I don’t know man, I don’t know…

Where is the Real in this image?

These are babies, pretending to be stupid animals; see how the one on the right has a human ear. It is somehow significant that we only see one, but are likely to assume there are two. This is what babies would say if they could really talk, and this is how they would appear to us if we really heard them.

A Conversation About Polyamory

This is a transcribed conversation over instant-messenger with a friend of mine, Josh.

Me: So a polyamorous person I know put their position to me this way: do you have more friends than just your best-friend; does your best friend fulfill all your friend-needs? Well, then why would you expect the same with one lover?

Josh: I suppose there is something to be said for that, but I think for many people, the answer to the question is that one lover does fulfill their sex needs.

Me: I think it’s more than it seems. While I can see one person satisfying another’s genital erotic needs, the basic lesson Freud gives us about civilization and libido is that the former is built through domesticating (i.e. harnessing) the latter. That is to say, for those people some other aspect of their life is eroticized in a sufficient way to what they need – be that people, socially-necessary work or art (including religious devotion). What we can at least say today is that the way the developed world paradoxically eroticizes the whole world actually de-eroticizes it. This is why Zizek rants about safe-sex as “sex without sex” in the way he calls the media’s white-washing of war (or green-washing of [ecologically exploitive] capitalism) “war without war.” Zizek also likes to say that given permissive norms now, a “traditional” marriage is truly subversive, not because it plays the same game of out-transgressing the previous way of doing things, but because it creates a short-circuit in the way we view human relations as perpetual pissing contests and domination.

Compare the crazy sex manuals of India, China and Japan and their traditions of intense contemplation and discipline (Zen especially).

Part of what I was trying to say is that the way that Marx described [in “The Communist Manifesto] how under Capitalism “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” How this can be thought in terms of this dissolution of normative monogamy. This sounds like the end of the world, or at least a very bad thing, but what it could mean is the emergence of a form of love whose content is monogamous (we only relate to one person at a time), but whose form is universal.

You can think of Christ’s event (arguably the Judeo-Christian event) as a form of this simultaneously dissolving and universalizing love, because only through Him, this individual human, is God accessible. The content is the same, but the form is radically different. Polyamory cannot be forced of course, but it does not arise spontaneously and without a material base. Like Marx also said, men make history, but not under the conditions they choose. What polyamory might mean is a form of love beyond the alienating failure of our first love (i.e. ourself).

Josh: I think you just proved why you would be a good academic and why I would not.

Me: Why’s that?

Josh: Because you just used Marx, Freud, and Jesus to make a case for polyamory. That, to be blunt, is some academic shit!

Me: Bullshit or no? I don’t think Freud and company are inaccessible as much as they are not popular. I think a lot of resentment at what gets called condescension operates according to this mechanism, where an unpopular view is taken as a threat (what a great way to think about xenophobia too) rather than something to be engaged for what it is. I think Zizek’s life for the last 25 years has been a stunning example of why these remain relevant figures and theories.

Thanks for what I’ll take as a compliment though.

Josh: It is a compliment. I wasn’t trying to infer that you were using irrelevant or obscure references. I was just saying that you take an academic approach to argumentation. Using preexisting writings to do cross analyses and draw conclusions that support your point of view.

Josh: I tend just to think about what makes sense and then say it.

Me: Hrmm, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Josh: That’s why you are naturally an academic. It’s a good thing.

Me: haha okay

I think it would be a mistake to say I made a case for polyamory, as in making a case for why we should go left rather than right. What interests me with polyamory – which I have been thinking of for a while but most intensely lately – is the way it can be used to think of economic and other concrete relations and transformations. So, it would be a mistake to say that people were only monogamous in the 19th century, but that the structure of social and economic relations (i.e. relations established by positive law) were such that polyamory could not flourish or work right. Today, we are encountering places in society (literally geographic spaces if we think of how the most liberal places are our urban centers) that do not support “traditional” monogamy as well as polyamory and the like. I affirm polyamory, but ultimately I believe there are forms of monogamy (“traditional” even) that engage the same selfless love (i.e. love beyond narcissism). I can’t make a case for polyamory through Christ without visiting both the fact that he endorsed conventional marital relations and said the only way to him was through “hating” (i.e. letting go of) all your family (i.e. your identity as a sibling/parent/spouse*).

