Archive for April, 2006

k-punk on “Dis-identity Politics”

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

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.

Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations”

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

I’ve been reading, with a combination of exasperation and illumination — but alas, more of the former — the discussion of Gayatri Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” that has been going on at Long Sunday and other places. The discussion led me to reread Spivak’s article itself, which I hadn’t looked at for many years, but which touches on, in various ways, the project on commodity fetishism and aesthetics in which I am currently engaged. I don’t have the energy or focus to write a full-fledged discussion of the essay the way that the folks at Long Sunday have done, but I’d like to make a few comments provoked by reading all that commentary in the light of rereading the essay itself.

The thing that exasperates me the most about much of the discussion is the emphasis on Spivak’s alleged difficulty or incomprehensibility (I am not singling out any of the postings in particular here, just recording a general impression). The level of objection seems to me to be excessive, out of proportion with the actual challengingness of Spivak’s essay, and hence is probably symptomatic. Spivak writes in a theoretical shorthand; that is to say, she assumes a lot of background knowledge on the part of the reader — something which is unavoidable, given the fact that you cannot make a sophisticated argument at all if you have to spell out your points of reference in beginners’ terms every time you try to write anything. Now admittedly, Spivak’s particular presupposed knowledge is stuff I have a reasonable grasp upon — certain strains in Marxist economic theorizing, as well as Derridean deconstruction and its general philosophical-historical background. But I don’t see that Spivak is somehow intrinsically impenetrable. If you lack the requisite backgrounds, you will have the same difficulties that I have in reading Badiou’s Being and Event (because I lack any familiarity with or understanding of set theory), or most recent American analytic philosophy (because I lack the proper comprehension of propositional logic), of for that matter articles discussing the Federal Reserve Bank’s monetary policy or the intricacies of narrative theory. Spivak’s writing is in fact much more engaging and interesting than most of these other sorts of writing — because of the way it makes connections across disciplinary boundaries and contextualizes together things that are usually left apart (like, literary canonization on the one hand and the international division of labor on the other) in ways that few of the other examples I have cited ever dare to do. And I don’t think that Spivak is obscurantist or unnecessarily diffficult in any of the ways these other sorts of writing aren’t.

Putting the bogeyman of “difficulty” aside, it seems to me that “Scattered Speculations” is useful precisely for the way that it reaffirms the importance of Marx’s insights (or theoretical formulations, if you prefer) about exploitation and surplus value for any understanding of culture and society — including but not limited to the discourses of literary studies and interdisciplinary “theory” — today. Among the crucial points Spivak makes (without trying to give a complete account, or putting into more rigid order what we are told right at the start are “scattered” — and provisional — “speculations”) are the following. Cultural studies gets too comfortable and complacent when it considers questions of domination, and power, without also considering the specific importance of exploitation. Marx’s sense of “the labor theory of value,” and thereby of the functioning of exploitation in a specifically economic sense, needs to be defended against both the old-fashioned marxist fundamentalists who would read the theory in an essentialist or “continuist” manner, and the up-to-date theorists (including many so-called deconstructionists) who reject the theory outright on the grounds that it is (supposedly) essentialist or continuist.

Against this, Spivak emphasizes the “textual” indeterminacy of the relations of (the socially necessary) labor embodied in a commodity to the exchange-value of that commodity, to the money form in a capitalist economy, to capital as an object of quantitative accumulation. Labor-power, the commodity that workers must sell to capitalists in order to survive, is defined by Spivak as a materialist predication of the subject (i.e. a definition of what constitutes the human subject — one that is made in “materialist” terms in contrast to the “idealist” definition of subjectivity in terms of consciousness or intentionality) that relies on a fundamental non-identity, “the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate — super-adequate — to itself.” This non-identity is precisely the basis on which exploitation (the extraction of surplus value) is possible; and it indicates how surplus value has to do with a basic incommensurability between the identity (defined via exchange value) of a subject, and the productive labor-power that such a subject is able to deploy. The latter is the use value of the worker’s labor power for the capitalist employer. To see this incommensurability is also to see that use value itself cannot be defined in essentialist terms as some sort of fixable need. (Cf. my previous post on the non-essentialist definition of use value).

