Archive for Žižek

A Dialectic Of Normality

Posted in Reactions, Speculation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2014/04/13 by las Pétroleuses

Today, I just finished reading the very interesting Nihilist Communism. In what I see as the major text of the book, which comes at its end (it begins, after a 2009 introduction by Frere Dupont–the one of the book’s two authors who did not completely abandon politics in the wake of their project–with an edited set of letters between the two authors, and follows with a collection of various articles and interventions the pair produced), “Cruelty, or, the Inclusion of the Distributive Sphere,” the author(s) engage in a very pointed analysis of the movements of the Seventies. (This period of time has been the subject of a remarkable amount of analysis in the decades since; it’s hard not to conclude that, despite the mutually-exclusive nature of many of these analyses, they all refer to something real. In Lacanese, they are so many Imaginary narratives trying to make sense of the injunction of a Real trauma into the Symbolic order of everyday life. Consider: postmodernity, de-industrialization/post-industrial society, Autonomia’s (in)famous notion of “immaterial labor” or what Hardt & Negri will later re-name “biopolitical production”, the communisateurs’ narrative of the “death of programmatism”, etc…) On a certain level, the thrust of Monsieur Dupont’s analysis touches on recurring theme of capitalist civil society: the relation between the individual and society in terms of “normality” or “normalcy.” Here, I will simply lay out some rough thoughts in my preferred form of a dialectical quartet.

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On Turns

Posted in Speculation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 2014/02/17 by las Pétroleuses

For a thinker, or whatever term you prefer, a fundamental category is “turn.” In 20th century philosophy, the classic example is “the turn” (or, “the Turn”) which occupies so many pages of scholarship about Martin Heidegger. (If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the TL;DR: Heidegger is generally considered the Nazi philosopher, and is best known for his unfinished tome Being and Time, or in the much more epic German, Sein und Zeit.) “The turn” in this context means a number of interrelated things; it is an example of what Slavoj Zizek would call a short-circuit: between Heidegger’s most prominent engagement in the Nazi counter-revolution, and the manifold changes in his philosophy from before to after; for Heidegger himself, between the latter conceived as an injunction into the history of philosophy–more precisely, the shift in analytical perspective from the “Dasein” or existence of humans and the “History of Being” or Seinsgeschichte—and a process within that History, distinguished, in more nuanced Heidegger scholarship/translation, from the previous short-circuit as “turning”. That is, a turn is a lane-change or even an exit ramp on the self-building highway of history, regardless of whether you focus on the initial paver or the more normal automobiles that often follow. A prime example is what’s known as the Linguistic Turn. Continue reading

Real Truth

Posted in Actions with tags , , , , , on 2013/10/01 by las Pétroleuses

One of the important contributions which Slavoj Žižek has made to contemporary philosophy is his reconceptualization of the category of truth. For decades, there have been two irreconcilable positions regarding this category (and which unsurprisingly line up with the analytic/continental divide): those who hold to the classical correspondence theory of truth, and those who hold to a relativist/perspectival position (usually connected to postmodernism). The former is quite familiar, even commonsensical: truth is a property of statements (by a subject) in relation to (objective) reality, namely whereby they accurately represent it. (In line with this, knowledge is usually defined as justified true belief, where a belief is basically a statement, such that knowledge is not simply true statements but statements whose truth is justified by some argument.) The latter is no less familiar, at least in the academic domain of theory: the truth of a statement is understood to be inseparable from its context, that is, the set of conditions (the “discourse” or “dispositif” or even the “episteme“, even though in Foucault these are not the same) which is the background that allows the statement to be meaningful (the point being that this process of becoming-meaningful precedes that of becoming-true). Žižek occupies a third position with regards to these two, defining a notion of truth which on the one hand avoids the subject/object dualism of the former position while not abandoning truth to the relativism of the latter. We can understand this as a dialectical triad: if the perspectival position is an abstract negation of correspondence, then Žižek’s connection of truth with the Lacanian category of the Real serves as a determinate negation. First, we have objective reality and a multitude of subjective positions which can be true or false; second, we have only this panopoly of subjective positions, insofar as objective reality is inseparable from them (i.e. insofar as such a notion of objective reality is an example of the “metaphysics of presence”); finally, we have the re-definition of truth as connected with that position which can account for this very multiplicity, with that Real antagonism which generates this multiplicity in the first place. Žižek’s classic example is class struggle: we have a multiplicity of positions on this fact which structures our economy (reactionary, conservative, liberal, social democrat, marxist, anarchist, etc.), but only one of these positions (for him, marxist, for us, “communist” in a broader and yet more esoteric sense beyond the marxist/anarchist feud) is true, insofar as it can (here, through [a specifically “intersectional”] class analysis) account for the range of possible positions we encounter.

