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Tag: badiou

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.

On the encounter, or how I missed a flight because of Slavoj Žižek

I have experienced the full horror of an encounter with that which exists beyond the wall of language and beyond the limits of our comprehension, and it happened in the departure lounge of London Stansted airport, in a seating area between the Wetherspoons pub and a branch of Pret A Manger.

I was there to visit some friends in Edinburgh, and I was flying because it’s cheaper to get to Scotland by hurtling through the sky in a tin can full of burning kerosene than it is to take a train. I don’t like airports. I don’t think anyone does, apart from planespotters, executive bankers, Boris Johnson, and other such psychopaths. It’s not even the queuing, or the brusquely voyeuristic security measures, or the abolition of the indoor smoking areas; it’s the fact that airports seem to be the focal points of a very peculiar sort of regimented insanity. Why do the tannoy announcers in airports seem to be so ashamed of their humanity that they mimic the blank tone and halting cadence of a robotic voice? Why do most of the books sold at airports seem to concern a terrorist plot to kill hundreds of people in an airport? In 2009 Heathrow chose as a writer-in-residence for its newly opened terminal that blithering clunkhead Alain de Botton. He wrote a book about the experience. Sample sentence: In the cloudless dawn, a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, had lined up at different heights, like pupils in a school photo, on their final approach to the north runway. I don’t think anyone capable of producing such artless imagery should be allowed near a rural bus stop, let alone an international air transit hub. But in a way it makes sense: de Botton’s banal quietism, vaguely inquisitive but ultimately more concerned with homilies than critique, is precisely the kind of attitude that our infernal masters in the airport system want to promote.

In Stansted, I was busy inadvertently scalding my tongue on coffee and trying to pummel my mind into a book by de Botton’s less platitudinous namesake, Alain Badiou. I’d managed to find a less crowded area, but there was still plenty of commotion. Kids gnawed at the edges of their seats. Clashing strains of cheery pop blared from various exciting retail spaces. Harassed-looking commuters played an endless series of computerised bloops through their iPads as they crushed candies or angered birds or did whatever it is we’re now required to do to stop us committing suicide whenever we have five minutes to ourselves. Badiou was trying to tell me about the universality of the truth-event, but I’d had three hours’ sleep the previous night and it was pretty hard to listen. I felt a faint shadow fall over me in the diffuse airport light, and looked up. Standing in front of me, meeting my gaze with his, was the Slovenian philosopher, critic, author of over seventy books, and ‘intellectual rock star,’ Slavoj Žižek. He was pale and haggard, his nose pulsing, his legs trembling. I might have imagined this, but he appeared to be wearing an illustrated Žižek alphabet t-shirt: A is for the Absolute, B is for the Big Other, C is for cocaine, and so on, and so on. And he was looking at me with pure, undisguised terror.

I’d come across Žižek before. In a talk at the Royal Festival Hall he’d accused the entire audience – myself included – of being ideologically incoherent for failing to properly understand the ‘tomorrow belongs to me’ scene in Cabaret. In these pages I’ve variously mocked his beard, parodied his writing and speaking style, and pointed to the dearth of censure for his outbursts of antiziganism. His publishers follow me on Twitter. This was different. I wasn’t facing the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’ or ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West,’ or even the author of over seventy books. With his sad grey eyes and his meline snuffling Slavoj Žižek looked like nothing so much as some reclusive woodland creature, something small and hunted and incredibly fragile. He was in shock. He’d been in London to promote his new film; he’d been surrounded by journalists and interviewers and, worst of all, his fans, who he famously can’t stand. Finally, he was in Stansted airport, protected by a wall of duty-free perfume and ruffled copies of the Daily Mail; he thought he was safe. No such luck. He was just looking for somewhere to sit before his flight, but then he saw me. He saw what I was reading. In a blurb, Žižek has said of Badiou that ‘a figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us.’ I would know who he was. I would want to talk to him, or take a photo, or have him sign something; it would be unendurable. He had to leave before I noticed him. Too late. I looked at him and he looked at me. Or maybe the other way round: for a Lacanian, the Gaze is never your gaze, it’s the gaze of the Other, the anxious feeling that the object of our glance is looking back at us. In any case, he grunted and shuffled away as quickly as he could.

