April 18, 2013
Zizek and the Nostalgia for Communism
What I am going to argue about may already seem a pointless remake of post-9/11 critiques. After a series of careful examinations of the phenomenon of terror, drawing on religious extremism, neoliberal capitalist democracy, and Western imperialism, such as Habermas’ and Derrida’s influential dialogue in Philosophy in a Time of Terror and Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real, among others, any attempt to re-insert terror into the landscape of contemporary theory would seem to be reviving a topic already past its prime.
But only, I guess, if terror is an object of fashion. But certainly, terror can be revived as a specular image; an image that does not mind whether terror happens or not, or whether it happened or not. As Zizek would have it utilizing Lacan’s psychoanalytic lens, the point about the image is that it has the power to effectuate the Real. An image can either be imaginary or symbolic depending on one’s psychic maturity. All the same, an image is always attracted to the Real, like the real object of desire that cannot be had except by way of a substitute. It is the substitute that always does it for us: we desire because a substitute makes us capable of pushing our drives toward the object of desire.
Let me continue by stating that terror might have already exhausted its energy that fueled Western discourse—Western theorists are now composing theirs on themes of posthumanism, or climate entropy, arguably a new face of terror posed by Nature—still we may have missed the point that terror is always ready for an encounter and as such is the prototype of the Event. Here, we digress into Alain Badiou to make sense of the relation of the Real to the Event. We are talking about Badiou’s description of the key feature of the twentieth century, namely, its passion for the Real (The Century, 32). Slavoj Zizek describes this aspect of Badiou’s conceptual diagram as follows:
“In contrast to the nineteenth century’s utopian and scientific projects and ideals … the twentieth century aimed at delivering the thing itself, at directly realizing the longed-for New order. The ultimate and defining moment of the twentieth century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality—the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, pp. 5-6).
We all know that for Badiou the Event is unpredictable, unlike Zizek’s notion of it about which we will discuss later. Because it is unpredictable the only recourse to make sense of the Event is to exercise fidelity to it but by way of a substitute, a substitute for the Event and its unpredictability by making it somehow predictable. In Badiou’s formulation, our fidelity to the Event or its unpredictability has to be matched by its complement in a deeply personal commitment to the impossible continuity of a choice or an act. One must continue to be loyal to the unpredictable by becoming unpredictable which in a nutshell makes unpredictability an axiom of choice. Perhaps, we can make sense of this axiom of choice by making reference to Deleuze and Guattari who warned us in A Thousand Plateaus that chaos can chaoticize and can undo every kind of consistency. (Whether D&G made their point well about putting chaos in a little order is another matter).
In other words, there is a way to negotiate with chaos. And it is not without its global implications that during the last 19th and 20th centuries negotiating with chaos was defined by a choice between socialism and capitalism, or socialism and barbarism, whichever you prefer.
Socialism or Barbarism
In the early years of the 20th century the Bolsheviks, inspired by the publication of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, set out to establish the first socialist state in history anchored on highly centralized planning. Incidentally, it was also premised on a highly personalized regime, driving the cult of personality that energized the Soviet Union well until its fall. When the Soviet Union collapsed it seemed then that decentralization and the impersonal rule of market forces, the opposite of central and highly personalized administration of things, held the right key to negotiating with unpredictability.
But the crisis that global capitalism confronts time and again belies the assumption that history has ended in the smooth rule of capital, especially after the collapse of Eastern socialist regimes when capitalism suffered its worst financial crisis since the Depression. The financial crisis that hit the Asian economies in the 1990s, on the up again just recently which took the European economy by surprise, altogether illustrate how chaos remains untamed (because given a free rein), typical of the capitalist mantra that competition is superior to central planning, individualism to the abstract collective, chaos to rigid organization.
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to grasp how chaos can still be tamed by taking it as a principle of organization. We can make sense of how chaos organizes a space of consistency, something akin to human resource management and development paradigm typical of corporate modernity, in terms of treating chaos both as presence and absence. This is especially true in a Lacanian space of individual determination defined by the logic of substitution that we earlier mentioned. Robert Lander, a student of Lacan, summarizes this logic of substitution anchored on the experience of anxiety, arguably what every conscious human being today feels about the future under global capitalism:
“When Lacan affirms that anxiety is the only subjective way to search for the lost object, he defines a paradox. What is sought is not the object but its absence, because its present absence introduces the signifier of lack. The phallus (as the signifier of lack) changes from a metaphoric to a metonymic signifier, for the lack (as phallic signifier) moves, circulates. It is everywhere and nowhere. Everyone may bear it and, at the same time, nobody does” (Subjectivity and the Experience of the Other, 27).