Fate, or, Machine of Death

Posted in Reactions with tags , , , , , , , , , on 2013/09/11 by las Pétroleuses

If you’re familiar with the webcomics scene, a few years ago you might have heard of a book called Machine of Death. It was edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, being an anthology of about two-and-a-half dozen short stories all involving some form of machine which can unerringly predict one’s death. Needless to say the machine’s predictions (printed in as few words as possible on a business card) are “ironically vague;” my personal favorite illustration of this is from the last story in the book (“Cassandra”): a guy’s card reads “ASTEROID”, and so for months is followed around by scientists waiting to pick up the rock as it’s still hot from space; he dies during the filming, in a museum, of a documentary about him, when a display falls over and an old asteroid hits him in the head.

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Posted in Actions with tags , , , , on 2013/07/12 by las Pétroleuses

One of the figures that recurs endlessly in Žižek’s work is the Rabinovitch joke; he uses it to present the way dialectical sublation or “negation of negation” operates as a recognition of success in (an initial) failure. Rabinovitch is a Jew looking to emigrate from the USSR. He informs the immigration official that the reason he wants to leave is his fear that, were the USSR to collapse, Jews would be blamed and rounded up. “But the USSR will never collapse, socialism is here to stay!” responds the official. Rabinovitch responds: “that is my second reason.”

An interesting example of how this process occurs in history is how “Big Bang” came to name the beginning of the universe (or at least, the popular story). Initially, the scientific community was split between the theory of the “primeval atom” and “steady state” theory (that the universe has always existed and will always exist). Fred Hoyle, a proponent of steady state, the story goes, proposed “Big Bang” as a pejorative name of the former theory–to which the scientific community responded as Rabinovitch, “yes, exactly!” (Another good example of this structure from the history of science is the famous thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat, which was intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and subsequently taken up as a perfect illustration of that interpretation.)

Art’s Social Reflexions

Posted in Speculation with tags , , , , , on 2013/05/06 by las Pétroleuses

Not too long ago, in a reddit comment on r/Bioshock, I found myself entering into a bit of an exegesis about the nature of art, and its social function:

“Ultimately, “art” is any thing a human has created which is a “reflection” of that person’s world (for art to be non- or anti-representational is a choice; I doubt we’ll ever find a society whose art starts out as abstract). But “reflection” is not the best word, as that feeds into one of the main ideologies of art, that art can be passively considered and observed; an example of this is when artists (I think of Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow’s comments on their most recent films) say that their work merely reflects back at the spectator the culture which the artist and the spectator share. This is ideology, in the pejorative sense, insofar as all art is necessarily more than just a reflection of the society which gave birth to it: it is an instantiation of this culture, and an intervention into it. (One of ideology’s main functions, it seems to me, is to cover over the intricacies of this process by which supra-individual, societal things, from art to religion to gender to the market to politics, exist only by why of the actions of individuals who presuppose their existence independently of said actions.) In other words, art is political–moreover, the notion that a piece of art can be non-ideological, “purely for entertainment,” is, I believe, in fact the most ideological notion of art possible. (I say “I believe” specifically because I did not come up with this point about ideology. The credit for that belongs to Slavoj Zizek.)” (I’m sure BioShock: Infinite will get its own long analysis here in the future.) Continue reading

