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.


Antonio Gramsci- Prison Notebooks

In a prison cell during fascist era Italy, Italian philosopher and Marxist Antonio Gramsci attempted to think through the current situation, re-think many concepts, and reflect on what exactly went wrong. His extensive writings cover a range of topics related to history, the politics of his age, as well as looking towards the future for potential new ways of praxis.

Gramsci challenges the conceptions and misconceptions of Marxist philosophers before him. One of these ideas Gramsci looks at is the relation of structure and superstructure, how they relate to one another. It is a mistake to think that every change and fluctuation in the superstructure is an immediate expression of the structure. From his reading of Marx on the subject, Gramsci adds three words of caution: 1. the difficulty in identifying at any given time, statically (like an instantaneous photographic image) the structure. 2. That errors of calculation can lead to historical crises, which mechanical historical materialism cannot account for, and 3. Not all political acts are necessarily from the structure. He gives the example of the Catholic Church, “if, for every ideological struggle within the Church one wanted to find an immediate primary explanation in the structure one would be caught napping: all sorts of politico-economic romances have been written for this reason.” (191)

Instead, Gramsci notes that the structure and superstructure form a ‘historical bloc,’ an idea he borrows to explain the relation of the two. It’s a relation that is complex, discordant, multi-faceted and reciprocal. To analyze using the historic bloc one has to look at structures and superstructures organized by cultural hegemony, that are movable and sometimes contradictory. “From this one can conclude: that only a totalitarian system of ideologies gives a rational reflection of the contradiction of the structure and represents the existence of the objective conditions for the revolutionizing of praxis. If a social group is formed which is one hundred per cent homogeneous on the level of ideology, this means that the premisses exist one hundred per cent for this revolutionizing: that is that the rational is actively and actually real. This reasoning is based on the necessary reciprocity between structures and superstructures, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process.”

The complex of superstructures and ideologies Gramsci sees as the cultural hegemony of the ruling classes. He notes that ideologies are not psychological, but epistemological. Ideologies are not merely illusions the ruling class. This line of thinking leads to the following error: ideology is distinct from superstructure, ideology cannot change the structure but vice versa, so then a political solution deemed as ideological is considered insufficient to bring about change, therefore ideology is nothing but pure appearance.

One must therefore distinguish between historically organic ideologies, those, that is, which are necessary to a given structure, and ideologies that are arbitrary, rationalistic, ‘willed.’ To the extent that ideologies are historically necessary they have a validity which is ‘psychological’; they ‘organize’ human masses, they form the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc. To the extent that they are ‘arbitrary’ they only create individual ‘movements’ polemics and so on (199)

The word movement ties into a concept of history that Gramsci also develops. He starts off, again from Marx’s writings, two principles about historical societies: “1. That no society sets itself tasks for whose accomplishment the necessary and sufficient conditions do not either already exist or are not at least beginning to emerge and develop; 2. that no society breaks down and can be replaced until it has developed all the forms of life which are implicit in its internal relations.” His concept of history is dialectical, and adds more distinctions to the idea by making a separation of organic and conjunctural movements.

When a historical period reaches a moment of crisis that may last for several decades, it has reached a point where the structural contradictions are revealed. The attempts by those in power to conserve the structure leads to a new possibility:

These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’ and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organize. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence, imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks. (201)

Gramsci gives an example: the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 was an event that historically exhausted all the possibilities of 1789, where the “new bourgeois class struggling for power defeated not only the representatives of the old society unwilling to admit that it had been definitely superseded, but also the still newer groups who maintained that the new structure created by the 1789 revolution was itself already outdated: by this victory the bourgeoisie demonstrated its vitality vis-a-vis both the old and the very new.

“Furthermore, it was in 1870-1871 that the body of principles of political strategy and tactics engendered in practice in 1789, and developed ideologically around 1848, lost their efficacy.” (203)

An analysis of such historical movements is not an end, but an instrument towards detecting these possibilities for conjunctural movements, for those are the moments when action is best taken. “Therefore, the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact and self-aware.” (209)

When an organic crisis occurs it is a volatile situation. Although the forms are diffrent in different places, the crisis is one of authority, of hegemony, “either because the ruling class has failed some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petty-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from the state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution” (218)  In such situations it becomes dangerous for all parties in the short run, and can have the ‘static victory’ of the emergence of a charismatic leader.



Another type of philosophy that Gramsci’s own philosophy of praxis attacks is one that relies on a separation of structure and superstructure, civil and political society. He terms it economism. This economism, found in ideas such as theoretical syndicalism and liberalism, which are far from the philosophy of praxis. These two philosophies share the same belief in the free trade,

The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene and regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. it is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political programme, designed to change- in so far as it is victorious- a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic programme of the state itself- in other words the distribution of national income (210)

Theoretical syndicalism is different in that it has not fully materialized yet, and it tries to speak for the subaltern, but the development of the idea of free trade is the same. For economism in history Gramsci sees 3 characteristics: 1. No distinction between relatively permanent and passing fluctuation 2. economic development is reduced to technological changes 3. economic and historical development depend directly on a change in production.

Gramsci sees two fatal flaws in economism: the search for self-interest in everything leads to some ‘monstrous and comical errors of interpretation.’ Furthermore, the tendency in economism is to look at situations and ask ‘who profits directly from the initiative under consideration?’ and answers: those in power.

