.

He starts by saying that advocates of human rights generally position their appeals against three enemies: (1) fundamentalist essentialism (2) oppression or the denial of “free choice,” and (3) violence and excessive state/military power.

Zizek’s main point throughout the article is that each of these enemies are crudely generalized by liberal-democratic societies such that in each case, the problems are uncritically assumed, and, by and large, they rely on mythic representations of “the other,” fixation-points that function to shore up the West’s own liberal-democratic ideology. In short, every society has to posit an “other” outside itself in order to maintain its own ground; it has to set up artificial obstacles in order to justify its own efforts, whether those efforts are evil/ exploitative/ colonialist or the well-intentioned pursuit of “human rights.” The point of his critical analysis is to uncover the point at which this ideology loses its ground, where it misconceives its own notion.

Zizek does a great job explaining the limitations of liberal-democratic ideology, which I’ll go into below. But first, I have to say that, as usual, he risks alienating those he actually wants to join. His point is definitely not that we shouldn’t seek to end the atrocities happening all over the globe; he’s not saying that the pursuit of a just society is misguided or a lost cause. On the contrary, he just wants to shift the way we understand human rights; he wants to politicize these issues, to make them the subject of political debate and not of a “humanitarian” cause. On his account, the motivation to pursue “human rights” is itself based on skewed liberal ideology, and the insistence on human rights actually commits the very crimes it ostensibly opposes:

(1) It relies on an essentialist notion of what it means to be human; it “humanizes” or naturalizes political crimes at the cost of ignoring that underlying political logic: human rights violations are made a humanitarian concern, not an economic/political one; the important part, we are told, is the physical/personal violence to the “individual” (and not the violence of political systems):

The question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

At an even more general level, we might problematize the opposition between the universal (pre-political) human rights possessed by every human being ‘as such’ and the specific political rights of a citizen, or member of a particular political community. In this sense, Balibar argues for the ‘reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between “man” and “citizen”’ that proceeds by ‘explaining how man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man.’ Balibar alludes here to Arendt’s insight on the condition of refugees:

The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were still human.
This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a human being reduced to ‘bare life’. In a properly Hegelian dialectics of universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of the particular socio-political identity that accounts for his determinate citizenship that—in one and the same move—he ceases to be recognized or treated as human. Paradoxically, I am deprived of human rights at the very moment at which I am reduced to a human being ‘in general’, and thus become the ideal bearer of those ‘universal human rights’ which belong to me independently of my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity, etc.

(2) The advocates of universal human rights insist so adamantly on “free choice” (a misguided idea if there ever was one), that they demand the subject choose to see itself as a free individual, a concept which is itself a crude, misunderstanding of the Enlightenment idea of autonomy; humanitarian ideology forces you to choose free choice, but this very choice is already a substantial ideological notion. For example, when Muslim women choose to wear the veil, even if it’s the result of “free choice,” i.e., even if it’s not taken to be caused by a fundamentalist/religious demand, the woman still has to identify herself with the veil, she has to accept the demand to choose a false sociosymbolic self-identification, i.e., she can’t just be left alone; on the other hand, even for the woman who chooses not to wear the veil at all, she’s still labeled, categorized as someone who rejects “fundamentalist” culture, and now enters a no less repressive ideological matrix, that of the demand to be sexually “liberated,” to be provocative, permiscuous, etc.:

What of the basic right to the pursuit of pleasure? Today’s politics is ever more concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling jouissance. The opposition between the liberal-tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam is most often condensed as that between, on the one side, a woman’s right to free sexuality, including the freedom to display or expose herself and to provoke or disturb men; and, on the other side, desperate male attempts to suppress or control this threat. (The Taliban forbade metal-tipped heels for women, as the tapping sounds coming from beneath an all-concealing burka might have an overpowering erotic appeal.)