“America’s not a country, it’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”

Posted in Reactions with tags , , , , , on 2013/04/13 by las Pétroleuses

Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of the crime novel Cogan’s Trade, about a contract killer (the eponymous Jackie Cogan, played by Brad Pitt) hired to kill “three morons” after they rob a mafioso card game. In a world of crime movies increasingly relying on complex plots, late-game reveals and twists, Killing Them Softly is refreshingly straightforward, which also allows it to make a strong political commentary that may or may not be in the original novel–I have no way of knowing. Bluntly: KTS is the best fictional account of the 2007-08 financial crisis and the political response to it yet made. It ain’t directly revolutionary, but it’s a start. (Spoilers!)

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Metaphysics and Science, or, the One and the Not-All

Posted in Speculation with tags , , , , , , , on 2013/03/07 by las Pétroleuses

Here in the US of A, one of the main battlefronts in the ongoing culture war, as our conservatives put it, is the debate over science and religion. The way this debate ostensibly goes, is both sides think one term is subordinated to the other: conservatives that science is subordinated to religion, liberals the reverse. This seems to be how conservatives frame it at least–or, more precisely, religious conservatives. More libertarian conservatives likely decry the teaching of creationism along with secular liberals. New Age liberals likely see the two as mutually interdependent, and religious liberals unsurprisingly sometimes side with religious conservatives. I think this debate can be reduced to the question of the relation between science and metaphysics. Framed in these terms, we–“radical leftists,” let’s say–take the surprising position (analogous to that) of a religious conservative: science is, in the last instance, subordinate to metaphysics.

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The Bat & The Cat, or, Gotham City & Arkham City

Posted in Reactions with tags , , , , , , on 2013/02/11 by las Pétroleuses

One of my long-term pet projects is an analysis of Batman as a fundamental myth or legend of US culture. This piece can be seen as a sort of aside in the course of that project.

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How We Got To Here

Posted in GPOY with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2013/02/04 by las Pétroleuses

Let this be some context. The blog is the new journal or better diary, no? In “my” fantasy (I imagine it’s the fantasy of anyone who creates a blog and is minimally honest with themself) this blog will one day be well-read or well-liked or whatever. So lets get the personal-historical shit out of the way first. Politically, I started out in the nebulous no-zone of teenage political apathy, basically a liberal in that suburban classist way where the only reason I didn’t like Republicans is because I thought they were all fucking idiots (read: poor dumb white people); the ideological differences didn’t matter. My parents vote, but they ain’t patriots, and so neither was or am I. Enter college. Around this time, I was involved with a silly browser-based ‘game’ called CyberNations (holy shit it’s actually still around good god kill me); “game” in scare-quotes since CN is barely more of a game than the more well-known NationStates (the latter is based on weekly ‘policy decisions’ that improve some stats; CN is based on a daily intake of resources which are then spent in certain ways). You quickly learn that CN is more about the meta-game than the game itself, which serves as the formal-real actualization of the socio-symbolic meta-game. The world of CyberNations is one with literally tens of thousands of nation-states (if you don’t remember, our world has about 200), and so it was the Alliances of nation-states that really mattered. The alliance I happened to join was a minor one, called the Fifth Column Confederation.

The FCC was interesting (and lord knows part of me finds CN interesting enough to consider analyzing its little microcosm more in depth, help me) in that it was fairly ideologically cohesive. To give a simple, but likely not simplistic picture, imagine a two-axis political spectrum (you’re probably familiar with it): Libertarian-Authoritarian and Individualist-Collectivist. FCC fit pretty snug in that corner of Libertarian-Individualist, the members running the gamut from what we in the US know as libertarians (who can be categorized by their position on Ron Paul: they would range from “he’s the least worst of the bunch” to “He Is God Incarnate”) through (so-called) anarcho-capitalists to agorists (basically anarcho-capitalists who don’t pretend to be anarchists; they really like black markets). Being an impressionable youth, and also I’m sure in order to fit in, I went along with the tides of the alliance, and was waving my own tiny little black-and-gold flag… But over time, it stopped making sense.