So Spivak uses the concept of use-value as a “deconstructive lever” to unsettle any normalization of the hierarchies of value. This means continuing to insist upon the inequities of (worldwide) exploitation, as a process that gets left out of “radical” critiques that only consider systems of domination. Spivak cites as examples both the self-mystifying language of business schools and corporations, and the uncritical celebration of(supposed) empowerment via new computing and telecommunications technologies that has been so prevalent in some “postmodern” quarters. While criticisms like Spivak’s are often read as “politically correct” handwringing, or as what Spivak herself calls a stance “that the ‘disinterested’ academy dismisses as ‘pathos’,” Spivak is careful to spell out the links between the ideology of empowerment that pomo and business academics (unbeknownst to each other) share, and the ‘objective’ way these groups benefit from exploitation via the international division of labor.

I could go on with this, which would seem to me to be just a fairly banal and obvious reading of Spivak’s essay, were it not that so many readers/commentators find it impenetrable. Other aspects of Spivak’s argument are also worth citing, including the way Marxist/economic notions of value are necessarily entwined with other sorts of declarations of Value (such as aesthetic and moral specifications of value). Many of the commentators on the article have in fact moved their focus from economic value to these other sorts of value, without noticing that Spivak is explicitly objecting to such a (economics-effacing) refocusing. But I lack the patience to continue with this close reading, so I will close with a few questions.

If there is one area where I would (mildly) dissent from Spivak’s formulations, it is on the question of whether the “textualist” (or deconstructionist) reading/metaphor/angle of approach is really the best one for raising the issues Spivak wants to raise. I tend to doubt that it is, for reasons that are not unrelated to the ones that Jodi raises. Jodi asks: “what makes the subject materialist or, to use Spivak’s language, why are we working with a materialist predication of the subject or why is a materialist predication of the subject necessarily a predication linked to labor power?” And, following Zizek, she proposes “a different account of the subject, perhaps in terms of the lack, gap, or irreducibility between the idealist and materialist predications.” Now, I am not willing to follow Jodi in making such a move; it seems to me that positing a subject in terms of Lack or negativity is precisely moving in the wrong direction, back to the “idealist” predication that Spivak both wants to get away from, and (as a good deconstructionist) admits we can never eliminate altogether. I think that Spivak’s deconstructionist posing of the idealist/materialist alternative is more destabilizing, and more nuanced, than the Zizekian parallax Jodi proposes. So I’d want to return to Jodi’s cogent question, but give it a different suggestion for the answer. The materialist predication in terms of labor power is important precisely because of the “super-adequation” it entails — and this sort of formulation is preferable to one in terms of lack. But I’d like to say that this predication, although a necessary one for defining the subject, is not a sufficient one. (I take this distinction from Isabelle Stengers’ discussion of Whitehead, in a forthcoming, but as yet unpublished, article. Stengers shows how Whitehead transfers this initially mathematical distinction into metaphysics and ontology). “Super-adequation” itself embodies such a distinction (as a term, it implies a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition, which is precisely why it resists “continuist” or properly representational coding). But the weakness of deconstructive, textualist approaches, to my mind, is precisely that it relocates the gap between necessary and sufficient (a gap which is not a “negativity” or a “lack”, but a space open to other movements, other predications) back into language, into the super-adequate term itself, rather than allowing for the proliferation of other (continuingly disjunctive or non-adequate) terms and entities. So I agree with Jodi that (as she puts it) “materialism, properly conceived, can emphasize both economic determination and openness,” but not quite with the way she proposes doing this; and I agree with Spivak on insisting on the insurpassibility of the economic, and on recognizing “the complicity between cultural and economic value-systems,” but without necessarily following her textualist drift.

