Politics and Symbolics

“So,” I told myself (I don’t know if I was overcome: the difficulties were finally bringing me relief), “the only thing left for me to do is beyond my strength.” –Georges Bataille

An odd coincidence prompted this post. Yesterday morning, I stumbled upon various virtual productions of American “Marxist” political theorist Jodi Dean. This morning, I awoke to a comment by Aaron Wentz on my previous post about Zizek’s book FTTF, asking me if I’d seen Dean’s video on the Communist Horizon and if I had any thoughts about organizing. He asks specifically:

I wonder, in practical terms, where this is happening, where the Left (Communists) are organizing themselves (again).  The reason I ask is that I want to involve myself.  Have you seen this beginning to happen, in any serious way around theory (not some outmoded protest model)?

Just yesterday morning, I’d commented on this video over at Dean’s blog; I’d also made some comments on my Facebook page in response to one of Dean’s unfinished articles on “Taking Control,” which you can find here (her article, not my response). So, in response to Aaron’s question, in this post I’ll compile-revise-repeat what I said yesterday in response to Jodi Dean’s work. I hesitate to do so, however, due to how little I’ve engaged it. Considering my critique of her positions is partially based on my affinity to Zizek’s “communist project,” it is quite the omission to have not dealt with her book on Zizek’s Politics before responding. Alas, I think that part of any communist project is not waiting until our knowledge is fleshed out; in fact, to wait to do so is to have already given up on it. Zizek writes that the true act is what fills in a gap in knowledge; and if the subject itself is this gap, then there is obviously an infinite task set before us.

Having said that, perhaps the best way to begin is to ask a question: at what point do we stop filling in the gaps in our knowledge and begin organizing the political party? On the surface, this problem will incite a traditional duality between theory and practice– as if I had just asked, “when does our theoretical pursuit have to become practical?” But framing things in this way already misses the crux of Zizek’s point here: that it is a true act which fills in a gap in knowledge, not a “true theory.” Perhaps we need to do a reversal and admit that the idea that we have to start organizing political action only purports to be a “true theory,” and misses the fact that there is no such thing as a “true theory,” even if it is a theory that demands urgent political organization. This orthodox position misses the fact that the truth speaks (i.e., it does not solidify itself, whether as theory or as a rubric for collective action); and that perhaps it is more pertinent to make sure we are speaking the truth before we go trying to organize it or impose it qua collective action of the communist party. To be blunt, to my mind, any “party” turns into just that, i.e., an orgiastic gathering where we might agree, might disagree, but by the end of the night we’re either blacked-out, in bed with strangers, or simply disappointed and alone. This is why I said over on Jodi’s blog that “perhaps the key point is to prevent ourselves from cooperating in groups.”

Obviously, it is time for me to flesh out a few things. I anticipate that I will part from Dean from the most part. What I pursue here will attempt to map a few key references, or rather, a few potential places (books) wherein others might come to map themselves into the “communist” project as I currently see it. It should become clear that the “I” in this phrase, “as I currently see it,” is precisely what is at issue, and who’s “I” it exactly is (remembering that “ex-action,” is nevertheless a kind of action). In other words, what is precisely at issue for me is that when I echo Zizek in saying that “a true act is what fills in a gap in our knowledge,” what’s most important for me here is not truth, action, knowledge, or the gap– but the “our.”

(1) Power

What struck me initially when I watched Dean’s video, and especially after reading the article, was her obsession, or rather fetishization, of the place of power. The working title to her paper was literally titled, “Taking Control.” This reminded me immediately of one of a quote from one of Jean Baudrillard’s final articles before he died in 2007:

“Power itself must be abolished– and not solely because of a refusal to be dominated, which is at the heart of all traditional struggles– but also, just as violently, in the refusal to dominate. Intelligence cannot, can never be in power because intelligence consists of this double refusal.”

No accident, this quote is the back-blurb for his book The Agony of Power (2005). Power, however, is not a new concern for B.; in the book that was his first big splash, Forget Foucault (1977), he writes, “power never ceases being the term [at the center of Foucault’s discourse], and the question of its extermination can never arise”; “the analytics of power is not pushed to its conclusion at the point where power cancels itself out or where it has never been” (31, 49). Even the most timid interpretations of B.’s project, that all of reality is merely simulacra, etc., could be seen as an attempt of his to undermine power: emphasizing that everything is but a shifting change of surface appearances, without any substantive depth, is tantamount to telling you: put down your weapons, disarm. But I do not want to get into a discussion of simulacra, other than to note that for B., political power is ultimately puppetry:

It is useless therefore to run after power or to discourse about it ad infinitum since from now on it also partakes of the sacred horizon of appearances and is also there only to hide the fact that it no longer exists, or rather to indicate that since the apogee of the political has been crossed, the other side of the cycle is now starting in which power reverts into is own simulacrum.