One can be certain of not going wrong, since necessarily, if the movement under consideration comes to power, sooner or later the progressive fraction of the ruling group will end up controlling the new government, and by making it its instrument for turning the state apparatus to its own benefit. (216)

Economism can then never be wrong, but this infallability makes it theoretically insignificant. “It has only minimal political implications of practical efficacy. In general, it produces nothing but moralistic sermons, and interminable questions of personality.” (216)

To combat economism the concept of hegemony needs to be developed. And before looking at questions of self interest other things need to be taken into consideration: 1.  the social content of the mass following 2. what function did the mass have in the balance of forces? 3. what is the political and social significance of those of the demands presented by the movement’s leaders which find general assent? 4. the closeness of the means to the proposed end. 5. the hypothesis considered that such a movement will necessarily be perverted and serve different ends from what the followers expect (217)

“An analysis of the balance of forces- at all levels- can only culminate in the sphere of hegemony and ethico-political relations.” (217)



Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives

This summary is for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club. Come join us on and check out our facebook group

In The Human Condition, Arendt defines the vita activa and who a human is. Who, not what, because for Arendt the uniqueness of the human being has been ignored, replaced by theories of what a person is.  The unique, unrepeatable of a human lies in action. Action reveals the answer to the question “who are you?”

It is an answer to a question, because Arendt argues that uniqueness cannot work alone. The succession of actions that can be narrated into a a life-story is what creates the unique self. But for narration to happen, people are needed, observers and narrators. And it is when a person appears and is exposed to others, that the chance for narrative begins.

Or as Cavarero puts it:

In the general exhibitionist spectacle which Arendt gives us, appearing is indeed not the superficial phenomena of a more intimate and true essence. Appearing is the whole of being, understood as a plural finitude of existing. This goes above all for human beings, who have the privilege of appearing to one another, distinguishing themselves in their in-born [in-nata] uniqueness, such that, in this reciprocal exhibition, a who is shown to appear, entirely as it is. As Jean-Luc Nancy also emphasizes, ‘for the one who exists, what matters is existence, not essence’; that is, at stake is a uniqueness of personal identity, which, far from being substance, is of a totally expositive and relational character. From this, everyone, as unique existence, shows who he or she is to others. (20)

Cavarero elaborates on and challenges Arendt’s theory of narrative in her work, Relating Narratives, teasing out the implications of this theory for ontology, ethics, politics, and literary criticism.

Cavarero first relates a story from The Odyssey. Ulysses, travelling incognito, sits as a guest at the court of the Phaecians. At the banquet, a blind rhapsod relates the tale of the Trojan War. One of these tales happens to be the deeds of Ulysses. Hearing his story, Ulysses weeps. Ulysses “meets up with himself through the tale of his story” (18). But this is not peculiar to the hero. The who is always revealed through the narration of others.

Cavarero contrasts Ulysses to Achilles. Heroes perform great deeds, but action disappears as soon as it occurs without a narrator to keep the story alive. Even if heroes perform memorable acts, there is no guarantee that they will be remembered. It is out of their hands. In Achilles’ case, however, he made a pact that he would die early but be remembered for generations after. His one deed, which leads to his death, becomes his own planned memorability. “The daimon of Achilles, frozen in the Homeric tale of the life-story, becomes eudaimonia.” (27)

This is reason behind the old Greek idea that no one is eudaimon (normally [mis]translated as ‘happy’) until after they die. And Cavarero sees in Arendt a tendency towards death. “However valuable the Arendtian idea of narration may be, its heroes, like Achilles, continue to astonish us- if not trouble us- by their love for death.” (29)

However, here is Ulysses, hearing his own tale, and he reacts to it. He has not died and yet the unity and meaning of his deeds are revealed to him. Cavarero wants to reverse the formula, not a story that is unto death but one that is seeking its birth..

Moreover, there is a second part to the story: after Ulysses weeps, the king of the Phaecians asks him the important question “who are you?” To which Ulysses relates his life story. Arendt sees autobiography as meaningless. One cannot be both the protagonist and author of the life-story. But there is an impulse towards both hearing ones story and relating it; biography and autobiography share a common desire.

The impulse towards one’s story Cavarero calls the narratable self. Narratable, not narrated, because the narration is always in potential and always incomplete. This narratable self is an autobiographical impulse. This impulse is towards unity, making a coherent whole of fragmented situations. Not just in active remembering, but the structure of memory itself searches for this unity It is also extended to others: there is a feeling that the people we encounter have a life-story, even without knowing it.

A person with amnesia might forget their life story, but not the sense that they have one. “She is a wretch precisely because she is a narratable self who, by losing her story, has lost her identity. No one can therefore return it to her by retelling to her the text through which identity is reified. The text is in fact inessential only for those who continue to listen to the tale of memory.” (37)

On the other hand, the desire for unity is frustrated in autobiography by the fact that memory can only go so far. For unity there needs to be a beginning. Oedipus only learns who he was when he heard the story of his birth. Although his fate is dramatic, this aspect of Oedipus’ story is not unique: no one can tell the story of their own birth. “Autobiographical memory always recounts a story that is incomplete from the beginning. It is necessary to go back to the narration told by others, in order for the story to begin from where it really began; and it is this first chapter of the story that the narratable self stubbornly seeks with all that desire.” (39)

How does the relation between autobiography and biography work?

Milan, the 1970s. Two old friends, Amilia and Emilia, attend a 150-hour adult class. The group exercises consisted in both writing and sharing their stories. Emilia dies at the age of 53, and Amilia recounts an episode of their life together.

Emilia was never a great storyteller. She would tell the same anecdotes and was a bore. Amilia was a much better storyteller. One day they exchanged their writing exercises and Emilia was struck by this expressive power of her friend. Amilia decided to do her friend a favor: she wrote Emilia’s life story (she had told the same stories so many times Amilia had memorized it).

