Intellectual Objectivity Is Your Master: Subvert It!

Our current era of modernity, Joan Copjec informs us,1 began at the advent of (post-Grecian) democracy—specifically, after the monarch was replaced with, as Claude Lefort once aptly put it, the “indetermination that was born from the loss of the substance of the body politic.”2 In other words, the locus of power once embodied by the monarch, upon the advent of modern democracy, “becomes an empty place…”

This is precisely why, now that the “throne is empty”—after democracy usurped the place of the throne—modern power, to use a Foucauldian expression (as Copjec puts it), is wielded by no one in particular though we are all subject to it.

 What has insinuated its way into this Throne of Power these days, however, is a certain form of knowledge itself, that of ‘intellectual objectivity’—of which the external point of reference is Big Data, as some like put it; a bricolage of facts assembled by the objective intellects of today’s expert specialists and technocrats. 

This is, to evoke the work of Georg Lukács, the result of modern-day capitalism.

The problem with this, of course, is that facts and data always conform to some determination that has its basis in interpretation; our approach to objective reality is supported by certain a priori assumptions we have about the world, whether we’re conscious of these assumptions or not. 

To put it differently, objective facts about the world and our place in it are not exempt from ideology, the latter being the underlying fantasies that regulate our relation to objective reality itself. 

 Scientific objectivity, then, its explanatory approach to facts and data, cannot be fully sundered from language; and thus scientific facts and data cannot eschew being shaped and informed by ideology in some way or another. Which is just another way of saying that there is no fact or piece of data that we do not try to understand by making sense of

Now, for example, post-Enlightenment capitalism, to paraphrase Lukács, presents us with a social structure that both stimulates and endorses the view that objective facts are invariable (to the point that they can be verified anytime by anyone, insofar as what’s objectively true is a statement whose external referent is endowed with a literal and ultimate sense; the belief that our language can adequately describe the thing in-itself); that objective facts are able to be wrested from their “living context” (without considerable repercussions) and applied to the theories endorsed by the ruling ideology of capitalism (without considerable repercussions)—an ideology that promotes the view that objective phenomena can be inspected in isolation, a view which fails to take into account the presence of the big Other, which often presides over our interpretative procedures; a view which fails to notice how “objective” facts are founded on the protean historical/conventional character of the very social structure on which they’re based.3 

But already, I may be jumping ahead of myself here.

It is no less important to note, that if we do want to be thoroughly objective in the sciences we should recognize that it’s utterly impossible to remove the stain of subjectivity that leaves its smudge on all empirical experiments and observations. As Lacan tells us in Book X, and as I alluded to above, no matter what it is that is under our examination, “the dimension of the Other is present in the experiment”; one’s own presence, “as a human figure, handling a certain number of things around the [object under examination], has to be counted at any one moment as part of the experiment.”4 

 Objectivity per se is the most elementary ideological operation, for it symbolizes our immediate raw reality, transforming an unrefined reality as such into a formal, symbolic totality. Looked at somewhat differently, objectivity can also be referred to as the result of social (inter-subjective) forces, the result of a sort of “Group Think” operating over time—its sole function to provide and maintain, by means of “universal verification,” the internal consistency that holds together its subjects’ ‘reality principles’,  which are always-already ideologically mediated by objectivity, an elemental ideology that reveals itself as empirical fact or necessity.

Suffice it to mention that Hegel already noticed this form of ideology creeping up in his day; as he put it in the preface of his Philosophy of Right, with regard to science’s emphasis on empiricism, “The unsophisticated heart takes [this] simple line of adhering with trustful conviction to what is publicly accepted as true”;5 and the problem with this “trustful conviction” lies in the fact that our systems of knowledge are essentially groundless. That there is no absolute authority, no external guarantee that our growing knowledge of the world and ourselves is without error, simply means that nothing is exempt from ideology, and, for that reason, philosophical criticism.

In other words, to return to Hegel just one more time, “the quintessence of shallow thinking,” is “to base [objective facts] not on the development of thought and the concept but on immediate sense-perception [empiricism] and the play of fancy.”6 Which is just another way of saying that such a reliance on a strict empiricism, which is none other than an embellished form of superficiality, may be accommodating with regard to the social order and its approach to understanding the world by which it’s circumscribed, but if we fail to “touch or even guess at the substance of things,” we are merely engaging in weak thinking.

There is, of course, a common refutation to this, a counterpoint that posits the claim that all of which has been mentioned thus far is merely a feint of sophistry. This claim is supported on the sole grounds that, “objectively” speaking, the mathematization of the object allows us to adequately know those inseparable primary qualities of the thing itself, those properties of the object which, in the absence of the thinking subject, still belong to the object itself without me (e.g., chemical composition, length, width, depth, size, movement, etc & c.). But, contrary to this opinion, is it not the case that, to think that mathematical terms can be conceived as properties intrinsic to the object itself is only to slip back into a dogmatic metaphysics? The problem is not with the axiomatic formulas, but with the great deal of lack when one goes searching for an underlying necessitating reason for such “ineliminable” laws. Because Kant went searching for an underlying reason for causality and found the noumena, we should know better by now, that there is nothing there.

The real bugger is this: thought cannot get outside itself; and to mathematize an object is to tie the object to a thinking subject nonetheless. In other words, we cannot think an object ‘in itself’ without it being an object ‘for us’. We cannot “creep up” on the world “from behind,” as Hegel amusingly put it; and thus there is no knowledge of the world that exists outside our subjective relation to it. We would perhaps fare well to give more attention to that which is lacking in the objective sciences: the subject.

As Žižek amply puts it, something is lost in this “transcendental dilemma” of ours: something that is constitutive of the subject itself: the “twisting configuration” that is brought about by a radical asymmetry, the non-correlation between the subject and reality; “in order for the subject to emerge,” Žižek writes, “the impossible object-that-is-subject must be excluded from reality, since it is its very exclusion that opens up the space for the subject.”7 That is to say, the thinking subject qua void is a rip in the positive field of reality itself, a nothing that gapes open towards the world at large, ready to receive the substantial content that will come to symbolize and thus constitute the inscription of the subject in this blank space. For those philosophers who insist on thinking reality in itself, outside the transcendental correlation, independent of the subject, the problem that awaits them is the real that insists in the subject itself, “the hard core of the real in the very heart of the subject.”8 This hits precisely upon what Lacan meant when he wrote: “That which is most concealed passes over to the outside.”9

In any case, to emphatically believe that objectivity delivers us to pure truth, to believe that it successfully closes the gaps between what is imaginary-symbolic and real, is none other than the fetishization of truth-values. It’s ideology tout court. And ideology is, in a nutshell, the prohibition of impossibility. However, suffice it to recall the Freudian concept of the death-drive, which tells us that the impossible is attainable—hence our enjoyment, it comes from a moment of pure excession, transgression, the challenging of the ideological “closure”….

Well, we’ve digressed a bit. The point to take away here is that, in capitalism, things work a bit differently than they had before in past forms of ideological closure. Here, in the ideological space of capital, individuals seek their enjoyment in objects and factual knowledge that are interned within the very ideological system that produces them. Therefore one’s enjoyment remains rigidly confined within the very thing one should be attempting to transgress. Or rather, one’s enjoyment is, paradoxically, rigidly confined in an extremely polymeric ideology: capitalism gains strength, its interpellative agency becomes more potent, its very structure bends and swells and thrives with every transgression. Why? Because with capitalism, in capitalism, everything is reduced to a brutal economic reality (including science itself; for the latter’s discoveries end up serving only the networks of capital), and in such a space capital’s objectivism becomes our only reality, and thus literally everything, prohibited or not, eventually becomes absorbed into the world of capital. That is to say, the logic of pure capitalism overlaps with the logic of pure objectivism, a Logic of the superficiality of the Object that results in a proto-psychotic fantasy in which subjectivity, or rather, self-relating subjective truth, moves towards obsolescence. Here, the gap between what is symbolic and real closes in on itself. The predominant belief is that science can integrate all former meaning into its own field of explanation, though we seldom notice how little room there is in this field to accommodate both belief and scientific explanation. Anyway, as Paul Ricouer put it so well in his essay, “Consciousness and the Unconscious,” in capitalism man lives this ideology of “economic objectivity as a … modality of subjectivity,” which gives rise to its very own representations, instincts, affects, and effects, and so on. And being at the very heart of this logic affects our being-in-the-world.10 It stages for us, by means of symbolic mediation, our relation to the immediate reality.

As a necessary tangent, if only to broach the origin of today’s intellectual objectivity, let us recall that the Enlightenment began so many centuries ago with an intellectual commitment to achieving a universal concordance between peace and justice, a struggle towards intellectual and spiritual freedom. As Jürgen Habermas reminds us, according to the Baron d’Holbach (the emblematic figure of the Enlightenment), “man is unhappy because he has an erroneous view of nature.”11 Accordingly, d’Holbach and his followers felt it important, if not imperative, to attain an understanding of reality through a rigorously detached, objective perspective of things in the world. Hence the conviction of the Enlightenment, the source of today’s injunction to be objective—the belief that objective knowledge of the laws of nature will reveal to us in empirical, sensual form essential truths, specifically those truths concerning how we ought to live.

