Saturday, January 14, 2017
Mark Fisher posted by Richard SeymourThe second time I met Mark was at the University of East London occupation. The Docklands campus was bitterly cold, the winter wind ripping through it, as though, like those other Docklands up at the Isle of Dogs, it wasn't really made for human beings. He was enthusiastic, almost in the religious sense: it was like the spirit had moved him. He wrote about it, about how this moment -- the student movement and the sudden energy everywhere -- was like a depression lifting.
It was like a depression lifting, but was it actually a depression lifting? Classically, depression is linked to mourning, in a way that most modern therapies (drugs or CBT) have tended to forget or repress. In the Freudian view, when we mourn, we bitterly reproach the dead: how could they die? How could they do that to us? The thwarted mourning becomes melancholia: we direct that rage at ourselves, find ourselves endlessly useless, pointless, both incapable and culpable. We can't help being useless, but are to blame for it. Klein thought that this posed the distinction too sharply, and that all mourning has melancholic tendencies and that -- in a sense -- self-formation is a melancholic process, the self being produced out of the traces of objects that we have lost or been separated from.
It's one thing to speak of left-wing melancholia, but what happens to a defeated class, a class that is what it is because of historical defeats? A class that is made by loss and separation? To the extent that we can speak of the working class as a subject, it must be a melancholic subject. Its self-harm and self-medications those of a defeat which cannot be mourned, raged about, because it can't be experienced as such.
Freud used the term 'work' about mourning; the 'work of mourning', suggesting that its cognates were the work of art, the work of analysis, and the work of production.
As if to say, a class that cannot mourn its defeats (much as a stricken soul mourns sins) and put them away (which is to say, make something of them), goes on repeating them.
Tuesday, January 03, 2017
The fascist superego posted by Richard Seymour
Friday, December 30, 2016
Let's keep talking. posted by Richard Seymour
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump. posted by Richard SeymourThis began as a review of Enzo Traverso's Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory. But a review is usually a conclusion, the verdict on a closed book. This is, in fact, the beginning of something else.
I.Our defeat is their redemption. The most raging, downwardly mobile, insecure, isolated, almost eclipsed social forces turn out to have a trump, after all.
The axis of global reaction encompasses Modi, Erdogan, Putin, and now the president-elect of the United States. The Brexit Right is victorious in Britain, and Marine Le Pen’s fascists are on the brink of another breakthrough in France. The revanchists of ‘white nationalism’ are energised, already racking up a body count, acutely aware that they have only a few years to “make America,” or its nearest equivalent, “great again”. Meanwhile, the Left is momentarily stunned, feeling almost a physical annihilation.
However, defeat should not be disabling. The history of the Left is a history of defeats. It is the history of the vanquished, necessarily. Marxism, Enzo Traverso reminds us, is a science of defeat. “The whole road of socialism,” said Rosa Luxemburg, “is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats”. In the traditions of the left, defeat is recognised as a vital pedagogical process, even as its tragic dimension overwhelms us.
The novelist Jules Valles dedicated The Insurrectionist, on the Paris Commune, “to the dead of 1871” and all who “formed, under the flag of the Commune, the great federation of sorrows”. But from the crushing of the Paris Commune came, thirty years later, an age of mass socialist parties all over Europe. From the demolition of the internationalist left in 1914, came the electrifying revolution of 1917.
Even the brutal murder of left leaders from Che Guevara to Victor Jara summon mass funerals, not as a symbol of “the end of a communist hope” but as “one of its expressions”. Defeat formed part of a texture of collective memory, a strategic factor in struggle.
|Robert Motherwell - Plato's Cave.|
II.But to fight is also to mourn, since the Left “cannot refurbish its intellectual armoury without identifying empathetically with the vanquished of history”. And there is a work of mourning that has yet to be done. The sudden outbreaks of collective grief over dead celebrities are not in this sense fraudulent or mawkish. These deaths remind us of something that we're already feeling. A mourning that is thwarted.
For what collapsed with the disintegration of the USSR was not just an appalling dictatorship, but an “entire representation of the twentieth century” filled with revolutionary hopes. The Velvet Revolutions, unlike their forebears, did not arouse new utopias, but confirmed a regression to minimal liberal ideas of freedom and representation, already underway since the late Seventies.