Aside from the fact of Amilia’s writing skills, that she was able to narrate Emilia’s story better than Emilia could tell her own should come as no surprise. The aim of the 150-hour class is to find that the I exists, which Emilia does not doubt. What she needs is for her life to be narrated in order to go beyond empirical reality. “She thus passes, from the failed autobiographical attempts, to the biography that her friend gives her as a gift. This biography is highly tangible, all the more so in so far as it is written. By always carrying it around in her purse and rereading it continuously, Emilia can touch with her hand and devour with her eyes her personal identity in a tangible form. She can, like Ulysses, be moved by it.” (57)

Emilia has a Ulyssean reaction to the narration.  However, there are two differences. The first is a feminist reading: as a Greek hero and a male, Ulysses had his sphere of action. Troy was the model for politics, a public sphere where people could prove themselves. Women were of course denied this sphere: Emilia’s life-story doesn’t happen in the public space of politics, but in the domestic sphere. Actually, Cavarero and Arendt argue, this isn’t an issue for women only.  “Western history is a history of depoliticization. Replaced by the rule of the few over the many; or rather replaced by the various models of domination, throughout this two-thousand year history- the political as shared space of action disappears, or rather reappears only intermittently in revolutionary experiences.” (57) Nevertheless, men and women experience this lack-of-politics differently. A man presents himself as abstract universal Man, which women were denied. One advantage is that women didn’t have to exchange their uniqueness for the abstract. Emilia testifies to this in her desire for narrative, which is still in the private sphere but is the characteristic of female friendships. “For female friends, the questions ‘who are you?’ and ‘who am I?’ in the absence of a plural scene of interaction where the who can exhibit itself in broad daylight, immediately find their answer in the classic rule of storytelling.” (58)

The consciousness raising groups that were popular with feminists in the 70s is an attempt to bring this narration back into the public scene. But Cavarero warns that there is a danger of too much empathy, that is to say an attempt to identify with the other’s story, as women, at the expense of uniqueness.  The danger to this would be that a woman will become Woman, just like man exchanged his uniqueness for Man.  The consciousness raising group and Arendt’s theories together show the importance of the intersection of narrative and politics. There is a reciprocity in narrating story to others, in hopes that the story is narrated back.

Which leads to the other major difference: Emilia’s narrator is a friend; Ulysses’ a stranger. Homer or the rhapsod are strangers, ‘blind’ to actor and staying true to the story. For Cavarero, there is an intimacy between narrator and actor, found in friendship and love.

What is then the relationship of the narrator and protagonist?

In Paris, an odd book called The Autobiography of Alice b. Tolkas is published. Odd, because this autobiography was written by someone other than Alice: the famous writer, and Alice’s lover, Gertrude Stein. Even odder, because Alice was copying down the words which Stein dictated. The book, moreover,  is about the Stein’s encounters in Paris through the eyes of Alice.

With the previous ideas that narration of self happens through others, this experiment in autobiography does not seem so bizarre. But the question is raised: isn’t using another person to write about yourself, using them as a reflection of a lake for you to look into, the ultimate act of narcissism?

In fact, can the people we have encountered, with their desire for their story to be told, all be charged with narcissism?

The Arendtian hero, who has accompanied us from the start, has in effect often been accused of exhitionist narcissism; indeed, the Arendtian sense of politics has been judged to be constitutively narcissistic. Reserving some doubt with regard to Gertrude Stein, we realize, nonetheless, right away, how difficult it is to make the same judgement regarding Emilia. Not only because narcissism is a question between self and self, where the other (if there is one) functions only as a spectator to be dazzled- but also since the uniqueness that exposes itself, in Arendt’s sense, brings to the scene a fragile and unmasterable self. Both the exhibitionist self of action and the narratable self are completely given over to others. In this total giving-over there is therefore no identity that reserves for itself protected spaces or private rooms of impenetrable refuge for self-contemplation. (84)

One cannot control their story, and the narratable self always requires another. “Fragile and exposed, the existent belongs to a whole-scene where interaction with other existents is unforseeable and potentially infinite. As in The Arabian Nights, the stories intersect with each other. Never isolated in the chimerical, total completetion of its scene, one cannot be there without the other.” (87) It is an ethics which sees the uniqueness of the relational self. “The ontological status of the who– as exposed, relational, altruistic- is totally external […] Appearing to each other [Comparendo], they reciprocally appear as an other.”

The uniqueness of the relational self is something that modern ethics and politics cannot account for. Universal ethics is based on what man is, and individualist ethics consider the individual as a unit that is repeatable and equivalent, certainly not unique. An individualist ethics only focuses on the I, multiple I’s whose only relationship to one another is negotiation and compromise. Other ethics either focus on an impersonal ‘you’ to which duty is required, or a collectivist They to subordinate under. But the unique existent is “the you [tu] that comes before the we [noi], before the plural you [voi] and before the they [loro].” (90)

So is the desire to exhibit oneself an act of narcissism? On the contrary, Cavarero says, it is an act of altruism. Not in the sense of sacrifice or dedication, but in recognizing the necessity of the other. “What we have called an altruistic ethics of relation does not support empathy, identification, or confusions. Rather this ethics desires a you that is truly an other, in her uniqueness and distinction. No matter how much you are similar and constant, says this ethic, your story is never my story. No matter how much the larger traits of our life-stories are similar, I still do not recognize myself in you and even less, in the collective we. […] This recognition, therefore, has no form that could be defined dialectically; that is, it does not overcome or save finitiude through the circular movement of a higher synthesis. […] Put simply, the necessary other corresponds first of all with the you whose language is spoken by the shared narrative scene.” (92)

“Within the horizon of the narratable self, the pronoun of biography is in fact not he [egli] but you [tu].” (92)

What about the narrator who tells the tales of others?

Scheherazade has taken upon herself a dangerous task. The Sultan, angered by his wife’s betrayal, has decided to take revenge on all women. Every night, he marries a new woman and, after spending the night together, kills them in the morning. Scheherazade agrees to become his wife; she has a plan. On the first night, her sister comes in and asks for a story. The doomed queen tells a story and then suspends it- incomplete, the Sultan wants to know more. And the stories multiply until the Sultan’s desire for revenge is quelled.

Scheherazade, as an oral storyteller rather than an author, knows the art of suspension, of not finishing the narrative in order to continue it later. Another way this is achieved is that her characters also tell stories, and there are numerous characters and stories, the labyrinth of text.

