Sunday, April 12, 2009

Remaining thoughts about Žižek.

Here is the long awaited (I am sure of this) part two of my reaction to Reality of the Virtual. I would like to cleverly set up the stream of consciousness you are about to step into, but I have no patience to construct such artifice at this late hour. (Yes, this was posted at 12:30 on a Sunday, but when I wrote that sentence it was 10:00 Saturday night and I had been writing, or at least sitting in front of the computer, since 2:00. While that may not seem like much for a lot of people who call themselves writers, it is quite exhausting for me.)

The bit about everyone agreeing to the virtual through silent, even unconscious, assumption is crucial. So many of our beliefs are not really notions in which we believe, but beliefs that we expect others at once to have and to assume we have so we go along. I would say that this flow runs over the very notion of belief itself. When I watch myself, I can see that my very behavior is almost totally made up of movements and sounds that I assume others expect of me. Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel is a brilliant illustration of this phenomenon. Fine, upstanding people will digress to savagery before taking a single step over the precipice that separates the status quo from the unknown, even as the status quo is killing them.

According to Žižek this is the very function of a society. Like the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, argues that society is flawed not by disharmony, but by its primordial shape. Historically, those at the top of the socio-economic power structure have attributed the various problems in their respective societies to minority groups that threaten harmony. Everything would be fine if we got rid of the Jews or the Gays, if we kept the Blacks and Women where they belong, if we kept out the Mexicans, if we killed off the intellectuals. Placing aside for the moment the moral objections to these plans, they do not work because they misunderstand the problem. There is no idyllic, harmonious society to which we must return; there is only the flawed shape of a society that necessarily stratifies classes. A society has to have poor and rich, worker and owner, ignorant and enlightened. What Žižek dares to suggest, if I understand correctly, is that we don’t need an alternative society so much as an alternative to society.

But we are all very attached to society, and so we try to make it work. Chief among our recent efforts to save society has been to disseminate tolerance far and wide. Rodney King’s famous “Can’t we all just get along,” has become something of a motto to large segments of our population, particularly for intellectuals and public figures. Of course nothing has changed about politics and pundits. They still don’t get along, but now they can accuse the other side of not wanting to get along. As for intellectuals, the new-found mission of tolerance opens up myriad new subjects to teach, ways to teach them and demographic groups to bring into the universities.

Žižek calls tolerance a chocolate laxative. He says the ultimate chocolate laxative is to wage wars to free people who don’t ask to be freed i.e. Iraq. I am still working on that metaphor. Does he mean that we are unable to take something we need unless it is sugar-coated, and thus we begin to conflate the two? Is it that we start feeling good about feeling bad? Or does he mean that it isn’t what we think it is. That we think tolerance is something sweet, but the sweetness conceals a motive completely at odds with what we should expect from it? Tolerance, Žižek says, means do not harass me; in fact, don’t even come close to me. Since every attempt at communication is almost always first an intrusion of some sort, then every word spoken toward or written about another human being is potentially “harassment.” It does not take long to reach the point at which this fear of harassment becomes intolerance. I am quite susceptible to this argument, because I see this going on all around me. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck right off! Where does conversation take place? Indeed where does thinking occur? I think this is Žižek at his best – revealing that a given ballyhooed truism that seems like a good idea, actually engenders the opposite of what it purports to do.

Nowhere is this more striking than in his discussion of pleasure. His examples are always vivid. “There is nothing more miserable,” Žižek says, “than those young couples or people who organize their life in order to enjoy themselves.” This is exactly why we have Blackberries. Everyone needs her life to be meticulously planned. We even plan something called free time! We plan to go out and get drunk on a particular night then the next day’s schedule says: “gym” or “jogging.” We have to plan our pleasure! Žižek distinguishes Freud’s time from our own, and it is often instructive to think of our era as “Post-Freud,” arguing that Freud developed his theories and practice in opposition to the societal injunction to deny oneself pleasure, whereas our societal injunction is to go after pleasure. Of course Žižek argues that our pleasure is pleasure neutralized – we get to drink on the decaffeinated coffee and non-alcoholic, low-carb, light beer we want! What we need now is find a space where we are allowed not to enjoy. How pregnant that suggestion is! Yet I fear that my digression into why I think we need that pleasure-less space would lead this commentary quite away from Žižek, so I should leave it alone for now.

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