Zizek: Beyond Foucault

Daniel Avatar

What Fabio Vighi’s and Heiko Feldner’s fabulous new book, Zizek: Beyond Foucault points towards is akin to Hubert Dreyfus’ question on Foucault’s political project, “is there any way to make resistance positive to move toward a new economy of bodies and pleasure?” Is it possible to theorize resistance without the subject at the center of that resistance? In one reading, you could posit that in Foucault’s corpus, power takes the place of desire. In this sense, since power has an imminent nature, we enter a realm devoid of the possibility of negation, which makes sense in terms of Foucault’s refusal of dialectics in his treatment of historical change. “Since negation implies an intervention into the positive order with the goal of transforming that order, transgression leaves that which it changes untouched.” Foucault’s mode of resistance is based on transgression more so than on negation, as we will see, Zizek offers a model quite different, and more relevant to contemporary critical theory.

What Foucault did to western conceptions of power was to challenge the Freudian and Marxian strategies of locating power in the realm of a repressive, centered, and ultimately debilitating mode of oppression. What Zizek is doing to western conceptions of desire presents an even more tangible form of social resistance, and may be outstripping the relevance of the Foucauldian historicist approach to big theory solutions to social oppression and injustice. The concept of power is not simply rendered in negative terms, but more as a force utterly imminent to all social relations. The idea of bio-power operates via two general axioms: a procedure of discipline over the body, and secondly as a force exerted at the level of population, of species, life, and racial/ethnic control. This bipolar conception of power, or anatomic and biological, if you like, combine to decipher the primary nodes for controlling and reproducing bodies in modern society.

In Foucauldian thought, a society reaches its threshold of modernity when man looses her Aristotelian political existence and becomes subsumed into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population is conflated with economic processes. One of the key features of biopower is its capacity for normalization, and in many ways, this is the most ubiquitous form power has taken in the modern world. Conversely, the goal for Zizek’s critique of power is an approach rooted in seeking to identify with the repressed core of the ideological predicament. To Foucault, knowledge exists only where power relations are suspended. To Zizek, this Foucauldian position is false: there is no knowledge that does not presuppose power relations. There is no place beyond discourse and the power relations that govern them; resistance and change are possible from within them (Zizek: Beyond Foucault, p. 90). It is this position that colors the primary difference between the political strategies of Zizek over Foucault. To Zizek, revolutionary potential must be sought within the capitalist system of desire, and it must seek to be universalized.

Foucault neglects the very process through which power technologies become contaminated by what they seek to control, or what Zizek would consider “the obscene supplement that sustains its own operation.” In Foucault’s political system, “resistance” can be practiced along three general fronts: 1. Regimes of power produce their own surplus, with potentially destabilizing circumstances, 2. Capitalism’s capacity to ingest its own negativity and to redirect these negativity’s towards differential affirmation enables the, 3. The way to resist power is rooted in strategies that enable subjects to break free from regimes of power that depend on the excess and integration of that excess back into the hegemonic social edifice.

Zizek’s wager to a late capitalist left is a complex road-map of desire and identification with the lack and disavowed core of subjectivity, but his theory is certainly worth understanding. Firstly, the core of ideology can be reached by understanding how we are developed by capitalism as subjects. The couple fantasy/spectre is the core thematic device deployed to reveal Zizek’s notion of subjectivity. So, in order for ideology to be effective, fantasy has to be disavowed. And this theoretical matrix is universalizable to any moral or ethical system. The “spectre” of Zizek’s theory is a radical inversion of the Derridan commitment to an “ethical other” that can never be fulfilled or reconciled.

Ideology often takes the form of a systemic displacement. For instance the post cold war trend to displace political struggles into the realm of ethnic and religious struggles is a form of ideology at the macro level. The social antagonisms inherent in American democracy made evident in the wake of Hurricane Katrina created a clear example of macro ideology entering mainstream discourse. The idea of race was the overarching goal of the media’s Hurricane Katrina depictions. The ideological supplement to this over association of race with the crux of the problem was made evident in the elevation of (in this case race/racism as the cause of the social antagonisms that led to Katrina) into the realm of impossibility so that we can avoid it. The obscene fantasies overlay this macro ideology: the exaggerated fear of New Orleans as being overran by thugs, middle class fear of African American encroachment, accompanying the explicit messages: we are sobered by the racist exclusionary underbelly of American life, yet we are unable to identify the root cause: economic deprivation. It is this within this ideological interstice that we can locate social ideology.