By Arendt’s definition, Scheherazade’s stories are realistic despite their fantastic nature. The history of humanity is an interweaving of different life-stories that appear and leave the world. “And because he [Homer] puts into words the plot of the stories from which history results, Hannah Arendt assures us that the Homeric epic is more ‘realistic’ than the modern historiography” (124) Another point of similarity between Homer and Scheherazade are their use of mimesis and diegesis, direct and indirect narrative, which Cavarero sees as an imitation of the originary force of the tale.

“Having come from Arendtian realism, intrigued by Scheherazade and invited by Homer, we are thus led to an even more material kind of realism; or better still, to the everydayness of certain experiences where the habit of narrating stories, one’s own as well as others’, is a fact. In order not to lose the thread of the argument, we will limit ourselves to drawing some conclusions, formulating a story of literary. This theory begins by claiming that narrative imitation by pot [a intreccio] responds directly to the practical context that engendered it.” (126) Instead of looking for the death, the end, of the author, Cavarero points to Scheherazade and Homer as the beginning of a succession of tales.

Adding to the list of storytellers is the modern Scheherazade, Karen Blixen. Blixen considers herself a storyteller rather than a novelist. Whereas the modern novel “constructs characters and is ready to sacrifice the tale to their psychological substance” and “loves explanations, and loves to look inside, to excavate appearances in order to discover the interiority of the subject” (140), the storyteller lets the tale reveal the character, “the story makes the hero shine” (140) and “by telling of a uniqueness in which a destiny that outlines unforseeable events comes to the fore, Blixen pursues that “desire for meaning,” for imagination, for re-enchantment, which persists, like an unconfessable secret, in the stubborn desire for the contemporary reader.” (142)

Simply put, for Cavarero, it is the uniqueness of the narratable self that is the power of the story, whether the character is real or fictitious. And subordinating that action to psychological explanation runs the risk of creating sociological types, Man and Woman.

The world is indeed ‘full of stories, circumstances and curious situations which are just waiting to be told.’ More precisely, suggests Arendt from her unique perspective, the world is full of stories because it is full of lives. To be faithful to the story ‘means being faithful to the life.’ […] For the stubborn realism of Arendt, therefore, Blixen’s art does not consist in invention, in fiction, or in the fantastic vein that creates stories. It consists rather in the ability to look at the world as a stage on which many lives intersect, leaving behind their story.

The uniqueness of the existent has no need of a form that plans or contains it. Rooted in the unmasterable flux of a constitutive exposition, she is saved from the bad habit of prefiguring herself, and from the vice of prefiguring the lives of others. The figure, the unity of the design, the profile of the stork -if it comes- only comes afterwards: as in the dream of a fable, or, perhaps, as a desire that is not exchanged for its dream. (145)


Sergei Eisenstein A Dialectic Approach To Film Form

Sergei Eisenstein adopts the theory of dialectics into art. Where the dynamic force that animates art is given as a series of conflict: conflict of social mission, nature and methodology.

“According to its social mission because: It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of Being. To form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind, and to forge accurate intellectual concepts from the dynamic clash of opposing passions.”

According to its nature because: Its nature is a conflict between natural existence and creative tendency.

The ossified, inorganic, dead formalism that no longer has the power to move is in combat with an effortful move towards the new. This dynamic conflict Eisenstein sees this not just as the basis of art, but all thinking:  the intellectual lives of Plato or Dante or Spinoza or New- ton were largely guided and sustained by their delight in the sheer beauty of the rhythmic relation between law and instance, species and individual, or cause and effect.

Finally, there is the conflict in the methodology. Eisenstein looks at the basic movement of image to image: the montage. He looks at the older theory of montage, which sees it as a sequential series of images to convey an unfolding of an idea. ” The earliest conscious film-makers, and our first film theoreticians, regarded montage as a means of description by placing single shots one after the other like building-blocks. The movement within these building-block shots, and the consequent length of the component pieces, was then considered as rhythm.”

But he thinks this is a mistake. The power of the images are not so much in their series, but in their relation to one another. “According to this definition, shared even by Pudovkin as a theoretician, montage is the means of unrolling an idea with the help of single shots: the “epic” principle. In my opinion, however, montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots-shots even opposite to one another: the “dramatic” principle.”

Like how art creates dynamism by vibrant contrast of colors, arrangement of lines or postures to convey movement, or use of disproportion to draw attention to ideas; like music that uses counterpoint to expand it’s theme, the montage creates dynamism by drawing out the conflict between images

For all this, the basic premise is: The shot is by no means an element of montage. The shot is a montage cell (or molecule). In this formulation the dualistic division of Sub-title and shot and Shot and montage leaps forward in analysis to a dialectic consideration as three different phases of one homogeneous task of expression, its homogeneous characteristics determining the homogeneity of their structural laws. Inter-relation of the three phases: Conflict within a thesis (an abstract idea) – formulates itself in the dialectics of the subtitle – forms itself spatially in the conflict within the shot – and explodes with increasing intensity in montage-conflict among the separate shots.

In Methods of Montage Eisenstein elaborates on five kinds of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. In true dialectic form, he believes that each state subsumes the other and enters into conflict with the one before it: metric is in conflict with rhythmic, overtonal with tonal. The overtonal is the highest form of this category, which works on the physiological (affect?) level. But Eisenstein has in mind a movement towards a new kind of film, the one that turns the intellectual montage into a full-fledged intellectual movie. Once the physiological overtonal conflict is resolved in the intellectual will this emerge:

The intellectual cinema will be that which resolves the conflict-juxtaposition of the physiological and intellectual overtones. Building a completely new form of cinematography- the realization of revolution in the general history of culture; building a synthesis of science, art, and class militancy.