Let us try to unpack this Lacanian formulation in relation to chaos. We can initially state here that negotiating with chaos or unpredictability is taken up by the subject. But bear in mind that in Lacan the subject is an invention, that is, an invention of the subject by the subject out of the fundamental lack of self of the subject itself. Thus, we can speak of the subject as a substitute for an absent reference under which it can be placed. In Badiouan formulation it is equivalent to the act of voiding the Void. In any case, the Void when voided does not cease to be voidal. It continues to be voidal through the presence of lack, the presence of a substitute for lack. In the same manner by taming it through a substitute, chaos becomes chaotic.
And how else can we describe the chaotic other than through an organized operation that releases chaos from its absolute indifference to all forms of human signification? Before the invention of a substitute for it, chaos ‘chaoticizes’ without design. The substitution of a non-presentable presence (chaos before human signification) by a presentable absence (describing the principle of chaos through scientific or philosophical means) inaugurates the beginning of human history. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels knew how to frame this substitution within concrete historical struggles by stating that ‘individuals have always proceeded from themselves’, not from the outside, not from the untamed outside where chaos reigns. Obviously, they were able to state this logic of substitution in concrete terms after the fact, post factum, that is, after folding the outside in the inside, which in Deleuzian terms is called ‘memory’, more correctly, historical memory, the memory of the Void.
Voiding the Void
Throughout the course of human history, negotiating with chaos has to involve designing for human purposes how it ought to run its course. We are now properly entering the domain of human history which true to its fundamental sexual foundation has been hitherto defined by oedipal forms of asserting memory, of asserting a certain form of voidal dominance.
Again, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels state that the first sexual division of labor inaugurates not only the beginning of the division of labor, later perfected by capitalism, but above all, the birth of History. Expressed in terms of the Lacanian concept of subject formation history can then amount to a plane of composition that is already pre-defined by a ‘genetic axis’ or an ‘overcoding structure’ in which Oedipus, or the Name-of-the-Father, the supervising agency of the division of labor, is everywhere inscribed on the plane.
The plane is self-composed by Oedipus, a plane where no exit to non-Oedipal, non-historical, non-patriarchal, non-sexist, therefore non-human consistency is possible, which also explains by the logic of difference the frequency of rebellions from within. But these rebellions are already pre-defined by Oedipus: the plane of consistency is already saturated through constant oedipal act of voiding the void, of creating a vacuum from a vacuum, that is, of creating his story, whose ultimate form is Capital.
Let us continue here by adding that with the collapse of the communist project the Oedipal agency of Capital has proclaimed absolute victory over another oedipal rival. This only illustrates that anywhere there is history there is an exacting agency always ready to prove its mettle by voiding the void relative to its capacity for totality and homogeneity whose victims are always the other of Oedipus, mother, sister, brother or son and daughter whose figures take various historical and genetic forms such as the weak, the vulnerable, the malleable, the poor, the uncultivated, the savage, the East. The larger void this oedipal agency could void the larger its voidal dominion.
In this sense, the victory of Western capitalism over communism illustrates how aggressive its oedipal machine of voiding the Void is by totalizing all forms of voidal affirmation of existence. Yet, the defeat of the Eastern communist model has also deprived Western capitalism of an important part of its oedipal self-composition, namely, an Other to which the West gives the “privilege,” as Emile Cioran remarks in History and Utopia, “of realizing the unrealizable, of deriving power and prestige from the finest of its modern illusions” (14).
Hence, the plane of consistency composed by oedipal capitalism becomes threatened by mediocrity, banality, and loss of creative impulse, no less the mechanical life of everyday consumerist culture. We can argue here that this situation invites an opening up to an Event in the form of terror; in Freudo-Lacanian terms, the violent return of the repressed.
