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The real Hollywood Left

Hollywood is the ultimate ideological machine of the Oedipal narrative: the typical Hollywood product is a film that tells the story of a family drama in the context of larger social forces. As is always the case in such films, the “big plot” is framed into the coordinates of a “secondary plot” with a troubled family at its center. This, then, is how one should read Hollywood films: all the catastrophes and conflicts that make up the story’s plot are here a mere pretext to express what the film is really about; a family or a couple in need of reconciliation.

The production of the couple in Hollywood is most strikingly apparent, argues Žižek in In Defense of Lost Causes, through all key Steven Spielberg films. ET is the story of a boy who was abandoned by his father but is provided with a new father (“the good scientist who, in the film’s last shot, is already seen embracing the mother”) through the mediator of ET. Empire of the Sun similarly focuses on a deserted boy, though in China, who is helped by an ersatz father to survive. Even Jurassic Park tells the story of threatened children becoming reconciled with a paternal figure. In the middle of the film,

Neill and the two children, pursued by the monsters, take refuge from the murderous carnivorous dinosaurs in a gigantic tree, where, dead tired, they fall asleep; on the tree, Neill loses the dinosaur bone that was stuck in his belt, and it is as if this accidental loss has a magical effect—before they fall asleep, Neill is reconciled with the children, displaying warm affection and tenderness towards them. Significantly, the dinosaurs which approach the tree the next morning and awaken the sleeping party, turn out to be of the benevolent herbivorous kind.

Žižek rightly notes that Schindler’s List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park. Here the Nazis are the dinosaur monsters, the ghetto Jews the threatened children, and Schindler the parental figure. The story the film tells is the transformation of Schindler into a caring and responsible father who was previously (at the film’s beginning) a “cynical, profiteering, and opportunistic” business man. The War of the Worlds too is written in terms of a family narrative; in this case, the bloodthirsty aliens provide the backdrop to what the film is “really about” at its most elementary level: “the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.”

The same interpretive key fits Hollywood films that stage great historical events as the pretext to a family drama. The greatest cinema hit of all times, James Cameron’s Titanic, is not really “a film about the catastrophe of a ship hitting an iceberg” as much as a narrative about the brief formation of a couple. However here the love story serves the purpose of telling another tale, “that of a spoiled high-society girl in an identity crisis.” Leonardo Di Caprio is a kind of “vanishing mediator,” like ET, whose function is to restore purpose and meaning to the life of Kate Winslet; once his job is done, he can then disappear into the freezing North Atlantic.

If the standard Hollywood product relies on the basic formula of producing a couple under the façade of larger spectacular events, then where does one look for the real Hollywood Left? Surprisingly, Žižek finds an exception to the family motif and an instantiation of revolutionary politics through Hollywood productions in Zack Snyder’s 300. The racist parallel here with the free West against the despotic East is evident: the story is of a small, poor, and “terrorist” country (Greece) invaded by a much larger and more technologically advanced state (Persia). As Žižek puts it, “are the Persian elephants, giants and large fire arrows not the ancient version of high-tech weaponry?” He goes on to say,

When the last surviving group of Spartans and their king, Leonidas, are killed by the thousands of arrows, are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today’s US soldiers who at the push of a button launch rockets from the warships miles away in the Persian Gulf?

What remains for the Greek Spartans to defend themselves with against the Persian occupation is their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, not wholly unlike Iraq and Afghanistan defending against the invasion of the overwhelming military supremacy of the US. Such ruthless self-discipline is not jogging and body-building, characteristic of the New Age myth of realizing the self’s inner potential, but a form of corporeal discipline and collective training when the only possession one has left his her body. To quote Alain Badiou,

We need a popular discipline. I would even say…that “those who have nothing have only their discipline.” The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power—all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.

In fact, says Žižek, this is true freedom—freedom gained “through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything.” Unlike the freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between different products at a shopping mall, true freedom is the apparent absurdity of sustaining extreme military discipline. As Žižek concludes, re-invoking the political juncture expressed in Snyder’s 300,

one makes a truly free choice when one’s choice puts at stake one’s very existence—one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?”

