There is a common misconception of psychoanalysis that claims that it reduces all psychological problems to one particular schema that inevitably returns “sexual repression” in some variation, like a magic 8-ball’s answer to everything. This is an response I’ve heard to my writing on fascism and “masculine anxiety,” ostensibly to refute that there is any connection between the two at all. I am not an analyst so I have no grounds or reason to defend the practice itself, but it is nonetheless worth addressing because my work is generally informed by Freud, Lacan, and others.
Usually this is intended to resist an “uncovering” of some obvious surface aspect in “manosphere” or other far-right phenomena. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a licensed psychoanalyst to see that a general group like “fitcels” bodybuilds to compensate for a perceived weakness, wish to make their flesh literal armor, that they’re terrified of women, and so on. In fact these sorts of points are more often than not openly admitted by their members. It should go without saying that this sort of truth—about a collective—is well outside the range of psychoanalysis. The truth of these observations are so mundane as to be banal.
It is the obviousness and banality of the truth that makes it unspeakable. And so the members of these online fandoms must mediate their relationship to it with an ironic distance. The leaders see themselves as characters, Roosh is a performance, BAP is a performance (undoubtedly they themselves know that most of their followers are idiots). Irony mediates everything these days because there is such an abundance of noise that the various channels need to be distinguished from each other. It feels almost impossible to have an unironic position on the internet.
The ironic position in these far-right/manosphere contexts means that, in short, since they talk about sex they can’t be sexually repressed in any sense. With the BAP fandom, the overt and excessive homoeroticism specifically defends them against the accusation that there is anything “gay” or “weak” about them, since they are supposedly aware of their fixation on male bodies, the “Dominated by Doug” text, and all the other artful parts of that whole hyper-erotic fascist mythos.
The misconception implies that since we now live in a permissive society—sex is promoted everywhere you look: at the cinema, at the theatre, at the Super Bowl, on TV and in newspapers, in songs and on beaches, in podcasts and Twitch streams, in our cars sitting in traffic, in schools, and even in churches—people are supposedly less anxious about problems linked to the sexual sphere. The taboos have fallen, they say, and people are no longer afraid of sex.
Lacan called the idea that sex is invading all aspects of life “an advertising phenomenon”—and we know it probably applies now even more than back then. And it’s clear that even in a so-called permissive society people never fail to find a way to be immiserate themselves over their sexuality. You can teach teenagers how to use condoms and practice safe sex and they’ll still turn into incel spree killers (although that shouldn’t necessarily dissuade us from doing so).
It is interesting how many of my critics (from the Right) who take issue with the connection between a new fascism and masculine anxiety seem to implicitly accept the unmistakably “boomer” ideologeme that removing the public taboo of sex will completely undercut all the “old” problems and anxieties. In other words, that free love will liberate us from the authoritarianism of the nuclear family. Many of these people talk openly about sex and engage in a kind of discourse that could be described as pornographic—always at least figuratively (Elliot Rodger), sometimes also literally (BAP). It doesn’t matter whether they come down as “pro-sex” or “anti-sex” at the end of it all, because either way they are compulsively, fearfully fixating on it.
Whatever the case, people (people-qua-“subject” and not people-qua-“multitude”) are going to continue to find ways to be alienated from their own bodies, no matter how advanced our collective social-engineering mechanisms become. People are going to find new ways to have anxiety, and they’re going to find new ways to talk about it.
But they will always talk about it. And that’s why we haven’t even come close to the limit of Freud.
Patient A. dreams she is taking a math test, a test that she is very worried about. She also has a biology test later, but she is not so worried about that. A fat black woman, presumably an administrator of the test, tells her that she cannot use her math book to help her. The test is difficult, and as she looks at one of the problems she sees that the numbers and letters are gibberish. However, this gibberish of symbols is assembled in such a way that it resembles a diagram of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. The testing ends, and Dr. Nowzaradan from the show “My 600 lb Life,” now her math professor, says “I hope you all used your math books.” Patient A. worries that she won’t do as well on the test since she was told she couldn’t use her book.