Addenum: In his ideas concerning the intellectual cinema, Eisenstein relies on a concept well developed by Soviet psychologists which has been explored in the series on Bakhtin: that of inner speech. Here are some quotes from Eisenstein about the idea in relation to montage, from his book of essays Film Form:

How fascinating it is to listen to one’s own train of thought, particularly in an excited state, in order to catch yourself, looking at and listening to your mind. How you talk “to yourself,” as distinct from “out of yourself.” The syntax of inner speech as distinct from outer speech. The quivering inner words that correspond with the visual images. Contrasts with outer circumstances. How they work reciprocally. . . .
To listen and to study, in order to understand structural laws and assemble them into an inner monologue construction of the utmost tension of the struggle of tragic re-experience. How fascinating ! (105)

Inner speech, the flow and sequence of thinking unformulated into the logical constructions in which uttered, formulated thoughts are expressed, has a special structure of its own. This structure is based on a quite distinct series of laws. What is remarkable therein, and why I am discussing it, is that the laws of construction of inner speech tum out to be precisely those laws which lie at the foundation of the whole variety of laws governing the construction of the form and composition of art-works. And there is not one formal method that does not prove the spit and image of one or another law governing the construction of inner speech, as distinct from the logic of uttered speech. It could not be otherwise. (130)

Concerning “affective logic,” about which Vendryes writes and which lies at the base of spoken speech, montage very quickly realized that “affective logic” is the chief thing, but for finding all the fullness of its system and laws, montage had
to make further serious creative “cruises” through the “inner monologue” of Joyce, through the “inner monologue” as understood in film, and through the so-called “intellectual cinema,” before discovering that a fund of these laws can be found in a third variety of speech-not in written, nor in spoken speech, but in inner speech, where the affective structure functions in an even more full and pure form. But the formation of this inner speech is already inalienable from that which is enriched by sensual thinking

Thus w􀀅e arrived at the primary source of those interior principles, which already govern not only the formation of montage, but the inner formation of all works of art-of those basic laws of the speech of art in general-of those general laws of form, which  lie at the base not only of works of film art, but of all and all kinds of arts in general. But of that-at another time. (250-251)

Mikhail Bakhtin, Selections

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.


Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on language offer new insights against the dueling psychological giants of the time, behaviorism and psychoanalysis. He faults both for locating the psyche inside the organism, whereas he will argue that the psyche is the border between the inside and outside world, in the realm of language and speech.

The section Critique on Freudianism provides a good contrast point to elucidate his sociolinguistic conception of “objective psychology”. He immediately questions the very methods Freud used to understand the unconscious. For Freud’s psychology, the desires and motives of the unconscious are hidden, and only in their manifestations in the consciousness can they be interpreted. But how did Freud get to this idea in the first place? Bakhtin argues, that it is through his interaction with patients. But interactions are always situated in the world, with real people enacting various roles and ideologies. The doctor and patient role has different utterances than other interactions. The insights Freud achieved about human sexuality and hidden drives were not a universal proof of the unconscious, but a dramatization of the ideology and practices of his time, his place, and his role as doctor. The unconscious is thus not a hidden drive, something other than consciousness, but simply another form of consciousness.

Verbal reactions are determined by social interaction, so nothing uttered can be considered in isolation. Inner and outer speech are both generated by these outward social connections. “Any instance of self-awareness is an act of gauging oneself against some social norm, social evaluation…In becoming aware of myself, I attempt to look at myself, as it were, through the eyes of another person, another representative of my social group, my class. Thus self-consciousness…is class consciousness.” Every verbal utterance is small-scale ideology.

The reference to class and ideology shows the Marxist framework Bakhtin is working in. In the section Language as Dialogic Interaction he makes the case that his vision of lingustics can learn much from the ideas of Marxism, and that linguistics can solve the problems of superstructure and base, namely how they interact and affect each other.

Ideology is based on signs. Signs are always outwardly manifested. Bakhtin argues that, instead of the idealistic conception of ideology being in consciousness, consciousnesses is a product of understanding a chain of signs. And to understand and interpret signs is an activity between individuals who are organized socially in an interindividual territory. Whenever this understanding and interpreting happens, the word is there.

The word can help understand the relationship of base and superstructure because it is so ubiquitous. Speech performances work closely with the social situation, and so can be used to observe the barely noticeable shifts which eventually become full fledged ideology. This is the social psychology that Bakhtin proposes, which is “first and foremost an atmosphere made up of multifarious speech performances that engulf and wash over all persistent forms and kinds of ideological creativity: unofficial discussions, exchanges of opinion at the theater or at various types of social gatherings, purely chance exchanges of words, one’s manner of verbal reaction to the happenings in one’s life, and daily existence, one’s inner word manner of identifying oneself and identifying one’s position in society, and so on.” (54) Because various classes use the same language, but come at it from different angles and accents, a form of class struggle happens at the level of language as well.

So what does Bakhtin’s conception of language look like? Language as Dialogic Interaction and Speech Genres give us some ideas. Speech, which is a ubiquitous form of signs and thus ideology, occurs within various spheres of activity, each of which develops relatively stable types of utterances. These stable types are called speech genres. The number of these genres is almost inexhaustible. Utterances are “manifested primarily in the choice of a particular speech genre…it is shaped and developed within a certain generic form.” (83) These genres from the repertoire of speech, usually unknowingly. They are learned while acquiring language, and someone might have an excellent command of the language but still be at loss in certain situations because “of the inability to command a repertoire of genres of social conversation, the lack of a sufficient supply of those genres of social conversation, the lack of a sufficient supply of those ideas about the whole of the utterance that help to cast one’s speech quickly and naturally in certain compositional and stylistic forms, the inability to grasp a word promptly, to begin and end correctly…” (84).

Utterances are units of meanings in themselves, but they are always in response to other utterances before it, and anticipate a response from others. The addressee “can be an immediate participant-interlocutor in everyday dialogue, a differentiated collective of specialists in some particular area of cultural communication, a more or less differentiated public, ethnic group, contemporaries, like-minded people, opponents and enemies, a subordinate, a superior, someone who is lower, higher, familiar, foreign and so on. And is can be an indefinite, unconcritized other (with various kinds of monological utterances of an emotional type)” (87)  So an addressee is always present in speech, inner or outer.