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The paradox of politics in the works of Deleuze

In the polemical piece ‘Molecular Revolutions’ in Deleuze and Politics, Isabelle Garo correctly argues that a Deleuzian mode of politics retains a paradoxical character, an insurmountable aporia between engagement and disengagement. This is in part due to the fact that Deleuze’s conception of the economy is as a philosopher. No doubt Deleuzian theory gives ample attention to the economy and the market, but at no point does Deleuze deal with economic issues from a tradition of scrupulous historical and economic research. On the contrary, Deleuzian economic analysis is situated on the ground of an ontology of flows and becoming.

The privileged ontology of Deleuze, as we all know, in the words of Garo, “presents itself as a heightened form of attention to the concrete diversity of things as a respect for their constitutive multiplicity” (p. 57). This is chiefly done through the concept of desire, characterized by flows or exchanges of energy, which Deleuze and Guattari famously describe as belonging to the infrastructure itself. The vague expression of flows is considered to be the most important consideration of Deleuzian philosophy, constituting “the heart of an ontology that is vitalist in inspiration” (p. 58). On this view the conventional Marxist distinction between base (the domain of production) and superstructure (the realm of culture) is eschewed, leading to the leftist conclusion that everything is political.

The thematic of flows demonstrates the conviction that the dimensions of the real are indistinct but at one and the same time effectively sidelines political mobilization. This is so because while the notion of flows celebrates destabilizing movements, small events and molecular contestations, it nonetheless evacuates all content out of politics as such. The strictly formal exposition of politics, on the other hand, is “reduced to repressive state practices of surveillance and control”—that is, the maintenance of the normal state of affairs. In short, political specificity is canceled out in favor of a nebulous dispersion of abstract, deviant flows while a more traditional idea of politics is relegated to the intransigent State apparatus and its constitution. Inherent to the Deleuzian approach and its particular politics then is an underlying tension or aporia between the miniatruization of politics on the one hand and the relatively autonomous sphere of State politics on the other.

To be more precise, the State sphere plays a specific role under capitalism. For Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism has “haunted all forms of society as the vital flow which tirelessly seeks to throw off all constraints” (p. 60). Capitalism, otherwise stated, is nothing more than the dissipative, regressive or decomposing tendency inherent to life itself. This systematic deterritorializing or decoding movement, in the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, seeks at all times to overcome obstacles and barriers to its dynamic self-expansion, embodied par excellence in the flows of commerce and trade under capitalism. The State, consequently, “is nothing other than that which opposes limits to these flows” (p. 60). In other words, the State apparatus is burdened with the responsibility of managing capital flows and blocking them from becoming uncontrollable.

So how does one conceive of the end of capitalism, the momentous abrupt turn in history away from the market and its so-called ‘laws’ and towards, say, socialism or communism? From this perspective, since regulating the flows of capital is crucial to its very functioning as per the State, “the only thinkable and even desirable possibility is to go to the limits of the present system” (p. 61). Shockingly, this definition of ‘politics’, the pursuit and acceleration of mercantile flows, is an entirely liberal approach: a process that finds its clearest expression in economic and financial deregulation. Indeed, this analysis comes closest to the liberal thought of such thinkers as Hayek, a far stray from Marx to be sure.

Although Deleuze is without a doubt indebted to Marxist ideas, if the scattered remarks on Marx that haunt Deleuze’s work is anything to go by, he is ultimately making use of a quite heterodox Marx. By constantly reworking borrowed Marxian concepts as “a momentary support in order to move off in a new direction” or in an effort “to produce something new”, Deleuze never provides a precisely elaborated coherent commentary on Marx (p. 63). What Deleuze offers instead is a smattering of spectral, allusive and indirect remarks on Marx, which are, we might add, notoriously anti-Hegelian and dialectic-adverse in character.

At the same time, the notion of revolution is renewed by Deleuze (and Guattari), but with a twist. The only real means of radical chance henceforth are ‘micro’: “politics is no longer a privileged sphere of authority”, its is rather the deployment and expansion of diverse deviant practices (p. 63). Revolution, in sum, is no longer the unraveling of an historical logic of development, but rather is redefined as a counter-culture.

