If anyone understands the political-economy of our current crisis in education, it’s UCSC Professor Robert Meister, author of After Evil: a Politics of Human Rights (Columbia UP, 2012). Here’s where you can find his brilliant open letter on the subject of privatizing education online and how–far from promising greater equality by expanding access–it threatens to increase inequality, while simultaneously decreasing the quality of what is taught, “Can Venture Capital Deliver on the Promise of the Public University?” Please read this if you care about the meaning and importance of genuine “liberal education” in a democratic society–and pass it on.
In America, “anti-intellectualism,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once wrote, “is the anti-Semitism of the businessman” (Anti-Intellectualism in America). Is it not also the ideological equivalent of Jew-hatred in the Age of Consumerism more generally, for the hordes of mindless middle-American shoppers whom Herbert Marcuse termed the “one-dimensional man” (and woman)? After all, what does the Jew signify–in Europe, during that long, sad millennium-plus, which culminated in the You-Know-What-a-Caust–except the social-psychological irritant par excellence? The missing piece of the human puzzle that, even when found at last underneath the sofa, refuses to fit into the larger frame and complete the picture of the socius as it wishes to imagine itself. Thus, the “unassimilated” Jew becomes the hallucinated “reason” that the social body as a (non)whole fails ultimately to cohere coherently, and fulfill itself in a satisfactory harmony of decent, like-minded people of good-faith and common-sense. And so too it is that, when openly despising Jews is no longer as fashionable as it once was (post-Holocaust), despising any and all who are “bookish, wordy, and contentious” (Amos Oz, Jews and Words) will do almost as well, it seems! Which means that, today–while not all Jews are intellectuals, to be sure–all intellectuals are now in danger of becoming cast as something like the “new” Jews. The cause of everything that fails to efficiently, smoothly, seamlessly, flow together for the greater good of all pragmatically-minded optimistic American citizens. Dumb it down, get with the program, quit raising uncomfortable questions… In short, kill the messenger.
In response to Alan Johnson, “How the Left Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Slavoj Zizek,” one ought simply to reply that those parts of Zizek which he criticizes are not the parts we “love” about him–other than the conceptual “surfing” which, let’s be honest, can be fun if also tiring at times.
Rather, we applaud the insightful, illuminating, incisive and trenchant “ideology critique”–rooted in Lacan, Althusser, and the Frankfurt School. By contrast, we regard the playful, scandalizing gestures toward certain tropes for signifying the radical transformation of society in terms of “revolution”–which Johnson targets–as provocative responses to the mind-numbing “death of politics” and frightening decay of public space that we currently suffer from.
These impish quirks, in other words, should serve as reminders of a precipitous decline of the political imagination in our day, and, at the same time, an admittedly somewhat desperate/manic attempt to spark it back up. Moreover, a fuller reading of the “scandalous” bits in context would support our contention that these should be read, to put it bluntly, “with a grain of salt”–while the sophisticated, creative analysis, and spirited refusal of “post-political” resignation, are what should be taken seriously.
Or, more concisely: “Psycho-Marxian Cultural Criticism for the 21st Century, Yes! Stalinism, No!” Moreover, there are far more convincing examples of “(pseudo-)left Fascism” out there today to be really concerned about–including those using/endorsing and/or excusing/sympathizing with actually existing terrorism/authoritarian rule. And, interestingly, Slavoj Zizek has–badge of honor awarded by UP-IPCC–earned the scorn of some of them…
In his latest Telegraph salvo, “Is Slavoj Zizek a Left-Fascist?,” British political theorist and Middle East analyst, BICOM‘s Alan Johnson, makes some agenda-setting points for 2013. Although they may not all be precisely the points he thinks….
For example, the possibility that 99% of humanity are “boring idiots” may be inescapable (or perhaps even a slight misunderestimation of the actual figure if we are really honest with ourselves, a number some experts have placed as high as 100% minus-Scarlett-Johansson), but apparently it’s wrong, according to Johnson, for Slavoj Zizek to say so out loud. And,come to think of it, speaking of polemicists who sometimes exaggerate for effect, why was it again that Christopher Hitchens said he drank so much…?