Patient A. dreams she is taking a math test, a test that she is very worried about. Patient A. has recently been studying for the GRE test, particularly the math part, so it is logical that the idea of taking a math test would appear in a dream. Examination dreams are a common form of anxiety dreams that Freud talks about in The Interpretation of Dreams: “having done something wrong or failed to do something properly, we expect to be punished by the event—whenever, in short, we feel the burden of responsibility.” Often, these dreams occur in patients that have long since passed all the tests they need to take. So, the source of the anxiety is not so much the test itself, but rather something deeper that takes the form of the test in a dream. However, that this test likely relates to an actual future event for Patient A., one that she is somewhat justified in worrying about, is an exception. Although Patient A. is very smart and will likely do well on this test, she has always had an excessive anxiety about tests throughout her life, even on tests that she found herself with perfect scores on. She also reports that she has had such dreams long before she decided to start studying for the GRE test. It is probably safe to say that there is more to this than just that she had a math test on her mind in the days prior to the dream.
She also has a biology test later, but she is not so worried about that. Patient A. is good at science, especially biology. I am not quite sure what to make of this detail, other than that it suggests the anxiety is not fundamentally about “taking tests” in general, but something specific to the “math test.”
A fat black woman, presumably an administrator of the test, tells her that she cannot use her math book to help her. In her job, Patient A. (who is white) regularly has to deal with people in bureaucratic roles that fit this racially-coded description. This is a form of the racist “DMV worker” caricature—black women as lazy and incompetent, occupying government jobs from which they cannot be fired, seemingly deriving some kind of satisfaction in just how unpleasant they can be. Incidentally, Patient A. has had to deal with endless bureaucratic complications in getting a correction/update to her driver’s license in the past year, which often leaves her at the mercy of particular DMV workers who often do not seem to understand the actual state laws/bureaucratic processes they are supposed to implement. In other words, this represents a sort of arbitrary or possibly illegitimate authority.
The test is difficult, and as she looks at one of the problems she sees that the numbers and letters are gibberish. However, this gibberish of symbols is assembled in such a way that it resembles a diagram of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. I have attached an image of this triangle. In the dream, the math test is not a math test at all, but rather a puzzle of love. Patient A. reports not being able to trust her boyfriend, who in the past had lied to her about his previous relationships. Not being able to trust her boyfriend undermines the “Intimacy” aspect of the triangle of love, which throws a wrench into the schematic of the whole desiring machine. In the dream, the test essentially asks her to mathematically solve the issues of her relationship. Of course, she lacks access to “the book,” which would help her decode the meaning of the gibberish on the page. Thus, she is powerless to figure it out. Since Patient A. loves her boyfriend and tends to want to avoid confrontation with most people, especially him, it makes sense that her dream would resist and censor the latent content message of her relationship anxiety by presenting it in the manifest form of her math test.
The testing ends, and Dr. Nowzaradan from the show “My 600 lb Life,” now her math professor, says “I hope you all used your math books.” Patient A. worries that she won’t do as well on the test since she was told she couldn’t use her book. In the previous days before the dream, Patient A. had been watching the reality show “My 600lb Life”, which, incidentally, my wife and I are also familiar with. For those that aren’t familiar, Dr. Nowzaradan has a very important role in the show. He performs the gastric bypass surgery for the patients, but perhaps more importantly, he is the one that reviews the patients’ monthly weight-loss targets and whether or not they are met. In doing this, he often scolds the patients who are unable to control their own eating habits. This part of the show is a recurring “moment of truth”—the patients often pathologically lie to themselves about their eating addictions, but they are unable to trick the doctor (who to them is seemingly all-powerful) when it is revealed on the blind scale of Justice just how little weight they have been losing. The Doctor then asserts that the responsibility for the weight loss is entirely on the patients’ own choices. For the (presumably-not-600lb) viewer of the show, Dr. Nowzaradan scolding his patients induces a feeling of “perverse” satisfaction.
(It’s also important to note the obvious truth that weight-loss and body image issues have a different meaning for women than they do for men. Women, even at a healthy weight, tend to insist that they are “fat” and need to lose weight. This is not at all the same for men that aren’t overweight, who would perhaps tend toward the opposite, and insist that they need to “bulk up.” We do not need to dwell on this point much more, other than pointing out that Patient A. is not an exception to this general tendency of women to pay attention to their body image in such a way.)