Doubtless all this is as abstract-theoretical and jargon-clotted as Spivak’s critics have found her work to be, but without her stylistic elegance and philosophical penetration. Nonetheless I will post it now, since too many other (pragmatic and economic) matters are pressing on me to devote more time to it.

A McLuhanite Marxism?

Monday, April 17th, 2006

So here’s one of the dilemmas, or (Kantian) antinomies, that I have been wrestling with lately. It has to do with the mutations, or changes in social spacetime, that are grouped under the categories of neoliberalism, postmodernism, post-fordism, the network society, the society of control, etc.

I am deliberately leaving these terms more or less vague, rather than trying to explicitly define them; they serve here as general markers or pointers; their significance is precisely what I do not want to presuppose. “Neoliberal” refers mostly to the ideology that “free markets” and privatization are the best ways to manage everything. “Post-fordism” refers to the way that production is organized (although actually, I’m inclined to agree with Jameson’s recent suggestion that we should call the current situation “Walmartification” or “Waltonism” rather than “post-fordism”; instead of paying workers well enough that they can afford to buy the commodities they produce, capital today works by paying workers so little that they can only afford to buy goods from the high-volume, discount outlets at which they work, or where the cut-rate products they make are sold). The “network society” (Castells) and the “society of control” (Deleuze) refer, not directly to production, but to other aspects of how social power and control is organized. “Postmodernism” is a more general cultural category, and therefore the vaguest term of all.

Now, what I am calling an antinomy in the discussion about what has changed today, as compared to the Fordist, Keynesian, welfare-state capitalism I grew up with (I’m 52), could be summarized as the difference between (a certain reading of) Marx, and (a certain reading of McLuhan). It has to do with how modes of production, and forms of power and control, relate to technosocial changes. The movement from Fordism to Walmartization is also that from massive assembly lines in Detroit to “flexible” and “just-in-time” production systems dispersed around the globe; from an economic system centered on industrial production to one that seemingly pays more attention to advertising and circulation; and from technologies of mass reproduction to technolgies of communications and computing that shrink space and time, and incite multiplicity and diversification.

Now, on the one hand, many Marxists tend to deny that there is anything like a rupture, or a fundamental change between the old Fordist regime and the current Walmartized one, or between the old hierarchical corporate structures, and the current decentralized, networked ones, or between the formations of discipline and those of control. There have indeed been some tactical adjustments in the appropriation of surplus value; but this doesn’t make for that great a difference in the way that capitalism works. The same basic system of exploitation still obtains. For instance, take some recent comments by Nate at What in the hell…, expressing a great deal of exasperation with Deleuze’s contrast between the 19th-century society of discipline and enclosure (based on “molds, distinct castings”), and the 21st century society of control and debt (based on a continual process of “modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point”):

The role of confinement is certainly important. But to my mind there’s a more important sense of enclosure which renders the passage from discipline to control (if it happened/happens) as much a relation of continuity as of break. That is, simply, the enclosure upon which the capital relation is premised: the imposition of lack of access to means of subsistence and the destruction of problematic collectivities in order to create the conditions wherein the sale of labor power as a commodity is basically mandatory.

Nate’s point here, I think, is twofold. First, the differences that Deleuze observes between the societies of discipline and control are, at the most, changes in tactics within an overall practice — that of exploitation, or extraction of surplus value, in the process of production — that remains dominant and unchanged. Second, both sorts of tactics (enclosure and modulated control) were at work in the era of capitalist industrialization, in 19th century; and both tactics are still at work today. This means that Deleuze’s distinctions are trivial at best, when they aren’t entirely spurious. And Nate therefore rejects Deleuze’s claims for new modes of subjectivity (and implicitly, for a radical redefinition of class consciousness) in postmodern society. And the same would go, presumably, for all the other arguments that proclaim a massive change as the result of the new electronic technologies (computing and communications) of the last thirty years or so.

