Quote it Like you Stole It: Living in the End Times Part 2

Chapter 3: Bargaining

In Chapter 3, Zizek  ambitiously ponder whether Marx might not be divided into a later, non Marxist “Marx” and the earlier, less impressive version. Put another way, we have a problematization of utopian thought based around Marx’s theory of exploitation. It’s a shame that the reading of natural capitalism, found in afterword, isn’t here too, as it’s one of the stronger examples of this. This is by far the most ambiguous and confusing chapter in the book, so please feel free to disregard this interpretation if you have a better one.

From what I can tell, the break in Marxism Zizek wants to revisit is where Marx starts moving away from a ‘Marxist’ definition of labour – one that sees it as the fundamental aspect of all society – into a more reflexive analysis that sees this very abstraction as a result of capitalism itself. Concluding a bracing and somewhat difficult to follow line of argument, he concludes:

“ Returning to Marx, then: there is not so much a poetic as a theoretical justice in the fact tha the manuscript of the third volume of Capital breaks off with a class analysis: one should read this break not as a sign of the need to change the theoretical approach from objective social analysis to a more subjective, but as an indication of the need to turn the text reflexively back onto itself, to realize that all the categories the text had analyzed up to this point, starting with the simple commodity, had involve class struggle.” (204)

That is to say,  the qualities such as abstract labour and commodity form which had foregrounded the Marxist critique were in themselves the result of the reality of class struggle and the imposition of capitalist forms. This is why, earlier in the chapter, Zizek speculates about the links between “really existing socialism” and their reification of labour, wondering whether these oppressive results were due to an immature reading of Marxist categories.

While he is interested in resuscitating the critique of political economy, this requires a new understanding of ‘exploitation’, as well as an understanding of the ‘general intellect’, the immaterial labour done increasingly in place of material labour in the West that is in turn privatized. This is a slice of a bigger problem Zizek is trying to wrestle with more generally: how is it that, consistently, protesting subjects are not the most exploited but rather the ‘salaried’ bourgeoisie, those with a surplus income whose labour is primarily affective and concerned with information. It would be wrong to try and prise some sort of conclusion out of these speculations, but we do get some ambiguous pointers which I imagine will come to fruition in Zizek’s future work:

“The paradox is while this “immaterial labour” no longer involves the separation of labour from its  immediate “objective” conditions (workers own their computers, etc., which is why they can make contracts as autonomous producers), nevertheless the “substance” of “immaterial labour” (what Lacan alled the “big Other” the network of symbolic relations) cannot be “appropriated by the collective subject(s) the way the substance of material labour can be. The reason is very precise: the “big Other” (the symbolic substance) is teh very network of intersubjective (“collective”) relations, as such its “appropriation” can only be achieved if intersubjectivity is reduced to a single subject (even if it is a “collective” one). At the level of the “big Other,” “reconciliation£ between subject and substance can no longer be conceived as the subject’s (re-) appropriatiuon of the substance, but only as the reconciliation of subjects mediated by substance.” (233)

Ultimately, this gets us here:

“…the problem is that the rise of “intellectual”labour (scientific knowledge as well as practical savoir-faire) to a hegemonic position…undermines the standard notion of exploitation, since it is no longer labour time which serves as teh source and ultimate measure of value. But what this means is that the concept of exploitation needs to be radically re-thought.” (241)

The way forward, for Zizek, is to modify the ‘labour theory of value’ which maintains that there is an inherent value to commodities which is a product of their use-value or their labour time. This introduces the basic problem with alternative currencies and so on, as it imagines that there is something other than capitalism and exchange value which regulates the inherent value of a commodity:

“In other words, when Marx defines exchange-value as the mode of appearance of value, one should mobilize here the entire Hegelian weight of the opposition between essence and appearance: essence exists only insofar as it appears, it does not pre-exist its appearance. In the same way, the value of a commodity is not its intrinsic substantial property which exists independently of tis appearance in exchange. What this means is that Marx’s distinction between concrete and abstract labour is also a kind of misnomer: in a Hegelian sense, “concrete” labour (an individual working on a natural object, transforming it to make it satisfy some human need) is an abstraction from the network of concrete social relations within which it always takes place.” (214)

We then get this very long, often rather rambling set of speculations about how we should interpret Marx through the lens of various theoretical thinkers (Lukacs, Hegel, Karatani, and so on). This chapter is hard going, but from my understanding Zizek is taking aim at the notion that, in some objective sense, labour creates value, which can be accurately measured and rewarded, thus avoiding exploitation. This doesn’t work because our tools for measuring labour and value descend from a false, yet fully self-sustaining world of appearances, this is to say capitalism, which develops value through it’s own internal processes.

