Sunday, 25 November 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Disaster Capitalism’, PART 2

Stuck Inside of Kabul with the Baghdad Blues Again: Terror as Desire and Bin Laden as Displaced Object

'Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.'
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

It may not come as a great surprise that Paolo Coelho's cliché-crammed pop-intellectual novella The Alchemist
plagiarises a narrative poem by 12th century Persian Sufi poet and dervish Jalal al-din Rumi; the central theme of displacement in Coelho's story, duplicated with a precision that one can hardly attribute to coincidence, is fleshed out in a piece appearing in a highly regarded collection of ‘spiritual couplets' composed of six books known as the Mathanawi. Already the title of Rumi's poem - ‘In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo Dreaming of Baghdad' – poses the problem of desire, or of desire and its perpetually and by definition displaced object:

Either this deep desire of mine
will be found on this journey,

or when I get back home!

I will search for the Friend with all my passion
and all my energy, until I learn

that I don't need to search.

The knowing depends
on the time spent looking!

Does this not assimilate the notion of virtual objects as 'shreds of a pure past' which are "found only as lost" and "exist only as recovered"? The epiphany that I don't need to search is Deleuze's "Loss or forgetting here are not determinations which must be overcome...they refer to the objective nature of that which we recover, as lost, at the heart of forgetting." (D&R 127) And does it not also encapsulate the notion of learning as a process not subordinated to the result of knowledge, discussed in a previous post? The true knowing, and living (as Odysseus is told by Tiresias) is in the journey - the process, the ‘time spent looking' or striving after the displaced virtual object, not the fetish-object-result.

In Rumi's story, a man in Baghdad who inherits a fortune and quickly squanders it, hears a voice in a dream telling him to go to Cairo and dig in a certain spot where he will find his fortune. Deciding to pursue this fantasy, on reaching Cairo he is reduced to begging in the street for money. Soon he is picked up by a night patrol on suspicion of being a thief. He tells his story, and the night patrol man believes him, explaining that he had had the same dream, but dismissed it as foolish – with the twist that the night patrol's dream involved a site in Baghdad, which turns out to be the mendicant's own house. Is this what is meant by ‘acting in fidelity to the event'? This compound theme – in its Deleuzian/Buddhist incarnation (goal/fetish re-subordinated to process/virtual object) is also prominent in another mystical tradition, the Jewish kabbalah, which subversively substitutes the Messianic Biblical notion of the ‘world that is coming' with ‘the world that is constantly coming', a becoming whose Absolute is perpetually and by definition displaced in a universe in which God (a very different notion from the Judeo-Christian God as a ‘concept of understanding') is not a static being, but itself a dynamic and perpetual becoming: a concrete universal (‘Idea' or the virtual) perpetually actualized in its ‘cases of solution' or particulars – we must think of ourselves as ayin or nothingness..."forget yourself totally…if you think of yourself as something...God cannot clothe himself in you." This is Odysseus before the cyclops, pure concrete universality, pure empty space that opens the way for revolution. Dylan: “He not busy being born/is busy dying…” And Abulafia, one of the most prominent 13th century kabbalists of the ‘ecstatic kabbalah': the ‘soul' is part of the ‘stream of cosmic life' and the goal is ‘to untie the knots…free the mind from definitions, to move from constriction to the boundless…' Toward an ‘ecstatic truth' as Herzog puts it. Away from 'constriction' - is this not Deleuze's movement away from limitation and opposition, away from the negative? And toward the boundless - again Deleuze: "The world is neither finite nor is completed and unlimited." (D&R 69) The formulation of desire (Messianic, erotic, or otherwise…) and its unconscious-productive deployment is closely interlinked with a becoming premised on becoming, on the disruption of a fixed subject traced from representation and the negative.

In a lecture at the recent Historical Materialism Conference, Zizek made a passing remark that ‘capitalism no longer calls itself capitalism'. If this is the key to its success, is it not due to the full assumption of desire as a productive force? The Buddha exhorts his followers to ‘practice charity without abiding in the notion of practicing charity' – this is the only true charity, it is claimed. As an aside: this also provides a useful backdrop to Zizek's critique of charity, in relation to which he brings up the example of liberals who pay $20 a month to support an African child – this being merely another form of exclusion, for the point is precisely that the child stays ‘over there.' This is charity which does ‘abide in the notion' of charity; but contrary to Zizek's claim, it is clear that Buddhism does elevate some principles above others, and that this detachment from practice, rather than serving as an internal ‘complement' to capitalism, is a mode of functioning that can be applied externally to any ideology – more on this below…

‘Capitalism that no longer calls itself capitalism' is its most deadly form – the tacit power that practices capitalism ‘without abiding in the notion' of practicing capitalism. In this sense we should take the rhetoric of democracy and human rights not as mere disguise, an outrightly cynical perversion of the notion of democracy and human rights; for it is precisely by authentically ‘abiding in the notion' of democracy and human rights (in a consciousness that is by definition ‘false') and by just as authentically ‘not abiding in the notion of capitalism' that modern forms of power practice capitalism while slowly disabusing human rights and democracy of meaningful content. This is why the most faithful capitalists are the bible-thumping, flag-waving Americans who in their practice are neither very Christian nor particularly faithful to the Enlightenment credentials of the U.S. Constitution, but nevertheless fervently contribute to the advance of capitalism. Does this not also provide us with another way of understanding Chinese capitalism – as the product of (not) practising Communism while abiding in the notion of Communism, thus subordinating the struggle to the object of desire, subordinating action or real movement to representation?