On the other hand, there is the McLuhanite argument, for which these technological changes are absolutely crucial. A change of medium, McLuhan says, makes for a change in the sensorium, an alteration in the “ratio of the senses.” The mutation of subjectivity therefore has to be taken seriously. And this necessarily also implies changes in social, economic, and power relations. This is where Deleuze’s rupture, from discipline to control, would take place. It’s also where the figure of the consumer takes center stage alongside (or even instead of) the worker, or better where these two figures are merged. Hardt and Negri thus speak of “affective labor,” which is more important than the old productive kind (or, more accurately, which subsumes and includes old-fashioned industrial production together with much else). Lazzarato speaks of “immaterial labor,”, and of the separation of the capitalist enterprise from the factory. Deleuze and Guattari even speak of “machinic surplus value,” which would be extracted alongside the old-fashioned sort of surplus value that comes from living labor, since we are in a “posthuman” era where the distinction between human beings and machines, or between variable and constant capital, is no longer as rigid as it used to be. Many theorists also speak of circulation as taking over from production as the main sphere of capitalist activity. Edward Li Puma and Benjamin Lee, referring to the frenzied trade in derivatives that is the most massive form of financial transaction today, argue, for instance, that “circulation is the cutting edge of capitalism… “circulation is rapidly becoming the principal means of generating profit, absorbing the capital formerly directed towards production.” There are many of these sorts of formulations; and they are often accompanied by a disavowal of the very possibility of Marxist analysis: the claim that this is a totally new situation, in which Marx’s “productivist” categories no longer apply.

Now, the reason that I started by calling this situation an “antinomy” is that, although these two points of view seem incompatible, I think that they both apply, or that they both are necessary. I do think that the social, technological, economic, and ideological changes of the last thirty years are massive, and that they do mark a rupture in the ways that the world is organized, and in the forms of subjectivity that constitute us, that we experience or inhabit. Our sensorium has indeed been fragmented and reorganized, as we move from a writing-centered to a multimedia, polycentric, post-literate form of life. Many of the old Detroit auto factories have been closed, and replaced by new manufacturing processes dispersed around the globe, and controlled by “general intellect,” or affective, immaterial labor. Advertising and branding, circulation and consumption, have taken a more central role than ever before. Lazzarato is right to say that, today, “consumption can no longer be reduced to the buying and ‘destruction’ [i.e. “consumption” in a literal sense] of a service or product… first of all, consumption means belonging to a world, joining/endorsing [adhérer à] a universe” (excuse my somewhat clumsy translation). This is why I think Deleuze is right in emphasizing the radical rupture that constitutes the new society of control. And the consequence of this is that traditional Marxist ideas about class consciousness, about organization, and so on, need to be completely rethought, from the beginning. (From this point of view, the trouble with Hardt and Negri’s notion of the Multitude is not that it abandons traditional proletarian consciousness, but that it is still too close to the old model of proletarian consciousness, and thus fails to take the full measure of the changes that, in other parts of their work, Hardt and Negri delineate quite well).

However — and this is the other side of the antinomy — I also think that the major result of the new electronic technologies, of the neoliberal “freeing” of markets, of the extension of surplus value extraction outside of the factory, and deep into the circuits of circulation and consumption, of the increasing colonization of leisure time as well as work time, of the primacy given to “information” (and of the way that “information” has become a new frontier for what Marx called “primitive accumulation,” i.e. the private appropriation of what was formerly common) — I think that the result of all of this is precisely that Marx’s delineation of “capital logic” — his exploration of the processes of exploitation (surplus value extraction) and capital accumulation, and of their wider (extra-economic) consequences and implications — is more valid today than ever, more universally applicable than it was in Fordist days, or even at the time when Marx was actually writing. Nate says, against Deleuze, that the old disciplinary worker “was also involved in other circuits of production other than those of surplus value production (this is always the case – value production is smaller than the total set of human activities – unless one posits an absolute identity between capital and life)”; and that it is only by ignoring these other activities that Deleuze can posit the discontinuous quality of life in the disciplinary society, in contrast to the presence today of a “continuous network.” But the point is precisely that “an absolute identity between capital and life” is in fact the tendential goal of capital: this absolute identity is the asymptotic point which will never (one hopes) actually be reached, but to which we are very much closer today than was the case thirty years ago or a century ago — closer precisely because of the new material technologies of computing and communications, and the new politico-economic technologies of marketing and control, that dominate our lives today.

