Friday, December 15, 2017

Navigating Zizek: Uncanny Happiness

Navigating Zizek

Intro: Slavoj Zizek seems to be everywhere, all over YouTube, presenting papers, and teaching at three different schools at least, while at the same time still managing to publish 2-3 new books per year.  Granted, much of what Zizek puts out is rehashed or recycled ideas and anecdotes from previous books and essays, it is nonetheless mystifying how much this guy’s engaged.  To say that he’s prolific is an understatement.  I’ve already read a lot of Zizek, but I doubt that I’ve read even half of what he’s written so far, and the dude keeps on writing.  So it’s a bit of a catch up game for me.  

Now, I understand there’s a lot of criticism out there of Zizek already and there is a question whether my voice will add anything at all to the conversation, already in progress.  If anything, my voice will most likely get drowned out in the sea of critique of Zizek’s ideas, this I understand.  The reason I’m doing this is personal. There are lots of other writers I’d like to take a stab at in the near future, Angela Nagle comes to mind, or Mark Fisher, but Zizek is something different.  

First, he’s Slavic, born in Slovenia, I’m Slavic, born in Czech Republic.  This may seem at first like nothing important, but to me it’s absolutely essential.  It means that his world-view and mine are in some sense conditioned by similar forces. Continental philosophy is dominated by western thought, mostly coming from France and Germany, with a smattering from the British Isles and the US, but Chomsky, Foucault, or Heidegger share an entirely different world-view, one that is based on expansive thought and ideas, progress and even optimism.  Zizek, it seems, deals more with pessimism and the burden of a small nation.  It’s not always there in his writing, but if you’re not from that world, it’s easy to miss.  For someone from that world to be this big is doubly an achievement.  

Second, he fights his own demons.  This I appreciate very much in Zizek’s writings on psychoanalysis and film.  It is as if this particular mode of writing is a way for Zizek to self-diagnose.  It is this that attracted me to psychoanalysis first and philosophy later.  Zizek combines both to a great effect, which is largely absent from a lot of other writing on similar subjects, peppering his word smithing with a particular Eastern European flavor.  Zizek wrestles with, as do other writers from Eastern Europe, his own shadow. 

This is the motivation for me to write these posts and the blog in general.  It is a way for me to investigate a bit of my own shadow side, via the thought of Zizek.

Part 1: Uncanny Happiness

In the most famous American dictum ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ which attempts to describe the unalienable rights of, well, everyone, it is the last third that is possibly the most ambiguous and for a good reason.   There is a different version of the above phrase that serves as the header to the 5th Amendment and it reads ‘Protection of rights to Life, Liberty and Property.’  It is obvious that the authors of the Amendment were trying to insert objectivity into the phrase and simply substituted ‘pursuit of happiness’ with ‘property’ which could have easily also read ‘pursuit of property.’  Property is tangible, it can be measured and has a certain value, whereas happiness does not. But this is why the first phrase is so much more interesting.  In some way it gives us a glimpse into the uncertain future of those that wrote it, namely Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.  But it also sheds light on the present situation in the United States, which doubled down on its ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a vehicle for the ‘pursuit of prosperity, pleasure and wealth,’ a perversion of the original meaning behind the phrase. 

Happiness is in itself a simple thing, but to achieve it one has to learn it.  At least this seems to be the case in much of western culture that practices postmodern neo-liberal capitalism.  In South Korea suicide rates are at an all-time high, despite the country’s economic prosperity and the use of anti-depressants in the US is so prevalent nobody seems to question them.  The happiness presented to us, through ‘happiness quotients’ and ‘happiness studies’ of cities masks a harder truth, that happiness isn’t solely dependent on wealth, prosperity or relative comfort of living.  It would appear that life and liberty have and their pursuit, have a negative effect on the achievement of happiness, and the ownership of property isn’t and end in itself that can arrest the individual in a state of happiness. 

In some way we may continue discussing happiness apropos of Zizek who writes

‘Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.’

