Thursday, 21 February 2008

Some Notes on Cultural Theory, Zizek Masterclass, and Disko Partizani

'Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. The depth lies in the valleys where we seek her, and not upon the mountain top where she is found...By undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought."
-Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue

I. From Z to K: Crucifixion, Monotheism, and Killing the Buddha the Materialist Way

I was reminded of the above quote while wandering down Stoke Newington Church Street this afternoon, passing by the Fox Reformed, a very red and rustic (and highly recommended by yours truly) wine bar and eatery which occupies the former site of a school attended by Poe himself as a wee lad, then called Reverend John Bransby's Manor House School...

Was Poe a budding poststructuralist?

What is most striking about Zizek's 'materialist-atheist' reading of the crucifixion (most recently presented in a masterclass at the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities, feb 18-22) is that it reproduces a notion of divinity already implicated - long before any echoes of it in Protestantism and Christian heresies - in Muslim and Jewish mystical traditions: most notably in Sufism and the Kabbalah (both of which are discussed in one of my November posts). One should be precise about the meaning of the term 'mystical' here, which designates neither 'Julia Kristeva mystification' (as Zizek calls it) nor some general mystification of meaning: the origin of the term is political, serving only to implicate these prima facie heretical schools of thought within the mainstream religious corpus as a kind of 'obscene supplement' without explicitly denouncing them as heretical. In this sense the Crucifixion - as the death of (God as) representation and the birth of (God as) the Idea that actualizes itself through us - is not the point of origin or genesis of this notion of divinity, but perhaps only its most concrete material-historical culmination. Even before it emerges in Sufism and the Kabbalah, it emerges in Buddhism, in this case not as an 'obscene supplement' but a mainstream doctrine - the injunction to 'kill the Buddha' if we see him (or her) - for any Buddha we see, any representation as such, is false. The true Buddha is unconscious, organizes itself through us, or in Deleuzian terms - it is the Idea that actualizes itself through us. In a similar vein, the Buddha of the Diamond Sutra advises his followers to 'practice charity without abiding in the notion of practising charity'. Inversely, as Zizek puts it, "the moment democracy is no longer 'to come' but pretends to be actual - fully actualized - we enter totalitarianism." (DSST 155). To reinscribe this Messianic (Sufi/Kabbalist) logic back into the Buddha's formulation, the only possible actual democracy is to practice democracy without abiding in the notion of practising democracy.

What Zizek seems to be infinitely approaching, circulating but never quite articulating or acknowledging in his critique of democracy and multiculturalism is Deleuze's critique of negativity and the subordination of difference to identity - this is why the populist Right ends up being the negative legitimation of the liberal-democratic-capitalist consensus, and why the Left is blackmailed into participating in that same consensus (i.e. the French Socialists' defection to Chirac in the election two years ago in order to prevent a Le Pen ascendancy, Chirac's landslide victory, and Le Pen's subsequent self-congratulation at this victory for the Right)...Rejecting the ideological drift of 'us against them' Zizek insists on the line of division within, the 'split within each group' - on how democracy 'struggles against itself' and is internally repressive, a dimension disguised by its negative definition against an external otherness. Is this not precisely Deleuze's modality of 'internal difference' or 'difference in itself', the formulation of a difference not traced from the negative or subordinated to identity? This is where Deleuze indexes the transition from Marx to Hegel - Marx replaces Hegel's categories of contradiction, opposition, and alienation with a positive differenciation at the heart of the social body (i.e. the division of labour). "The negative is the objective field of the false problem, the fetish in person." (D&R 259)

Zizek's reply to this is, of course, that Deleuze is more Hegelian than he admits. I would counter that Zizek has mistaken Deleuze's notion of negativity. In one of the lectures this week, Zizek described the different versions of capitalism (liberal-democratic, authoritarian, protectionist, etc) as different ways of dealing with an impossibility at the core of the notion of capitalism. This is precisely the Hegelian negative - at the core of the Idea is an impossibility, a negative void. And it is also where Deleuze would insist that what is at stake are different actualizations of the Idea, which at its core is not an impossibility, lack or void but a positive virtual multiplicity - and where he explicitly rejects the conflation of the possible and the virtual: "one refers to the form of identity in the concept, whereas the other designates a pure multiplicity in the Idea which radically excludes the identical as a prior condition...the real is supposed to resemble the possible...[the possible] is produced after the fact, as retroactively fabricated in the image of what resembles it. The actualization of the virtual [Idea], on the contrary, always takes place by difference...Actual terms never resemble the singularities they incarnate." (D&R 263-264) Is this not precisely how, in Zizekian terms, democracy/human rights in their actualization become the form of appearance of their opposite? Not by way of the negative/identity as a dialectical necessity (as Zizek might claim), it is not necessarily subverted in its actualization but in a contingent way, precisely as the result of a distortion caused by the dialectical/Hegelian/negative thought which confuses the possible (identity of the concept) with the virtual (Idea)...

