Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Europe, Empire of Signs

This is a reply to an exchange of
comments in response to a post on the ICR blog. As I was writing my last comment I realized it was getting a bit long for the 'comments' section on ICR, so I posted it here.

To start from the bottom of the comment stream - yes, ICR's original post is on Europe and its ‘crisis of self-representation’ – but that is (I suppose) just what I found problematic. And it is not so much 'Europe' (the word, concept, sign) that is problematic, but the implicit suggestion that there is a necessary link to be imputed between 'Europe' and its representation in the language of the Treaty (in other words that we should take it at face value, as 'erroneous self-representation') which leads to a 'crisis' of self-representation - that is, a unique moment - and our (misguided, in my view) concern with language and meaning and substitution. I could find myself in agreement if we render 'crisis' as what it was at the outset - a 'turning point' (from 'krisis', decision) where what is confronted are not two (or many) visions of Europe as embodied in language, but two ways of looking at the very possibility of generating a vision of Europe, or at the process by which it arises - one founded on paradigm and representation, the other on action and signification, on the 'emptiness of language'. Going back to the preamble of the EU Constitutional Treaty with which the discussion began – the text itself as an instance of this self-representation of Europe which is thrown into doubt – the problem is not a problem of ‘Europe’ but one of language and its relation to thought and action, of signs and signifiers; and to the extent that it relates to Europe and is a European problem, it affects or infects us equally, we may be just as affected by this ‘blind spot’ in our vision as the writers of the Treaty are, and equally guilty of the charge of giving rise to politics from an act of thought alone, so long as we think in terms of representation. In other words, the crisis, if we may call it that, does not consist in a failure of Europe's self-representation as embodied in words authored by politicians, but in our (common, European) failure to come to terms with the very impossibility of 'self-representation' as we conceive of it. Our failure, in other words, to fully recognize in action not only the instability of a concept such as 'Europe', but simultaneously the instability of all meaning and all language in relation to its meaning, from which alone the instability or crisis of 'Europe' flows. Incidentally, I stumbled upon Barthes' Empire of Signs today, which I find far more illuminating and useful that Nietzsche here(forgive the lengthy quotation):

'I can also – though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse) – isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features…and out of these features deliberately form a system…I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence – to me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation…allows me to “entertain”…the possibility of a difference, of a mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems…it is necessary that…a slender thread of light search out not other symbols but the very fissure of the symbolic…Writing is after all, in its way, a satori: satori (the Zen occurrence) is a more or less powerful seism which causes knowledge, or the subject, to vacillate: it creates an emptiness of language…(p 3-4) The whole of Zen wages a war against the prevarication of meaning. We know that Buddhism baffles the fatal course of any assertion (or of any negation) by recommending that one never be caught up in the four following propositions: this is A - this is not A - this is both A and not-A – this is neither A nor not-A…the Buddhist way is precisely that of the obstructed meaning: the very arcanum of signification, that is, the paradigm, is rendered impossible.'(p 73)

The European disease then, what we should be attempting to get around, is not any particular meaning-content 'contained in' the preamble to the Constitutional Treaty – it is rather what is in our head, not what is ‘in’ the text. The preamble, like so many founding constitutional documents, is pretty ambiguous. The problem arises from the expectation that we place on the text – if it is hegemonic, it is because we (among others) allow it to be; if it stands for a particular conception of Europe that serves the interests of Capital or of the powers that be and for a universalized notion of ‘Europe’ as an act of thought it is because we allow it to stand for that. If there is a disjunction between the ‘self-representation’ of Europe and the lived reality, it is because of the peculiarity of our (‘European’ or ‘Western’) thinking which treats signs in a certain way and imposes a certain relation between signs, between signs and the things they purportedly signify. That is what the 'civilizing mission' of Europe consists of at the basest, most fundamental level, and what we should be trying to get rid of foremost.

