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We can never excuse antisemitism

While taking a cursory glance at the Lenosphere I came across an odd looking post by The Angry Arab News Service, run by As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University.

The paragraph long post, called Zizek visits Israel: he is now an expert on the Middle East too, reads as follows:

“He proceeded to say that Zionism is not the worst evil in the world…After establishing the deep-rooted vitality of antisemitism, he mentioned that he has no patience for those who excuse Arab antisemitism; that even the most oppressed and poor Palestinian should not be tolerated for being antisemitic.” What do you suggest that we do with the most oppressed and poor Palestinians who express anti-Semitic views? Kill them? Occupy them again? Double occupy them? (thanks Wardeh)

I wanted so much to comment, but the ability to do so has been disabled. Instead I’ll state my very short reply here: Zizek states quite clearly what to do with antisemitism – refuse any patience with it, refuse to tolerate it. How do you do that? By not excusing it as common practice of poor Arabs (which it’s not).

What to some might appear like Zizek withholding sympathy for Palestinians, is in actual fact highlighting the paternalism and snobbery of some pro-Palestinians, who believe those who are lesser off than them should be pitied, left to their own devices, and if they express antisemitic views, well, who can blame them, ‘eh, after all they don’t know any better do they, they’re poor – and as all people know poor people are stupid and don’t deserve to be told they’re wrong to blame the Jews for their plight.

Implicit to this post is the justification that the anti-semite is excused of all hate crime on the grounds that the State of Israel exists. ” What do you suggest that we do with the most oppressed and poor Palestinians who express anti-Semitic views” AbuKhalil asks, giving exaggerated answers that Zizek has not alluded to. Well, I’ll tell you what to do: don’t treat people as though they’re not adult or sane enough to be told they’re wrong; don’t look down your nose at people you feel aren’t capable of properly analysing and addressing political situations; don’t snub the idea that antisemitism, in whatever form it comes and from whomever it comes from – should be rejected and fought under all circumstances, even from “the most oppressed and poor Palestinian”.

To typify Arabs in the way that AbuKhalil has done is racist.

No matter what anybody tells you, we can never excuse antisemitism!

Kill Your Heroes!

Recently A.C. Grayling and some other notable academics got it in the neck for their role in setting up a private university with fees double the price of other university courses – immediately putting those students who are lesser off at a disadvantage. In so doing, the “telly dons” put paid their commitment to an education, in the words of Grayling himself – “provided free of charge to all those suitably qualified for it.”

Now a number of academics will take part in the London Critical Theory Summer School at Birckbeck, which can set students back the hefty fee of £750 for just two weeks.

Surprisingly, one of those academics planning to take part in the school is Slavoj Zizek.

By consequence of my observing the Hegelian-Lacanian-Contingency Paradigm, I am a fan of Slavoj Zizek’s. I’ve written a great many blog posts and articles using his name and texts, have written about him at length for pop philosophy publications, and the academic journal which bears his name.

(I also do a cracking impression of him, as anyone who knows me can attest to).

But my devotion to his deed does not keep me from raising criticism, where it is due – and here it is due (please do, incidentally, take the name of this blog post with a generous pinch of salt).

Around the time Edward Woollard threw a fire extinguisher from the roof of Tory HQ in Millbank, people were bending over backwards to level criticism at the young man, including and especially leftists and fellow student activists. Zizek, however, had the following to say about the Millbank protests, at a lecture in Birkbeck:

People saying you could have delivered the same message without violence. F*ck them! Of course you can deliver the message. But nobody would hear the message. This is what they like, that 100 people gather and write a message and then you don’t even get the bottom note in the day’s paper… You have to break some windows to get the message through.

Zizek has always been very vocal about what education should be about; the reintegration of people in the public sphere, where space is open  – organising proper, unhindered free debate, away from the corporate’s who want to reign in radicalism and dissent. In 2009, to promote this very cause, the independent student initiative for the right to free education started a peaceful occupation of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, Croatia. Zizek, in a letter of support to the occupiers (who lasted 35 days), wrote:

Those among us who are old enough remember “specialized further education”, the last attempt of the Communist regime in the old Yugoslavia to streamline education to “social use” and narrow the space of dissent. Western Europe is now rediscovering it – it is called the “Bologna reform of the higher education,” a new attempt to subordinate higher education to the needs of social control and regulation. We need a cultural revolution to fight this dangerous tendency with all means available, violent civic disobedience included. You, students who occupy faculties, are doing not only the right thing, but the necessary thing. Go to the end, persist – no compromise!

There’s no doubt Zizek – a dying breed who still qualifies the term Communist in a positive way – is faithful to radical theory, but his participation in Birkbeck’s critical theory summer school implies an acceptance that radical education should come with a price tag.

