Noam Chomsky once noted that "it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated". He thereby pointed at the "passivising" core of parliamentary democracy, which makes it incompatible with the direct political self- organisation and self-empowerment of the people. Direct colonial aggression or military assault are not the only ways of pacifying a "hostile" population: so long as they are backed up by sufficient levels of coercive force, international "stabilisation" missions can overcome the threat of popular participation through the apparently less abrasive tactics of "democracy promotion", "humanitarian intervention" and the "protection of human rights".This is what makes the case of Haiti so exemplary. As Peter Hallward writes in Damming the Flood, a detailed account of the "democratic containment" of Haiti's radical politics in the past two decades, "never have the well-worn tactics of 'democracy promotion' been applied with more devastating effect than in Haiti between 2000 and 2004". One cannot miss the irony of the fact that the name of the emancipatory political movement which suffered this international pressure is Lavalas, or "flood" in Creole: it is the flood of the expropriated who overflow the gated communities that protect those who exploit them. This is why the title of Hallward's book is quite appropriate, inscribing the events in Haiti into the global tendency of new dams and walls that have been popping out everywhere since 11 September 2001, confronting us with the inner truth of "globalisation", the underlying lines of division which sustain it.- Slavoj Zizek, "Democracy versus the People" (New Statesman - August 18 2008)
Haiti was an exception from the very beginning, from its revolutionary fight against slavery, which ended in independence in January 1804. "Only in Haiti," Hallward notes, "was the declaration of human freedom universally consistent. Only in Haiti was this declaration sustained at all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and economic logic of the day." For this reason, "there is no single event in the whole of modern history whose implications were more threatening to the dominant global order of things". The Haitian Revolution truly deserves the title of repetition of the French Revolution: led by Toussaint 'Ouverture, it was clearly "ahead of his time", "premature" and doomed to fail, yet, precisely as such, it was perhaps even more of an event than the French Revolution itself. It was the first time that an enslaved population rebelled not as a way of returning to their pre-colonial "roots", but on behalf of universal principles of freedom and equality. And a sign of the Jacobins' authenticity is that they quickly recognised the slaves' uprising - the black delegation from Haiti was enthusiastically received in the National Assembly in Paris. (As you might expect, things changed after Thermidor; in 1801 Napoleon sent a huge expeditionary force to try to regain control of the colony).
Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all white nations", the "mere existence of an independent Haiti" was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price - the literal price - for the "premature" independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as "compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing black Americans for slavery, Haiti's demand to be reimbursed for the tremendous sum the former slaves had to pay to have their freedom recognised has been largely ignored by liberal opinion, even if the extortion here was double: the slaves were first exploited, and then had to pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.
The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people's direct self-organisation. Although the "free press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a "normal" democracy - a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation. It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation took place soon after the public discord about the 2003 attack on Iraq, and was quite appropriately celebrated as the reaffirmation of their basic alliance that underpins the occasional conflicts. Even Brazil's Lula condoned the 2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy alliance was thus put together to discredit the Lavalas government as a form of mob rule that threatened human rights, and President Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator - an alliance ranging from ex-military death squads and US-sponsored "democratic fronts" to humanitarian NGOs and even some "radical left" organisations which, financed by the US, enthusiastically denounced Aristide's "capitulation" to the IMF. Aristide himself provided a perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping between radical left and liberal right: "Somewhere, somehow, there's a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction, in saying things that powerful white people want you to say."
The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism that confronts the limitations of what can be done today. Lavalas activists didn't withdraw into the interstices of state power and "resist" from a safe distance, they heroically assumed state power, well aware that they were taking power in the most unfavourable circumstances, when all the trends of capitalist "modernisation" and "structural readjustment", but also of the postmodern left, were against them. Constrained by the measures imposed by the US and International Monetary Fund, which were destined to enact "necessary structural readjustments", Aristide pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures (building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure, raising minimum wages) while encouraging the active political mobilisation of the people in direct confrontation with their most immediate foes - the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries.