Given the drastic contraction of historical possibilities disclosed by this process, the momentous defeat of left-wing struggles and working class movements unveiled, the absence of mourning is striking. Former communist parties, instead of working through their loss, chose to repress their past, opting to rename themselves ‘Democratic Left’ or similar substitutions. If Trotskyist currents did not collapse in the same way, they were left similarly adrift, where they did not simply enter into denial. The spectre of communism, Traverso argues, no longer haunts the bourgeoisie, announcing a “presence to come” – it haunts and taunts its former adherents, pricking their bad conscience.
For some reason, this was not a sinless defeat. A sin can, in secular terms, be seen as a special kind of defeat, a capitulation which attracts guilt. And the internalised stigma and guilt arising from the reduction of communism to its “totalitarian dimension” became, even in dissident, anti-Stalinist strains of socialism which had never invested their hopes in the Kafka’s Castle of the East, a resistance to working through this defeat. This “impossible mourning” is one way to understand the pervasiveness of left melancholia. Even the spurious ‘optimism’ of some of the remaining shards of the Left after 1989 was a result of disavowed melancholia, the refusal to mourn, the refusal to accept a loss.
Traverso’s work is therefore, firstly, a work of mourning. It aims to come to terms with left-wing melancholy, as a necessary condition for redemption. It offers us the image of what the psychoanalyst Jean Allouch calls a “dry loss”. According to Freud, mourning ends when we finally alight upon a new object, a new love. Allouch rejects this metonymy of objects. We don’t substitute one for the other, gaining something to compensate our loss. We have to make do with a loss with no compensation whatsoever. We have to go on having a relationship with someone who is no longer there. This is the working through that Traverso doesn’t so much propose as perform.
|John Donne, melancholic fashion.|
III.Unexpectedly, Traverso’s book is a counterhistory of the Left from the point of view of today’s melancholia. This was, he insists, “always a hidden dimension of the left, even if it came to the surface only at the end of the twentieth century, with the failure of communism”.
This repressed substratum is painfully evident even at moments of exhortation. Marx’s greatest works, The Eighteenth Brumaire, and The Civil War in France, are formed by a “dialectic of defeat”. And yet Marx, as a leap of faith rather than reason, insists that socialism “cannot be stamped out by any amount of carnage”. Such declarations cannot but be achingly poignant in the nuclear age.
Socialism has always laboured in the shadow of catastrophe. Luxemburg, even at her most defiant, did not exclude the outright “triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery”. Trotsky saw in Nazi victory the potential “grave of civilisation”. No wonder that, for Walter Benjamin – the archetypal left-wing melancholic for Traverso – revolution is not so much a locomotion as the application of the brakes.
One of the Traverso’s ambiguities, however, is that it is never entirely clear in what sense he is invoking melancholia. Rather than deciding on a single, unambiguous sense, he layers meaning upon meaning. Classically, melancholia was a form of madness, a ‘black humour’, which also afforded privileged insight to the melancholic. During the Renaissance, melancholia was linked to prophetic ecstasy, the downward cast of expression merely the outward sign of a rapt soul. Early moderns such as Donne and Milton made a cultural fetish of melancholia, a stance bespeaking both profound sadness and an ironising, aesthetic attitude to one’s sadness. With a slight shift of emphasis, this could also become bitterly sardonic: ‘black humour’ in a different sense. Freud analysed melancholia as a pathology, the melancholic unable to separate from a lost object of love – and thus turning all the rage and bitterness that might be felt toward the deceased upon himself.
For Traverso, German renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia I, provides a startling thought-image which arguably condenses all of these aspects of contemporary left-wing melancholia. The condition of the renaissance intellectual, amid a generalised crisis of faith, necessitated a resigned acceptance of the limits of human knowledge, and a withdrawal from the world. The refutation of the socialist telos, a determinism often strenuously disavowed while symptomatically shadowing its materialism, places the melancholic leftist in a similar situation.
Perhaps the most surprising – and, to some, alarming – aspect of left-wing melancholia is its prophetic dimension. Traverso argues for a “permanence, in the communist tradition, of a religious impulsion,” but why should materialism need a theological ally, as Benjamin claimed it did? In one sense, it might be a self-cure for melancholia. Luxemburg’s final words before she was executed is in this sense both a recognition of a dire situation and a declaration of faith: “history marches inexorably, step by step, toward final victory!” Allende’s final words before committing suicide invoked history in the same way: “History is ours, and people make history.” What reality declines to verify is nonetheless promised by history, a history made by people, the proletariat, our Messiah.
