In Response to Projekt Enlightenment

Dear readers,

I’m still drowning in work, and unable to post as I would like. Still, I try to keep up how I can, and just commented over at Projekt Enlightenment in response to this post, which is a critique of ye olde “Why I’m Not A Radical.” Thanks to new commenter Carl for the tip.

H. writes,

To my mind, the paroxysms of outrage that Zizek’s recent review of 300 provoked amongst certain members of the left academic blogosphere have only confirmed the basic truth of his argument that a truly progressive prioritization of values, in the current postmodern academic environment, is effectively impossible, because no one is willing to take responsibility for what a totally committed choice to pursue real social justice might actually entail–like, say, loss of job security. “If revolutionary action doesn’t include working full-time towards academic tenure–then no, thanks!”

Sure, I support people taking professional risks in the name of their political convictions. But while I agree that Zizek’s lifestyle doesn’t make him a hypocrite, I would also point out that it solidly refutes the notion that Zizekian ideas are somehow just too dangerous for academics to espouse. Apparently there’s no surer road to success than being Zizek. Hythlodaeus continues:

As I took it, Zizek’s whole point in his review of 300 was that, while this may appear to be a false choice to us–i.e. securing a comfortable academic liberal bourgeois lifestyle vs. committing ourselves to political engagement/struggle–it’s not for them. For the majority of the world, it’s not a choice at all. Destitution is a necessity. So which side of history are we on? Zizek’s point is not to valorize sacrifice in itself, but to recognize that our “hedonism” is, in its current state, dependent upon the deprivation of others. The real political goal that Zizek is advocating here is not a fascistic state founded on a discipline fetish–how strange!–but a world where, to paraphrase/parody Marx, the hedonism of each is the condition for the hedonism of all. But to work towards realizing that project we’d have to surrender the privileged hedonism we enjoy now–subtended as it is by military imperialism and the exploitative practices of global capital–to enjoy a more democratic hedonism later.

H. is not distinguishing here between ascetic discipline and ideological discipline. If he just wants us to purchase fewer products, that’s fine by me. If, on the other hand, he wants to subordinate x number of revolutionaries to y number of revolutionary leaders, which is what Zizek wants, then my response is a puzzled demand to know how such structures differ from existing hierarchical and fascistic structures. (Also, I’d point out that although H. rejects valorizing sacrifice in itself, the whole first half of his paragraph does just that, suggesting some kind of naive solidarity between dreamed-up ascetics and oppressed laborers.)

Furthermore, consumerism is not identical with pleasure. Zizek really is inhabiting some sort of Puritan fever dream if he thinks that sex or loud music are founded on the oppression of the masses.

Back to H.:

Let’s stop treating them as inert objects, and start listening to them, start recognizing what they have to say. And, who knows, maybe even enter into dialogue with them. This is where I part ways with Zizek and his advocacy of the top-down Leninist intelligentsia qua vanguard model. I’m with Sartre and Habermas, Hardt and Negri instead: mutual recognition + intersubjective communication amongst groups-in-fusion= common value formation, i.e. the only horizon of a truly democratic, emancipatory, and transformative praxis.

Well, Sartre, Habermas, and Empire are not all one and the same. Nonetheless, I think I’m also with them, and I certainly support paying more attention to pragmatic authors like Naomi Klein. I’m all in favor of dialogues and the achievement of intersubjectivity. However, I’m not under any illusions that by switching philosophical reference points, I’ve somehow connected with the common man or woman, nor do I expect a working-class person to be necessarily able (or unable!) to articulate the truth of their position, any more than anybody else.

H. writes that I responded “by exhibiting denial” to the suggestion that academia upholds middle-class values. He quotes me on the necessity of academic thought to class-consciousness, and on the association of academia (at other times, in other places) with the aristocracy and the proletariat, then writes:

Aristocracy? Yes, if by that we mean the haute bourgeoisie. Proletariat? Never, except in words. But Rich’s suggestion clearly touched a nerve, which is telling.

First of all, don’t psychologize. With a debate like this, one is either passionately involved, or merely condescending. Everything touches a nerve, as H. notes at the very beginning of his post. “Academia” is not limited to the last thirty years in the United States and Europe. There have been academies wholly devoted to revolutionary Marxist thought, with Russia (at least during Lenin’s tenure) and Cuba being the most obvious examples. If the academy was merely a tool of the haute bourgeoisie, then it would have to have been simultaneous with the advent of the bourgeoisie and market capitalism. Its history goes much further back.