I was in shock too. My plans for that morning were to drink some coffee, try to read a book, and catch my flight to Edinburgh. I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into a miniature staring contest with Slavoj Žižek. Nobody had warned me that this was about to happen. Now I know how I’ll behave in a moment of crisis: as the sniper fire whooshes past my ears or the avalanche slowly descends or the inferno blazes around me I’ll just sit there, mute and stunned, an idiot smirk hovering on my lips. By the time I regained my senses he was gone. Quickly I hurried after him. I had to get something: a photo, an autograph, a blurb for my first novel, a response to my critique of his contribution to David Lynch scholarship, something to prove our encounter had actually happened. He had his role, and I had mine. He would flee, and I would hunt him.

I never did find him. By the time gave up my hunt my flight’s final call was imminent. In my panic I followed the wrong signs and found myself trapped on a slow-moving automated transit to a distant outpost of the terminal. When I eventually reached my gate the staff told me that the plane’s doors had been closed less than two minutes ago and that I couldn’t be allowed to board. Pleading had little effect. I had missed my flight, the next one wasn’t for seven hours, and it was all Slavoj Žižek’s fault.

This is what’s meant by an encounter. Most of the time when we see people we don’t really look at them, and for good reason. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be confronted with countless gazes and subjectivities, an infinity of infinities of experience. You can’t approach all these people as other subjects; you’d go mad, end up as a street preacher or a serial killer. It’s much safer for everyone if you consider them as vaguely mobile obstacles. If you see someone you find particularly attractive or particularly objectionable you might go into a brief flailing panic, your eyes darting around them, your neck craning over to watch them walking away, but that’s over in a second. Sometimes, though, there’s an encounter; a point where you approach someone else in a manner that is entirely beyond the structures of signification and at the same time full of an incredible significance. We all leave a certain amount of turbulence in our wake. The encounter can result in grand leaps in human knowledge, or the ruin of cities, or me being stuck in Stansted airport for seven hours. For Badiou, though, the encounter is the fundamental basis of love. As a good Maoist, he rejects the banal cod-spiritualist view in which love is seen as a process by which two people become one: the essence of love is the properly dialectical formation of a Two. In an encounter – in a real encounter – a monadic subjectivity finds itself opened up to other people, to numerativity, and through this it gains access to the infinity of experience.

I’m not so sure about this. Badiou’s maths is probably better than mine, but I’ve yet to see a series of integers ever actually ending in infinity. Žižek is less positive about the whole thing; for him the paradigmatic form of the encounter is the encounter with the Real. He writes: ‘When do I actually encounter the Other ‘beyond the wall of language’, in the Real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, a facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it.

My encounter with Slavoj Žižek was an encounter of this kind. I looked at him and he looked at me; we saw each other beyond the wall of language. The sensation that accompanied this encounter wasn’t love: it was mutual horror. For a brief second before I set off to chase him down, the linguistic structure of my subjectivity was shattered. I saw myself from the outside. It was something like Kristeva’s formulation of abjection – the awareness of a subject as something other than a subject, the feeling you get when confronted with human shit or a corpse. The traumatic sense of my own finitude.

The encounter is unpleasant, but this doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. In a sense, Badiou is right: it opens up a pathway to the infinity of experience, not through numerativity but through a Deleuzian operation of minority and multiplicity. Deleuze claims that we never encounter another person directly. We encounter the Gaze, and this wordless gaze emanates from the Real where there is no lack and no insufficiency. It’s upsetting, but it’s a duty: in the end, it’s our duty towards our own deaths.

In the end, I caught the next flight. Edinburgh was very nice.

What the radical left can learn from One Direction

My entire generation is traumatised by something that hasn’t happened yet. Shaking and sleeplessness, autoimmolatory alcoholism, fits of violent rage and sobbing breakdowns, weeks of self-imposed seclusion, an epidemic of anxiety. Generation Todestrieb. The accusatory inner voice that used to constantly seek out our weaknesses and insecurities doesn’t even have to bother any more. It just screams its wordless rage directly into our stream of thought, knowing that we know exactly what it means. We have all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, except that for many of us there’s no primal fracture, no repressed event. What’s tormenting us is the future, or rather the lack of a future. Now that the myth of human progress has been gently euthanised, the only thing facing us is a catastrophe. We’re standing on a cliffside, so close to the edge that the angle of its descent isn’t even visible. There’s just a blank and distant sea.