It is interesting to note that the qualifier ‘pursuit of’ is found in front of the word happiness in the Declaration of Independence, as if the authors realized that happiness is not a category in itself.  According to this wording, pursuing happiness is elevated above happiness on the grounds that, as Zizek mentions, eternal struggle or pursuit is the only thing worth doing. This wording is grounded in the Enlightenment’s emphasis on knowledge and the intellect, both directly opposed to the sterile and hypocritical happiness through redemption promised by Christianity. 

But apart from happiness being a category of human emotion, it is also a commodity.  In the study of the evolution of faces in photos over 110 years done at UC Berkeley smiles predominate in photos since the 1950s with the grinning smile taking hold in the 1980s, while in the years pre-1950 faces appear more stoic. On Instagram pictures of users with big smiles or laughing typically get more likes per image than sober, stoic ones.  The injunction seems to be ‘enjoy’ because this way one fulfills their duty in producing the commodity of happiness.  The endless reproduction of happiness and smiles is predicated on a type of late capitalist anti-intellectualism.  The stern faces of academics and the sober manners of the old guard literary figures are a sure-fire way to alienate a majority of those under 30 and those who click.  Even the worst of news, is today carried with a kind of detached whimsy, because news after all still has to appeal to the masses and sell air time.  From ads and magazines, to TV presenters, celebrities and athletes, the injunction to enjoy and appear happy is tactically opposed to the burden of appearing ‘intelligent’ and therefore smarter than their audience, a toxic condition to the corporations whose profits rest on appearances that everything is in its proper place. This was the driving force behind Google in its early days, making the work place into a quasi-playground for the young adults employed in their offices and a standard tactic behind much of contemporary intra-office public relations between the bosses and the workers.  By making the workplace ‘fun’ there is a greater pressure exerted on the employees in the form of guilt but also in deferred rise in compensation, something that trickles down to the economy at large.  Today if one truly enjoys their work there appears the idea that this same person may not need to be compensated for their work, given that they would probably be ok doing the work for less or for free. Working for less that one’s labor is worth is so commonplace in the 21st century workplace that it’s been given a name, self-exploitation, and it, among the other evils of modern labor, is discussed in detail in Peter Fleming’s Resisting Work.  The ‘you’re having a good time, so why should I pay you’ is a duplicitous tactic, deployed by corporations and institutions, small and large, and it bleeds into the lives of individuals in such a way that working for less or for free with the vision of higher future income or profits becomes a natural state of things. 

It would be easy to blame corporations for their influence over the masses. In a way the masses have to be willing to be controlled.  In the 21st century we have arrived at a juncture in which state, institutional and corporate control becomes omnipresent through their infiltration into the public sphere via mass communications and social media.  The corporate logic of enjoyment in the workplace led directly into the corporatization of personal lives in the form of the ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self,’ the indefatigable self-promoter and self-commodifier.  In order to be viable in the 21st century marketplace one has to be continually marketing and branding oneself. Happiness, enjoyment and staying positive are crucial qualities for potential ‘consumers’ of ‘products’ and ‘content.’  The logic of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ applies to happiness more than ever, when even within internet social relations, one’s ‘market value’ rises and falls based on the perceptions of a potential audience.  Put on a fake smile and get 100 more likes per image is the credo of the new ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self.’

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Behold the Pirates

The rise of the Pirate party in recent Czech elections shows that the left may in fact be invigorated enough to go beyond the Occupy movement and its ultimate failure. Gaining 22 seats in the Czech parliament, the Pirates are now the third largest party in Czech Republic. The only irony here is that the Pirates consider themselves a center party.  This digital ‘left’ acts as a counter point to the alt-right described by Angela Nagle in her book on the subject called ‘Kill All Normies.’  As if there is no end to all the irony in the world, in today’s upside-down world, it is the ‘right’ that is most plugged into the digital world and the internet, somehow able to coopt every tactic that the old ‘new left’ used in its political stance on very diverse issues, from feminism and gay rights, to environmentalism and animal rights, and literally turning them inside-out, into stances like men’s rights, which were initially tongue-in-cheek, but developed into a strangely potent political positions.  The Pirates, precisely because of their unflinching determination to keep the party transparent and to the center, are probably the new ‘new left’s’ only hope for the future.  And let’s not forget, for as long as the right has existed, it was never able to muster the wherewithal to come up with anything new or forward looking, because as conservative politics go, they are in fact ‘conservative,’ meaning the idea of keeping the status quo is inherent in its ontology.  The reactionary right can only coopt and use what others created. This is the right’s natural state