The Kantian “solution” to the antinomy with which I began can therefore be stated in terms of the relative roles of production and of circulation. Traditional Marxist thought, of course, emphasizes production, and regards circulation and exchange as being merely of secondary importance. Marx himself famously invites us to “leave this noisy sphere [of circulation], where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow [the capitalist and the worker] into the hidden abode of production,” where the secret of surplus value can be unveiled. Nonetheless, we must not regard the relation of production to circulation as one of inner essence to outward appearance, or base to superstructure – as orthodox Marxist theory has all too often done. For production itself cannot lead to profits, and to the further accumulation of capital, unless the produced commodities are actually sold. As Kojin Karatani puts it, “industrial capital earns surplus value not only by making workers work, but also by making them buy back — in totality — what they produce.” And this requires the entire apparatus of circulation, as expressed in Marx’s formulas C-M-C and M-C-M . Without circulation and consumption, the whole system of commodity production and capital accumulation would come to a halt. The continuing instability, and frequent failure, of circulation – as a result of overproduction, or what (the non-Marxist) William Greider calls the “supply problem” – is at the root of capitalism’s periodic crises. This is why circulation can well be the cutting edge of postmodern capitalism, without thereby invalidating Marx’s insights about the accumulation of capital, and the incommensurability that is at the basis of how capital extracts a surplus without equivalent from the production process despite adhering punctiliously to the rules of “equal exchange.”

So I find myself conflating the logic of capital and commodities with the logic of technology and media. Or — as others may see it — I find myself pleading guilty to the sins of both economism and technological determinism. A McLuhanite Marxism? Why not?

A Voice and Nothing More

Friday, April 14th, 2006


Mladen Dolar’s beautiful new book, A Voice and Nothing More, is as lucid and compelling an account of Lacanian theory as I have encountered anywhere. Dolar, like his friend and sometime collaborator, Slavoj Zizek, is a philosopher from Ljubljana, Slovenia, who has deployed Lacan for the understanding of contemporary culture. In the course of A Voice and Nothing More, Dolar goes through the question of voice as it is manifested in linguistics, in metaphysics, in “physics” (having to do with both the physics of sound and the physicality of the body), in ethics, and in politics. He then concludes with two lengthy readings of Voice in Freud and in Kafka (the latter through brilliant readings of some of Kafka’s parables, and of his often-ignored stories “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” and “Investigations of a Dog”).

A Voice and Nothing More as its title indicates, works to complicate our understanding of the role and meaning of the human voice in culture. Dolar rejects as overly simplistic Derrida’s famous opposition between voice and writing. For Derrida, the stress on voice and speech, at the expense of writing — a valorization found in philosophers from Plato to Rousseau, and also in such modern thinkers as Heidegger — is a symptom of the metaphysics of phonocentrism and logocentrism. To champion the voice against writing means to embrace the illusions of self-presence, immediacy, identity, interiority, etc. And Derrida works hard to show how all the assertions of the authenticity of the voice, throughout the Western philosophical canon, in fact surreptitiously discredit or ‘deconstruct’ themselves, by calling in spite of themselves upon the difference and mediation and metaphoricity which are figured by writing in contrast to vocal speech.

Dolar, however, argues and demonstrates that the phenomenon of Voice is in fact far more uncanny and slippery, and already inclusive of difference, than Derrida gives it credit for. The voice always stands in between: in between body and language, in between biology and culture, in between inside and outside, in between subject and Other, in between mere sound or noise and meaningful articulation. In each of these instances, the voice is both what links these opposed categories together, what is common to both of them, without belonging to either. The logic here is in fact not all that different from a Derridean or deconstructionist one, except for two things. First, it complexifies the role of the voice in the deconstructionist schema of binary oppositions and the instance that both produces and disqualifies them. And second, it gives a psychoanalytic location — in terms of the contradictory imperatives of desire and drive — to what tends to remain just a cognitive or logical paradox in deconstruction.