Personally, I’ve never been a nervous type; I tend towards melancholia instead. Days thud past like slats on a railway line, their rhythm producing only a jolting queasiness. They’re not hard to fill. Aside from the regulation egodystonicity of the heautontimoroumenos, which is quite time-consuming all by itself, I tend to find myself wasting a few hours on a couple of Nouvelle Vague films. Sad men and self-destructive women fuck, kill cops, smoke cigarettes, and feel nothing – and I’m always left with a strange kind of jealousy, as if a impeccably cut charcoal-grey suit and a Erik Satie soundtrack could lend my unhappiness some kind of significance. Or I’ll watch Hollywood blockbusters online; pirated cam versions filmed in a cinema somewhere in the Russian provinces. I prefer them. It’s not low quality, it’s high aesthetics. Action is flattened, motion is shaky, the multi-million dollar digital effects spectacle is reduced to a chaotic blur, an intricate mess of abstract patterns rising from the darkness of the screen; the whole thing starts to look like an overblown tribute to German Expressionism. All this is punctuated by occasional twelve-hour binges, expensive drinks, gambling, until I emerge somewhere near the Embankment some time after dawn and idly consider throwing myself in the Thames. It’s not too bad.

My sample is admittedly small and unscientific: a handful of recent graduates, often broadly middle class, mostly from the humanities. But there are more thorough studies that bear out my conclusions. ‘Millennials’ – the generation born after the early 1980s – carry the brunt of the ongoing anxiety epidemic. It’s not hard to see why. We’re the inheritors to an economic crisis which is starting to seem less and less like a genuine collapse and more and more like a cover for wholesale pillage on the part of the ultra-rich, a planet that’s slowly choking to death in its own farts, a society steadily reverting to the age-old division between the smugly monied and the shambling cap-in-hand peons. It’s there in our popular entertainment: we don’t expect glittering crystal cities, however dystopian; we expect a future of zombie hordes or mud-caked poverty.

Still, it’s not like we’re the first generation of youth to emerge trembling into the foreboding landscape of the Real World. Something’s changed: our ancestors had mass protest movements; our equivalent is the brief self-congratulatory spark of Occupy and the Tory-sanctioned uselessness of UAF. We’ve become atomised. We’re self-hating narcissists. Part of it must have to do with the form taken by work. Aside from the stability of employment large-scale manufacturing, in a mass production line every worker is collaborating on a single project; it’s a spatial arrangement that facilitates the emergence of a certain kind of solidarity. That’s gone now, and there’s no such luck in the service sector. Your actions are monitored, your productivity is plotted on a graph, your co-workers are your competitors. If you take an unpaid internship or work on a zero-hour contract you become existentially surplus, part of the reserve kamikaze squadron of labour.

We’re constantly connected, digitally rubbing shoulders with people across the world, and the result is that we’re more and more alone in humdrum phenomenal reality. Cyberspace isn’t really a space at all; certainly not in the ‘infinite and infinitely open’ sense outlined by Foucault in Des espaces autres – it’s far closer to the medieval order of lieux, places. The connections of cyberspace aren’t actual connections, they don’t form anything like a machinic assemblage; it’s a flat two-dimensional plane on which any number of projected images and identities mingle and are occasionally interposed, a white wall studded with innumerable black holes, a vast faciality machine producing a single face. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the face is ‘something absolutely inhuman.’ We don’t touch. This pseudosociality bores down into the fundamental ground of our psychosexual selves: we can’t even fuck any more without the help of a dating site algorithm. Following the formula of commodity fetishism, to establish social relations we must stop being people and start being things.

As ever, Japan is miles ahead of the west: while most European nations tried to rearrange the rubble of the second world war into some kind of bric-a-brac social democracy, American economic planners ensured that Japan went straight from zero to capitalism. The proto-Reaganism of 1940s Japan was followed by a precursor to today’s global economic crisis: the ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, a long period of economic stagnation that further intensified the already profound alienation of Japanese society, giving rise to an ongoing epidemic of mass suicides (the rate averages at one suicide every fifteen minutes) and the emergence of the hikikomori phenomenon. Hikikomori are young men who confine themselves to their homes, abandoning studies, ignoring work, and disavowing social life; they communicate through the internet or not at all. It’s hard to tell, given their seclusion, but there may be over a million hikikomori in the country. Not that Japan has a monopoly on the phenomenon: researchers have identified similar trends in France and across the western world.

