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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.

Minor politics of becoming: The affect of cramped spaces

Novelty, innovation, creativity, experimentation emerges, according to Deleuze and Guattari in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, within the minor, or more precisely, among the oppressed; in a word, minority peoples. This is so because minorities experience chocked conditions wherein they are cut off from the ready-made structures of culture that enable one to fit into the generic history, narrative, tradition or ‘lines of mobility’ that majority groups enjoy. ‘Minor politics’, in the parlance of D & G, begins with the experience of those who exist in ‘cramped spaces’. The minor, then, is fully overwhelmed by social forces that engenders a situation where creation occurs: ‘A creator who isn’t grabbed around the throat by a set of impossibilities is no creator’ (Negotiations, p. 133). Minorities, unable to pass easily along legitimate social routes within a culture, are forced to maneuver within each foreign or constrained situation they encounter. This sort of cramped experience, recounts Nicholas Thoburn in Deleuze, Marx and Politics, draws minority groups “back into a milieu of contestation, debate, and engagement, and forces ever new forms of experimentation” and creative social solutions (p. 19).

It should be highlighted here that minor politics is not simply the challenge of voicing a preexisting, though silenced, identity. Minor politics is not merely the process of ‘speaking out’. The minor is not a question of who one is as per a set of identities, practices, relations, or languages, as if minorities were only required to communicate a previously unheard community. It is the genesis, composition, creation of identity as such. Gone, then, is the sense, with D & G, that socio-political engagement arises from ghettoized marginals who must ‘shore up their own particularity against the world’ or ‘carve out an autonomous identity’ against the monolithic logic of the major form (Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 44). Rather, the minor is directed at the order and structure of molar regimes that cramp virtual minority potential. As such, the minor always occurs in the middle of the major. It works within a given set of conditions and possibilities offered and, causing them to mutate, forms new relations to create something new. Each individual, after all, is embedded, implicated, situated or positioned in or by the major in some way. One is always an ‘insider’ in this general regard. Therefore the task of cramped minorities is to intensify the major, send it racing: ‘make one’s own major language minor’ (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 105).

Since the minor is always fully traversed, composed of and cramped by molar social forces, one need only interlace a disparate conjunction of relations, objects, subjectivities, etc. to delineate or actualize the minority milieu in yet unknown vectors. The intimate affect of oppression, in other words, always concerns those enmeshed in a situation of concrete social arrangements. With one pole ‘plugged into real assemblages’ and the other nomadic, plugged into anarchism, the minor actualizes the potential difference vibrating within the unified, expressing a different sensibility and collective configuration as a result (Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 27). In fact, this strategy sounds strikingly similar to the handy-man or -woman bricoleur, as conceptualized by Derrida. Only D & G apply such linguistic collage work to the ontological field wholesale. Although somewhat inaccessible to the non-initiated, Nick Srnicek, following the non-philosophical movement as propelled by Francois Laurelle and Ray Brassier, outlines a parallel position of manifesting a new world (as event or Advent) in accordance with the limitations of the present (philosophical) world:

It is in this manner that the Advent presents itself, with a portion being given in solitude…and another portion relative to the world (from which it draws its material and occasional cause for its ‘unique face’). In this way it can both escape any determining constraints imposed upon the Real by the world, and use the wold as a sufficient but non-necessary source of material. In other words, while we are always already determined in accordance with the Real, we are only phenomenalized as potential political actors in the world, through the material provided by our contemporary Decisional structures. The intra-worldly subject, therefore, is merely the phenomenal face of the non-philosophical subject—the radical locus of resistance clothed in an arbitrary, yet non-determining, philosophical material. It is with this material clothing that we can function to effect transformations—not in, but of—the phenomenolgical world we inhabit. […] What still remains to be thought, however, is the manner in which the solitude of the Advent can be transformed, or perhaps simply extended, into the type of full-fledged world in which we are normally given. What is required, in other words, is some functional equivalent to Badiou’s concept of forcing, whereby the event is investigated and its findings integrated into a new situation (‘Capitalism and the Non-Philosophical Subject’ in The Speculative Turn, p. 181).

Minor politics of becoming, in short, is a productive engagement with the cramped conditions of life and the social relations therein. It does not proceed with a utopian or teleological hope, but is no less engaging for that. Rather, it is ‘packed full of disagreements, tensions, and impossibilities’, while at one and the same time inducing a certain humor and joy: involuntary laughs, after all, are are a functional element of political engagement, given that it remains a very difficult task. For as D & G put it, at some point the cramped space of the minor becomes so absurd, engendering a general feeling of impossibility, that it takes on a satirical or comic quality. This, D & G argue, is exactly where minor politics begins.

