12 October 2006

"Truth-Procedures"? Uncanny Doubles or the Postmodern Right

Recently I've been devouring Sharon Crowley's Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Crowley gives a marvellous discussion of postmodern rhetorical theory in the first few chapters of the book, and then proceeds to give an analysis of the religious right in the United States in the remainder of the book, outlining the rhetorical strategies of this movement, along with the belief system that underlies the political activism of these groups. I was completely unaware of much of what Crowley discusses (especially how many high ranking officials in the Senate and Congress hold these beliefs), and think this book is well worth reading for anyone intent on better understanding both domestic and foreign American policy. The book is downright frightening, in its discussion of the aims of these fundamentalist groups, their organization, the amount of state power they've gained, and the manner in which apocalyptism influences foreign and domestic policy, and allows one to think of the world starkly in terms of good and evil, and see one's everyday life actions as part of a global, cosmic struggle between good and evil where no compromises are to be made.

Doesn't this sound a good deal like the ethics of truth-procedures Badiou describes in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil? I am not trying to take cheap shots at Badiou, or dismiss him on the basis of guilt by association. I think Badiou (and Zizek with his notion of the Act), has said something of tremendous importance, by emphasizing that it's necessary to make decisions, that what's present in the "facts" populating a situation aren't sufficient for deciding, and that these facts themselves are already tainted by a certain ethics of the status quo. Nonetheless, when encountering the doppleganger of Badiou's progressive position, I find myself recoiling in horror, as I'm on the receiving end of these reactionary "truth-procedures". I suddenly find myself thinking that perhaps fidelity to an event isn't such a good idea, and then I backslide back into the melancholy logics of folks like Derrida and Critchley, who argue that such passionate commitment is destined to produce horror. Then I find myself nowhere to stand, as the pragmatic ethics of moderation advanced under this Arendtian style of argumentation ends up being an apologetics for contemporary capitalism and the destruction and suffering it's engendered.

At any rate, I came across the following passage this afternoon, which uncannily resonates with so much contemporary theory:
Reporter Ron Suskind recounts an unsettling conversation he had with an unnamed 'senior adviser' to George W. Bush. The adviser critiqued Suskin's residence in the 'reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' The adviser told Suskind that the world no longer worked that way: 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality-- judiciously, as you will --we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." (171)
As has often been observed by leftest political theorists, it is those on the right, not "liberals" (I do not equate liberals with leftists), that are engaged in genuine politics (which isn't to say that this politics constitutes a "truth" in Badiou's sense of the word, only that the political is that domain of exception with regard to governance). For instance, Zizek has often pointed this out in his work since The Ticklish Subject, and has consistently argued that fundamentalism is actually a response to genuine politics in the social sphere (everything today tending to be reduced to governance and the State). The question then becomes that of how politics might be reawakened from a leftist orientation. For instance, in The Ticklish Subject, Zizek argues that in Foucault (and perhaps Deleuze and Guattari) we get marvellous analyses of the dynamics of power and desire, but these analyses are positivistic in the sense that they simply describe things as they are, and do not raise the question of the political in and of itself. Yet we all sense that nonetheless these authors advocate a particular politics, even though their commitment to immanence robs them of the resources to consistently explain why this form of power should be preferred to that. What is need as an explicit positing of these presuppositions, which we get from theorists such as Ranciere, Badiou, Balibar, etc (at least according to Zizek). What we find in the fundamentalism of the right is a utopian yearning, what Zizek calls a non-ideological core, that has been co-opted and distorted so as to ensure that nothing changes (i.e., that capitalism isn't really challenged).

This disturbing passage resonates in an uncanny way on so many levels. The reference to history's actors, of course, brings to mind the Marxist understanding of the proletariat, but here as a distorted double or doppleganger, perverted nearly beyond recognition. Reference to "making reality" resonates with autopoietic and dynamic systems theory, that posits observation as the result of the distinctions the system itself draws, thereby undermining any sort of representational conception of knowledge and reality. The official's disdain for the Enlightenment, liberal tradition of "first examining reality before coming to conclusions", resonates with Badiou's distinction between knowledge and truth, albeit as a simulacrum of what Badiou calls a truth, and also echos the postmodern thesis that the idea of a "neutral gaze examining the facts" is itself a myth and exercise of power-dynamics.

Those on the left seem to talk a good deal about these things, whereas those on the right do them (in a highly distorted and disturbing form). It's a bit like the Irish Bank commercial where the man and woman are getting married and when the minister asks "do you take this woman to be your wife", the groom goes into a long monologue, examining the ambiguities of the question itself, the ramifications of such a "merger", etc., etc. The bride stands there crying and a member of the grooms entourage jumps in and says "I do". The minister quickly pronounces them man and wife, and the commercial ends with the line "less talk, more action".

