While I have been distracted from serious writing, a beautiful cross-blog discussion has broken out, provoked by an unlikely source: Zizek’s ill-conceived review of 300. In many significant respects, this cross-blog discussion shares some concerns with the discussion of apocalypticism from earlier this year – and, once again, I find myself intervening at an extreme tangent that does not directly address the discussion’s explicit concerns. For a sense of what other people are actually talking about, I’d suggest starting with Daniel’s recent post from Antigram, which gathers together a good selection of the most recent set of links en route to its own substantive contribution. In this piece, I’ll pick up on bits and pieces from various contributors without, however, trying to place these in the context of the original discussion.
I’ve been watching with particular interest the contributions of Steve Shaviro at The Pinocchio Theory, who has been unfolding a challenging series of posts revolving around the question of how to conceptualise negation and affirmation. I’d like to explore this series of posts in some detail here – with apologies for the inevitable crudeness with which I’ll no doubt translate Steve’s concerns, and in the hope that he will not mind my appropriation of his work for my own idiosyncratic purposes here. I should note in advance that I will outline Shaviro’s position in greater detail than I “need” for the specific point I’m trying to make in this post – I’ve done this because, time permitting, I hope to return to Steve’s specific vision of “obliqueness”, and his critique of common concepts of negation and affirmation, in a later post and, for economy, wanted to outline the main lines of his argument in one consolidated place. This means, however, that I must ask readers’ forbearance for a certain extravagance of detail below.
Shaviro begins by questioning what he takes to be the form of negation deployed in Zizek’s work, arguing that Zizek appears to understand negation as a kind of mirror opposition or direct reversal of the positions he seeks to criticise. Shaviro argues that this approach remains bound to the very forms of thought it seeks to criticise, caught in a dichotomy that unites it with its object of critique:
There is something drearily reactive about always trying to prove that the opposite of what everyone else thinks is really correct. It’s an elitist gesture of trumpeting one’s own independence from the (alleged) common herd; but at the same time, it reveals a morbid dependence upon, or concern with, the very majority opinions that one pretends to scorn. If all you are doing is inverting common opinion, that is the clearest sign possible that you are utterly dependent upon such common opinion: it motivates and governs your every gesture. That is why you need so badly to negate it. Zizek totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.
Zizek, unlike the free-market economists and evolutionary theorists, justifies his contrianism in Hegelian terms; he’s performing the negation of the negation, or something like that. But this is exactly Deleuze’s Nietzschean point, that a critique grounded in negation is an utterly impoverished and reactive one. Zizek’s favorite rhetorical formulas all always of the order of: “it might seem that x; but in fact is not the exact opposite of x really the case?” Zizek always fails to imagine the possibility of a thought that would move obliquely to common opinion, rather than merely being its mirror reversal; and that is why I find him, ultimately, to be so limited and reductive.
Shaviro thus suggests that a more fundamental critique would require a move beyond a concept of negation that simply inverts its opposite, and thereby takes up the opposing pole in a dichotomy that leaves negation inextricably bound with what it criticises. Instead, Shaviro points to the potential for a kind of critique that moves obliquely in relation to its object – a concept to which he then returns in the following post.
In this next post, Shaviro aims the concept of an oblique criticism, not just against Zizekian negation, but also against Deleuzian affirmation. Here and in the next post, Shaviro wields Deleuze against Deleuze, arguing that Deleuze in places suggests a problematic image of affirmation as a simple inversion of negation:
Deleuze himself is at his least convincing when, as in the early Nietzsche book, he seeks to expel the negative, converting it to affirmation, via a process that itself seems just as ‘dialectical’ as anything ever dreamed up by the epigones of Hegel (the negative magically turns into the positive, when it goes to the extreme of what it can do, and becomes “active destruction”). Affirmation is at best a merely ethical stance; it doesn’t work either as an aesthetics or as a politics. And at its worst, affirmation is just as hideously and insidiously new-agey happy-faced as k-punk says.
