Sunday, December 7, 2014

On Choosing between Lies?

Badiou develops the notion of "atonal" worlds (monde atone), [2] worlds lacking a "point," in Lacanese: the "quilting point" (point de capiton), the intervention of a Master-Signifier that imposes a principle of "ordering" onto the world, the point of a simple decision ("yes or no") in which the confused multiplicity is violently reduced to a "minimal difference." That is to say, what is a Master-Signifier? In the very last pages of his monumental Second World War, Winston Churchill ponders on the enigma of a political decision: after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists...) propose their multiple, elaborated and refined analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude, where for every reason for there are two reasons against, and vice versa, into a simple "Yes" or "No" - we shall attack, we continue to wait... None other John F. Kennedy provided a concise description of this point:
The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer - often, indeed, to the decider himself.
This gesture which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. There is thus no reason to be dismissive of the discourse of the Master, to identify it too hastily with "authoritarian repression": the Master's gesture is the founding gesture of every social link. Let us imagine a confused situation of social disintegration, in which the cohesive power of ideology loses its efficiency: in such a situation, the Master is the one who invents a new signifier, the famous "quilting point," which again stabilizes the situation and makes it readable; the university discourse which then elaborates the network of Knowledge which sustains this readability by definition presupposes and relies on the initial gesture of the Master. The Master adds no new positive content - he merely adds a signifier which all of a sudden turns disorder into order, into "new harmony," as Rimbaud would have put it. Think about anti-Semitism in Germany of the 1920s: people experienced themselves as disoriented, thrown into undeserved military defeat, economic crisis which melted away their life-savings, political inefficiency, moral degeneration... and the Nazis provided a single agent which accounted for it all - the Jew, the Jewish plot. Therein resides the magic of a Master: although there is nothing new at the level of positive content, "nothing is quite the same" after he pronounces his Word... The basic feature of our "postmodern" world is that it tries to dispense with this agency of the Master-Signifier: the "complexity" of the world should be asserted unconditionally, every Master-Signifier meant to impose some order on it should be "deconstructed," dispersed, "disseminated": "The modern apology of the "complexity" of the world /.../ is really nothing but a generalized desire of atony."(443) Badiou's excellent example of such an "atonal" world is the Politically Correct vision of sexuality, as promoted by gender studies, with its obsessive rejection of "binary logic": this world is a nuanced, ramified world of multiple sexual practices which tolerates no decision, no instance of the Two, no evaluation (in the strong Nietzschean sense). This suspension of the Master-Signifier leaves as the only agency of ideological interpellation the "unnameable" abyss of jouissance: the ultimate injunction that regulates our lives in "postmodernity" is "Enjoy!" - realize your potentials, enjoy in all its forms, from intense sexual pleasures through social success to spiritual self-fulfilment. What we have today is not so much the POLITICS of jouissance but, more precisely, the REGULATION (administration) of jouissance which is stricto sensu post-political. Jouissance is in itself limitless, the obscure excess of the unnameable, and the task is to regulate this excess. The clearest sign of the reign of biopolitics is the obsession with the topic of "stress": how to avoid stressful situations, how to "cope" with them. "Stress" is our name for the excessive dimension of life, for the "too-muchness" to be kept under control. (For this reason, today, more than ever, the gap that separates psychoanalysis from therapy imposes itself in all its brutality: if one wants therapeutic improvement, one will effectively get a much faster and efficient help from a combination of behavioral-cognitivist therapies and chemical treatment (pills).

However, far from liberating us from the guilt-pressure, such dispensing with the Master-Signifier comes at a price, the price signalled by Lacan's qualification of the superego-command: "Nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance - Enjoy!" [3] In short, the decline of the Master-Signifier exposes the subject to all the traps and double-talk of the superego: the very injunction to enjoy, i.e., the (often imperceptible) shift from the permission to enjoy to the injunction (obligation) to enjoy sabotages enjoyment, so that, paradoxically, the more one obeys the superego command, the more one is guilty. This same ambiguity affects the very base of a "permissive" and "tolerant" society: "we see from day to day how this tolerance is nothing else than a fanaticism, since it tolerates only its own vacuity."(LdM-533) And, effectively, every decision, every determinate engagement, is potentially "intolerant" towards all others... There are only a couple of qualifications to be added to this Badiou's thesis. First, insofar as world as such is sustained by a "point," is a point-less, atonal, world not a name for worldlessness? Badiou himself recently claimed that our time is devoid of world, referring to Marx's well-known passage from The Communist Manifesto about the "de-territorializing" force of capitalism which dissolves all fixed social forms
The passage where Marx speaks of the desacralisation of all sacred bonds in the icy waters of capitalism has an enthusiastic tone; it is Marx's enthusiasm for the dissolving power of Capital. The fact that Capital revealed itself to be the material power capable of disencumbering us of the "superego" figures of the One and the sacred bonds that accompany it effectively represents its positively progressive character, and it is something that continues to unfold to the present day. Having said that, the generalized atomism, the recurrent individualism and, finally, the abasement of thought into mere practices of administration, of the government of things or of technical manipulation, could never satisfy me as a philosopher. I simply think that it is in the very element of desacralisation that we must reconnect to the vocation of thinking.

This allows us also to approach in a new way Badiou's concept of "point" as the point of decision, as the moment at which the complexity of a situation is "filtered" through a binary disposition and thus reduced to a simple choice: all things considered, are we AGAINST or FOR (should we attack or retreat? support that proclamation or oppose it?) With regard to the Third moment as the subtraction from the Two of the hegemonic politics, one should always bar in mind that one of the basic operations of the hegemonic ideology is to enforce a false point, to impose on us a false choice - like, in today's "war on terror," when anyone who draws attention to the complexity and ambiguity of the situation, is sooner or later interrupted by a brutal voice telling him: "OK, enough of this muddle - we are in the middle of a difficult struggle in which the fate of our free world is at stake, so please, make it clear, where do you really stand: do you support freedom and democracy or not?" (One can also imagine a humanitarian version of such a pseudo-ethical blackmail: "OK, enough of this muddle about the neocolonialism, the responsibility of the West, and so on - do you want to do something to really help the millions suffering in Africa, or do you just want to use them to score points in your ideologico-political struggle?") The obverse of this imposition of a false choice is, of course, the blurring of the true line of division - here, Nazism is still unsurpassed with his designation of the Jewish enemy as the agent of the "plutocratic-bolshevik plot." In this designation, the mechanism is almost laid bare: the true opposition ("plutocrats" versus "Bolsheviks," i.e., capitalists versus proletariat) is literally obliterated, blurred into One, and therein resides the function of the name "Jew" - to serve as the operator of this obliteration. The first task of the emancipatory politics is therefore to distinguish between "false" and "true" points, "false" and "true" choices, i.e., to bring back the third element whose obliteration sustains the false choice - like, today, the false choice "liberal democracy or Islamofascism" is sustained by the obliteration of the radical secular emancipatory politics. So one should be clear here in rejecting the dangerous motto "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," which leads us to discover "progressive" anti-imperialist potential in fundamentalist Islamist movements. The ideological universe of movements like Hezbollah is based on the blurring of distinctions between capitalist neoimperialism and secular progressive emancipation: within the Hezbollah ideological space, women's emancipation, gay rights, etc., are NOTHING BUT the "decadent" moral aspect of Western imperialism...
- Slavoj Zizek, "On ALain Badiou and Logiques des mondes"

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