Josh: I suppose I’m not trying to make the case for monogamy, but it seems that polyamory is more of a selfish act, and that once you go down that path you will only be seeking the next experience in a quest for something that you will never find.

Sorry for the long time between responses. I’ve been brewing.

Me: If you want to think of it economically: strict monogamy functions best where you do not have a strong support (i.e. support of material needs) structure in the form of a state or otherwise public institution (arguably corporations attempt to be such public bodies, but deeply perverted kind**). When public society starts to dissolve the old needs for hierarchy and control to provide us with what we need, strict monogamy loses its ability to stabilize our sense of belonging amidst those conditions that make our life possible. So, polyamory arises as an ethical way to manage our affectively-charged relations[—a response to our mode of material reproduction].

In the same way that as the business grows bigger, you can no longer have one guy run the show. It takes a bottom-up approach to really get things done. Polyamory is potentially love from the bottom up.

I should qualify that what is usually thought of as the private sector, is still in large part socialized. What remains private about it are literally paper thin legal definitions.

So, it’s not just a kind of a socialist state in which traditional, strict monogamy loses its efficiency.

Josh: I would argue that it is actually the opposite. Polyamory creates a marketplace for love in which one chooses the best products/lovers. When you are constantly shopping for better and better experiences you become alienate from the act of making love for the sake of the perfect orgasm.


Me: Brilliant. I absolutely agree.

This is why Zizek can get away with arguing for traditional, strict monogamy as subversive in light of permissive norms.

Josh: word.

Do you think it would fly with the right wingers if we proved to them that capitalism is responsible for the destruction of the family?

Me: That is not a critique of polyamory as such though, anymore than what I was saying in the first place was a critique of monogamy as such, but view into concrete-social and economic relations through the ideological lens of how we relate to (and regulate) our sexual partners.

Some, yes. I mean, you have to remember that the fascists were, at least in Germany, national socialists

Questions of love are always, in the end, about identity – and vice versa.

Josh: True. I bet the Taliban would be pretty supportive of that critique

Me: They would, but for the wrong reasons.

Josh: I’m listening to a recording of an a capella group with Ray Charles. It’s fucking awesome.

Me: Namely the “I was only following orders” sort of enjoyment those fucks get out of abusing the symbolic order for their imaginary ends.

* Precisely, I think, in the way the mother of 1 Kings 3:16-28 gave up her identity as a mother in order to love/save her son from Solomon’s sword.

** Literally in the sense that Lacan doubly alludes to when he pronounces “perversion” “pere-version,” or “version of the Father,” where Father here could be a kind of Heavenly Father or symbolic guarantor of things

Architectural Parallax: On Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle

Zizek’s explicit appropriation of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin’s architectural metaphor for ex-aptation, in conjunction with a talk at the Tilton Gallery.

The notion I propose here is ex-aptation, introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin: it refers to features that did not arise as adaptations through natural selection but rather as side effects of adaptive processes and that have been co-opted for a biological function. What should draw our attention here is that Gould and Lewontin borrowed the architectural term ‘spandrel’ (using the pendentives of San Marco in Venice as an example) to designate the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves. In architecture, the prototypical spandrel is the triangular space ‘left over’ on top, when a rectangular wall is pierced by a passageway capped with a rounded arch. By extension, a spandrel is any geometric configuration of space inevitably left over as a consequence of other architectural decisions. Say, the spaces between the pillars of a bridge can subsequently be used by homeless persons for sleeping, even though such spaces were not designed for providing such shelter. And as the church spandrels may then incidentally become the locus for decorations such as portraits of the four evangelists, so anatomical spandrels may be co-opted for uses that were not selected for in the first place.