In the recent Czech parliamentary elections, the political party ANO (YES), consistently calls itself a ‘movement’ with an anti-political stance, despite the fact that it is a fully functioning party. This is a charade that numerous other parties in Czech Republic began to copy this election cycle, most notably the anti-Islamist anti-immigrant ultra-right wing party SPD.  Right wing populism, exemplified by the election of Donald Trump, found a copy-cat in Andrej Babis, a Czech billionaire with interests in agro-business and the media. ANO is Babis’ populist unholy brainchild, paying off hundreds of politicians to jump ship from other parties with similar ideologies and make them his rank and file.  In numerous books and interviews Slavoj Zizek’s correct prognosis of the nature of politics in the 21st century, saw the rise of populist politicians based on the Italian model of Silvio Berlusconi, a corrupt and sleazy media mogul who was nonetheless entertaining and dominated the Italian political scene for many years due to his ties to and the ownership of the majority of Italian media.  Berlusconi, Trump and now Babis seem to exist despite their many offences, whether legal, personal or otherwise because of their overwhelming media presence and a kind of bafoonish ‘authenticity.’   During 2016 Donald Trump got more than 15 times the media coverage than Bernie Sanders, most of it negative, almost all of it free, basically advertising for his brand for which he did not have to pay a dime. 

As a counter point to the ridiculous spectacle that is Donald Trump or Andrej Babis and one that was Berlusconi, the Pirate party, made up mostly of the younger generation of 30 an under, is acting in-sync with the Zizekian call for decency in modern politics.  Not only does the head of the Pirates in Czech Republic openly discuss his marijuana use, with the intent of complete legalization during his term as the opposition party in parliament, rarely or almost never does he stoop to ad hominem attacks upon the opposition.  It is clear that he is aware that as a relative newcomer, even though the PP was established in Czech Republic more than 8 years ago, earlier than ANO, any mud-slinging on their part would probably render their party and its efforts in parliament dead-on-arrival.  What is absolutely apparent is that the left now has a chance to finally stand as an alternative to the ever shifting coordinates of the political spectrum across Europe and the West in a rightward direction.  No longer is the left relegated to the singing and chanting in the streets during protests that go largely unnoticed, and let’s face it, these ‘protests’ have never worked, not even at the height of the Vietnam war.  The failure of the Occupy movement seems to have finally invigorated some to action, perhaps it was inevitable that the Millenial generation which was largely written off by the older generations, is growing up, getting its ‘shit’ together and beginning to act as adults should.  The Pirate Party’s chairman Ivan Bartos pointed this out when he said that most of the PP members are now married and having kids. The left’s future lies in the dramatic rethinking of personal and social responsibility. Pragmatic thinking and action must go hand in hand even on the backs of a purely political, ideological thinking.  The older generation that squandered most of the wealth and comfort built up by the previous generations that kept the millennials largely out of sight and out of mind is finally seeing what may in fact be armies on the horizon. Let’s not squander this opportunity.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Problem of Fake News

For as long as I can remember, there has been fake news out there, from yellow journalism to paid advertising made to appear as news.  Advertising itself has in recent years gone to absolutely crazy levels of faking real life so as to make the two virtually indistinguishable.  There is a story by Jon Ronson of a group in England that faked a meteor impact in the country side, a crypto advertising campaign during a soccer match involved a Barcelona player and a spectator that threw a banana on the pitch, the player nonchalantly picked up the banana and ate it before serving up a corner kick, the whole event meant to advertise the campaign against racism in ‘football.’  There are countless of these stories.  In the 1930s yellow journalism spearheaded by the psychopath robber baron William R. Hearst, in a vast conspiracy with likeminded new-aristocrats like Dupont, made marijuana illegal for the next 80 years, only so they could have a monopoly in the paper and tree pulp market.  I could go on and on.  

