20 October 2006

I See Dead People: The Theory-Industry and Revolutionary Practice

Long ago when I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine used to joke that she could always tell who the graduate students were because their clothing was ten years out of style. That is, there's a way in which the graduate student occupies a different time-- perhaps due to poverty, perhaps due to living amidst musty books and endless writing that render one oblivious to much of the world --or walks about in time as if they were living in the past. Occasionally you will encounter a professor like this as well. Perhaps she is an older professor who is still obsessed with existentialism, and talks endlessly of the schism between Sartre and Camus, and complains that Unamuno doesn't get enough attention. Or perhaps he is still embroiled in debates about logical positivism. Or maybe you encounter a Hegelian who still reads Hegel through the lense of Josiah Royce, McTaggert, and Bradley, seemingly oblivious to the decades of scholarship that have occured since. In such moments a feeling of the uncanny comes over me, accompanied by a chill of fear. Right there before me is a person, another human being, yet this person is like one of the ghosts from M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense: He is dead, but he doesn't know that he is dead. He walks about seeing the entire world through the eyes of this long departed way of reading Sartre or Hegel, without realizing that things have changed. Such scholars are like echos in a cavern, marking the persistence of a voice after that voice itself has departed. And if I feel a shiver of fear, then this is because I wonder whether I am not looking at my future or destiny, that someday I am doomed to be outmoded, out of step, ridiculous, insofar as things have moved on since Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, Zizek, and so on. Will I be the ranting old man that causes graduate students to chuckle for being so deaf to contemporary discussions? "Keep reading," I whisper to myself. "Stay young," I plead. "Do not fall out of time and become walking history." It is perhaps not by accident that I find myself forgetting how old I am at the young age of 32.

However, I then think of the dynamics of academic discourse. In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann writes,
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the information/non-information code is its relationship to time. Information cannot be repeated; as soon as it becomes an event, it becomes non-information. A news item run twice might still have its meaning, but it loses its information value. If information is used as a code value, this means that the operations in the system are constantly and inevitably transforming information into non-information. The crossing of the boundary from value to opposing value occurs automatically with the very autopoiesis of the system. The system is constantly feeding its own output, that is, knowledge of certain facts, back into the system on the negative side of the code, as non-information; and in doing so it forces itself constantly to provide new information. In other words, the system makes itself obsolete. (19-20)
Politically this phenomenon is perhaps one of the single most vexing issues groups trying to organize change face. Take the example of Hurricane Katrina. Today we hear hardly anything about this event, despite the fact that those living in regions of the United States affected by Katrina are still living in the aftermath. They live in streets where 1/3 of the garbage remains, among abandoned houses, and with very little being done to rebuild. Katrina continues to be a reality for these people, but it is a dim memory for the vast majority of Americans as these stories carry no new information value. As a result those living in stricken lands fall from the attention of the public, and it becomes increasingly impossible for them to improve their condition as this requires pressure on all levels of government and collective effort. To bring this pressure to bear, it becomes necessary to create new information events. Otherwise they might as well not exist.

It seems to me that the academy is governed by a similar phenomenon. In order to be successful in graduate school and land a nice position, graduate students must create "new information" through their research. In the humanities this requires students to challenge the tradition within which they find themselves. New ways of reading Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, Hegel, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger, Hegel, Levinas, etc., must be found. Preferably these readings should be shocking and disconcerting to the dogma of established research trends, pitching the thinker in an entirely new light. It is necessary to argue that prior readings had gotten everything wrong (preferably by referring to some ordinarily ignored text or newly discovered text which now becomes the centerpiece of how a thinker is read). The really outstanding thinkers do not simply contest how prior "cannonical thinkers" have been read, but perhaps contest an entire theoretical orientation such as phenomenology, logical positivism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and so on. The same principles apply within the world of publication, where the aim is to produce the new so as to get published and secure one's tenure and prestige. If I am to publish, then it is necessary that I buck old traditions, that I distinguish myself, that I produce something new that is worth being published.

The aim is thus not the true, but the new; and the result is that the ground is perpetually shifting under my feet as I scramble to keep up with all the changes taking place so as to secure my credibility and my position. Of course, the belief here is that this is "progress", that we are not simply producing the new for the sake of the new, but that the new arrives as a more accurate, more true, vision of the world, reading of Hegel, understanding of Lacan, etc. And there is merit to this. Yet nonetheless, the rules of the academic game are such that one must produce the new and not tarry too long with any one thing without varying it and producing new information for the machine. As a result, it is proper to entertain skepticism as to just how true this new is.

