On living authors

Last night, I shared with My Esteemed Partner some of my latest gleanings from a systematic Agamben reading project I have been working on over the past couple months, she asked whether I had ever had such an intensive knowledge of any writer before. The only comparison I could make was Zizek, at least at the point when I wrote the book (and for about the next five years). In both cases, I believe I am seeing a gradual development in thinkers that most critics try to either vindicate as truly systematic from day one or else dismiss (or sometimes praise) as merely fragmentary and occasional.

I wonder about this preference for systematicity. Why would it be somehow *better* if Agamben and Zizek had done their “whole thing” from their very earliest work and were just filling in the details of the system? In American academia, I most often detect scorn for people who seem to continually rewrite their dissertation without thinking many new thoughts. And do we really want to think of *ourselves* as trapped in those incohate youthful insights of our earliest work? Again, why would this be better?

It seems to me that this desire for absolute systematicity over time is unique to literature on living authors, and it may almost be a “marketing” issue more than anything. It’s as though there’s a fear that no one will want to get on board with a thinker unless they can be assured that they represent a Whole Big Thing — or perhaps an anxiety that no one will view it as worthwhile to read and study their complete corpus unless it all belongs together.

For my part, I think it’s more interesting to think in terms of development — even if that term has progressivist connotations — because that makes the living thinker more of a model for our own work. How do you rethink and recombine your key insights for new purposes? How do you decide what to keep and what to leave aside? How much do you emphasize the change or leave it to your audience to figure it out?

The violence of refusal

I’m currently working through some (hopefully final) edits on my book about Dionysius and Žižek, and have found myself back trying to figure out the relationship between Žižek’s account of violence (primarily in his book Violence) and the account of violence in Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. I’ve pointed out before the way that Žižek ignores the fact that Benjamin’s discussion is dealing in part with the question of violence in relation to the general strike. But what I hadn’t quite grasped is that where, for Žižek, it is acts of passive refusal such as Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ or Saramago’s fictional country where all the citizens spontaneously refuse to fill our election ballots which best exemplify ‘divine violence’, for Benjamin the general strike is specifically not violent. That seems like an important distinction between the two accounts of violence, but I can’t quite get straight what that distinction is, so I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me figure it out. Here’s where I’ve got to:

For Žižek there are four types of violence. There is law-founding or mythical violence, which consists of the unjustifiable decision to create a social or symbolic order in the first place. The violence (that is, the excessive nature of this act – its lack of grounding in any reason or cause) of this moment is often covered up by reference to a God or gods: we do things this way and not that way because God has so ordained it. There is law-maintaining violence, the various forms of coercion directed at anything which threatens the ongoing existence of the social and symbolic order – whether that’s calling the police on strikers or gossiping about the person who made a social faux pas. There is simple criminal violence, which transgresses the law but doesn’t pose a threat to it. And there is divine violence, which for Žižek is anything which poses an existential threat to the existing social order, forcing a radical transformation.

Benjamin is trickier. Again, violence is always entangled with the social and symbolic order – Critique of Violence says that the question of violence arises in relation to law and justice. For law, violence can be justified only if it is deployed in order to achieve ends which are sanctioned by the law. The law wants a monopoly on violence – it wants to be the sole arbiter of whether or not violence is justified. Even when violence is legal, if it is not wielded directly by the state, then it poses a threat to the law: and this is where we get to the question of the strike. Benjamin argues that organised labour is ‘apart from the state probably the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.’ And here’s where it gets tricky. A strike is not an action so much as a refusal to act. It is a withdrawal from the violent coercion of the employer. But a strike can aim either at an end that is sanctioned by the law – higher wages, say – or at an end that threatens the existence of the law as such – revolution, the end of the law. In the second case, although striking as such is legal, the law cries violence because the aim of the strike is one that threatens its existence.

Later, though, Benjamin makes a distinction between  the political general strike and the proletarian general strike. The political general strike doesn’t want to overthrow the law and the state, it just wants a reorganisation of the state or law: different bosses, different conditions for waged labour. But the proletarian general strike wants to end the state and the law. If the law is defined as a set of agreements about when violence is and is not legitimate (so a legal contract, Benjamin says, confers on each party the right to resort to some kind of violence against the other if they break the terms of the contract), then the general strike is properly anarchic: the strikers refuse to work until there is no more state, no more law, no more society in which the decision to work or to not work is enforced by the threat of violence. In the political general strike, the strikers want more control of the power of violent coercion held by the state; in the proletarian general strike, the strikers refuse any kind of social order built on violent coercion.

