Sunday, April 05, 2009

WHO IS AFRAID OF ZIZEK?


ON ZIZEK’S POPULARITY IN DILIMAN, PHILIPPINES, AND THE PROBLEM OF FREUDIAN AND LACANIAN SPECULATIONS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE IN THE PHILIPPINES AND ELSEWHERE: A Brief Comment


By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Friends from U.P. Diliman have continually informed me that the most popular author among students and teachers today is Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian exile, now residing in London, UK. Not Ambeth Ocampo nor Jessica Zafra. Of course, Joma Sison is still around; but he has become trivialized, if not banalized, not less by his detractors now shooting polemical missiles from Japan, Australia, and Europe. Joma may have become the victim of an insidious repetition-compulsion (embodied in the habitus/ethos of megamalling/consumerism and migration) which has also wreaked havoc on the cult-groupie adherents of sikolohiyang Pilipino and its more exclusivist offsprings: pantayong pananaw, regional sectarian enclaves, etc. etc. If Mao and Joma are fading, will Che Guevara and Fanon—not to mention Antonio Gramsci, W.E.B.Du Bois, and Renato Constantino--be coming up soon in a revivalist trend, side by side with ‘Pareng Barack, Beyonce and Rihanna? No, Zizek has taken over!

Aside from his books on Lacan (applied to Hollywood films) and Hegel, Zizek has suddenly become a kind of Leninist after migrating to the UK where he heads a think-tank for the floating and eclectic intellectuals of the global North, including the not-so-mighty USA. The pragmatic US elite act like bricoleurs in raiding new ideas anywhere and commodifying them. (Except maybe for the original hypotheses of Charles Sanders Peirce, the real founder of pragmaticism, since then vulgarized by his epigones.) In the “belly of the beast,” academics are still looking to the French and the German thinkers (after Habermas, Derrida and Foucault, the Italian Agamben and the French Badiou are trying to catch up, jousting with Adorno, Bakhtin, and Walter Benjamin) for needed sustenance. They cannot get it from the late Rorty, nor the Hardt and Negri of Empire; much less from postcolonialists like Bhabha, Spivak, Appadurai, etc. Of course, the anarchists and neo-marxists proliferate, but they are impotent in affecting public discourse and institutional practices. As for the U.S.left, one hopes that someone will come to revive this dead Lazarus. Meanwhile, third-world immigrants are mobilizing….

Meanwhile, Zizek is still alive and functioning. From his launching-pad in London, and his video self-promotions in YOUTUBE and the Internet, Zizek has achieved some kind of hegemonic status among elite pundits and public intellectuals in the metropoles and hinterlands like the Philippines. My colleagues are not reading Chomsky, Zinn. Charles Taylor, or The Nation—they are perusing the humor and humours of Zizek.

Zizek’s entire corpus is based on Lacanian axioms, with heavy allusions to Freud, Marx, Hegel of course, and the anti-Cartesian and Nietzschean archive. This Lacanian foundation has never been questioned, presumably because it is obscure and highly speculative. Not the least daunting is the fact that there is a breed called Lacanian feminists (Kristeva may be one), just as there used to be Freudian feminists (Juliet Mitchell comes to mind). Aside from the linguistic orientation of Lacan, the whole Freudian apparatus of the analytic situation and its metapsychological implications are fully invested in the Zizek utterance-machine. Lacan in fact boasted that he restored the original Freud, or rescued him from the perfidious revisionists. Lacan’s logocentrism informs the wide-ranging applications deployed by Zizek in his commentaries on current issues and quotidian happenings. Zizek’s eclecticism appeals to the pedestrian scholars and practitioners of mainstream cultural studies all over the world, afraid of socialist or other utopian alternatives to the status quo.

One commentator in the field, Jean Laplanche, in his Essays on Otherness, has acutely provided illuminating distinctions in the levels of theoretical sophistication found in Freudian discourse.
Among his many shrewd insights, I offer for readers Laplanche’s view that “the theory of seduction” (which underlies Freud’s transference theory, the key lesson of the “talking cure”) is not a reading language one can use universally for all communication situations. Rather, it is chiefly an attempt to understand the analytical practice of Freudian therapists. To apply it elsewhere is a gross imposition bound to generate misreadings and misrecognitions. In fact, Laplanche emphasizes, what is known as “psychoanalytical reading” is “a direct means of repression.” This is an ironical finding that seems to rival the “shock and awe” of Bush’s infamous “global war on terror.”

In this context, the British philosopher Peter Osborne aptly comments on the “repetitive structure” of Zizek’s work: “’Psychoanalytical readings are a means of repression to the extent that they shield the reader from the productive enigma of the text/object/practice by imposing a standardized narrative interpretation: the Oedipal reading, the ‘depressive position’ reading, the Real reading…. Such readings offer the comfort, not of strangers, but of all-too-familiar codings of strangeness which serve to reinforce the interpreting subject’s existing formation. As such, they offer a theoretical version of the pleasure in repetition which is an essential part of all cultural experience” (Philosophy in Cultural Theory, London, 2000, pp. 114-15). Who would want to reject repetition if it gives pleasure? The obsession with affects, the body, Butler’s performative and ludic exhibitions, and of course sexual/erotic fantasies, is still universal.