It is not enough to be a Marxist. After all, that's outdated, crude, and out of fashion. No, I must be a "neo-Marxist", keeping abreast of the latest developments from Deleuze and Guattari, Negri and Hardt, Badiou, Ranciere, Laclau, Zizek and all of their debates. I might suspect that I can get by with Althusser's high falutin structuralist Marxism, but Althusser is so "1965", as can be clearly discerned with his incessent and oh so gauch use of the term "science". But alas, it's not enough for me to be a neo-Marxist as I am a young academic that wants my piece of the pie, so I might tweek all these thinkers and perhaps contest them altogether, earning my own nitch in the university system and the world of publishing. And having accomplished this, some young, upstart grad student or beginning academic will someday challenge what I have sought to establish, pushing me off my place on the hill, and generating yet a new theoretical paradigm that makes everything else look interesting from the perspective of historical value, but which is now outmoded. If I read Althusser today, then this is not because I'm an Althusserian (though, as the Joker said of Batman, "what marvellous toys he has!"), but because I need to understand Althusser to understand Zizek, Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere, and Laclau. And so it goes.

One succinct way of defining the obsessional is as someone who does a lot so as to avoid doing anything; and in my more cynical moments, I suspect that this is what "radical political philosophy" in academia is all about (boy, I bet I get it for this one!). Think of the extraordinary efforts the Rat-Man went to so as to repay his "debt" (that he didn't really owe), all the while always seeming to fail at paying his debt. Again and again the Rat-Man would try to catch up with the person he knew he didn't owe money to, trying to pay him anyway, only to bungle his action at the last moment. And it seems to me that the theory-market works a bit like this. Again and again we draw up glorious programs like the obsessional forever producing notes, engaging in research, consulting publishers, etc., to write the great American novel, without ever getting started. That is, the situation is a bit like the novelist in Camus' Plague, who perpetually writes the same sentence over and over again, struggling to get it perfect, changing it a bit each time and exerting all sorts of energy debating which variation is the right variation, without ever writing the rest of the novel. Or the academy behaves like the man, passionately in love with a woman, who nonetheless forever finds ways to avoid being with her, claiming that first he has to get this job, earn this much money, save this much money, etc., so that he might be worthy of her love. The academy is an obsessional system, a system designed to insure nothing happens. Does it come as a surprise that the philosopher immediately cloisters himself within the walls of the Academy after Socrates' trial and execution? Isn't the academy ultimately a place where society is protected from the annoyance of the philosopher, by creating a space in which philosophers (any knowledge laborors in my book) can chatter endlessly with one another without publically embarrassing respected politicians and priests such as Socrates embarrassed the evangelist Euthyphro, the poet Meletus, or the sophist Thrasymachus? "Yes, let them talk, but for Christs sake, keep them out of the market place and off of street corners!"

And in light of these cynical reflections, I'm led to think that perhaps the only viable solution is to will oneself to become old, to resolutely refuse the march of the information-producing machine that is incessantly and forever calling for the production of the new, giving the illusion that one can catch up with it, that one is doing something in responding to its superegoic demand, and stodgily allowing oneself to become non-informative, while also becoming a bit more true. Perhaps this is why the truth always comes from the margins, from outside the established channels of the great universities, such that a Privatdozent such as Hegel can kick of a philosophical revolution, or a figure at a minor university like Kant can turn the world of philosophy upside down, or where a man writing in a small cold apartment like Nietzsche can challenge 2000 years of assumptions. Perhaps these were figures who were willing to be a little bit old and to ignore the incessant call for the production of the new, thereby paradoxically enabling them to produce something new, rather than the endless monotony of the varied cliche. It is in this spirit that I draw great warmth from Badiou, when he remarks that,
During the first years of my political activity, there were two fundamental events. The first was the fight against the colonial war in Algeria at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. I learned during this fight that political conviction is not a question of numbers, of majority. Because at the beginning of the Algerian war, we were really very few against the war. It was a lesson for me; you have to do something when you think it's a necessity, when it's right, without caring about the numbers.

The second event was May 68. During May 68, I learned that we have to organize direct relations between intellectuals and workers. We cannot do that only by the mediation of parties, associations, and so on. We have to directly experience the relation with the political. My interest in Maoism and the Cultural Revolution during the end of 60s and the beginning of the 70s, was this: a political conviction that organizes something like direct relations between intellectuals and workers.