In another sense, however, the evocation of a “millennial tomorrow,” as Primo Levi described it, while giving meaning to the sacrifices made by left-wing activists, could also be an admission of the limits of ‘scientific’ socialism. For any discourse, Marxist or otherwise, to grasp the totality of reality within its terms is impossible. There is always a remainder, something left over that evades signification, and subverts predictability. The only ‘scientific prediction, said Gramsci, is struggle. When Lacan argued that Marxism is less of a worldview than a gospel which the announces the coming of a new dimension of discourse, he may have had this in mind. At its best, it is not a totalising philosophy, but an antiphilosophy.
The left-wing melancholic therefore has this in common with the religious ecstatic: both withdraw from the world and language to commune with another dimension of experience which is affective, and apophatically unsayable. The prophesy, in this sense, is not an historical guarantee: it is a wishing, a longing, a yearning.
IV.Memory is linked to yearning in traditions of Freudian Marxism. Marcuse argues that the function of memory is “to preserve promises and potentialities which are betrayed and even outlawed by the mature, civilised individual”. This implies that, far from being a lucid archive of the past, it is a trace of the structure of desire, strategically oriented toward its fulfilment.
Traverso argues that the Left today has lost this register of memory. Modern discourses of memory have a monumentalising character. In the reflux of 1968’s revolutionary hopes, with a reheated Cold War ‘antitotalitarianism’ signalling an exit from the Left for many intellectuals, the ‘duty to remember’ the century’s catastrophes became the basis of a cautionary tale aimed against utopian hopes. In Germany, the radical Left was compared to the Hitlerjugend while, on the Parisian Left Bank, reaction took the form of a ferocious campaign against the Union of the Left. The emergence of Holocaust memory as a civic religion took the place of antifascism.
Whereas the Left had evoked memory in a strategic sense, projecting the past into a desired future, there emerged instead the apolitical, administered commemorations of the ‘past’ in an endless present. A past in which there are only perpetrators and victims, in which history is a sequence of crimes against humanity only remembered to be avoided, and the vanquished only appear as bare-forked figures stripped of commitment and meaning in their struggles. Commemoration, argued Baudrillard in a famous essay on the ideology of the End of History, is a means of forgetting, a form of “necrophagous cannibalism … the work of heirs, whose ressentiment toward the deceased is boundless”. This is the necessary supplement to an historical identification with the victors, positioning the historian as – in the words of Daniel Bensaïd – a “notary of the accomplished fact”.
Against this logic, Traverso advocates the more politicised practice of ‘remembrance’. He attempts, through an exploration of the images, art and lifeworlds of the Left, not to reconstruct revolutionary traditions but to rescue lost scenes for the present. Needing to break out of the “homogenous,” “empty” time of the present, he reaches for Walter Benjamin, for whom the past becomes historical only when it forms a constellation with some part of the present.
In some respects, these constellations formed by past scenes with the present are personal. As an historian of the 20th century, Traverso remarks that historians are necessarily exiles, caught between two worlds, the one in which they live and the one they explore. Exile is a key term that repeats itself and acquires new resonances throughout the text. Trotsky’s long periods of exile leave him dependent on Bohemian communities of whom, as a Bolshevik, he would evince haughty disdain. Benjamin’s exile leaves him precarious, miserable, and at the mercy of friends and intellectual arbiters. “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated,” says Adorno. This casting adrift is a melancholic vocation, and one senses Traverso feels this acutely as a left intellectual, strategically unmoored, separated from a familiar language.
In this sense, the logical thing to do with Traverso’s book would be to read it backward, from end to beginning. In that way, one finds a Marxist historian in mourning for his late comrade, Daniel Bensaïd, and pursuing the threads of his answer to post-Cold War melancholia, in his encounter with Walter Benjamin. Then, at each chapter, he broadens the optic, to take into view Benjamin’s relationship with another melancholic, Theodor Adorno; the Bohemian milieux in which melancholics and left-wing intellectuals found ambivalent refuge; the imaginary landscapes of socialism in art and cinema, and the melancholic turn between Queimada to Land and Freedom; the wider theoretical questions about memory and history; finally alighting on a general panoptic view of left-wing melancholia.
