Devotional Thoughts With Rev. Zizek

Cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. The Sublime Object of Ideology

Today’s devotional is brought to you by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The following reading comes from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the “richness of my inner life”: this is what I “really am,” in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life (as father, professor, etc). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practise the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the “inner life” and its “sincere” emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies rather outside, in what we do. … “Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts.

Amen.

Be well.

The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

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A Smattering of Readings

A few paragraphs that I found interesting, but didn’t merit a full post and were too long to quote on Twitter…

Firstly, a particularly insightful bit from the always provocative Slavoj Žižek:

“I’ve noticed how many of the people who consider themselves to be more radical than the liberal standard do not work in political theory proper but, as it were, hide themselves as literary critics or philosophers. It’s as if their radicalism is an excess which requires them to change genre… This excess of radicality concretely art­iculates itself in some kind of general moralistic outrage. You get a kind of abstract, moralistic politics in which you ­focus on groups which are obviously underprivileged – other races, gays and so on – and then you explode in all your moralistic rage. This has to do with what you might call our cultural, post-political capitalism, in which the most passionate struggles are cultural ones. A large majority of the left doesn’t question liberal democracy and capitalism as such. In the same way that when we were young we wanted socialism with a human face, what a large part of today’s left want is capitalism with a human face.”

Secondly, the excellent last paragraph from a short fiction piece by C.U.’s own Michael Shirzadian:

“No woman, no cry, he whispers to himself, mistaking Marley’s lyric for something prescriptive, something almost didactic, a warning that love isn’t worth it. He believes it’s a philosophy to live by. Believes it’s a universal maxim sent by a good god, a merciful god, a god of music and fertility; a trickster, some say.”

Thirdly, we have a funny-but-true quip from the dude behind Stuff Fundies Like:

“If you believe that saying grace over every meal (including the bag of popcorn you consume while watching The Sound of Music) is always meaningful but also think that having Communion once a week will trivialize its practice — you might be a fundamentalist.”

And lastly, an excerpt from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically — the book I’m reading currently — wherein he humorously echoes my own experience with a massive beard:

“As I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I’ve been called all three.
It’s not a well-manicured, socially acceptable beard. It’s an untamed mass that creeps up toward my eyeballs and drapes below my neckline.
I’ve never allowed my facial hair to grow before, and it’s been an odd and enlightening experience. I’ve been inducted into a secret fraternity of bearded guys — we nod at each other as we pass on the street, giving a knowing quarter smile. Strangers have come up to me and petted my beard, it’s a Labrador retriever puppy or a pregnant woman’s stomach.
I’ve suffered for my beard. It’s been caught in jacket zippers and been tugged on by my surprisingly strong two-year-old son. I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions at airport security.
I’ve been asked if I’m named smith and sell cough drops with my brother. ZZ Top is mentioned at least three times a week. Passersby have shouted, ‘Yo, Gandalf!’ Someone called me Steven Seagal, which I found curious, since he doesn’t have a beard.
I’ve battled itch and heat. I’ve spent a week’s salary on balms, powders, ointments, and conditioners. My beard has been a temporary home to cappuccino foam and lentil soup. And it’s upset people. Thus far, two little girls have burst into tears, and one boy has hidden behind his mother.”

The Fragile Absolute

I’m currently working my way through Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? Coincidentally, The New Republic just published a scathing critique of Zizek by Adam Kirsch entitled “The Deadly Jester: Why Slavoj Zizek is the Most Despicable Philosopher in the West.” Cute title, huh?

I am not all that far into this book yet, but Zizek has lived up to his reputation so far. I’ve been particularly intrigued by his claim that “the Communist project was… not radical enough.” By which he means that Marx tried to keep the teleology of capitalism — that is, “completely unbridled productivity” — while discarding the framework in which that “mad dance of [the] unconditional spiral of productivity” can only play out. This a priori commitment to the Unlimited finds parallel in what Wendell Berry calls “Faustian economics.” In pure capitalism, there can be no limits because its “eschatology of profit” (Ben Kleis’ words) forces a perpetual quest for More. The insatiable need for more profit fuels the never-ending drive for higher productivity, greater efficiency, and newer markets (“the more profit you make, the more you want”).

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