Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures

There is a quote from Varro that Agamben uses in the essay “Notes on Gesture” (included in both Infancy and History and Means Without End):

“For a person can make [facere] something and not act [agere] it, as a poet makes [facit] a play and does not act it [agere also means ‘to recite’], and on the other hand the actor acts [agit] it and does not make it, and so a play is made [fit] by the poet, not acted, and is acted [agitur] by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the imperator [the magistrate invested with supreme power] in that he is said to carry on [gerere] affairs, in this neither makes [facit] nor acts [agit] but carries on [gerit], that is, assumes and supports [sustinet], a meaning transferred from those who carry burdens [onera gerunt], because they support them” (Varro, 6.77)

In this early essay, what is at stake is finding some third kind of human action beyond the Aristotelian dichotomy of poiesis and praxis. For Agamben, what both of these modes of action share is their reference to some end or goal — the produced object in poiesis and the action itself in praxis — and the sphere of gerere or “gesture” seems, by contrast, to be a “pure means” without any reference to an end or goal.

In Opus Dei, the exact same quote appears with a completely different valence. Instead of pointing toward something hopeful or redemptive, it forms a part of the “archeology of office or duty” that separates the subject from his or her actions, rendering anything like ethical experience radically impossible. This is part of a broader pattern where figures and concepts that appeared to be the “good guys” in earlier writings take on a sinister edge in the Homo Sacer series (the most striking example being potentiality) — a trend that I don’t know quite what to do with.

What interests me here is the connection between the sphere of gesture and the notion of “supporting” something. In contemporary political circles, “support” has emerged as a key category — we “support” troops, politicians, parties, policies, causes. When we are asked to take some concrete action (donating money, signing a petition, voting), it is sometimes directly equated with “supporting” the political entity in question, but more often it is a means of showing one’s “support.” Taken in itself, “support” does not issue in any external action or result, and any such action or result is merely a way of demonstrating or pointing toward “support.”

In other words, the central political act of “supporting” belongs to the sphere of pure gesture, divorced from poiesis or praxis. Indeed, it seems to colonize the spheres of political poiesis and praxis themselves. Legislation is crafted in order to signal support for a key priority or constituency, even and especially when it has no chance of becoming law. The House of Representatives in recent years has reduced the act of legislation to an empty gesture, signalling again and again their “support” for a repeal of Obamacare. And is there not a sense that even in activist circles, one engages in activism primarily to show “support” for a cause, or even “support” for the very idea of activism itself? It’s not unimaginable that someone could view themselves as “supporting” true activism to such an extent that they refuse to participate in any activity that falls short of that lofty ideal.

Our moral standing is reduced to what we “support.” We are good or bad people, in the eyes of whichever circle we choose, based on whether we hold the correct opinions or not, “support” the appropriate causes or not. When we seek to create moral and political change, we are always working on the level of opinions — using persuasion to get someone to switch their “support” over to our cause. We often make vague reference to the idea that changing hearts and minds will lead to some concrete change, but that’s not really where our passionate engagement is. In any case, such persuasion is of course very rare, so that engagement with other viewpoints seems to function primarily to confirm the rightness of the causes we “support,” to affirm our political and moral rectitude.

Our actions — or rather, our lack thereof — show that we believe very deeply in this sphere of “support,” of pure, empty gesture.

Did Obama get played in 2008?

[NOTE: Earlier this summer, The Girlfriend and I watched a lot of House of Cards and Scandal, so that must be kept in mind in reading this post.]

It’s easy to forget now, but in the summer of 2008, it really looked like John McCain would win. Only after the financial crisis really began in September — an event that apparently none of our political elites foresaw — did Obama’s victory become a fait accompli. It’s also easy to forget that when it comes to delegates elected by the people who voted in primaries, Obama and Clinton were pretty much in a dead heat. The deciding factor was the Democratic “superdelegates,” i.e., the party leaders who get to vote for the candidate of their choice at the convention regardless of primary results. Clinton could have won if the superdelegates fell in line behind her, but as the convention approached, more and more broke in favor of Obama.

With all these facts in mind, I’ve begun to wonder if Clinton, facing the prospect of an uphill battle against one of the most respected politicians in America (another thing that’s easy to forget!), calculated that it was better to let Obama be the sacrificial lamb against McCain and live to fight another day — either 2012, if McCain reaped the whirlwind from the Bush disaster, or else 2016 — and so “released” her superdelegates to Obama. This might also explain why she didn’t insist on the VP slot, not wanting to be tarnished by a defeat.

As it turns out, though, the whirlwind came more quickly than anticipated, resulting in Obama accidentally getting elected.

On the toxic nostalgia for Christian hegemony

Adrian Pabst has a column up at ABC Religion and Ethics on the challenges facing the West — a situation that may even, God forbid, lead the West to split! What we need, it turns out, is a reinvigorated West united on the basis of Christianity (along with “other people of good will”), presumably to turn the tide of Islam (and Chinese communism, though that’s more of a footnote to his argument than the main thrust).

The notion that Christianity is the solution to modern problems is laughable. The Westphalian nation-state, which religious critics of modernity almost always single out as virtually demonic, arose as a way of quelling the hugely destructive religious conflicts that followed the Reformation. The Christian roots of capitalism are well-known, and the majority of mainstream Christian groups are either actively proud of capitalism or calling for moderate reforms at best. Christian moral formation did nothing to teach the majority of Western subjects to resist nationalistic wars, imperialism, or the slave trade. In fact, Christianity was used to legitimate both colonialism and slavery. Christians in Germany were generally supportive of or silent about literally the worst regime in human history and, as a group, did nothing to stop or even impede an unprecedented systematic genocide.

