Žižek thinks the revolution begins in the slums. The point at which his new book gets real is urban. He takes a while to get there though. These are my reading notes as I work through the new book.
Žižek’s corrosive attacks on hypocrisy and liberal illusions interrogate the gaps (parallax, dialectical, distort, invert, pervert) in which ideological justification thrives. Politically incorrect and sometimes obscene moves are the only way to expose the weak, self- serving self-deceptions of those that betrayed the end game of Star Wars, the impossible resolution of the Matrix, and the traumatic unconsummated assault on Laura in Wild at Heart. An overabundance of examples illustrate Žižek’s new book – Woody Allen; Rashomon; Henri Bergson; Heidegger in the forest, writing greetings to Argentina; Trotsky (defended); Kurtz upriver; the Jews, Jesus and drug-induced religious experience; Minority Reports; Obi-Wan; Claude Lévi-Strauss; broken eggs and demonic chickens; Marilyn Munroe with Humphrey Bogart; and far too many laments for the ‘sad’ decline of the Left (he does protest too much).
I do not at all mind if Žižek is contradictory; precious; obscure or bitchy at times – often all at the same time. But I do mind when his endearing idiosyncrasies provide an alibi for less contradictory, more precious, wilfully ignorant obscure and boring bitchiness on the part of minor acolytes. Let me demonstrate my own implication here and make some serious points in the end about, of all things, what I think is wrong with Žižek’s answer to the question of: ‘what is to be done?’
Underprepared for the acolyte path, I am not able to get into all the ontological ontofukcery about the status of the parallax, its relation to Kant and Hegel, and the significance of Lacanian in-jokes (often for an in-group of one, though there are many in that schizo-group) and nor am I interested in the Pauline Church stuff or the petit a as it pertains to philosophy or paedophilia. I am much more interested in the implications for Marxist-Leninism and struggles against capital. This I take it is a shared interest – Žižek himself has done more of late than many to return the proper names of the revolutionary tradition to mainstream discussion, with texts on Lenin, Stalin, and his championing of Badiou’s Maoism. I prefer this roll call of communist thinkers to that other popular fat book which rescued such names from apparent obscurity – Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) – since in that book the tone was far more dismissive (but better than the barren fields of Eagleton’s prose; the opportunism of Hitchens; the sectarian squibs of Jonah Tennick – if that is The Left, then we really are in sad trouble). Žižek however has done much to redeem serious discussion of Lenin, Stalin, Mao et al, even as I think he is far too sympathetic to Hardt and Negri, whom he neologises as “HN” (giving credence to their own pretension to be a new M&E for the 21st Century – as inaugurated in Žižek’s cover blurb for their far too thick book).
Žižek says he has laid some ‘cruel traps’ here and there in his book for the resolute ‘democrat-to-come’ (Žižek 2006:11), so while I am not baited by that, let me get started and fall into a few of my own anyway. Žižek is well informed on Heidegger; on Lacan he seems like a chorus girl (can can kick, cha cha kick); on the Soviet terror contrite; on Lévi-Strauss perfunctory; on Trotsky correct (to denounce and qualify); on Hitler and Stalin he is euro-obsessive; and on Marx, he is mostly fine. Mostly? I am sorry to say that Žižek sometimes gets things wrong on Marx. My trap here is pedantry, but I cannot help pointing out that he twice quotes the wrong ‘opening sentences’ of Capital. I must presume Žižek quotes from memory. Speaking of ‘subjective illusion’, he says:
‘Let us read carefully the famous opening sentences of Chapter 1 of Capital: “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its anaysis shows that it is, in reality, a very trivial thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceities” (Žižek 2006:171 – emphasis is Žižek’s)
The actual opening sentence of Chapter 1 of Capital occurs some 38 pages earlier (in the Penguin edition). I feel curiously compelled to point out that the page reference Žižek gives for his ‘opening’ is to p163 of the [I think, superior] International Publishers translation of Capital. However, in that edition, p163 occurs a few pages into chapter 5 on ‘Contradictions in the formula of Capital’, and the quotation Žižek uses is from the beginning of section 4 (to be found on p163 of the Penguin edition, not the International Pubs cited). Nevertheless, Žižek correctly quotes his lines later on page 371, at least insofar as, second time, he identifies these lines as belonging to subdivision 4, and he gives the appropriate footnote to the Penguin (qwa qwa qwa)..
What is my point with this footnote fetish? It is time to carefully look at the actual (and also famous) opening sentence, which reads:
‘The wealth if societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as and “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1867/1967: 125 penguin edition).
This is a great opening line. Remembering that Žižek has italicised the words ‘at first sight’ and ‘in reality’ in the important, but different, passage he quotes (I shall now drop this petty routine on his sloppy referencing and sloppy Marxography – its unseemly and clerical anyway), the point is to illustrate an inversion in the ‘standard procedure of demystifying a theological myth’ where Marx is not bringing myth down to earth through critical analysis, but that ‘the task of critical analysis is to unearth the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” in what appears at first sight to be just an ordinary object’ (Žižek 2006:351).