The recent glut of fake news seems to me like nothing more than a diversion from the very real problems facing America and the world.  It is also a very clever tactic to silence the truly independent voices that do not work directly for the mainstream media or the government.  Nothing will work better to put a stop to the drivel than a carefully crafted campaign to ban and censor than blaming the other for attempting to do the same.  Let’s be totally clear on this.  Fake news has always been with us as long as mass media has been with us.  Certain people will go to extraordinary lengths to lie and cheat others out of whatever they have. The call to stop fake news in all its forms is really a cleaned up way of banning and censoring independent voices and critical discourse.  Fake news is not even fake news, it is ‘the’ news.  Who remembers the endless prattle of the NY Times in the lead-up to the second Iraq war that was not only supportive of the invasion but somehow always managed to get ‘sources’ that confirmed that WMDs actually existed in Iraq?  Just because it’s NY Times does not mean that the news coming out from them is the real news or even honest news.   How is the right-wing now the ‘party of peace’ when the neo-conservatives clearly designed the plan to invade, occupy and throw into chaos the entire Middle-East with the organization of the Project for the New American Century? 

I am highly suspicious of anything that gets everyone talking at the same time, the viral campaigns, the memes, the trends and fashions of the week or of the day.  These make me uneasy about the world we find ourselves in.  Nothing is more dangerous than mass media in the hands of the wrong people, ask the Germans, the Russians, heck ask the entire East European continent, ask Indonesia, the Chinese, or the people in Rwanda. But you know what, they may tell you ‘that was then, this is now, and things are different.’ Not so. There may have been a time when the internet was free from manipulation, at least until the corporate swine got their sticky fingers into it because they saw the potential dupes that got on day in day out. They made sure that the news and the stuff that you and I consume every day is ‘their’ stuff and not anyone else’s.  When you read articles about fake news you’re most certainly getting someone else’s version of it, the corporate version, even if, and perhaps especially if that source appears to be an independent source, like a blogger or YouTube celebrity. If a story spreads like wildfire, one can bet that there is but a single source of it all.  Right now, in the thick of it, we cannot tell what that source is, but I bet that the corporate leeches that are sucking this world dry are behind it all.  Don’t buy into the bullshit.  Fake news is ‘real’ news and ‘real’ news is what someone else says it is, basically making it fake news all along.  Unless it’s stuff happening in your backyard that you can go and see for yourself, take everything coming out at you from the screen with a big grain of salt.  The ironic self-awareness of corporations and the upper classes only masks the impotence of the individual in mass society and the corporate-run government wants it that way. And the fact that many of the billionaires now look like the kid-next-door, dressed in hoodies and white sneakers, does not subtract from the reality that some of these people are ruthless and calculating animals. If you think you are informed, know that being informed only means that you are towing the line for someone else.  A healthy ignorance of current events will give one a perspective on the past, present and future; neither is mutually exclusive. 

Do not mistake greatness with popularity, and don’t mistake popularity with authority! Everyone wants you to read their own fake news, they want you to like their Facebook posts, they want you to see their Instagram, they want to tell you what it’s like to be them, but who are you and what are you like? What do you think of what’s happening? The corporate scum continue to sell the ground right from underneath us, the Miami housing market is imploding again, student and credit card debt has crippled the economy and made the middle of America into a wasteland, all the money’s been siphoned upward to the uber-rich and nobody is talking about class? No, that would be too much like communism, and we can’t have that.  Let’s let more capitalism and corporate cronyism fix the problems of capitalism and corporate cronyism. ‘You are free to do as we tell you!’

