The recent announcement that Žižek’s book on Hegel is coming in April has, appropriately, generated, at one of the same time, excitement and hesitation over the prospect that we might finally get a systematic, focused work on Hegel by the Slovenian philosopher, but one that might nonetheless be strewn with the well-known Žižekian rabbit-trails of cultural anecdotes. (Some of the feelers are out: here and here and here). My own estimation is that the book might, while approaching a tome in page-count, read similarly to his recent piece in The Speculative Turn, to which I rearticulate in what immediately follows.
In the piece entitled ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’, Žižek perturbs the ridiculous caricature of Hegel as the ‘absolute idealist’, which has been thoroughly scrutinized after the break with traditional metaphysics, presenting instead a new figure of Hegel that is congenial to materialism. The main feature of Žižek’s alternative use of dialectical reason is the “weird certainty” that “things will always ‘go wrong’”, that “the only ‘truth’ is the very endless process of ‘generation and corruption’” (p. 211). As Žižek continues on the same page, that each position “will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction” implies “a consistent all-encompassing meaningful story” is only ever told after the fact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, as Žižek likes to say, necessity itself is contingent.
In the course of the dialectical development the open-contingent process of real suffering and antagonisms generate new forms of life. On this view it is inaccurate to “impute to Hegel the standard teleological notion of a hidden Reason which pulls the strings of the historical process”, what is typically referred to as absolute Knowledge (ibid.). History never follows a plan established in advance. The historical process is itself undecided. What we have rather are a multitude of unexpected moments that threaten the stability and cohesion of established social and cultural norms that were hitherto guaranteed. Such momentous turns thus shatter all established forms and enforce new orders.
Once again, a new state of a situation “is a little better outlined” only in retrospect, once the sound and fury halts and the course of history is recollected by those who look at it backwards. Revolutionary breaks from the past are exactly that, impossible unforeseen ruptures, but, once what took place is conceived retrospectively, to the lay mind it is a linear, miraculous progression. The conditions for humankind in ape, for instance, are easily discerned retroactively but astonishing if we begin from the necessity of human life. This is why the “Strong Anthropic Principle” in cosmology accounts is false:
we start from human life, which could have evolved only within a set of very precise preconditions, and then, moving backwards, we cannot but be astonished at how our universe was furnished with precisely the right set of characteristics for the emergence of life—just a slightly different chemical composition, density, etc., would have made life impossible… (p. 216)
For all that, it would be misguided to imply that Spirit is a positive force “which gradually breaks and shines through the inert natural stuff”, as though it were some kind of Agent underlying and directing the historical process itself (p. 219). Spirit, for Žižek’s Hegel, is nothing but the incessant movement of upheavals and twists. It cannot therefore be said of Hegel that dialectics has a perfunctory mechanical character, indifferently swallowing historical antagonisms and “delivering them packed in the same triadic form” (p. 222). This critique of Hegel is complicated by Žižek who for pages fights with this quite orthodox angle, contending on the contrary that the only assurance for Hegel is that “every social reconciliation is doomed to fail” (ibid.)
But rather than assessing the endless ‘really real’ process of generation and corruption as ‘ontological shit’, as some incorrectly advocate Žižek doing (see here for a contemporary run-down), the overwhelming power of destruction is its own reward. In pure Hegelese, catastrophe is itself triumph. No effective reversal of negativity into positive greatness is necessary. The reconciliation of historical thought proper is the radically changed meaning of miserable reality itself: in a purely formal shift, which perceives and relates to negativity as the only greatness there is, one should, as Hegel insists, “recognize the Rose in the Cross of the present.” Or again, we do not have to change reality but our perspective, presenting defeat as victory.
If Žižek’s reworked understanding of the Hegelian dialectical process in The Speculative Turn is anything to go by, Less Than Nothing promises to be a robust engagement on the materialist side of diagnosing the false stability of our organized lives and advocating the emergence of the radically New, a prospect I am strongly looking forward to.
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.