But whose return? Is it the return of communism? Or the return of the East, perhaps, exemplified by China and the threat of North Korea? Or the return of a humiliated Oedipus who wanted to repeat the process of desiring, in the same way a child longs to return to the mother’s womb, by ignoring concrete historical changes passing between him and the rest of the world, so he could play out without distraction his neurotic impulses where only his consistency is at stake, the absolute right of Oedipus to the object of his own desire, his delusion as the most important person ruling an imagined kingdom atop an oil-rich Sabah? 1. You will not be surprised to find out that it will be the same oedipal drive that would make this dreaded return.
As Zizek argues in his by now irritable treatment of the Lacanian formula for anxiety anchored on the death-drive, it is better to proceed here in a circular way for economic reasons than embrace a Nirvanic or Easterly return to pre-organic or pre-linguistic solitude of actual terror. He says in his recent work, roughly a decade after the 9/11 attack: “Nirvana as a return to pre-organic peace is a false vacuum, since it costs more (in terms of energy expenditure) than the circular movement of the drive” (Less Than Nothing, 945).
Zizek recently makes an interesting observation: “Every normality is a secondary normalization of the primordial dislocation that is the death drive, and it is only through the terrorizing experience of the utter vacuity of every positive order of normality that a space is opened up for the Event” (Ibid., 835).
The question is, “Is not the bombing of the Twin Towers an example of a ‘terrorizing experience of the utter vacuity of the positive (global) order’ in which the West claims absolute superiority after the collapse of the Eastern model?” Indeed, it has opened up a space for the Event, namely, in Zizekian terms, a return to normality. A certain normality is achieved when the return of the repressed guarantees that the Event does not fall into a trap, when it does not consciously mimic the death-drive. Instead, the death drive has to be obscured by the Event opened up by terror, by the attack on the towers, or the invasion of Sabah, in terms of transforming itself into a confused “semblance” of a void that preceded all voids” (Ticklish Subject, 154). It goes without saying that a preceding Void is the void of all Voids, which can never be voided.
The shape of today’s Marxism
This contrasts with Badiou’s formulation of the Event that attempts to go beyond oedipal capitalism by opposing the Event of Truth to the death-drive. For Zizek, there can never be a genuine passage from old to new as the Badiouan Event otherwise entails. What Zizek rather advocates is a violent enforcement of a passage: “no longer follow the pattern of an evental explosion followed by a return to normality” (“The Communist Hypothesis,” 130), something we can associate to the attacks on the Towers which gave capitalism the opportunity to stabilize itself rather as Zizek concludes: “Out of revolt we should shamelessly pass to enforcing a new order” (Ibid.). Jamalul Kiram III must have learned so much from Zizek. 2.
Here we are seeing the shape of today’s fantastic Marxism, with a Hegelo-dialectical Lacanian twist. While he at times denounces the fetishism of capitalism, the fetishism being its obsession toward an absent presence, its fascination for chaos as a principle of finality, as when he declares that “fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself becomes dematerialized” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 36) we need to emphasize the point that for whatever it is worth Zizek’s critique conceals an apologetic tone.
The exposition of the dangers of dematerializing the fetish, which can be related to the passion for the Real or the Thing itself, or the ultimate object of desire, such as Kiram’s claim to Sabah, does not for purposes of psychoanalytic education prevent terror, rather, it does the opposite by rationalizing terror as a necessary violent return of the repressed, the necessary circularity of the drives in terms of avoiding the Ur-drive, the death drive, which nonetheless must be satisfied so as not to overwhelm the subject by transforming the push toward the object into a confused and unconscious semblance of death.
What can psychoanalysis teach us across the spectrum of global hegemony and forms of resistance if, on the one hand, the oedipal capitalist system of global subject-formation accommodates terror for it serves as the ontological buffer for the positivity of its normality, and if, on the other hand, global resistance to capitalism is having difficulty escaping a predefined space of determination where exit to nonhistoricality, to a body without organs, is still fraught with dangers, especially the danger of being co-opted by the oedipal war machine, to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari? As far as Zizek is concerned, the only way is to repeat the same process that normalizes capitalism and the desire of Oedipus.
Having said these, I take it that left Lacanianism, the one exemplified by Zizek’s works, is the most promising shape of today’s Marxism, the form of communist utopia that alone can save global capitalism from diving into chaos.
2. See Rhizomes and Consequences (‘Mapping a people to come’ available on this blog).