More On Foucault is Dead, and a Little on Zizek’s Revolutionary Terror

A couple entries prior, I quoted Foucault is Dead in a comment he posted at Thinking Girl.

…why is it so hard for you to understand that my argument is NOT dependent on widespread action? Is it, perhaps, that my emphasis on individual action and responsibility frightens you a little, because it may mean giving-up participation in a patriarchal family or relationship situation of your own?

What FiD is saying here is that (Feminist) Revolution means, among other things, throwing off the relative comforts enjoyed under (Patriarchal) oppression. It’s not a very new notion. It was clear to Marx that people, bourgeois or not, would hesitate to accept the terms of his political revolution:

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence.

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriations.

Is it possible that FiD was reproached because he was insisting that Feminist Revolution entailed the dissolution of social conditions— his main example here being The Mod-Het Family— that appear to us mystified and magical entities we are taught to enjoy? I think this entirely.

I think that we are so enamoured with the Family and Gender that to us a world without them seems like an impossibility, a terrible impossibility. It’s no wonder that the contemporary conservative racket that the failure of (their vision of) the Family is tantamount to the failure of (their vision of) society, was also the assumption of kinship studies in Anthropology for the better part of the 20th Century. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that David Schneider reproached the notion that the nuclear, biological family unit of father-mother-child was hardly the norm for kin-relations cross-culturally considered. Even then it’s been an upward battle to convince the masses that the Family and the notion of Gender that constitute it are not the global norm.

Back to FiD though.

I think that his suggestion invokes the kind of Terrorist gesture Zizek is so fond of preaching. FiD even says that “[b]y nature, by upbringing, I am a Robespierre. And my target is patriarchy.” While there is room to debate how far one goes in deploying Zizek’s distinction between Fear and Terror, not to mention his endorsement of the latter, something seems clear: the Terrorist Act Zizek admires, and here that Foucault is Dead suggests, is experienced as such by an audience content, if not thoroughly invested in some yet unspoken way with maintaining the ideological form of their social conditions.

Say It Like You Mean it

I caught myself this morning, when discussing women’s oppression in the sex-industry with a friend who I already expected was unconvinced, wanting to slip in little phrases that sort of de-neutralize the conversation, that make it safe. The phrase that I think fell the most under my back-space was “for me,” as if to say that this wasn’t really something anyone else should risk but me. Oddly enough, I think that phrase actually shows as much if not more solidarity in their not having to take it seriously as much as I make it safe for them. In effect, I make it safe for me to say, because I don’t really mean it, because it’s “just me” saying it.

I don’t know how many educators employ this kind of reasoning when guiding their students’ writing styles, but I’d like to know. I have had one professor who was a real hard-ass about that kind of stuff, and he would give his explanations somewhat along the same lines of confusing what you mean or if you mean anything at all. It only just recently struck me as having some more important implications for the way we approach matters of philosophy and politics.

In a way this ties back into the blog post I am meaning to write re-visiting Zizek, Lenin, and the Political Act (in response, somewhat, to Foucault is Dead’s conversation at Thinking Girl I mention in the previous entry). This is precisely the subtle, unnnoticable daily act, a Foucauldian micro-practice if you will, that engenders the kind of social conditions that I think Zizek is very paranoid about– and for good reason. For example, Zizek has made the off-hand critique of post-structuralist theorists, like Judith Butler, who make avid use of quotation marks.

So, try this at home, or on the bus, or anywhere you engage people in issues that make you lurch a little inside: when in a disucssion, omit from your rhetoric–“for me,” “as I see it,” etc– anything that diffuses what you’re saying. In other words, say it like you mean it!

Foucault is Dead… is dead

Went to check it out yesterday, and I get this page that says Foucault is Dead has been deleted. Does anyone know what is going on here?


I read over at Leftist Looney Lunch that Foucault is Dead went out with an Irigaraian bang at Thinking Girl. I spent part of last night and part of this morning reading the comments at the Thinking Girl piece (written, actually, by a guest-writer). I’m not very satisfied with how Foucault is Dead, in a last-minute turn of apparent disgust, up and left the blog and the blog-o-sphere. Equally, I am sad that it all happened at all, but am interested in sifting through the wreckage of that conversation for some gems.

In particular, I want to return sometime in the next few days to the kind of revolution that Foucault is Dead was invoking. I’m talking about revolution broadly conceived. As the issue became stated more clearly– the impracticality of Foucault is Dead’s advice is first-rate evidence of why it should not be heeded– the logic used to condemn him became more circular– as if to circle an object-cause of desire, never straying too close nor too far. To this end, I think that FiD was on to something when he said towards the end of his exchange:

Is it, perhaps, that my emphasis on individual action and responsibility frightens you a little, because it may mean giving-up participation in a patriarchal family or relationship situation of your own?