Rather than scolding the Patient A., the Doctor assumes a more friendly role. In the dream, the Doctor tells the patient what his patients on the TV show would always like to hear themselves: that their failure to achieve their goal was not their fault, but rather the fault of the test itself. That she did not use her book in taking the test, when in fact she was allowed to all along, means that she is not responsible for whatever her score is. Her worry about not doing as well on the test conceals her wish that she be held not responsible for it.
When we put these pieces together it makes sense to interpret this dream as a fulfillment of Patient A.’s wish that she not be held responsible for the problems in her relationship with her boyfriend.
The incel—the pathological incel—is mysteriously drawn to repeat the trauma of his own suffering. The incel is drawn back to the scene of what we will call The Thing. The Thing is the object of the incel’s desire. The Thing involves the physical act of sex and it involves what we would call “love”—but it cannot be reduced to either. The Thing is beyond signification, but it is Real. It is empty, but it is filled by the incel subject’s fantasy. The Thing is something that, if the incel were to have, would make him cease to be an incel. For the pathological incel, The Thing contains a traumatic reminder of his own misery. The Thing taunts the incel by showing him what he does not have, and it suggests (wrongly) that others have The Thing that he does not. The Thing is presented as good, but the idea of The Thing being accessed is experienced as suffering and evil. The excessive goodness of accessing The Thing in its immediacy is intolerable, impossible. The Thing is the object of the incel’s intense desire and it also brings him face-to-face with the horrific truth of himself. The Thing, in its deepest core, also promises to contain the most sinister riddle: the code to what exactly it is that women desire.
This description of “The Thing” as it relates to the incel’s pathology may seem abstract, obscure, or a needless indulgence in Lacanian terms, but to see its relevance we may look no further than Elliot Rodger’s “My Twisted World” manifesto. For Elliot Rodger, the archetypal incel, The Thing is heavenly. Whenever he is talking about the “heavenly” things, he is talking about The Thing. (Keep in mind what one must cross to reach “heaven.”) Here is the scene of The Thing:
After I left the campus I drove around downtown Santa Barbara to explore new areas. I went up and down State Street, the main common area of the city where everyone frequents. Countless restaurants and shops lined a magnificently designed street with wide walkways. It was absolutely beautiful… a true paradise, for those who were thriving there. I can only imagine how heavenly it would be to walk with a beautiful girlfriend down that street. My life would be complete if I get to do that. It would be the epitome of gratifying perfection. To have a beautiful blonde girl by my side, to feel her hand clasping my own as we walk everywhere together, to feel her love! That is what I want in life. Instead, I had to watch other men experience my idea of heaven while I rot in bitter loneliness.
For Elliot Rodger, fantasy surrounding The Thing is particularly symbolized by blonde girls, but the Thing itself isn’t simply the blonde girl, or simply sex-qua-fucking with this girl. To say that The Thing is “to feel her hand clasping my own as we walk everywhere together, to feel her love!” comes closer because it includes the desire of the other, but that does not encapsulate it adequately either. The Thing is situated in this scene, this street in downtown Santa Barbara, “the common area of the city where everyone frequents”. Rodger describes The Thing psychogeographically, as if it is embedded in the terrain, which comes in his account before the nameless, anonymous blonde. Dante’s Paradiso and his beach-blonde Beatrice. The Thing is tied to a place, signified by a place—and a public, social one at that. It is where one is recognized not just by a single other, a partner, but by all others, the Big Other of society. But the thing also isn’t simply the place in its inert, materialistic immediacy. It is the place as saturated with the fantasy, it is the place as it is with the presence of the blonde girl, the place as it is with all the people there, the place as it is with everyone belonging and playing their part: it is the Scene.
We must also pay close attention to the ending of this paragraph, which is a perfect representation of the horrific aspect of the Thing, the Terror, as it relates to its total experience. This Terror comes out of The Thing, as its consequence, an afterthought, a closing punctuation. The Terror follows The Thing like its shadow. It reveals itself as the hole, the emptiness that characterizes the real truth of The Thing. It comes after the Scene, like the ending of Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain,” when the Alchemist, Jodorowsky, the author himself, reveals that the whole thing was a fiction all along, and smiles a geeked up smile with shroomywide pupils—he is seeing something that you aren’t, or rather he’s seeing the absence of The Thing you see, which is to say he sees nothing.