II. Investigations of the Philosopher as a Young Dog

On the last day of the masterclass Zizek developed this point in a somewhat odd direction, claiming that what distinguishes us from animals is not what we can do (make machines, think philosophically, etc) but how we relate to a 'point of impossibility'. I couldn't help but think of the Kafka story 'Investigations of a Dog', which accomplishes in some 20-odd pages what Kant's Critique of Pure Reason does in - well, far more than that. In Kafka's story, an aging dog ponders the meaning of a dog's life and the various philosophical questions concerning dogs. "All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the canine race." Throughout, the dog's musings are structured around an impossibility - in this case the impossibility of conceiving humanity and its (from our human-reader perspective) God-like role in the lives of dogs:

"I began my investigations at that time with the simplest things...I began to inquire into the question of what nourishment the dog race subsists on...What has scientific inquiry, since our ancient forebears began it, of decisive importance to add?...[T]his rule will remain for as long as we are dogs...we find our main diet on the ground, but the ground needs our water, it draws its nourishment from our water, and only for that price does it give us our own sustenance, the emergence of which, however, and this should not be forgotten, can be hastened by certain recitations, songs, and movements..."

The thinking dog in Kafka's story effectively does not even acknowledge the presence of humanity as such: 'nourishment' (food) comes from the ground, which responds to 'watering' (saliva) and 'certain recitations, songs, and movements.' We are, in effect, the impossibility of thought (i.e. God) around which the dog's world is structured. One can conceive the glimmer of truth in this, however jocular: rather than being what distinguishes us from animals, our way(s) of relating to an impossibility at the core of our being are precisely what sustains ideology through the work of the negative, of negative identification, or 'filling in the void'. By filling in the void of the other, sustaining a relation to 'what we are not' or what we are incapable of thinking in this way, we open the space for the fetish-object that sustains ideology. The negative here operates not only at the level of the non-being or 'what I am not' (and this is the crucial point I put to Zizek) but also on the level of what is impossible to think, the non-being of thought.

III. Detectives of Ideology: Disko Partizani and Ciganizacija

By way of an example (or 'playing by' in Hegelian terms) of 'ideological regression' over the past 50 years Zizek notes the four versions of I Am Legend, from Matheson's novel to the three successive film versions - Vincent Price's, Omega Man, and the most recent version, I Am Legend with Will Smith. What is gradually lost in these successive stages, Zizek claims, is the progressive multiculturalist message of the ending in the novel, summed up in the recognition that 'just as the other is a monster for me, I am a monster for the other.' In the most recent version, the ending is so altered that this message is totally eliminated. It is here, Zizek claims, that we can detect the operation of ideology. As an addendum, while agreeing with the basic premise I disagreed with Zizek's assessment of Tarkovski's Solaris: I formulated a 0-level - before even the progressive multiculturalism of the first version, before we even get to the point of recognizing "I am also a monster to the other" we must get to the point of recognizing "I am a monster to myself". By way of analogy to Solaris I mentioned the ending of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles: the human family who arrive on Mars in the first wave of colonization visit a Martian lake and the children keep asking if they will get to see 'Martians' until, looking at their reflection in the surface of the lake, the family realize that they are the Martians...Zizek agreed with the formulation but disagreed that Tarkovski accomplishes this in Solaris, claiming instead that his is purely an 'inner journey' of one man coming to terms with his guilt, and the planet in Solaris is effectively reduced to a 'fantasy frame' for this inner voyage. But can one really draw such a clear distinction between 'inner' and 'outer'? Does the one not always imply/necessitate the other?

Drawing on the Lavalas movement in Haiti as a positive example, Zizek claims that any revolutionary struggle against ideology must 'maintain the threat of popular violence' - and this popular violence in turn must take the form of Benjaminian 'divine violence'. Here he provides a clarification, having been accused in the past of supporting religious fundamentalist violence: the matter is quite to the contrary, he claims. Divine violence means to 'subjectify the impossible (objective) Thing' - to confront objective systemic violence with subjective (divine) violence. (Religious fundamentalist violence is of the former variety) The crucial example here is Frankenstein - the monster (impossible, objectivized Thing) who is 'humanized', subjectivized - whose violence is no longer simply that of an (objective) monster...Another addendum: this is what Victor Erice covertly performs in The Spirit of the Beehive, a deceptively apolitical, subversive Franco-era Spanish film screened recently at the NFT about two young sisters who become obsessed with finding the Frankenstein monster after seeing the film in their local village cinema. The subjectivized monster happens to be a fugitive Republican soldier who jumps off a train near the village in what is by then Fascist-controlled 1940s Spain. Highly recommended by yours truly, and I reckon Zizek might enjoy this one too - all the favourite Zizekian themes are implicated...(there is a fake death, one of the sisters is a melancholic/Antigone/unconditional loyalty, the other a cynical subject of ideology, etc)

On that note, recalling the rock n' roll moniker famously applied to Zizek (the 'Elvis of cultural theory') one could speculate that perhaps the way to sustain Zizek's revolutionary call is, as with ideology, to maintain a cynical distance: join in the dance of Zizek's 'disko partizani' (to use a term coined by Shantel and the Bucovina Club Orchestra) and ponder whether true multiculturalism may be expressed by what in the song is referred to as 'ciganizacija' - 'gypsyfication'. Same old rhizomatic Hardt-Negrian multitude? So be it. Perhaps the difference between 'ciganizacija' and multitude is in remaining on the surface, in not abiding in the notion of multitude. Truth is not always in a well.