It is interesting to reflect on and bear witness, however, to how this ideology gave rise to its own contradiction, how this promotion of objectivity contains within its own field an opposing element that ruptures its inner consistency. For what was, at its inception, scientific objectivity’s vision of delivering peace, justice, and happiness as a means to overcome the more insular, parochial perspectives that supported earlier misapprehensions of the world, soon became entrenched in its own insularity of sorts: the mechanistic, vulgar-materialist, rationalistic objectivist view that broke the world down into a container of objects, bereft of any relation to the observing subject; a world impoverished of Spirit, impoverished of the free thinking mind behind the entire system of science and the logic that drives its methodology; thus proffering a paradigm by which the world appears as an aggregate of senseless and meaningless things secured within an inflexible cause-and-effect relationship, “present-at-hand” for their manipulation by the morally superior objective specialists.

But what we should focus all our attention on right now is this “God’s-eye view” of the world, the “view from nowhere” that the Enlightenment dreamed up. This way of seeing things sub specie aeternitatis, a perspective believed to be located, fixed, outside the parameters of subjectivism, outside the deadlock of relativism, does not refer to any mastery, but to an alienation, the alienation of the subject from itself, and thus from the reality it disrupts . And that is both the crux and focus of our analysis: the unwitting construction of a big Other, in which all “knowledge wanders about” in the field of the Other, the “Other supposed to know”: God, the big Other as such.

Those secular humanists, those idealists of the Enlightenment, they had no idea that, unbeknownst to them, they had evoked the roar of God, reintroducing His presence in the guise of objectivity.

This carries with it a formidable threat, that of which has been bound to the social field itself for a very long time: that of off-loading responsibility for the repercussions of group behavior onto some form of an Absolute qua “scared Cause,” a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the “religious suspension of the ethical.” And to push this implication to the brink of a sobering extreme, one should consider the percipient observation that, by dint of such a prevailing mechanistic, instrumentalist, objective view of the world, civil society, in its state of ((post-)industrial) modernity has become, and continues to be, increasingly organized like a concentration camp. It is tailored almost exclusively around production, overly rationalized and virtually heedless of the concerns of the individual, having no encouraging consideration for its “exceptions,” and thus driven to slowly but surely eradicate, if not suppress, all that exceeds the whole for the sake of attaining Utopia. Lacan himself arrived at this realization, as did Heidegger (evidenced by his later lectures that led up to his “The Question Concerning Technology“), and so did historian Lewis Mumford in his two-volume work The Myth of the Machine, as well as Zygmunt Bauman (Modernity and the Holocaust) and Giorgio Agamben (Homo Sacer).

In these times the master qua Absolute is none other than Big Data, for which today’s experts and specialists serve with unquestioning obedience. To borrow a fitting quote from Lacan, “information addresses and captures impotent crowds to whom it pours forth like a liquor that leaves them dazed as they move toward the slaughter house.”12

To get close to wrapping things up, let me state that what we are dealing with here is the Lacanian concept of ‘university discourse’. For Lacan, a discourse is not simply a mode of relating through language, but rather, a discourse is the very ground upon which social links are founded and maintained. The university discourse, according to Lacan, replaces the ‘master’s discourse’: it has taken the place of that which, historically, under the rule of a monarch, provided the basis for the organization of the state. But with the removal of the monarch, and upon the emergence of democracy, the paradigmatic network of knowledge, the university discourse as such, replaces the monarch’s throne. As Todd McGowan puts it:

The rise of the university discourse […] as a social link has the effect of installing the master in a position of near invulnerability […] By facilitating this change in position, the expert […] works in service of the master. Scientists, diet gurus, and world-renowned economists may appear to be calling the shots today, but they function as stand-ins for the concealed master.13

In other words, in university discourse the Master Signifier, that element of capitonnage that secures the ordered contexture of an entire social domain, takes the place of truth; that is to say, the expert, the intellectual objectivist, works in the service of mastery.

So, if ambition, intrigue, submission, and responsibility are, as Ricoeur put it, the apposite “human feelings that are organized around” the [lack of the] object that is “power,” then capitalism’s appropriation of objectivity as such confers upon itself a seemingly insurmountable control over its subjects.

And let us not forget that human subjectivity is that which is constantly attempting to overcome a lack—that is why capitalism exists in the first place: it sinisterly dons the visage that it completes this lack, despite never really doing so, so we continue to buy the commodities we produce and fetishize, 24/7/365. And no less important to note, ideology (and thus today’s ideology of “intellectual objectivity”) serves to supplement an immutable lack in our network of knowledge of the world and of our selves. This is precisely why capitalism is self-engendering; we allow commodities and the fetishization of objective facts to supplement our lacks, and this covers up our lacks. Or rather: commodity fetishism, and intellectual objectivism, the commodification and privatization of the general intellect, serves to cover up the fact that we’re covering up a lack.

In effect, objectivity is an articulation of our subjective position in the socio-symbolic order in which we are inscribed. When we’re being objective we are merely thinking through objects, with the aid of symbolic mediation. It is precisely in this sense that objective truth cannot exist fully external to subjectivity. The belief that it does is mere fantasy.

Here we should turn to Mao’s insistence on dispensing with the subjective position, whereby, according to him, one can arrive at an authentic objective vantage point. We’ll see that he unwittingly presents us with an exemplification of the very fantasy structure of which intellectual objectivity is a gesture, one that effectively conceals the subjective act behind it.

When writing about the universality of contradiction, Mao had made the following claim: that when studying a problem “we must shun subjectivity”; that, “to be subjective means not to look at problems objectively … not to look at problems all-sidedly … not to understand the characteristics of both aspects of a contradiction.” The resolve to this seemingly superficial deadlock of subjectivity, claimed Mao, and God bless him nonetheless, is to be found in objectivity: the “removal” of the subjectivist position in an act of “looking from afar” to resolve a contradiction. Here, however, Mao glosses over the irremediable and essential aspect of objectivity: the way in which objectivity, as such, is hinged on one’s subjective position. Mao mistakenly conflates subjectivity with both the denial of the necessity of probing deeply into something and assiduously studying the multifaceted characteristics of its contradiction. For is it not the case that subjectivity “is” this very bundle of many non-coinciding sides, a contradiction par excellence?

To be objective, then, in the only true sense that we can be, is to look deep within our own subjective positions. It is there that we’ll get a full, and dizzying, view of the contradiction at hand: that which subjectivity has its basis in, and from which objectivity emerges: for objectivity is none other than our attempts to reconcile the fundamental antagonisms and contradictions that persist at the very heart of our subjectivity.

Mao’s formulation of objectivity—the “removal” of the subjectivist position in an act of “looking from afar” to resolve a contradiction—aptly fits the definition of fantasy: the (abstract) “removal” of the subject from the very reality being observed. What Mao should’ve considered, then, is that objectivity is perhaps a subjective gesture par excellence: that the universal of objectivity is none other than the subjective struggle of leading from one formulation to another, from one understanding to another, from one revolution to another, and so on.

The point here is that it’s important not to erase the thinking subject from the big picture, for the subject is always-already inscribed in the very (objective) world he observes, in the strict sense that the subject’s (objective) worldview is both constitutive of, and constituted by, the subject itself. Thus the orthodox Marxist notion that truth resides in some sort of subject-less objectivity is fantasy through and through

What I’m essentially getting at is this: Objectivity does not help us find our place in the world; on the contrary, objectivity has already found our place for us; for it is that which creates for us the very “world” in which we live. Objectivity may serve to represent reality in symbolic form, but the only reality we know is that which is symbolically mediated. And no matter what we learn, whether about ourselves, about others, or about the world, or all of reality, and so on, there always persists a field about which we know nothing, an entire field which does not cease not to be inscribed in our growing sphere of knowledge: we can designate this as Real-objectivity, which refers to an immutable lack, to the non-existence of the thing-in-itself, which is always-already included in the appearance of the thing itself:

 The supersensible is the sensuous and the perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous  and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible [i.e., the Real, that which pertains to Real-objectivity] is therefore appearance qua appearance.14

What Hegel is getting at here is that appearance implies that there is an essence intrinsic to the thing that appears, that there is something in the object itself that appears through the appearance of the object, and that, as such, we are led to believe that appearance conceals this inner integrity, this presupposed essence that belongs to the object in-itself. Hence today’s fetishization of objectivity: the ideal that leads one to believe that access to the intimate nature of an object-in-itself can be granted. But one should acknowledge that, what is in fact being “hidden behind the phenomenal appearance” is “precisely the fact that there is nothing to hide.”15 And it is precisely this duplicity that should not be subtracted from the object, for it is nonetheless this very antagonism that is constitutive of the very phenomena we strive to represent objectively.

