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.
15 thoughts on “k-punk on “Dis-identity Politics””
I didn’t see V for Vendetta, but am also trying to lose weight. Probably the whole country is trying to do that. I weigh 180 pounds, about ten over what I’ve usually been for most of my life. How much do you weigh these days? I think walking is a good exercise, but don’t get fooled by the pedometer count. Just taking 12,000 steps isn’t enough if you don’t also count calories. Drinking a lot of water can fool your system into thinking it’s full, and try to start the day eating something healthy. Whatever the first thing you put in your mouth will be will set the tune for the rest of the day. A bowl of oatmeal with about 12 raisins is a good idea.
On a more elevated level of discussion I’ve been amused by Zizek and Hardt and others who are now trying to coopt Christianity for use in their various projects to recapture a left worthy of the name. It’s odd. Hardt and Negri invoke St. Francis of Assisi at the end of their tome. Very odd choice. He took a vow of poverty. And Zizek co-opts among others St. Paul.
Lutherans don’t believe in saints at all. We believe there was only one purely decent person and everyone else is a pig. Pretending not to be a big pig is a sure sign of hypocrisy, and the first mark of pure evil. So when I read about leftists now trying to align themselves with saints, I can barely keep down the chortle.
It seems to me to be a better project to allow that everyone is evil and self-centered, and then to make a system that provides for checks and balances. This is what Madison was doing when he helped design America’s system of checks and balances.
The radicals seem always to want to undo that system — and put a party of saints in their place. This is what happened with Leninism, but it is already inscribed in the Communist Manifesto. That then the party will “wither away,” a passsive construction if there ever was one that completely fails to take into account the self-centered and fallen nature of everyone, and seems to bank on the idea that there are working class heroes who are saintly in demeanor and thought. I’ve never met such an individual and doubt if any exist.
Good luck with the diet. Every thing I try turns out to be some kind of illusory self-deception. If I walk a bit extra I make up for it with a bar of chocolate as a reward. It’s ridiculous. The only thing that seems to help is when I get the flu or food poisoning and actually can’t eat anything for three days running. Then I’m in luck.
Not sure that’s such a modest aim, if youâ€™re still working with the concept of commodity fetishism, where what is taken for granted (as a “popular prejudice”) and simultaneously denied (in the structural ressentiment that allows “value” to be established only by means of comparison) is radical equality.
You turn to aesthetics, you say, because you don’t think radical change is a realistic possibility. But (and this is purely intuitive) the overall sense of your post seems to suggest the opposite: political subjectivisation is said to be unrealistic because it is positioned somewhere outside of all the things you find to be exciting about aesthetics, and indeed the everyday pleasures of consumption. Isn’t the problem then (the unrealistic or impossible nature of politics) rather to be found in the connection, or the absence of connection, between politics and aesthetics? And I can’t help thinking here that the opposition might be staged as one between a (sorry) Badiouian subject, which is collective and constructed, and the more personal experiential subject that seems to be at stake in the notion of subjective destitution. Badiou might be pertinent here precisely for his realism, by which I mean his refusal to see the construction of a subject in terms of asceticism: the subject isn’t merely the destitution of the animal “someone”, in that to sustain itself it must find a way to articulate its disinterestedness with the interests of that someone, which then become resources for the subjective project. The excitations associated with aesthetics might then be considered as one type of resource amongst others – which in itself would help to keep the discussion of aesthetics on a secular footing.
Also, a useful corrective to Badiouâ€™s more apocalyptic tendencies (to which Zizek seems most responsive) is provided by his pal Sylvain Lazarus, for whom political subjectivisation can be advanced in extremely mundane and modest ways, for instance by taking part in discussions regarding procedures for collective decision-making. Concepts like hope and escape seem quite alien to this kind of project, and might be said to be more at home in the market or in aesthetics. Again, Iâ€™d suggest that the problem is not that radical politics is unrealistic, but that itâ€™s boring. Focusing on the extremes of subjective destitution as the condition of politics might then be a way of evading the problem by acting it out on a more dramatic and dignified level â€“ which also allows â€œusâ€ (intellectuals) to wash our hands of it, handing it down/up to a more impoverished/worthy type of subject.
This is an interesting post. I read “destitution” and think “poverty,” in the sense of an absence that is difficult to bear, rather than, say, the subject shedding an unnecessary illusion that only impedes. Is this an importation on my part? I know the term isn’t yours, but I’m curious to hear what you think. To stick with your example, say you lose weight and get a healthier blood pressure level. That new condition or the process of achieving could be described as a condition of destitution, I suppose, but I don’t see what would be gained by that description. I certainly don’t see any reason to insist on the that description as the most or only accurate or useful one.
I’ve not read the graphic novel or seen the film but I’m going to do at least one of them now, because this ‘subjective destitution’ re: Evey is really disturbing: do I understand correctly that the phrase refers to a scene where V tortures her? I’m going to wait until I’ve got some textual support for anything further, but just for now if that’s what ‘subjective destitution’ means, or if that’s one of the things in the range to which the term applies, then it seems to me a reductio ad absurdum argument against any Zizekian politics.