The ‘war on terror', like its predecessors - the ‘war on drugs', the Cold War – by positing an unattainable object as its goal operates precisely within this mode of desire, and for this reason even most critique of the ‘war on terror' is misguided. Bin Laden is the displaced object – by definition displaced and never captured, or if captured, substituted. The capture of this object should therefore not be our goal, any more than it is the true goal of those who are purportedly after it. The hypocrisy of the ‘war on terror' is supposedly in the practical impossibility of attaining its ‘true' goal; one cannot eliminate ‘terrorism' we are reminded, it is just as futile as fighting a ‘war' on any other generalized social or political problem such as ‘drugs', ‘crime', etc. But this reasoning misses the point, for as Foucault demonstrates, vice

‘may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and the invisible, rather than to disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and its effects, while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace.' (The Will to Knowledge, 42)

Is this not precisely the logic of the ‘war on terror', and is it not precisely this lesson we should draw from the ‘failures' in Iraq and Afghanistan, in light of the recent surge of ‘disaster capitalism' as documented by Klein? The underlying rationale (beneath all superficial economic and political motives) of the relatively sudden shift away from the war in Afghanistan to the totally unnecessary war in Iraq can be seen in exactly these terms – as a way of avoiding the ‘limit' or ‘goal' for fear of exhausting its productive potential, a way of ‘advancing and multiplying power' by expanding its target. There is no military over-extension here, and Iraq was no failure – it is a resounding success in the project of preserving global capitalism by ‘fragmenting the biological domain' and extending the commodity form to violence and destruction itself – vectors of geopolitical time once received as market depressants, now re-instated as forms of commodity on which the market may indeed capitalize.

Rather than critiquing the hypocrisy or stupidity of this situation we should be learning from it and formulating our own strategy of resistance on precisely this ground, on the logic of desire, but (following Deleuze) desire as a positive productive force rather than a negative lack: contrary to Zizek's critique of leftists who ‘bombard the system with impossible demands'. For is it not precisely in this way that the neoliberal hegemony maintains itself in power – by continually positing ‘impossible demands' or impossible goals derived from the ideology of liberal democracy (or, if possible, constantly re-formulating or avoiding their final resolution), whether on the political or the economic front, continually reasserting a set of basic premises which will never fully be met? The final conquest over ‘drugs' or ‘terror', or the final institution of a regime of liberal human rights the world over – these are on the one hand ‘empty signifiers'; but at the same time they are also much more than that: they are also vital signposts of objects of desire, signposts that continually reinvigorate and reproduce the neoliberal capitalist struggle and engender neoliberal revolutions (i.e. in the form of democratic elections where the result these days is increasingly irrelevant in practice)… The very success of the Iraq War – given the fundamental shift in the global economy's response to war, disaster, and instability, the massive outsourcing of government and the expansion of the military-industrial complex – may be in its failure, its persistence, its lack of final resolution. On the historical surface of things, Iraq is the new Vietnam. But below this surface, through the deployment and re-deployment of market strategies and technologies of power through a whole network of related processes, capital has transformed the very notion of ‘quagmire' into only another positive instrument of its proliferation. Indeed, ‘there is no success like failure'.

Are we not, then, like Odysseus (chided by Tiresias), too focussed on the goal, or on averting the actualization of capitalism's Absolute, instead of realizing fully how capitalism succeeds precisely by never attaining the Absolute (its full development, which would be the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat') but continually tending toward it – continually, infinitely seeking by an asymptotic curve to ‘avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit'? Except that, unlike Deleuze and Guattari, we should take the latter not as an internal characteristic (or difference) of capital but only as a formal (external) guarantor of its success, and appropriate it for our own use: practice socialism without ‘abiding in the notion' of practising socialism by inverting the relation of goal and process, re-subordinating the goal to the process by positing the goal as the unattainable, sublimated object of desire. The key is in the process, in becoming, in the process of learning, striving – “if you see the Buddha, kill him” we are told; this is at once a rejection of representation and an exposition of the logic of desire. It is here that the only true opposition is found, as Deleuze claims: between the Idea and representation. The Idea (Buddha, Revolution, etc) is a virtual content that cannot be represented or ‘fixed' but only actualised in a becoming, in the continuous flow of presentations of the unconscious.

Any Buddha that we ‘see' is a false Buddha, in other words. The Buddha stands for a process that can only emerge on the inside - ‘power comes from below' as Foucault puts it. Is this not the Marxian logic of revolution? The revolution is not ‘spawned', but rather, it emerges in being through the development of revolutionary (un)consciousness in a fluid social context. And is it not simultaneously the logic of the kabbalistic ayin-‘nothingness' – we must become like ayin or ‘empty vessels' in order for the concrete universal (Idea, God to the kabbalists) to ‘clothe itself in us'. And even more broadly, or further, is this notion not present in a subversive way even in Christianity – in the sublimated pagan magico-ritualistic practice of ‘killing the God' from which Frazer heretically traces the crucifixion? (in The Golden Bough, and one should note, in very Foucauldian fashion, though predating the latter by about half a century) Any Buddha, any God, any Revolution that we ‘see' manifested or represented, is not the true one; perhaps Christ is then rightly decried in Canaan for being a ‘false prophet'; and perhaps Judas is indeed the true saviour, as Borges playfully suggests in a short story titled Three Versions of Judas…"God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history...he chose an abject existence: He was Judas."

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