The single most controversial thing about Aristide, the thing that earned him comparisons with Sendero Luminoso and Pol Pot, was his pointed refusal to condemn measures taken by the people to defend themselves against military or paramilitary assault, an assault that had decimated the popular movement for decades. On a couple of occasions back in 1991, Aristide appeared to condone recourse to the most notorious of these measures, known locally as "Père Lebrun", a variant of the practice of "necklacing" adopted by anti-apartheid partisans in South Africa - killing a police assassin or an informer with a burning tyre. In a speech on 4 August 1991, he advised an enthusiastic crowd to remember "when to use [Père Lebrun], and where to use it", while reminding them that "you may never use it again in a state where law prevails".
Later, liberal critics sought to draw a parallel between the so-called chimères, ie, members of Lavalas self-defence groups, and the Tontons Macoutes, the notoriously murderous gangs of the Duvalier dictatorship. The fact that there is no numerical basis for comparison of levels of political violence under Aristide and under Duvalier is not allowed to get in the way of the essential political point. Asked about these chimères, Aristide points out that "the very word says it all. Chimères are people who are impoverished, who live in a state of profound insecurity and chronic unemployment. They are the victims of structural injustice, of systematic social violence [. . .] It's not surprising that they should confront those who have always benefited from this same social violence." Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called "divine violence": they should be located "beyond good and evil", in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what can only appear as "immoral" acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.
As Aristide himself puts it: "It is better to be wrong with the people than to be right against the people." Despite some all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in effect one of the figures of how "dictatorship of the proletariat" might look today: while pragmatically engaging in some externally imposed compromises, it always remained faithful to its "base", to the crowd of ordinary dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf, not "representing" them but directly relying on their local self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic rules, Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is not where things are decided: what is much more crucial is the effort to supplement democracy with the direct political self-organisation of the oppressed. Or, to put it in our "postmodern" terms: the struggle between Lavalas and the capitalist-military elite in Haiti is a case of genuine antagonism, an antagonism which cannot be contained within the frame of parliamentary-democratic "agonistic pluralism".
This is why Hallward's outstanding book is not just about Haiti, but about what it means to be a "leftist" today: ask a leftist how he stands towards Aristide, and it will be immediately clear if he is a partisan of radical emancipation or merely a humanitarian liberal who wants "globalisation with a human face".
Monday, June 29, 2015
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
- Walt Whitman, "France, The 18th Year Of These States"
A GREAT year and place;
A harsh, discordant, natal scream out-sounding, to touch the mother's
heart closer than any yet.
I walk'd the shores of my Eastern Sea,
Heard over the waves the little voice,
Saw the divine infant, where she woke, mournfully wailing, amid the
roar of cannon, curses, shouts, crash of falling buildings;
Was not so sick from the blood in the gutters running--nor from the
single corpses, nor those in heaps, nor those borne away in the
Was not so desperate at the battues of death--was not so shock'd at
the repeated fusillades of the guns.
Pale, silent, stern, what could I say to that long-accrued
Could I wish humanity different?
Could I wish the people made of wood and stone?
Or that there be no justice in destiny or time?
O Liberty! O mate for me!
Here too the blaze, the grape-shot and the axe, in reserve, to fetch
them out in case of need;
Here too, though long represt, can never be destroy'd;
Here too could rise at last, murdering and extatic;
Here too demanding full arrears of vengeance.