So what is “power,” exactly, for B.? “Neither an agency, a structure, a substance, nor in fact a force relation, power is a challenge,” that is, power is precisely the challenge to think or exist power’s non-existence. He makes the claim that throughout history it is those who have known this who have truly ‘benefited from’ or partaken in the effects of the non-power of power. This is also the challenge to power to be power, and thereby to destroy in a total way, all the way to the point of destroying itself. While the communist-revolutionary party may scoff at this ‘encourage power to be a more total power,’ we need only look to a historical figure like Jesus, perhaps the one who ‘surrendered’ his political power par excellence, to see how terrifying for political power this other kind of (non-)power. Clearly, we are talking about symbolic power, which B. says has never stopped “undoing the truth of the political.” It is here that, personally, my critique of Dean’s desire to “take control” (B. links the themes of power and desire as two instances of one another), but more generally, the desire of Left political parties to do the same, begins:

Each person knows deep down that any form of power is a personal challenge, a challenge to the death, and one that can only be answered by a counterchallenge to break the logic of power or, even better, to enclose it in a circular logic.

It is this dual gesture of breaking the logic of power and enclosing it in a circular logic that B. finds the challenge of power. This is perhaps the answer to the question, “why write?” Academia’s obsession with the more timid aspects of B.’s project (simulacra, etc.) could have only been a joke for him, yet another attempt to take control over that which can only undermine it. In The Transparency of Evil, he even writes something to the effect of, ‘Theory is just a trap that the real falls into.’ He means that his work is not a theory, but a challenge, that is, a “call to action” that has nothing to rely on aside from this personal challenge. This is the “nonpolitical side of power, the side of its symbolic reversal,” which “opposes its own space to political space,” which “knows neither middle-range nor long-term: its only term is the immediacy of response or death” (62). It will come as no surprise, therefore, that I cannot help but be both disappointed and yet encouraged by the desire to organize, this desire to gain power for the Left or for “communism” (which includes, Aaron, that question of yours which I quoted above). Why? Because it falls into the trap of ‘everything is political,’ ‘everything is a game of power.’ Or, if you like, it tries to assert itself over the world by thinking it knows best, or at least has the best intentions. It assumes that political organizing is more important than studying. It is obvious that Marx never did any of that himself; he wrote and wrote and wrote (there are 3 volumes of Das Kapital, the last of which remained unfinished), and essentially died of exhaustion. But I also think of Fernando Pessoa, or Jack Spicer, or Paul Celan– three great poets of the last century who were largely limited in their political activity, and yet devoted themselves wholesale to a poetic body of work which has yet to fully been heeded. If you read them (especially Celan), you will find that there the concerns of the community, the future, etc., are of utmost concern. Why didn’t they politically organize? I think because there was a sense that it is in the nonpolitical space that power truly becomes sovereign, where it grasps itself as challenge, as symbolic, or even as a symbolic challenge.

This is why I wrote over on Dean’s blog that “the only honest way to ‘identify’ with the Excluded [is] not to render a new kind of voice/power to the Excluded, but to inhabit the powerless place of the Excluded.” This is also why I related this urge for power, or for organization, to Lacanian “passages a l’act,” which stands for “acting-out,” or reaching for the object of desire/power in an ill-informed (basically political) way. Without getting into it here, this has to do with the difference between desire (interchangeable with power) and what is called “drive” or “death drive.” In B.’s terms, “death drive” would stand for taking up the challenge of the non-existence of power, as a symbolic challenge, inhabiting this “non-place” as void. In psychoanalysis, it is the difference between “goal” and “aim,” where goal is stuck in the logic of desire and its object, where as with “aim” you have instead the infinite circling around the object, but never reaching it (or rather, recognizing its non-existence, or that “I” am/is the object); it means deriving a sort of (non-)satisfaction by constantly circling around the object of desire, where to reach would mean to annihilate both the object and the desire (i.e., to collapse the challenge onto a political terrain). Even in Kant’s moral philosophy, we have this very same idea, where “the mere being worthy of happiness can interest of itself, even without the motive of participating in this happiness.” In other words, what contrasts with “acting-out,” is what Zizek calls “symbolic death”– and for me, this is clearly similar to what B. is calling for when speaking of “a symbolic violence more powerful than any political violence.” Quite appropriately, B.’s book on Foucault ends with this:

IN ANY CASE, power lures us on and truth lures us on. Everything is in the lightning-quick contraction in which an entire cycle of accumulation, of power, or of truth comes to a close. There is never any inversion or any subversion: the cycle must be accomplished. But it can happen instantaneously. It is death that is at stake in this contraction.