In fine, the notion of Real-objectivity, that which conceals nothing, does not have anything to do with the great outdoors insofar as it has far more to do with what lurks behind the cellar door.

 

Notes

1. Joan Copjec, “The Subject Defined by Suffrage,” http://www.lacan.com/frameVII4.htm.

2. Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

3. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971, 5-6.

4. Jacques Lacan, Book X: Anxiety, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2014, 58.

5. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, 3.

6. Ibid., 6.

7. Slavoj Žižek, “Hegel versus Heidegger,” e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/hegel-versus-heidegger/.

8. Ibid.

9. Lacan, Book X, 165.

10. Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974, 110-11.

11. Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice, Boston: Beacon, 1973, 256.

12. Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992, 231.

13. Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 181.

14. Hegel, Phenomenology, 89.

15. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, New York: Verso, 2008, 219.

 

Follow the author on Twitter: @FSmecker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Ecology and the Abject

By Rebecca Weisman

I would like to discuss the possibility of a parallactic view of ecology and the environment. There is very little discussion of theoretical approaches to ecocriticism that is not either polarizing dualism or reactionary attempts to dissolve important boundaries. I draw significantly on the work of Timothy Morton who in turn utilizes new readings of Descartes, Heidegger and other phenomenologists, Marx, and Lacan, among others, to discuss the aesthetic in ecocriticism. This has significant links to Zizek’s description of parallax, in particular the need for tension between positions and a resurrection of irony. I would like to spend my time today encircling some key terms that may prove useful in creating a new rhetoric of ecocritique.

Ambience

It is important to maintain distance from the object that we are considering to be nature, but what kind of distance and what kind of object? Ambience and ambient art seek to collapse the space between “us as subject” and “out there”, by embedding us in an immersive experience of “nature”. It is an ephemeral sense of the environment—smells, sounds, flickering images—that are not particular but are evoked through the particular. As Timothy Morton argues, ambience, at least in its ecomimetic form tries to blur the boundary between subject and object, but without irony. In so doing it becomes ideological fantasy—a mode of the aesthetic. It is this aestheticized distance, hiding in the guise of immersive ambience, that retains a Romantic notion of nature, and muddles the need for ethical distance, a kind of close distance.

Morton also points to the ambivalent quality of ambience: “it does not really collapse the subject-object dualism, either by reconciling subject to object, or by undoing the distinction altogether. Ambience … [is a] ‘new and improved’ version[] of the aesthetic.”[i] Yet Morton also links ambience to Lacan’s sinthome as the “materially embodied, meaningless, and inconsistent kernel of ‘idiotic enjoyment’ that sustains an otherwise discursive ideological field.”[ii] He retains aspects of ambience that are potentially radical– when we attempt to get close to this fantasy object, we start to dismantle the ideological field. Morton again: “Imagine the sinthome not as figure but as ground: a potent, non-neutral ground, a giant stain. This would square well with the vaginal connotations of the sinthome, in patriarchy a wound that is also a space.”[iii]

Ambient art tries to draw into the foreground something that only exists in the background, and yet contain some of its sense of backgroundedness. It requires a distracted kind of attention, which could be condemned as a by-product of consumerism yet finds a place here as a way of keeping out of focus that thing that would disappear should we focus too closely on it. Yet it is liberatory only if it remains strange to us. Here Morton rescues irony from its hue of post-modern malaise, its sense of apathetic distance, a too-cool kind of cynicism, and returns to it it’s original meaning of holding tension between opposing views. In other words he positions irony as parallax. Irony is necessary: “The only way to remain close to the strangers without killing them (turning them into yourself or into an inanimate object) is to maintain a sense of irony.”[iv]

 The Uncanny and the Abject

Utterly unromantic in her portrayal of nature is Marian Engel’s novel “Bear”, a strange fictional tale of Lou, a researcher and librarian sent to an island to catalogue documents, who then becomes involved in an emotional and sexual relationship with a bear. The theorist Catriona Sandilands provides a reading of this text as an investigation into the “natural” boundaries between the woman and the bear. The woman tries to name the bear but continues to run up against only its bodily presence and the incommensurability of their relationship, indeed “they are Others to each other.” As Sandilands observes: “It is Lou whom we are to understand as most affected by the encounter with the Other. Unsticking herself from the bloodsoaked sheets of their failed (not insignificantly) penetrative sexual encounter during which the bear wounded her, Lou noticed that

she was different. She seemed to have the body of a much younger woman. The sedentary fat had gone, leaving the shape of her ribs showing. Slowly, she turned and looked over shoulder in the pier-glass at her back: one long, red, congealing weal marked her from shoulder to buttock. I shall keep that, she thought. [v]

Through their sexual union Lou risks death, survives, and is reborn as an undefined, reconfigured subject. Her brush with the Real of her Other leaves her somehow more herself, rescued from the illusory wholeness of a symbolic life full of cataloguing and naming, and thrust into an incomplete place of desire “to become.”[vi]

In Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man we hear and see the true story of the bear activist Timothy Treadwell whose intention is to cross that very same boundary. [vii] Yet Treadwell begins already on the fringe– angry about the injustice done to bears, he removes himself from society to go live with them, stomping and huffing at strangers he runs into in the Alaskan wild. In the end, the bears kill him. In looking at the bears, Herzog sees nothing of what Treadwell saw. He says in the film

what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.

However, it is this blank stare that speaks more to the Other than any sense of kinship or connection, as the Other is always that which we look towards for recognition but which does not recognize us. We can consider this moment of incommensurability as a kind of abjection, the possibility that I am abject in the presence of the bear. Or as James Hatley puts it in his essay “The Uncanny Goodness of Being Edible to Bears”

To look into the eyes of a creature plotting to feed itself upon me is to find myself claimed in a way that is quite unsettling. The stalking bear’s gaze reminds me that my flesh is not only my own but also a mode of becoming a bear….[T]he uncanny precipitates a crisis in which the very capacity to fix a boundary marking out the difference between one’s own and the other’s own is undermined.[viii]

The “goodness” of this relationship of edibility, lies in my willingness to allow for this inhumanity, this acceptance that the dead human body is a carcass, that intimate predation renders my subject unstable or impossible.[ix] I might re-envision my morality in relation to bears and other wild things as dependent on already being cut off from them. If I deny the possibility of this lack, I am forever steeped in my own attempts to close the gap between myself and nature, to complete it, to complete pleasure. The collapse ostensibly erases the “otherness” of the moralizing voice.

 Lack and Sound

To return to Herzog’s film for a moment we might see in it a non-ambient representation—the moment of Timothy’s death in the film coincides with a moment when language, vision, and sound are withheld from us. The only document that remains of Treadwell’s death is an audio recording from Treadwell’s own camera. Yet we don’t get to actually hear the contents—we see only the back of Herzog’s head, sitting with Treadwell’s close friend Jewel, as he listens to the recording, describing to us what is happening. Though we cannot see Herzog’s face we can see his body shudder, overcome with emotion:

“Can you turn it off? Jewel, you must never listen to this.”

“I know, Werner. I’m never going to.”

“And you must never look at the photos I’ve seen at the coroner’s office.”

“I will never look at them. They said it was bad. Now you know why no one’s gonna hear it.”

“I think you, you should not keep it. You should destroy it.”

We are left with this sense of a remnant, a symptom that is a reminder of the traumatic encounter with the Real. However this encounter does not belong to Treadwell, who cannot return to tell of it, but to us the viewer, as we come up against the Real of the “true” story. In a sense, the audio recording is perhaps too much of a symptom that it must be destroyed, however, this does not erode the imprinting of the symptom through its continued existence via the film, and the viewer. If anything, it is the withholding of the audio in the film that constructs the symptom. It re-solidifies the boundary between me and the Other that Treadwell made so permeable. The film doesn’t show the trauma of his death by evisceration, but withholds it so that we are made to feel the greater trauma of crossing the boundary between self and nature, while stitching that boundary back up.

Nature as Hyperobject

We might consider the exposure we get through media to increasingly high-profile environmental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 as a kind of representation of what Morton would call “hyperobjects”—substances that confound concrete space-time, localization, and definitive boundaries in relationship to humans. Morton equates this with the end of the world as they “end the possibility of transcendental leaps ‘outside’ physical reality.” In other words, they “are real whether or not someone is thinking them.”[x] The major response to these environmental crises revolved around a development of more resilient technologies, how we have failed to keep the environment in check, or how we might be better prepared. Yet the visual representations of these events unintentionally belied a different kind of awareness, the hyperobjectivity of the events themselves. During the BP oil spill a 24-hour live feed went viral on Youtube. Viewers could watch in horror as millions of barrels of oil gushed into the murky blue ocean water. Yet we were watching not only an environment catastrophe, but also a breakdown of the structures that were supposed to both protect us from the catastrophe (the correct operations of the rig) and cover up the potentiality of catastrophe (the rig is always safe). The structure’s cover was blown. So our perverse pleasure of watching, could be seen as a turn from a “scientific” super-egoic eye (what the live feed was intended for) to an ironic acquiescence towards jouissance (when the feed went viral), which might actually reveal an ethical kernel—isn’t there something that reeks of the real in our pleasure/horror?