And he has been stung before. On being questioned about writing the text accompanying Bruce Weber photos in a catalog for Abercrombie & Fitch, Zizek replied “If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!”

At the time this was an isolated incident, and could be ignored, but Zizek may fast be becoming an odd sort of communist.

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The following video has been produced by Bloomsbury Fightback

(see also the Q&A with the Guardian he did in 2008. To the question “What is the worst job you’ve done?” he answered: “Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.” The irony here now slightly damaged).

On the Multiculturalism/Zizek debate

January 3, 2011 20 comments

I put off writing this because I had already got the subject out of my system, but it has returned and it’s very difficult to ignore: it is the question of multiculturalism, and more specifically what this means to anti-fascists.

Richard Seymour recently produced a blog entry about philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s attempts to critically analyse violence and provocation carried out against the Strojan family – an extended family of 31 Gypsies, 14 of them children.

Seymour’s beef is with two things: firstly the outcome of the events, which culminated in the police succumbing to pressure by violent mobs and forcing the family to leave, who, as he notes, had they not “driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades.”

The second thing Seymour has beef about is Zizek’s poor research on the matter. Zizek has used this example to underline his own controversial view of multiculturalism (more of which in a moment) but what he has failed to do is properly understand what happened to the family. As Seymour says in a reply to critics of the aforementioned entry:

I find no evidence that the Strojan family are car thieves, and they didn’t murder anyone. It is true that locals blamed the Strojan family for a number of thefts, but it’s also true that they acknowledge when pressed that the Strojans have been scapegoated on this issue.

I’m with Seymour here; had Zizek done his homework, he would’ve seen that this is a case of scapegoating, or at best a heavy-handed response to petite-theft among some individuals of a family, perhaps spurred on because of the family’s racial background. Zizek here is not being racist, he has just erroneously placed this disgraceful event in the wrong context; by implication I feel that Zizek’s “apologia for anti-Roma racism” is due to a misjudgement by the Slovenian.

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As it happens I find Zizek’s critique of multiculturalism very useful (which is why one can agree with Seymour on this issue, and still be in defence of Slavoj Zizek, so to speak). I will attempt to place it in its correct context.

Multiculturalism, according to Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, has come to be defined as a policy promoting diversity among a society of people with fixed identities, partly as a reaction to inharmonious feeling at a time of increased immigration into the UK. For Malik this has simultaneously become the problem and solution to intolerance. While it rather nobly aims to celebrate difference, it also rather crudely pigeon-holes people, on account of their racial or national heritage.

In trying to effect “respect for pluralism [and] avowal of identity politics” – which have come to be “hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook” – segregation has simply become institutionalised.

As a consequence to the respect agenda, all cultures have become of equal value, which may mean that in purely multicultural terms everything is permissible if it can be justified on the grounds of cultural heritage – which leads to the question who can authoritatively account for what a cultural trait is (for Malik, such policies in the eighties served only to strengthen conservative Muslim leaders in Birmingham, on the daft assumption that they alone could authoritatively account for what Islam is).

For Zizek, there is a bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism that is repulsed by (far) right wing populism of the Other (the immigrant for example) to the extent that it starts to fetishise the Other. Not content with opposing all racism directed at this Other, it starts to think the Other can do no wrong. Take as an example the song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer” often sung by Julius Malema, President of the African National Congress Youth League; the real anti-racist would oppose this song in spite of its historical context, for whatever the white farmers’ crimes during the apartheid, this is a song that is derogatory towards a race. The bourgeois liberal fetishist, of the ilk to which Zizek refers, may justify singing the song on the grounds that such retaliation is historically justified (you could perhaps ascribe to this the notion of “white guilt”).

For Zizek, the bourgeois liberal justifying Malema singing the song is akin to expressing the belief that Melama knows no better, leading Zizek to assert that certain modes of politically correct tolerance of the Other is grounded upon the belief that certain groups can be judged differently (which is why the BNP for example are wrong for being racist populists, but Malema is clear on the grounds that he has experienced racism himself). This ends up being monoculturalism based upon a rather stereotypical ideal of how the Other should act – the point being that the bourgeois liberal, for Zizek, is deluding himself by thinking he is a mutliculturalist, since it is almost a colonial understanding of the foreign Other who he is identifying.

In short, this notion of multiculturalism masks a racist idea of the Other who needs to be “tolerated” (for more on this see Naadir Jeewa’s excellent analysis).

The confusion here lies in who we identify as this bourgeois liberal, naïve apologist? For many people who subscribe to multiculturalism this simply doesn’t resonate. For me, Zizek’s analysis is less a critique of multiculturalism, and more a critique of naïve, neo-colonial monoculturalism (which I assume he is well aware of, though if not, we ought to understand that the bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism is not necessarily inherent to multiculturalism proper). But maybe the word multiculturalism lends itself too easily to the idea that cultural relativism is appropriate– since we’re immediately in a struggle to identify what we can call culture (authority on which, as Malik explains, can often fall into the wrong hands).