In the eyes of Garo, and this is crucial, this thinking is ultimately reflective of a post-May ’68 renunciation of any project to change the current politico-economic conjuncture. For Garo, “with the rejection of any participation in the institutional game of parliamentary democracy as well as with the global critique of this form of governance”, the only potential cadence of change are minorities and their private forms of rebellious spontaneity (p. 64). Revolution itself, situated on the ground of a vitalist ontology, comes to stand for fleeting moments of individual upheavals that nevertheless leave the rhythm of capitalism fully in tact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, private gestures of rupture are celebrated at the expense of the political unification of social struggles. On this line of argument, a Deleuzian political stance goes along with a position of withdrawal, a declared indifference with regard to any form of political activity.

For these reasons, my own assessment for how we imagine things being otherwise is, surprisingly, Žižekian. In Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations Adrian Johnston, as the title would suggest, analyzes the processes of transformation within given sets of circumstances, noting that for both Badiou and Žižek the “slow-moving inertia of status quo realities” is shattered by revolutionary events or acts, respectively, that abruptly shift the established run of things (p. xxix). But while it can be maintained that the Badiouian event and the Žižekian act both essentially entail positing a stark discrepancy between the structure of a situation and the sudden impact of alteration, there is (at least one) decisive difference between the two.

For Badiou, the state of a situation is suddenly interrupted disruptively by a mode of “politics-without-the-partystate, based on the purported disjunction between explosive events of subversive political ‘truth’…and reified regimes of institutionalized statist ‘knowledge’” (ibid.). In Žižek’s view, on the other hand, the stasis of repetition of a given situation is ruptured through “endorsements of strong socialist part-state apparatuses (justified by the need to ‘re-politicize’ the deceptively depoliticized economic sphere)” (ibid.).

In the opening of In Defense of Lost Causes Žižek presents an accurate assessment of the postmodern response to the current politico-economic conjuncture, a position we should now be quite familiar with:

the era of big explanations is over, we need ‘weak thought,’ opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality; in politics too, we should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention (p. 1)

Although I have just started working my way through the text, it should be observed that Žižek is not sympathetic to this political bent. On the contrary, reality-shattering shifts are the work of mass-movements or, as he calls them, ‘grand solutions’. Indeed, this approach, though one I once pushed beyond the pale, increasingly sounds right, especially when the celebration of small events ends up confirming the dynamic of capitalism rather than undermining it.

An earlier version of this post was published @ Indigenous Ink

Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations

The current political conjecture, after a long-running string of defeats for the Left, conveys an oppressive, immobilizing pessimism. According to Adrian Johnson in Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations, the innovative experiments in emancipatory politics of the 20th century have not fared well. Given this scenario, “the era of revolutionary politics certainly looks to be over” (p. xiv). It is therefore difficult not to see capitalism nowadays as the only game in town; “the sole viable option available for organizing humanity’s multiple forms of group coexistence” (p. xxvii). How likely is it then that today’s political circumstances will remain imperious to abrupt ruptures and turns in history?

Given the established run of capitalism, Johnson detects two pitfalls to the present-day political situation: complacent quietism and hubristic utopianism. The first danger is overconfidence or the belief in historical teleologies proffering guarantees “to the effect that socialism can’t fail eventually to succeed” (p. xvi). In the view of economism, “the flow of sociohistorical trends inevitably will carry one effortlessly to the shores of a post-capitalist paradise” (p. xv). The dialectics of history, in other words, unambiguously point to a utopian society beyond capitalism.

This tall tale messianism, the sanguine faith in historical eventualism, however, has been steadily discredited by the lengthy string of losses suffered by the Left. The alternative response, what Johnson describes as the cheap-and-easy option, is underconfidence; that is, lapsing into total cynical despair and weariness given the ongoing series of disheartening defeats. The temptation of comfortable discouragement “fundamentally accepts that the partnership of liberal democratic state apparatuses and poorly regulated free markets indeed is here to stay” (p. xvi). The representatives of underconfidence therefore urge people to passively accept the unsurpassable enveloping limit of what remains historically possible and “resign themselves to refining what merely exists as already established” (p. xvi).