Given the sheer pointlessness of the world of work, becoming a hikikomori makes perfect sense. If you can, why not just opt out of the whole rotten socio-economic order? The problem is that doing so is a capitulation, a mute traumatised acceptance of existing conditions that precludes any real attempt to change them. In a way, the hikikomori is the ideal capitalist subject of the twenty-first century. The Deleuzian era, in which capitalism produced the schizophrenic as the ‘universal producer,’ has passed. Its replacement is the autist, the universal consumer. In previous economic crises salvation was to be found in putting people back to work and resuming production. This time the problem is one of a surplus of capital, a surplus of production and a surplus of population; we’re continually told that the only way out is to restore consumer confidence and restore the cycle of debt-spending. The hikikomori is the perfect solution: a consumer valve safely abstracted from the cycle of production, alone and defenceless, not enjoying his life but still endlessly consuming the means of its reproduction. That said, some governments haven’t quite caught on to the economic potential of mass isolation. Following case studies in Texas and Japan, there are serious proposals for antidepressants to be added to Ireland’s drinking water.

Which naturally leads me to One Direction.

This is One Direction.

It’s hideous, the kind of thing that makes you want to go to Theodor Adorno’s grave at midnight with a pentagram and a sacrificial goat, just so you can tell him to his face that he was right all along. The lyrical content is bad enough, at once recognising the sad prevalence of female body dysmorphia and trying to resolve it into the matrix of male sexual desire. But there’s also something profoundly unsettling about the expression worn by Harry Styles (he’s the tendril-haired lead singer and reportedly a pal of Alain de Botton, the psedophilosopher with a pebble for a head). It’s a grimace, a punk snarl totally at odds with his delivery, one expressing no discernible defiance. He prances around a beach and mouths insipidly anodyne lyrics, and all the while he snarls. It’s as if he realises exactly how ugly his creation is; his grimace is his own anxious withdrawal, the Steppenwolf baring its teeth. It doesn’t matter. There’ll be no peace for Harry Styles. One Direction is one of the biggest pop acts on the planet.

Their fans have a love for One Direction that borders on fanaticism. If you’re on Twitter you’ll probably already know this – Directioners and their fellow tribes consistently dominate the trending topics, helpfully reminding the rest of us that this is their turf, that we’re just a small group of weird adults hanging out at a teen party. Otherwise, a small insight was provided by the recent Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction. Here we’re shown teenage fans squealing and weeping in bedrooms, their walls plastered with hundreds of pictures of the band, as if they’re sitting in the centre of a popstar panopticon. These girls hang around outside concerts waiting for a glimpse of the tour bus, they sneak into hotels where the band is rumoured to be staying, they make explicit artwork centring around the supposed homoeroticism between two of the band’s members, they send threatening messages to current and former girlfriends. “If they said chop an arm off, I would,” says one. “Because some people only have one arm, and they’re alright, aren’t they?” After the show aired, many fans were upset at being represented as psychopathic monomaniacs. They reacted, predictably, by being psychopathic monomaniacs. It’s tempting to dismiss all this as a kind of incipient fascism because, well, it is a kind of incipient fascism. Even the band’s name seems like it’d suit a bunch of 80s goths in ironic swastikas far better than a clean-cut pop band. Translate it into German and the Laibach aspect is hard to ignore: ein Volk, ein Wille, ein Richtung! If Liam, Louis & co. were to announce tomorrow that the body politic needs to be purged of its parasites, the resulting chaos would make Kristallnacht look like a mild spat in a rural post office. No army on earth could hold back the fury of ten million teenage girls in love. The fires would burn for months.

Of course, I’m hardly in a position to judge. When I was seventeen I covered my room with posters of Søren Kierkegaard. I had a small shrine at the foot of my bed in which copies of Either/OrThe Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling were arranged with candles, incense, and small Danish flags I’d stolen from a local fishmonger. I founded my own chapter of the symparanekromenoi, with a membership of one, wherein the chief activity consisted of writing turgid erotic prose imagining the consummation of his love for Regine Olsen. On a holiday to Copenhagen I obsessed over the fact that Søren had walked the same streets where I stood, and nearly broke down in tears outside the University. I even went to the lengths of sending threatening letters and emails to professors of nineteenth-century philosophy across Europe and North America, informing them in no uncertain terms that Søren was mine and that nobody else was allowed to discuss his antiphilosophical approach to the question of being. Even more vicious missives went out to unreformed neo-Hegelians who dared to critique the infinite qualitative distinction. So I understand.

