Remembering Kathy Acker

This weekend is the Kathy Acker in Seattle symposium, exploring her visits to Seattle in 1980 and 1989, and the influence she had on younger writers, artists, and musicians. I was unable to attend, but I participated in the symposium via Skype. I read an essay/chapter that I wrote about Acker a long time ago, a text that I am still proud of – it is probably the greatest success I have ever had in not commenting on another writer, but mingling their prose with my own (thus mimicking Acker’s own technique as a writer). I am not sure how well it all went: there were sound issues with the Skype transmission, and I read much faster than I ought to have done, in order not to overrun my time slot.
But in any case, I prefaced the reading with a short remembrance of Kathy Acker, how I met her, and how I saw her both as a writer and as a person. I am reproducing this here:

I want to talk about Kathy Acker as a person, somebody I knew; but also about Kathy Acker as a writer. The two are not identical, though it is difficult to disentwine them. Indeed, Acker’s construction of her public persona as an avant-garde punk-feminist icon is certainly one part of her accomplishment as an artist.

But I still wish to put the emphasis where I think it belongs, which is in Kathy Acker’s accomplishments as a writer. There is something overwhelming about her fiction, which has to do with the way that it combines emotional intensity with rigorous and incisive intellectual abstraction. These qualities are generally considered to be entirely incompatible with one another. You can be raw and immediate, or you can be distant and reflective; but you aren’t supposed to be able to be both at once. And yet this is what Acker accomplishes in her writing. She conveys the urgency and excitement of sexual arousal, and the pain and rage that come from a lover’s betraying you. But she also takes us away from all these feelings — estranges us, as the old modernist critics would put it — in order to stop us from taking things for granted. Instead, her writing forces us to think, for instance, about how gender stereotypes work in our society today, and about how oppressive and constraining they are.

In literary terms — which always mattered to her, though they are not the only things that mattered to her — Acker is equally an emotivist and a formalist. She is widely known for being sexually explicit and vulgar in her writings, and for giving voice to womens’ feelings that were scarcely allowed to be expressed so openly before. But she deserves to be equally well known for the ways that she takes pre-existing materials, tears them apart and assembles them into new configurations. She makes new realities out of the debris of old ones. “Art is this certain kind of making,” Acker once wrote; “a writer makes reality, a writer is a kind of journalist, a magic one.”

Autobiographical material certainly plays a large role in Acker’s fiction, as Chris Kraus shows in her recent biography. But all sorts of other materials play a role too. Acker describes her writing method as piracy. She adapts, transforms, or “plagiarizes” a wide variety of sources, including novels, plays, movies, histories, philosophy texts, and so on. To give an almost random example, just because I happened to be reading it the other day: on page 16 of Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker splices an account of how her biological father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, with an account of the suicide of the French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval. Both of these are then juxtaposed with a reading of the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck, together with a passage lifted from James Miller’s biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, explaining why Foucault retained an interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite the latter’s having been a Nazi.

The staggering result of these combinations is a vertiginous, unexpected new narrative. Tarot plus Foucault and Heidegger plus Nerval plus autobiographical trauma leads us to someplace we have never been before. Through this web of references, Acker invokes “the act of turning inside out, reversing, traveling the road into the land of the dead while being and remaining alive.” This is an impossible quest; but it is one that resonates throughout Western culture, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the explicit subject of one of Acker’s last writing projects, left incomplete at the time of her death) to the writings of the 20th-century French avant-garde writer Maurice Blanchot (whose work was always a touchstone for Acker). All this from a single page from just one novel.

To put this more broadly and abstractly, Acker is accusing our contemporary American way of life of being a culture of death. And she is asking — here and throughout her fiction — if there is any way for us to remain alive, and to be open to life and love, even as we are unavoidably stuck in this culture of death. Nobody would call Kathy Acker a utopian writer; she is too acutely aware of all the obstacles we face, both from existing social and economic structures, and from the unruly passions of our own hearts. Neverthelss, she continually asks us to envision new ways of living and loving together: to imagine a time “when there’s human pleasure in this world” (Pussy, King of the Pirates), or when “there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire of the Senseless).