The excess of heavenly goodness in The Thing means that it becomes experienced as suffering and evil. It is simply intolerable, unacceptable. Approaching the goodness of The Thing is a violation of morality, an injustice:
Sex is by far the most evil concept in existence. The fact that life itself exists through sex just proves that life is flawed. The act of sex gives human beings a tremendous amount of pleasure. Pleasure they don’t deserve. No one deserves to experience so much pleasure, especially since some humans get to experience it while some are denied it. When a man has sex with a beautiful woman, he probably feels like he is in heaven. But the world is not supposed to be heaven. For some humans to actually be able to feel such heights of heavenly pleasure is selfish and hedonistic.
We know, of course, that Rodger is not simply talking about “sex,” but The Thing. And anyway, if The Thing is so evil—and not just evil but “the most evil concept in existence”—inducing such suffering and misery, self-evident proof of the fundamental flaw of life itself … why does he always return to it? Here is another scene in which the horrific reality of The Thing reveals itself to Rodger, exciting him so intensely that he acts out:
Another incident happened on the following day, near the same location. I went to the Starbucks at the Camino Real Marketplace by myself, like I usually did every morning. I ordered my coffee and sat down on one of their chairs to relax. A few moments later, when I looked up from my drink, I saw a young couple standing in line. The two of them were kissing passionately. The boy looked like an obnoxious punk; he was tall and wore baggy pants. The girl was a pretty blonde! They looked like they were in the throes of passionate sexual attraction to each other, rubbing their bodies together and tongue kissing in front of everyone. I was absolutely livid with envious hatred. When they left the store I followed them to their car and splashed my coffee all over them. The boy yelled at me and I quickly ran away in fear. I was panicking as I got into my car and drove off, shaking with rage-fueled excitement. I drove all the way to the Vans at the Fairview Plaza and spent three hours in my car trying to contain my tumultuous emotions. I had never struck back at my enemies before, and I felt a small sense of spiteful gratification for doing so. I hated them so much. Even though I splashed them with my coffee, he was still the winner. He was going home to have passionate heavenly sex with his beautiful girlfriend, and I was going home to my lonely room to sleep alone in my lonely bed. I had never felt so miserable and mistreated in my life. I cursed the world for condemning me to such suffering.
Rodger experiences The Thing traumatically. His account is unambiguously unpleasant for him; it does not seem fun. And yet he comes here to order his coffee, like he does “every morning.” Presumably he always sees people like this, not just here and but the many other places where all the “beautiful blonde girls” congregate with their “obnoxious punk” boyfriends. He does not avoid this. Not only is he not a complete recluse but he instinctively seeks out places he can assume the tortured voyeuristic gaze. For some reason, he is compelled to always come back to The Scene of The Thing, to experience the trauma of The Thing over again, this hellish, humiliating, hours-long shock-experience that affects him both emotionally and physiologically—an instinctive compulsion that comes into contrast with the pleasure principle.
So far I have described the concept of The Thing in the Elliot Rodger case and tied it to the repetition compulsion. We also see this dynamic in play in a virtual, discursive space like the r/Braincels subreddit, as well as other “Manosphere” sites, particularly those with comment/message boards, in which the experience of The Thing is fragmented and distributed across a collective.
In incel/manosphere internet spaces (scenes) like r/Braincels, most posts have certain characteristics:
Anecdotes of women’s sexual activities that serves as a reminder of the unjust distribution of sexual pleasure in the world. Women are gushing with eroticism, it is flowing out of them constantly. Stories about women that are out there in the world, being sluts and having some sort of heavenly utopian fulfilled sexual life, a utopian life that is real but always absent to the incel subject, always behind closed doors, the pearly gates. Women are just out there, all of them sluts, getting their heavenly holes filled, and someone is enjoying it, but it sure ain’t you!