This kind of obsession isn’t just the alluring aura of commodity fetishism, it’s something far more significant. “What do you think about real boys?” the interviewer asks one fan, a nineteen-year-old with a One Direction tattoo and a tendency to camp out by the Styles family residence. She’s not interested; she doesn’t really speak to them. “Most One Direction fans are single. It’s weird. We’re all just single.” Real boys just get in the way the whole time, another explains. “Boy bands have ruined my life,” she says. She smiles. She doesn’t mind. What’s a life? There’s something admirable about this passion, something genuinely heroic about the extent to which these people sacrifice their own lives in the cause of a pop group-cum-transcendent Idea. In his Philosophy for Militants, Badiou proposes as the ‘revolutionary conception of our time’ a ‘militant desire’ standing against normal desires: the militant idea of desire is a ‘desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name.’ Under a social order that has tried to eradicate all such yearnings, Directioners remain authentically militant in their devotion to a timeless and transhistorical Cause.

The object of this militant desire is not called One Direction. All the fans interviewed were painfully aware of a lack structuring their lives. For those who haven’t met the band, this lack becomes One Direction-shaped. They’ll meet their favourite member, sleep with them, marry them, and then everything will be better. For those who have, it’s a different story. Once is never enough; they have to meet them again and again, with ever-diminishing returns. They grow to realise that the band itself is insufficient. What they want is a different mode of existence. That something as banal as a manufactured pop group can embody this desire ought to be heartening: it’s the transcendent fervour, not its proximal object, that’s important. These girls are victims of the traumatic atomisation of contemporary capitalism. Many are cut off from conventional relationships; they spend long hours alone with Twitter and Tumblr, endlessly reiterating their love for something that exists beyond their comprehension, in a shared devotion that has become something like what Badiou terms the ‘local creation of something generic’ – something based not on the facile ‘connections’ of social media but a dissolution into a strong general unity of purpose.

Marx wrote that capitalism always creates the conditions for its own overthrow; Lenin nicely summarised the same principle when he declared that ‘we will hang the capitalists with the rope that they sell us.’ Through its campaign of atomisation capitalism has attempted to resolve this problem, but in doing so it’s created an acute consciousness of the wrongness of alienated existence. Directioners have achieved far more than most leftist thinkers in demonstrating how this anxiety can be displaced onto a real and immanent movement towards a transcendent goal. This is task the radical left faces: to become as fanatical about the overthrow of existing conditions as teenage girls are about One Direction.

Boston: the terrorism of banality

The State fixes, after the intervention, the term {X,{ex}} as the canonical form of the Event. What is at stake is clearly a Two (the site counted as one, and a multiple formed into one), but the problem is that between these two terms there is no relation.
Alain Badiou, Being and Event

 SPK- Turn Social Awkwardness Into A Weapon!

Lu Lingzi died on Monday. I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. She was a person: she had her passions and dreams and aspirations, and she had her neuroses as well, her buried furies, her paranoias. She was a human being, a speck of brightness in a dark and infinite universe, and there were people who loved her for that reason alone. But I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. The New York Times knew her, though. It knew her in the same way it knows just about every single person on this earth. Its giant roving eye found her, and fixed her, and then some hack wrote this:

Ms. Lu’s own final message on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service, was posted on Monday and showed a picture of a bowl of Chinese fried bread, and said “My wonderful breakfast.” Ms. Lu, shown on her Weibo page as a petite woman with thick, shoulder-length hair, said there that she enjoyed food, music and finance.

Here is the summation of two thousand years of humanity’s struggle to distil Truth from mere events, the end-product of a line of heroes from Herodotus to Woodward and Bernstein. The final message: Woman Dead, Enjoyed Food. If you want to sell newspapers you have to make people care, and if you want to make people care about a tragedy in the real world you have to narrativise it, you have to give it the form of a fiction. You have to reduce human beings to atoms of emotion. Nobody is safe, it can happen to any of us. Sam Kriss was knocked down by a car while stumbling drunkenly across a road; in his last message to a grief-stricken planet he ironically retweeted the rapper Lil B talking about his tiny dick.

The crucial difference between what happened to Lu Lingzi and my hypothetical encounter with a Peugeot 305 at four in the morning is that, unlike me, Lu Lingzi died in the Boston marathon bombing. The terrorist bomb isn’t so much an object as a series of transformations: chemical substances into heat and light, banality into significance, life into death – with the last of these being only a corollary to the second. Death is tragic, but that’s almost subsidiary to the real horror of the bomb: a hand reaches out from the depths of the earth and assigns an aleatory significance, the Event intrudes on Being with the full force of its inexplicable violence. What we’re seeing is not the banality of terrorism but the latent terror of the banal. One day you’re a happily anonymous citizen; the next your neighbourhood is under undeclared martial law and History bursts your door open and rushes through your home, incarnated in a bunch of armed police wearing camouflage gear.