The whole operation of ideology in the case of America’s reaction to Katrina is one similar to the prototypical obsessional neurotic, who circulates in an endless fascination with an object that will always elude its grasp in fear of confrontation with the traumatic kernel of their repressed desire. Since desire is always the desire of the other, or, what enables us to perceive ourselves is always wrapped up in the others desire.

To Zizek, there are two types of resistance: imaginary, which in many ways is really only a pseudo resistance that actually is an “interpassivity” or liberal pseudo revolutionary resistance to merely maintain the status quo, and there is symbolic intervention of the real, which seeks to destabilize the entire symbolic system as such. It is the latter that Zizek seeks to bring about.

The passing from the realm of the imaginary to the symbolic, or into the intersubjective field is what Lacan deems the other. The subject in this theoretical field in their passing from the mirror stage of the imaginary into the symbolic field of social relations is identical with a set of fractured social relations. In the passing from the private imaginary to the symbolic, Lacan points out that “there is no signifier that can adequately represent the subject.” Upon entry into the symbolic order, the subject must look for its identity not in the mirror but in the symbolic order of social life, which represents an infinite “play of difference.” Since the other (constituted both in terms of the big Other and the small other, or object small a) is never wholly accessible to the subject, one’s identity is also never disclosed to the subject.

The Interpassive Subject:

In formulating a theoretical position on social and political action in late capitalist society, Zizek turns to “the Leninist act” – mainly the October revolution of 1914 upon the outbreak of WWI, Lenin incited a revolution within Russia as opposed to unify socialism with the rest of Europe. This act was precisely the sort of revolutionary act that Zizek feels is necessary to move from the interpassive resistance of the ant globalization movements and liberal resistance to capitalism, into an act that fundamentally changes the realm of possibility. Lenin’s action of inciting the October revolution was based upon his recognition that Europe (mainly France and Germany were unable to live out an authentic unification of the socialist project). In Zizek’s treatment of late capitalists leftist resistance, there is a clear separation between conscious activity away from the act, and activity sustained by a fantasy. Since any authentic act a subject performs is always rooted in a foreign body, too close contact with the core of the desire that sustains the act results in a sort of “self erasure.” Thus, when we act, a sort of invisible agency guides our acts. The act is thus not a part of subjectivity, but is an object, in so far as the act is always the internalized excess, or surplus-enjoyment. To act is what is required because to act requires us to empty our subjective frame, and emerge as totally free subjects.

The act can only be conceived through a lack that offers us the ability to reconstitute ourselves. Connecting with the lack is perhaps the first practical move to incorporate into ones act. This state of subjectivity is akin to the Freudian death drive that posits the only proper state for a living organism is to constantly live in a state of tension, to refuse homeostasis.

The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human nature is always caught in a state dictated by the “pleasure principle” forcing a superegoic call to enjoy, and that enjoyment inevitably proves excessive. The subject is caught in a compulsive desire to circle around an object that ultimately produces its own jouissance, or excess of desire. Think of Dennis Hopper’s character from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as emblematic of jouissance. In this endlessly repetitive dance around the object, the subject then becomes the object.

Thus the “radical act” is not that which violates the radical norm, but that which redefines the norm itself. Much of Zizek’s critique of the Fukuyamaist post ideological “end of history” wager, or more accurately the 10 year post-cold war honeymoon with capitalism, what is missing both from liberalisms as well as the Hardt and Negri mode of sites of resistance is the impossibility of any universality able to reassert itself in the field of social resistance. Put simply, anti globalization doesn’t enable us to reconceptualize the possibility of totality in its program.

To understand the inability for conceptualizing resistance, Zizek continually brings up commodity fetishism. The significance of commodity fetishism is for Zizek a matter of form over and above any empirical content that commodities posess. The commodity contains, like the subject, a totally empty form. The epistemological influence here from Lacan and Hegel is clear: any discursive field is sustained by its disavowed truth. The reality to which we intervene is always already the product of our own subjective pre-intervention. This is what Hegel referred to as foreclosure, the act of the subject structuring his or her perception towards the object before the act. This “act before the act” is merely a formal conversion, and the only way to perceive of commodity fetishism is to bring Lacan’s real into the equation where we can see ourselves as subjects, before objectifcation from the disavowed truth of the desire system develops.