Reading it like this, one sees that the encounter between Benjamin and Bensaïd, the constellation the two very different moments of 1939 and 1989, have a strategic purpose. What Bensaïd sought from Benjamin, writing shortly after the collapse of communism, was a “principle of intelligibility”. For Benjamin, confronting the midnight of the century, “thinking emancipation and revolution” had become “a wager, an act of faith”. Bensaïd, confronting a far less cataclysmic but nonetheless existential crisis of the left and the workers’ movement, reproved the “frantic optimism” of the revolutionary left which could no longer be sustained, seeking in its place to conjoin the “sharp ax of messianic reason” to the “hammer of critical materialism”.
For Traverso, registering the Left’s defeat in a serious, rigorous way, necessitates a similar overcoming of “frantic optimism”. The art of memory, today, “lies in organising pessimism”. The task is to lucidly “recognise a defeat without capitulating in front of the enemy”.
|Saturn devours his young.|
V.For all that Traverso’s book is a work of mourning, it may also be a warning: a fire alarm. One cannot help but wonder if part of the point of remembrance here is to, as he quotes Benjamin, “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”. Traverso has spent most of his recent works examining the questions posed by fascism, Nazi genocide, and world war. As an assayist of Jewish modernity, he has also been attentive to the rise of Islamophobic racism, the mulch on which the new far right is feeding.
In the context of capitalism’s gravest crisis since the Great Depression, the loss of a system alternative to capitalism has been keenly felt, and the consequences dire. “A world without utopias inevitably looks back,” says Traverso. The regressive cultural nostalgia that has accompanied the rise of Trump betokens the absence of utopia in an age in which ‘progress’ is identified with gradual refinements of the status quo.
Recently, in Radical Philosophy, Etienne Balibar acknowledged the increasing “eschatological” dimension of critique. He might as well have been speaking of left-wing discourse everywhere, for there is a ubiquitous sense of impending disaster, End Times heralded by a glow of orange. In this book, one is struck by the recurrent appearance of Benjamin’s “melancholy gaze,” his horrified warning of the coming fascist Antichrist, and his appalled reproach to “the self-satisfied optimism of our left-wing leaders”.
There is nonetheless an erotics of resistance buried in left-wing melancholia. The prospect of annihilation is, whatever else it might be, powerfully animating. There is nothing more alluring than a gallant struggle against the odds, especially if against all odds: think of the Communards, or the French Resistance. The mouth-watering Sehnsucht accompanying today’s melancholic disposition means that it is in no way equivalent to Olympian resignation.
Certainly, the melancholic may, as Milton puts it, “be seen in some high lonely tower”. Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, suggested that disillusioned ex-communists could withdraw to a watch-tower, and “watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world”. Detachment, however, would be out of place in today’s melancholia, a dereliction in a world menaced by clickbait-fascists led by a reality television Duce.
The multiple mournings of this book – for lost worlds of communism, rebellion, Bohemia, radical art, revolutionary theory, as much as for Bensaïd and the broken dialectic of revolution – are thus rendered more poignant by its note of warning. The documents of communism, its ancient texts and photographs, have the feel of letters from a lost love, one not properly mourned – letters, which it is wrenching even to look at. But which it is no longer possible to avoid.
Almost in passing, Traverso quotes a luminous essay on gay liberation by Douglas Crimp, ‘Mourning and Militancy’. Amid defeats, oppression, murder in the streets and the cataclysm of AIDS, LGBT activists mourned, elegised, learned, and rebuilt their arsenals. But mourning was a vital, unmissable step in this process. “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
Monday, December 26, 2016
We are all trolls posted by Richard SeymourI.
We are all trolls. We are all, as David Cameron used to remind us, in it together. This is one of the great virtues of Whitney Phillips' book on trolls -- it doesn't feed the moralists, and it doesn't try to externalise the evil it describes. The internet, and particularly social media, may have inflamed cultural tendencies that were already in gestation. It may have enabled their condensation in a new and odd subculture, and magnified the consequences -- but we were all trolling before trolling was a thing.
We are all authors. We all write, and we are all published. One of the consequences of email, social media, and instant messaging services, is that we now spend more of our lives writing than we ever have. We are acquiring new literacies at a ferocious rate. We have yet to grasp the full significance of this vast expansion of literacy, this democratisation (and further commodification) of writing.