First question of the New Year, therefore: Does this instance of what the ancient Greeks (good radical democrats, they liked to enslave others) used to call “parrhesia” (frank or candid speech) make the Slovenian philosopher into something like the Mitt Romney of the Left, as it may seem–letting slip his own “vulgar elitist” and inhuman(e) contempt for every constituency other than that minority (in this case, just the mere 1% of avant-garde radical intellectuals) who aren’t already “voting for the other guy” so to speak (or supporting the other side, which has already “bribed” them)?
Or, given the Elvis of Cultural Theory’s well-advertised involvement with some of those claiming to represent the majority of people nowadays, is it perhaps instead that his sarcastic statistic echoes provocatively with the Occupy Movement’s own declaration, “we are the 99%”–tempting us to (re)interpret this to mean that, while individually we may be idiots, at least together fighting for revolution of some kind we’re not boring? To be sure, Hannah Arendt had already said as much–emphasizing as she did the root of our word “idiot” in another Greek term, idion, ancient Athenian for the purely private person, the one who takes no interest in the affairs of the community and so makes himself irrelevant or worse to what we now call “our society” (in a not very Arendtian usage, but the children of Thatcher and Reagan know what I mean: “Society doesn’t exist…” for the idiot, right?). As Aristotle said, to live without a polis man would have to be either god or beast. From Arendt to Foucault and Baudrillard, the “rise and fall of the social” has been seen as idiotic in precisely this sense: it separates people as individuals from both others and themselves even while joining them in a lonely crowd, and joins them as producers and consumers by separating them as citizens.
Moreover, the broken mechanisms of late-bourgeois democracy really do seem to at once both presume and pathologically (re)produce mediocrity (not only culturally but politically and psychologically, pedagogically, spiritually, gastronomically, etc.) practically everywhere you look, no? I mean heck, check out the once-great United States–the birthplace of modern democracy today blunders decadently up to a series of self-inflicted “fiscal cliffs,” apparently impotent to govern otherwise, much less re-invent government as did the Founding Fathers. Meanwhile union-busting proceeds apace, and a formerly magnificent public university system (what remains of it) is being wrecked by a new breed of administrator-parasite that multiplies jobs for itself while weakening the host (ultimately it is the “student body” that suffers) by reducing full-time tenured faculty positions. A new breed of deanlings and deanlettes has cleverly realized that higher education is just another commodity to extract a surplus from. So at least in America these days, an “idiotic” malaise concerning (the presumed absence of) fresh prospects for the common good–either by means of democratic politics or (e)quality of education–is in fact being compensated for by a widespread update on Herbert Marcuse’s “euphoria in unhappiness,” now the product of a practically mandatory narcissistic egoism drained of content, prescribed for today’s “minus-one dimension generation” as the nearly exclusive ethical duty of every schizophrenic post-individual.
In service to this destructively anti-political, anti-social and anti-human dialectic of private/personal self-worship (in my guise as consumer of crap made to be discarded) and public/national self-disgust (as embarrassed/outraged denizen of a “republic” turned empire), the late-postmodern media-induced acceptance of crass materialism/greed as either a virtue or else as something simply to-be-taken-for-granted, celebrates glumly or at least naturalizes the worst instincts of our post-humanity. More specifically, ideology today assembles–for like 99% of us–a truly bizarre and almost science-fictional, contradictory set of beliefs, a dualistic faith in the Yin and Yang of two elements that no self-conscious mind-control expert could ever have thought to combine, and yet which appear to function together quite well, almost “magically,” in order to disable thought and action: (1) the popularity of “pop” Sociobiology (neo-social Darwinism); and (2) an anti-intellectual folk-religion, organized around the specifically “American Jesus,” who is inseparable from a rediscovered type of Gnosticism, (pre)digested in the form of dollops of conspiracy theory ladled onto heaps of self-help paraliterature, and with a dash of out-of-context (fragments of) Plato and the Gospels for those who generally read neither.
