nikki moore

habit forming.

In Subjection on November 8, 2008 at 8:15 pm

what do parsifal, bertrand russell and Nip/Tuck have in common?

slavoj zizek.  or rather he has them in common.  or was i correct the first time..?

yes, in fact, parsifal, bertrand russell and Nip/Tuck have slavoj zizek in common, if we hold to his line of thinking in “tolerance as an ideological category” critical inquiry, vol 34, #4.  in brief, it goes like this… 

from wendy brown’s latest book – Regulating Aversion:Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire zizek both praises and critiques her assessment of liberalism and choice, ultimately coming down on the side of critique.  as brown finds the particularity in universalizing claims since descartes, pointing out that liberal tolerance is only tolerant of tolerance.  On questions such as veiling women, clitorisectomies, ‘sati’ or widow burning, liberals will and do consider themselves justified in not tolerating (even violently acting against) perceived intolerance. taking up an uncommon defense of liberalism against brown’s analysis, zizek points out that what remains unthought and/or flawed in her work is the following: 

“First, she ignores the tremendously liberating aspect of experiencing one’s own cultural background as contingent.  There is an authentic core to political liberalism.  Let us not forget that liberalism emerged in Europe after the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants; it was an answer to the pressing quesiton, How could people who differ in their fundamental religious allegiances coexist? …It is only within this ideological space that one can experience one’s identity as something contingent and discursively constructed; to cut a long story short, philosophically, there is no Judith Butler (with her theory  of gender identity as performatively enacted) without the Cartesian subject.” (p. 666)  

Easy enough, zizek easily sights the ways in which Brown’s own position would be impossible without the very emergence of cultural contingency she is critiquing.  Yet why would zizek, leftist extraordinaire, defend liberalism? (Not) knowing better, one might think zizek was simply playing the devil’s advocate.  Yet in fact, he has something more of an angel in mind.  And:

“This brings us to Brown’s next limitation.  Her critique of liberalism remains at the standard Marxist level of denouncing false universality, of showing how a position that presents itself as neutral or universal effectively privileges a certain (heterosexual, male, Christian) culture.  More precisely, she remains within the standard postmodern, antiessentialist position… “Man,” the bearer of human rights, is generated by a set of political practices that materialize citizenship; human rights are such a false ideological universality that masks and legitimizes a concrete politics of Western imperialism, and domination, legitimizing military interventions and neocolonialism.  Is this analysis enough?” (p. 668)

In the context zizek himself lays out in catching wendy in the game she is critiquing, isn’t zizek’s ending question to the quote above something of the same fault?

Yet beside and to that point, of course this analysis is not enough.  It is not enough to say that formal freedom is merely formal.  Jacques Ranciere and Claude Lefort, even Stalin, and, well… women voters, have shown otherwise.  And were it enough, there would be no need for the post-marxists.  And were it enough, there would be no need for badiou. 

and here is where we have been going all along.  in a gesture of praise and solidarity, zizek writes:

“The key moment of any theoretical (and ethical, and political, and – as Badious demonstrated – even aesthetic) struggle is the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld… the authentic moment of discovery, the breakthrough, occurs when a properly universal dimension explodes form within a particular context and becomes for-itself, directly experienced as such (as universal).  This universality-for-itself is not simply external to (or above) the particular context.  It is inscribed into it, it perturbs and affects it from within, so that the identity of the particular is split into its particular universal aspect.” (p. 670)

In an almost perfect inversion of post-structuralism, paired with an uncanny condensation of badiou’s ontological project, zizek here unmasks where a large strain of philosophy, since derrida, since marx, since foucault, has gone and is going.  from the unearthing of particularity in universality toward a de-essentializing, the likes of which Wendy Brown and Judith Butler are practicing, to a search for universality in the particular sounds like a terrifying fall back.  anticipating this, zizek offers a re-vision of universality, consistent with badiou’s: “Actual universality is not the deep feeling that, above all differences, different civilizations share the same basic values; actual universality appears (actualizes itself) as the experience of negativity, of the inadequacy-to-itself of a particular identity.”

when questioned at his Cardozo lectures last week as to a definition or a ground for his own use of and push toward universality, badiou answered much like zizek did in the quote above, saying essentially, he did not know what universality or equality would look like but he knew where it was not. in the problems surrounding the french workers sans papiers the in-equality, or non-universality of the french state is evident to badiou.  zizek would explain these workers as figures ‘marked by a profound split’, or ‘thwarted in [their] endeavor to reach their identity’.  either way, for both thinkers, oddly the absence of equality marks the possibility for universality, signifying that we are oddly back to the socratic dialogues wherein not-knowing is one’s most secure form of knowledge.  badiou, a vocal platonist, would affirm this link (or should i say, would not disavow it?) yet…

the temptation is now, of course, to ask:  if this (negative) analysis enough?

but perhaps the problem is not one of inadequacy, falling short, or not being enough… perhaps the question to be asked is: isn’t this already too much?  

for in fact, despite a negative definition of universalism, it isn’t a minimalism or scarcity in badiou and zizek’s claims that raises problems.  it isn’t this movement i’m tracing of the ‘it is not’… it is ‘what is’ that raises red flags, and it is ‘what could be’ that really becomes frightening.  universality, even by badiou’s definition, is a concept in full strength and universality has the timber of destruction in its voicing.  to this end, zizek cites ‘revolutionary-egalitarian figures from Robespierre to John Brown’ as figures without habits, those who refused to play by the rules of social ‘potlatch’.  and here i get stuck.  as zizek performs and enacts his own beef with brown over the ability of liberals to raise their own guns of intolerance against the intolerant, he consistently moves toward a subjectivity that comes at the point of that same gun*.  while badiou will broaden violence to include things like ‘worker’s strikes’ and not simply bloodshed per se, he and zizek seem strained to find suitably non-violent alternatives.

it is these ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ options that do, in fact, push us (philosophers? thinkers? subjects? liberals?) past the point of potlatch.  with only a negative definition of universality and equality, i cannot simply nod and say thank you.  yet, would positivism be any less frightening?  is this analysis too much?  is it already enough?

and yet this is precisely what zizek goes on to propose: in our acceptance of the potlatch, i take up habits and, according to zizek, identities, which are ‘in their very transparency, …the medium of social violence’.  violence is not something i can choose to take part in or to reject either for or against universality.  as we began, with zizek resulting as the commonality of parsifal, russell and Nip/Tuck, the subject is, for zizek, a result of habits, of culture.  Using Lacan’s distinction between the subject of the enunciated and the subject of enunciating (could we swap this out for Heidegger’s ‘said’ and ‘saying’ respectively?) we have zizek’s point. Wherein the first, the subject of the enunciated, a subject moves to change the world while holding her position, in the second, the subject of the enunciation the subject moves to change the world and herself with it.  In both cases, violence is occuring: in the enunciated the subject is passive and subjected to a violence from without.  in the enunciating, the subject is actively and violently applying violence to itself.  what zizek is doing with these examples is laying out the impossibility of non-violence.  he is offering the positive choice of self-infliction (the only ‘real’ choice contemporary liberalism has to offer) rather than passive reception.  he is offering John Brown.  he is offering Robespierre.  he is, in fact, offering the messiah.

just don’t let the name Badiou fool you… 


*when, in Saas-Fee in August of 2008 I pointed out, in conversation with him, that his description of the subject as the object which objects sounded in very close harmony with Butler’s performative subject, he replied, in concert with his argument in question, that yes, it might be close, but for him subject formation has to hurt.


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