A Voice and Nothing More clarifies for me a distinction that Dolar, Zizek, and Alenka Zupancic have long made about the changes that occurred in the course of Lacan’s teaching. If a certain (early, 1950s) Lacan suggested that everything in the human, cultural-social world passed through the articulations of language of the signifier, then the more mature (later, 1970s) Lacan emphasized, conversely, the points of resistance to linguistic totalization and articulation, the Real that insisted outside every invocation of the Symbolic. The “object-voice” (voice as objet petit a) is one crucial example of this resistance. For if the voice-as-speech is entirely within language (this is what differentiates speech from screams, inarticulate cries, and animal calls), it also, at the same time, manifests an embodiment that goes beyond, or is irreducible to, the idealized and non-physical differences that define the signifier.

Throughout the book, Dolar focuses on the “object voice,” the voice as paradoxical objet petit a, in explicit contrast to two tendencies. On the one hand, there is the metaphysical sort of understanding that would ignore the quality of the voice, ignore its physicality, in order just to extract its signification, its Symbolic import, the meaning of its words. To do this, of course, is to miss the whole point of the voice, to ignore its uncanny presence. On the other hand, there is the converse aestheticization of the voice, the failure that comes from “turn[ing] it into an object of aesthetic pleasure, an object of veneration and worship, the bearer of a meaning beyond any ordinary meanings. The aesthetic concentration on the voice loses the voice precisely by turning it into a fetish object” (4). If the first approach ignores the insistence of the voice in order to extract its signification, the second ignores the signification in order to extract and valorize its pure expressive potential, or what Roland Barthes called “the grain of the voice… the materiality of the body singing its mother tongue” (cited disapprovingly by Dolar in a note on page 197). Both these approaches, Dolar says, look at one side of the paradoxical duality of the voice, and ignore the other; both therefore obscure or “obfuscate” the object voice.

My own interest, which I will only cite here and not endeavor to “prove,” or pursue in any more detail, is to affirm — to rehabilitate and pursue — the fetishization and aestheticization of the voice. Think of Bob Dylan’s voice; Joey Ramone’s voice; James Brown’s voice; Diamanda Galas’s voice; Roxanne Shante’s voice; Ghostface’s voice. I want to pose this aestheticization of the voice against Dolar’s psychoanalysis of the voice. If the danger of aestheticization is the attribution to the fetishized/aestheticized object of “a meaning beyond any ordinary meanings,” then the promise of aestheticization is a “fetishistic” (the psychoanalysts would say) suspension apart from meaning, before or after meaning, in something that is other to any meanings (the other of all meanings?). Both this dangerous attribution of higher meaning, and the aesthetic promise of release from it, are present in Kant’s Third Critique, the text I am incessantly drawn back to. The “aesthetics of voice” is the chapter missing from Dolar’s book, because he dismisses its possibilities too quickly; it’s this aesthetics, and the labyrinth into which it leads us — the labyrinth, I suspect, of what Hegel wrongly disparages as the “bad infinity” — that I still need or want to explore.

V for Vendetta

Sunday, April 9th, 2006

I finally saw V for Vendetta, and I thought it was quite good. Despite Alan Moore’s rejection of the film, and his removal of his name from the credits, I thought the film was more faithful to his vision that I could have expected. (Though admittedly it has been a good while since I read the comic).