We must consider the possibility that humans want to destroy nature. Lacanian psychoanalysis may have some insights to offer in this investigation of Americans’ muddled, repressed and perverted relationship to nature. Joan Copjec aptly describes desire as full of “caprice, arbitrariness, destruction” and thus moral law stems from my own “recoil before the violence and obscenity of the superego’s incitement to jouissance, to a boundless and aggressive enjoyment.” The authentic act can only come from listening to the desires of the unconscious such that it does not mask itself, in order to redefine itself. In the listening there is something more honest, and perhaps more ethical, in the reaching in towards that dark abyss.

 

Notes:

[i] Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), 67

[ii] Ibid, 67

[iii] Ibid, 67

[iv] Ibid, 100.

[v] Catriona Sandilands, The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and The Quest for Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) 182.

[vi] Sandilands, 183

[vii] All quotes in this paragraph from Werner Herzog and Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Man (Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2006).

[viii] James Hatley, “The Uncanny Goodness of Being Edible To Bears,” in Bruce V. Foltz and Robert Frodeman, eds, Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004) 21.

[ix] Hatley, 24-26

[x] Timothy Morton, ­Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) 2.

Ideology, the Optical Illusion, and Hegel’s ‘Cunning of Reason’

By Frank Smecker

What is the scopic drive if not the very unconscious mechanism in which, through which, and by which the subject’s gaze is set up and sustained? Here, we are discussing something much akin to that phenomenon—which is very similar to, though by no means identical with, the psychological notion of conditioning, imprinting—that consists in the fact that “the passage of a neuronal flow in the conductors”—with a little help, of course, from something other that is external to the subject—”becomes easier through repetition.” In fact, Julia Kristeva spells this all out for us, and quite economically too; for she lays it all out right there in the opening paragraph of that fine essay of hers, “Ellipsis on Dread and the Specular Seduction”; which see:

What I see has nothing to do with the specular which fascinates me. The glance by which I identify an object, a face, my own, another’s, delivers my identity which reassures me: for it delivers me from […] nameless dread […] Intellectual speculation derives from this identifying, labeling glance: the hysteric knows something of the process when, endlessly unable to find a sufficiently satisfying mirror, she finds herself at last in theory itself […] [a] shelter where one can know without seeing oneself [“savoir sans se voir”], for one has relegated to another (philosophical contemplation) the problem of representing an (my) identity […] because it covers over and darkens the dread, the frayages.1

…because it covers over and darkens the dread, the frayages… What is this “frayages” about which Kristeva writes? Well, she tells us in an endnote that it is synonymous with Freud’s Bahnung, which, if we turn to Freud’s work, is translated as “facilitation”, or something very close to such a function. Of course, what Kristeva is getting at here is a certain word play, a play between the nouns frayage and frayeur (terror, dread), so she tells us. In other words, the subject’s gaze is something that, unbeknownst to the subject, is already structured for him by certain unconscious mechanisms, which guides the subject to “see” that which conceals for him, the Real. This is precisely why what we see is what there isn’t: What we see is always only a vast assemblage of objects caught within a far and wide outflow of vision that is tailored ever so sedulously so that our gaze, the scopic field itself, which is projected upon the world, appears seamless, without rent or rupture. This is, to put it bluntly, the result, if not a function, par excellence, of ideology.

What is the gaze? It is, so to speak, an “object”; and although it is of the subject, the gaze is that which has passed onto/into the field of objects, into the objective domain from which it returns to the subject. As such, the gaze marks the point in the object, or rather, that point in the “big picture”, so to speak—one’s “worldview”—from which the subject viewing is already being gazed at. In other words, it is the object that gazes at me!

To help spell this out, the subject (does not know that he already) knows where to look, where to direct his gaze. This is precisely because it is his gaze that is already there where he looks, waiting, and which, in the final moment, looks back at him. This is obviously to ensure that the subject is looking where he must, lest he see something “out there” that does not fit so nicely inside his little absolute world, or worse, that he take notice of the fact that his whole world contains within it a hole, a little punctiform nucleus of nothing—the very point at which the subject vanishes. The crucial point is that, when the subject “sees”, something acts, in a very latent way, which governs this scopic field and makes it more and more condensed.

Now, the power of seeing, visual perception as we know it, is none other than the ability to interpret one’s surrounding environment by processing information. There is a whole lot to be said about how this works; in fact, there is an entire scientific field dedicated to vision and the eye—optics. What we know is that the eye is an array of visual receptors. Light comes in, is refracted as it passes through the cornea, and is further refracted as it moves deeper into the optic network. It is in the presence of light that information about objects in one’s surrounding environment is transmitted to the brain, and so on and so forth.

But is there not something else lurking in the dark, something which “ex-sists” in another space (what Freud called “ein anderer Schauplatz“), which doubtless directs one’s vision all the same? To use a somewhat trite expression, biophysical science knows how light comes in to the eye, but not how the gaze looks out. Well—my goodness—we only need to shine a little light on this matter to reveal what is there! And I assure you that what is there is not some New Age spiritual mind-body dualism, not some mystical entity or magical consciousness that is separate from the body or some sort of enigmatic soul directing our intentionality—none of that foolish cockamamie. Rather, what is there, waiting at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, is the big Other. It is presiding over its ordered universe of ideology, concealing what we lack. And beyond that—nothing. A great and vast Nothing, which inheres at the very core of the subject nonetheless. This is why the gaze has a job to do, a function to serve.

Anyway, suffice it to briefly mention a concept dear to Catherine Malabou (who’s best known for “Hegelianizing” today’s brain sciences). As she puts it in Que faire de notre cerveau?, the brain is more like a structure that is influenced by the external world.2 The brain doesn’t just reflect the outer world but rather, it “sees” the world as a series of possible projects, so we’re told, which in effect animates and modifies brain activity itself.3 Well then, are we not getting closer now to pinning down that enigmatical object, the gaze?

Malabou’s hypothesis is not that far off from a philosophical tradition that begins with Plato: that what one sees in the world aligns with a project, an idea (Vorstellung). To wit, on the one hand we have the eye guided by visual receptors, which link up with a vaster neuronal network; though, on the other hand, the guidance of the eye is also determined by something “out there” in another space: a universal end that is given to the subject, by which the thought (Gedanke) of a thing is conditioned, produced. This is all to say that things adhere to universal form, to ideology.

What we’re dealing with here is homologous to Hegel’s concept of the ‘cunning of Reason’: the phenomenon by which the “outward-directed activity” of particular subjects “is the singularity that is identical with the particularity” of the subjects in which, “together with the content, external objectivity is included as well.”4 To better grasp what Hegel means by this, we should digress a bit with the following example. Rather than placing all the blame solely on the power of transnational corporations or the “One-Percent” for the structural imbalances of global capitalism and the latter’s social and environmental catastrophes, Saskia Sassen is perhaps correct when she writes that what we should look more closely at is the “range of activities and organizational arrangements necessary for the implementation and maintenance of a global network of factories, service operations, and markets.”5 For it is nonetheless the case that these large producers partaking in the global market, not to mention all the individual producers and laborers working for them, as they each strive to satisfy their passions and appetites for profit, are unaware of the way in which capitalist reason uses the exchanges of their desires to realize the true end of capitalist production, in which “Spirit achieves [its] ‘objective’ existence […] by means of the cunning exploitation of individual interests.”6

What this means is that neither corporations, nor the “One-Percent”, are entirely responsible for the continuous development of capitalism. Capitalism further develops itself through its subjects belief that they are producing for their own passionate ends when, really, the activity of capitalist production itself, sustained by its own ruling ideology, further develops its universal notion by using its loyal subjects as a means to do so. In other words, the capitalist “Spirit” strives to achieve its “objective” existence, and its subjects thereby proceed to fill their radical emptiness with this “objective” substance: This is precisely how ideology interpellates its subjects.

To put it quite simply, the real problem isn’t so much The Corporation, or, the One-Percent—yes, no doubt these Big Culprits are parts of the problem itself. But the real problem is situated at a much deeper level, it’s much more radical and systemic than any particular entity or group. And so here we have an example of Hegel’s ‘cunning of Reason’: Ideology qua universality realizes its true end-in-itself by means of the “cunning of Reason”; which is to say, the universal Idea, the ruling ideology, allows for individuals to follow their own finite ends, whilst it accomplishes its infinite end through the mutual “wear and tear” and failure of its subjects’ finite ends. This is simply to say that, the Real universal as such uses individuals in their particularity as a means to advance its own notion.