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Separation of Market and State

In light of the inauguration of Donald J Trump as president and the million people marches out there, I’d like to stay optimistic about developments around the globe, yet I find myself sinking back into a realization that we are not experiencing anything new.  The inauguration of both George W Bush and Barack Obama spawned protests and counter protests, all a bit wishy washy, with no clear goals or agendas, littered with celebrity speakers to make the crowds feel good about themselves.  I fear we have not learned much from the past.  I fear that the protests are a simple reaction, not a means to a sustained political and social change.   

If we look at Trump’s cabinet appointees, we see that he’s filled it with nothing but business types, some with no political experience, much like Trump himself.  But is this a revolutionary move on Trump’s part?  I would argue the opposite.  Trump is just doing what is considered hegemonic in the current globalist business ethos.  He is going to run the government like a corporation with himself the CEO in Chief.  This is not new. If one looks around America, bit by bit the trend emerges, from education to entertainment to government, schools are run by a bloated bureaucracy of middle management administrators, retail shops, call centers, Silicon Valley, all marching in unison to the white collar bureaucrat.  Even art museums found it necessary in the early 21st century to lock step with the top down winner-takes-all business model with a layer of curators and administrators serving as intermediaries between the public and the art(ists).  Trump is merely replacing one form of oppression with another and I fear that the protesters have no alternative answers to our predicament.  Their answer seems to be to funnel more of their own into political positions of power, supplementing rather than replacing the very system that oppresses them. 

What happened to the words of Rudy Dutschke when he implored the radical left to go on a “long march through the institutions?”  I also fear that the long march had turned the former radicals into mushy placeholders who managed to alter their ideology so as to remain gainfully employed in a precarious and volatile market.  The vision of somebody like Dutschke is long term, but also na├»ve in some respect.  How can one predict what will happen to those that enter the governmental business machinery with the intention to disrupt or change it, as the protests suggest? How is one going to prevent the cooptation of their faculties and subjectivity? How will these people remain committed and accountable? 

The world of business is riddled with inequality, vicious backstabbing and corruption precisely because these are entirely inscribed into the idea of business itself.  There must be some sort of proposition made that just as government should be separate from religion (which it is not by any stretch of the imagination) in the classic idea of separation of church and state, so the state must be separate from the market for it to function even on the most fundamental level.  What do we gain by a marriage between the state and the market besides the obvious, the relinquishing of power to the most powerful and the acquiescence by the public to political, cultural and social hegemony and finally become beholden to the fluctuations of the market itself?   

Especially fearsome is the herd mentality surrounding social media, partly because the internet, via its supposed anonymity and virtuality, impresses upon people the idea that actions have no consequences, the election of Donald Trump is a case in point.  If one wants to experience freedom, one cannot hand over their personal power, even to someone whose intentions are good and whose views on the world we share.  Trump is going to expand the power of government, not shrink it. He is not going to replace, merely supplement what already exists by handing over power to a like-minded elite.  It was no different under Obama or Bush or Clinton.  He will make deals, he will write contracts, he’ll shake his fists at other politicians, all the while firmly rooted in what he knows best, how to best profit himself.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The King’s Speech: On Zizek’s Speech Impediment

First, I would like to point out that in no way am I offering any sort of diagnosis of Slavoj Zizek’s speech impediment.  This article/essay is a simple exercise in perception, and yes, a Zizekian analysis.  What do we get when we apply Zizek’s theories to Zizek himself?  The answer may or may not be surprising, depending on whether you are a Zizek follower or an anti-Zizek propagandist.  