Anecdotes of women who cheat on or want to cheat on their weak “cuck” boyfriends or husbands. Women say one thing but mean another. They are liars and hypocrites, and no matter what they say (such as when they say they like guys with a “nice personality”), their small brains are programmed in such a way that their insatiable sexual appetites override their limited capacities of reason—they will cheat on you the first chance they get once they meet a stronger, taller, more attractive, “bad-boy” male. One recurring thing is links to posts from the “relationship advice” subreddit, which often includes stories of various “cuck” men in relationships with women who are cheating on their boyfriends or husbands.
Anecdotes of stronger, more attractive “Chad” men and how they are desired by women, and satisfy that desire. The Chad will always melt the walls that these “sluts” put up to keep the incels out. Whereas incels and cucks, who together are the majority of men, hopelessly throw themselves at the feet of women, the Chad enjoys women throwing themselves at him. One recurring type of post includes pictures of Tinder conversations between women and a (presumably fake) attractive/buff/male-model Chads—the Chad goes straight to the point and says he wants to fuck them, or otherwise treats them aggressively and disrespectfully, such as opening a Tinder conversation by saying he wants to rape them, and the women are shown to still be interested, flattered, confessing to deep-down rape fantasies, giving out their numbers, and so on, presumably leading to, of course, something heavenly.
Analysis of the particular ways in which the incel subjects, the forum posters themselves, are deficient, discussions and comparisons of all the qualities that they have that characterize their lack, and how that means they will never be able to possess The Thing. This entails a special attention to the eroticism of various body parts: bone structure, jawlines, height, shoulders, penis size, and so on. It also can include racial comparisons. For example, the black incel laments that he is not a “Tyrone” (the name for “black Chad”). However, the sometimes-charming intersectionality does not extend to women: the existence of “femcels” (female incels) is denied. This policing of the borderlands of the conceptual incel includes such things as a quasi-scientific analysis of why it is impossible for femcels to exist to support the claim that even the ugliest women still have men chase after them (and so, by calling themselves “femcels” these women are stealing an identity that they don’t deserve…).
Presentation of the horrific, unspeakable, “black-pilled” truth—the Terror. This is the real truth, the truth that evades being articulated in polite language. It is both heavenly and hellish. This is a terrible truth that you know, but you perhaps didn’t even know that you knew—what Rumsfeld would call an “unknown known.”
Is this supposed to turn us off from sex? To dissuade us from trying? To show us our hopelessness and inadequacy and turn us into ascetics so we live alone in the desert like the early church fathers? Or is the feeling that one gets from this scrolling-feed kaleidoscope of psychotic, deranged, and fragmented texts (looking beyond the usual political disagreement with the sexism and all), not a kind of strange arousal? In a sense, I get the impression that I almost wish the world was like this—oozing with desire out of every disgusting pore, needlessly and effortlessly cruel, the feeling Bataille must’ve gotten when he thought about his ex-wife fucking Lacan, just dangerously and preposterously horny. Who are these mythical people who are actually having this heavenly sex, this sex in which the participants are in total agreement with the fantasy of the other, and nothing is kept secret, in which all pleasure is brought to the conscious light of day and retains its naughty allure? I would like to meet them. This fantasy world is a space that, like the Scene of Elliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara, is completely saturated in erotic energy, even if that erotic energy is always accompanied by the terrible, traumatic, humiliating realization, the sadistic morality that comes after the feast, that The Thing is entirely inaccessible. Though the images themselves are not (usually) pornographic—and often the incels/manosphere discourse tends to be explicitly anti-porn—the texts sure are, at least in the way that romance novels targeted at old ladies are. When the “arousing” aspect of this experience is considered, the formation of a community/subculture that has its own rules, language, and hierarchy seems like a logical consequence of this collective-desiring-creature and less like a weird, freak aberration that somehow exists in the “post-patriarchal” society we like to think we live in. And so we can maybe come closer to making sense of why these people keep coming back, coming back to The Scene of The Thing, posting, posting and reading these infuriating reminders of their own impotence, grasping on to their own psychic condition, grasping as if it were the last thing in this “twisted” world they had to call their own.
This is part 1 in what will be a series of blog posts.
In response to my last blog post, I was asked a good question: “what exactly is multiculturalism and what is its contradictory relationship with international solidarity?”