I started reading Acker’s novels at around the same time that I moved to Seattle, in the mid-1980s. The first book of hers I read was probably Great Expectations, which was published in 1983. It was also around this time that I first saw Acker give a reading, at an art space in San Francisco. I didn’t get to meet her in person then; but I become sufficiently obsessed with her writing that I tracked down and purchased everything that she had published up to that point. And I started buying and reading all her new books as soon as they came out: Don Quixote in 1986, Literal Madness in 1987, and Empire of the Senseless in 1988. Each of these was an important event for me: a communication from beyond, you might say.

I was thrilled, therefore, when Larry Reid invited Acker to come to Seattle in 1989. I wanted to hear her read again. But also, in order to meet her, I offered to interview her for the art journal Reflex. I scarcely remember the details, any more; and I don’t seem to have preserved a copy of the article I wrote. We met in somebody’s apartment on Capitol Hill. The interview went well; we hit it off. This was partly due to common literary interests; Kathy and I were both in love with the transgressive French writers of the mid-twentieth-century, like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. In any case, though she was quite different from me, or from anyone else I knew, by the end of the afternoon I felt like we were soulmates. We chatted for several hours, indiscriminately, about life and art and books.

I should point out that Kathy didn’t make any distinction among these topics. She wrote from life, and she also wrote from books. She rejected those all-too-common cliches that would oppose life and art to one another. She was, among so many other things, a voracious reader; she knew a much wider range of books than I did, or than I ever will.

Shortly after Kathy left Seattle, I received a letter from her, saying basically, let’s keep in touch. And we did. Not long after her gig in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she remained until 1996. Kathy seemed to thrive in San Francisco; in those days before extreme gentrification, the city was something of a multicultural, queer, feminist utopia. I had lots of friends and relatives in the Bay Area at that time; I would go down there a couple of times a year. Whenever I went, I made sure to get together with Kathy. Sometimes I would visit her at her apartment in the Haight; other times we would meet at a restaurant, and she would show up on her motorcycle. We had dinner, or went to clubs, or to the movies. I remember seeing Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact with her, on the day that it opened in 1991. She told me that, as far as she was concerned, Van Damme had “the perfect male body”; but she was disappointed in the film, because (in contrast to his previous ones) he didn’t give sufficient recognition and respect to the Asian masters who had taught him martial arts.

During her years in San Francisco, Kathy taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Instutute. She challenged and excited her students, and in turn she was invigorated by her contact with them. Acker inspired a lot of younger writers and artists — predominantly women — both as a role model and as a teacher. The downside to her job at the Art Institute is that she was horribly underpaid. In those years, she was always looking for a teaching job at a college or university, anywhere in the United States, that would give her adequate pay and medical benefits. But nothing ever turned up.

Kathy left San Francisco in 1996, shortly after she learned that she had cancer. The last time I saw her was once again in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend 1996, when she came to perform with the Mekons at Bumbershoot. This was a live performance of the album that she did with them: a musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. Acker was a writer above all; but she was keenly interested in other media, and especiallly in the new multimedia environment that was just coming into existence at that time, due to growth of the Internet. She told me that she was interested in adapting Pussy into a virtual environment or a video game.

I do not want to claim any special insight here. I would not say that I knew Kathy Acker extremely well; she had broad social networks, and at various points in her life, lots of people were closer to her than I ever was. But I got to know her well enough; and I can confidently say that she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She was interested in so many things; she was curious about everything and everyone. Her thinking was fresh, independent, and idiosyncratic. With most people, alas, once you get to know them a bit, you can pretty much tell in advance what they will say about any given subject. But Kathy was one of those extremely rare people whose takes on things you couldn’t possibly predict. I was always surprised, and stimulated, by her insights and opinions.