And so the universality of global capitalism can achieve its end only by means of such deception: by means of “the cunning exploitation of [individual’s particular] interests and passions.” To put it bluntly, nobody works for the development of capitalism; rather, individuals mistakenly perceive this true end as a means to satisfy their own needs. Thus it cannot simply be the case that capitalism prevails solely because of those who benefit from the system. Capitalism exists and prevails to this day precisely because it deceives all people from all tiers of class into believing that the system operates with their best interests in mind; that it will give its subjects what they long for; that it will call upon the aspirations of the oppressed, the hard-working, and grant them their justice, their peace, and so on… all the while re-articulating the economy of these desires in such a way that it is all compatible with existing relations of domination. Those who dominate and rule simply end up benefiting from this system, and, like a positive feedback loop, everyone and everything involved helps push the system forward. Therefore, it’s easy to imagine removing every elite capitalist from the scene, and capitalism will just produce more elite capitalists in the wake of this vain removal. Remove capitalism, however, and there are no more framing conditions through which people can rise to the status of an elite capitalist.

Well then, can we not see now, how, in the sense conveyed by Hegel’s ‘cunning of Reason’, as laid out in the example above, universality—that is, ideology itself—regulates the scopic field, or, if you’d like, as Althusser would put it, interpellates the subject? And, ceteris paribus, the regulation of universal form, the way in which one remains loyal to and carries forward a given ideology, if I may put it like this, is, in a crucial sense, governed by the subject’s eye, along with a slew of other things (e.g., expectations, emotion, movements, etc.). In short, as Lacan put it in Book XI, the gaze governs the subject’s “constitutive presence, directed in what is called his total intentionality.”7 And so if I see only from a single point, though in my existence I am seen from all sides, there is thus a split, a gap, which separates the gaze and the eye.8 And it is from within this space, a gap that is irreducible, that the scopic drive manifests, and around which this drive circulates.

This empty space, as one should know, marks the place of the subject’s inscription; thus it is none other than this gap, a void as such, of which the subject takes the place. And this is why the gaze directs the subject to where he is supposed to look: the gaze “sees” the subject from the side of objects precisely as a means to redirect the subject from encountering this gap, which is his lack. To re-emphasize Kristeva’s point I had adduced earlier: “The glance by which I identify an object, a face, my own, another’s, delivers my identity which reassures me: for it delivers me from […] nameless dread”: this nameless dread being none other than the lack, that which marks the radical non-coincidence of the subject with itself.

This is but one aspect of the gaze, and perhaps the most radical aspect. Though of course the other aspect belongs to the fact that, as I’ve already touched upon, where one looks is always-already set up (unconsciously) in order to maintain the inner-consistency of one’s worldview; to sustain the familiarity of the world in which the subject is placed, in which he finds and secures his identity. In other words, when we “see” we do not see the immediate Real, we do not perceive reality in all its radical, non-symbolized form. Nor do we experience the world along the terms of, say, quantum physics. And we just don’t see what we don’t want to see. Rather, what we do see (and thus what we often experience) is a world that is already mediated by symbol, by sign, by consciousness, and so on, a world in which the “out-of-joint” of reality is held at bay. This is why cinema is such a treat for me. When I sit down to watch a movie, in a sense I am resigning my power of vision over to another, to the camera that has done all the work of directing my scopic field for me. In other words, cinema is a nice representation of how our scopic drive functions on a day-to-day basis. And of course, the horror film, or the thriller, represents quite well the surprising horror of the Real: a moment wherein something out of joint, something that ruptures, that ruins the smooth consistency of our life-world occurs. Take for example any number of David Lynch’s films. He puts directly into our line of sight that which we choose not to see in our everyday reality: the deviations of the underworld. As Žižek puts is, Lynch epitomizes and “brings to light the obscene underworld of perverted sex and violence that lurks beneath the respectable surface of our lives.”9

In any event, we can now see how, what we see in everyday life is what there isn’t. And no less important, we can now grasp how it is that, aside from the inner mechanisms of the brain and the eye itself, as described by biophysical science, there is an entirely other, alien, presence of something that is in control of where we look and what we see: this Other realm is designated by those projects, ideas, forms, etc., those universal ends that shape and influence our perceptive order—ideology itself. And it is precisely this area where empiricism should relinquish some of the monopoly it has on the modern intellect over to theory.

 

Notes:

 1. Julia Kristeva, “Ellipse sur la frayeur et la séduction spéculaire”, Communications (1975) no. 23.

2. Catherine Malabou, Que faire de notre cerveau? (Paris: Bayard, 2004), 88.

3. See also: Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 209-10.

4. G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991), 283.

5. Saskia Sassen, Globalization and its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, (New York: The New Press, 1998), xxii-iii.

6. Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, (New York: Verso, 2008), 166-7.

7. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 71.

8. Ibid.

9. Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-theory, (London: bfi Publishing, 2001), 142.

Follow the author on Twitter: @FSmecker

Capitalistrology! Astrology as Another Stupid Adaptation to the World of Capital

By Frank Smecker

(This piece has been cross-posted with Everyday Analysis – and be sure to attend their book launch for Why Are Animals Funny?: 6.30-8.00 PM, Wednesday May 21st 2014, Room C1.18 (the ‘training room’), Ellen Wilkinson Building, University of Manchester. Then upstairs at Kro Bar Oxford Road from 8pm.)

According to the pundits of astrology, the celestial bodies, which glimmer against the sable void of night, reflect back to us a certain kind of preordained, though partially engaged, fate. But more than being just a sort of stargazing fatalism, astrology, according to critical theorist Theodor Adorno, strives to situate our mundane lives within a transcendental system that puts everything in its proper, precise place—insofar as we comply with its nuanced demands, that is.

In other words, today’s astrology is a regressive gesture that refers to a pagan order of all things and happenings, an all-encompassing circle of cosmological (read, ideological) closure. Mercury’s retrograde movement offers the pagan subject a coruscant vector that traces one’s emotional memories to their roots. The moon is one’s mother. Mars is one’s passion. And whichever constellation maps out the subject’s subjectivity—whether it is Gemini, Cancer, or what have you—it proffers an understanding of one’s own life-world. And so on.

Well, let us quickly dispel with this quasi-Jungian drivel. Suffice it to recall Lacan’s assertion apropos “understanding”: it is brought to mind only as an ideal relation. That is to say, paradoxically, we “understand” precisely because we do not. To say that astrology offers to us, for us, an alternative way to understand the complexity of our subjecthood, and our place within the complexity of this world, is, strictly speaking, an imaginative defense-formation against not just the pre-symbolic Real, but against the contingent twists and turns of today’s chaotic universe of capital, too; mapping meaning to where, originally, there is none to be found. To put it a certain way, it is to situate the entire array of stars and planets in the place of the big Other as such, the place of God Himself—”the Other supposed to know”, another space (what Freud called “ein anderer Schauplatz“) where all knowledge and meaning wanders about. Hence astrology’s pagan nature: its “infinite wisdom” resides in its pre-Christian pagan cosmological insight, a “divine hierarchical order of cosmic principles,” as Slavoj Žižek puts it, which demands of its subjects “a global balance of these principles,” and where meaning is provided insofar as we obey the precepts of this order. (This is why, should this paradigmatic order of things ever supervene, fully, upon the social field, an order of controlled balance as such, an order that would issue us our “meaningful” lives…well—oh-oh—would we not be knocking on despotism’s door? I should be glad to tell you more about this, but I better leave it to one side for now; once one has begun on that topic it is hard to pull back; so we must return to what we were talking about.)

At any rate, the efficiency behind the illusive nature of astrology derives from an ideal relation to an imaginary network of meaning: thus it acquires the capacity for what Kant and other German Idealists called “intellectual intuition (intellektuelle Anschauung)”: a form of intuition that generates the very object it perceives.

Can we not see, then, how the relationship between astrology and its addressees makes for a great simile for ideology and its subjects? As Adorno put it in his book The Culture Industry, by “providing strategies and compensations that appear as more than imaginary, astrology [i.e., ideology] permits belief and obedience without demanding its readers [i.e., ideology’s subjects] to overtly sacrifice the claims of rational evidence and reflection.”

