Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slavoj Zizek on American Resistance

Slavoj Zizek, my favorite Slovenian Lacanian theorist (yes, there are more than one), is up to his old Hegelian reversals in this piece about resistance. Somehow, I can't help but resist his notion of resistance, which feels more than a little smugly self-satisfied:
The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

And further:
The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

I.e., "The key is not to ask for too much, but just for something very specific." I don't know, Slavoj, really? I'm not sure there is any key to making resistance more pragmatic and goal-specific. Just because we have progressive and peace-related think tanks doesn't mean we've gotten any closer to ending this war. As usual, resistance needs to be both more quixotic and absolutist AND more specific and pragmatic. For the sake of resistance--to spur on dissent, to hearten the disheartened, to speak for those with no voice--as much as for any notion of political address.


bigbadbull said...

I can see what you are saying here...but I don't think Slavoj is advocating a politics of pragmatism since the intent of his essay was to critique Simon Critchley's work. The principal difficulty we on the "left" have is that protest/speaking truth to power is _the_ political act. I think Salvoj's concept of the "finite demand" only makes sense if buy the first proposition in his critique of Critchley--that the infinite demands of the left have the unwitting (unconscious) effect of re-enforcing the authority of those in power. The other example that Slavoj has used historically to illustrate this point is his critique of Negri and Hardt's advocacy of universal open borders. This is a demand that has the appearance of being progressive and yet it is demanded with the secret assurance that it would never come to pass--which is precisely what allows for such a demand to be articulated.
Why then are these "infinite demands" articulated? Slavoj's answer is that their utterance reveals the primary function of language. If the primary function of language is not communication but the creation of a bond (that is operative on a symbolic and imaginary level) then in a sense what Slavoj appears to be saying here is that the primary function of left politics is the formation of relationships of imaginary identification with other "beautiful souls".
I think, as per usual, Slavoj is challenging us to think about what would distinguish the properly ethical ACT from this imaginary/identificatory process in which the left's hysterical demands add to the legitimacy of those who deal with the real world (or those who imagine the establishment of a democracy means little more than the creation of a state where free markets--and ineffective political speech--become possible). I am wondering if Slavoj's challenge here is to urge us to consider something more than protesting the policies of the US/UK's actions as states and to instead, question their legitimacy, to somehow reveal their NON-investment in the democratic process. Given the failed history of left movements which have questioned the game of democracy itself, its up to Slavoj to convince of the possibilities of this more dangerous course of action.

Susan said...

We could start by ending funding for the war in Iraq. But even that seems impossible in this anti-democratic climate.

I miss Quixote.

Philip Metres said...

Big Bad Bull,

I really like what you've said here--that Zizek is asking us to stake out claims that will force state power to reveal its truly undemocratic face--and not to fool ourselves into utopian demands which reinforce the fantasy that state power is somehow democratic and open to allow such talk in the first place. Well done, then! Still, you have to admit that Zizek seems to expend an awful lot of energy in the Hegelianesque reversal, which is itself a kind of "voila!"...which stimulates momentarily but also feels somehow more pyrotechnical than something that we can work with. If I read your reading of Zizek correctly, I still don't get whether he'd prefer anarchist-style actions which reveal the repressiveness of state power (but also lead to the inevitably staged kinds of confrontations that seem to go nowhere) or more practical demands of the sort that Joe and Jane Midwest might be asking for--such as pressuring congresspeople to withdraw troops more quickly (and the absence of which would reveal a kind of imperial inertia). Anyway, thanks for illuminating some of the context in which he's responding.