Are, then, – back to my main line – the ‘interstitial space opened up by the ‘disconnection between skin and structure’ in performance-arts venues not such spandrels, functionally empty spaces open up for exaptation? The struggle is open here – the struggle for who will appropriate them.

I like extending “spandrels” to the living spaces made between bridge-pillars. This retains Gould and Lewontin’s evolutionary sense of the term, but also adds the political edge of re-appropriating social space for social need.

Read the rest HERE.

Thoughts on Instant Runoff Voting

Ever since discovering Instant Runoff Voting, I have been amazed how our electoral process can so structure our view of politics, and how little it seems to be treated by political economists. Here is an element of the political process that is thoroughly material, and gives a definite structure to our perception of political choice and the possibilities of political action, but relatively little activism for reforming it (at least in the United States). I am only beginning to seriously survey the literature on this and other electoral forms, but I already see striking differences, in terms of property, between the standard American plurality vote (first-past-the-post, where it’s one vote to one candidate) and Instant Runoff Voting or otherwise Condorcet methods.

In the plurality vote, the votes belong to the candidates. This is why “candidate C” can “steal votes from candidate B.” There is also a bit of bottom-line Capitalist logic to how a winner is determined: not by a popular majority, but by getting more votes than any other candidate, which can easily happen with less than a popular majority when more than two candidates are running. Usually overlooked, too, is how pluralist elections depend upon a forced choice between one of two candidates. It is easy to point out the disconnect between the unspoken rule of pluralist elections and the overt rule of getting to vote for whomever you want, but they are nonetheless connected by the electoral process itself.

Two-Party politics is common fodder among critics of American politics, but Two-Party politics doesn’t represent an ideological limit, but a material limit to political choice in a pluralist elections. Psychoanalytically speaking, Two-Party politics is a symptom of an electoral system with material contradictions (The People cast their vote, but as belonging to the candidates/party). The problem for American politics isn’t so much that Two-Party politics gets us no where, but that as a symptom it has or is beginning to fail to make bearable our electoral system’s failure to enact The Will of The People. This is most apparent in the merging of the Democratic and Republican parties into Left and Right wings of corporate interests, that continue to erode the American economy, infrastructure, and capacity to take care of its own.

Instant Runoff Voting implies a very different relationship between the elected and the electorate, one that I think begins to return political determination to the electorate. Since votes in IRV do not belong to a single-candidate, each ballot effectively belonging to as many candidates for whom the voter wishes to express preference, votes are more easily (though not necessarily) determined by the voters themselves. One way IRV gives more determination to the electorate is by eliminating spoilers and making multiple-party politics an actual and not just a formal possibility.

This is a pretty interesting video on Instant Runoff Voting, the most popular one on IRV on You Tube, but they would have done better to explain how it gets rid of the spoiler-category and not just its effect on an otherwise two-candidate election. In the context of the video, IRV not only helps out “candidate B,” but “candidate C” too. In the initial example B loses to A because of C’s spoiler effect. In the IRV example, the authors assume that the same amount of people would give their first preference to candidate C. In the real-world of pluralist elections, if C is appealing enough to steal some of B’s votes when those voters “know C can’t win” because of the way pluralist elections work, it’s likely that there are more possible voters for C than this video suggests.

IRV makes it harder to argue against a candidate for reasons of “electability,” which makes it easier to for their platforms to be heard. It also makes it easier to raise legitimate criticisms against otherwise front-running candidates, who are often defended as “our only choice” (a fair argument to make, too, in a pluralist system!) by those otherwise willing to hear such criticisms. These are, of course, changes that are maximized by reforms in campaign finance and either the decline of television debates as a proving ground for candidates or the introduction of public national television channels for campaign information.