The third alternative to overconfident economic determinism and immobilizing despair is revolutionary ruptures, what Badiou calls an “event” and Žižek an “act”. For Badiou and Žižek global capitalism is not an inescapable enclosure. They plead for this acknowledgment on the basis that “the apparently impossible happened in the past [and] it will occur again in incalculable, unforeseeable forms in the future too” (p. xvii). Such reality-shattering shifts cannot however be anticipated by diagnosing already-present socioeconomic tensions, as traditional Marxist analysis would have it. On the contrary, they irrupt unexpectely and rewrite the rules of what is and isn’t possible. Acts of insurrection, Johnson argues, are “untimely interventions that appear possible only after the fact of actually transpiring—and before which such interventions are impossible qua unimaginable in the eyes of the popular political imagination” (p. xviii).

Insomuch as Žižek delineates this untimely development of accidents avec Hegel, it is a quite new, heterodox understanding of the dialectic. The alternative use of the notion of dialectics posits history as a series of unexpected upheavals and twists, rather than a zigzagging but ultimately linear progress: “Žižek’s Hegelian Geist is an illusion of perspective floating atop a volatile historical-material mixture of contingencies and retroactions” (p. xix). To the lay mind there is much in the long-running cadence of variables and accidents that must appear miraculous, but the momentous abrupt turns of history are the non-miraculous outcomes of “unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces” unfolding throughout time (p. xix).

One can be excused for thinking that such explosive, subversive events that break away from and shatter the slow-moving inertia of status quo realities is altogether unrealistic and utopian, but it remains the case that buying into the notion that today’s established run of things is impervious to incalculable factors and unforeseen occurrences to come is the most utopian sentiment of all. In short, the conviction that the surprises around which historical times take shape are not exhausted is less naïve than the belief that our given situated reality is here to stay permanently.

This post simultaneously published @ Indigenous Ink

Badiou and Politics

An earlier version of this post was published at Indigenous Ink

In the introduction to Badiou and Politics, Bruno Bosteels (2011) gives an all-around account of Badiou’s treatment of politics that, as I will track throughout the following, is congenial to a theory of minor politics. Suffice it here to say that Badiou’s thought is, in a first approximation, characterized by two fundamental approaches: the first a strictly ontological domain and the second a formal exposition of the subject. Or, in the parlance of Badiou, being and event. The former, roughly speaking, is the restricted study of order, situations, structures, knowledge, nature and so on whereas the latter, again in its widest connotation, is the consideration of chance, novelty, change, history, and subjects.

The most important contribution of Badiou’s mode of thinking, as Bosteels correctly argues, is the rejection of a rigid divide between ontological reason and the theory of the subject. Rather than juxtaposing two orders, with event firmly on the other side of being, Badiou gives a renewed articulation of this commonplace opposition, suggesting that it is the conjunctive ‘and’ that really matters.

The real issue for Badiou is how the new arises from within the old. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, how novelty can be conceived from within the ordinary situations we live in. This full-blown account of “how a given situation can be thoroughly transformed in the event of a new and unpredictable path” is articulated in terms of an immanent excess, something from within the situation itself that has no part yet nonetheless intervenes in a situation to cause a break in continuity (ibid.: 5). Therefore, to again echo Bosteels, any typology of change must give account of what is old and repetitious in the situation as much as what passes into existence that is novel. Excess must be thought as immanent to the situation itself.

This is not to say that Badiou is exonerated from the accusation that his work seems to operate with such oppositions. The reader, after all, cannot be blamed for thinking that Badiou overemphasizes the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new over what is commonplace. Indeed the logic of change endorsed by Badiou often does seem to confirm the hypothesis that the sudden changeover of one thing into another is more relevant than how a political sequence is anchored in a given world. But Bosteels rightly detects that such misconceptions surrounding his work might be avoided if we reconsider Badiou’s form of dialectical thinking.