Kathy was a very demanding person: she expected a lot from others, just as she expected a lot from herself. She could be quite imperious at times: even (or especially?) when she was also feeling vulnerable and desperately needy. This often led to fallings-out with people she had been close to; or in my case, to bouts of anger, eventually followed by reconciliation. To this day, I am not really sure what she saw in me, or why she valued my friendship. But I think her liking for me might have had something to do with what she accurately perceived as my social maladroitness; or even with what could be called (in contemporary terms) my mild gender dysphoria: my failure to adequately perform straight masculinity, even as I am unable to imagine myself in any other terms.

One final, possibly embarrassing, anecdote. When Kathy was on her deathbed, in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Tijuana, I called her to say goodbye. But being, as usual, socially maladroit, I said just about the stupidest and worst thing I could have said under the circumstances. When I got her on the line, I said to her: “Kathy, I don’t know what to say.” She responded, in a weak voice, ravaged by her illness, that I could at least tell her whether or not I loved her. So I said to her, “Kathy, I love you.”

Metaphysics and Things

Last week’s “Metaphysics and Things” conference, sponsored by the Whitehead Research Project, was one of the most intellectually intense conferences that I have ever been to. The keynote address was delivered by Isabelle Stengers, with a response by Donna Haraway. This was followed by a day and a half of presentations by several of my fellow Whiteheadians (Michael Halewood, Andrew Goffey, Jude Jones, James Bono, and the conference organizer, Roland Faber), by other theorists whose work I greatly admire (Jeff Bell, Nathan Brown, James Bradley), by some brilliant graduate students whom I had not met before (Michael Austin, Beatrice Marovich, Melanie Sehgal), and by 3/4 of the OOO crew (Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost). Graham Harman and I were paired in what some characterized (here and here) as a grudge match (OK, I’m kidding), but it was a friendly rather than acrimonious argument, and I think we both agreed that the session went well. 

In any case, my own paper for the conference is available here (pdf) — though I regard it as a work in progress rather than a polished essay. Though it contains a continuation of my interchange with OOO, the real focus of the paper is on panpsychism, and what it might bring to current debates regarding “objects,” “things,” and “life” (sorry for the scare quotes, but they seem necessary in this context, to connote particular areas of contemporary discussion). 


I leave tomorrow for Milwaukee, to take part in the Debt Conference sponsored by the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  My own talk is about how neoliberal “capitalist realism” leads to the situation in which, as Deleuze put it, “a man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt.”  Everything without exception is subject to cost-benefit analysis and enforced competition.

Speaking of capitalist realism and neoliberal logic — I can only add my voice to that of others in opposing the idiotic and venal decision to close the philosophy program at Middlesex University — as recounted here and here and here.

Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium

I will be speaking in Atlanta on Friday, in the Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, alongside (among others) Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Ian Bogost. The title of my talk is “The Universe of Things”; unfortunately I haven’t quite finished writing it yet. Should be fun, though. I will post the text of my own talk here after the conference.

Daphne Brooks Lecture

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2009-2010 Presents:

Daphne Brooks (Princeton University)
“Bring the Pain”: Post-Soul Memory, Neo-Soul Affect and Lauryn Hill in the Black Public Sphere

3:30pm, Friday, October 23
Welcome Center Auditorium
Wayne State University
42 West Warren
Detroit, Michigan

Daphne A. Brooks is an associate professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on African-American literature and culture, performance studies, critical gender studies, and popular music culture.  She is the author of two books: Bodies in Dissent:  Performing Race, Gender, and Nation in the Trans-Atlantic Imaginary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), winner of the The Errol Hill Award for Outstanding Scholarship on African American Performance from ASTR. and Jeff Buckley’s Grace (New York: Continuum, 2005).  She is the editor of The Great Escapes:  The Narratives of William Wells Brown, Henry Box Brown, and William Craft, and The Performing Arts volume of The Black Experience in the Western Hemisphere Series.  Brooks is also a contributing writer to The Nation Magazine where she has published articles on Beyonce and Amy Winehouse.  She is currently working on a new book entitled Subterranean Blues: Black Feminist Musical Subcultures from the Minstrelsy to the Post-Hip Hop Era (Harvard University Press, forthcoming). 