The profound advantage (from the point of view of the 1% and its need for social control) of this cult of what some are starting to call the “New Bio-Gnosticism” is that, in a masterpiece of fortuitous (overdetermined) culture-industry propaganda, internalized smoothly without even the need for bad-faith by practitioners nursed on the new “social” media that some are starting to see as (also) anti-social, the confusing worship of bios-and-nous combined-and-separated guarantees my confused “right” (thanks to E. O. Wilson, Ayn Rand, and American Jesus) to literally anything/everything I can lay my hands on — during the brief and insignificant incarnation of My True Self, seen as the spiritual alien resting inside this fleshy material semblant for a while. While yet, at the same time — and here is the spooky magic part–the same ideology manages to convince me that none of “this” (common world) is really real, or of much ultimate importance, compared with the Supra-Reality revealed by bowdlerized Quantum Physics and the supermarket novels of Dan Brown.
In sum, and to conclude by way of another sort of example, more directly pertinent maybe to the game of Guess Who’s the Fascist Now…. As erudite and astute as Alan Johnson’s latest attack on the leading public figure of the Lacanian Left may be; and in an otherwise typically brilliant demonstration of how to keep track at once of both “high/highfalutin” theory and “low/quotidian,” painstaking and necessary practice; Johnson, himself one of the leading young lights of International Social Democracy, nonetheless forgets to factor in that Slavoj Zizek has also earned some other antagonists besides nice guys like Alan — and these are ones that are worth having as enemies. I do think it matters that he offends some of the right people, too, politically.
For, this fascinating film-critic, subtle philosopher, hilarious stand-up (comedian) psychoanalyst, and according to Johnson “left fascist” (just look at the militaristic jacket he’s wearing in that attractive photo of him on Johnson’s blog!) is treated with a not-dissimilar contempt by some others, besides the post-Eustonian, moderate left, or “vital center” or whatever it’s called in Britain at the moment–a hard-to-label (that’s a good thing!) faction of “good guys” among whom (if anyone cares) I aspire to be counted as a (if somewhat heretical, then I hope at least not too-paradoxical, and in any, case loyal!) member or supporter from across the pond. Isn’t it interesting, I am saying, that Zizek has also been denounced as a “bourgeois” “collaborator” and “traitor” to the “real left” — or the really totalitarian “left,” as I would say? Would a really good left-fascist, in other words, be scorned by precisely those genuinely bad actors who nowadays represent what some (myself for example, but I just learned it from Paul Berman, like most people) regard as the actual (neo-)fascism of our day in practice and not just in theory: for the so-called far-left that sympathizes with Islamist terror (what BHL calls Fascislamism), and that I once, for this reason, nominated (together with Johnson as a matter of fact!) the “post-left,” is in league with an authoritarianism that doesn’t have any use for psychoanalysis, feminism, close-readings of Alfred Hitchcock, jokes or anything else–but prefers flying planes into buildings, when it can, or launching rockets onto Tel-Aviv when that’s more convenient. At least be proud to some extent, in other words, of a guy who offends Tariq Ali and others like him: He’s got to be doing something right!
And moreover once more, let’s not forget that Zizek is not alone in his discomfort with both the post-left (aligned with terrorism) and the limits (imposed by capital) within which responsible people are asked to contain their critique today, in an oddly–one almost wants to say “surrealistically”–conservative age: a time of reactionary simulated conservatism that isn’t even conservative, because it doesn’t know what it wants to conserve; an interregnum between “the end of history” and the start of something else; an “undead” period that sometimes feels like it exists/persists in the way it does only so that David Lynch will one day turn out to have been simply a mundane, realistic film-director all along, and a crude one at that, clinging to an unimaginative aesthetic of simple and direct mimesis, for when distortion of all affect and perception is the norm…. For example–there are some American followers of the sweaty, fast-talking, World’s Most Prominent Lacanian who (because they suffer from inhabiting the Lynchian universe or “chronotope” sketched above maybe?) even go so far as to question (using that detestable incomprehensible jargon of theirs!) the function of the Christmas holiday itself, as it now operates to suture or “stitch,” both symbolically and materially, so as to hold in place, what might otherwise be an altogether unraveling fabric of political-moral-libidinal-economy without reference-points. They declare upsetting things like, “Santa Wore Red,” and even asking outrageously, “Is Christmas evil?” And as to confessions (!) of “Linksfaschismus” (or however you spell this stinky-cheese and sweated-in-wool smelling word–can I please have some sauerkraut with mine?), was it not the great Woody Allen who once quipped (in Annie Hall as I recall), “I may be a bigot, but for the left“?