Here is where the programmatic comes in, and where Nietzsche, as Savonarola admits, becomes useless – the point, it seems to me, is not to speculate on the significance of the words in the preamble or ask ourselves what Nietzsche or any other philosopher would have thought of them, or even to change the wording of the preamble to close the gap or foreclose the 'crisis'. (That would be building from the top down, which is the traditional mistake of state politics) Rather, we should change the lived reality to bring it in line with what we want the words in the preamble to mean, what we think they should mean. (think of Marx’s old adage, the point is to change the world, not philosophize about it) In other words, rather than worrying about what idea of ‘Europe’ the words in the preamble represent and how that contrasts with the lived reality, we should (reading Marx with Barthes) embrace the ‘emptiness of language’ and exploit the fissure in the symbolic, the Zen moment, and invest those words through action with the idea or conception of ‘Europe’ that we desire.

Mu - Emptiness

So much has been made of the expunged reference to Christianity – but what does it mean? What real impact does this alteration to the wording carry? Christianity itself is a radically unstable concept – not to Christian fundamentalists, and perhaps not even to any particular denomination, but certainly to anyone who has read the bible and performed some rigorous textual analysis on it. (In fact the proliferation of Christian faiths, creeds, sects, splinter factions - not to mention the points of intersection with Judaism and Islam, among others - already points to a profound instability at its core, a 'parallax gap') You could take that preamble and build a wholly social, grass-roots Europe with it. Obsessing over some inscribed meaning or self-representation seems to me only to be playing the old-fashioned game of those Europeans in power, playing by their (19th century) rules, when we should really be taking the game to another level, taking their slogans and putting them to new uses, appropriating them, making them ours – saying ‘yes that’s what we want! Liberty? Of course! Evviva il comunismo e la libertà!'

Much of what is added to the notion of 'Europe' in the text of the Constitutional Treaty itself are in fact the accumulated modifications and transformations of the founding Treaties brought about over several decades by (primarily) the European Court of Justice - and much of it has been criticized precisely as being far-fetched, as arising out of a very 'loose' interpretation of the founding Treaties, or for not being 'in the text' at all. Thus the ECJ has, in a sense, for better or worse, already begun the work of decentering the paradigm, ridding us of the 'arcanum of signification'.

As to the rest, I did not mean to suggest that we should abandon political projects and ideas as such. I suppose when I said ‘political’ as opposed to ‘social’ I meant ‘state’ – the political as parliamentary-political-bureaucratic-state. You yourself (E.) point out the weaknesses of this model. By ‘social’ I meant ‘grass-roots’ – we should be building from the ground up, rather than top-down, not anti-state but bypassing the state as much as possible in order to reach a state (ironically) where as Hardt and Negri put it, the multitude truly governs itself. And it is not merely that it is problematic or difficult to realize a Marxian political programme through a representative state, it is not a matter of mere difficulty but relative impossibility – the very model of the state, of the representative-political-bureaucratic, is a capitalist model, in much the same way in which for Marx, the modern corporation without the increasingly superfluous owners – the nominal head – is a form of socialism within capitalism. The liberal democratic bureaucratic state, without the increasingly superfluous electorate, or with an electorate that does not legitimize it through the electoral process but only finances it with taxes (and is therefore no longer an 'electorate' but only 'populace'), is a form of capitalism within whatever system happens to be in place. (Again, take China; it is becoming increasingly clear why socialism as the state-form of communism was only ever meant to be a transitional phase) This is exactly why all politicians sound the same – just as there is a ‘corporate culture’ and a ‘managerial class’ there is also a ‘political culture’ and a ‘political class’ which cuts across all political boundaries, not just ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ but also ‘left’ and ‘right’, etc. – as a matter of necessity rather than contingency. This of course tells us nothing about the political ideas they respectively represent, because the point is precisely that those of the political class are not strictly ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in the sense in which members of their electorate are, their consciousness is not formed in the same way, they merely represent something without being organically part of it. Moreover, the bureaucratic state can only function this way – on the basis of consensus between representatives drawn from a political class, and that is its problem…

* * *

The passages from Barthes set against this discussion reminded me of Calvino’s Invisible Cities – the many versions of Venice, the many cities which are but descriptions of one and the same city, a multiplicity of signs that point to the same core, the same 'hard bone of contention which pulverizes the sameness into the multitude of appearances', what Zizek might call a parallax gap - in this case, the many ‘Europas’ –

"No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it...Falsehood is never in words; it is in things." (p 61-62)