Charles Altieri

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2009 presents:

Friday April 10, 3pm
English Dept Seminar Room (10302)
Wayne State University
5057 Woodward

Charles Altieri
“Why Modernist Claims for Autonomy Matter”

Charles Altieri teaches in the English Department at the University of California — Berkeley.  That privilege has allowed him to write several books, the most recent of which are The Particulars of Rapture and The Art of Modernist American Poetry. He is working on a book on Wallace Stevens and a sequel to Particulars.

Tom Gunning

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2009 presents:

Friday March27, 3pm
Wayne State University
English Department Seminar Room
5057 Woodward, room 10302
Detroit, Michigan

Tom Gunning
“Visible/Invisible:The Medium of Vision”

Tom Gunning is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Dept. of Art History and the Committee on Cinema and Media at the University of Chicago.  He is the author of D.W. Griffith and the origins of American Narrative Film (University of Illinois Press) and The Films of Fritz Lang; Allegories of Vision and Modernity(British Film Institute), well as over hundred articles on early cinema, film history and theory, avant-garde film, film genre, and cinema and modernism.

Communism at Birkbeck

I don’t have the presence of mind to summarize all of the presentations at the Birkbeck Communism conference, the way I did with Michael Hardt’s talk in my last post. But I can make some generalizations. Part of the appeal of events such as these is simply to see the academic superstars in action. From this point of view, the conference did not disappoint. Slavoj Zizek was in fine form, manic and excited, and so full of a kind of outward-directed energy that I didn’t really mind his overbearingness. Gianni Vattimo, whom I had never seen before (and of whose works I have only read a little) was quite a charmer, in a humorously self-deprecating way. Terry Eagleton reveled in the role of the British common-sense empiricist in a room otherwise full of dialecticians. Toni Negri was warm and animated, jacques Ranciere admirably meditative. Alain Badiou was… well, Badiou (more of which later).

The conference’s title was “On the Idea of Communism.” The idea, it was emphasized, as opposed to the harsh realities of day-by-day social and political struggle. I’m enough of an armchair communist (or petit-bourgeois intellectual, as they used to say in the bad old days) that I had no objection to such an emphasis. I agree with Zizek that we need to show a certain patience, to take a deep breath, to try to understand the contours of the situation we are in (or the conjuncture, in more traditional marxistspeak). But what does it mean to explore the mere idea of communism, as opposed to the actuality of capitalism? The idea of communism is to a large extent a negative one, in that we don’t really know what it would be like, only that it would mean the emancipation of people, and the establishment of forms of life that are repressed, oppressed, and denied an opportunity to flourish today. It’s utopian; or at least “communism” is the name for the only sort of utopianism that makes sense to me today — it makes sense precisely because it is not a religious or new-agey idea of perfectibility and salvation, but something much more down-to-earth. Communism has to do with “the common,” as Michael Hardt said, and this is a far different thing from, say, the “public” in its binary opposition to and dependence upon the “private.” It doesn’t mean giving up on our inner lives, but creating an environment in which such lives might flourish. And I don’t think that “communism” is really about politics — though politics is inevitably a large part of what is needed to get there,

There is also, of course, the question of the crimes committed by Communist parties, or in the name of “communism,” throughout the twentieth century. Zizek opened the conference by saying that the time for guilt was over, that in the 21st century we needed to reclaim the name of “communism” from the ill repute into which it has sunk. And I think this is entirely right — all the more so in that capitalism, too, is guilty of many crimes, but of ones which it still refuses to acknowledge, and for which it shows no repentance; not to mention the increasingly untenable situation in which we live today, exacerbated by the current financial disaster.

The conference showcased the major strains of Euro-communism (in which I also include North American leftist thought) today — though the rest of the world was noticeable by its absence. All the speakers were white Europeans or North Americans; 11 of the 12 speakers were men. The audience was more gender-balanced than the panels, but it was overwhelmingly white. This is quite disturbing (not because of any multicultural pieties of the sort that Zizek always criticizes, but precisely because it bespeaks a parochialism that “we” in the “West” have still only done a very poor job of breaking away from). Bruno Bosteels talked a bit about Latin American (specifically Bolivian) experiences and theorizations of getting beyond capitalism; and a number of speakers kept on coming back to the (very ambiguous) history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; but all in all, the conference was far less internationalist than it ought to have been.