My ivory tower background is in philosophy, and two conceptual structures come to mind for, firstly, the shift from being an ancap to being a commie, and, secondly, the entire three-stage process of pseudo-liberal/ancap/commie. The first structure is that of Alain Badiou’s “Truth-Event,” which is to say how events occur, how (pre)existing structures are changed through significant occurrences; in dialectical terms an event is the shift from quantitative change to qualitative change, from ongoing change that remains at the level of “inherent transgression,” easily recuperated by the system in question, to wide-ranging, radical change that restructures the system itself. Badiou’s event always strikes twice (recalling Hegel’s comment on historical change, that any real event happens twice in order to become part of history). This gap between the first and second occurrence of an event is simply the gap between when it ‘really really’ happened and when it was symbolically registered, when it became incorporated into symbolic reality (some conceptual oppositions that run along these lines: Hegel’s In-Itself/For-Itself, Lacan’s Real/Symbolic, and Deleuze’s Virtual/Actual respectively). The two moments of my shift from ancap to communist were, in short, reading and analyzing John Locke’s second Treatise on Government, and reading Slavoj Žižek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.

My encounter with Locke’s political work (I believe I had by this point already gone through his epistemology/metaphysics in a different class) fits the bill of the first occurrence of my “communist event” insofar as I only recognized it as such in hindsight. The two papers I wrote on the second Treatise were basically secondary analyses (i.e. unoriginal commentaries) on a journal article I had found, which made the argument that Locke’s political logic rests on the prohibition of suicide. In our postmodern ivory tower, you don’t run into thinkers like Locke much anymore (even among the analytics), who truly endeavors to construct a fully self-consistent and cohesive theoretical edifice, a beautiful crystalline house of thought-cards. The one card it all rested on was his argument for why suicide is to be prohibited by any rational government, which, tellingly, is also the only place that religion directly enters into his politics: citizens of a liberal government cannot justifiably commit suicide insofar as they are not their own property, but rather are the property of God (it appears then that the stereotypical notion of Lockean self-ownership is more a loan we take out from Yahweh in exchange for not paying back the debt of existence too early, before God says we can…). You might rightly wonder how this is the lynchpin of his political system. The answer is that the prohibition of suicide is the flipside of the right to self-preservation; insofar as the prohibition of suicide flies in the face of self-ownership, we could say that “self-ownership” is the form that self-preservation takes in an economic realm defined by property. Thus we have moved through the famous three rights of Locke’s politics: life, liberty, and property.

But lets leave aside Locke. What’s more interesting is the question that Locke pushed me to pose, as well as how I framed it. What is “the purpose of the human political project: the creation of a polity for the success of the persons who make up the community, or for the well-being of the people that is defined through this polity?” By this point the ancap or individualist part of me was beginning to come to a head with the developing commie/collectivist part. By this point, as a full-blown believer in dialectics as a theoretical framework, I see this political opposition as false or unsatisfactory (a truly “communist” community would be neither or both individualist and/or collectivist), but at the time it was perfectly relevant to the stage my political development was in. It was less than a year later that I ran into Žižek’s First as Tragedy. The slim book was not the first of his that I had read (that would either be Enjoy Your Symptom! in a film theory class or Mapping Ideology in a fun independent study), but it was the first that was explicitly political, as opposed to the other two which had the clothing of pure theory. It was the first thing I had read to really force the word “capitalism” to become a category in my thought, and moreover to critically approach it, to ask: is the wage a just form of labor? Is profit a sensible motor of production? Is the ‘invisible hand’ any more than a collective illusion of endless growth and prosperity covering over a vicious “war of all against all”?

I think you can guess my answers.