To make a sweeping-statement, but one that is not invalid or unsupported, modern criticism has a very strong negative and caustic character, which is deprived of regenerating ambivalence. According to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World we discover that this sort of strict seriousness of highbrow modern intellectuals could be otherwise; specifically, it could be more like medieval parody, which was a popular corrective laughter. Moreover, modern abuses are significantly different from the medieval period in that they are destructive and purely negative whereas it was previously ambivalent in meaning and held the potential for regeneration. “Only the bare cynicism and insult has survive[d]” and “at present conveys nothing but senseless abuse” (p. 28). In modernist form, criticism generally becomes gloomy and solemn. Even in parody it tends to be narrowly focused on cold, melancholic, destructive humor. Bakhtin presents an alternative in a more carnivalesque frame:
The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way (p. 49)
The analysis of modern abuses is a topic that Latour is also insightful enough to make. For Latour, the sacred task of modernity was to unmask and unveil. If modernity was about anything, it was foremost about revealing the underlying workings of reality and strip away all the false facades. In this sense, modernity is highly critical and negative; putting all things under suspicion and suspending any positive appraisal after all angles have been thoroughly scrutinized.
We find this same sort of investigation in Graham Harman’s book, Guerrilla Metaphysics; although not until the closing pages does he explicate the title of his work. What he means by “guerrilla metaphysics” is the modern attitude and awareness that metaphysics lies in ruins. And if, for any reason, metaphysical problems are resuscitated–such as the existence of God, the fate of the soul, the struggle between good and evil–the first impulse of learned professionals should be a critical and defensive attitude. To renew metaphysics is to lack a rigorous technical philosophy. For moderns, these problems should remain lying beyond the pale, exiled to the no man’s land of faith.
I do not think this is any less true for Nietzsche or Foucault. Nietzsche, for one, was very polemic towards Christianity and rhetorically exaggerated his position on many occasions. On a more abstract level as well, Nietzsche’s project was a space clearing gesture. As I have highlighted before under a reference to Žižek, Nietzsche was like a lion who cleared the table of false illusions and made room for the child who would come after him and posit something original. The point is that Nietzsche did not have the vocabulary to articulate something beyond his own social situation but could at least expose the absurdities of the traditions and conventions he inherited. Likewise, Foucault in many ways seems only to offer a genealogy of madness and the clinic, among other things, in order to unravel the vain ideas we have about them. As wrote Foucault,
The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence…it seeks to make visible all of those discontinutites that cross us (p. 366)
Although these projects are certainly not insignificant they do fall within the modern stigma of acerbic critique mentioned above.
This makes the modern method of going about accusing one another in a critical and even indignant spirit subject to a sociology of criticism. This was clearly done in such works as Blotanski’s and Thevenot’s On Justification and Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Instead of a resource or practice of criticism, these authors open up a systematic study to the spirit of modern critique itself, thus making us uncomfortable with the obviousness of our own scapegoating mechanisms. On the wake of these authors, according to Latour, “denunciation and revolution have both gone stale” (p. 45).
But having lost our foundation for moral judgment by denunciation are we without tools for analyzing everything that is important to us? Latour thinks not, for we have always functioned by other methods. “It is called arrangement, combination, combinazione, combine, but also negotiation or compromise… It is scorned because it does not allow indignation, but it is active and generous because it follows the countless meanderings of situations and networks” (p. 45). This supple rather than rigid form of examining, assessing, and describing reality has always been present with us; we have just opted for smugness and indignation in favor.
This means for Latour that neither anti-moderns nor post-moderns offer fresh solutions to the problem. While both sense “that something has gone awry in the modern critique” they nevertheless “prolong that critique” (p. 46). One of the characteristics they share is a proclivity for thinking about revolutions that will come along and solve all their problems in one swift swoop. But these revolutions that moderns and their epigones fantasize over are
scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune (p. 48)
So, as Latour would have it, we’ve never been modern. We have only ever rearranged and translated preexisting elements and their relations. In a positive retrospective attitude we can affirmatively say that we have always been non-modern.
In the same way that we considered the style of things in the previous post, discourse also assumes a particular style of looking at or arranging things. Just as objects have different ways of appearing to subjects, discourses are likely to exhibit a similar pattern. An important distinction to make in regards to discourses is that they are not atemporal, final or terminal. In a similar manner, it is vain to nostalgically search for pure origins or essences to discourses. That is, because discourses are a historical product of choices, decisions, regulations, modes and descriptions that constitute any given perceptual field.