Hence I sign this salute over the sea,
And I do not deny that terrible red birth and baptism,
But remember the little voice that I heard wailing--and wait with
perfect trust, no matter how long;
And from to-day, sad and cogent, I maintain the bequeath'd cause, as
for all lands,
And I send these words to Paris with my love,
And I guess some chansonniers there will understand them,
For I guess there is latent music yet in France--floods of it;
O I hear already the bustle of instruments--they will soon be
drowning all that would interrupt them;
O I think the east wind brings a triumphal and free march,
It reaches hither--it swells me to joyful madness,
I will run transpose it in words, to justify it,
I will yet sing a song for you, MA FEMME.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Mystified and DeMystified "Solutions" - Still Working on the Latter Since "Materialism" Isn't Even the Real "Problem"
In the introduction to his book, "The Sublime Object of Ideology," Slavoj Zizek acquaints readers with his book's tripartite aim. He plans, among other things, to illustrate concepts fundamental to Lacanian psychoanalysis - an intention which will serve to further his more ambitious goal "to reactualize Hegelian dialectics by giving it a new reading" in the light of Lacanian psychoanalysis - and "to contribute to the theory of ideology via a new reading of some well-known classical motifs" (7). In this broad category of classical motifs associated with the theory of ideology, I aim to describe the evolving relationship between fetishism and the commodity-form.Mollie K. Clemons, "Term Crossing: Fetishism"
The first chapter opens by examining Lacan's claim that Karl Marx invented the notion of "symptom" (11) - a critical concept employed by both Marx and Freud in their respective disciplines. While novice theorists may initially balk at the thought of trying to integrate psychoanalysis and Marxism, the answer to this initial, seemingly bland query is well-worth the wait. Zizek skillfully elaborates the parallels existing between Marx's analysis of the world of commodities and Freud's - followed by Lacan's - analysis of the world of the unconscious. While he highlights the "fundamental homology" (11) between their respective interpretative procedures, he simultaneously moves to guide his readers' attention to the emphasis on "form" central to both schools.
In order to appreciate Zizek's "new reading" of commodity fetishism, it is particularly helpful to take a look at the "old" one. The original Marxian notion of commodity fetishism at work here involves "a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things" (Marx qtd. in Zizek 23). We are given, for instance, the abstraction involved in replacing production and social relations with the notion of a product or a commodity which we then assign a comparative "value" abstracted even further into the form of money. This is the classic example of Marxian "so-called commodity fetishism":Money is in reality just an embodiment, a condensation, a materialization of a network of social relations - the fact that it functions as a universal equivalent of all commodities is conditioned by its position in the texture of social relations. (Zizek 31)Commodity fetishism's "essential feature," though, can consist not merely of a faulty switch/exchange between "men" or "social relations" and "things," but also of "a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structure and one of its elements" (24). This "misrecognition," Zizek argues, is a function of the "inversion proper to fetishism" (24). To illustrate his point, he elaborates on a Marxian quote concerning the relation between a king and his subjects:Being-a-king is an effect of the network of social relations between a "king" and his "subjects"; but - and here is the fetishistic misrecognition - to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form: They think they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to this subjects, a king; as if the determination of "being-a-king" were a "natural" property of the person of the king. (25)Zizek uncovers two different and apparently incompatible modes of fetishism - commodity fetishism and a fetishism of "relations between men," where the former occurs in capitalist societies and the latter in pre-capitalist societies. This pre-capitalist "fetishism in relations between men" - such as between king and subject -- should be, Marx argues, called by its proper name: "relations of domination and servitude" (Marx qtd. in Zizek 26). In the capitalist world, then, the place of fetishism simply shifts "from intersubjective relations to "relations between things": the crucial social relations, those of production, are no longer transparent"; the true relations of domination and servitude are "repressed" and "disguise themselves" during this transition from feudalism (pre-capitalism) to capitalism, thus producing a Marxian "symptom" (26).
Following closely upon this revelation that social relations are "no longer transparent" comes the problem of another sort of "misrecognition" or "false consciousness" associated with Marx - his infamous definition of ideology from Capital as "they do not know it, but they are doing it" (Marx qtd. in Zizek28). Zizek, citing the example of money -- where we know very well that a coin/bill does not actually contain any sort of magical properties - argues that Marx's maxim should now be replaced with: "they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still they are doing it" (33) This should remind readers of Zizek's remarks from earlier in the text: "How tempting to recall here the formula of fetishistic disavowal: "I know very well, but still . . .".; or - "I know that money is a material object like others, but still . . . [it is as if it were made of a special substance over which time has no power]". (18).