In any case, V for Vendetta pulls no punches: it doesn’t draw back from its more dangerous initial implications in the ways that high-budget adaptations of comics so often do. The destruction of the British Parliament at the end of the film is the most emphatic such endorsement of subversive terrorist action since Fight Club. More generally, V for Vendetta‘s depiction of a future fascist government is unambiguous: rather than trying to please all demographics, it identifies a deeply religious, homophobic, ultra-“patriotic,” imperialistic surveillance state as the source of oppression. (There is really no discussion of the power of Capital, which probably marks the limits of the film’s vision; but in our current sanctimonious, neocon circumstances, what we are shown will do. The film mediates cleverly between the very British setting — it was originally written by Moore during the Thatcher era — and its deliberate resonances with the current American situation).

Jodi has already written about some of the ways that V for Vendetta actually embodies “key elements of Zizek’s political theory” (even though Zizek isn’t cited here the way Baudrillard was in The Matrix). I think the film does maintain a surprisingly radical stance for a Hollywood movie; but the politics needs to be framed in terms of the formal conceits of the film. I was especially fascinated by the contrast between the ubiquitous face of the dictator (many times larger than life size on an enormous video monitor as he gives orders to his flunkies) and the facelessness of V., always wearing his creepily smiling Guy Fawkes mask (with the implication that there is no face even behind the mask, but only flayed flesh, muscles, etc., as a result of the biological experiments he endured, and his searing in the fire when he destroyed the laboratory/prison and escaped). This opposition is also one of voice: as the dictator speaks in hectoring tones to his flunkies, or condescendingly on gigantic public video screens to the public, his voice tends towards the hysterical, while the obscenely magnified opening and closing of his mouth, together with his far-from-perfect teeth command our visual attention. Meanwhile, we can never see V.’s mouth moving behind his mask; and his pronouncements, often filled with literary allusions, elaborate metaphors, over-polite diction from past centuries, and frequent alliteration, seem to be coming from nowhere on the screen; it’s more like a dispassionate voiceover narration. The unlocatability of V.’s voice, and the never-changing expression of his mask, are in fact the most disquieting things about the film.

I couldn’t help thinking of Mladen Dolar’s recent brilliant discussion of the ambiguities of the “object-voice” (I hope to write about this book in more detail shortly). The voice, Dolar says, perturbs the opposition between physicality (or the body) on the one hand, and disembodied language on the other, since it seems to belong to both and neither. This duality is also expressed in the way that the voice both inaugurates authority (the superego, conscience) and subverts it (an uncanny alterity, a voice that seems to come from elsewhere). Dolar writes about the role of the voice in politics (the fascist dictator on the radio, the deliberate colorlessness of the Communist leader’s voice, etc.) in ways that would seem relevant for V for Vendetta. V. opposes the lies of official authority (the voices of news commentators as well as of the dictator) with the truths enunciated in his own self-consciously distanced and alienated voice; but his facelessness and voice-from-elsewhere also put him in the same uncanny category as that of the centers of power.

This is part of the reason why, at the end of the film, V. abdicates his own (counter-)authority, leaving the political stage open for Evie (Natalie Portman), who must make the decision to destroy Parliament (symbolically challenge the system of power) on her own, as well as for the masses, who come together in order to confront the troops, and to witness the destruction of Parliament, in their own Guy Fawkes masks — and then take them off, revealing a sea of different, but all anticipatory and hopeful, faces. Despite Jodi’s Zizekian reading, this mass action seemed to me rather to figure the Hardt/Negri multitude, singularities unreconciled with one another, yet drawn together in the affirmation of what is common. It is perhaps one of the virtues of V for Vendetta to dramatize, and argue for, this commonness — in sharp contrast to Zizekian/Badiouian universality.