In parallel with his critique of Zizek, Shaviro suggests that this vision of affirmation hugs too close to what it seeks to transform. Once again, Shaviro points to the possibility for oblique criticism – for criticism that would somehow step outside the plane of current social configurations, rather than aligning itself with some specific position on that plane. Shaviro argues that only through such an oblique positioning can critique hope to develop new alternatives – to be a creative force. In the final post in this series, Shaviro then develops this point through a brilliant dissection of the opposing meanings of negation that flow from different readings of Hegel by Deleuze (via Kojeve) and by the Frankfurt School.
Shaviro here makes a quite beautiful argument about the ways in which Hegel’s concept of negation is understood in opposing ways in these two traditions – a move that does not, however, prevent the two traditions from arriving ultimately at a very similar set of critical concepts:
So the Adorno/Marcuse version of negativity is really rather different from the negativity that Deleuze rejects — they come out of very different ways of reading Hegel, and they refer to very different processes. Deleuze rejects the Kojeve/Hegel view of negativity as the proper form of production; but the negativity of Adorno and Marcuse is not a form of production or of labor; to the contrary, it is something that resists the capitalist world’s relentless drive to production. (This role of negativity as resistance corresponds to the Body without Organs in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought: the BwO is their attempt to think non-production or anti-production in an alternative way to that of negativity).
Shaviro next moves to a discussion of the ways in which Zizek combines – inappropriately, in Shaviro’s view – elements from these two very different appropriations of Hegel. Shaviro here points to what he sees as an unresolvable tension between Zizek’s Lacanian metaphysics and his desire for the category of negation to operate as a historical-social-political category:
Now, Zizek’s negative, I think, fuses elements of both of the strains that I have just described. Via Lacan, Zizek goes back to Kojeve’s labor of the negative, which Lacan transforms into the idea that desire equals lack. But Zizek, unlike Lacan, also wants this negative to work socially/historically/politically in the ways that Adorno and Marcuse want it to, as something that disrupts and subverts the facade of “false totality” and “affirmative culture” we are faced with today. Both of these strands come out of Hegel, but do they really fit together?
I am inclined to think that they do not. Because, once you have defined desire as lack, you are committed to a whole metaphysics of (economic) scarcity and (psychological) unfulfillment. These end up being conceived (as they are by Zizek) as bedrock conditions that will exist in any social formation whatsoever; anything that says otherwise is condemned as delusive fantasy, as a denial of the fundamental antagonism of the Real, or a denial of the knot of castration, or what have you.
Now, I tend to be as leery as anyone of utopian thought (at least, insofar as “utopian” means a vision of static perfection, without any sort of tension or difficulty or dissatisfaction — the actual use of the idea of “utopia,” in a theorist like Ernst Bloch, is actually much more complex than this). But I think that Zizek’s militant anti-utopianism goes further than this, and that it makes difficult, or impossible, the very sort of negativity, with its critical and transformative function, that we find in Adorno and Marcuse. This is why — as per the discussions on this blog, and others, over the last week or so, in regard to Zizek’s reading of 300 — the only negativity Zizek can think of in the current political context is a fetishization of “discipline” and “sacrifice” in opposition to the alleged hegemony, in our neoliberal culture, of “hedonistic permissivity [sic]”. For all Marcuse’s criticisms of the pseudo-satisfactions of consumer society, and even for all his advocacy of a dose of straightforward political repression in order to oppose the “repressive tolerance” and “repressive desublimation” of American bourgeois society — for all of this, I cannot imagine Marcuse finding the jouissance that Zizek does in discipline and sacrifice. This is because he has a more sharply honed vision of Hegelian negativity than Zizek does.