When most people support multiculturalism, what they mean is that a country ought not to have a dominant national character immigrants are obliged to adopt as a guarantee of their debt to their new homeland. Instead a country should allow all to practice what they wish, as they wish, provided that it doesn’t harm anyone. Perhaps I’ll adopt the term socialist universalism?

In defence of Wagner’s Israeli enthusiasts

October 8, 2010 7 comments

Imagine a history rewritten: would it be a victory for the Nazis if they were forced to live side by side with the Jews they most vehemently disliked? Of course it wouldn’t be, and though it upsets and astounds me that today I have to share oxygen with people who hold views so unpalatable it makes me wince, part of my support for multiculturalism is heightened in the knowledge that we live in a society where to be law abiding means respecting people of cultures and sharing experiences together; and there is not a thing racists of any colour can do about it.

I think about this today, as I see news of outrage that an Israeli orchestra should be able to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner.

The great granddaughter of Wagner, Katharina, who was to visit Israel to formally invite the orchestra, will now have to cancel her visit – which she said was an opportunity to “heal wounds”.

According to a report in The Guardian, Holocaust survivor groups are saying “it was inexplicable that the orchestra would break a decades’ old unofficial boycott to perform music by Hitler’s favourite composer, who also held antisemitic views”.

Furthermore, Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger, on the topic of the boycott, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “It’s a sentimental ban. As long as some of us are still alive, people should refrain from imposing Wagner on us.”

Far be it for me to disagree with holocaust survivors; so I’ll quote from two of our most loved media figures: Stephen Fry and Slavoj Zizek.

Fry recently gave a question and answer session at the Wagner Society following the showing of his film Wagner and Me where he said: “You can’t allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He’s bigger than that, and we’re not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

My point about the Nazis living side by side with the Jews relates very closely to Fry’s point; that Hitler appreciated Wagner should not stop Jews from appreciating Wagner too – and certainly not at the order of certain Israelis – as this only serves to divide those able to enjoy good art. But further still, as Wagner was an anti-Semite himself, nothing should please us more that orchestral representatives of the Jewish state make steps to end the taboo which allows Nazis to define how the world looks at Wagner.

In a piece called Why is Wagner worth saving? Zizek vents his criticism on what he calls the “historicist commonplace” that says “in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context”. To this end, Zizek notes “too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art”.

Zizek claims that there is the temptation when listening to Wagner to imagine that every sub-text is anti-Semitic, but, using the examples of Parsifal and the Ring, tries to prove this isn’t always correct. In the Ring according to Zizek, it is not Alberich’s renunciation of love for power that is the source of all evil, but rather Wotan’s disruption of the natural balance, “succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love”, which spells doom, meaning also that evil does not come from the outside, but is complicit with Wotan’s own guilt. With Parsifal, the elitist circle of the pure-blooded is not jeopardised by external contaminators such as copulation by the Jewess Kundry, but rather from inside; “it is Titurel’s excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune”.

The point being is Wagner “undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joint the balance of the social organism”.

The overarching thesis of Zizek is that the anti-Semitic sub-text is not always appropriate when engaging with Wagner, and if this art is separate from the evil of the early twentieth century, then there is reason to save Wagner.

The Wagner boycott is one example of denying the world a great artist, and allowing the Nazis a small victory. The point is Wagner can, and must, be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to, regardless of race, if not for the reason that he would’ve disliked this himself.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , , ,

On Alain Badiou’s Number and Numbers

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Alain Badiou Number and Numbers (1993) Translated in English 2008 (Robin Mackay)

Alain Badiou’s work has often been described as incorporating set theory, or more precisely Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (ZFC: the standard in set theory). His utilisation of the theory in question aims to identify whether there is a withstanding relationship of Being to history, nature, the state and God. His mathematical pursuits, as we shall see, lead him to criticise the existence of the standard Greek theory of The One, which is philosophically unpalatable for Badiou since for him there cannot be any one overarching set (keeping in line with ZFC). Based on this criticism of The One, Badiou is led to discover that by these logical postulations we cannot conceive of a grand cosmos, a Whole Nature, or a Being of God, providing we base our hypotheses of these figures on the Universe’s physical laws.

