Slavoj Zizek, Seeds of the Imagination

A single thought can form a seed of imagination for an entire work of art. The seed itself is something very simple and might not even be recognizable in the end product. For most of Hitchcock’s films, for example, the seed is as simple as a gesture or a motif. Philosophers too have their seeds of imagination: Kant’s transcendentalism as a reaction against Swedenberg’s theosophy, or Hegel’s dialectics as a result of his look at English economy.

However, Zizek’s main argument is that today we are suffering from a failure of the imagination. The paranoid conservative fantasies about military exercises being a coup by the Obama administration, or debates about the ethical concerns of biotechnology (completely ignoring the upside) show that imagination has a lot of work to do to reach it’s emancipatory potential. Even as a zero marginal cost society is possibly over the horizon, imagination still hasn’t reached it’s potential to think of these.

One of the reasons for this is that as technology brings more possibilities, it also brings more impossibilities, such as the impossibility of thinking of any alternatives to the current socio-economic system.  “The reason is that we live in he postpolitical era of the naturalization of economy; political decisions are as a rule presented as matters of pure economic necessity, so that when austerity measures are imposed we are repeatedly told that this is simply what has to be done. In such postpolitical conditions, the exercise of power no longer primarily relies on censorship, but on unconstrained permissiveness…” (213-214).

To combat this permissiveness, one must instead, as in Kipling’s poem, “dream and not make dreams your master” This would involve breaking certain taboos which limit the imagination. And the power of Frederic Jameson’s work, An American Utopia, is precisely in breaking taboos. They need to be broken because:

These taboos arise from the fact that every historical situation contains its own unique utopian perspective, an immanent vision of what is wrong with it, an ideal representation of how, with some changes, the situation could be rendered much better. When the desire for a radical social change emerges, it is this logical that it first endeavors to actualize this immanent utopian vision, which is why it has to end in a catastrophe. (215)

Zizek identifies three broken taboos that become potential for the seed to sprout.

The first taboo Jameson breaks is his dismissal of the vision “of communism as association, multitude, councils, anti-representationist direct democracy based on citizens’ permanent engagement.” (215-216) Toni Negri’s vision in his works is grounded in this idea of the multitude, where the dual power between the people and the state organs tips the balance in favor of the self-organized mass of people that finally take over all the social functions of the state. “If is as if, in the recent Brazilian revolts and mass protests, Negri, a longtime sympathize of the Lula government, got his own message back in its true form- the government of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, spectacularly failed to contain and integrate the protesting multitude. Although life of the poor and the middle classes improved considerably, it was as if this improvement, this very attempt of the government to involve excluded minorities in a dialogue and empower them as autonomous political agents, backfired and strengthened acts of resistance.” (216)

The reason this multitude cannot reach a nonantagonistic conclusion is because the protesting of the protesters is based on desire. And Zizek invokes the Lacanian idea that desire’s actual desire is always to not be satisfied: “its ultimate aim is always to reproduce itself as desire, which is why its basic formula is always something like ‘I demand this from you, but if you give it to me, I will reject it because this is not really that (what I really want)’-i.e., desire s a gap, a void, in the heart of every demand.” (217)

This is where the critique against political representation reaches its limit. Three reasons: 1. Sometimes speaking for others is necessary, “it is cynical to say that victims of mass violence from Auschwitz to Rwanda (and the mentally ill, children, etc. not to mention suffering animals) should organize themselves and speak fro themselves.” (218) 2. Even when there is a mass of people protesting in public spaces, they are still a minority, with the silent majority being outside of those spaces. 3. Political engagement has a limited time span. The majority of those involved disengage after time lapses. The opposition of normal and the state of exception needs to be abandoned. It is not enough that the Event happens, what is important is how much normal life has changed after the Event is erased. V For Vendetta ends with a spectacle of an Event of people rising against the power- what would’ve happened in the sequel?