So, is Alan Johnson an anti-fascist? Yes, of course! To be sure. None more so. But for the left? Is it enough, in other words, that we social-democratic anti-(Left/Right/Center-)fascists oppose “totalitarianisms” of various kinds today, without also foregrounding the morbid condition of a increasingly authoritarian global capitalism in ways that left Lacanianism is very good at? Have we not also got to hold the door open to–keep a foot in the door of–transformational and not only (re)distributive politics/theory as well? A more flexible and refined assessment of what the Lacanian legacy (which is in fact very vibrant: it’s not only Zizek and a few other big names) has to offer reasonable people today (who very reasonably don’t think it’s ever quite reasonable to be too reasonable), including a more subtle, less wooden critique of Zizek’s own ubiquitous provocations and paradoxes (and jokes!), can only help us do just this, I believe.
Johnson’s well-informed series of polemics (he’s written a number of articles on Zizek in various places: if someone would gather them all up and send them to me so I was sure I had all of them in one bundle, then maybe I could try to review them all) are a start at a proper assessment, posing challenges to separate the wheat from the chaff that have to be taken seriously. But there is more to it than standing-up against the Linksfaschismus (I still hope I’m spelling that word correctly!) of the leading cultural critic of today. So, more on that soon. Meanwhile…
So is Christmas evil? It seems hard to imagine, but here the argument appears to be (see previous post, “Santa Wore Red”) that what we actually consume (or in Lacanese, derive our “surplus enjoyment” from), when we partake compulsively in this annual mandatory ritual of giving and receiving relatively inexpensive luxury items that nobody really wants, much less needs, is quite literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ; or in other words, it appears strongly implied (by the well-nigh blasphemous previous post on this site) that we consume products made out of (and again it’s no metaphor) the congealed life-energy or exploited labor-time of the world’s suffering poor. So, I guess it really is true, then, “the poor you will always have with you.” Since in fact, their dried bones are all over your living room, just as their rotting carcasses are scattered throughout the strip-malls of North America and Europe, and their drowsy undead corpses populate the factories and sweat-shops of China and Latin America (like zombies, but let’s call them “Santa’s little helpers” instead). For, stacked up publicly like cord wood to feed the great furnace of infernal overproduction and overconsumption, this odorless shit coming from the anus of capitalism is also treasured in each private home as fetishes, talismans and trophies — as if the condominiums and McMansions of today’s well-to-do yet anxious classes were mausoleums, and the necromancy practiced in them were intended to ward off a haunting, uneasy feeling that although the flesh dies the spirit is eternal. Crappy New Year!
Christmas is a key symptom in the technical sense (or more precisely “sinthome”) of the consumer society: a day to celebrate charity, love and so on (at the level of the Imaginary or narcissistic self-regard) that in fact is experienced unconsciously as a festival of illicit enjoyment of greed for its own sake (in the Real of desire), and which at the level of today’s global economy, as a system for circulating capital (the Symbolic order of signs), is a moment required, in all its contradictoriness, in order to keep an absurd situation of injustice, exploitation and pure waste (the useless expenditure of resources) functioning throughout the rest of the year, beyond the point of all rationality and even in its sheer destructiveness (including wars over resources, global warming, not to mention the obvious exploitation of labor needed to produce cheap goods, etc.). In this sense, the holiday, as it actually has come to be practiced – in spite of any supposed “original intent” attached to it and/or ideal metaphysical meaning that one can applaud — is evil. It is indeed a ritual of mystified sacrifice, one could say, of the very sort that Christ’s own sacrifice is supposed to have come to put a stop to. “Forgive them,” in other words, “for they know not what they do/consume!”
In the Middle Ages, the atheism that counted meant disbelieving in the Abrahamic Sky Deity and/or his Offspring. That’s because the church was in power then. Nowadays it’s Holy Technoscience that rules, prescribes rituals, and sanctions acceptable beliefs for the masses. The true atheist today, therefore, is the one who refuses the superstitious techno-paganism of genetic determinism (aka the New Social Darwinism). Doesn’t anybody read Marshall Sahlins’s The Use and Abuse of Biology anymore? Or perhaps I was determined by my annoyed-with-implausible-reductionism gene to write this.