In an analysis of The King’s Speech, Zizek points out that the king’s stuttering makes the king self-conscious and in a way embarrassed.  As a divine ruler, the king of England should be a confident authority figure perfectly capable of assuming the role of the head of state.  Delivering messages to the masses through oratory on the radio is just one of the ways that the king’s authority is projected to the public and if the people hear that in the voice of the king is a slight imperfection, this may be read as a fault that might preclude the king from carrying out his divine duty, for if god is on the side of the king, surely he would make the king a perfect human specimen.  Enter a speech therapist.  Not only is the therapist’s role one of fixing the king’s speech impediment and boosting his confidence, thus propping up his ego, Zizek points out that by doing this tedious, behind-the-scenes work, he is rendering the king stupid enough so that he may accept his position as the head of state.  Zizek points this out during a scene when Geoffrey Rush playing the speech therapist sits on the king’s throne.  When the king gets agitated and tells Rush to get off his throne, the question comes back, ‘why?’  To Zizek only the appropriate answer can come: ‘because that is my throne and I am the king.’  Rush gets off the throne, his work seemingly coming to a successful end. He’s rendered the king able to rule by eliminating any obstacles to any notion of self-doubt.  It was self-doubt in the first place that created the stutter which in turn made the king self-conscious and question the authority given to the king.  Only by becoming ‘stupid enough’ can the king become a king.

What are we to make of Zizek’s own speech impediment and his notorious shirt and nose pulling?  In light of the above argument, if we subject Zizek’s own ‘nervous tics’, as he calls them, to the same analysis his gives to The King’s Speech, we may arrive at a notion that Zizek is himself either a self-doubting subject uncomfortable in his position of authority or that in some sense Zizek is himself aware that by creating a series of nervous gestures he is actively resisting his descent into mere grey stupidity.  Can we imagine what the world of philosophy and cultural critique would be like if Zizek spoke fluently and eloquently, without a thick East European accent supported by a lisp, given away to an array of jerky actions?  I’m going to venture a guess and say that Zizek, not being Zizek, would have a detrimental effect on our image of Zizek himself, his ideas aside entirely.  Should a speech therapist enter the picture and give Zizek coaching in ‘proper’ public speaking, the resultant confidence might actually become a detriment by creating a virtual Zizek, one that is outwardly confident, stylish and pleasant to listen to in public, but one that when the lights go off betrays this image by reverting to his true self in private.  

David Graeber’s analysis of nervous tics might also be helpful here. In his own experience, Graeber, an anthropologist and former Yale professor, identifies gestures like nose scratching as a signal of inferiority when confronted by people in a higher position.  Graeber who comes from a working-class background points out that these nervous gestures serve an actual purpose.  In grade school, nervous tics can be used as a tactic to deflect the aggressive behavior of physically stronger alpha males, in college these same nervous behaviors may be perceived by professors and superiors as a sign that their authority is well met and thus not undermined by someone that may in fact be smarter than they are. Graeber gives the example of Columbo, the working-class detective whose intelligence is superior than the upper-class clientele he serves. Columbo’s hand gestures signal that he accepts the apparent superiority of his clients’ social class while undermining it with his sharp wit and insight.  Zizek’s own hand gestures and nervous tics perhaps betray his working-class background, perhaps they do not. Coming from the Balkans, Zizek may be subject to a cultural inferiority complex.  His small nation of Slovenia borders Austria, Hungary and Italy, historically expansionist empires who subjugated their Slavic neighbors and attempted to assimilate them into their culture. I write this as a Czech whose culture was similarly absorbed by various empires over the past several centuries.  Though this is not an excuse and one cannot say with any certainty that cultural inferiority exists, Zizek does play a big role as a Slav and a Slovenian in a culture dominated by the French and the German schools of continental philosophy, carving out a niche of pessimist prescience and historical cultural analysis. If there is one thing that French and German continental philosophy cannot be accused of, it is of an inferiority complex.  The lot of the small nation is that it will forever be bound up with the customs, fashions and trends of the large nations that endlessly compete for dominance on the world stage, taking their smaller and weaker neighbors for the ride. Such is the case of Czech Republic and I can only surmise that such is the case of Slovenia in relationship even to their Slavic neighbors Croatia. At any rate, Zizek’s speech patterns and odd gesticulations in no way undermine what he says and in fact play into his own character, building up the persona that is Zizek.  Some may find this irritating, I find a comfort in knowing that there is substance beyond the flat veneer of appearances.