I agree with a lot of what you say, only I am interested in the connection between economics and aesthetics, rather than that between politics and aesthetics. The epigraph to my book in progress is: “Everything is summed up in Aesthetics and Political Economy.” It’s a complicated process, because, on the one hand, the “aesthetic” is no longer (if it ever was) a realm of opposition to the reign of captial, as Adorno and Marcuse hoped; instead, commodities themselves are now where “the aesthetic” is located. At the same time, the dilemmas of aesthetics (going back to Kant) are formally isomorphic with those of the commodity (as per Marx’s account).
I don’t think radical politics is easily “possible” today. But I agree with k-punk that this is precisely the point: neoliberalism (in the US, both Clinton and Bush; in the UK, Blair’s so-called “Third Way”) has proclaimed itself the only thing that is “thinkable.” Therefore we must (and this “must” has, for me, the force of a Kantian moral imperative) reject what k-punk calls “capitalist realism,” and instead think the unthinkable, think outside the limits of thought that have been defined and legislated by neoliberal capital.
For me — and here is perhaps where my ideas diverge from many of the people with whom I have been in conversation, on this blog and elsewhere — although Marxian political economy (with a certain amount of expansion, or bringing-up-to-date) delineates, with uncanny precision, the situation we now face, more than 120 years after his death; but the Marxist tradition in terms of how to move from economics (or political economy, since this includes the effects of economic structures on the political, the social, and other non-economic matters) to politics proper (i.e. working class consciousness, how to organize opposition and actually change the world, rather than just interpreting it) doesn’t seem to me to work at all, or to be very applicable in current circumstances. And I’m not trying to claim that aesthetics resolves this in any way; only that a radical rethinking of aesthetics is necessary, in order to re-find the values that Adorno and Marcuse found in the aesthetic, given that their direct hopes have been rendered obsolete by the expansion of the forces they described and deplored to degrees of exacerbation that they never imagined.
I’ve been reading your blog for a while and have always found it very exciting, though this is the first time I’ve felt like I really had anything to add.
Nate identifies this ‘subjective destitution’ undergone by Evey at V’s hands in maybe a more direct light, which I think is helpful here: it’s torture — he is torturing her, in the rich tradition of ontological terror-training practiced by (supposedly) medieval Assassins, old-school Buddhists, and the CIA, among others. You’re right to be troubled by this, and I think k-punk breezes over it a little too quickly.
The assumption being made is that personal transformation (metaphorically extended to include social transformation) requires some sovereign power to, in effect, force the ‘decision,’ whether this be a teacher, master, ruler, leader, artist, superhero, what-have-you. Notice the revolution carries the V ‘brand’ in the form of masks, distributed like pamphlets, but also like free samples or ad copy. V owns Evey’s ‘choice,’ as he owns the audience to his demolition of Parliament. Even though he leaves his political position vacant (by martyrdom), the position itself remains as an ‘absence’ — a control program open to receive commands. V wants to be a catalyst, but in the end he seems more like another ghostly master, haunting TV screens, history books, and clothing labels.
The question is, is this necessary? Do we need the interjection of one external force to protect us from another? At any rate it completely obviates any sort of Hardt-Negrian spontaneous multitude (however much it appears to present just that).
I think I understand and agree with your distrust of the idea that personal transformation can have much of a relation to political transformation. One thinks of the apparent quietism and general political irrelevance of Buddhist monks (AS monks) in contrast with their claims to some form of enlightenment and de-subjectification. It’s an easy trap to fall in to — if only people were a little ___, thne maybe we could do something — and it might even be true, but you’ve got to work with the people you have, no?
I’d like to bring up 2 texts that you’ve written on before as possible touchstones for this conversation — Mario Perniola and his aestheticized subjective destitution, and Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, its (at least) ambivalent take on radical movements, and its influence on the Wachowskis and others — how it lays out what’s become a very popular trope, the revolutionary as ‘ontological terrorist.’ Morrison in the end rejects radical refusal, doesn’t he? In favor of what, exactly?
Want to say more, but got to run — thought-provoking series of posts!
The discussion around Subjective Destitution is merely another
instance of the basic discussion around Lacan’s vision of the Symbolic
Order as being fatally determined by the Master Signifier / Phallus.
In Vendetta (and in Antonio-Negri’s as well as Deleuze’s vision)
this Order has been abandoned in favor of a Spinozian ”atomic universe”.
I think this is actually the kernel of the discussion: which one provides
a more accurate reading of current reality?
Because Lacan saw the Phallic function as a ”law”,
thereby elevating his story to mythological status, it’s easy to understand Steven’s concerns about V’s treatment of Evie in her subjective destitution. It appears as if the film wants to say that she needed this authority figure… this Daddy on her road to independence. Such a claim from Lacan can easily be mistaken for preaching.