From here, Shaviro returns to Deleuze, completing the critique he began in the previous post, and arguing that Deleuze ultimately moves away from conceptualising the critique of negation as a move to affirmation. Shaviro develops this point through a discussion of the relationship between Deleuze’s work and certain Kantian concepts, arguing for a vision of desires as productive – and of lack as a consequence of the counter-production of the society in which desires are invested. Shaviro then unfolds an example of the ways in which such counter-production might unfold in a capitalist context, in a critique again aimed at Zizek’s attempt to conceptualise capitalism in terms of hedonism, which could then be “negated” via the valorisation of discipline:
Capitalism, for instance, creates abundance on an unprecedented scale. But capitalism also needs to produce lack — to deny that very abundance it produces to the very people who produce it — in order to perpetuate itself, since its entire logic (what Deleuze and Guattari call its “axiomatics”) is grounded in the notion of perpetual competition over perpetually scarce resources. That a tiny capitalist class thus gets to appropriate the surplus that is taken away from everyone else is only a sort of side-benefit; it’s what happens when the supreme goal of a society is capital accumulation rather than expenditure or even just pleasure. This is also why consumer society, no matter how vehemently it exhorts us to spend money, or to “enjoy,” is never so fully hedonistic as Zizek seems to think.
It is worth noting here – and this point brings me to my initial interest in writing on this series – how Shaviro ends each post. In the first post, Shaviro leaves us, essentially, with the declaration of an impasse – with the statement that Zizek’s limitations are symptomatic of our current, collective inability to think beyond our present moment:
Zizek’s theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Zizek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.
By the second post, Shaviro has moved beyond this declaration of an impasse, and begun asking how we might move forward – disavowing that he might, individually, know how to break through the impasse, but suggesting that a breakthrough might nevertheless be possible for someone to think:
It’s not that I have any solutions to offer (I am essentially clueless), and a prospective solution will most likely have nothing whatsoever to do with Nietzschean/Deleuzian affirmation. But isn’t there something wrong, and painfully constricted, with Zizek’s fantasy of negativity and terror as the only riposte to Hardt/Negri’s implausible utopianism? Isn’t this a situation where we most need to move obliquely? Isn’t the problem, perhaps, that both negativity and obliqueness strike us as little more than clever advertising slogans? (”obey your thirst”; “think different”). I’m all to aware that we have reached the point where positivity and affirmation are all too comfortably ensconced in the business schools; but negativity (whether in ZIzek’s version, or that of Adorno, or that of the Situationists) is ensconced there also.
So the solution is ?????
By the final post, Shaviro is still asking, but the question has begun to gain some specificity, some determinacy – to point, perhaps, toward a solution of a specific kind. Moreover, Shaviro assumes an active relationship to the problem – even venturing to suggest a starting point for thinking through to a solution:
The remaining question, for me, is this. If we accept, as I think we should, Deleuze’s critique of Hegelian negativity in the forms of desire-as-lack and the Kojevian labor-of-the-negative, to what extent can we still deploy negativity in the Adorno and Marcuse sense? I think that this is possible — which is also to say that the Frankfurt School’s version of Hegel can be reconciled with Kant in a way that Kojeve’s version of Hegel cannot — but the way of doing this is still something that needs to be worked out. (And, though I know that my current tendency to drag Whitehead into everything must be wearying to some people, I can’t help wondering if Whitehead’s logic of relations — which is very different from Hegel’s logic — isn’t a good place to start).
So in the course of a brief space of time, we’ve moved from the declaration of an impasse, to a set of fairly targeted questions about how to move forward, to a fairly clear programmatic outline of some key issues that need to be resolved – and even a proposal for a starting point. The movement of the posts themselves, I would suggest, implies that perhaps we are not so much at an impasse, but at a moment when, tacitly, we can sense that an impasse is verging on breaking down. In this respect, perhaps it isn’t an accident that two of the sprawling cross-blog discussions in recent months – this one, and the earlier discussion of apocalypticism – should both have revolved around the issue of how certain forms of perception and thought might be symptomatic of an impasse and of failure to imagine alternatives to present organisations of social life – perhaps we should ask: have such symptoms become so visible, so irritating, precisely because they are the symptoms of an outgoing configuration – precisely because we have tacitly already sensed the subtle force of an emergent imagination, now seeking articulation?