As has been previously mentioned, some of these concepts were dealt with in Badiou’s Being and Event but Badiou decided to dedicate a whole book on the constellation of Numbers. Badiou begins his work by providing historical context of thought regarding Number, starting from Platonism and the theory of forms, detailing the Greek representation of Number as bracketed within the notion of the “World of Ideas” and the separate world of numerical existence. He deals with Frege’s ‘logicism’ and his description of Number as a “trait of the concept” and neither transcendental nor empirical. He also swiftly engages with theories by Peano (and the Peano Arithmetic; logical postulates which are based on mathematical inductions) Dedekind (which focuses on real numbers – encompassing rational numbers like 5 or -5 and irrational numbers such as √2 , infamously known as Pythagoras’ constant, the first number known to be irrational, that is where a number cannot be expressed by two integers) and Cantor (the heroic initiator of the modern theory of the infinite) to provide Badiou with a framework in which to direct his criticism and assert his own mathematical principles.

For Badiou, the theory of Number, in consideration of the criticism of the theories he provides as a framework, must not omit three reflections; firstly that considerations of order, that is either ordinal numbers or the order type of a well-ordered set, must arise from the intrinsic, or ontological, definition of Number. In other words, Number is not simply a concept in operation (his obvious blow to Frege) but rather it is an actually existing entity “which can be thought in a structural and immanent fashion.” (101) Number is, as such, not constructed, but, its very being makes possible all of the constructions in which we engage (as mentioned before, Number plays a part in every part of our life).

The second consideration for Badiou is that it is ordinal Numbers that ground Number’s material basis, “its natural ontological horizon.” Real Numbers themselves, Badiou reinforces, are non-natural deductions from this natural material (102). This is Badiou’s attempt to ground the mathematical object (the abstract object that includes numbers, permutations – mapping of elements of sets to other elements of sets -, partitions – exclusive parts, blocks or cells to a set -, matrices – an abstract element that corresponds to other elements in a large abstract system -, sets, functions, and relations) to its ontological referent, a topic highly contested by many mathematicians. And lastly, the third consideration is that traditional numbers are specific cases of the unified concept of Number, but do not exhaust it. There remains, for Badiou, a great immensity of Numbers that mathematicians have not thought of yet, again toeing the ZFC line.

With consideration to the numericality that Badiou is distancing himself from, Badiou is able to maintain that: ‘Number is neither a trait of the concept, nor an operational fiction; neither an empirical given, nor a constitutive or transcendental category; neither a syntax, nor a language game, not even an abstraction from our idea of order.” (211) As such, Badiou asserts that Number takes the form of a type of Being. Criticism, from John Kadvany for example, has picked up on the fact that Badiou produces many reasons why Number is not merely spectral, but less on why Number has a legitimate ontological status. Indeed there is some truth to this, and it is a concern when Badiou, instead of unpacking his mathematical ontology further, eagerly turns to the economy using his numericality to deal blows to the capitalist system (surely the most speculative of numericality, as Slavoj Žižek has asserted, it is often thought that behind the numbers and the logic of capital circulation there are evil geniuses, when in fact this couldn’t be more untrue, “the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of capital). It was surprising here that Badiou didn’t make good use of another of his intellectual mentor’s Jacques Lacan, whose integer-like theory of the gendered subject was that it is either Whole or partial, or in other words, that the material grounding for a negative integer is based on the existent penis and the penis as an absent referent, respectively. In this sense Number does not rest on the Idea or the immediate or the abstract, but rather it is mediated by our sexed position, that it is an observation that is appropriately woven into the fabric of our beings, that Number is as necessary an object for our Being as sexual difference. Perhaps in this light Badiou’s staunch criticism of Constructivist mathematicians (who assert the necessity to find a mathematical object to prove it exists) would punch a little more weight.

On this premise, however, Badiou does hit the mark with a political appropriation of Numbers on the effects of capital numericality. For Badiou, the “dance” of capital breaks down the thinking of number, an inhabitant of our Being. The question is, does capital itself fragment the legitimacy of value (in reference to the point Badiou makes when saying “Number … it is claimed, underlies everything of value” (213)) – by manipulating value itself – or does it infiltrate other areas of social life in order to disturb our thinking of Number, say for example with the invention and marketability of the calculator, or the simplification of mathematics education? Certainly the point here, for Badiou, is that in terms of capitalism, value just doesn’t add up (Badiou, incidentally, not invoking Marx here, perhaps a further suspicion that he is, as Bruno Bosteels imagines in his book The Speculative Left, a Communist without being a Marxist), and that, perhaps, capitalism has not properly theorised the relationship between labour and value. But also more than this, capital as a degree of power has closed itself off, has become an exclusive domain, and problematises, as a consequence, the domain of Numbers in general. Perhaps it is the hegemony of capital that is stopping mathematicians from thinking in terms of the “innumerable immensity of Numbers we have not yet thought or used”? (102)

Badiou’s book should really be seen as a refutation of the hitherto history of mathematical theory, and its relation to the current political climate. But as it is, it should be seen as the groundwork to a wider mathematical ontology, which is no criticism, since if this is to be a grand mathematical theory, it’s going to have to unpack all hitherto mathematical theory, a large piece of work.

For a longer version of this see here

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