(2) Identity

There are many divergent paths a person could take from here. I’m curious what those obsessed with political organizing would have to say at this point, or whether or not they would continue reading. But that is simply a curiosity. To put it in some of Celan’s terms, what is of importance here is the mystery of the space of an encounter, where I send myself ahead of myself and encounter myself (you) along the way, and where language acquires a voice, or at least a space, along the way. To return to Baudrillard, we could cite his entire book Fatal Strategies with all of this in mind (“Why avail oneself of meaning when silence is sure to win? The power of the object lies in its irony. Difference is always serious, but indifference is ironic”). We could turn to Georges Bataille’s early work, where he writes, “No one is more avid than I to find the virtues of association, no one is more frightened than I of the deception that founds individual isolation, but the love of human destiny exists in me with enough force to relegate to the background the concern for the forms through which it [association? or individual isolation?–TL] can enter”– which, rather than nullifying the imperatives to associate or to be individual, bring to light their (dis)unity where a love for human destiny is called to prevail (a destiny without established figure or bounds, we should add: “perhaps there is no composition either of form or of being, where it seems that death rolls from world to world”). I would probably prefer to follow Bataille, whose Inner Experience circles around the questions of death, the emptiness or non-existence of the “inner” (power), and the question of communication and community as such. These are certainly paths I have followed and encourage. But as Kant says of the possibility of freedom, there is no explaining it, nor is there any proving it. Furthermore, it is not even given to experience, it is not a possession; it is something we must “assume” in order to be responsible, and we assume this to the extent that we recognize its “impossibility.” There is, perhaps, only defending its possibility against those political hacks who would try to tell you that you must listen to them, or follow them, into their vertiginous night of power and desire. For freedom is not about desire, nor about power. Freedom is a simulacra– or (symbolic) death.

It is in the section “Identity” that I would usually find the most to say. Instead, I think I’ll let Philippe Soller’s speak, from his essay on Antonin Artaud, “Thought Expresses Signs” (1964), collected in the book Writing and the Experience of Limits:

…this decisive reversal that finally consists not in producing and writing, but in writing oneself and producing oneself, of entering the sole reality of signs where one is a sign…

…Not a language that is already accessible, codified, and contained by the spoken or written word, but one that comes from and occupies everything, simultaneously overtaking our body and coming from our internal night, at the intersection of space and thought where non-sense becomes sense, and where, properly speaking, we actualize our signs…

…writing is what obliges one to live in a certain manner, or it is nothing. To live in a state of ceaseless communication…

…we agree to think our thought and accept the communication it implies, in an experience that admits of no codification, that is “poetry” (whose only rule is the opening up of thought), language lived as such. For we constantly live in a figurative sense, while sense shapes us, while we are language at every instant and on every level…

…but I know I will not actually reach communication unless I am also the one who denies those limits in a shattering and irreversible moment, and who by means of this affirmation reaches the driving force of meaning… communication’s strongest point, the point of thought, is thus the very spot where communication risks failure, and thus it is from noncommunication that I wrest the possibility of a fundamental communication…

…thus we rediscover the necessity of a radically new position vis-a-vis language (of a practice beyond the word)…

(3) “With”

I would be remiss if I did not end with a note about the one “topic” that has driven much of my research and writing for the past few years. This is precisely the topic of the “community.” I would first mention that I’ve recently clarified my thinking as to what I have meant all along by “community” in reading Kant seriously for the first time (via Zizek and another wonderful book on Kant and Marx by Kojin Karatani, Transcritique). Kant turns upside down what we usually consider private and public. For him, “private” are all those communities that I am a part of, which would include any political parties. “Public” is my membership in a world-civil-society, or a cosmopolitan society, which in all practical senses doesn’t exist (yet). This is parallel to the bracketing he does with the world of sense (“private”) and the world of understanding (“public”). The world of understanding, that cosmopolitan world, is akin to what I referred to regarding freedom in the last section. It is hard to get a grip on, so to speak: there is no proof of it empirically, nor does it give itself to be sensed. We have to assume its possibility by engaging with the challenge of its impossibility. We have to, in short, work at it. You can get an idea of what Kant is thinking in this short essay of his. For me, it implies living through the challenge articulated on the edge of Sollers’ statements, even though I’ve never heard Sollers say a word about Kant. I think this only attests to the “universality” of this idea of the “public use of reason.” I think it implies thinking, being-(set-)free, and freeing-language. It implies an idea of community that goes beyond politics, and this is of primary importance. It implies, why not, symbolic violence. It implies the “we” of Nietzsche when he writes of the “we philosophers of the future.”