Multiculturalism is something that can have many different definitions, so I’ll try to stick by the understanding that has to do with the context of “why Zizek was right” and antagonisms with international working-class solidarity.
To start, in the most general, theoretical sense, there is no antagonism between multiculturalism and international solidarity. In short: immigrants can and should be considered part of the broader workers’ struggle. This is not, in principle, something that needs to be fundamentally revised. In a globalized world, we need to think about these issues in a “global” sense. So I think I made a mistake when I said:
“There is, however, still an unavoidable antagonism between a left-theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a left-theoretical commitment to working class solidarity under global neoliberalism: the left needs to come to terms with the practical-left commitment to a working class displaced and alienated by widespread de-industrialization.”
The issue shouldn’t be framed as an antagonism between the theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a theoretical commitment to working class solidarity, but between a theoretical commitment (multiculturalism) and practical commitment (working class solidarity). I think I was incorrect to imply that the issue necessarily occurs at the theoretical level.
So what is the practical contradictory relationship between multiculturalism and working class solidarity?
To get an idea of what is at stake in this, consider the line that the Clinton campaign used against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party primaries—that Bernie Sanders is a “single-issue candidate” for running on a platform of economic justice, opposition to Wall Street, and so on. Part of what was implied in this is that Sanders’ program is “just for white people,” that the struggles of women, minorities, and others are not fundamentally tied to a critique of capitalism—and that, if anything, the capitalists, the well-educated and well-mannered elites, are precisely those who are on the side of the marginalized, as opposed to the racist, provincial, backwards white working class.
Of course, the Clinton campaign alone does not demonstrate that there is a theoretical contradiction between multiculturalism and working class solidarity at all. In fact, from this, we can affirm the theoretical compatibility of those things. The opposition between “intersectionality” and “socialism” that the Clinton campaign set up is best countered by demonstrating that there is no opposition—that many of the most structurally oppressive issues that marginalized people face are fundamentally economic, and that it is the “Woke Capital” ideology that is more concerned with empty gestures and tokenism. But does this calculating Clintonite sleight of hand reveal something deeper?
This brings us to where the practical contradictory relationship between “multiculturalism” and working class solidarity occurs. The Clinton campaign’s “Woke-Capital” ideological opposition of multiculturalism with working class solidarity is nonsense on the theoretical socialist terrain—but it mirrors the concrete functioning of global capital, and poses and urgent practical obstacle for organizing in developed countries. I will summarize crudely. Capital expands outwards to avoid the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The rate of profit is sustained by creating global value chains of production, extracting resources and labor from the global periphery—“developing countries”. As this expansion toward the periphery occurs, the industrial base in the economic core is no longer needed, because the cost of labor is higher and the potential returns are lower. These former industrial regions in the global economic core themselves begin to resemble the “underdeveloped” periphery, facing widespread unemployment, poor social services, and other issues (the “Rust Belt,” the Ruhrgebiet, and so on). By contrast, the new cores of the developing countries, benefiting most from the windfall profits of global value chains, begin to look much more like the core—embodying the logic and the appearance of “cities of the future” than the core itself (Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg…). The consequence of this is that there is a form of “multiculturalism” that is taken up and assimilated into the logic of global capital. This logic does validate the rainbow-colored masses of “the developing world,” but it only understands their value through the exploitation of their labor (“Immigrants: they get the job done!”). But what this logic has no use for is the post-industrial “leftovers,” who are themselves backwards and forgotten, as if excluded from the progression of history (“Why do people support a racist like Trump? Don’t they know it’s [the current year]?”).
The Left’s confusion over the apparent impasse between multiculturalism and the interests of the “leftover” working class has done little to stop right-populists and fascists across the developed world from achieving previously-unimaginable electoral success. The now-popular identification of developed-world post-industrial working class interests with the Right is inexcusable for leftists. Accepting the left’s position on the conservative side of a radically-flipped political spectrum of late capitalism is the fast track to obsolescence.
How can we get around this impasse? To start, the Left’s theoretical understanding must take into account the nuanced, shifting, and increasingly-muddied distinctions between global economic cores and peripheries. It must to take into account the leftover working classes in the “peripheries of the cores” that have been left behind by history.
