k-punk writes about the politics of “subjective destitution,” in a response less to my own particular comments on V for Vendetta, than to the entire discussion which ensued in the comments. What I have to say here is not really a counter-response to k-punk, since I find what he says, particularly about the experience of class, to be entirely compelling and convincing. It’s just that here, as so often, k-punk “forces me to think” (to use a phrase from Deleuze), so I am trying here to clarify my own stakes with regard to these political and philosophical issues.
I don’t really disagree with k-punk’s dismissal of the political value of V for Vendetta; though I liked the movie more than he did, I think he does point up its limitations as an “object to think with.” The only part of the movie that k-punk finds valuable is the sequence about Evey’s “subjective destitution.” This is a section I found more troubling than k-punk does. But not because of the starkness of the process itself: I think that the film does a lot to convey how the sort of subjective transformation that is necessary for there to be a political transformation involves a lot of pain and difficulty. It isn’t a mere matter of changing one’s mind the way one chooses items on a restaurant menu, or a computer menu (I use the metaphor of menu deliberately, because it is the ne plus ultra of consumerist logic, a metaphor often favored by the “rational choice” so-called political theorists themselves).
But what bothered me was the way in which V. himself administered the process of incarceration and torture that was the motor of Evey’s subjective destitution. In the rest of the movie, as k-punk notes, V. is a sort of populist fantasy figure, enlightening the masses so that they can revolt, with the hidden assumption, therefore, that they could never do so for themselves. But the scenes of Evey’s imprisonment seem to embody the reverse (and therefore entirely mirroring) situation: that of a Leninist party elite re-educating the masses in order to overcome their “false consciousness.” This is what I meant, in the earlier thread, with my discomfort about V.’s authority to do what he does. We seem to be caught, not only in the dilemma about populism (k-punk’s critique of which, here, here, and here, seems right on target to me), but also in the sterile old argument between anarchist spontaneism (represented today by Hardt and Negri’s multitude) and Leninist conspiratorial organization (represented today, in theoretical argument at least, by Zizek). Neither of these seem at all satisfactory to me; I find Zizek’s Leninism as much of a fantasy as the spontaneous uprising of the multitude.
In other words, when Zizek quotes Brecht’s line about the Party dissolving the people and creating another one — a line that Brecht meant ironically (if not entirely honestly), but that Zizek endorses provocatively, and (beneath the shock factor) quite seriously, it seems to me that Zizek is doing exactly what he accuses his opponents of doing: covering over an unbearable, traumatic antagonism in the Real with an imaginary solution. It’s dubious how well Leninism worked in 1917, if you consider what it led to in the later history of the USSR. And it is more than dubious to see how it would work today, either in terms of challenging the worldwide capitalist system or in terms of leading to a desirable alternative afterwards, considering how thorough the grip of capital is, and how different the class structure is, today in our post-Fordist society from pre-Fordist Russia in 1917. Hardt and Negri at least take account of the changes wrought by “late” or post-Fordist capitalism in their concept of the multitude, even if their vision of rebellion is absurdly optimistic. Zizek, to the contrary, sounds to me a bit too enamored of subjective destitution, a bit too “romantic” in his envisioning of what it means to “traverse the fantasy,” to become bereft of one’s own fantasies and conditioned desires, to emerge reborn (in the religious sense) as a sort of saint of the drive. He invests negativity with a magical power of transformation. Negativity — in the sense of rupture, or what k-punk calls “nihilation” (an active breaking, as opposed to the passive nihilism that ultimately accepts things as they are) — and subjective destitution may well be necessary conditions for radical change, but they are by no means sufficient ones. There is too much of a leap between subjective transformation and social transformation, and too much dissimilarity between individual subjectivity and social subjective formations. (Zizek’s reduction of social processes to ones that can be mapped in the same way that psychoanalysis maps individual subjects seems to me to be the greatest weakness of his theorization altogether; the process of “surplus enjoyment” is far too different from the process of surplus value extraction for any analogy between them to remain meaningful. It seems to me that Deleuze and Guattari are much more on track when they reject this sort of analogizing, and instead argue for an identity of asubjective or presubjective investments on the personal and the social level, together with a radical difference of regimes between the formation of the subject and that of the socius). For all these reasons, Zizek’s vision of the psychoanalytic cure, or the revolutionary subjective transformation, remains itself a kind of fantasy.