That said, there is nothing “authentic,” “alternative,” or “extreme” (or rational) about astrology. It is a rather conservative specular image of society and its status quo. The astrologist, Adorno tells us, unwittingly promotes the image of social conformity, precisely by way of the “implicit and ubiquitous rule that one must adjust oneself to the commands of the stars at given times.” With astrology, then, one is presented with rationality in the form of advice, while what remains completely irrational, Adorno explains, “is present in the source and structuring of this advice.” Exactly like ideology, astrology exhibits an immutable pretension to correspond to reality.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is precisely what makes astrology so compatible with capitalism these days. Capitalist society has become so dynamic, so fragile, so uncertain, that if you are completely absorbed in the world of capital then its orbit begins to take on such an unbalanced form. The world begins to appear as chaotic, as “too complex to understand”; and one effectively fails to grasp an enduring, irreducible, sense of self-identity within this hyper-fluxed world. Therefore, astrology becomes the perfect ideological supplement to tolerate such an unstable orbit, offering the subject a (false) sense of balance, a (false) sense of place, an illusory place that transcends the real world of capital by locating the subject somewhere “out there” in the stars, as it were, while simultaneously keeping the subject rooted in the real of capital, which, of course, is obfuscated by the illusive identity that astrology so welcomingly bestows upon the subject. In other words, astrology obscures the surface of social reality, thereby obscuring the subject’s actual place in the social field (that one is a subject of capitalism), while at the same time, habituating the subject to the rules of capitalist society.

It is in this strict sense that we are warranted in our claim that astrology, rather than being a source of authentic self-knowledge, is simply a perverse way to circumvent that which we do not know we already know about ourselves: the fact that, if one is constantly reading the astrology charts, one is effectively disregarding their direct relation to capital while concurrently following its stupid rules, playing its stupid game.

What’s your horoscope, you pervert you?

Follow the author on Twitter: @FSmecker

An Unconscious Truth Lurking in Ukraine

By Frank Smecker

Last November, when Washington and Brussels dismissed President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to help lift Ukraine out of their economic malaise by way of a trilateral agreement, the universe pulled a fast one on NASA. What was originally thought to be a single galaxy located 100-million light years away, once presumed to be a unified collection of celestial bodies, turned out to be two galaxies masquerading as one. Initial radio images of these two galaxies appeared as “one fuzzy blob,” duping astronomers into thinking they were observing a single, gravitationally bound system. But more recent observations have spotted a new structure emerging from this distorted appearance, revealing a separate galaxy that was there all along, one that had simply been obscured by the dominant, prevailing image.

Is this not the perfect metaphor for present day Ukraine? The predominant story told in the West is that Ukrainians took to the streets for neo-liberalism, that the people of Ukraine, by way of civil resistance, ousted their former president Viktor Yanukovich for abandoning the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which, had Yanukovich acceded, would have further integrated the country into the European Union, thereby reducing trade barriers, liberalizing trade, and allowing European capital better access to Ukrainian businesses. (Now, as an aside that I think is incumbent on the reader to not gloss over, this story is quite accurate. And much of the ersatz Left has reacted to the massive protests with their typical prejudiced condescension: “Those poor Ukrainians, romanticizing Europe, unaware that their entry into the EU will only make them another colony of a Europe that is in decline,” and so on. This popular attitude among many of today’s Leftists is egregiously cumbersome, for it colors Ukrainians as uninformed fools who are unable to grasp the complexity of the real workings of neo-liberal capitalism, blatantly ignoring the fact that Ukrainians were, and are, well informed about, and aware of, the reality of the EU’s current standing—it’s just that Ukraine’s situation is far worse. All that said, I still insist on analyzing a little something that I see as a sort of unspoken truth about the EU’s interest in Ukraine.) As opposition leader Arseny Tatsenyuk told The Independent: “Ukraine has woken up in a different state after Yanukovich refused to sign in Vilnius. It is no longer Ukraine.” And now that Crimea has decided to secede and join Russia, one would surely agree with Tatsenyuk, that it is no longer the same Ukraine. But is this really the case? Can we not also see this split as a sort of revelation—that perhaps Ukraine had, all along, been internally fragmented as such?

Just like the two galaxies that had been passing as one, what was originally thought to be a single country, presumed to be a unified body politic, has, in fact, turned out to be two states masquerading as one! Professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, Stephen Cohen, told Amy Goodman in a recent interview for Democracy Now! that,

Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media [says], which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West.

One should be careful, however, not to interpret the recent developments in Ukraine as a “splitting apart down the middle.” Rather, one should understand that Ukraine has always-already been fractured from within. Since pretty much the Dark Ages, Ukraine has been both a link between Europe and Russia, and, a cutoff point separating the two. Both the Euro-Atlantic West and a post-Soviet Russia, in an ongoing clash with each other over border issues and other geopolitical concerns, which has culminated in the recent upheaval in Kiev and the Crimea, have been hyper-exploiting this inner antagonism since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

What most of today’s news-consuming public is in the dark about, is that throughout much of the 1990s and early twenty-first century, EU officials never once promised Ukraine accession into the EU like they did for other Eastern European nations. As for those other Eastern European nations that did join the EU, well, we might want to ask how they are faring at the moment. Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat informs us in a piece he recently wrote for the Guardian that,

The newest member of the EU, Croatia, is third in the union when it comes to youth unemployment, at 52%. So this is what we got by getting rid of communism and entering the EU.

But again, we shouldn’t dwell on whether or not Ukraine’s integration into the EU will fare well for its people. Only time will tell. Rather, we should be discussing whether or not Europe will be able to reassert its own principles structured around liberation and equality by adequately accommodating the emancipatory core of Ukraine’s deepest aspirations.

There is no questioning that the recent social upheaval in Ukraine, the protests and demonstrations, and so on, had been ignited by genuine governmental corruption and economic malaise. Yanukovich was a prick, and his gang of cronies only amplified his dickishness. That much is true. But just because something is true, does not mean there is not more to the whole story. And so what is not being discussed in the news is the fact that, for years, Europe relentlessly balked at the idea of accepting Ukraine into its union, mainly due to Ukraine’s lack of progress in political and economic reform, human rights concerns, and lack of a free media (recall Leonid Kuchma’s “Cassette Scandal”), which simply contributed to maintaining the perception of Ukraine as a “gray zone” between Russia and Europe. In fact, the joint report of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of France and Germany for the year 2000 explicitly states therein that Ukraine not enter the EU (See: On the Future of Europe: Policy Paper No. 6: New Neighborhood—New Association. Ukraine and the European Union at the Beginning of the 21st century. Warsaw: StefanBatory Foundation, March 2002).

So why, all of a sudden, did the EU reverse its position? Why the recent interest in inviting Ukraine to integrate? The only reasonable answer here seems to be more in line with a grand investment plan for border security than with spreading liberal democracy: the Country Strategy Paper 2002-2006 on Ukraine, which includes the National Indicative Program 2002-2003, emphasizes that European “enlargement is bound to make the EU more sensitive to ‘soft’ security threats from Ukraine which need to be addressed: environment (nuclear safety and related issues . . .), Justice and Home Affairs (juridical reform and combating organized crime, corruption and illegal migration); public health (transmissible diseases).” This document allocates €115 million towards border management and security, with €22 million alone for border management. The aim of this program, Tatiana Zhurzhenko writes in “Europeanizing the Ukrainian-Russian Border: From EU Enlargement to the “Orange Revolution” (published in the academic journal Debatte, Vol 13. Number 2, August 2005) is to “improve the overall border management system in Ukraine with the view to facilitate movement of goods and people, while combating illegal activities.” She continues:

The EU Action Plan on Justice and Home Affairs Concerning Ukraine identifies as one of the main areas of cooperation the “development of a system of efficient, comprehensive border management (i.e. border control and border surveillance) on all Ukrainian borders and examination of possible participation of the State Border Service in a system of early prevention of illegal migration.” The EU supported Ukraine’s efforts “to reform the Border Guard Troops in order to create a law enforcement agency working as the professional body responsible for border management.”

To interpose a necessary philosophical intervention here, let us turn to a rather esoteric anecdote, one that is well known among the rarefied circles of academe: the eighteenth century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote the infamously insurrectionist text, On the Social Contract, condemned writing for being less immediate and less desirable than speech itself. But is this really how he felt? No, not really. Thanks to the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, we are reminded that Rousseau actually preferred the written word to speech; for he found that he expressed himself more successfully in his written word than in person. As Rousseau declared himself:

I would love society like others, if I were not sure of showing myself not only at a disadvantage, but as completely different from what I am. The part that I have taken of writing and hiding myself is precisely the one that suits me. If I were present, one would never know what I was worth.

Can we not make the claim then, that from a “Derridean” angle, so to speak, it is absence that reassures the presentation of Rousseau’s truth? Let us now turn to another example, this next one a bit clearer and definitely less esoteric, of how “absence reassures the presentation of truth”—that is to say, how certain truths remain dissimulated beneath the guise of surface appearances. Recall Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon. As a concept album, its lyrical content deals precisely with what the title insinuates: the “unconscious truths” that are hidden behind the veil of appearances, specifically, those execrable truths of contemporary society at the time, and, at a more universal level, the more dismal nature of the human experience itself: conflict (“Us and Them”), greed (“Money”), the passage of time (“Time”), death (“The Great Gig in the Sky”), and insanity (“Brain Damage”).