But this is only a tiny part of the beginning of the solution. We must go much deeper to truly work through the problem of contemporary racism posed by the issues facing multicultural western societies. For this, we should turn to psychoanalysis, and in particular, the concept of jouissance. Zizek is correct to identify this as the kernel of the problem in his fascinating 2015 feud with Sam Kriss:
“Which is the factor that renders different cultures (or, rather, ways of life in the rich texture of their daily practices) incompatible? What is the obstacle that prevents their fusion or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence? The psychoanalytic answer is: jouissance. It is not only that different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other without a common measure; the Other’s jouissance is insupportable for us because (and insofar as) we cannot find a proper way to relate to our own jouissance.”
I intend to go into more detail on the meaning and significance of jouissance as an obstacle to solidarity across cultures (and discuss how the Zizek-Kriss debate is the microcosm of the Left’s theoretical difficulty grasping this issue) in another blog post.
Now that awful Democratic Party stooges like Neera Tanden show up in my twitter timeline again, it’s a sign that its truly the start of the 2020 presidential election season. There’s no better time than the present to talk about general left political strategy. One thing I’ve been thinking of a lot lately is Zizek’s position in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election—I wrote about this already and, like Zizek himself, have no issue with completely plagiarizing what I’ve written before (at least for exposition):
…Leftists recoil at his name. Academics think he’s made himself into a factory of lazy, watered-down philosophy for bite-sized consumption. Activists think he’s betrayed the left on political correctness and made overtures to fascism. Though still well-known enough to pen frequent op-eds, he no longer commands the influence on the left he once did. His appearances in The Guardian and In These Times seem to have stopped since last year, and now Zizek contributes more regularly to RT. He has, reluctantly, found a new audience — one that shares his taste for shocking provocation and esoteric philosophical arguments against the scolding mantras of political correctness. Zizek has become a neoreactionary philosopher.
Ironically, many worldwide political developments since the Occupy movement have actually vindicated Zizek. Europe’s refugee crisis laid bare the raw tensions between the liberal ideas of open borders, anti-xenophobia, and tolerance on one hand and the Western European assumption of a secular social-democratic welfare state on the other. Zizek caused a stir by arguing that the dream of many refugees — of being permitted free access to a utopian life anywhere they choose — was unrealistic, and that it could be the task of national militaries to organize a humane solution for the refugee issue in general. With the heretical opposition to unconditional openness, and his tendency to test the limits of political correctness, Zizek’s heterodox takes on Freudo-Marxism ceased to impress many on the left.
After the shock victory of the Brexit referendum, the crisis in neoliberalism and its implications for nationalism and identity politics became impossible to ignore. As the 2016 U.S. presidential election neared, Zizek made a much-publicized “anti-endorsement” of Trump on Russia Today, claiming that Clinton would be a worse president whose victory would perpetuate a wretched status quo and the paralysis of the left. Following his understanding of dialectical materialism, a Trump administration, though horrible, would amount to a negation of the hegemonic liberal ideology and present an opportunity for radical change — a line of thinking that brings him closer to the reactionary accelerationists drawn to the creative potential of crisis and danger than to the relative conservatism of a Clinton supporter like Noam Chomsky. With Trump’s subsequent electoral upset and the apparent collapse of center-left parties across the western world, it seemed that Zizek could stake a claim to picking up the pieces…
I don’t necessarily stand by the rest of the article (especially not the connection to accelerationism), and the contention that he’s neoreactionary is obviously polemical and attention-grabbing—but it said what was on people’s minds, at least from reading headlines. The “Reactionary Zizek” was, indeed, a meme. And at the time, I was more interested in talking about the meme, without actually working through the full meaning of his position.
One thing that’s missed is the idea that Zizek’s points, in the end, were correct, from the Left perspective. This is to say, the essential points are valuable—necessary!—even if the old man presented them clumsily at times. This is not to say that every policy prescription of his is correct, but rather that the issues he identified as issues need to be worked through. And whether the polite, proper leftists like it or not for their THEORETICAL politics, there is no way around dealing with them for a PRACTICAL politics.
