Thursday, July 28, 2005

Amazing picture over at the robot this morning. The angel of history?

I've been pondering my discussion with the other Joshua, which has continued via e-mail, and while I'm not yet entirely willing to abandon voting Democrat his points have impressed me. Returning to where I'd left off weeks ago in The Ticklish Subject, I discovered a discussion of "postpolitics" exactly simpatico with what Jane's been arguing. It's all very quotable: here I'll excerpt a little bit of Zizek's argument against postmodern identity politics. This comes after a passage in which he describes the shift from the Civil Rights movement that "suspended the implicit obscene supplement [paralegal intimidation] that enacted the actual exclusion of Blacks from formal universal equality" to a "post-political liberal establishment" that administrates "a vast legal-psychological-sociological network of measures, from identifying the specific problems of every group and subgroup (not only homosexuals but African-American lesbians, African-American lesbian mothers, African-American unemployed lesbian mothers...) up to proposing a set of measures ('affirmative action,' etc.) to rectify the wrong." He continues:
What such a tolerant procedure precludes is the gesture of politicization proper: although the difficulties of being an African-American unemployed lesbian mother are adequately catalogued right down to its most specific features, the concerned subject none the less somehow "feels" that there is something "wrong" and "frustrating" in this very effort to mete out justice to her specific predicament—what she is deprived of is the possibility of "metaphoric" elevation of her specific "wrong" ito a stand-in for the universal "wrong." (pp.203-204)
This is a brilliant critique of interest-group politics and explains the failure of the Democratic "big tent." Zizek's claim is that real politics—the politics that interrupts hegemony, that do not automatically translate any group's demands into "the Western liberal-democratic notion of freedom (multiparty representational political game cum global market economy)" (207)—require a subject able to assume the mantle of universality, whose fight for freedom becomes our fight; what "Etienne Balibar calls egaliberte (the unconditional demand for freedom-equality which explodes any positive order)" (207). I'm particularly struck by the important role Zizek gives to metaphor in authentic politics: "This is politics proper: the moment in which a particular demand is not simply part of the negotiation of interests but aims at something more, and starts to function as the metaphoric condensation of the global restructuring of the entire social space. There is a clear contrst between this subjectivization and today's proliferation of postmodern 'identity politics' whose goal is the exact opposite, that is, precisely the assertion of one's particular identity, of one's proper place within the social structure" (208). Zizek's example is his participation in a committee defending four journalists arrested by the Yugoslav Army in Slovenia in 1988: demanding "Justice for the four accused!" was not a demand for "fair" arbitration within the existing system but an attack on the system as such, which it was recognized as (and which of course eventually succeeded). The demand for justice for the four metaphorically condensed the demand for justice for all.

I have some problems with the call to the universal given the Christian language into which Zizek puts it, but it seems compelling, especially when put into a historical framework. (Example: "Badiou draws an interesting parallel here between our time of American global domination and the late Roman Empire, also a 'multiculturalist' global State in which multiple ethnic groups were thriving, united (not by capital, but) by the non-substantial link of the Roman legal order—so what we need today is the gesture that would undermine capitalist globalization from the standpoint of universal Truth, just as Pauline Christianity did to the Roman global Empire" [211].) Just to re-orient on American politics: I interpret this as the need for some group on the Left to rediscover itself as a (metaphoric) universal class. One reason there's so much hang-wringing about "Kansas" is because we on the Left have largely conceded to some largely mythical group of redneck Red-staters the right to universality: they're the "real Americans" in the "heartland" and we're a bunch of effete latte-sippers clustered on the coasts. Is it our job to somehow enlist these people in our cause through a revived labor movement—to swallow whole the construct of Red-State-as-America—or is it our task to break up this fictional monolith and discover a new group with a valid metaphoric claim (a group that would of course include a large number of so-called Red Staters—WalMart workers, perhaps).

For Zizek, real politics only break out occasionally in the form of unpredictable Events in which some class or group assume the mantle of universality ("the people") and take the lead. A situation of permanent Event would look a lot like anarchism: "the people" (the actual identity of which would always be shifting) would supplant politics-as-administration (acting in the name of but rarely on the real behalf of the people). I'm not sure I believe that state of affairs to be actually possible, but it certainly feels like at least one Event transcendental to the existing order is desperately necessary right now. Perhaps all a poet or intellectual can do is keep his or her ear to the ground, John-the-Baptist style: listening, diagnosing, translating, anticipating. Boy howdy, it sure does sound like messianism. I need to finish the book before I comment further on it; before I conclude that Zizek is really saying what he seems to be saying.

1 comment:

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