philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Monday, August 4, 2008

Nothing Doing

In my previous post, "If All Else Fails", I gave a brief overview of the typology of violence that Slavoj Zizek develops in his new book, Violence. I did so to indicate a form of violence I believe Zizek to have omitted, or rather, to explicate the relation between revolutionary violence and the other types, a relation Zizek leaves unclear. However, I should clarify my account of his typology, which was perhaps too brief. Zizek does not simply enumerate three distinct forms of violence - subjective, systemic, and symbolic - but aims to show how violence is always caught in the knot of these three modes, which parallel the Lacanian triad of Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real.

Subjective violence is simply what we would ordinarily recognize as such: abusive, injurious actions that occur between people, inflicted by one person or group of people on another. This has the simple form of an Imaginary relation, in which the relation of ego to others and the predominance of Eros are the frame.

Such subjective violence is only visible against the background or context of normal, nonviolent relations, and is hence a disturbance of this equilibrium. Systemic violence is precisely an anonymous and impersonal collateral effect of sustaining the nonviolent background of Imaginary relations, it is that which cannot enter the contextual frame of subjective experience, but sustains this frame. If such violence does enter into the frame of our experience, we cannot help but to contextualize it, to ascribe it to a particular offender violating the normal run of things; we cannot accept that our comfortable life-world is sustained by an immense suffering. In this sense, systemic violence is the Real, that which cannot be integrated into Imaginary/Symbolic legibility, but is only a blotch or distortion, or better, the horrible thing behind the veil of non-violent normalcy.

Symbolic violence is visible as the relation between the subjective violence and its context, in the sense that the very standards by which we can recognize something as violent, and hence stand apart from it in a non-violent reflection, already is a form of violence itself. It is not simply that normalcy is sustained by a violence hidden behind its veil - the very act of veiling, of covering-up, is the very source of what it must hide, or better, what it hides is the fact that nothing is hidden. There is no reason for the massive excesses of systemic violence to not be recognized as such, they are not covered up or denied, but ignored, disavowed. "I know very well there is a genocide occuring somewhere in Africa, that hundreds of millions live in the worst poverty in urban slums, that children are starving all over the world, but nevertheless...what does that have to do with me, my non-violent lifestyle, in my innocent little town?" It is the very symbolic medium that, in enabling us to not subjectively register some things as violent, or better, to not subjectively account for the systemic violence that sustains our contextual life-world, is the most pressing form of violence.

In the aforementioned post, I elaborated the link between Symbolic violence and mythic violence, or law-founding violence, as Benjamin conceives it. Zizek also draws this link, and from there elaborates his notion of revolutionary or emancipatory violence, which he links to Benjamin's divine violence. Yet here we find a difficulty. Zizek associates this divine violence with what he calls "Bartleby politics", or passive aggression. The point here is that any intervention we make to correct the violent excesses of capitalism is inevitably incorporated into the system, making it run more smoothly. Every form of resistance is assimilated, and so all we can do is 'nothing'; that is, everything we try to do to change things ends up reinforcing the way they are, but if we do nothing, if we refuse to intervene, it would be unbearable for the system, it would not know how to react. This kind of passive aggression is the answer he offers to his own question from the final chapter of his book on Deleuze: how is revolution possible against an order that constantly revolutionizes itself?

The difficulty with this position has been registered in the philo-blogosphere, with complaints and criticism being the standard reaction. Moreover, this position seems quite inconsistent, both with the ethic of discipline and self-sacrafice (Those who have nothing have only their discipline, to paraphrase Badiou) that he elaborates in Lost Causes, and with his claim that we find examples of divine violence in the revolutionary terror of the French Revolution, the October Revolution, and so on. Can these apparent inconsistencies be reconciled?

I propose that Bartleby politics is far from simply doing nothing, from refusing to engage with struggles and socio-political problems of any kind, despite Zizek's apparent claims to the contrary. Rather, it rests with the distinction between not doing anything, simply not acting, and doing nothing in the sense of enacting a negativity or void, an act which renders visible the nothingness at the heart of the constituted order. Zizek himself gives us evidence in this direction in his exegesis of Saramago's story Seeing, in which the government of an unnamed democratic city is deeply disturbed when an overwhelming majority of their citizens, during an election, submit blank ballots. For Zizek, this mass refusal is a true Act, in the Lacanian sense. But is this a case of not doing anything, of passively sitting back and refusing to engage, or is it rather an act of making nothing happen, of foregrounding the void upon which this world stands, like the coyote hovering over the precipice, before looking down?

Bartleby himself is characterized not by simply not acting, by doing nothing at all. No, Bartleby acts, but in the paradoxical manner of enacting a refusal to act, of acting out nothing, through his familiar refrain: "I'd prefer not to". He does not say no, nor does he simply do nothing in response. He does something, he registers the void of his motivation. This is thus quite similar to other political themes Zizek has mobilized in the past: Badiou's Event as registering the void of the empty set, Ranciere's democracy as the demand of the part-of-no-part, and even Marx's proletariat as articulating their lack of place within the capitalist order. It would be fruitful to explicate the differences between Zizek's turn to Bartleby and these earlier references, but I cannot do so now. I would like to emphasize, however, that there is an undeniable political force - violence, we might say - at work in the tearing asunder of the existing order, the introduction of a void into the space of politics. The practical question is hence, what does it mean to actively do nothing, to will nothingness into existence? And where do we go from there? How do we live together, how do we found a society or reorient this society, on the basis of nothingness?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?