Jameson also deals with the topic of resentment, against te idea that in communism envy will disappear. “Dismissing this myth, Jameson emphasizes, that in communism, precisely insofar as it is a more just society, envy and resentment will explode. He refers here to Lacan, whose thesis is that human desire is always the desire of the Other in all senses of that term: desire for the Other, desire to be desired by the Other, and, especially. desire for what the Other desires.” (219)

This can be a critique of John Rawl’s theory of justice. “In Rawl’s model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated insofar as they also help those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are not based on inherited hierarchies but on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits.” (220) Insofar as people desire for what the Other desires, a society following Rawl’s theory of justice will explode in resentment: if my failures are all my fault alone, and I cannot blame it on social injustices. “The catch of envy/resentment is that it not only endorses the zero-sum game principle, where my victory equals the other’s loss, it also implies a gap between the two, which is not the positive gap (we can all win with no losers at all), but a negative one. If I have to choose between my victory and my opponent’s loss, I prefer the opponent’s loss, even if it means also my own loss. It is as if my eventual gain from the opponent’s loss functions as a king of pathological element that stains the purity of my victory.” (221) Which is the insight Hayek had: it is much easier to accept inequalities if they can be attributed to an impersonal system, so the free market capitalist system operates as Fate did in the past.

The demand for justice is to curtail the excessive enjoyment of the Other and make the access to this enjoyment equal, which results in asceticism, because jouissance can’t be equally distributed, but prohibition can. However, today, this asceticism comes from the command to “Enjoy!” “We are all under the spell of this injunction. The outcome is that our enjoyment is more hindered than ever. Take the yuppie who combines narcissistic “self-fulfillment” with those utterly ascetic disciplines of jogging, eating health food, and so on. Perhaps this is what Nietzsche had in mind with his notion of the Last Man, though it is only today that we can really discern his contours in the guise of the hedonistic asceticism of yuppies.” (222) A new, emerging communist government would have to introduce an element of randomness in its system, such as elections by lottery.

This is the platform which Zizek uses to critique the fetishization of democracy. The fetish is that it is always invoked as a last resort when confronted with social antagonism. “Yes, but at least we have democracy.” The many Hollywood blockbusters where the ordinary man brings down the president by uncovering scandals is a manifestation of this fetish. “This is why the most inappropriate, stupid even, names for a new radical movement that one can imagine are those that combine “socialism” and “democracy.” It effectively combines the ultimate fetish of the existing world order with a term that blurs the key distinctions.” (223)

An exemplary case is the socialism of today’s China, where the unity of the Party hides the constant riots and internal conflicts of the workers, and the old Communist believers opposed to the capitalistic system of the new order. “No wonder the official propaganda obsessively insists on the motif of harmonious society: this very insistence bear witness to the opposite, to the threat and chaos of disorder. One should apply here the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since official media do not openly report on troubles, the most reliable way to detect them is to search fro the positive excess of the propaganda- the more harmony is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonisms there are likely to be.” (225) The attack on the universalism of Western values also reflects this unsatisfactory socialism:

However, if Western universal values are false, is it enough to oppose them with a particular way of life like the Confucian “China’s mainstream ideology”? Don’t we need a different universalism, a different project of universal emancipation? The ultimate irony here is that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” effectively means socialism with a market economy (with capitalist characteristics), i.e., socialism that fully integrates China into the global market. The universality of global capitalism if left intact, it is silently accepted as the only possible frame, and the project of Confucian harmony is mobilized only in order to keep under control the antagonisms that come from global capitalist dynamics. […] Such a socialism with nationalist colors- a national socialism- is a socialism whose patriotic horizon is the patriotic promotion of one’s own nation, and the immanent antagonisms generated by capitalist development are projected onto a foreign enemy that poses a threat to our social harmony. What the Chinese Part aims at in its patriotic propaganda, what it calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is yet another version of “alternate modernity”: capitalism without class struggle. (226-227)

Movements whose aim is to return to premodern, pre-capitalist conditions are also found to be lacking. Fundamentalist movements like Boko Haram claim to be fighting against modernity by forbidding women from a western education, which severs the traditional communal ties and helps them enter the chap labor market. Leaving aside the ethic and moral problems of their claim, the organization itself is anything but premodern. “Boko Haram is run like a modern centralized terrorist/revolutionary organization with leaders exerting total control, not as a tribal network where paternal chiefs meet to deliberate and decide on communal matters. It is thoroughly internationalist: It pursues a universal model, ignoring particular ways of life or particular ethnic identities. In short, Boko Haram is itself a form of perverted modernization. It obliterates traditional communal forms of life even more brutally than Western capitalist modernization does.” (227)

This means a rejection of attempts at an alternative modenity and also on using traditional local cultures as sites of resistance against global capitalism.

Jameson also rejects the notion that communism is a society where alienation is overcome, where the gap between production and pleasure is resolved. Instead, his utopia posits a radical, clean cut between the domain of the economy and cultural pleasures.  This separation of the two domains means a disappearance of the political, which leaves Jameson open to such basic critiques as who will run the army?