The point is to change the things - people, continents - rather than wonder too much about the meaning of the words. Words are only signs, or signifiers of signs, rocket fuel, fungible propellant. The very fact that we perceive a disjunction between the words in Treaties and the reality of 'Europe' should point us in this direction - if those in power have been able to 'racialize' and universalize a notion of Europe suited to their needs in spite of Treaty language that seems (to us) to say something contradictory, then so can we - not by changing the language or insisting on the hypocrisy (hypo-crisis) of those in power, but by appropriating their language and putting it to our own use. This subversive project - which might involve, among other things, the socialization, decentralization, subsidiarization of Europe, the inclusion of Turkey (for instance) in the EU, even the opening up of borders (which despite its original motivation to promote the flow of capital has already been somewhat transformed as a project, giving rights to migrants within and outside the EU, and can in fact be turned against capital), on the whole, expanding the 'field of potentialities' (as Alberto Toscano in his work on Deleuze puts it) - should be thought of as turning Europe itself - Europe, empire of Capital - into Europe, an 'Empire of Signs', as Barthes calls his 'Japan'. That should be the basis and starting point of any anti-imperialist project within Europe - blowing open, decentering the paradigm from within - not 'separating Europe from itself' but rather turning it against the very idea of an 'itself', a fixed subject, severing 'Europe' (the sign) from any given signified - turning the 'hypo-crisis' into a permanent 'hyper-crisis', a permanent revolt against identity, denying the owners of capital ownership of the 'Europe' in our heads...

* * *


Anonymous said...

Hi B.,

interesting post! A lot to think about here...

Just a few quick points:

You say that what you find problematic 'is not so much 'Europe' (the word, concept, sign)' but 'the implicit suggestion that there is a necessary link to be imputed between 'Europe' and its representation in the language of the Treaty (in other words that we should take it at face value, as 'erroneous self-representation') which leads to a 'crisis' of self-representation'. And further suggest that, 'the crisis, if we may call it that, does not consist in a failure of Europe's self-representation as embodied in words authored by politicians, but in our (common, European) failure to come to terms with the very impossibility of 'self-representation' as we conceive of it'.

Well, on your first point let me say that I think the attempt was exactly to problematise 'the link' between the two (i.e., the reality of 'Europe', if you want, and 'Europe' as a concept, sign, intellectual project), thus, my use of the word 'disjunction'. But this was done not in order to denounce all 'European' political projects – especially not ‘grass-roots' ones – only, I suppose, to contest 'the self-representation of Europe' as embodied in specfic discourses, of which the Treaty is only but an example; to severe exactly the link between Europe as an idea, as representation, and the reality of Europe, if you want.

Now, what you seem to be suggesting (but, please, correct me if I am misreading you) is that by talking about something, even if in the form of a negation (i.e., by denying that there is a link between 'Europe' and its representation in the language of the Treaty), the risk is to fall into the trap of re-affirming exactly that which it was my aim to problematise.

If that is what you mean, yes I agree. To an extent, this is exactly what the implicit consequences of this type of operation are. But this, to my mind, does not make it less valid...In other words, I think it is a risk worth taking.
I too strongly believe that the point is to change the world. But I am not sure the alternative you offer (i.e., 'taking their slogans and putting them to new uses, appropriating them, making them ours') is sufficient. It reminds me, perhaps mistakenly, of the politics of re-signification adopted, indeed with some success, by 'queer' activists among others. Although, clearly no without its merits, I find this type of politics deeply problematic, particularly in its relation to capitalism...
More importantly, in this particular case, your suggestion seems to imply 1) that there is a common European identity ('our, common, European'), which I am not sure there is... and 2) that the idea of 'Europe' as embodied, for instance, in the Treaty, is just an idea (in your own words, 'it is in our heads') and that as such it has no effects (?), whereas I believe that it has.
What savonarola’s post pointed, I think, is that particular discourses of Europe, even as they appear to wanted 'the good of all its in habitants, including the weakest and most deprived', often in fact hide a form of 'class racism', which is functional to the maintenance of capitalism, generally and of a capitalist Europe, more specifically. In other words, Europe in the languange of the Treaty, is not simply an idea which 'we', as you seem to be suggesting, can simply change by thinking at it otherwise but an 'idea' that produces certain effects, which are racialising among other things...