And then we get to divine violence. If mythic violence is lawmaking, Benjamin says, divine violence is law-destroying. It is not about enforcing the law, and so it is not about retribution or payback. It kills not to enforce the law of talion, but for the sake of humanity, whose value cannot be reduced to the law. On Žižek’s reading of Benjamin, this would mean that the proletarian general strike is the ideal exemplar of divine violence, and Benjamin has earlier indicated that the law might indeed perceive the general strike as violent. But he has also argued that the proletarian general strike is not violent.

I can’t work out how to square this circle. In part, I am not quite sure what Benjamin means by violence. Sometimes it seems that coercion is at play; but this again would seem to make the proletarian general strike violent, though Benjamin insists  that it is not. We could see it as having to do with the law, and specifically the way in which the law is founded on the state’s monopoly of violence and the law of talion. But then divine violence, which takes place in utter indifference to the state’s authority or the law of talion, would not count as violence. Either way, I’m stumped, and if anyone with a better grasp of Benjamin can help me out I’d be extremely grateful.

Marxism without Marxists

Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised  – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.

Debts to Zizek

For some reason, my mind has been drawn over the past few days to what I owe to Zizek, intellectually. I have not kept up with his recent work and have been mostly critical of his political “interventions,” but I think that there are some assumptions that I take from him that inform a great deal of what I am trying to do in my work. None of them require the full Hegelian-Lacanian apparatus to express, and hence I tend not to do that — indeed, some of these things are assumptions that I don’t even necessarily foreground.

  • Every social order is intrinsically incomplete. This is the idea that is variously expressed as the pas-tout (non-all or, as I prefer to translate it, non-whole) or “feminine” logic in Lacanese. I’m not sure I have any basis or need to extend it to the ontological level as Zizek does — though I am intrigued by that idea — but it would certainly apply to any human scientific account.
  • This is because every social order is trying to fix an unfixable problem. This seems to me to be what all the talk of “the Real” is getting at. The reason that social orders fail is that there is no final ground of legitimacy nor any final guarantee of control.
  • Social orders’ attempts to cover over this failure lead to tautology. This is where the Master Signifier comes in — the law is the law, let God be God, sovereign is he who decides on the exception, etc. Every claim to legitimacy is ultimately a tautology, “I am legitimate because I am legitimate.”
  • We get off on ideology. Here we come to the obscene supplement of jouissance, good old objet petit a, and all their friends. The reason ideology “hooks” us is that it gives us permission to enjoy — whether we’re enjoying recognition and a feeling of accomplishment or enjoying the lisence to vent cruelty. Ideology is therefore not just a matter of having wrong ideas or beliefs that can be cleared up through persuasion.

Up for grabs: A Twitter rant, blogged

All this makes clear what we all kind of knew: that institutional stability and continuity is partisan issue and has been for a long time.

I’ve long joked that the Democrats are the party of “having a government at all,” but it’s not actually a joke.

I know the institutional structure was never “really” neutral, but I think we’re going to miss that enabling fiction going forward.

Because once everything is politicized, you are already virtually in a state of civil war. And the other side has all the guns.

This is where Zizek’s claim that the shock to the system from Trump could be good is so irresponsible and just plain dumb.

Trump doesn’t open up the space for political contestation, he destroys it.

[Editor’s note: This is kind of a shorter version of my Schmittian Reflections on the Election.]

Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

Continue reading “Žižek and ‘the Left’”

On doing your homework

What bothers me most about the Zizek trans article is the sheer laziness. I do think there’s a point buried in there that’s worth considering (the gender binary doesn’t “work” for anyone — though that’s a point that’s not unique to Zizek). But if you want to join a debate, especially on a topic where people are inclined to distrust you, you need to earn your place, you need to prove to people that you have something worthwhile to add. And part of that would consist in, for example, citing literally ONE actual trans theorist instead of vaguely gesturing toward "the kind of thing" you've picked up through osmosis. Then you might actually not make dumb mistakes like treating "cross-dressing" as the most relevant form of trans experience, etc. (Yes, he cites Butler — but she is hardly the cutting edge of trans theory at this point, and it's yet another example of him trying to ride on work that he did decades ago.)

As always with Zizek's political columns, they've "got people talking" — but only about Zizek himself, not about the ostensible issue at hand. With this article, he has ensured that no actual trans person or trans ally will listen to what he's saying, and so the only material effect of his argument would be to reassure people who are dismissive of trans issues.

Zizek is of course responsible for the way he has chosen to write, but publication requires the go-ahead of an editor. Why was Zizek comissioned to write on trans issues, an area where he has no expertise? Why wasn't this article edited for clarity and focus? Do the clicks that result from Zizek's notoreity outweigh any concerns for the editor's responsibility, not just to the readers, but to help authors present themselves in the best possible way? Given how routinely these kinds of sloppily written columns, filled with "anti-PC" digs that undermine their own point, appear in left-wing publications, I am tempted to ask the editors that immortal question: "What is it that you'd say you do here?”