These two disparate accounts have one crucial thing in common: they locate and denote the obverse of presence and outward appearances—the unconscious truth that is often obscured by the presence of outward appearances. What we are essentially getting at here is a concept of truth formulated by the late French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. That, far from being the domain of irrational and wild drives needing to be conquered and tamed by the ego, the Freudian unconscious is the site from which a traumatic truth speaks. Thus the deepest truths are those that are not direct and present, but instead absent by dint of concealment: those truths that we repress into the murky depths of our unconscious. This is precisely what it means to say that, “truth is unconscious,” and that such a truth is often obfuscated by surface appearances and pretense. That all said, can we not relate this concept somehow to the recent upheaval in Ukraine?

Clearly the EU is interested in Ukraine as a “barrier function.” Ukraine is the largest transit country into Western Europe for various migrant flows, from the Middle East, China, and “NIS” countries, thereby making border management a supreme interest for Europe (who often relies on the US to be their enforcer and co-investor). What this ultimately reveals is that the recent “ruse of liberal democracy”—the predominant story that Ukraine has been fighting in the streets for deeper democratic reform, integration, and liberalized trade—is far from being a neutral frame. What is in fact being obscured by this predominant narrative, what is being concealed behind this present series of news reports is that, aside from being an issue regarding democracy vs. autocracy, and aside from being a matter of sovereignty and self-determination, the recent events in Ukraine also hint at the unconscious (or rather, unpublished) truth about globalization: the construction of new walls protecting Europe from a flood of immigrants.

One should take careful notice then, that Ukraine is being treated as more of a geopolitical object than subject here. That its western border has, since 2004, been transformed into a Schengen (a relaxation of border controls between participating European nations), the objective to “Europeanize” the Ukrainian-Russian border has been one of top priority for the Euro-Atlantic West. And from Moscow’s perspective—that the US-led West has been trying to dominate the region since the fall of the Soviet Union, beginning with the expansion of NATO under the Clinton administration, which extended over the years all the way to Russia’s borders, followed by the missile-defense installations along Russia’s borders (putatively a defense against Iran, a country that, as of yet, still has no nuclear weapons, nor any missiles to convey them)—it should come as no surprise then that Putin’s temperamental suspicions have been amplified to the point of a Crimean incursion. Hence the palpable effusion of Cold War hawkishness that has transpired in the wake of all this.

The West wants us to perceive Ukrainians as “subjects supposed to revolt in defense of liberal democracy,” whilst Putin’s Russia, for the sake of expressing a semblance of power, is exploiting a group of people who still identify with the old rules and traditional, collective ways of a nostalgic, though unreal, vision of Russia. In other words, both the West and Russia are acting on, and exploiting, ideological and moral notions. Thus Leon Trotsky’s description of Ukraine’s state-of-being is still relevant: “In a state of confusion: where to turn? What to demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their ‘nationalism’ by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence.”

So, at first glance, Ukraine seems to be divided from within, split between two poles: on one side there are those who fervently want to join Western Europe, who desire a more liberal democratic society, and free trade, and so on. On the other side, there are those who identify with, whose allegiance lies with, (a false ideal of) an autocratic Russia. But can we not think of a potential third option here, one that takes a truly leftist position? This third position stands for those who, whatever is next for Ukraine, should recognize the nonexistence of the “big Other”: that (joining) the EU does not guarantee social and financial stability for an already fragmented Ukraine, and that siding with Russia will only engender problems like those seen under Kuchma’s reign.

If it is true that communism “died” in the twentieth century, then it is also true that its imperishable spirit still persists. Therefore, Srećko Horvat is correct: the specter of Lenin is indeed haunting Europe. We should therefore identify this apparition with our third position from above, that is, with those who envisage the following positive potential inherent to this crisis: that neither Russia nor the EU is the answer, but rather a Ukraine that is united around free and independent workers’ and peasants’ rights. A Ukraine that is not an object to be manipulated and fought over by imperial powers, but a Ukraine that stands for globalization without new forms of social exclusion; a Ukraine that stands for equal rights and a fair distribution of income without crippling debt and the seizure of public spaces. If Europe can accept and accommodate Ukraine as such, then the heroic actions carried out by the Maidan protesters will have succeeded in enriching and carrying forward the active history of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté: freedom-in-equality.

(Reposted from Truthout)

Follow the author on Twitter: @FSmecker

The Absolute Nothing of Binge-Watching: A Symptom of an Ascetic Ideal

By Frank Smecker

Former president Ronald Reagan’s FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, once said of television: “it’s just another appliance; a toaster with pictures.” Here, Fowler couldn’t have been more mistaken. His problem, of course, was that he did not take television seriously enough. In fact, today, there is no shortage of “serious” devoted television-watchers: according to statisticians, the average American views about 34 hours of television each week. It’s been that way pretty much since the Nineties.

But the ultimate negation of Fowler’s foolishness is television’s eventual arrival at a determinate moment in its evolution, a precise moment in these modern times when it has exploded into the excession which we refer to today as “binge-watching.” I know, it’s a mouth-load, but it’s the only syntax that works for this occasion. Trust me. So read the line a couple more times through if need be. And so anyway, that ingenious totem of modernity—television—has shed its old skin, only to reemerge in excess. Binge-watching has become so popular that IMDb (today’s expedient of film and television data-basing) now has its own binge-watching canon: “151 Best, Smartest, Most Binge-Watch Worthy TV Dramas Available Online.” (There’s a lot of network pabulum on this list, but I was pleased to read that Kieslowski’s 1988 TV mini-series, The Decalogue, was rated number one.) Netflix has even accommodated its own original content such that it conforms to this new “binge-centric” consumption trend, releasing all episodes of its new seasons at once.

To discuss the phenomenon of binge-watching in theoretical terms is to begin with a stupid question: Why are people binge-watching? The simple answer is: because it’s fun. But the reason why it’s fun may not be so straightforward. Here, we should quickly brief on a key theoretical concept of television per se: that its sole function is sustaining one’s pleasure. But let us play the role of the naïve idiot again: Why does television serve to sustain one’s pleasure? And—as a necessary digression—what is the purpose of pleasure?

Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience and head of the Brain and Creativity Center at University of Southern California, defines pleasure as that which indicates whether one’s “homeostasis” is being threatened or sustained. This theory, of course, isn’t anything new; one should recall what the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus had to say about pleasure: it is “our starting point whenever we choose or avoid anything, and it is this we make our aim.” And let us not forget Freud’s perspicacious discovery of the pleasure principle: that locus of mental events “set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, [which] takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension”—hence the production of pleasure.

This is precisely how we should conceive of television—as a sort of externalized pleasure principle; for it serves to lower that unbearable tension we feel from working our stupid jobs, day in and day out. As such, television takes on the medium of the Other. To spell this out some, consider Slavoj Žižek’s well-known hypothesis about canned laughter:

After some supposedly funny or witty remark, you can hear the laughter and the applause included in the soundtrack of the show itself […] [W]hy this laughter? The first possible answer—that it serves to remind us when to laugh—is interesting enough because it implies the paradox that laughter is a matter of duty and not of some spontaneous feeling. But this answer isn’t sufficient, because usually we don’t laugh. The only correct answer would then be that the other—embodied in the TV-set—is relieving us even of our duty to laugh, i.e., is laughing instead of us. So, even if, tired from the hard day’s stupid work, we did nothing all evening but gaze drowsily into the TV-screen, we can say afterwards that objectively, through me medium of the other, we had a really good time.1

With binge-watching we are dealing with something that runs counter to anorexia, for example. In Seminar XI Lacan observed that it is not that the anorexic subject simply refuses to eat, but that, on the contrary, the child eats Nothing(ness) itself. This “Nothingness”—the enigmatic “X” on account of which any item of food can become the object of one’s appetite—becomes an object of desire itself. Thus the anorexic subject desires and “eats” that (no)thing that is in food that is more than food itself: satisfaction qua satisfaction, viz., satisfaction as an object in-itself. Because this (immaterial) object does not really exist (in the positive sense of things), the anorexic is doomed to eat, literally, nothing in perpetuity, or, until she reaches a critical condition. Binge-watching is the inverse of this. With anorexia, one is dealing with a surplus of nothing that counts for something, whilst, with binge-watching, one is simply dealing with an excess of something, which amounts to nothing.

In other words, with binge-watching, the relationship between what is telecast and the viewer is no longer simply about pleasure. Rather, it is about enjoyment—an excess of pleasure. Here it is crucial to think the difference between the desire of satisfaction derived from the (incessant) watching of television and, the desired satisfaction itself, the object-cause of one’s desire, the infamously elusive objet a. In other words, there is, on the one hand, the object that is supposed to satisfy one’s desire (in this instance, the object of binge-watching: the program itself); on the other hand, there is the presupposed satisfaction that is desired as an object itself. Of course though, satisfaction in and of itself, as an object, does not really exist in a positive sense. So we “condense,” that is, we redouble our desire into a real object. As such, binge-watching is none other than allocations of the libido and object-cathexes (i.e., charges of psychical energy concentrated on an object).