This is crucial, because V. has many of the characteristics of a comic-book superhero: close-to-invulnerability, a secret and impregnable hideout, the uncanny ability to do things singlehandedly (make bombs and plant them in locations that are under high security; send hundreds of thousands of packages all over the country without being traced; break into the heavily guarded locations to assassinate powerful individuals; etc) that it is hard to imagine even a well-financed guerrilla group accomplishing. The experiments of which V. was the victim presumably gave him these powers, along with providing him with the motive for his “vendetta” — personal revenge, which needs to be disentangled from the justice, and resistance to fascist oppression, for which he ostensibly stands. From a political point of view it is therefore crucial to move away from V.’s personalistic approach to resistance (this is, I think, what Jodi meant by the “messianic” aspects of the movie) in order to involve the people/the mass/the multitude — of whom Evie becomes the representative, not in the electoral sense, but in the sense that she is not irreplacable as V. seems to be, but could be anybody (even if she is unique by having become the one to be — accidentally, at first — chosen by V.). V.’s quasi superpowers are an impossible, comforting fantasy; in Zizek’s terms this means they are what covers up the horror of the Real, and substitutes in its place a bearable “reality.” But — as per Alan Moore’s repeated “deconstruction” of superhero fantasy — the image of V. needs itself to be somehow undone.

All of this leads to the crucial, and disturbing, sequence in which Evie is apparently captured by the authorities, her head shaven, tortured, pressured to confess or reveal information about V., and then sentenced to be shot by a firing squad when she refuses — but then we discover that this has been entirely staged by V. himself. This is the process of what Jodi (following Zizek) calls “subjective destitution” as a precondition for revolutionary action. When Evie no longer fears death, when she rates the cause of overthrowing the dictatorship as higher than her own life, she has conquered fear and (as V. tells her) is (for the first time in her life) free. Presumably, then, V. subjects Evie to so horrific a process for her own good (as well as for the good of the cause). Indeed, one can never will one’s own subjective destitution, it has to come somehow from outside. And, despite her initial anger, Evie does come to accept the whole process as vital and necessary, and this means both that she is indeed dedicated to the revolution as she hadn’t been before, and that she loves V. All this is quite difficult to take, and such difficulty is responsible for much of the power of the film.

Doesn’t it come down to the question of power and responsibility? Although V. describes himself as an artist, like Shakespeare or the great novelists, who uses lies in order to get at the truth (in contrast to ruling politicians and their media flunkies, who use lies in order to conceal the truth), the cynicism, or coldness, of the whole sequence of Evie’s imprisonment and torture leaves a bitter aftertaste. What authorizes V. to inhabit the superior perspective from which he is able, indeed, to torture Evie for her own good? It is precisely his superhero status, the fantasy that needs to be demystified, that grants him this authority. And I’m inclined to argue that this is what is wrong with Zizek’s Leninism, his glorification of the revolutionary act, as well. It’s precisely a fantasy, but the one that Zizek himself is not willing to traverse and to give up (or recognize the meaningless contingency of). (I am not sure I am getting the Lacanian/Zizekian terms right here, but I hope my basic point is getting through anyway). I think that V for Vendetta exposes the deadlock behind the romanticization of “subjective destitution” (perhaps achieved by subordinating one’s own opinions and desires to the dictates of a revolutionary party?) as being the precondition for revolutionary action (not to mention the psychoanalytic cure).

In any case, it is hard to reconcile this process of (imposed) “subjective destitution” with V.’s later (unacknowledged) quote from Emma Goldman about needing a revolution in which one can dance. The latter, I guess, would be more the Hardtian/Negrian revolution of the multitude, that takes place with Spinozian joy rather than Lacanian sacrifice. Not that I really believe the latter is a tenable process in our current environment either. But perhaps V for Vendetta does a better job than either Hardt/Negri or Zizek of focusing on the impasse of radical action today, of rejecting (as k-punk always puts it) the tale told us by Capitalist Realism that “there is no alternative.”

This is perhaps a place where Bataille is still relevant. We cannot do without positing some position of sovereignty, but the sovereignty must “expiate itself” (which is what V. does at the end of the movie). I take “subjective destitution” seriously, but I feel squeamish about the dialectic in which Zizek places it, and in which V. enacts it for Evie. Can sovereignty expiate itself in a way that rejects both Leninist/Zizekian universality and the deconstructionist cheap shot according to which everything is merely “undecidable”?

I still have a lot to think about with regard to this movie. Since I seem to be only getting more and more confused, I will leave my comments here for now.