In any case, by “major strains” of Euro-communism I basically mean those represented by Zizek and Badiou, on the one hand, and by Hardt and Negri on the other. Since in fact it was Zizek’s and Badiou’s conference, I kind of got the slight sense that Negri and Hardt were only there on sufferance, as it were; they were noticeably absent during the summing-up on the final day. Now, I’ve had my criticisms of both of these camps (as can be seen in many earlier entries on this blog); but “at the end of the day,” I am much more in Negri and Hardt’s camp than in that of the others. This was confirmed for me by the fact that both Hardt and Negri focused on political economy in their talks; whereas none of the other speakers (with the exception of Zizek, whom I will discuss later) so much as mentioned it.

Now, this might be justified to some extent by the argument that the whole point of “communism” is to imagine a society in which the current constraints of a capitalist political economy no longer apply; but this isn’t much of an alibi, when you consider that so many of the talks were, indeed, about how to get there  from here — Terry Eagleton’s talk filled with literary allusions was really the only one that was actually about imagining communism as a state of being, rather than just as the negation of what we have today (and his talk precisely showed, in a symptomatic way, the limitations of trying to imagine such a utopian situation — I must confess that his literariness made me cringe a bit, as it reminded m all too much of the atmosphere of graduate school in English at Yale in the 1970s (it isn’t that I don’t like Shakespeare; I do; but I don’t really find helpful an approach which acts as if movies and TV and the Internet didn’t exist; one can talk about Shakespeare just as one talks about Spinoza — but in either case it should be from our actual present situartion).

No, the problem for me with much of the conference is that political economy (by which I include what Marx called “the critique of political economy”) was pretty much elided by most of the speakers. For instance, Peter Hallward, with his usual lucidity, developed a rather alarming call for Jacobin rigor and discipline in the defense of virtue and the Rousseauean principle of the “general will”; but he failed to explain how such a state, analgous to that of the Jacobin clubs in 1790s France, could arise in the first place. A number of speakers went on at great length about the necessity of struggles against the “State”; but they seemed to do this with little sense of how State apparatuses work to support and reinforce capital and finance. The dirty little secret of neoliberalism is that the “free market” could not actually function if the government were actually to observe laissez faire, and to leave “the market” alone. For it is only by rigid State control over things like the money supply, together with rigid enforcement of “property” laws (based on the absurd fiction that, say, the genetic makeup of genetically modified crops somehow had the same inviolable status as my personal effects in my bedroom). It’s disheartening to hear people on the left denounce “the State” in the very same terms that the neoliberals hypocritically and misleadingly do. Not to mention that, as Bruno Bosteels put it in a question that none of the anti-State panelists were able convincingly to answer, this sort of analysis is distinctly unhelpful when we have a situation such as that in Bolivia, where President Morales is specifically using the power of “the State” — the fact of his election to office by a large minority — in order to improve economic conditions for the vast masses, even at the expense of the wealthy and privileged. [One might add that, in Bolivia as recently in Thailand and several other places, it is precisely the privileged bourgeoisie who have used the tactics of “people power”, with mass protests etc., in order to bring down democratically elected majority governments who threatened their privileges).

In particular, not only did Badiou leave out political economy from his descriptions of how the revolutionary event might challenge the capitalist status quo; but also, when questioned on this score, he explicitly denounced any attention to political economy as being the sin of “economism”. All this is caaptured in the video here. Badiou claims that economics can only be part of “the situation” which it is the business of a new “truth,” produced in an event and by fidelity to that event, to disrupt. Badiou shows his Maoist pedigree (as Ken Wark remarked to me) in this insistence on politics as the ultimate ruling instance. Instead of engaging in the critique of political economy, and seeing the political as so intimately intertwined with the economic as to makie any separation of them impossible, Badiou relegates economy, in a nearly Gnostic sort of way, to the realm of the irretrievably fallen. His notion of a pure politics (and a pure philosophy) unsullied by any contact with, or ‘contamination’ by, the economic, is really the mirror image of today’s neoclassical economics which imagines itself to be value-neutral and apolitical. What this comes down to is that Badiou is a Maoist without the Marxism — a stance that I find rather terrifying.