What this ordinary object is, of course, is the commodity [trinkets!]. And the many readers of the first chapter of Capital have had much much fun with commodities; with coats and linen; with spindles and thread; sugar and iron; with tables that have wooden brains, that dance off to market and the like (Derrida had made them spectral beings). All well and good. But I am inclined to read the place of commodities at the opening of Capital in a more fundamentally calculated way; as a crucial feint giving access to the organisation and purpose of the whole book, indeed to the entire architecture of Capital as presented by Marx. The authorly Marx mentions several times that there is a difference between the mode of presentation and the analysis. I think it is crucial that the commodity is the opening scene of a drama that has a wider purpose for demystifying – it is the opening to a work that will provide the ‘implied reader’ of Capital (I follow Gayatri Spivak 1985 here) with the x-ray vision to see through the trick of commodity fetishism, market exchange, control of production, distribution, valourisation, credit, the varieties of subsumption and the crises of capital, so as to sublate the productive power of capital away from the exploitative production for profit of commodity wealth into a more plentiful abundance of life and creativity for all…
What clinches this argument? The very wording of the opening sentence includes two visual references – remembering that Žižek had italicised ‘at fist sight’. In the Penguin edition the German word erscheint is translated as appearance. The German reads:
‘Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen kapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine “ungeheure Warensammlung”, die einzelne Ware als seine Elementarform.’
Erscheint occurs just the once here though, rendered as two instances of appears in the English as given earlier. This is grammatically acceptable, translation is no pure calculus, but I think there is significance in it as well. In the International Press edition the translation is better: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”; its unit being a single commodity’ (Marx 1867/1967:35 my italic). Both editions then go on to say that our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. My point is that revealed in the gap between the two English translations of Erscheint is the entire burden of Marx’s project – to expose the trick of commodity as a way to teach the working class to see. Erscheinung, in German usage, has a double sense. It has the sense of appearance both as how something looks, and the theatrical sense of putting in an appearance, staging something. The ‘presents itself’ of the International Edition gets closer to this sense, but does not capture the double, the trick that is perpetrated by the animated commodity – animated by the masses themselves, though they do not see it as such, yet.
So why am I concerned to pick up on this micro moment of Žižek’s book that covers so much other ground? I will illustrate with a diversion into the really lived experience of the masses. Žižek is my guide when he heads for the slums. To prepare the way, Žižek, in several sections of the book, has discussed Marx’s exemplary analysis of the civil wars in France, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Boneparte. This amazing text, also much discussed by everyone from Spivak to Levi-Strauss, is full of phrases well know even to those who have not read much Marx: ‘history repeats itself the second time as farce’, ‘let the dead bury the dead’, ‘potatoes in a sack’, ‘they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented’ and so on.
Žižek describes the Society of December 10 as the ‘private army of thugs’ that Napoleon recruits to do his dirty deeds (Napoleon the third is Louis Boneparte; the nephew of the more famous Napoleon with his hand tucked into his tunic) and recites Marx’s alliterative paragraph on ‘vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars’ (Žižek 2006: 335; in Marx 2002:63 – Cowling and Martin translation). Žižek’s point is that this gang, hired from the residue or ‘excess’ of all classes is the ‘excremental remainder’ that, Marx shows, permits Napoleon the third to stand apart from all classes, play class off against class – the gap – and come to be the representative of that class of people who cannot represent themselves, the peasant potatoes in a sack.
In a footnote on page 417 Žižek suggests that Marx had a ‘barely concealed contempt’ for, and dismissed this ‘degenerate “refuse” of all classes’ as ‘lumpenproletariat’ which, Žižek adds, extrapolating from Marx’s case study, ‘when politicized, as a rule serves as the support of proto-Fascist and Fascist regimes’ (Žižek 2006:417n26). He says this apropos of a suggestion that contemporary slum-dwellers should also be classified as lumpenproletariat. This is a volatile suggestion, given questions of politicisation, the importance of an analysis that demystifies, that wants to provide an x-ray vision for the masses to see through the tricks of power. It deserves closer examination.
In the main body of the text (the above was a footnote – a peripheral and minor moment perhaps, set apart from the main story, where) Žižek has been discussing ‘improvisational modes of social life’ in the “really existing slums”. Following Mike Davis, his example has been the city of Lagos, in the context of reports that ‘now, or soon’ the planet will be predominantly urban: more people will live in cities than in the countryside. Žižek makes some apposite comments here about the role of fundamental Christianity as the hegemonic ideology prevalent in the slums, and while he warns us to ‘resist the temptation to elevate and idealize the slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class’ he does suggest, with Badiou, that we ‘should nonetheless … perceive slums as one of the few authentic “evental sites” in today’s society’ (Žižek 2006:268). The excluded here have nothing to lose but their chains, they are free in a double sense (‘from all substantial ties’; ‘from state police regulation’) ‘even more than the classic proletariat’ (Žižek 2006:268).