We are all artists of the self. When you write, you invent yourself. By putting some part of your being into the form of words, you're giving it a corporeal shape that it would not otherwise had. You are not just 'expressing' something that was already there, but creating something new. And you're doing this every day, all the time. The format in which you can do so matters. Rather than keeping diaries, many of us now metabolise our lives online, for a public. Our pets, our dating mishaps, our family lives, our jobs, our accidents, the quiddity of experience is inscribed in a public realm in the heavily stylised format of tweets and posts, with current moods, filters, hashtags, emojis, stickers and the rest affording us a convenient short-hand to make ourselves conformable to our peers. The social media formats in which most of us do most of our writing is so structured as to make petty entrepreneurs out of us. Our writing becomes a form of corporate personality, a sales pitch seeking to attract eyeball attention and 'followers'.
The internet is a rigged lottery. If our accounts are indeed set up like enterprises competing for eyeball attention, then going viral or 'trending' is like winning the lottery. And in principle, anyone can win. The potential audience for your writing literally is the entire internet. In practice, of course, the lottery is mostly won by well-placed media corporations and public relations firms dominating the terrain. Even if we do win, however, it can be the worst thing that happens. While most of us dream of going viral with that one insightful tweet or post, few of us are equipped to maximise any opportunities that arise from positive publicity, or to cope with the costs of negative publicity. We may be treated as if we're small enterprises, but since we are not corporations with public relations budgets, we are vastly under-resourced to handle the attention we may potentially receive.
If we're going to be writers, we have to become better readers. Like it or not, we are all amateur hermeneuticists. We scan through acres of text, making very quick decisions as to what to spend more time on, what to share, what to 'like', what to dismiss. We are learning, quick sharp, how to discern 'fake news'. We know a paid advertisement when we see it. We know email scams so well that the scammers have had to move on. We are learning to be able to tell when we're being trolled, and when we're being conscripted for someone else's ego-driven crusade. We are learning the whereabouts of all sorts of invisible cultural thresholds, things that can and cannot be said and in what way. We are coming to sense, almost instinctively, when another person's premises differ so vastly from our own, that no discussion on Twitter can possibly be profitable. These are the new literacies we are forced to acquire in a perilous and volatile terrain, if we aren't to be taken in and sent on a wild-goose chase by every con artist, charlatan, or lunatic. We have to become subtle readers of pitch, tone and genre, so that we can keep on writing.
We have to slow it down. Every pressure on us, as readers and writers, is to read glancingly and do everything in first draft. We feel the urge to respond immediately, not several hours later, much less days or weeks later -- otherwise we'll miss the trend, we'll lose the chance to say that one perfect thing, crack that brilliant off-the-cuff joke, come up with that luminous line, that will enter the slipstream of mass attention and potentially go viral. But in playing this game, we deprive ourselves of the chance to think. In online discussion, we've developed an array of interpretive shorthands, ways of classifying statements quickly and easily and thus save time: edgelordism, splaining, entitlement, etc -- a dictionary of all this might be a contemporary equivalent of Notes on Rhetoric. Given the sheer amount of stuff there is to respond to, such labour-saving devices are a necessity, and often effective. But they are also a blunt tool, and an artefact of rushing. And the rush to judgment is what will always trip us up in the end. Resisting the accelerating drive of social media might entail making a conscious decision not to respond to the majority of potential interlocutors, not to post most of what occurs to us. We might prefer to save up thoughts provoked by online discussion, and transfer them to another medium. We might diarise them, blog them, or save them for a novel or play. If we're going to be writers, we don't have to do business on the most ephemeral media, even for the instant gratification of 'likes' and 'retweets'.
