Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Politics and Metaphysics?

Not metaphysics exactly... but thought that penetrates the obvious, that calls to account the easy... and the difficult... reductions, that translate irreducible reality to manageable abstractions.

Right up there with my favorite "reality checking" blogs: Cosmic Variance and Real Climate... Levi Briant's Larval Subjects

Let me quote at length here... only in the hope that you will take in the whole of this post, and circle back and take in the general conversation on Larval Subjects. Bryant is concerned with "reality" in a way that no one hoping to understand politics... or the role of imaginative literature in addressing that reality,can afford to ignore.

The "Becket" refereed to here is not Samuel, but a blog pseudonym...

Apparently if one finds fault with Badiou or Zizek’s accounts of the political, they immediately fall into the category of “neoliberalism”. It seems to me that the motivation of such critiques, however, is instead something quite different. On the one hand– and independent of questions of politics –there are genuine reasons for finding fault with the metaphysical and ontological claims of Badiou and Zizek. Both, in my view, fall into the anti-realist camp. It seems to me that there is a strong tendency within French inflected Continental philosophy to subordinate all questions of philosophy to political imperatives. As a result, one is supposed to choose their ontology, metaphysics, or epistemology on political grounds rather than grounds that directly pertain to these questions. I suspect that this suturing of the philosophical to the political has more to do with academic insecurities pertaining to the place of philosophy and cultural studies in the contemporary world (having lost a lot of ground in the last three centuries) than anything to do with these questions themselves.

On the other hand, within the domain of politics, I find it difficult not to wrinkle my nose in amusement at Beckett’s charge of an unwillingness to confront ideology. Beckett seems to be of the view that politics unfolds through critiquing ideology. However, having witnessed twenty years of critiques of ideology I’m led to wonder what critiques of ideology have ever done to really change anything. The conception of politics as ideology critique seems to largely result among bookish academics that believe it is books and discourses are the primary real and who are therefore persuaded that change takes place through books and discourses. Like the obsessional– who might this obsessional be? –who talks endlessly precisely to avoid saying what really should be said, this conception of the political endlessly dissects various narratives and cultural formations to create the illusion of acting without ever hitting the real. Indeed, there’s a very real sense in which those literary studies types so delighted by Zizek seem to be more motivated to find a justification for writing about their favorite movies and television shows rather than changing social organization in any significant way.

The critique of Badiou and Zizek on political grounds has little to do with the attempt to defend neo-liberalism, and everything to do, I think, with the manner in which both exclude the domain of political economy from the field of the political. In the case of Zizek we get the assertion of a parallax between economy and politics without ever getting any substantial analysis of economic issues. In other words, one half of the parallax always gets short shrift. In the case of Badiou we are directly told that the domain of economy falls entirely outside of politics. In both cases we get the comfortable analysis of signifying formations, meaning, etc., but never much in the way of concrete engagement with the world. In my view, time would be better spend reading Harvey but that requires paying attention to drearily boring things like actual numbers, trends, economic phenomena, etc., and lacks the narcissistic self-gratification of thinking oneself as a subject of truth procedures or engaging in a “radical act”. What we thus get is a profound contradiction between the form and content of these discourses, the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement. At the level of content and statement there is the declaration of a certain radicality that purports to be seeking to undermine “capitalism” (whatever that might mean… as if capitalism were an “entity”). Yet at the level of form and enunciation, we instead get a form of theorization and a mode of comportment towards the social world that functions to insure that everything remains in place just as it was before. Was it a critique of ideology that led to certain recent changes in American politics? Weren’t these critiques all over the place for the last eight years? Why did things begin to give in 2006? Better to understand the workings of an assemblage or a network to target the key points or nodes in that network than to tarry with the foam that floats up from those networks at the level of discourses.

Like all forms of obsessional thought, these sorts of political theory believe in the omnipotence of thought, ignoring the manner in which forms of social organization require their telephone wires, highways, electricity, sites of exchange, etc. As a result, they perpetual miss the real infrastructures that organize bodies and render social relations impossible, instead believing that the important things are the electrical pulses that travel along those telephone lines, i.e., the messages. It is remarkable to observe, however, how quickly the content of those messages change when, for example, a shift in these infrastructural phenomena takes place, e.g., the collapse of the economy. Perhaps there is a confusion of causes and effects here.

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