In the days after the bombing, as the investigation floundered with no group or individual claiming responsibility, I started to believe that the culprits would never be found. The attack would forever be an inexplicable anti-ontological rupture, a thorn pricking the side of a dying empire, a riddle never to be solved. In a way, I think that’s still true. In the absence of any concrete evidence, the observing masses played their favourite game: speculation. Maybe it was the Iranians, maybe North Korea, maybe a false flag attack by the Obama administration, whatever fits in best with the speculator’s prejudices. I’m not proud of it, but I played along too: it couldn’t be Islamists, I reasoned; any kid dumb enough to start talking about Jihad – and a quite a few who had learning difficulties or just needed money – had already been scooped up by some FBI sting operation. It was clearly a lone right-wing Bircher weirdo, a Tea Partier, a conspiracy theorist, holed up in his basement trying to kickstart the Rapture.

I was wrong. For a start, there were two of them. The suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were not only Caucasian but had been born among the Caucasus mountains, they had US citizenship and had lived in America for most of their lives, they had apparently acted independently of any larger organisation, they seemed to have some sympathy for 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories – but at the same time they were Muslims from a region with a long history of armed Islamic radicalism. They sat at the swirling nexus of every theory and prejudice. Neither one thing nor the other, not both, not neither. Multiple zones of indistinction, tangled, whorled, their univocity inscribed only on the Plane of Ignorance. Hence the spectacle of newspaper pundits patiently explaining to their readers what a Chechnya is, and Twitter users assuming that war with Russia was imminent or demanding a nuclear strike on Czechoslovakia.

And yet the culprits still haven’t been found in any full sense. We have an answer, of sorts, but no Answer, nothing that can account for the shocking rupture of the attack. It’s impossible to draw a line of causality from whatever was inside the heads of the Tsarnaevs to what happened near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Where there should have been something conclusive there was only banality, banality assuming the horrific proportions of significance. On the day of the marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (under the handle @J_tsar) retweeted a novelty account for an Internet meme based on a TV advert:

Most Interesting Man @_DosEquisMan_
He once arm wrestled the Incredible Hulk. The loser had to paint himself green.

The day before he planted two bombs that killed three people, including an eight year old boy, he observed:

And here I thought nemo’s dad was about to get it with dory but apparently this man turned into a female #thatscray

Two days after the attack, he told the world:

I’m a stress free kind of guy

Something’s not right here, nothing adds up. This isn’t to say that there’s been a coverup and the Tsarnaevs are innocent of the bombing (although it should be kept in mind that they are, after all, only suspects). It’s something deeper and stranger, the void at the heart of the online representation of a real person. Dzokhar’s friends consistently voice their disbelief: they knew this guy, he was their boy, they smoked weed with him, he was a chill guy. The racist media is forced to dig deep through his Internet presence to find even a few mentions of going to mosque or faith in God; they parade these in front of us as if that explains anything.

Dzokhar also has a profile on the Russian social media site VKontakte. Since he was identified as a suspect, his page has been bombarded with thousands of messages of fury and hate, sometimes bizarrely undirected:

Ivan Skor
Никому, I’m your mother raped instead of with blacks
two hours ago to Nikomu

If your immediate reaction to this is ‘this looks like a great opportunity to publicise my brand,’ then you could find work at one of the footwear companies that spammed the thread with links to their stores. Really, I think they missed a trick there; they could have built up an entire campaign around it. A marathon, a terrorist attack, a culture of martyrdom: all the ingredients for a perfect ad strategy. Imagine it: under a darkening sky a group of figures are shown running heroically along a track. At the finish line, an immense conflagration, the fiery extinction of thought and reason and humanity. One man pulls ahead of the pack, his arms spread wide, the faint glow of a halo just visible over his head, ready to embrace the inferno. What’s given him this sudden burst of speed? His millennial passion, certainly, but that’s not all. The camera pans down, and we discover the truth: he’s wearing the retailer’s shoes. Fade to black. And then, in shining white letters, the tagline: Dare To Go Further.

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