In Bakhtin’s philosophy of language, the basic unit of language is not grammar, but the utterance. An utterance is dual natured: it is a full meaning in itself, but belongs in a chain of other utterances. One person’s utterance is complete when it awaits a reply from another. These utterances cannot be removed from their context, because situations and social roles give rise to a huge number of genres that a person acquires as they acquire language. Seen this way, inner speech is more of an inner dialogue.

There are two types of genres identified, simple and complex. The complex genres are a mixture of various speeches and utterances, and are usually written. The novel is the for Bakhtin an example of a complex genre. Bakhtin wrote extensively on Dostoevsky’s works, which he considers to be a new genre of polyphonic novel, where all the different voices and dialogues freely interact with all others without authorial imposition. But he also claims that all novels are always in what he calls heteroglossia, a multitude of voices. He contrasts this with the idea of a national poem, which is ideologically stable and speaks with one voice. Historically the novel was developed in “the heteroglossia of the clown…street songs, folk sayings, anecdotes where there was no language-center at all, where there was to be found a lively play with the ‘languages’ of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others, where all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be authentic, incontestable face” (114).

The language novels use consists of the following: hybridization of different speeches, the interrelation of languages (characters, narrator, audience, etc.) and the pure dialogue itself. Ultimately the interaction of the three creates in the novel a mirror for ourselves: “What is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one’s own language as it is perceived in someone else’s language, coming to know one’s own belief system in someone else’s system. There takes place within the novel an ideological translation of another’s language, and an overcoming of its otherness- an otherness that is only contingent, external, illusory. Characteristic for the historic novel is a positively weighed modernizing, an erosion of temporal boundaries, the recognition of an eternal present in the past. The primary stylistic project of the novel as a genre, is to create images of languages.” (120)

The reference to clowns and folk sayings segues into Bakhtin’s other famous concept: the carnival. His studies on Rabelais and folk humor reveals an often overlooked aspect of Medieval life. He finds that people in the middle ages had developed folk humor and carnival parallel to the Church. This is a continuation of old pagan rites, where “coupled with the cults which were serious in tone and organization were other, comic cult which laughed and scoffed at the deity (‘ritual laughter’); coupled with serious myths were comic and abusive ones; coupled with heroes were their parodies and couplets.” (197)

In older cultures serious and comic rites were both official, but in the middle ages the comic rites developed in parallel to the Church and outside of it. Every official feast and religious occasion had it’s folk double, (which survives today in perhaps the most conspicuous of carnivals: Mardi gras) there were parodies of liturgies, hymns, Gospel stories, and proclamations, both in Latin and the vernacular.  The carnivals adopted the language of the marketplace, oaths, profanities and ritual obscenities that were outside of the official language. It was a spectacle which has no distinction between actor and spectator. Everyone was engulfed in the carnival spirit. The official feast “asserted all that was stable, unchanging, perennial: the existing religious, political and moral values, norms and prohibitions”; the carnival brought “a second life to the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance.” (199)  The laughter of the festivites was ambivalent, since the person included themselves in the object of their ridicule. This is what gives the carnival its philosophical and utopian weight.

This concept of the carnival gives Bakhtin a response to two common interpretations of Renaissance works, particularly Rabelais. Rabelais’ works spend a lot of time focused on the human body. This has been interpreted as the ‘rehabilitation of the body,’ an attempt at moving away from the ascetic middle ages. In fact ,Bakhtin says, the works of grotesque realism draw from the rich carnival heritage of the Medieval era. Another thing that these works are not, as was commonly thought, is satire, at least in the modern sense of an author standing outside the thing he ridicules in order to negate it. Grotesque realism degrades the high and abstract into the earthy level. Bakhtin gives an interesting and positive spin on the term degradation. Laughter degrades, and:

To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth someone more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and reproductive organs, pregnancy and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth takes place. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving. (206)


Brian Massumi- Ontopower

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday March 11th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.

Preemptive Logic

The Bush administration unfurled the beginning of a new military and political strategy, that of preemptive logic. This doctrine of attacking the enemy before it has a chance to strike has far wide ranging consequences. The idea has taken a life of its own and has become it’s own self-perpetuating thought, which Massumi calls an operative logic. Preemption is a replacement for the old Cold War operative logic: deterrence.

Like preemption, deterrence takes a future case as its present effect. The future cause- potential nuclear war- has a present act: you build a nuclear arsenal that could potentially destroy you and the enemy does the same, increasing the immediate threat of a future danger. This is the logic behind mutually assured destruction. MAD creates an equilibrium, as one side builds their arsenal so does the other and the system becomes self-propelling. Deterrence leads to a dynamic equilibrium, and the causes suddenly produce a different effect: an arms race. This arms race is self-causing, the logic of deterrence working as a self-closed loop. 

Deterrence has a clear enemy which is equal in power and still retains a humanistic side, or at least is not insane nor suicidal. But enter the terrorists: a hidden enemy, one that is weaker than the Western powers and does not seem to have that human impulse of self-preservation. Deterrence no longer works, and that is where preemption comes in. The military is transformed. A branch of it is made smaller and works on the slightest of perception in order to flush out the terrorists before they get to attack. It in effect is what Massumi calls “becoming-terrorist,” and a different system calls for a different logic. Preemptive logic works on a threat that is perpetually there, but is not known- Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown”. “Preemption is when futurity of unspecified threat is affectively held in the present in a perpetual state of potential emergency, so that a movement of actualization may be triggered that is not only self-propelling but also effectively, indefinitely, ontologically productive, because it works from,  virtual cause whose potential no single actualization exhausts.” And so as a logic that proliferates and changes, it takes on many forms like the increase of executive powers in the person of the president and commander-in-chief. The war is the “permanent state of emergency” as Walter Benjamin once said.