Both sides, of course, mystify their position ideologically and morally. For the West, women’s right to expose themselves provocatively to male desire is legitimized as their right to enjoy their bodies as they please. For Islam, the control of female sexuality is legitimized as the defence of women’s dignity against their being reduced to objects of male exploitation. So when the French state prohibits Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school, one can claim that they are thus enabled to dispose of their bodies as they wish. But one can also argue that the true traumatic point for critics of Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ was that there were women who did not participate in the game of making their bodies available for sexual seduction, or for the social exchange and circulation involved in this. In one way or another, all the other issues—gay marriage and adoption, abortion, divorce—relate to this. What the two poles share is a strict disciplinary approach, differently directed: ‘fundamentalists’ regulate female self-presentation to forestall sexual provocation; pc feminist liberals impose a no-less-severe regulation of behaviour aimed at containing forms of harassment.

(3) Advocates of universal human rights often wish to justify military action against their (imaginary) enemies; the same content, the same excessive force that previously held the meaning of totalitarian/repressive power has come to signify, through a purely formal (ideological) gesture, an enlightened pursuit of human dignity:

War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid. And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.

Thus, one of Zizek’s more provocative points is that we, in the West, are much closer in our ideological practices to our “others.” Every “cause” is underwritten by a basic logic regulating jouissance (excess enjoyment). The crucial problem with our insistence on international human rights, on issues of the other, is that this insistence denies the horrific flaws of our own social systems, the violence done to “free choice” here at home.

This is perhaps the underlying motif of all so-called fundamentalisms—the endeavour to contain (what they perceive as) the excessive ‘narcissistic hedonism’ of contemporary secular culture with a call to reintroduce the spirit of sacrifice. A psychoanalytic perspective immediately enables us to see why such an endeavour goes wrong. The very gesture of casting away enjoyment—‘Enough of decadent self-indulgence! Renounce and purify!’—produces a surplus-enjoyment of its own. Do not all ‘totalitarian’ universes which demand of their subjects a violent (self-)sacrifice to the cause exude the bad smell of a fascination with a lethal-obscene jouissance? Conversely, a life oriented towards the pursuit of pleasure will entail the harsh discipline of a ‘healthy lifestyle’—jogging, dieting, mental relaxation—if it is to be enjoyed to the maximum. The superego injunction to enjoy oneself is immanently intertwined with the logic of sacrifice. The two form a vicious cycle, each extreme supporting the other. The choice is never simply between doing one’s duty or striving for pleasure and satisfaction. This elementary choice is always redoubled by a further one, between elevating one’s striving for pleasure into one’s supreme duty, and doing one’s duty not for duty’s sake but for the gratification it brings. In the first case, pleasures are my duty, and the ‘pathological’ striving for pleasure is located in the formal space of duty. In the second case, duty is my pleasure, and doing my duty is located in the formal space of ‘pathological’ satisfactions.

In his final paragraph, Zizek outlines the key paradox of the notion of human rights: the very moment we stop talking about universal rights — rights that are something more than politics — politics itself degenerates, it turns into the negotiation of particular (social-welfare/economic) interests, effectively loses any political significance; thus politics proper, the struggle over competing articulations of the notions of justice, community, citizenship, etc., cannot happen without a universalizing gesture, which Zizek wants to shift toward a repeated insistence on the universal human capacity to deny association, to assert one’s existence as that which lacks any essential identification. What Zizek is advocating is a return to universal human rights in developed nations, to the universality of human thought, which allows human beings to participate in political communities as “no-thing,” as simply more than any particular identification; the human power against every ideology is this radical denial of association, the repeated refusal of one’s complete belonging in any coercive symbolic community, a refusal which must necessarily continue if the subject is to cope, because one is always, ineluctably, stuck in ideology:

Far from being pre-political, ‘universal human rights’ designate the precise space of politicization proper; what they amount to is the right to universality as such—the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself as the ‘supernumerary’, the one with no proper place in the social edifice; and thus as an agent of universality of the social itself. The paradox is therefore a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity. At the very moment when we try to conceive the political rights of citizens without reference to a universal ‘meta-political’ human rights, we lose politics itself; that is to say, we reduce politics to a ‘post-political’ play of negotiation of particular interests.