In addition to this main thrust, there are also various barbs aimed at, for example the social wage, which is criticized for requiring not only a very strong state but remaining within capitalism, and some critiques of Sloterdijk. Another way of putting this chapter simply would be to say the following: capitalism has it’s own internal logic and creates appearances which Marx attempted to demystify. However, this initial attempts at demystification which are mobilized today – the idea of a social wage which overcomes exploitation and exploitative labour relations, the idea of really rewarding us for our labour time, and so on – fall short because labour time is not, in the same sense that capital and resources as conceived of in Marx, an accurate measurement of exploitation in modern conditions. Therefore, either exploitation needs to be rethought or the labour theory of value should be done away with. Zizek says as much apropos Venezuela, which is arguably ‘exploiting’ the US on the basis of it’s oil rent. Prior to this, was Venezuela ‘exploited’? Here, Marx either has to be abandoned, as it’s scarcity rather than labour-time that measured the value of the oil, or the concept of exploitation must be reconsidered.  (242)

Ultimately, all of this fumbling will hopefully become ‘necessary’ in Zizek’s Hegelian sense: required retroactively in the positing of some new formula of exploitation. While I would prefer if we got the refined version ‘first’, I suppose that in this era of tweeting, blogging and so on, the process of how you make sausages (or, if you like, how you make dialectic break bricks) is on show for all to see.

Overall Grade: C

Chapter 4: Depression

Here what we get is a much more concise piece of analysis. The chapter begins by critiquing Chakrabarty’s idea of mutually existing histories: H1, the history of capital, and H2, the history of particular lifeworlds, that is to say, our Morris dancing, bagpipes and provincial traditions which escape capitalism. Zizek argues against this that what capital does is not so much coexist but fatally wound these worlds because, ultimately, culture must be made to bend to the all-encompassing logic of capitalism. To illustrate this, we have a long detour about the Chinese Communist Parties appropriation of Tibetan reincarnation and reduction of it to something to be administered and controlled by the state. (This is a good example of Law: rather than banning reincarnation and oppressing it with weapons, as is a failing strategy, the authorities regulate the prohibition on reincarnation, creating a much more effective method of control).

This is in part a result of the fact that capitalism negates social stability and so religion must be sought as something to give it substance: “The role of religion in China as a force of stability against the capitalist dynamic is thus officially sanctioned – what bother sthe Chinese authorities in the case of sects like the Falun Gong is merely their independence from state control.” (288)

However, by erasing the organic lifeworlds or bringing them into capitalism, there is something liberatory that happens. While this may well irk those who’ve dedicated time to protecting ‘authentic’ cultures from capitalism, Zizek argues that:

“…before we succumb to bemoaning the “alienating” effect of the fact that “relations between persons” are being replaced by “relations between things,” we should keep in mind the opposite, liberating , effect: displacement of the fetishism onto “relations between things” de-fetishizes “relatioins between persons,” allowing tehm to acquire “formal” freedom and autonomy.” (290)

This follows on to the argument that formal freedom is better than direct servitude, as in many ‘organic’ societies, although perhaps not all, because it creates the conditions for real freedom: “That very force of abstraction which dissolves organic lifeworlds is simultaneously the resource of emancipator politics.” (291) Of course, it can be argued that, not for the first time, Zizek is making a hash of the details in the hope of getting a closer look at the theory: obscuring the forest for th‘idea’ of the forest.

Enter Malabou: here Zizek takes up her notion of the new subjects created by ‘abstract negativity’, by the violence that comes from capitalism, natural disasters and medical problems. Unlike ‘organic’ subjects,  modern subjects cannot regard these developments as making any sort of sense, but rather as completely meaningless intrusions of trauma. In simpler, more local terms, it is the failure to maintain your crappy job on the basis that it is a prelude or paying of one’s dues in a long-term narrative, but rather simply an abstract imposition which has no real meaning. In the world of refugees, victims of natural catastrophes, war, displacement, economic shocks, pretty much everything in ‘The Shock Doctrine’ by Naomi Klein, this is an expanding phenomenon. What the trauma does is not so much scar a person’s horizon, but rather completely destroys the horizon and creates a new subject who is lost in the meaninglessness, forming a new self which, of course, remembers the old self but does not engage with the world it knew. Rather, “This subject lives death as a form of life – his or her life is the death drive embodied, a life deprived or erotic engagement..” (294)

However, and controversially, Zizek argues that Malabou may be wrong that these subjects are ‘suffering’ as such:

“This subject is primordially an enigmatic impenetrable Thing, totally ambiguous, such that one cannot but oscillate between attributing to it immense suffering and blessed ignorance. What characterizes it is the lack of recognition in a double sense: we do not recognize ourselves in it, there is no empathy possible, and trhe autistic subject, on account of its withdrawal, does not recognize us, its partner in communication.