I'm not sure what to make of the quote above. My knee-jerk reaction is to suddenly defend truth, the careful analysis of situations, the gathering of facts, reasonable dialogue according to the Enlightenment model, and so on. That is, the conversation above brings me to question my post-structuralist assumptions, and ask myself how something like truth can be preserved. What are some other ways of responding, that wouldn't consist in simply returning to classical, Enlightenment models? Especially given that these models have lost their persuasive force against the very people where persuasion is so important... The fundamentalists? Or perhaps it's a question of becoming fundamentalists ourselves, leftist fundamentalists? I have indigestion now.

7 Comments:

Anonymous tolga said...

whenever i watch the "free"
christian evangelist programs on TV, I am highly affected their strength and confidence in their agitations. First, they have seperate programs for women, African Americans and the words exhibit a kind of closure to the truth of the oppressed and touch them. Not only they discuss fundamental philoposhy issues such as the embodiment of god as christ, but they also offer every kind of stuff that the ordinary people need to re-organize their sociological beings. Isn't it biopolitics in its most definite form? Whenever one takes accounts the very irrationality and fragility of the “national base” that pure capitalism offers; the religion seems to be a really strong alternative; especially if it is used by these “smart” powers. Anyway, they have a much wider point of view than the classical radical left giving seminars like "why does this have to be like that or the way that they defined that".

Though If you consider the vulgar “dialectical materialism” like in the series of Georges Politzer in “lementary Principles of Philosophy” ; that vulgarism always had an affect on us as naives. So I am also puzzled about what is to be done and particularly become sometimes sick when the "philosopher" tells me about his job not to show what it is to be done and that he is not master. I find this stance as a an easy intellectual way to escape from the difficulty of proper politics and highly problematic.

October 12, 2006 1:14 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Tolga, I experience a similar frustration. Didn't Zizek recently say something along these lines; remarking that his job isn't to give the solutions, but to problematize our understanding of the problems? I understand where he's coming from and agree that problems are often poorly posed, but somehow this seems like a cop-out to me. The words "solidarity" and "community" are echoing in my thoughts these days... What of the notable characteristics of these groups is their high degree of organization and community. In the States, at least, there's nothing comparable on the left, and I think there's a strong tendency to be suspicious of organization. It would be great to reawaken that spirit of solidarity, brotherhood, and sisterhood in a quasi "utopian" imagining that creates a genuine community (not just a group working on political issues) and that could recognize itself as collectively giving birth to a new world.

I love the title of your blog, btw. I wish I could extend you the courtesy of reading it, but alas, being a coarse American my language skills are limited ;)

October 12, 2006 1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

We need to converse about this! As much as I enjoy and admire your philosophical essays which now by the way are deservedly popular in the blogosphere, I find your forays into contemporary politics a bit...(how do I put this?)...one-dimensional. As multi-facetted and open-ended you are in the philosophical paradigm, as monolithic and binary you become in the political ditto.

I remember your agitation about the Wallace interview with Clinton recently and the deliberately (?) false designation of Foley as a Democrat, both on Fox News, plus your frequent rants against the religious fundies. For a political junkie, like myself, your quote (from Sharon Crowley's Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism) from "a senior adviser in the Bush administration" that We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality-- judiciously, as you will --we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. - is really old news. But you seem stunned.

This is really TOO predictable from a PC liberal / leftist academic.

Let me quote yourself from your recent post "The Problem With Historicism?" (substituting "the environment" by "politics"):

I think the most problematic aspect of this thesis is that it conceives politics (in this case, politics as historical milieu) as a container that is just homogenously there, and not as multi-dimensional, divergent multiplicity.

You know that references to old Marxist DOXA like solidarity, community, the prolitariat, etc is not only dangerously nostalgic, but also fatally irrelevant today.

Both tolga and I come from other geographical and cultural environments (even if we are probably not in agreement), but what I mean is: In your thinking, and you are not alone, you have implicitly accepted the premise of the "senior advisor" in his imperialistic view, that America is "an empire" by ignoring what happens in the rest of the world.

In other words:

Politics (in the US and everywhere else) is ALSO multi-dimensional, divergent multiplicity.

There are so many flight-lines and so much diversity that even in old Europe the traditional LEFT is now a Deleuzian montage that resists binary thinking. We are OLD enough to be comfortably Machiavellian.

Rants about capitalism, exploitation, the lack of solidarity are SO 20th century.

Please escape the container, Levi.

If any American can, you can.

Orla Schantz

October 12, 2006 3:49 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Orla... We've been through this before. You seem to respond rather strongly when I bring up political issues. You write:

"Both tolga and I come from other geographical and cultural environments (even if we are probably not in agreement), but what I mean is: In your thinking, and you are not alone, you have implicitly accepted the premise of the "senior advisor" in his imperialistic view, that America is "an empire" by ignoring what happens in the rest of the world."