What’s most valuable to me in k-punk’s posting has little to do with this particular line of argument, however. It has to do rather with the “ontological dimension” of the experience of class, with the ways in which “class power has always depended on a kind of reflexive impotence,” and with an account — via Dennis Potter’s “Nigel Barton” plays — of “the loneliness and agony experienced by those who have been projected out of the confining, comforting fatalism of the working class community and into the incomprehensible, abhorrently seductive rituals of the privileged world,” and the way that such experiences “produce a distanciation from experience as such; after undergoing them, it is no longer [possible] to conceive of experience as some natural or primitive ontological category.” I can’t really add anything here to k-punk’s account. (I’ve never had to experience this sort of displacement, in academia at least, as a white male whose parents were also PhDs, and with institutional anti-Semitism pretty much relegated to the past in American academia, however much anti-Semitism might survive as an individual prejudice — but that is really a subject for another post. My wife, though, an African American woman whose parents were working class and never went to college, has to deal with this sort of nightmare every day).
But I do want to say one more thing about “subjective destitution.” k-punk notes that I wrote that one cannot will subjective destitution. But he says, to the contrary, “that you can only will it, since it is the existential choice in its purest form.” I now think that we are both right, in certain ways — there is a Kantian antinomy, or a Zizekian parallax, at work here. The “existential choice” of destitution — for example, the one by which Evey refuses to betray V., and thereby opens herself to radical loss — is an entirely negative one, contentless and absolute, in sharp contrast to the “choices between” that we are always making as consumers or constituted subjects. I recognize the difference, without scorning the latter. In subjective destitution, one can willfully submit oneself beforehand, by choosing (in the ordinary way) to put oneself in a situation in which this destitution can occur, i.e. in which the ordinary mechanism of choice is no longer operative; and, afterwards, one can accept or affirm the destitution which, in a certain way, has already occurred. (Evey does the latter, but not the former). The destitution “itself,” however, still seems to me directly unwillable, since it involves precisely an emptying-out of the will. I suspect that k-punk and I are not really in substantial disagreement here, especially when he says that “subjective destitution is not something that happens in any straightforward empirical sense; it is, rather, an Event precisely in the sense of being an incorporeal transformation, an ontological reframing to which you must assent.” The “must assent” is what I meant by calling it something that one cannot actually will.
(Can I make a ludicrously trivial comparison here? I’ve been trying to lose weight recently, because the doctor tells me this is necessary in order to keep my blood pressure down — in my middle age I have a tendency towards hypertension. The problem is, I can’t resist snacks: I have no willpower in this regard. What I can do, is avoid the kitchen altogether after dinner, so that the opportunity to have a snack doesn’t even arise in the first place. That is the only way in which I can “will” the destitution of my appetite, which I am unable to curb directly. It’s probably unseemly for me to compare my piddling little, oedipalized, and thoroughly petty bourgeois neuroses with the sort of pain that is in question here; but it’s the best way — and the most personally revelatory — I have found to dramatize it).
All this is why I find the most compelling accounts of what Zizek calls “subjective destitution” to be those of Blanchot and Bataille, who don’t use the phrase, but who do indeed explore it. However, they express it largely in aesthetic (or even theological) terms, and are very circumspect about making any claims for its political efficacy. Blanchot seems to equate this state of destitution with what he calls “communism,” but without giving this any pragmatic or strategic specification. For Blanchot, writing is a rehearsal of the writer’s own death, and a rehearsal of communism — and Events like those of May 1968 in Paris are also such rehearsals. But they are only rehearsals or simulacra, and the gap between them an any actual social transformation remains large. It’s a mistake, again, and in any case, to model social transformation on personal transformation (no matter whether the latter is an aesthetic achievement, a psychoanalytic cure, or a religious conversion).
All this leaves me, in my own work, as basically an aesthetician. I’m more interested in the aesthetics of subjective destitution than in its politics, because I am so dubious about its political efficacy or desirability. And politically, I am more interested in tracing how the logic of capital unfolds in “culture” than in working out the subjective conditions of radical change; because I am so skeptical about the adequacy, or even meaningfulness, of the latter. I’m an aesthetician because I am somebody who tries to trace our prison bars as fully as possible, but without offering any hope or means of escape. k-punk writes that “There are very good Spinozist and Althusserian reasons for this [i.e. for recognizing the state of “reflexive impotence” in which we are trapped in late capitalist society] — seeing the network of cause-and-effect in which we are enchained is already freedom.” Perhaps; though this may be, from my perspective, too strong a claim, if not for k-punk’s work, then at least for my own, as it probes the conditions of a resolutely non-redemptive aesthetics. Rather than Spinoza, I think of Whitehead, who suggests a change in perspective that might work (as Isabelle Stengers puts it) “to induce a mode of excitement disclosing the possibility of affirming both what modern habits of thought denied, and what they took for granted” — a far more modest aim than the therapeutic “cure” (in a medical, not a moralistic sense) offered to us by Spinoza, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Freud, and the Marx who said the point was not to interpret the world, but to change it.