Epistemology of the closet

In Rosy Martin’s photographic project Unwind the Lies that Bind, a fairly straightforward two-image phototherapy work of the 1980s produced in response to Martin’s coming out, the viewer is presented with a definitive and emotive visual addressing female sexuality, specifically “beyond externally-imposed and debilitating stereotypes of passivity, objectification and/or deviance” (Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 98). “[T]he first image in the series shows Martin’s body and face bound by bandages on which words such as ‘pervert’, ‘predator’, ‘evil’, ‘disease’ and ‘dyke’ are written and the second image sees the artist breaking free of her text-laden bondage, like a chrysalis emerging from a cocoon” (Ibid., p. 100). This accessible and evocative political narrative gives a startling account of subjectivity, one that is neither acquiescent to socially determined stereotypes of sexuality nor one that merely appraises a marginal status. Rather, Unwind the Lies that Binds steers a course beyond these two positions of identity towards one that is open to change and development.

According to standard queer theory, of what I understand of it, a common strategic maneuver in response to denigrating terms such as ‘queer’ is not to openly resist them but to appropriate them as one’s own, valorizing such designations as constitutive of one’s identity. However, as the author here shows, such inversion or valorization of terms often has the deleterious effect of keeping the normal order of things fully in tact, specifically the boundary demarcating ‘normal’ sexual orientation from more ‘indecent’ forms.

‘Coming out’ offers both potential empowerment and further ghettoisation; its immense individual and political significance for many gay men and lesbians is a function of its dangerous transgression of the boundary between inside and outside. Coming out demonstrates what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has famously called the ‘epistemology of the closet’, which, in an important sense, describes an exclusionary theoretical border between those ‘in’ and those ‘out’. Performing the self as ‘out’ can thus reinforce the privileged status of the heterosexual/homosexual binary as a ‘natural’ or authentic locus of identity even as it interpellates a resistant and alternative subject (Ibid., p. 100)

Simply to re-describe “the names which defined lesbian sexuality negatively” as a positive set, therefore, is not political enough. Gone, then, is any political security of a ghettoized margin, one that seeks to carve out an autonomous identity against the world. What is required, rather, is to engage directly with the relations that make up the socius in an incessant bustle of experimentation. Granted, there are very real difficulties in re-composing the political; this is certainly not a politics of optimism. But the becoming of subjectivity, as signalled above, “is able to live with, even be nourished by its incompleteness, its difficulties, and its ‘impossibilities’” (Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 148). It can be said, in other words, that the performative process of subjectivity is not gridlocked by cramped conditions but is actually animated and cultivated by such space. It is in this sense that Unwind the Lies that Bind, as a collaborative, therapeutic practice, “provides the space for subjects to experiment with staging themselves within and through competing visual tropes” (Women Making Art, p. 102). As with other forms of narrative, phototherapy allows us to experiment in our imaginations with the probable effects of acting on one subjective assemblage over another, offering us a relatively safe way to explore our ‘options’ without one having to experiment with our own lives. Or again in the case of Unwind the Lies that Bind, one’s subjectivity, though interpellated by the socius, is always open to negotiation and maneuver, signalling ‘a speaking subject’ rather than a ‘mute object’.

 

Becoming self-consciousness

Only out of distress or disharmony can the soul create. Indeed, this is in strong resonance with a previous post, Thinking the uncommon, in which I signalled, invoking Erdem’s treatment of Melanie Klein, that uncommon, novel creative thought emerges out of disorienting positions. This necessary condition for the possibility of new thought is delineated by Deleuze in his account of “Foucault’s eight-year break in book production after the first volume of The History of Sexuality—a period Deleuze describes as one of ‘general crisis’” (Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 42). According to Deleuze, the mark of disorientation for Foucault was a mode of inquiry, invention, crisis and probing concerning the reliance on ‘power’ and ‘resistance’ in his earlier years. We are told by Deleuze in Negotiations that Foucault had a sense of becoming “trapped in something he hated” and was in need of some opening (p. 109). In grappling with his sense of being in a cramped position, Deleuze sees Foucault overcome his stagnation in conceiving politics primarily in terms of resistance or mere reaction to power, offering instead, after the creative crisis, an as yet unseen argument centered around the problem of ‘subjectification’ and ‘techniques of the self’ in volumes II and III.

It is precisely at this time of ‘crisis’ that Foucault probelmatized his antecedent categories and founded new ones, albeit a very difficult, eight-year process. This disruption in the trajectory of Foucault’s thought was a violence whose victim was himself. However, his desire to break free from himself, though a perilous act, lead him to “invent new concepts for unknown lands” (Negotiations, p. 103). The point is that cultural invention is induced by cramped, complex and intense positions “that offer no easy or inevitable way out, and are packed full of disagreements, tensions, and impossibilities” (Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 145).