The logic of preemption has implications not just for the military, but politics and society as a whole. In 2004 when Bush was up for re-election, he addressed the lack of weapons of mass destruction by arguing that if Saddam had weapons, he would have used them: “in the past there was a future threat.” The threat and menace felt very real, and fear is the anticipatory present of this threatening future. And this future is open, forever open. This justifies preemptive action. Any preemptive action towards a potential threat is always legitimated by the affective fact of fear. The logic is circular because “the logic of affectively legitimated fact is in the conditional: Bush did what he did because Saddam could have done what he didn’t do.” If Saddam in the future could have acquired weapons of mass destruction he would have used them, a double conditional.

In 2005, things seem to be going bad for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He argued that present Iraq is full of terrorists. At the time of the invasion, Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq despite what the administration said, but after the invasion it was, meaning- in double conditional logic- they always could have been there, and now they were, so the invasion was right. “The could have/would have logic works both ways. If the threat does not materialize, it still always would have if it could have. If on the other hand the threat does materialize, then it just goes to show that the future potential for what happened had really been there in the past.” The preemptive action ended up causing what it aimed at preempting.

“Proposition: Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a non-linear time operating recursively between present and future, preemptive logic is not subject to the rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attitude an effective reality to futurity.”

Around the same time, a Montreal airport was shut down because of a potential anthrax threat. That the substance could have been anthrax triggered a series of actions as if it were: enter the military, helicopter forces, news alert headlines, all of it. Even when the white powder turned out to be flour, it was still referred to as a “toxic substance alert.” It could have been toxic, so it’s a toxic substance alert. The alert highlights what the threat could have been, not what it was and so the event is always tainted with a feeling of threat. “Proposition: Threat is capable of overlaying its own conditional determination upon an objective situation through the mechanism of alarm. The two determinations, threatening and objective, co exist. However, the threat-determined would-be and could-be takes public precedence due to its operating in the more compelling future-oriented and affective register. This gives it superior political presence and potential.” The fake anthrax caused real increase in security.

And what is the mechanism of this feeling of threat?

The Affect of Fear

In 2002 the Bush administration released the color coded terror alert system, which goes form low alert to severe. “Safe” isn’t even an option. The alert system calibrates on the population’s fear, playing on them with affective modulation. It tweaks on the population’s nervous system and their affection worked in unison, though not necessarily in the same way. That’s because it’s not a matter of identification or imitation: after all, the spectrum gives no form to imitate. Rather the hues work on the intensity of the emotions, bypassing cognition and working directly on the body. Since each body reacts according to its own acquired patterns of responses, the result of this affect is hard to predict or control. Rather the color shift immediately goes at a person’s pre-subjective level which activates the predisposition or tendency that the body might have. “Without proof, without persuasion, at the limit even without argument, government image production could trigger (re)action.” Because the affects produced in immediacy cannot be predicted, especially given social and cultural diversity, the role of proof, persuasion, argument-which addresses the subject- fails in front of the pre-subjective activation power of affect.

When government deals with threats, the object is formless, looming and  unseen. The only form they have is a time-form: futurity. Threat and fear are then intertwined, since fear is triggered by threat, but threat is only threatening if fear exists. As William James argued, fear compels the body to action before the emotion is consciously felt, and threat is the intensity of that experience without any content. Fear is the immanence of experience. After the initial startle the body begins to perceive, reflect, and recollect- at that point emotion and affect diverge. Once fear becomes phenomenal, it can have an object. Narrating or recounting the fear further separates from the original intensity.

The anticipation of a sensation can cause that sensation. Quoting William James: “When an ideal emotion seems to precede the bodily symptoms, it is often nothing but a representation of the symptoms themselves. One who has already fainted at the sight of blood many witness the preparations for a surgical operation with uncontrollable heart-sinking and anxiety. He anticipates certain feelings, and the anticipation precipitates their arrival” (James 983, 177). What the alert system does is keep people in constant anticipation of fear, fear itself becomes the threat. Fear can be self-caused, even without external threat to trigger it. It’s an all encompassing affective atmosphere. Fear may be contained, but fear always exceeds its containment and will always stay as a mood. “Fear, in a quasi-causal relation to itself, has become redundantly self-sufficient- an autonomous force of existence. It has become ontogenic: an ontopower.” Just like the arms race was how deterrence was able to perpetuate itself, threat is the means in which preemption persists.

CS Pierce calls indication or indexes things that “act on the nerves of a person and force his attention” because they “show something about things, on account of their being physically connected to them,” yet they “assert nothing.” An example is a fire alarm. The alarm itself has asserted nothing, yet it still startles and forces attention, becoming an experience even if there is no actual fire. Awakening to the possible threat of the fire is more important than fire. The body is activated into the transitional state of experience, fire or not.

What if the alarm works on preemptive logic, and sounds for all the fires yet to come? Then the innerviating effect of the alarm is always there, always right.

According to Pierce, the effects of the sign on the body is the threshold between active and passive. There is a moment of pure affect collectively felt. The terror alert system is that alarm constantly reminding you that fires could happen, and acts as if they always are.

What Next?

Massumi begins his final chapter mentioning how the potential for avian flu is the news headline, and gives an observation: “We live in times when what has not happened qualifies as news.” Threat is from the future. It is what might come next. Its eventual location and ultimate extent are undefined. Its nature is open-ended. It is not just that it is not: it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. Even if a clear and present danger materializes in the present, that does not exhaust future threats. There is always the nagging feeling that what comes next might be even worse. “The uncertainty of the potential next is never consumed in any given event. There is always a remainder of uncertainty, an unconsummated surplus of danger. The present is shadowed by a remaindered surplus of indeterminate potential. For a next event running forward back to the future self-renewing.”Even if the threat is nonexistent, it is very real.

Operative logic is a process that produces more of itself. It’s an impersonal will-to-power which is always in interaction with other operational logics. Signs are needed to carry on an analysis of the never-fully-activated operational logic. “To understand preemptive power as an operative logic it is necessary to be able to express its productive process of becoming as a semiosis. Since preemption’s production of being in becoming pivots on affect as a felt quality, the pertinent theory of signs would have to be grounded first and foremost in a metaphysics of feeling.”