This is heady stuff, but I think that despite the denial – the resistance of temptation –idealism has entered without an invite. Does Žižek know the slums? I can only think of the bustees of Kolkata that I have visited (bustee means something similar to slum), with their highly regulated codes and systems, their significant social and family ties, where pavement space, shanty huts, roadside and underpass locations are substantially organised, regulated, encoded – and not just by the Christian Church. (And many years of sociological, demographic, anthropological documentation: the work of Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay in Theory Culture Society vol 23 nos 7-8, 2006 might be a starting point, but there is much more). I would refer only to the difficulty of gaining access to these places, especially for a white boy from Australia, or no doubt a Lacanian film critic from Slovenia (see The Rumour of Calcutta Zed books 1996).
But all this is good stuff to debate – evental site and so on. It is when Žižek makes a peculiar parallel, and asks a provocative question, when he telegraphs a link between the slums and Harlem, in the process of advocating a new political programme, that I lose him:
‘The slum-dwellers are the counterclass to the other emerging class, the so-called “symbolic class” (managers, journalists and PR people, academics, artists and so on) which is also uprooted and perceives itself as directly universal (a New York academic has more in common with a Slovene academic than with blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus). Is this the new axis of class struggle, or is the “symbolic class” inherently split, so that we can make the emancipatory wager on the coalition between the slum-dwellers and the “progressive” part of the symbolic class? What we should be looking for are the signs of the new forms of social awareness that will emerge from the slum collectives: they will be the seeds of the future’ (Žižek 2006:269)
Quite amazing – two classes contend… There is not yet, for Žižek, a connection between New York academic and Harlem (but this does exist) and he does not immediately say that Harlem equals slum (but his grammar implies it in a way that I would hesitate to attribute to conscious intent). Nonetheless, the conflation is there, and covered by an optimism that is quite touching, if naive. What then for the signs he seeks? There are a number of studies available of slum organisation; with more are emerging (see the forthcoming work of Annu Jalais). But in a world of urgent problems, why is urbanization continually called in to do duty for bourgeois fears (of a ‘population explosion’_ which leads to a threat to ‘us’ from those who now live amongst ‘us’. Perhaps the political project for progressives in the symbolic class will be to go to the slums in some form of a new urban Maoism mission. Žižek prefers Lenin, but his support of Badiou may suggest something else. And his listing of the lumpen is not without significance, naming the terrain of struggle:
‘We are thus witnessing the rapid growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions half outside the law, in dire need of minimal forms of self-organization. Although this population is composed of marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways, many of them as informal wage-workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security cover … (Žižek 2006:268).
Though I cannot disagree, except where Žižek suggests Marx was contemptuous of the lumpenproletariat, this list of complaints itself reminds me of the standard enumerations of symbolic class academic coding. I have written elsewhere on Derrida’s ten symptoms [in Bad Marxism]; and here am again reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s rewriting towards the end of her Critique of Postcolonial Reason, though I see her work as exemplary contrast, not only because it is symptomatic in Žižek that women are left out. There is perhaps still much to be learnt from a New York academic such as Spivak, who herself lives in Harlem, and does not ever seem to appear in Žižek’s reading lists. She makes much of the ways the financialisation of the globe, neo-liberal oppressions, structural adjustments and even well-meaning programmes, with NGO opportunism, have the most severe impact today on women (Spivak 1999).
In that footnote on the slum-dweller as Lumpenproletariat, Žižek perhaps is correct to suggest that a ‘closer analysis should focus on the changed structural role of these “lumpen” elements in conditions of global capitalism (especially large-scale migrations)” (Žižek 2006: 417n25). But he does not provide this analysis, nor refer us to those who do this difficult and necessarily nuanced work. I am starting to think this is more than just sloppy referencing. There are massive problems of a conceptual, practical and organisational nature that are rarely discussed in theoretical tracts like this even when they call for some new emancipatory movement (of signs from the slums, or of a multitude). What of the difficulty of speaking with, let alone organising with, the lumpen of the Paris suburbs (cf the work of Francoise Verges). The tactical, political, ethical error of sending ill-prepared cadre to the slums, the suburbs, or the mountains was a lesson learnt the hard way in Bengal, not learnt yet in Paris, and not helped by the comic image of ‘symbolics’ armed with Kant and Deleuze heading out to the shanty towns to compete with Pentacostalists for the souls of the oppressed. The obvious pun on Žižek in the slums is that his work may have a parrallaxative effect – a kind of Delhi-belly. Though it’s a pity that this is not very funny. Has the time has come for progressive symbolics to be better equipped, sent to training camps to brush up on class composition research methods, on questions of Leninist organisation, or the practical rules of engagement for ensuring Maoist party discipline? Time for something more than parallelograms to be deployed perhaps? Trapped as we are in academic theology, it may take some time before we are ready to act if we cannot even quote Marx with enough care to learn what his critique was about.
to be continued…JH