Monday, November 26, 2007

Zizek famously argues that a certain Spinozism is the ideology of late capitalism

The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to based on rejecting. In a culture in which the ‘paternal’ concept of duty has been subsumed into the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children’s absolute right to enjoyment. Partly this is an effect of the increasing requirement that both parents work; in these conditions, when the parent sees the child very little, the tendency will often be to refuse to occupy the ‘oppressive’ function of telling the child what to do. The parental disavowal of this role of is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of 'gatekeepers' to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego - the stern father in the home, Reithian superciliousness in broadcasting - is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results from a refusal to challenge or educate? A question as massive as this cannot of course be answered in one post, and what follows here will require a great deal of further elaboration. In brief, though, I believe that it is Spinoza who offers the best resources for thinking through what a 'paternalism without the father' might look like.

In Tarrying with the Negative, Zizek famously argues that a certain Spinozism is the ideology of late capitalism. Zizek believes that Spinoza’s rejection of deontology for an ethics based around the concept of health is allegedly flat with capitalism’s amoral affective engineering. The famous example here is Spinoza’s reading of the myth of the Fall and the foundation of Law. On Spinoza’s account, God does not condemn Adam for eating the apple because the action is wrong; he tells him that he should not consume the apple because it will poison him. For Zizek, this dramatizes the termination of the Father function. An act is wrong not because Daddy says so; Daddy only says it is ‘wrong’ because performing the act will be harmful to us. In Zizek’s view, Spinoza’s move both deprives the grounding of Law in a sadistic act of scission (the cruel cut of castration), at the same time as it denies the ungrounded positing of agency in an act of pure volition, in which the subject assumes responsibility for everything.

In fact, it is Spinoza has immense resources for analysing the affective regime of late capitalism: its dissolving of agency in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants, its blitzing of the nervous system with images. (Spinoza remains the pre-eminent philosopher of image addiction). It is precisely Spinoza’s avoiding of the heroic Oedipal dramaturgy to which Zizek is so attached that enables him to give a plausible account of how responsibility can be attained rather than assumed. Spinoza’s diagnosing of the Father-God of theism as an anthropomorphic fantasy anticipates the psychoanalytic insight that the infant phantasmatically posits a castrating Father figure in order to cover over the impossibility of total enjoyment (‘If it were not for him, I’d have everything I want’). (And far from being the One hallucinated by Hegelian dementia, the Spinozist God is better understood as a desolated Zero. ‘The true formula of atheism is that God is unconscious,’ Lacan declares; and Spinoza’s God is exactly that: not a distributed, pantheistic omnipresence, but the cosmos as catatonic mechanism.) The most important difference between Spinoza and Lacan does indeed concern the question of pathology. If Spinoza aims to cure the individual of their addictions and fixations, Lacan believes that they can only be managed or sublimated. Spinozist joy consists in a calm contemplation of the impersonal mechanism of the cosmos, including your self; very different from Lacanian jouissance. But the idea that pathology can only ever be sublimated, never eliminated, that the subject can only ever circulate around objects that will never satisfy it, but which it can never give up pursuing – is, if not the ideology of late capitalism, then its metapyschology.

Late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programmes like ‘You Are What You Eat’, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives. But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. (When will there be a Channel 4 programme called ‘You Are What You Read?’) What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to better decorate their neo-liberal burrow, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers, or those hectored by coprophiliac crank Gillian McKeith are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the 'consentimental' regime of what Adam Curtis calls the ‘empire of the self’. In an excellent interview – which I’m indebted to reader Daryl Hutchings for drawing to my attention to – Curtis berates the way in which contemporary media is increasingly a machinery that is organised around the manipulation of affect.

TV now tells you what to feel. It doesn't tell you what to think anymore. From EastEnders to reality format shows, you're on the emotional journey of people - and through the editing, it gently suggests to you what is the agreed form of feeling. "Hugs and Kisses", I call it.
I nicked that off Mark Ravenhill who wrote a very good piece which said that if you analyse television now it's a system of guidance - it tells you who is having the Bad Feelings and who is having the Good Feelings. And the person who is having the Bad Feelings is redeemed through a "hugs and kisses" moment at the end. It really is a system not of moral guidance, but of emotional guidance.
Morality has been replaced by feeling.
In the ‘empire of the self’ everyone ‘feels the same’ without ever escaping a condition of solipsism. ‘What people suffer from,’ Curtis claims,
is being trapped within themselves - in a world of individualism everyone is trapped within their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations. Our job as public service broadcasters is to take people beyond the limits of their own self, and until we do that we will carry on declining. Posted by mark at November 25, 2007 02:45 PM TrackBack 10:02 AM

1 comment:

  1. A lot of irrelevancy, Spinoza is basically to be in immediacy, so I'm agree with this understanding of Spinoza = Post industrial capitalism. The only problem is that Zizek is working to justufy a lot of sophistic kropos, just to say that post human are rasonably. It's nasty. Why don't you be a little clear and state the think as Occam demand. Be simple. Who matters Lacan? Please.