Massumi hints at possible alternatives to the present state throughout the book. He suggests that new operatives will need to be found, and new affects to replace fear. It is a matter of fighting operative logic with operative logic, affect with affect.

Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action “Intermediate Reflections”

Habermas’ systematic theorizing plucks various theories and concepts from a from the fields of sociology, critical theory and analytic philosophy in his two volume work The Theory of Communicative Action. This work’s third chapter is where he breaks down the action and the communicative parts with the help of sociologist Max Weber and philosophers like J.L. Austin.

First, action. Weber defined action in opposition to other forms of behavior in that the actor has a conscious meaning behind what they are doing. Weber creates a typology of action based on the rationality behind it, from most rational to least rational he describes it as: purposive-rational (which includes means, ends, values and consequences), value-rational, affective, and traditional (habits which include only means and not the other three components of rationality). Habermas finds that Weber’s theory is insufficient when it comes to explaining social action, which involves the coordination of multiple actors working together. To supplement the first typology, Habermas finds a second typology implicit in Weber’s work, where an action is either instrumental or, if it tries to reach success against another person, strategic. To this he adds a form of action which is not oriented towards success, but towards reaching an understanding. That is Communicative Action.

But what is an action that works on understanding rather than success? For this Habermas infuses Austin’s speech act theory into Max Weber’s action theory. In Austin, speech acts are composed of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary aspects. The locutarionary are statements and propositions, whereas the illocutionary deals with actions using words. These are actions such as promises, vows, notifying, commanding or legally binding proclomations. The perlocutionary aspects are the affects the speaker intends to evoke within the hearer. For Habermas, the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts is important. The illocutionary deals with the level of meaning and so its success are defined by hearer understanding the speaker. Habermas gives the example from the statement “S asserted to H that he gave notice to his firm.” The illocutionary act of this speech is successful if H understands this assertion and accepts it to be true. But for the perlocutionary aspect, another statement is needed: “Through informing H that he had given notice to his firm, S gave H a fright (as he intended to)” The act of giving the fright in this context is the perlocutionary success, although in other contexts it might have failed; H might have been on the contrary relieved about this case.

The illocutionary stays on the level of speech while the percloutionary depends on things external to the speech themselves, it uses speech as an instrument towards another goal. The illocutionary act’s success depends on having an open intention but for the most part perlocutionary acts have their motives hidden, or at least not within the context of the speech act itself (you can inform a person by giving the information; you cannot frighten them by saying “I frighten you”). Illocutionary, dealing with meaning, is primary in speech and the perlocutionary aspect is external to it because understanding is the teleology of language. And Habermas takes very seriously the idea that Communicative Action should be free of any hidden strategy of instrumental goal: “It is certainly true that in communicative action unintended consequences may appear at any time; but as soon as there is a danger that these will be attributed to the speaker as intended results, the latter finds it necessary to offer explanations and denials, and if need be, apologies, in order to dispel the false impression that these side effects are perlocutionary effects. Otherwise, he has to expect that the other participants will feel deceived and adopt a strategic attitude in turn, steering away from action oriented to reaching understanding.

Infused with these two concepts, the idea of Communicative Action depends on social groups of people reaching an understanding based on statements. The speaker makes a claim, and the listener accepts the claim. In most illocutionary statements like making promises or requests, accepting the speaker’s claim creates conditions for future action. By making a promise, and by the listener accepting the meaning of that promise, the speaker and listener create an interpersonal bond. This bond can be created by warrancy of other normative forces, such as the case of making a request or command.

How is a speech act considered invalid in Communicative Action? Habermas gives the example of a professor asking a participant in the seminar to bring him a glass of water. The participant refuses, and this refusal can be on one of three grounds. It can be based on normative grounds- “you have no right to treat me as one of your employees”- questioning the subjective truthfulness of the speaker- “You really only want to put me in a bad light in front of the other seminar participants”- or questioning the existential presuppositions of the statement- “The next tap water is so far away that I couldn’t get back before the end of the session.” In the context of communicative action speech acts can be rejected under each of those three aspects: the rightness of the speech act, the truthfulness of the speaker’s subjective experience (sincerity), the truthfulness of the statement or its presuppositions. To these three refusals Habermas links three major forms of speech acts.

The first is constative speech acts, or assertions. These are propositions about the world, which Habermas links to the objective world. Next are normative claims- or regulatives- judgements of what is right and wrong: this is the social world. Finally there is dramaturgical, or expressiveness of the subject, the internal world. Each of these speech acts have different criteria for reaching understanding or judging a statement; for assertives, it is empirical observations or theorizing and the truth of the statement; for the regulative, it is discussion of the rightness of an act based on a norm (or even the questioning of a norm) and the criteria is rightness; the dramaturgical is judged on the truthfulness and criticized in terms of self deception, with the form of argumentation being therapeutic dialogue or discussions on values. Habermas ends with the following typology:

Type of knowledge: Technically and strategically useful knowledge
Form of argumentation: Theoretical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Technologies, strategies

Type of knowledge: Empircal-theoretical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Theoretical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Theories

Type of knowledge: Moral-practical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Practical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Legal and moral representations

Type of knowledge: Aesthetic practical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Therapeutic and aesthetic critique
Model of transmitted knowledge: Works of art

Communicative action finally acknowledges one more aspect of speech act: tacit knowledge. For communication happens within a wider horizon of cultural understanding and background knowledge of speaker and listener. That is not to say that statements are merely relative, but any understanding would be incomplete without planting itself in this horizon.

“It is only with the turn back to the context forming horizon of the lifeworld, from within which participants in communication come to an understanding with one another about something, that our field of vision changes in such a way that we can see the points of connection for social theory within the theory of communicative action: the concept of society has to be linked to a concept of the lifeworld that is complementary to the concept of communicative action. Then communicative action becomes interesting primarily as a principle of sociation: Communicative action provides the medium for the reproduction of lifeworlds.” With the idea of speech act and lifeworld, Habermas plants the seeds for his future theories.

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday February 4th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.