I'll recapitulate, if you like. There were two great lessons: It's my conviction today that political action has to be a process which is a process of principles, convictions, and not of a majority. So there is a practical dimension. And secondly, there is the necessity of direct relations between intellectuals and workers.
To be old is to maintain a conviction, a bit of fidelity, to allow oneself to step a bit outside of time and ignore the superegoic logic of capital as it functions in the academic publishing system. Perhaps what is necessary is to be a bit dead. However, it will be recalled that for Lacan the unconscious question of the obsessional is "am I alive or am I dead"? So perhaps being a little dead to the superegoic call of academic capital is paradoxically being alive... Alive insofar as one has escaped the obsessional machine of the academy.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

names, names, names, with their ideas attached like so many grains of sand, oblivious to the tide that washes over them... meanwhile the moon is smiling deathly pale.

October 20, 2006 5:43 PM  
Anonymous tolga said...

I experience a similar situation of having to "discover" new things as a enginnering phd student; so that my advisor can write his proposals. When I hear these words of Sinthome; I feel a bit relieved since I say to myself maybe I should not be that regretted by not moving into a humanities department. Since it is my opinion that having to do things by obeying the rules of the drive of the capital would be a betrayal to the theory. But in my own area, I can pretend to provide those pseudo new things without ever feeling that guilt.

October 21, 2006 12:48 PM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Intriguing and excellent post, Loki.

At roughly your present age (actually 30), I "escaped the obsessional machine of the academy" after a seven-year sojourn (of course it didn't help being a full-time academic at the age of twenty-three often lecturing middle-aged mature students in a conservative, patriarchal milieu of the subject supposed to be a student) for reasons very close to those you so clearly summarise. This in addition to the parallel transformation of universities into privatised agents of viral capital (even as most of their funding came from the state), universities as corporatized machine bureaucracies and job-training centres for superegoic consumer-wage-slave passivity. In Ireland today, its main universities act like host-subsidiaries of US multinationals, having all semesterised their syllabuses,turned faculties and departments into "profit centres of academic excellence", and with academic career "progression" being eventually a move to a US college. For instance - and given your blog's philosophy orientation - two of Ireland's leading philosophers/cultural critics, Richard Kearney and Luke Gibbons, have recently moved to Boston College and Notra Dame respectively ... couldn't imagine Badiou or Zizek (not to mention Baudrillard) ever doing such a thing ... even if their own countries had suddenly embraced to a shocking, obscene extent rampant neo-liberalism, as Ireland has over the past decade.

"Isn't the academy ultimately a place where society is protected from the annoyance of the philosopher ...?"

And the academy itself, especially since - post-1991 - the left abandoned activist or principled political stances, retreating largely into the disavowed, depoliticising safety of "end of history" Cult Stud etc. And, indeed, so many of the academic blogs I see in cyberspace appear to exemplify, rather than critique, this postmodern condition. It is as if the academy has, in its cynical lumpen pragmatism, settled for a studied, willful emptiness, an ahistoricism, a simulacrum devoid of context, of distance, of any Outside.

Zizek has also suggested another reason for this academic fraudulence: the interpassive subject, with specific reference to the 'interpassive socialism' of the academic left in Western societies. "These leftists aren't interested in activity - merely in 'authentic' experience. They allow themselves to pursue their well-paid academic careers in the West, while using the idealised Other (Cuba, Nicaragua, Tito's Yugoslavia) as the stuff of their ideological dreams: they dream through the Other, but turn their backs on it if it disturbs their complacency by abandoning socialism and opting for liberal capitalism. What is of special interest here is the lack of understanding between the Western Left and dissidents such as Havel. In the eyes of the Western Left, Eastern dissidents were too naive in their belief in liberal democracy - in rejecting socialism, they threw out the baby with the bath water. In the eyes of the dissidents, the Western Left played patronising games with them, disavowing the true harshness of totalitarianism. The idea that the dissidents were somehow guilty for not seizing the unique opportunity provided by the disintegration of socialism to invent an authentic alternative to capitalism was pure hypocrisy."

October 22, 2006 1:54 AM  
Blogger Readings said...

It may interest you :

http://www.urbanomic.com/

October 22, 2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Greetings Readings,

Simply to add (as your own blog doesn't accept comments) that Dominic at his Poetix blog [http://codepoetics.com/poetix/?p=312] has a great review of COLLAPSE vol. 1., while its art designer, Keith Tilford, has a blog at Metastable Equilibrium [http://metastableequilibrium.blogspot.com/]...

October 22, 2006 12:13 PM  
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December 30, 2008 12:13 AM  

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