A short-hand is not necessarily a short-cut. You can be quite witty and concise in 140 characters, but every trope potentially unspools into thousands of threads of argument and haggling over interpretation. Drexel University today issued a statement condemning one of its employees, Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, for a tweet asking for "white genocide" as a Christmas present. His tweet was, as everyone in their right minds noted, intended ironically. Of course, irony is often invoked, inappropriately, as a sort of ideological get-out-of-jail-free card. In almost all cases of irony, there is a distinction between "use" and "mention". I might "mention" a statement in order to ironise it, without "using" it. But there is no mentioning without some kind of psychological meaning, and such mentioning can involve a dubious kind of enjoyment. Think of the provocateur who, after making a racist joke, says, "oh but of course, I was being totally ironic". But this is simply to say that one should pay attention to the context in which irony is invoked. The context in this case, is actually quite damning of Drexel. In the idiom of the alt-right -- whom Ciccariello-Maher was mocking with a certain jaunty, finger-in-the-eye swagger -- "white genocide" is caused by immigration. To believe in "white genocide", to feel even remotely threatened by the prospect, to think it could be real, one has to believe all sorts of other implausible things. To wit, one has to believe that there is a coherent biological and cultural entity that could correspond to the notion of 'white race', which is innately worth conserving, and which would be compromised by the biological and cultural mixing that large amounts of non-white immigration would produce. And one would have to see that as being tantamount to genocide, viz. an "attempt to destroy in whole, or in part". To believe in this idea, in other words, one has to be a neo-Nazi, or something close to it. To mock it, one need only be anyone else. But not everyone is au fait with the language of the alt-right, and not everyone has enough historical and political intuition to grasp that no one is likely to threaten genocide against white people, and that such a threat would have no teeth at all in the real world. For some people, it would take time to do a little googling, and think through the logic of the thing. Drexel, reacting the way it did, rushed to judgment without even a courtesy-google. It rushed out a statement during the Christmas holidays rather than wait for the opportunity to talk to Ciccariello-Maher, or even just think. I assume this isn't because management agree with the neo-Nazi view of "white genocide" which was being mocked. Rather, they used it as an opportunity to signal to staff members that they should adopt more corporate, HR-friendly personalities on social media -- even if in practice this means that, like other liberal institutions (ACORN etc), they end up caving to the far right. Whatever institutional resiliency they might have in the face of far right provocateurs was compromised for the sake of public relations expediency. And the more marketised higher education institutions become, the more that knowledge-production and the workers involved in it will be susceptible to the whip of this kind of frantic witch-hunting zeal.
Life imitates fake news. Just today, it transpired that Pakistan had issued a 'nuclear warning' to Israel, in response to a story on one of many fake news sites, claiming that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear obliteration. 'Fake news' is just the chemically distilled version of 'churnalism'. It is the ultimate yield of a political economy of eyeball attention, to which all news is tending. Current online media revenue depends on mobilising attention in short, sharp bursts -- the 'buzz' -- and militates against sustained attention to anything. 'Fake news' exploits this, but so does advertising, spin, trolling, and witch-hunting -- and, of course, 'real news'. We see the culmination of this: fake news becomes a kind of hyperstition, its fiction becoming more real, the more it is believed at decisive moments. Nuclear war may finally occur because that is more buzz-worthy than it not occurring: humanity's autogenocide inaugurated by hashtag. And if not nuclear war, there is always the prospect of a climatological catastrophe. In our written lives, we were already documenting barbarism; now, we are transcribing the potential annihilation of the species.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
The nocturnal side of reason posted by Richard Seymour"The injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to sabotage of thought." -- Theodore Adorno.
"The one who says 'Don't lie!' has first to say, 'Answer!' and God did not give anyone the right to demand an answer from others. 'Don't lie!' 'Tell the truth!' are words which we must never say to another person in so far as we consider him our equal." -- Milan Kundera.
The problem with the concept of "post-truth politics" is not just what it implies about "pre-post-truth politics". Strictly speaking, the concept is a category error. It is not truth, but facts which have been found wanting.
The very category of a ‘fact’ as an objective measurement of reality, which can be extruded from ideology, has taken a knocking since the credit crunch and subsequent economic malaise. Expertise, as Michael Gove reminded us, has made us sick. Its seeming commonsensical neutrality stands exposed as merely the prestige of the ruling ideology. Sir Humphrey Appleby can sound like a technocrat only for as long as the ends to which his techniques are crafted are taken for granted. Sam Kriss puts the point aphoristically: "a politics consisting of facts and nothing else isn’t politics, but management." And the managers have lost face.
"Post-truth politics" is just what we have been living under. The "monstrous worship of facts," as Wilde called it, the tyranny of technique, is an avoidance of truth.
In a narrow sense, it is possible to question whether a given statement is true or not -- that is, whether it is factual. But what would it mean to ask whether liberalism, socialism, or fascism were factual? Each of these discourses can organise a set of factual claims in their support, but their truth or falsehood seems to reside elsewhere, in the register of desire. When politics obscures this, when we can no longer inquire as to the truth of the discourse by which we are governed, our politics has become "post-truth".
How this situation came about is not obscure. Politics can only be a matter of management, rather than struggle, if one side is comprehensively and crushingly victorious. What one should say about 1989 and all that, is not the communism was finally defeated, but rather that its long-standing defeat was confirmed, and immediately registered in a drastic contraction of the horizon of possibility. As Enzo Traverso puts it, "an entire representation of the twentieth century," in which the disasters of the age were the ground on which revolutionary hopes were built, fell apart.