Foreclosure is at play in commodity fetishism in Zizek’s theory as capital as such, which takes the form of the real. Here we must differentiate between the real (or the spectral logic that determines what occurs in reality) and reality as the realm of symbolic exchanges amongst subjects. Since capitalism has established its mode as the ultimate horizon of our being in a “staging of the endless desire to desire,” or the limitless desire system. Yet, in order to understand this process, Zizek brings in Freudian “drive” to unravel capitalism. The function of drive is to circulate around an object, and its true aim is never able to reach the object, and thus circulates around the object ad infinitum. It is here that the symbolic class (top managers, elites, creative class, etc.) live out drive. Even though there is no single agent that embodies the flow of capital in the system, the symbolic class acts as if they control the flow and display of Freudian drive and it is this symbolic force that propels capital as such. To Zizek, “pure life is a category of capitalism.” This categorical statement is meant as both a metaphor of the desire system, as well as an existential declaration of our existential predicament in a late capitalist era. The fundamental deadlock of capitalism is the drive of capitalism’s circulation around the commodity fetish.

There is a major difference between how Foucault would respond to this predicament, in his position, “there is no revolutionary position that can embrace external to the capitalist system,” since “capitalism erases all references to externality and forces us to enjoy what we hate.” Zizek instead seeks a radical political identification with the core of enjoyment, qua the disavowed core of the subjects ideological predicament with capitalism, hence the Zizekian subject remains within the symbolic order precisely in an effort to resist that order.

Since every universal owes its existence to its non-discursive obstacle, the real of enjoyment does not belong to us, much like desire, the universal is an empty framework filled in by fantasy. Thus, for example, Zizek locates racism as “the hatred of the other as the hatred of our own excess of enjoyment.” In this way, desire is clearly a political category that is unable to be under ones sole autonomy, (this position differs from Reich, Deleuze and poststructuralism writ large). Zizek boldly argues that desire can never be grounded back into our true interests, but will always go against our conception of the good. Or, if taken to the extreme, desire will inevitably turn into drive, which, a la death drive will always leads to a strained relationship towards the object of ones desire. But why would Zizek insist that we must traverse the fantasy of desire and remain within it at the same time in order to realize the explosive real of our enjoyment? I a way, Zizek’s revolutionary position to desire and resistance is akin to Heidegger in Being and Time: we must turn away from Dasein, to step back, and to not over identify with the excessive core of the real, we must “let it be.” To keep oneself at bay, in witness of the plurality of subject positions available and simultaneously connect with the disavowed truth of desires hold on subjectivity.

Inherent to maintaining the capitalist identification with desire will often inevitably breed masochism. A popular culture example that exemplifies masochism to resistance of power relations is evident in Ed Norton’s scene from Fight Club where the only mode of resisting the authority of his boss comes through self-flagellation. This odd masochistic resistance represents a Hegelian tone of revealing to the master his own impotence in enforcing absolute power over the slave.

Taken to the level of commodity logic a la Marx’s essential differentiation between exchange value and use value, Zizek adopts the dichotomy and then revises it drastically to fit into the late capitalist system. Since exchange value maintains full autonomy over use value, and as such, Marx argued that capitalist “crisis” occurs first when money is perceived as merely self-propelling. Zizek stages Marx’s split between use and exchange value as the split between the way we perceive material reality, i.e. our participation in the capitalist system (the Starbucks Ethos water purchase as representing some sort of belief that one is contributing to philanthropic causes but is ideologically disavowing the reality of “frictionless capitalism, and denying the invisible oppression of third world labor that created the commodity). Zizek argues that in late capitalism, this realm of material reality is becoming more and more “spectralized” by fantasy. Whereas the “mad dance” (Marx’s term) of the spectral dimension of circulating capital, which follows the above logic, is never fulfilled, nor is it ever able to enable a capitalist subject to identify with the core of its drive, which sustains the entire system as such.

In over-identification with the real, or the excess, the real can be made consubstantial with the dimension of the symbolic. The true intellectual task in contemporary society is not to identify the fiction/myth that sustains the symbolic edifice, and then resist it, (this was more akin to Frankfurt school/post Marxists/current anti-globalization movements) Zizek’s wager is much more radical:

“to recognize the real as what we take as symbolic fiction.” The real is a dimension where one can intervene, and that intervention is ethical as long as you assume that there is no big Other, and revolutionary because it represents the only possibility for any true break with the capitalist symbolic order.

One response

  1. Street Beat Boxing

    Zizek is a clown

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