At his best, Badiou is a kind of no-Kantian — this is an appelation that he would reject, of course, and one that most contemporary philosophers would find damning (though I mean it as a sort of praise). What I mean by Badiou’s neo-Kantianism is that his whole notion of the event, and of the ethics of remaining loyal to the event, is something like a late-modernist version of the categorical imperative. The event is singular, and yet of absolutely universal import — it commands our obedience, regardless of our merely personal, “pathological” implications. Badiou even defines the event, and the way we are called to be faithful to it, in entirely “formalist” terms — we are commanded by the very form of the event, rather than by anything having to do with its specific content. This is an utterly Kantian way of thinking — and, unlike so many “hegelian” commentators, I find this empty formalism to be a strength, rather than a weakness, of Kantian ethics. But I shudder when Badiou goes on to denature this Kantian impersonal universalism by turning it into a Pauline or Leninist or Maoist form of what Kant would have called “fanaticism.” Again, I am no Leninist or Maoist to begin with; but to take Leninism and Maoism, and remove the Marxism from them, as Badiou does, really leaves us with nothing but a delusional hypervoluntarism and a romanticized reveling in “terror.”

Zizek, speaking on the last day, gave what I am sure he would be happy for us to think of as a Hegelian synthesis of everything that went on during the conference. Unlike most of his colleagues, and in what might be thought of as a nod to Hardt and Negri, his analysis did include political economy. He listed four threats or challenges that we face today in our world of capitalism gone mad; and three of them, he acknowledged, fit under the rubric of Hardt/Negri’s “affective” or “immaterial” production. These were 1)the threat of environmental disaster; 2)questions of so-called “intellectual property,” of copyright, patents, etc., and of the privatization of the common (understanding this in the broadest sense, as Hardt argued); 3)quesions of bioengineering, genetics, and the ability to manipulate our own genes, and thus change “human nature” on a biological and physiological level. Zizek then added a fourth challenge, which he said underlay all the others: 4)the question of inclusion and exclusion on a global level — as reflected in border controls, nationalisms, and the question of immigration (the countries of the North excluding people from the global South, except insofar as their hyperexploitation was facilitated on the basis of admitting them with only a semi-legal or illegal status. This ties in also with the whole question of “global slums,” as raised by Mike Davis. It articulates the demands of capital that lie behind what Deleuze calls the control society, and it gives a way of acknowledging the issues raised by post-colonial theory without falling into the multiculturalism that Zizek is not altogether without justification in criticizing.

Zizek argued that these questions could only be resolved, in an anticapitalist direction, by maintaining principles of egalitarianism and universalism. His example of this was the Haitian Revolution as the radicalization, and Hegelian “completion”, of the French Revolution. The French tried to repress the Haitians, which means that the French were not able to live up to their own universalism — they wouldn’t apply this to black people. But the Haitians took the principles of the French Revolution more seriously than the French themselves did; they demanded and won independence, against the French, on the basis of the very principles that the French had enunciated. This is Zizek’s way of splitting the difference between his inherent Eurocentrism, and the fact that by his own principles of universality he needs to get away from Eurocentrism. In effect, he is privileging Europe on the grounds that Europe invented the very universalism that commands us to stop privileging Europe. As so often, I remain highly dubious of how this kind of Hegelian maneuver can be invoked any time Zizek needs to get out of a tight spot. It ends up being a little too easy, and a little too self-congratulatory a method of resolving the problem. That is to say, Zizek still really is Eurocentric, and we need to continue to call him on this. But it is not entirely devoid of merit that the guy is trying, at least…