All that was left in the history of the victors was tragedy, and the sanctified victim. Struggle was hitherto nothing but an unfortunate (if sadly necessary) prelude to the Shangri-La of neoliberal capitalism. This was the "end of history" -- and, it was suggested with a degree of grave-tramping relish, thank god that's all over.
In such circumstances, it became permissible to say anything, even the truth, without it making the slightest bit of difference. Because politics had moved beyond the dimension of truth. This was sometimes called "post-politics" or "post-democracy", but "post-truth politics" is just as adequate.
It is not even necessarily the case that there has been a metric increase in the volume of political lying of late. It is simply that there has been a shift in political imaginaries. The ideological context in which we evaluate truth-claims is such that, while fewer people are likely to be taken in by fuzzy satellite imagery of weapons laboratories, proportionately more people are likely to be taken in by the idea that Mexican immigrants are rapists.
In the era of the 'war on terror,' there was much ado about a threat to reason posed by nefarious Islamists, poststructuralists, conspiracy theorists, and assorted leftists. There were various books by 'muscular liberals' extolling an historically disembodied, fetishistic version of the Enlightenment as the unique saleable property of 'Western civilization'. We could easily believe, then, in all sorts of strange and false stories, including about "al-Qaida" -- the blackhole into which all global problems were compressed.
And if the lies we tell, and believe, have changed, it is useless to respond to that with mournful nostalgia for the very recent past. According to Lacan, someone who lies on the couch is always operating in the dimension of truth. One can speak factually all day long, in an empty fashion devoid of (or rather, avoiding of) subjective truth. This is part of the resistance to analysis. As soon as one lies, however, one creates. And there is no creation without desire. Once you start to lie, you tell the truth about your desire -- perhaps in the only way that you can, through displacements and metaphors.
The lies we might tell about immigrants, for example, tell the truth about us. If we are not able to say, "any amount of immigrants is too many, and we should sadistically and brutally punish them for being here," we can instead massively exaggerate the numbers, identify migrants as 'illegals' and 'bogus', and scapegoat them for sexual assault and violent crime.
This is, of course, one reason why it is often useless to approach political argument like a debating society. One can correct false statistics, but people are neither simply deceivers nor deceived. They are, even when lying, operating in the dimension of truth. Correcting a lie, however necessary in its own right, does nothing to get to that other place, the place of desire -- and as such, by itself, it leaves the lie intact.
I have overstated the case. I have not been strictly factual.
The "comprehensive" victory of capitalism has always been provisional and conditional, and always at the mercy of its own internal dysfunctions. For capitalism to be fully victorious, it would have to become invisible, and even the most accomplished ideological illusionist will never pull of a feat like that.
It has also never been the case that one can say anything without making a difference, otherwise there would be no need for such comprehensive surveillance systems. No one would go to jail for the things they say, if the things they said made no difference.
It would also probably be child's play to demonstrate that the rate of variance between political claim and fact is much higher in the era of Trump, Farage, and Le Pen. They, after all, are exactly not technocrats: they aim to replace the monstrous worship of facts with the monstrous worship of power. In Lacanian terms, theirs is a master's discourse, not a university discourse.
But in pointing this out, I am also insulting my readers. To hedge like this, I have to tacitly assume that my readers are literal-minded, gullible, uncritical fools. As if they couldn't discern a rhetorical exaggeration, and understand its purpose in raising the stakes: as if they had never read a novel or heard a joke. Either that, or I'm behaving as if I'm frightened that an authority will chastise me for speaking so loosely. In either case, I'm intimidating myself.
Both the spectral mass and the presumed authority by which we might be intimidated are figures of a technocratic imagination, of the dictatorship of facts -- which is just another way of talking about the despotism of the fait accompli, the tyranny of the victors. We have to live under this dictatorship, it seems, because any challenge to the accomplished fact is a dangerous populist temptation, liable to incite the ignorant and call down punishment from wise overseers.
To be 'strictly' factual is, in a manner of speaking, to be deferential. It is to be loyal to a state of affairs, and the state of thinking, in which these facts obtain. It is in this sense that Adorno thought that a certain kind of obsessive intellectual honesty might simply boil down to intellectual conformity, resulting in an inability to think anything new. To really think, it seems, one has to stop being intimidated by facts.