Sending Levinas to Where the Wild Things Are

What would happen if Emmanuel Levinas sailed across an ocean to an island where ‘Wild Things’ lived? I fear Levinas’ story would turn out not much different than Max’s adventure in Spike Jonze’s cinematic adaptation of the iconic children’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Wild Things are uniquely and absolutely Other. They overflow and escape our categories of representation. As such, Wild Things solicit a spontaneous and singular response; one without prior preparation. For who could anticipate the epiphany of a Wild Thing? We might suspect that Levinas would be perfectly suited to “existing in a world of alien things” as his own rhetoric suggests, but Levinas does not travel all too well on Wild Thing tours.1

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Thinking the uncommon

In one of the most interesting post I have encountered recently in the blogosphere–Object-Oriented Psychoanalysis and Derridean Deconstruction–Cengiz Erdem argues that the common things of everyday existence are produced out of the depressive position or abnormalities. As the author comments, psychic development is complemented by the death drive. Whereas this relationship is typically represented as a binary opposition in mainstream discourse, it is here presented as a reciprocally determined double-bind. Erdem’s claim, following Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, is that “for a healthy creative process to take place giving birth to new thought” an antecedent disintegration or fragmentation of common sense is required. In other words, the breakdown of one’s consciousness and knowledge is the necessary condition for the possibility of reintegrating novel ideas and producing creative new thought.

In psychoanalytic terms, this entails the negation or considered dissent of the predominant symbolic order in which one explicates the problems inherent to the structure of society. In this questioning process–given that individuals are necessarily complicit in socio-symbolic acculturation–the subject loses him- or herself, splintering one’s formerly stable and consistent identity. That is to say, since subjects are constituted by symbolic structuring, to interrogate this is to persecute one’s very self. As the author says later on, “The subject of the death drive shakes the foundations upon which is built its own mode of being”. But following the confrontation of the “banalities of symbolic societies” the subject tends towards the reparation, reconciliation, and reconstructing of the symbolic order, albeit in a structure otherwise than before.

This becoming self-consciousness doubtless entails pain and subjective intensity. In the case of Heidegger’s being-towards-death, this process involves hopelessness, despair, and angst. Or in Kierkegaardian terms, it is the anxiety or dizziness of freedom. But rather than focus on escape as the solution, as the existentialists understood Platonic rationalism and Western culture as a whole doing, this interior angst should be valorized as the creative agency constitutive of the subject. As Nietzsche put it, pain, suffering, and horror are prerequisites for the novel becomings of existence because the creation of new thoughts and uncommon individuation requires the destruction of old forms to clear space for the new.

Erdem identifies a similar theme in critical theory: “The critical theorist breaks down the meaning of the text and out of the pieces recreates a new meaning, which is to say that creativity bears within itself destructivity and inversely. It may not be necessary to destroy something intentionally to create something new, but to have destroyed something is usually a consequence of having created something new”. In Derridean terms, the peripheral meaning of a text internally contradicts the dominant meaning, causing the text to split and collapse on its own accord. In this sense, the creative drive of a text that brings it into being and the destructive drive that causes its ultimate dissolution “are within and without one another at the same time”. In the final analysis, Erdem concludes that Derrida and his deconstruction project are ineffective when it comes to the generative strategy of re-creating objects or texts out of disintegrated ruins, claiming that he “perpetually postpones” effective or affirmative action, a judgment I will let stand as is and let the reader decide on.

Given my own interest in Deleuze, the psychoanalytic notion that creative thought emerges out of meaningless chaos strikes me as very close to Deleuze’s objects of encounter as considered in Difference and Repetition. What engenders thought or what forces us to think, as Deleuze tell us, is an object of encounter, something that is not immediately recognizable to the dogmatic image. That is to say, it is discordant from the vantage point of recognition and identity. It “perplexes” thought and “forces it to pose a problem” (p. 140). In this way the violent encounter of something unthinkable unhinges common sense from its streamline functioning, creating a discord in the faculties of recognition, and compels thought to grasp that which is not immediately intelligible. In a memorial passage Deleuze states the experience of an uncommon object in this way: “It is not a sensible being but the being of the sensible. It is not the given but that by which the given is given. It is therefore in a certain sense the imperceptible” (p. 140).

So while the object of an encounter indeed stumps thought, it can only be said of intensive objects that thought truly begins. In this sense, familiar thoughts and opinions are only ever the product of events in which thought is disturbingly faced with what it does not directly identify as something previously observed. Or to express it in a simple sentence, thought is engendered by introducing aberration into thought. All of this suggests that objects of encounter are the necessary condition for possible new and stable thoughts to emerge. This is, for Deleuze, what it means to think an original, novel or uncommon thought: neglect the common values and sensible concerns of how things stand in society at large. Knowledge is only conditioned by the unidentifiable condition of the uncanny, the imperceptible.