At this point, one naturally wonders whether something has changed: all of these seems rather natural, one theorist at a time, a clear line of argument, and so on. But don’t worry, haters, because things pretty soon get messy, which is predictably the point at which Lacan-Hegel-Freud are brought into the equation. In this case, since Lacanian psychoanalysis identifies the self with the loss, or the gap separating us from our desire, the post-traumatic subject posits something new:

“The post-traumatic autistic subject is teh “living proof” that the subject cannot be identified (does not fully overlap) with the “sotires it tells itself about itself, “ with the narrative symbolic textures of its life: when all this is taken away, something (or, rather, nothing, but a form of nothing) remains, and this something is the pure subject of the death drive.” (311)

Let’s take a local example. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that could be used as a basic hermeneutic for most of the philosophical problems you care to name, Buffy finds herself helpless at the end of season 2. She has been expelled from school, her friends are in hospital, her mother has discovered her secret identity and rejected her, and Angel has no soul. Angel, or Angelous, the unsoiled vampire, is about to kill her with a sword, stopping to ask, rhetorically: “no plans, no tricks, no friends….when you take all that away, what’s left?” Thrusting the sword at her head, Buffy suddenly recovers, catching the blade between her palms and, opening her eyes, says “Me”, then proceeds to annihilate Angelous in a stunning display of almost pure drive, eventually killing him despite his re-souling by a bed-ridden Willow. Of course, this “Me” is not Buffy in all her – now destroyed – lifeworld co-ordinates, but the very living-dead, post traumatic thing which refuses to die.

Subsequently, Buffy leaves, creating a new identity in the form of Anne who tries not to live, ignoring her calling and trying to reconstruct a normal life. It is in the failure  to do so (recall her reinterpellation as the slayer towards the end of the episode) and later, in the failure to connect with her friends following resurrection, that Buffy becomes more and more pure death drive, the living embodiment of her Slayer-self, which proceeds negatively, abstractly, and purely in place of a personality proper. No wonder her relationships collapse with the exception of her entanglement with a properly dead nihilism in the form of Spike, again a pure drive deprived of his life substance in the form of the chip, but who eventually manages to regain a persona via the removal of the chip in his brain in season 7. This lifeworld which he enters is barred to Buffy, who only wishes she had a chip (“Did I come back wrong?”) to remove.

So, Buffy aside, what we have here is the detached subject that arises from the enclosure of the commons in capitalism, in this case the enclosure of our ‘inner nature’, the stories we tell ourselves, that is destroyed by meaningless trauma, which is the purest form of Cartesian cogito. The cogito, for Zizek is “the zero-pint of the overlapping of thinking and being, that point at which the subject, in a way, neither “is” (it is deprived of all positive substantial content) nor “thinks” (its thinking is reduced to the empty tautology of thinking that it thinks).” (312)

This is around where the chapter ends. I found this rather distressing as it feels like this is only the beginning. I thought that, on the basis of radical de subjectivized, formally free people being the threat to capitalism, we were going to go somewhere with this analysis of the post-traumatic subject. Certainly, the chapter points this way, and in this sense problematizes and opens ups the question of how we approach the misery of capitalism and liberalism, but it doesn’t seal the deal. What’s worse is that, alongside the earlier reading of the need to distance renew exploitation and, indeed, renew the distinction between proletarians (workers deprived of the fruits of their labour) and proletarianization (whereby our substance is taken, i.e. the commons enclosed, our lifeworlds and understanding is destroyed), there is clearly a link which might move us forward in this line of thought. Perhaps this ambiguity is where Zizek wants us, forced to make the links ourselves, or perhaps (however unlikely) this will all be resolved and stacked up in the final chapter and afterword.

Still, there is something potent and fascinating on display here. Alongside the excellent critical readings, we have the emergence of a new line of thought brought into the co-ordinates of thinking about capitalism more generally. The blue balls at the end detracts from this, but does not leave it empty.

Final Grade: A-

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