Looking through the prism of Lacan and Marx, then, Zizek brands us as "fetishists in practice, not in theory"; he posits that we "do not know" or we "misrecognize" the fact that in our "social reality itself, in [our] social activity, in the act of commodity exchange, [we] are guided by the fetishistic illusion" (31). Amidst this discussion on ideology, Zizek highlights one of the most significant differences between Marx and Lacan:
In the predominant Marxist perspective the ideological gaze is a partial gaze overlooking the totality of social relations, whereas in the Lacanian perspective ideology rather designates a totality set on effacing the traces of its own impossibility. (49)
This difference corresponds to the one that distinguishes the Marxian from the Freudian notion of fetishism: In the former, fetish conceals the positive network of social relations, whereas in the latter a fetish conceals the lack ("castration") around which the symbolic network is articulated (49).
Friday, June 19, 2015
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
- Jorge Luis Borges, "Limits"
Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone
Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.
If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?
Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table
There must be one which I will never read.
There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.
There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.
There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.
You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.
And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.
At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Saturday, June 13, 2015
D.H. Lawewnce, "People"
The great gold apples of night
Hang from the street's long bough
Dripping their light
On the faces that drift below,
On the faces that drift and blow
Down the night-time, out of sight
In the wind's sad sough.
The ripeness of these apples of night
Distilling over me
Makes sickening the white
Ghost-flux of faces that hie
Them endlessly, endlessly by
Without meaning or reason why
They ever should be.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Did something homologous to the invention of the liberal psychological individual not take place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s? The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man — no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very “ultra-orthodoxy,” i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology: the image of man that we get in Eisenstein, Meyerhold, constructivist paintings, etc., emphasizes the beauty of his/her mechanical movements, his/her thorough depsychologization. What was perceived in the West as the ultimate nightmare of liberal individualism, as the ideological counterpoint to “Taylorization,” to Fordist ribbon-work, was in Russia hailed as the utopian prospect of liberation: recall how Meyerhold violently asserted the “behaviorist” approach to acting — no longer emphatic familiarization with the person the actor is playing, but ruthless bodily training aimed at cold bodily discipline, at the ability of the actor to perform a series of mechanized movements . . .” THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist “socialist realism” effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a “Socialism with a human face,” i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.-Slavoj Zizek, "On Belief" (Leninist Freedom)
The obvious reproach that imposes itself here is, of course: is the basic characteristic of today’s “postmodern” subject not the exact opposite of the free subject who experienced himself as ultimately responsible for his fate, namely the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control? Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat — if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment — recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery ... This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.
Monday, June 8, 2015
- Su Ben, "Oedipus the King of Thebes, III"
--Isn’t She a Daughter of Oedipus?--
Isn’t she Antigone? In search of a fallen prince,
who roams in the battlefield where the corpses of
defeated warriors lie gruesomely in streams of blood.
Isn’t she Antigone? In search of a sibling who was
rejected by a sightless ruined old homeless man at Colonus,
who walks through the middle of a pack of hungry wild dogs
and a flock of huge winged covetous vultures
coming together for laying carrion.
Isn’t she Antigone? For sake of a brother Polyneices’ soul,
who kneels to the ground and moves the earth with her slender fingers,
dragging an armored corpse and covers it with dirt she removed with tears.