For instance, clinical discourse was gradually altered throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by usage of rules, perceptual descriptions, procedures, institutional regulations and practices. That is not to say that the content and usage of the medical field at that time was established once and for all. Rather, it points to the fact that it, like other discourses, have always been under constant adaptations and discontinuities. At different times in history it was concerned with different domains of objects, even though they all fell under the same subject of inquiry. It is only ever in appearance that a discourse of established statements, analyses, descriptions, principles and consequences manifests a coherent figure. In reality, it is what lies beneath that gives it its true character: procedures of intervening, translating, transferring, systematizing, and rewriting previous objects in accord with the current configuration of things. Or, more simply, using new modes of organization to rearrange and reconstruct previously formulated elements.
This is no less true for other discursive registers such as disorders, aberrations, disturbances, criminality, grammar, economics, etc. In all these processes, “a variety of objects were named, circumscribed, analysed, then rectified, re-defined, challenged, erased” (Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, pp. 40-41). They were, in short, constituted and delimited by a system of formation that connected, linked, and networked a multiplicity of previously desperate objects into a unified collective. Criminal behavior, delinquency or madness are not self-given, pre-established or necessary categories. They emerge over time and their designation and explanation vary from one social setting to the next. A brief quote by Foucault sums this notion of hybrid constellations that I am attempting to describe in discourse.
What one must characterize and individualize is the coexistence of these dispersed and heterogeneous statements; the system that governs their division, the degree to which they depend upon one another, the way in which they interlock or exclude one another, the transformation that they undergo, and the play of their location, arrangement, and replacement (p. 34)
I think there is an easy parallel here with object-oriented ontologists such as Bruno Latour. What Foucault is saying about discourses here is that they have always been a product of hybridization, whether we have recognized them as such or not. The idea of health, for example, is generated by a complex web of relations between the authority of the medical community, the judiciary system, police information, private clinic practice, social behavior norms, and so on. Foucault, in short, is articulating the need to dispense with and de-specify things by recourse to conjuring up the “rich, heavy, immediate plentitude” that gave rise to their historical emergence. The genealogical task at hand by using this broad scale of study is to “describe the organization of the field of statements where they appeared and circulated” (p. 56). By doing so we will be able to see how groups of statements were combined, classified, and arranged into a particular whole.
The critics have developed three distinct approaches to talking about our world: naturalization, socialization and deconstruction. Let us use E.O. Wilson, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida – a bit unfairly – as emblematic figures of these three tasks. When the first speaks of naturalized phenomena, then societies, subjects, and all forms of discourse vanish. When the second speaks of fields of power, then science, technology, texts, and the contents of activities disappear. When the third speaks of truth effects, then to believe in the real existence of brain neurons or power plays would betray enormous naiveté. Each of these forms of criticism is powerful in itself but impossible to combine with the other two….Such a patchwork would be grotesque. Our intellectual life remains recognizable as long as epistemologists, sociologists and deconstructionists remain at arm’s length, the critique of each group feeding on the weaknesses of the other two. We may glorify the sciences, play power games or make fun of the belief in a reality, but we must not mix these three caustic acids (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, pp. 5-6)
Latour’s point, as expressed above, is that the critical stance of modernity is characterized by keeping the Big Three of criticism segmented into three distinct sets: facts, power and discourse. This three-way partitioning, according to Latour, establishes the great fiefdoms of criticisms. The weakness of criticism, however, is that it is incapable of swallowing networks. In other words, it is unthinkable to ask any one of the enclaves of criticism to weave together “the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law” (p.5).
Fortunately, we are not hopeless in wrestling with this dilemma presented by the critical tripartition of naturalization, sociologizaiton and discursivization. Latour argues that anthropology has always already accustomed us to dealing with the seamless fabric of nature-cultures. As Latour puts it,
Once she has been sent into the field, even the most rationalist ethnographer is perfectly capable of brining together in a single monograph the myths, ethnosciences, genealogies, political forms, techniques, religions, epics and rites of the people she is studying….In works produced by anthropologists abroad, you will not find a single trait that is not simultaneously real, social and narrated (p. 7)
Although this weaving together of the natural, social and discursive has always been dealt with calmly and straightforwardly when anthropology has studied cultures abroad, there seems to be a lack of anthropological treatment of the modern world. To be brief, then, it appears as though anthologists are incapable of studying themselves. Doubtless, this is due to the susceptibility of anthropology implicitly accepting the tripartite separation of Nature, Society and Discourse in the modern world. Latour, on the other hand, roughly describing himself as a social scientists, is fairly effective at disabusing us of this assumption:
The ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society? (p. 6)