Zizek always was speaking to the Left. The Left was able to tolerate his objections to their general consensus positions, particularly regarding nationalism and political correctness, by considering him a sort of jester. He was a quirky celebrity with a funny accent and lots of things to say about classic movies. But once these objections to left-liberal consensus positions came to pass and were affirmed in a way that they could no longer ignore whatsoever (by nationwide popular democratic votes for candidates and positions that absolutely rejected this, across the western world), Zizek had to be jettisoned—CANCELLED. There is, of course, a certain Hegelian significance to this cancellation. Is Zizek himself not the “vanishing mediator” here in the conflict between the theoretical abstraction of the neoliberal late capitalist world order and its empirical negation in the political upheaval that has thrown everything into question? If anything, shouldn’t this cancellation be nothing other than a sign of the TRUTH of the position?
So what are the essential points Zizek was right about? I suggest a few:
The need for a Left Populism. A populism necessarily sets some kind of positioning of “US” versus “THEM”, but a Left Populism, instead of identifying the “Them” as the immigrants/foreigners/minorities/Muslims, should identify the “Them” as the capitalist class. In other words, this is a populism that, rather than just attacking symptoms of social problems (i.e. the Latin American immigrants that come and steal American jobs) attacks the underlying causes of those problems (the way that the capitalist class has set up a system that necessitates these global flows of capital). The centrist, liberal position holds (against the populists), that there is no need to declare a fundamental antagonism against the capitalist class, that they are in fact the allies against the intolerant bumpkin Trump voters, and they adjust their messaging accordingly. Unlike a “Trump,” the centrist holds, we must “all come together.” This position holds that there is no fundamental class tension in society—in fact, the tension comes from some kind of alien outside, such as Russian intervention. This position is conservative, uncompelling, uninspiring, and obviously false.
Antagonisms in the issue of borders and migration. There exists an antagonism between the free flows of labor/capital and the coherence of national borders and the well-being of the working classes of the nation. The scale of the issues makes it very difficult for individual people to adequately conceptualize one way or another, especially in a country with a spatial orientation inherited from a settler-frontier ideological disposition like the United States (in other words, the country is so big that such flows of labor and capital are so difficult to conceptualize—and people believe whichever simplifications they want to believe). There is, however, still an unavoidable antagonism between a left-theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a left-theoretical commitment to working class solidarity under global neoliberalism: the left needs to come to terms with the practical-left commitment to a working class displaced and alienated by widespread de-industrialization. The Western Left needs the Western working class to take political power. It cannot afford to write off their concerns as “Eurocentric” even as it maintains a firm theoretical and practical opposition to racism.
Political correctness, particularly in sexual politics and multiculturalism, is a fundamental site of tension. This is a huge issue because PC-culture operates at the level of the ENJOYMENT of the individual. The consequence of PC-culture is that the enjoyment of the signs that people relate to just in using language becomes regulated by political imperatives that, while often (but not always) well-intentioned, take the form of petty, cruel, vengeful moral injunctions. For example, in sexual politics, this takes the form of a paradoxical injunction to ENJOY the free wonderful sex that all us liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan westerners are supposed to enjoy, coupled with a darker injunction to ENJOY that manifests itself in the paranoia about sex relating to offense, consent, trauma, call-out culture and so on. Of course, this is not limited to sexual politics by any means, and also includes a regulation of the enjoyment of nationalism/multiculturalism: “Enjoy your nation as yourself!”
Fascism will fill the conceptual void left by neoliberal late capitalism. Inasmuch as the Left is unable to come to terms with these antagonisms, the conceptual void left over will be filled by fascism, which will attempt to fill it in a perverted, inadequate, unscientific (in the broadest conception of science) way. Fascism does not solve the underlying issues and is, rather, the fullest extent of the symptom—it does not try to work through these contradictions, but rather react against them as a consequence of their repression.
Are these issues not the defining issues of our time? Shouldn’t this be the takeaway of the Left from 2016?
There are no easy answers to these issues. But we must work through them in a way that many leftists refuse to admit. And it certainly does not require a complete capitulation to the racism, misogyny, homophobia (and so on) of the fascists and their sympathizers on the right. And in doing this we must stay faithful to a revolutionary communist orientation, rather than complacency with a now-conservative, neoliberal status quo.