Isn’t she Antigone? who risked her own life because of sisterly fidelity,
and, now, thrown into a hole that is deeper than Oedipus’ eye-pits
to end her anguish, a miserable life; to close her abhorrent memories, the horrible ordeals; while hearing a tender, caring voice of a wandering soul from above
“mourn no more, my troubled child
weep no more, my beloved daughter”
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Beckett's literature tells us that there is something that cannot be named, that there is something suspended and empty at the heart of the relation that persons, speakers, hold with the world, with things and their bodies, with others. A hole in the community that makes it simultaneoulsy impossible and possible. A void that makes community intolerable and that nevertheless gives it the elasticity, the porosity, without which a community becomes panoptic, carceral, and totalitarian.Christian Prigent, "Engagement and Indifference: Beckett and the Political"
This something is in the language and is language, is the fact of language. To attempt to erase its trace, its blind spot, its remnant of obscurity (from the perspective of science, morality, politics, discourse, well-managed narrative) is the objective of positive discourses (without which the community would sink into barbarity without laws). To bring all of this obstinately in and through language is the objective of art and literature, without which the community would sink into the totalitarian barbarity of the Law.
In other words, the condition of being cut from the world nourishes in us a dolorous nostalgia. To be tied body and soul to the community of speakers could weigh us down to the point of throwing us in atop a schizophrenic state. We cannot dream of a happy and redemptive homecoming, of a community at once supple and solid, and of the quieting of our neurotic sufferings. We must dream of abolishing the rupture, of escaping the prison. But if it is language that isolates and incarcerates us then escaping this prison implies escaping language. In the end this... acting-out amounts to madness. This is why madness is our peculiar temptation (along with violence, bestial abjection, mystical exaltation...).
But one does not escape language without leaving behind one's being human. One does not withdraw oneself from the human (and barbarism is the horizon of this unspeakable exit). This, then, forms the dilemma, in the customary sense but also in the silhouetted cursive of fiction, in which the Becktian creatures operate. Does one remain in prison (cancel oneself out as a free subject by submitting to the norms of the community, become, as the unnamable says, "reduced to reason," live stupidity, dress oneself in neurosis, speak only with the cadaver of the mother in one's mouth) or does one escape, without any voice, in the direction of barbarism, criminality. Winnie's potted autism or Lucky's mournful and delirious logorrhea? It is not surprising that we look for more clement skies, even if we secularize them under the heading of a gratifying Utopia.
Beckett is one of those who reduce, desicate, these reveries. For him, the only solution is not only more modest, but it is no solution at all. One can only exit language from within, by intervening in it (as Michaux likewise believed), by opening within it a provisional space of freedom, by rattling it with style and laughter, by working within it this symbolic bound that stays in one place (but is nevertheless a leap, "out of the rank of murderers," as Kafka said), this perilous and clownlike leap that is named literature, "excess of language," or "scripted gibberish." Without a doubt, there is no other civic meaning to this activity wherein solitude, says Beckett, finds its "apotheosis."
Beckett was one... "resistant" to the catastrophic euphoria of an engaged and utopian humanism. This resistance had a footing in writing, art, in this kind of form of the experience and the work of language turned entirely toward negativity and a hopelessly sovereign laughter. And we can be certain that such resistance, while in modes certainly different but deriving from the same ethical and philosophphical bases, remains very much and more than ever, the order of the day.
Monday, June 1, 2015
Henry David Thoreau, "I Knew A Man By Sight"
I knew a man by sight,
A blameless wight,
Who, for a year or more,
Had daily passed my door,
Yet converse none had had with him.
I met him in a lane,
Him and his cane,
About three miles from home,
Where I had chanced to roam,
And volumes stared at him, and he at me.
In a more distant place
I glimpsed his face,
And bowed instinctively;
Starting he bowed to me,
Bowed simultaneously, and passed along.
Next, in a foreign land
I grasped his hand,
And had a social chat,
About this thing and that,
As I had known him well a thousand years.
Late in a wilderness
I shared his mess,
For he had hardships seen,
And I a wanderer been;
He was my bosom friend, and I was his.
And as, methinks, shall all,
Both great and small,
That ever lived on earth,
Early or late their birth,
Stranger and foe, one day each other know.