As though any discussion, to be rigorous, has to have a surplus of play, of invention, excess, inversion, and transgression. "To test Reality," Wilde said of paradox, "we must see it on the tight-rope. When the Verities become acrobats we can judge them."
The nocturnal side of reason is the dimension of political truth. It has to do with what Adorno referred to as "pleasure and paradise," and the dreamwork by which we are able to articulate it. It is about the reason for our reasoning, the desire that sets logic in motion.
In the hard language of neoliberal thought, it is assumed that we already know what we want. There is only one legitimate desire, and that is to maximise utility -- where a 'utility' is anything that could be useful to us, from a pressure cooker to a romantic relationship. And if all political questions boil down to different ways of regulating how we come by the things we do, then deciding what we really want is never a problem. The question of desire is foreclosed. The dimension of political truth is shut down.
But truth will out, one way or another. And "post-truth politics" is nothing but a symptom of its re-emergence.
Monday, November 28, 2016
Screen memory posted by Richard SeymourSCREEN MEMORY
One of the ways in which advertising works for us is that it provides us with a screen on which to play out our desires. It is not a matter of sense-making or story-telling as such -- the stories that advertisements tell us rarely amount to very much, let alone sense.
I have a haunting memory from when I was probably about four or five, of seeing a giant billboard for Ski yoghurt. The lush sky blue and the red of the strawberry were so tantalising that I felt it should be possible to eat the colours themselves. I often had that feeling about vivid colours -- that they should edible, or Oedipal. They promised more than they delivered, created a yearning for something quite beyond their ability to satisfy. This is not incidental to the issue at hand. To respond to an image with a desire to consume it, or consummate it, is to invest it with libidinal energy.
Now, for some reason, I was aware that although I wanted a yoghurt very much, I couldn't have one - whether because I was not allowed, or because there wasn't one, or for some other reason. I was yearning for something that I could not have. And none of the yoghurts I have obtained since, none of the thousands upon thousands of substitute yoghurts that have crammed my fridge week after week, have ever tasted as sublimely, wonderfully good, as the imaginary yoghurt I conjured up upon seeing the billboard.
Let me leave lingering to one side the question of how much this memory is in fact, and not in merely a punning sense, a 'screen memory' -- that is, a false memory construct which alludes to something that did happen and which I 'cannot' remember directly. What I'm interested in here is advertising technique, and the metonymy of desire.
The advertisement itself was minimal, reducible to a few basic elements. One could offer a quasi-Freudian reading of the 'oceanic bliss' evoked by the luscious blue, the sex organs alluded to by the juicy red berries, the orgasmic spill and splash of the creamy yoghurt, and so on. But that would be to miss the point, in a way. The basic colour scheme and the arrangement of minimal objects and words, invited any number of associations, but it did not 'contain' these specific associations -- any more than a Joan Miro painting 'contains' your interpretation of it.
The advertisement was designed to enable a certain dialectic of desire to be projected and played out on its canvas. The product -- or its signifier on the screen -- is supposed to occupy a certain abstract psychic space: the space of the object-cause of desire. Something you're lacking. Something you want, but can't have. Something that, even once you get it, is never actually the thing that you wanted, even if it gives you some satisfaction. So you keep searching, looking for the real thing.
It's the same whether it's yoghurts, sex or heroin: you keep chasing the dragon, looking for the real thing. Of course that thing doesn't really exist except as a gap, a hole in meaning, something which sets in motion the whole metonymic chain of wanting this yoghurt, that yoghurt, a different yoghurt, and so on. To put it another way, the point of advertising is to insert the signifier of its product into the space of the object-cause, and thus start off a chain of desire that can by definition never really be satisfied.
This is also the logic of our self-advertising (selfies) on social media, of course: we make of our own image, an image with which we have been scandalously and self-destructively besotted since infancy, an object-cause. Which is why one selfie is never enough, and one never really alights on the real thing, the ultimate selfie, the one that will finally do. It's also why people's selfies can be strangely addictive. As with Hello magazine, it's just a fellow mammal with interesting hair, but you always want to know if they'll finally get the perfect selfie, the sublime angle, the ultimate filter, that should-be-edible/Oedipal colour scheme.
Which is a way of saying that, unsurprisingly since social media are devised as marketing platforms, we have created a technology that is designed to multiply many times over, in compound fashion, the number of unsatisfied desires.