It is, I think, precisely this pleasure in repetition of now familiar Freudian/Lacanian strategies of reading that we find in Zizek.Take, for example, a typical performance illustrated by his article “The Not-so-Quiet American” in IN THESE TIMES (Feb. 14, 2005). This is vintage Zizek. Here he criticizes U.S. imperial policy in Iraq as a perfect illustration of Graham Greene’s satiric portrayal of the “quiet American” who, in spite of or because of humanitarian, altruistic motives produce enormous disaster and death, the opposite of his good intentions. The Freudian paradigm of the libidinal unconscious wrecking all the master plans of the rational ego is obvious here. Lacan observes that the Iraqi people react ungratefully to the U.S. gift of democracy and freedom—“they look at the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, and America then responds like a sullen child in reaction of the ingratitude of those it selflessly helped.” Lacan follows this up with the method of double reading, one that looks backward in a genealogical fashion to what lies behind appearances (the hidden motive) and one that looks forward to the eschatological effect (the result that validates the discovery of what’s hidden). After excavation, then an allegory of anticipation and, if there’s no transference, repetition. This formula is applied to the excavation of the U.S. motive. Zizek diagnoses further: “The underlying presupposition is that under our skin, if we scratch the surface, we are all Americans. That is our true desire—all that is needed is just to give people a chance, liberate them from their imposed constraints and they will join us in our ideological dream.” Hence, US feminists’ self-righetous crusade against clitoridectomy in Africa, the Middle East, and everywhere.

Zizek tries to complicate his rather conventional Freudian/Lacanian reading by inscribing in his text the authoritarian/totalitarian binary introduced by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a neoconservative policy bureaucrat during the Reagan administration. Semantic and ludic discriminations take over. Kirkpatrick approved the pragmatic authoritarian dictators supported by the US in the seventies and eighties (Marcos,Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, etc.) but disapproved the totalitarian rulers modeled after Soviet and Chinese communist teachings. Lacan seizes on the irony of the U.S. overthrowing the pragmatic authoritarian Saddam Hussein, thus proving that its real and authentic desire—yes, the hidden subterranean drive—is for totalitarian domination, the exercise of absolute power over everyone. In effect, Lacan has revealed the real motive, the source of the imperial drive, in analyzing the process of transference by using Saddam Hussein, and the US policy in Iraq, as the enigmatic signifiers whose binding and unbinding can produce the cure. But by confining himself to the discourse of the texts he reads, its concepts and assumptions, Zizek reproduces all the ironies and ambiguities he is trying to resolve. We thought everything was clear, we include in the “overall picture the ideological and political effects” of US occupation, but the Iraqis remain the victims. Iraq remains occupied with at least a million Iraqis dead and thousands of Americans killed. And the redeeming Gospel of Zizek has not changed the picture. (Recently, the African American political commentator Melissa Harris-Lacewell cogently argued that what changed the picture, at least within the US consensus, is the Katrina-New Orleans disaster and its erosion of support for Bush’s unilaterialist, war-mongering racialist policy.)

Armed with Zizek’s apercus disseminated in numerous books and articles circulated all over the world, are we any wiser or more fully informed of the total picture of the world today after his brilliant disclosure? Are we more adequately mobilized to confront Obama’s imperial mission in Afghanistan and all over the world, including the Philippines, via the subservient neocolonial Arroyo regime? Can the Lacanian-Freudian theoretical framework clarify the root and solution to the unprecedented global economic crisis started by the financial collapse of 2008? Is US hegemony still standing after the powerful Zizek diagnosis of self-deception, seduction, and traumatic cathexes?

The problem is our uncritical acceptance of Freud’s flawed premises and fundamentally complicit world-view. Despite the heroic efforts of Marcuse, Fromm, Wolfenstein, Reich, Ollman, and others, Freud remains a seriously misleading explainer of what is wrong with Western civilization, and the human psyche in general. The Freudian doctrine has of course been repudiated by psychologists and psychiatrists trained in scientific positivism, as well as by social scientists in general. However, Freud’s metapsychology (as elaborated in Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, for example) continue to exercise a profound and pervasive influence on humanists, writers, artists, and so on. This is not the space for an extended critique of Freud, or even a review of everything wrong and counterproductive in Freud if we are concerned with advancing a revolutionary, socialist project. Allow me to quote Richard Lichtman’s concluding judgment in his important but neglected book, The Production of Desire (Lichtman’s caveats on Freud complement Christopher Caudwell’s critique of Freud in Studies in a Dying Culture):

…This is precisely Freud’s weakness; he lacks an understanding of social relations and therefore of the social nature of ‘individual’ existence. Consequently, his efforts at the demystification of personal experience always reproduce some critical aspect of that mystification., for he never escapes taking the consequence of capitalist individualism for its cause. The framework through which he reveals the reality of the human condition is limited by the inhumanity of the capitalist condition which is then mistaken for the human condition itself. So, while Freud eschews any assertion of the significance of social structure, he reproduces this very structure in his uncritical acceptance of the deepest aspects of the capitalist world view” (1982, 258).

I think Lichtman’s analysis and evaluation of Freud’s whole psychoanalytic cosmos are solidly grounded on a historical-materialist critique and seems to me irrefutable; and, mutatis mutandis, they apply also to Lacan and Zizek. May it reach our friends in Diliman, “sitting in darkness,” to use Mark Twain’s ironic epithet of the U.S. civilizing mission, the brutal “Benevolent Assimilation” conquest of the islands that led to 1.4 million dead Filipinas/os and its other toxic consequences. --##

1 comment:

ai said...

I have friends in diliman who worship Zizek because of his "brilliant" and indeed eclectic Lacanian readings and essays on religion, quoting him frequently and referring to him lovingly. I understand them as much as I understand the propositions of Freud and Lacan and the rest of the vague psycho theory. :D