I spent long hours myself pondering the issue and in the end I have to agree with k-punk that it’s a matter of belief. You can either accept
Lacan’s mythical claim, or dismiss it. Because it is already formulated as
some kind of an ”ontological truth” – by Lacan himself.
Hi Steve–I don’t know how to send a trackback here, but I’ve engaged your post here:
Fyi–I read the Foucault piece you suggested. I’m pondering it. Your remarks here regarding your self understanding as an aesthetician were helpful for my thinking about it–I kept wondering about the politics, what to do about politics, how does this fit with politics. And, I may see better that this is part of the point for you.
There was an article the other day in the Wall Street Journal about the possible dissolution of Liberation, the French newspaper. Apparently it was started by J-P Sartre among others as a Maoist vehicle in the late 60s. Now it’s turned toward a more liberal and realistic politics and many of its subscribers and base have abandoned it, and some of the old hardliners insist that they should go back to provocation and thinking the unthinkable in order to provide an alternative.
Lyotard says in Postmodern Fables that liberalism is the only route forward — but he says this in quotes as if he’s quoting a fable —
“…liberal democracies in their core admitted a kind of competition between the units in the system” (90).
What I find appalling is when someone takes into their own hands to terrorize the others into capitulation to their own schemes. This is the problem with Stalin, the problem with OBL, but to some extent it also has to be seen as Bonhoeffer’s dilemma as he thought about the assassination of Hitler.
He was terrified to go outside the law, and yet the law was lawless. He prayed for years, but was ineffective in the assassination attempt irregardless.
Locke has better safeguards against this kind of lawlessness than Marxism does. Marxism seems to undo the law entirely. Locke insists on several safeguards such as that too much appropriation of natural goods is wicked. We are permitted to have goods, but not permitted to have them at others’ expense. That would be a sticky point, but since Locke is already the underpinning, more would listen. At this point no one will listen to Marxist theory within the greater society.
But there is of course the same point at Liberation — do you continue to play the wild card, and get youthful subscribers, or do you try to move toward the middle where you can be heard. It’s a differend, but I think the gap can be overcome by a return to Locke. You can get all the same things with half the hassle — universal health coverage for instance is implied in the principle of health as a human right.
With Locke you can insist on that. With Marx you first have to take over the society (next to impossible) and then after having broken the society, you then have to try to institute your policies with what resources remain, or are able to be produced. I’d rather just skip to Locke.
But I guess nobody thinks about Locke any longer. I’m reading his neat book on St. Paul. It’s Locke’s last book. What a zinger!
Just a quick question: what text by Stengers are you referring to? Is her work on Whitehead translated into English?
The article is called “The Sixth Day.” I am not sure if it is publically available yet; it is forthcoming in the journal Configurations, and is currently available to registrants of the Distributed Whitehead Network.
You are coming dangerously close to turning me into a regular reader of blogs. My resistance is weakening. I haven’t seen V yet, but now I plan on it. And I want to thank you for the neat phrase — Zizek “saint of the drive” (I tracked all this from Jodi’s blog). He seems to have such little sense of how theological his gestures are even as he mocks the “democracy to come crowd.” I simply do not see the distinction between the positive content lurking in his negativity and the onto-theological God that persists in all negative theology. Of course, I have some theological questions about a “resolutely non-redemptive aesthetics” as well. And now on to Whitehead.
Is Marxism by nature against the notion of the meritocracy?
Kirby, I can’t speak for “Marxism,” but I personally have an extreme distaste for meritocracy. As Hamlet says, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?” (Act II, scene 2).
I remember at the UW one fellow who was into masonry used to give everyone in his French classes an A because each was “perfect in his own way,” as he put it. So students coming not at all would get the same grade as students who did all their work at a good level.
He was fired.
But I increasingly get the notion that standards such as grades can’t be applied fairly (I think that in actual fact they rarely are) so then to jettison them would be the answer for many.
And yet grades, for instance, persist at least as an institutional fiction. Should they be handed out on the basis of race, gender and class? I get the sense that more and more that is the way they are handed out.
Can we distinguish a hawk from a handsaw?
“Use them after your own honour and dignity” — “the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty” — almost a reversal of the notion of meritocracy. Is Hamlet kidding, or is he already a kind of Marxist.
I don’t like the idea of merit much, either, and rather dislike competition itself. But I think it still is what distinquishes good countries from lousy ones.
In Nazi Germany you got preferment by being a Nazi. In the Soviet Union, by being a good party member. So only fools and opportunists succeeded in those countries, and the result was the ultimate implosion of those countries.
At any rate, I think I have finally grasped in a single idea why I don’t like Marxism. In tossing out merit as good or right action, or even intellectual reach, and bringing identity forward as the sole criterion of merit, they wipe out the functionality of a country’s competitiveness.
Btw, there is an interesting volume of essays out from Aspasia Press on Aki Kaurismaki, with an essay on Hamlet Goes Business.
If that link works it’s sheer luck, as I always goof them up, having no merit much myself.
The play’s the thing.