To blow the whistle here, binge-watching has nothing to do with receiving satisfaction from a series of shows. Instead, it has everything to do with the viewer’s attempt to seize upon this satisfaction itself. The viewer simply wants to obtain this Thing that is in the show that is more than the show itself—a Nothingness as such: “satisfaction qua object.” Thus binge-watching is none other than the series of (the viewer’s) attempts to inscribe “satisfaction as object” into the object of satisfaction, which results in an explosion of excess from nothing, which, ultimately, coincides with nothing. Any sense of accomplishment is as fugacious as a puff of smoke. In fact, it’s not unlike cigarette addiction—if you enjoy smoking, this is because finishing a pack merely leads you to the next pack, and so on. There is no end in sight. What we are dealing with here is akin to Hegel’s famous proposition: “From Nothing, through Nothing, to Nothing.”

To fully understand the phenomenon of binge-watching, however, one must also grasp the larger context in which it is caught up. So pour yourself another cup of coffee, or tea, and make yourself comfortable in your favorite seat, for we are only about halfway done here.

Today’s era of late capitalism is distinguished by an unparalleled permissiveness, one that is taken to a hedonistic degree. The orthodox critique of this is that, in this all-permissive era, children and young adults are growing up without any set limits, without any substantial prohibitions, and this lack drives them wild with anxiety and discontent and other unpleasant feelings. Frustrated with the lack of a discernible limit in their lives, kids and young adults alike are being driven from one excess to the next in search of a firm limit, in search of that Symbolic authority that will guarantee both stability and, real enjoyment—yes, enjoyment: enjoyment precisely from violating an explicit limit, transgressing a prohibition. For we are issued our enjoyment when we transgress a given limit, when we violate some rule or principle or prohibition. Without any limits, there is no real enjoyment to be had. (Feeling skeptical all of a sudden? Go tell a child not to do something. Chances are, the child will experience enjoyment from doing exactly what you tell them not to do.)

And there we have it, the paradox of our modern times: Rather than the lack of an explicit limit—the lack of a secured figure of Symbolic authority that results in this frustration—it is a bit more complex. For it is a direct confrontation with the absence of any explicit, discernible limit that reveals the ultimate limit—the very obstacle to enjoyment itself. Binge-watching seems to follow this perverse logic to a tee: Does the act of bingeing itself not imply the absence of any limit? So reasoned, bingeing is none other than the series of attempts to reconcile this lack. There is no real enjoyment to be had here. Rather, there is only the indulgence in pure Nothingness as such.

What this implies is that, in today’s late capitalism—an era of hedonistic permissiveness in which explicit limits are nowhere to be found—our lives are consigned to an endless search for that notional limit, and thus for our enjoyment. Capitalism’s injunction to Enjoy! coincides with our desire, a demand even, for a limit that no longer exists. Hence the profligacy, the sheer excess of things like binge-watching. The very dynamic of the capitalist system is propelled forward by, it thrives on, the incessant production and (re)appropriation of this excess—precisely by integrating this excess into the normal, perfunctory functioning of the social field itself.

Therefore, it is from the lack of prohibition—the pure absence of any explicit limitation whatsoever—that an excessive demand for enjoyment explodes. And because there is no external guarantee to regulate one’s pursuit of these excessive pleasures, one is caught up in an obscene entanglement of endless pleasure-seeking, accompanied by self-imposed regulations that one nonetheless strives to transgress for the sake of satiating their hunger for enjoyment—which is nowhere to be found. Here, ladies and gentlemen, less is literally more. And this is precisely what it means to say that today’s hedonism is, paradoxically, the appearance of an ascetic ideal. And so in today’s age of hedonistic permissiveness, there is an asceticism that does not call for a refusal of enjoyment. Rather there is a specific demand placed on us, an injunction to enjoy.

It was no sally of wit on Nietzsche’s part when he wrote that the ascetic ideal is “employed to produce orgies of feeling.” Far from being a sardonic gesture, Nietzsche was merely expressing the fact that, during the proverbial Will-o’-the-Wisp search for that “Real of satisfaction”—(the satisfaction-as-object)—one inevitably gets embroiled in an “orgy of feeling,” bingeing on everything in search of that something, which is, I must apprise you, nonetheless something that amounts to absolutely nothing. What lies at the very heart of the ascetic ideal, then, is a series of “convulsions of an unknown happiness.” Alenka Zupančič, researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Slovene Academy of Sciences, Ljubljana, and author of The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, writes:

the ascetic ideal is about excitement—it is, so to speak, a ‘passion diet’ […] [and] the ascetic ideal is precisely this kind of passion […] What Nietzsche analyzes under the name of ‘ascetic ideal’ corresponds, almost point by point, to what Freud calls the superego, the law of an insatiable passion.2

And let us recall that the more we obey the superego, the more we are guilty…and thus the more it wants from us. How perverse!

It is no secret that capitalism specializes in quietly whispering in our ears to desire it all—to Enjoy! And this affects human subjectivity in a unique way, precisely because human subjectivity is constantly attempting to overcome a radical lack (specifically, the lack of understanding who and what we are; how and what we should desire; what kind of being we are in the Real, and so on). This lack is a void that inheres at the core of our subjectivity, it is what Lacan called the subject’s “place of inscription.” And it is the medium of the Other that “fills in” this lack; that is, the subject acquires its subjectivity by and through the Other as such. (In this case, one becomes a binge-watcher by and through the medium of television). No less important to note, under capitalism, we allow for commodities to supplement our lacks, to cover up our lacks; which is to say: commodity fetishism (e.g., binge-watching) serves to cover up the fact that we are covering up a lack. And, like the obscene paradoxical injunction of the superego, the more we obey, the more we are guilty. Our lacks thereby produce desire, the desire to fill this innermost void. But literally nothing can actually supplant this void; thus the more we desire the lost object, the more we suffer from its affliction. Furthermore, we always have multiple desires—so the question we are constantly (unconsciously) asking ourselves is: “Out of the multitude of my desires, what desire should I desire?” Capitalism, being a function of desire itself, answers this question for us by granting us permission to enjoy everything: “What desire should I desire?”…”All of them!” capitalism commands.

Again, in nuce, this is how capitalism is able to self-perpetuate. Thus the more we obey the injunction to enjoy, the more we find ourselves caught in the cyclical series of failures that our loyal obedience produces, thereby propelling, more and more, our obedience to the injunction to Enjoy! The act of binge-watching is none other than a symptom of this ascetic ideal, which is situated in the very lack from which, and around which, it derives and circulates. The viewer becomes an instrument of the enjoyment he has of the television qua Other, and the desire to find enjoyment in binge-watching is none other than the viewer’s full submission to the injunction to Enjoy! To emphasize a point from earlier, the key function of today’s ascetic ideal is not to abandon all satisfaction. Rather, it is to compel us to find the satisfaction-as-object behind all partial satisfactions. As the viewer endlessly attempts (in vain) to find this satisfaction-as-object in order to inscribe this imaginary satisfaction-as-object into the object of satisfaction, the viewer is thereby propelled to watch show after countless show ad infinitum, resulting in an ersatz enjoyment. Why? Simply because this object of which the subject is in search, is nowhere to be found; it is, as such, a chimerical phantasm. Whatever the viewer is watching at the moment takes the place of this void; as Zupančič puts it, “the object of desire is always twofold, being in itself redoubled into nothing and something—it functions as the envelope of the nothing.”3 It’s not entirely unlike substances that lack the very thing that defines them: decaffeinated coffee, sugarless candy, beer without alcohol, and on and on. In a sort of hedonistic-qua-ascetic way, these de-substantialized substances exist for the sole hedonistic injunction to enjoy more substances.

In this sense, the very lack, the immanent failure of finding that phantasmatic satisfaction-as-object—the utter lack of a discernible limit where enough is finally enough—propels one to immerse oneself in the full (non-)enjoyment of binge-watching, in order to embark upon the Sisyphean search for this enigmatic “lost object” as such.

In other words, it is by dint of fetishistic disavowal that the subject becomes a binge-watcher: “I know very well that the real object of my drive is not this television show, but only the satisfaction that I find in it… Though nonetheless I act as if this is not the case, and I continue to watch copious amounts of this stuff in the hope that I’m able to pin down my satisfaction-as-object; that I will, one of these days, find this elusive object finally at rest, fully inscribed in that perfect and absolutely satisfying series.”

Here we should follow Lacan (who followed Kant), and posit the claim that the “negative magnitude” of binge-watching is none other than the positioning of an object (in this instance, network programming) in the void itself; that is to say—the “positive presence” of one’s favorite show takes the place of this void of Nothingness, so that, in wanting this object, one actually wants, one wills with fetishistic fervor—one demands even—Nothingness.

Notes:

1. See Slavoj Žižek, “The Lacanian Real: Television,” Symptom 9: http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=38

2. Alenka Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 48.

3. Ibid., 128.

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