You say, 'if it is hegemonic, it is because we (among others) allow it to be ...'. Yes, to an extent this is the case But here is where the idea of consensus comes in, I think. Those in power are able to build consensus not simply because we allow them but because they have the power to do so...This does not imply that 'we' have no power or should not try to re-claim a non-imperialist, truly cosmopolitan, communist 'Europe', which might indeed include using the language of the Treaty (which I agree is indeed quite ambiguous) to 'our' own advantage. On the contrary, I think we should! Simply, I do not think that this can be done by ignoring the power effects that 'particular discourses/visions of Europe – exactly of the type described by Savonarola in his/her post (i.e., 'consensual, gradualist image of a united Europe') have. Thus, re-working savonarola's somewhat pessimistic take, we could say: 'for the process of European unification and democratisation really to present an escape from the mere dilution of cultural energies, to offer new values, which ARE NOT new hierarchies, then a change in the system of production and reproduction has to take place. And although, ultimately, I am quite pessimistic about this possibility, the struggle goes on.

A final thought, I agree, although useful for its 'destructive-diagnostic insight' (Losurdo in savo), I do not think Nietzsche's work, as savo admits, can provide resources to devise programma for political actions. I think we might be better looking at other writers for that, including non-Marxists ones. Nietzsche's own ideas of Europe are as racialising, if not more so, than that offered by today's capitalist parliamentarianism and the like.


Anonymous said...

... 'a change in the system of production and reproduction', which, I should have added, has also to be about the construction of new social relations


deleuzer said...

Hm...I have already, before reading your comments, substantially conceived and mostly written an expansion on this topic, incorporating some further sources, and (I hope) answering some of the questions you pose here...it needs some finishing touches though...

In the meantime, a few quick points from me too...

On 'problematising the link' here is another way of putting it - it seemed to me that by using Nietzsche, what Savonarola was problematising was the link between a particular vision and a particular reality - rather than problematising the very possibility of 'self-representation' as such, the very possibility of 'representing' an (any) idea of Europe in a Treaty...Nietzsche, as I think you agree, merely performs a substitution - of one 'racialization' for another.

In this vein, what I was suggesting was not merely 'a politics of re-signification'. Or, any such politics would have to be accompanied by a 'politics of irony', a devaluation of the paradigm, and an insubordination of the signified (the body) to the signifier.

In referring to our (European) failure to come to terms with the impossibility of self-representation, I did not mean to suggest a complete or stable and fully determined identity - only that there are certain modes of thought, tendencies, potentialities, loops, cultural matrices that do tend to arise and influence the way we see things, and that there are other ways, as Barthes goes on at length to elucidate in his musings on 'Japan' (which is again, a notion of his devising not necessarily corresponding at all levels to the geographical territory).

While hypocritical attempts at 'self-representation' certainly hide existing 'class racism' and other incongruities that appear along the way, it seems to me preferable to have the language in place, as opposed to having a preamble that reads like a slightly altered version of the quote from Nietzsche in Savo's post "The homogenizing of European man is the great process that cannot be obstructed: one should even hasten it. The necessity to create a gulf, distance, order of rank, along strictly defined class lines determined by the ownership of capital..."

And so forth. :)

In other words, an absolutely non-hypocritical preamble that 'reflects' the situation leaves no room for crisis and change, for movement...

And another thing we should be asking is, not only what is covered up by the disparity, by the inclusion of words in the preamble, but by the exclusion - of 'Christianity' for instance - does expunging something from a text truly 'silence' it? (a la Foucault, but more on that in my next post)

Enough from me...

Anonymous said...

Okay, nothing substantial to add at the moment.

Only one thing, the answer to your last question is no, I don't think it necessarily does...and I look forward to reading how you develop this point and what you called a 'politics of irony', which I am not familiar with, in your next post.


deleuzer said...

Well it's not a term I've used so far ('politics of irony'), just something that occurred to me when writing that comment...Only because mere re-signification would seem to in principle go no further than Nietzsche's operation, which is merely substitution of one thing for another, which seems insufficient...So what is needed is a politics that puts into doubt the very possibility of representation, that profoundly destabilizes the relation of signifier to signified, as a matter of principle...The idea itself is not THAT new, more later... 'irony' as a metaphor for the ambiguity of language...