What makes you assume that I'm adopting this perspective? While I'm certainly deeply concerned with American foreign policy, the issue of domestic policy is forefront for me when discussing these matters. *In the United States*, we have massive changes taking place in educational programs across the country, that are increasingly making liberal arts forms of teaching impossible (by virtue of testing policies), that are undermining science education, and that are strategically striving to undermine public schools so that they might be replaced by private religious schools. These changes are beginning to creep to the university level, as colleges and universities begin to adopt "quality control" standards modelled on what's taken place at the highschool level. In the last few weeks, legislation passed in the Congress that has moved in the direction of undermining the distinction between state and religion and which will make it more difficult to bring cases to bear on these issues. This is also a part of a wider project to roll back the rights of women. Additionally, we have recently seen legislation that undermines habeas corpus for United States citizens, and makes any United States citizen a potential target interrogation without legal recourse. I could go on and on.

Part of the issue here has been a lack of organization on the left, compared to ongoing activism on the right by religious groups for the last 35 years. I'm sorry that you somehow feel that questions of solidarity are somehow irrelevant today, but unless groups become organized in the United States, things could very quickly get exceedingly ugly in the next few years. Perhaps I'm not being clear enough in clarifying just what I'm talking about? It's very frightening to be an American right now... And not because "we're threatened by terrorists", but because of our own government and its relationship to its citizens. I evoke these issues about media dishonesty and manipulation, not because I am shocked that these things take place-- as if I were such a beautiful soul --but because I'm interested in questions of how it might be countered so as to change the direction of where things are going.

October 12, 2006 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

Thanks your your comment. You are probably right that I react too strongly when you bring up political themes relating to the American domestic landscape. Let's not waste too much energy on that

On another matter that Anthony Paul Smith brought up in a recent comment about a forthcoming Deleuze journal.

It seems The University of Edinburgh Press is planning to publish the first issue in January next year. This could be interesting. Here's more: http://tinyurl.com/ud9ko

All the best,

Orla Schantz

October 13, 2006 7:12 AM  
Anonymous tolga said...

Orla, I don't have time since I am a part of nostalgic "working-class".
I don't really know what also makes you think I find US imperialistic and so on. Only in order to make it clear, I have been living all of my life (except this year) in my home town (that different part of the world); but I have always been against the classical emperialistic theory as a tool of blurring the fundamental flaws in my society. I was in the part of the Empire and now in a different part of it. Whatever happening here is affecting the other parts of the sphere hence we, barbarians, deserve to have the right to say what is happening in the US. There is not an American nor Greek nor Jew for me in the Paulian sense.
But if you think proleteriat is an "fatally irrelevant" even as a concept, then there may be two options :
1) you live somewhere outside this planet.
2) as Zizek said in his documentary, this is absolutely a damned class propaganda.

By the way Sinthome, I consider to change the language in my blog whenever I feel myself adequate to write in English fluently.

October 13, 2006 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

I'm partial to Raciere's (et al.) concept of proletariat as that part of a situation that is the "part of no part". That is, the proletariat isn't simply the working class or labor, but is rather that part that is not *counted* in a situation. At the level of the symbolic, every social structure is organized by mechanisms defining what is included in the situation and what is excluded from the situation. We might, for instance, think of a government census that is organized around a series of categories defining gender, work, ethnicity, etc., etc. The part of no part is that group that belongs to a situation without fitting any these categories (and can thus only be described in terms of excess and deficiency relative to the other categories). Ranciere argues that the part of no part is the moment of the universal in any social situation, as it marks the ultimate contingency of all categories, that they are not "natural" (notice the tendency of conservative strains of thought to naturalize social categories, often going so far as to suggest that they are decreed by the divine itself), and the infinite excess of parts over elements. That is, the part of no part is not simply some particular group, but is a particular group that stands for the universal or reflects the universal... It marks the egalitarian principle of counting where all are counted irregardless of the categories they embody (or as Tolga put it, Jew, Gentile, and Greek alike).

The downside of this conception of the proletariat, of course, is that it tends to unbind the political from the economic. Of course, this might be seen as a strength as well.

It's very difficult for me to see how concepts such as solidarity, community, and proletariat can be outmoded. Perhaps the fear here is the idea of an *organic* community or community as an organism, where each member of the community is alloted a place and function? Yet if there's no collective engagement or solidarity among those coming from diverse spheres, how is change possible at all? Doesn't the rejection of such collectivism necessarily entail an aestheticized stoicism of sorts?

October 13, 2006 10:14 AM  

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