I know that it would be very simple to think that, in this essay, I’ve argued for some sort of writerly or poetic position that doesn’t know how to deal with the “facts on the ground,” or that I am content to sit back and write books. This is partially due because I cannot express in simple words how frustrated I have been at the limitations of my work to “reach” the others or the community that I sense. There is also no evidence of how many hours I’ve spent watching political news or trying to combat people on a political basis– and how sad and disappointed I’m left after those arguments, and how they really are simple “actings-out.” There is also no evidence here of other projects of mine, which include a sort of life-long log of the “symbolic suicide” I’ve referenced. And, saying that, I am always going to be doing this. The communist project is eternal for good reason. We just have to know what it means to engage and uphold it. For my part, reading something like Badiou’s Theory of the Subject has done much more for this engagement than has any political debate or “struggle.” And reading those books doesn’t prevent me from serving at the local soup kitchen, donating to Kiva, or sending some money to buy school desks for kids in Africa. It’s just that these latter things are ultimately political, and simply throw ammo at the beastly guns; whereas the former, while interminable, is saturated with the signs of the eternal.

My attempt at mapping various other writers onto this essay was not to try and “tag-along,” but to show while that tagging-along is impossible (none of this is yet), there is a different kind of togetherness that not only encounters these “facts” but creates new ones. You can look back at some of my old posts on this topic. The creation of new possibilities, as the creation of the world, is the task set before us. I agree with Zizek in that there is a greater space for communist action today; but we need to see the example he sets (or to be more Kantian, to respect the fact of reason as it manifests in the appearance of “Zizek”), rather than focusing on his individual statements. His writings are primarily an encounter with the empty subject of psychoanalysis, as the subject of philosophy beginning with Descartes; that this encounter has such a voracious appetite for language, and is largely indifferent to political struggles (in fact getting heat from all sides of the aisle), should be a sign that he is “on to something.” That he sees no need to organize doesn’t mean he is content to be a theorist, but that theory is the one true act (his example is Lacan, who (from what I gather) was largely indifferent to the movements in ’68).

To return to the topic of community, and if you will indulge me for a bit of personal biography, I consider the inception of my “communist endeavor” to have been a few years ago upon reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community. There, he thematizes the difference between “common-being” and “being-in-common.” In short, all calls to return to religion, or to a political party, or to nationalism, are so many attempts at subsuming subjects into a common substance or goal, i.e., a common being. It is here that he first comes upon his notion of “being-in-common,” and he employs the (non-)concepts of spacing, co-appearing, touching, and limits throughout all his works to try and explain this (non-)concept. Drawing from Bataille’s notion of powerlessness or desoeuvrement, the inoperative community is the community not put into operation (not even the vulgar Marxist one of realizing the core of human essence or potential). For Nancy, all these representations are cracked. I highly suggest either this book or his Being Singular Plural, which is one of his longest essays, and deals precisely with the question of the “with.” There he writes, “the question has to be posed as to whether being-together can do without a figure and, as a result, without an identification, if the whole of its ‘substance’ consists only in spacing.” There is also a book by Giorgio Agamben entitled The Coming Community which is also worth checking out, although we’d have to add that there is no guarantee that the coming community is coming (at least not anymore than it was guaranteed that all of this could have been written-communicated without our spending the time together, engaged-encountering (us) together).

What is absolutely clear is that we must not give up or give in to political solutions. But what is even clearer is that we must not stop speaking. I cannot agree that “we cannot give into political solutions” because part of Dean’s work, which motivated Aaron’s question and this entire post, is involved with finding political solutions. Conversely, perhaps what made her message reach us is that it is participating in a symbolic solution, even without her knowing it (although I’d say that any symbolic solution involves our “not knowing it”!, and not only because the “solution,” or knowledge, never comes). I am quite thankful for what Dean does, and would never discourage her from pursuing her voice. If I have been a counter point in her personal struggle, then I can only be glad, and once again thank her, and you (Aaron), and anyone else who speaks, for participating as a counterpoint in my own. For in the enter (yes, I meant to type “end”), there is no point to make, nor are there any points to counter, regardless of what “side” politically you take (and certainly, I have my “private” sides). In the end (“enter”?), there are just so many tangents and so many counterparts, starts and stops, editions and revisions, and, why not?, capitalism and communists– structures and subjects.

Tim Lavenz

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