In the first instance, Badiou does seem to reject all modes of dialectical interpretation. However, it is more accurate to say that Badiou tips his hat to a reformulation of the dialectic rather than pass over it altogether. In its restricted austere form, for Bosteels, the dialectical understanding involves a subordination of rupture, negation, scission, and so on to an “overarching sense or meaningful direction of time and history” (ibid.: 10). According to this assessment, the dialectic always returns into itself, what Hegel names sublation.

The relation of Badiou to the dialectic, on the other hand, overturns this familiar schema by insisting upon negation without the negation of negation, that is, the torsion of split identities without folding back to itself. Or, to put it in the words of Bosteels, a new understanding of the dialectic must be thought “ in terms of void and excess rather than of totalizaiton” (ibid.: 11).

This alternative use of the dialectical notion accurately fits the radical, innovative experiments in politics, art, science, etc. of the past century, characterized by the primacy of the instantaneous act or ecstatic break, which Badiou clearly prefers to dwell on. But still, or so the argument goes, the dialectical tradition is nonetheless worth revisiting, as advocated by Bosteels, “as a way of opening up concrete alternatives to the predominance of those tragically unresolved, and most often extremely violent, cases of disjunctive synthesis” (ibid.: 14). In short, Bosteels wants to insist that the the discourse of being is compatible with a theory of the subject in the work of Badiou.

To present another dichotomy between two different approaches, as was signaled (artificially) among being and event above, I propose in the following to differentiate, following Badiou, among political philosophy and metapolitics. The tradition of political philosophy, on the one hand, designates the formal science of political judgment. For Badiou, it is the study of what constitutes the essence of politics. This is typically pursued as a thought experiment, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of various abstract regimes of power or state forms, such as democracy, tyranny, monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and so on.

Insofar as political philosophy forms clear and distinct ideas about the timeless nature of politics, according to Bruno Bosteels in Badiou and Politics, it “tends to obscure, displace, or supplant instances of ‘real politics’” (2011: 19). This lofty mode of politics, according to Badiou, contemplates the political apart from specific political acts. The position of the political philosopher is as “an outside observer or belated spectator” (ibid.: 19). All of this suggests that really existing instances of political practice will typically be judged and criticized from the perspective of the fundamental roots of politics. Concrete forms of emancipatory politics, in other words, will be dismissed as not sufficiently approximating the founding ideals of politics.

Surprisingly, this verdict applies even, and especially, to Marx. Bosteels reminds us that, for Marx, all existing forms of politics, even revolutionary ones, fall short of true revolutionary politics: “all…political emancipation can always be found wanting and subjected to criticism…from the vantage point of a true, properly human emancipation yet to come” (ibid.: 23). In short, by setting up transcendental principles above and beyond the muddy realm of politics, the falseness of existing forms of political sequences can always be criticized.

Badiou on the other hand identifies a different political process worthy of the name, what he refers to as metapolitics. Rather than reducing the political to an established idea, Badiou conceives of the political as an unfolding process in the middle of the event. As opposed to the political philosopher who evaluates a situation in the way of an onlooker, the metapolitical orientation puts the philosopher under specific political conditions. This type of analysis, otherwise stated, is thought from within a mode of doing politics. Or, in the words of Bosteels, “philosophy should come to seize politics from within, without referring the process to any explanatory data that would serve as its external guarantee” (ibid.: 26). And inasmuch as this orientation puts politics in the events themselves instead of raising itself up to the heights of speculative reason, metapolitics is based on a broad materialism.

This form of political process is intended to reflect the conviction of Badiou that ‘the masses think’ or, more accurately, that ‘the masses think justly’. Here is how Bosteels describes it: “an event in politics is one that puts people to think and, moreover, one that produces collective forms of thought that are essentially just” (ibid.: 18). Politics, as described here, is a way of thinking. The task of the philosopher, in this regard, is “to investigate which conceptual tools it should develop in order to be able to register in its midst the consequences of a political event”, rather than to judge which typical image of politics ought to be put into practice (ibid.: 20). Philosophy, as a result, produces no political truths of its own. The possibility of political philosophy depends instead on conditions that take place “behind the philosopher’s back” (ibid.: 24). Only as a consequence of unpredictable events outside of itself is philosophy animated at all.