H. writes:

Tomemos appears not to recognize that the restricted access that presently characterizes higher education–the abolishment of which is summarily relegated to the realm of the utopian–effectively renders his values false, no matter how sincerely he holds them. And that makes them determinately bourgeois. As does denying one’s objective complicity in the system one subjectively rejects, which happens to be an excellent example of those “middle-class habits of thought” that Joseph claims he “wouldn’t know how to populate…with content.”

This isn’t a great reading of tomemos’s comment. When tomemos talks about an ideally educated populace, he’s not deferring the realization of that ideal — he’s speaking out for the same kinds of beliefs that animate Chomsky. In addition, by quoting me rather out of context, H. attempts to frame as ignorance what is really a reaction against the arrogant supposition that either a) academics have more choices than the oppressed working man, or b) we know what working-class people think, and it’s fundamentally different from our own ideologies.

H. writes:

Maybe we should take a page from Michel Onfray and his founding of a free university in the south of France aimed primarily at the working-class and immigrants. The British organization NIACE is pursing similar ends, with its project of “emancipatory learning.” To pursue these alternatives would be to make what Zizek would call truly “free” choices: choices that breaks out of the horizon of existing choices. But how many of us are willing to risk our jobs that way?

These admirable people aren’t risking their jobs; they’re founding universities in countries that invest substantially more in higher education per capita.

H. writes:

Marx was right–economics, understood as the “mode of production of material life,” is the fundamental determinant of our existence. That’s not “economism”; it’s the simple recognition of fact.

It’s the dogma of materialism, not fact. I agree that economics are indispensable, and I also agree that ideologies grow up out of material conditions, but art is not a “function” of economics, except when the excesses of literary production and consumption are glossed over with superficial appeals to the markets that currently organize them. (Note that I don’t think that such markets are irrelevant, or analyses of them inherently superficial. But here we’re up against “bread, not roses,” just as we were in the earlier discussion of hedonism.)

H. writes:

Postmodernists like to dream of a society consisting primarily of values, symbols, desires, subjectivities, and discourses referencing only themselves, a society where the material constraints of existence have become immaterial. I’d love to know where to find it. The de-industrialization of the US economy and the outsourcing of “real” production to the Third World has no doubt made this rather perverse fantasy more plausible. But it’s still false. True, many postmodernists express intense interest in the “body” as a determinant of the real. But Eagleton’s quip is apropos here–that postmodernists are only concerned with the body when it’s erotic or coupling, not when it’s starving or laboring.

This shoehorns me, or me and some portion of the commenters on that entry, into the world of the postmodern. Yes, I find the single-minded eroticism of certain postmodern systems rather one-sided and lame. However, I also find the asexual sterility of capitalism quite odd. But if the point here is that the hungry want feeding, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that a truly perverse way of disagreeing with me, since it is absolutely beyond dispute and comprehensible to a six-year old. I just don’t think that cancelling my subscription to Netflix is going to resolve the troubles in Bangladesh, and the only person who does think that is Peter Singer.

H. writes:

Apparently Bourdieu is less popular now in grad school than Deleuze, Zizek, or Agamben. But we’d do well to take him seriously, and submit our current habitus to scrutiny.

No, Bourdieu is extremely popular, though perhaps less so with academic bloggers. Ultimately, this is the moment that gave me the most heartache, because if these debates, ostensibly about human suffering, become about a more serious return to this or that thinker, then their objective truth is really academic will-to-power, and nothing else.

H. writes:

Please, let’s put a stop to this whole “culture war” argument concerning the failure of the Democratic Party in the US. The DP didn’t lose because it was “trapped in a discourse”; it lost because the Republican Party was ruthless in imposing discipline on itself and in exploiting any and all means of acquiring power.

This is circular logic, since the Republican Party imposed discipline on itself after first moving farther right, and since one of the “means of acquiring power” was the rhetorical re-shaping of American political discourse.

H. writes:

And is it a coincidence that this revival has more or less coincided with the emergence of the first viable third party on the left in over a century, the Green Party?

Nothing, in the history of leftist politics since my 18th birthday, has made me angrier than Nader’s bright-white campaign and his refusal to concede when his failure was assured. George W. Bush’s victory can’t be blamed on Nader, any more than it can be entirely blamed on the corrupt decision of our Supreme Court. But Nader could have tried to prevent it by urging voters in swing states to vote for Gore. The fact that he couldn’t win five percent in solidly Democratic states is a testament to the Green Party’s lack of diversity and vision.