By this, I take FiD to be taking up, in this feminist context, the issue of impossibility I brought up before at Rough Theory and before in my own post on Repeating Lenin. The issue is whether the apparent impracticality of revolutionary action should be taken more seriously than the aims of that action itself. I have to admit, I was very sympathetic to FiD in the comments, though particularly when he took to task to point out where real (revolutionary) action is to be fouhnd and where its ideological, fantasmatic inhibitors are to be avoided.

The Question of Change

I had a fruitful though short exchange with N Pepperell over at Rough Theory late yesterday about some issues raised at Larval Subjects. Distilled like a fine Whiskey, Pepperell concentrates on some questions about change, raised as elaborations of a kind of return to Marx’s “aim of philosophy,” put forth by Sinthome. They are:

1. What is to be changed?
2. How is it to be changed?
3. Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?

In my comments on Pepperell, I jump at what I saw. These are three questions that seem quite old actually, almost worn out and deceptively practical. I would like to suggest that these questions and their ilk are worth raising only if they point us back– and I think they can– to a more core issue for the cause of revolution and freedom: if the aim of philosophy for Marx is not merely to explain the world, but to change it, than our pre-occupation should not be with the world as much as with change itself. In other words, the appropriate question is:what is change?.

This is what I feel Zizek is up to in his jesterly Leninist moments. As I explained somewhat in my entry last week on Repeating Lenin, and re-iterated in my comments with Pepperell, the concern with change must be dead-serious at its core. This means avoiding the cynical gesture that, as soon as we begin to engage the question of what change is really about, change is impossible and necessarily to be avoided. We should adopt an ironic gesture of confronting this apparent impossibility for change, which confronts us with an almost humorous absurdity, with the intent of taking it as seriously as can be. The point is, of course, that change conceived as a co-ordinate in the present hegemonic-ideological field is by definition an impossibility, as it is (at this point anyway, after the great revolutionary attempts of the 19th and 20th Centuries) the repressed kernel effectively making the reproduction of the ideological field possible. This is what Zizek is getting at when he tells us that “[to repeat Lenin] stands for the compelling FREEDOM to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live — it simply means that we are allowed to think again” (Repeating Lenin)

The point is that there is a certain something not going on when all we feel compelled to ask are questions like those I quote from Sinthome above. Masked in such seriousness, this is an activity “of doing things not to achieve something, but to PREVENT from something really happening, really changing” (ibid). The most radical question we should be asking, if we are to return to Marx’s aim of philosophy, is that which confronts change head-on and takes it seriously and not its impossibility. That is why I think there is something important to this repetition of Lenin. It takes us back to “the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to REINVENT Marxism” (ibid)– the Lenin who had the depth and courage to ask in all seriousness: what is change?

Zeno and the Logic of Fantasy

So, my friend Josh and I were at our coffee-shop talking over Stumptown-filled mugs. Those conversations are workshops for us, and in this one we ended up talking about, after making another interesting arc through psychoanalysis, Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. Josh offered a “solution.”

For those who don’t know it, in this story Achilles and a tortoise get in a race. The tortoise requests a bit of a head-start, as Achilles is surely faster than he is. However, Achilles realizes that (or the tortoise comes around to explain that) if he gives the tortoise a head-start, to catch up to him he will have to traverse half the distance already between him and the tortoise. What’s more is that this problem is built into every (half-) point conceivable in the whole situation– Achilles would have to go half of half of half of half ad infinitum. In the end, Achilles concedes the race to the tortoise before even attempting it. 

The paradoxical point is that movement is impossible, in theory. Josh had thought of a solution a while ago, long before even I was interested in (Lacanian) psychoanalysis, which is to make one’s aim an infinitesimal point just beyond where you’re “really” going. Seeing this as an opportunity to make an explanatory point with an example given to me, I jumped nearly out of my seat and said, “that’s it right there– that’s the objet petit a!” This is not a solution, in the sense that it rids us of Zeno’s paradox, but that it allows us to displace the problem in a way that makes it conventionally not the same problem, if a problem at all.

I had figured that Zizek, if not other Lacanians before him, already made this connection. I looked back in my copy of Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan through Popular Culture, and sure enough Zizek opens the book with a strikingly similar analysis. Zizek’s point in Looking Awry is that the tortoise is this impossible object that, by the logic of the drive, we constantly encircle but never actually achieve. I’d like to make a different point though. 

What we get from the paradox as Zeno gave it to us is that movement is suppose to be impossible. The impossible quality is in movement itself. I immediately recognized in my friend’s “solution” that what he was doing, and I explained this to him, was moving the impossibility out of movement itself and into an object. The tortoise could be this object, which is Zizek’s position, but for a different reason. As I see it, this solution explains the logic of the impossible kernel of the Real as the condition of the possibility of “reality.” In this sense, Zeno is quite literally correct when he seeks to imply that movement is an illusion. This illusion is what Lacan would call fantasy.