Jameson’s vision is not so much utopia as fantasy proper, “having a cake and eating it”: Its main premise is the clear division between the kingdom of necessity and the kingdom of freedom, between production and culture/pleasure. Production is militarized and everyone is allocated a job, while outside this kingdom of necessity total freedom reigns supreme, with the wildest diversity of freaks organizing their weird pleasures. (Do we not have today almost the obverse of this fantasy: liberalization of market economy, militarization of pleasures, in the guise of the duty to enjoy which demands discipline and training, conquest, and the battle of the sexes?) Can this be done? (229)

But another question: why does Jameson use the army as a model? His army is one where wars are gone and the celebration of heroics purely ceremonial, where only the structure, discipline and social benefits remain. But what is the extra meaning, surplus of meaning, added to Jameson’s system by calling it an army? “This surplus element is enigmatic and crucial: what if the militarized form is the very form in which the excluded politics and its obscene pleasures return int he pragmatic domain of production, of servicing the goods?” (230)

The rejection of politics is in line with Baidou’s “axiom of equality.” In a system where inequality is not generated by hierarchy or class distinctions, “egalitarian justice is unsatisfactory because it applies an equal standard to unequal cases.” Because equality is an impossible immanent to capitalism, Marx moved beyond the horizon of equality. “The great art of politics is to detect it [the point of the impossible] locally, ina  series of modest demands that are not simply impossible but appear as possible although they are de facto impossible.” (231-232) Demands such as equality, universal health care in the US, the cancellation of Greek debt in Europe, or even ironically enough a demand for a truly free market:

A couple of years ago, a CNN report on Mali described the reality of the international “free market.” The two pillars of Mali’s economy are cotton in the south and cattle in the north, and both are in trouble because of the way Western powers violate the very rules they try to impose brutally onto the impoverished Third World nations. Mali produces cotton of top quality, but the problem is that the US government spends more money on the financial support of its cotton farmers than the entire state budget of Mali; no wonder Malians cannot compete with US cotton. In the north, the European Union is the culprit: Malian beef cannot compete with the heavily subsidized European milk and beef- European Union subsidizes every cow with about 500 euros per year, more than the per capita gross national product in Mali. No wonder the minister of economy commented: We don’t need your help or advice or lectures on the beneficial effects of abolishing excessive state regulations, just, please, stick to your own rules about the free market and our troubles will be basically over. (233)

Going back to Jameson, it appears that only a form of militarization, not the grass roots democratic-multitude (the first two taboos), can be a competitive alternative to global capitalism, as militarization “is another name for suspending the power of self-regulating economy.” (235) It is not the dictatorship of the proletariat, a temporary scaffolding to reach higher stages, “stages between capitalism and communism, but also between imperialism and the passage to socialism- such a “fetishism of the formal number of stages” is always symptomatic of a disavowed deadlock.”  Rather, “in a properly Hegelian way, we effectively reach the higher stage not when we overcome the lower stage but when we realize that what we have to get rid of is the very idea that there is a higher stage to follow what we are doing now and that the prospect of this higher stage can legitimize what we are doing now, in our lower stage. In short, the ‘lower stage’ is all we have and all we will ever get.” (235)

While breaking all these taboos, Jameson seems to fall short of touching the taboo of the state, “his traditional Marxist idea of dismantling the state apparatus” (235) In China, the Party acts as the open secret behind the government. It has no legal status, and yet the government is basically there to pass the laws and policies that the Party has already decided beforehand:

This brings us to the crucial idea of Jameson’s utopia: the rehabilitation of the old Leninist idea of dual power. Is what we find in today’s China not also an unexpected kind of dual power? Does the same not also hold for Stalinism? […] The standard characterization of Stalinist regimes as “bureaucratic socialism” is totally misleading and (self-) mystifying: it is the way the Stalinist regime itself perceives its problem, the cause of its failures and troubles- if there are not enough products in the stores, if authorities do not respond to people’s demands, etc., what is easier than to blame the “bureaucratic” attitude of indifference and petty arrogance? […] what Stalinist regimes really lacked was precisely an efficient “bureaucracy”: a depoliticized and competent administrative apparatus. In other words, the problem of Stalinism was not that it was too “statist,” implying the full identification of party and state, but, on the contrary, that party and state were forever kept at a distance. The reason was that Stalinism (and, in general, all communist attempts until low) was not really able to transform the basic functioning of the state apparatus, so the only way to keep it under control was to supplement state power with “illegal” party power. The only way to break out of this deadlock…here a new “seed of imagination” is desperately needed.


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