Suggestions of such articulations are not found solely in the rapidly growing determinacy of Shaviro’s posts, but across the conversation, as discussants from a wide range of perspectives each, in slightly different ways, challenge approaches that adopt a passive stance toward the present context. Joseph Kugelmass thus rejects the concept of radicalism and seeks a politics that moves past “dramatic gestures of alienation”. Daniel from Antigram demands a shift from declarations of values to a focus on material forces. Sinthome from Larval Subjects has been progressively unfolding a powerful series of posts – too numerous to cite or summarise adequately here – sketching the contours of a vibrant materialist theory, and demanding, in relation to the current discussion, that we attend seriously to the question of the impact of the forms of social transformation for which we advocate – a position whose charge reflects a sense that our advocacy could engender real world results:
When I hear calls to give up enjoyment such as they are issuing from Jodi Dean or Zizek, I hear the thesis that somehow social change should consist in rendering our living conditions even more intolerable than they currently are. Why is this a form of social transformation that anyone should desire? To put it in crude and less than trendy-jargonistic terms, if social transformation does not lead to better work and living conditions, better, more equitable, more just, more satisfying, and more meaningful ways of relating to one another, more freedom to pursue our desires and cultivate ourselves, why should these forms of social transformation be desired at all?
I am being very gestural here, and I want to be careful not to overgeneralise from these discussions or overstate their common elements. Nevertheless, I think it may be worthwhile to keep in view the question of what such discussions might mean – to ask why such conversations and debates might be happening now, and what they might generate into the future. Regular readers will know that I have long been fascinated with the issue of whether Minerva’s owl must always fly at dusk – with the problem of whether we can engage in a critique that is not simply backward looking or critical of what we want to abolish – but that also captures and provides us with a forward-looking critical orientation in relation to what we are trying to create. Discussions like this – where the shortcomings of an earlier form of theoretical or political orientation appear to come suddenly and intuitively into view – therefore always pique my interest. They make me think of Marx talking about how we only set ourselves problems we can solve – that problems don’t appear as problems until their solution lurks within our grasp, frustrating us with its non-realisation – or about Benjamin arguing that we only envy what we could, potentially, have possessed. Is it possible that recent expressions of frustration with our collective lack of imagination, with our inability to conceptualise alternatives, themselves already attest to certain imagined alternatives just beginning to find articulation?
If so, then it may be important to pay particularly close attention to the sorts of alternatives and starting points that are being articulated in discussions such as this – not simply in the blogosphere, of course, but in more mainstream forms of discussion as well. The temptation in moments of transition is be backward looking – to direct our fresh insights and sensibilities at those forms of thought or practice that we want to reject: we often experience ourselves to be in direct conflict with the targets of our critique, because they seem to be (and often are) constraining the realisation of whatever we are trying to bring into being. And such conflicts can be important. But – and here I think Shaviro’s notion of obliqueness offers a crucially important concept – such conflicts, fought solely on the plane of what we are seeking to abolish, can also distract us from whatever it is that we are in the process of creating. It is often simply easier to criticise the shortcomings of a moment we are leaving behind, than to grasp the contours of the moment we are in the process of generating. Both, however, can be important to the realisation of emancipatory goals.
One question central to my own work is whether and how it might become possible to be self-reflexive in our critiques – to adopt a critical stance toward what is emergent, as well as toward what we want to change. My instinct is that a first step in this self-reflexive process is to take seriously our own criticisms as generative dimensions of our context – to recognise that, by offering a critique or expressing frustration with existing forms of thought and practice, we are already suggesting that a break with those forms of thought and practice has been made, and then to set about investigating the nature of that rupture. The question is then whether we can tease out the implications of such a notion of self-reflexivity well enough that, to speak fancifully, it becomes possible to launch Minerva’s owl into the dawn of whatever we are now creating, or whether the owl of Minerva flies always and only at dusk.
But it’s well past dusk here – and I don’t want still to be writing this post when dawn rolls around. I’ll leave things here for now, and hopefully find the time later in the week to pick up on some of the other important dimensions of Shaviro’s posts.