What we should also get from Zeno, then, aside from classical and otherwise interpretations, is that it prompts us to give a solution that is (or allows us to better grasp) precisely the logic of fantasy itself. It is not simply that the tortoise is an object with which it is impossible to meet, but that Achilles really can match and exceed the tortoise insofar as he is aiming beyond it and, presumably, the finish line too. If the aim is the tortoise, as Zizek explains it, then of course Achilles will never attain it lest all he attains is its always-already lost status and it just disappears.

This taken qua the logic of fantasy means that “reality” as we know it requires an impossible kernel of the Real in order to exist.  This is why I don’t think Zizek’s interpretation really goes the distance, so to speak, because we can grasp an even more elementary principle if we take the position that movement or reality– i.e. Symbolic contrivance– is possible only insofar as we displace its Real impossibility into an impossible object that, by definition, exceeds our conventional, conscious aim.

We should be cautious of the naive realist’s interpretation of this logic though, for whom it would seem that this logic is supposed to be a conscious one we employ in a pragmatic fashion. The logic of fantasy is not conscious, except for the few of us who have traversed it. 

Repeating Lenin

I got to get neck-deep in Zizek this last month in a last-minute paper for a class that should have been written long before the end of the quarter. While trying to hash-out some sort of thesis, I became interested in Zizek’s call to “repeat Lenin,” which is made most comprehensively in the essay-book by the same name (here, in its shorter, strictly essay-format, available through Zizek’s EGS-profile).

The gist of it is this: what Lenin did for Marx was to take his revolutionary theory and turn it into a theory for the Revolution, though the revolution Lenin enacted (the October or Bolshevik Revolution) was necessarily failed because it could only really be accomplished as a second attempt in light of that initial failure. Repeating Lenin is thus not the naively-stupid suggestion that we re-create the Soviet Union, though Zizek does not make great efforts to dissuade us of that possibility, and at one point suggests that our inability to understand the revolutionary logic of Lenin and his government may have more to do with ideological failures of our own time rather than actual failures of the Revolution, but rather the willingness to do the impossible.

In this sense, political revolution for Zizek is the Lacanian act: in either case what we must do (very much in the sense that Zizek argues “doing” is as important if not more important than “knowing” when it comes to ideological critique) is that which implies our stepping through the ideological fantasy we otherwise imagine guarantees our actions to have certain meaning. In other words, Zizek is carving another path to understanding “what it means” to “traverse the fantasy.”In recognizing Lenin’s revolution as failed, we are immediately able to grasp the reason for its failure, a reason that comes to us from the future as the symptom, or rather as our present repression of the revolution. The revolutionary gesture would then be to identify with the symptom, such that we the failed revolution in the past can attain a full ontological status as has-been-already-failed rather than the unconscious pre-ontological status as repressed.

What I took note of when reading this and other essays– and they all seem to be built out of the same stock 5000-7000 words– is the proximity between them and two of Zizek’s more overtly theological books, The Fragile Absolute and The Puppet and the Dwarf. In these books, and the essays orbiting them, Zizek seems also to be suggesting a repetition of something in the Christian tradition that he identifies as coming from Paul more than Jesus. We come to see “Christian intolerant, violent Love” as “Leninist intolerance” and “fundamentalist intolerance” as basic expressions of the same kind of action Zizek sees as possessing a perverse, subversive even, core for social, perhaps spiritual revolution.

What I am wondering is what this adds to a discussion about faith, especially when the fundamentalist invokes it. Does psychoanalysis not subvert the transparency of scientific positivist knowledge, and suggest, via Lacan’s dictum that reality is structured like a fiction, that to take any symbolic fiction so seriously as the scientist does his science and the fundamentalist does his religion is an equal matter of faith, and that only one who sees through both fictions equally is in a position to choose without dangerously making the imaginary identification with whatever fiction it may be? This is just like an old Ch’an Buddhist parable told by a master. He says that before he studied the buddha-dhamma, he would say that mountains are mountains and that rivers are rivers; that once he had studied some of the buddha-dhamma he would say that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers; but now that he had attained the most high Enlightenment he says that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

The point I’d like to make is that if, as Zizek has said, only the atheist can truly believe, in that only the true atheist sees through the symbolic fiction such that he can really decide without imagining that any of it is Real, what are we to make of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris) and their renewed rhetoric of faith and reason. I would like to suggest that they take a cue from theologian, Karen Armstrong, in assessing not the idea of God as infantile, but the very gesture towards God (the divine) being anything like or compatible with an idea as the infantile and dangerous belief of our times– paralleled, obviously, by the scientific (positivist) gesture that “reality” has a form like that of the scientific idea.

The ideological gesture– if the phrase couldn’t have a more accurate example– is the same in the church, as it is in the lab, as it is on FOXNews, as it is at every White-House press conference: our idea is the guarantee of that which the idea represents. The truly radical stance is not a variation on this form, where we replace God with reality or History or whatever, but where we refuse the very (phallic) form as a guarantor.