In any case, after laying all this out, Zizek went on to talk about some of the difficulties that we face in trying to deal with these questions. He was emphatic in arguing that the radicality of “communism” needs to be upheld, against the sort of reforms that — now that some of the excesses of finance are being at least slightly reined  in — could come under the name of “socialism” (as in Newsweek’s recent assertion that “‘we are all socialists now”). Such “socialist” reforms (including the nationalization of institutions like banks, or the de facto ownership of the majority of stock in troubled financial corporations by the US government) would give an illusion of reform, while really leaving the massive inequalities (between wealthy financiers and everyone else, and even more between the citizens of Western nations and the overwhelming majority everywhere else in the world) largely untouched. I think that Zizek is right about this — the current crisis situation at least in principle makes radical alternatives more thinkable than they were during the internet and real estate bubbles — even though the recuperative efforts of Western governments today are almost entirely oriented towards keeping alive the sense that “there is no alternative,” even as that system to which there is supposedly no alternative has entirely collapsed and discredited itself.

In this light, ZIzek talked of the difficulty of making any transgressive or oppositional gestures today, because of the way that such gestures almost immediately get commodified and recuperated, and because the very ideas of transgression and radical innovation have themselves become capitalist resources, the mantras of every business school and every CEO. Zizek even quoted Brian Massumi to this effect, much to my surprise (since Massumi, like Hardt and Negri, is very much on Deleuzian side, rather than the Lacanian one, of recent debates).

Awareness of these issues, I think, prevents Zizek from articulating groundless fantasies of revolutionary agency in the way that certain other speakers did. Yet the only solution Zizek had to offer, in his talk, was an appeal to Badiou’s transcendental formulation of politics as fidelity to an event of radical rupture, and of “communism” as the name of this event or rupture. In the course of his talk, Zizek called several times for a “radical voluntarism” — though, when called on this formulation in the Q&A, he backpedaled (at least rhetorically) and said that all he meant by such a phrase was that, unlike the old Marxists  of the earlier part of the past century, we could no longer believe today that the “logic of history” was on our side, or that we could trust to the objective course of events to displace capitalism and create the necessary and sufficient conditions for communism.

I agree with Zizek on this — indeed, my largest disagreement with Hardt and Negri is precisely that they seem to affirm a soft version of the inevitable-movement-of-history, or “objective conditions” thesis — but I think that a phrase like “radical voluntarism” works to insinuate a positive thesis — a sense of “what is to be done?” — that simply isn’t there. Which leaves us back in our current condition: the demoralization of an impotent left. I have no solution for this dilemma — and I don’t think Zizek or Badiou (or Hardt or Negri either) have any more of a solution than I have, although they are way to eager to adopt the rhetoric of seeming as if they do.

All this was symbolized at the very end of the conference. As everyone was getting ready to leave, Zizek asked us to all stand up and sing “The Internationale”. Almost nobody did (there were a few people in one corner singing it, but they couldn’t be heard above the general hubbub). In my case — and I suspect this held for a large majority of the hundreds of people in the auditorium — I would have liked to sing “The Internationale”, but I couldn’t — because, although I am vaguely familiar with the melody, I do not know the words.

2009 UK “Post-Cinematic Affect” Tour

I will be in the UK next week for what I may as well call my “Post-Cinematic Affect” tour, since all the talks I will be giving will be extracted from a manuscript-in-progress of that title. Basically, there are sections on Grace Jones’ “Corporate Cannibal” video, on Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate starring Asia Argento, and on Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. (All of these are heavily revised and expanded versions of texts originally published on this blog). For each talk I will be doing one or two of these sections; the two talks in London will together cover the entire manuscript.

The schedule of talks is as follows:

  • Monday 16 March: Goldsmiths, London (“Dangerous Modulations: Grace Jones’ Corporate Cannibal”)
  • Tuesday 17 March: Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge (“Dangerous Modulations: Grace Jones’ Corporate Cannibal”)
  • Wednesday 18 March: Salford University, Manchester (“Post-Cinematic Affect in Boarding Gate and Southland Tales”)
  • Thursday 19 March: University of Western England, Bristol (“Post-Cinematic Affect: Grace Jones and Justin Timberlake”)
  • Saturday 21 March: Kings College, London (“Post-Cinematic Affect”: keynote address for “Emergent Encounters in Film Theory” conference).