In short, if you were to rack up the greatest crimes of modernity, Christianity was deeply implicated in nearly all of them. The minority of Christians who resisted those crimes were marginalized and at times even actively persecuted by Christian leaders. The notion that we should overlook all this and return to some form of Christian hegemony repeats the signature move that makes Christian moral formation such a complete world-historical failure — the emphasis on forgiveness to the exclusion of almost anything else. Dan Barber has thoroughly documented this structure, wherein we are all sinners, but Christians are “better” because at least they acknowledge they are sinners. Indeed, in the current instance, I can already anticipate Christian apologists claiming that Christianity’s very complicity will ensure that Christians, as opposed to the self-righteous Muslims, are properly chastened and humble in their hegemonic role. It’s utter nihilism.

On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.

On Zizek’s plagiarism

A former student wrote to ask what I thought of the recent evidence of plagiarism in an essay by Zizek. I replied that Zizek’s own explanation of the incident, which can be found here among many other places, struck me as plausible — indeed, I’d add now that it isn’t hugely different from what traditional academics might ask a research assistant to do for them.

Overall, I’d call this unintentional plagiarism due to laziness, rather than actually trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as his own. If he turned in the essay for my class, I’d give him the chance to rewrite.

Why are inflation and deficits bad?

A disproportionate amount of political debate centers around vague abstractions: government spending, deficits, and inflation. The latter two are supposed to be particularly horrible, leading to hyperinflation (and therefore Hitler) or else mountains of debt that are impossible to pay off (and therefore Hitler). Meanwhile, government spending is always at risk of “crowding out” the presumably much more desirable private sector spending.

A moment’s reflection will reveal that these three technocratic abstractions are actually code words for “stuff that makes rich assholes powerful.” Inflation decreases the spending power of hoarded money, and when it is kept at a moderate pace (which does not, as in Weimar Germany, vastly outstrip actual growth in production), it tips the balance of power away from rentiers and toward people who make their money from wages. It’s a way of indirectly decreasing the power of concentrated wealth, and hence moderate inflation is profoundly pro-democratic in its effects.

The same goes for government spending, which designates economic activity that is controlled by democratically accountable representatives rather than by the whims of individual rich assholes. In practice in the U.S., the rich assholes wind up directing some of the flow of this spending, but the bulk of it — such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and other government benefits — reduces people’s reliance on being exploited by rich assholes. Hence we’ve got to rein in that out of control government spending! Which means: spending that is out of rich assholes’ control and leaves people out of rich assholes’ control.

Government spending at least has the benefit of being tax-financed and hence parasitic on the wealth of rich assholes. Worst of all, however, is deficit spending, where the government creates money over and above its tax revenue in order to spend it in ways not controlled by rich assholes. Our current system requires newly-created money to be matched by a Treasury bond, which I like to think originated as a crafty way of tricking rich assholes into buy into a powerful federal government that would be beyond their effective control. It also has the positive side effect of providing a 100% guaranteed savings vehicle for the general public.

The Treasury bonds that pile up as a result of deficit spending look like “debt,” but it doesn’t work like your credit card, because the government actually creates the currency in which the debt is paid — hence we can always go ahead and “pay off the national debt” by liquidating all our Treasury bonds, and foreign governments who hold our debt can only “punish” us by converting their interest-bearing asset into non-interest-bearing cash. In the last analysis, the federal government’s currency sovereignty can only be controlled by our own elected representatives (and by the need to keep the inflation rate from too greatly outpacing economic growth).

Why the explicit or implicit invocations of Hitler around these abstractions, then? Presumably because it reinforces the message that populism always leads to totalitarianism and disaster. In reality, though, we have plenty of examples of healthy societies that have struck a different balance between the power of rich assholes and the power of democratic deliberation about people’s needs and priorities, and it turns out that none of them are in any danger of producing a Hitler. The only real danger they’re courting is that their rich assholes might wind up being less rich in the long run, and that’s a price I for one am willing to pay.

Why do the Gremlins love Snow White?

gremlins watching snow white

It’s a strange moment. The Gremlins, having eaten after midnight and turned from teddy bears into evil reptilian creatures, find themselves in a movie theater. Suddenly, Snow White starts playing — and they are transfixed. They all sing in unison along with the seven dwarves: “Hi ho!” Indeed, their love of Snow White proves to be their undoing, as their absorption in the movie is what ultimately allows them to be defeated when the protagonists start a fire, burning down the theater.

The use of Snow White cannot be random. Gremlins was not produced by Disney, and so the producers had to pay extra to use the film. But what does it mean? Read the rest of this entry »

“Focus is life”: The mysticism of Five-Hour Energy

Five-Hour Energy is one of those products that exists near the back of all of our cultural consciousnesses, at the boundary between “real” products and obvious scams. We might map out that space as bounded on the more legitimate-seeming side by anti-oxidants and on the more scam-like side by the Atkins diet. I’m inclined to push it more toward the Atkins end of things. The round number seems very suspicious to me, for instance — how can they possibly know, amid all the wide variety in human physiology, that the energy boost will last that precise length of time? Further, how can such a product possibly fail to cause cancer?

Their advertising has generally fallen within certain predictable bounds. Do you feel too tired to work out? Take Five-Hour Energy. Do you feel worn out in the afternoons at work? Take Five-Hour Energy to avoid That 2:30 Feeling. The most adventurous they got was a self-mocking campaign in which an adventuring young man mastered dozens of skills within the five-hour window, with a little time to spare.

Lately, though, their ads have taken on a more mystical tone (unfortunately these ads don’t seem to be available on YouTube). Instead of giving you energy or motivation, they’re providing you with focus. They describe focus in terms that would not be unfamiliar to readers of The Cloud of Unknowing, concluding with the enthusiastic declaration: “Focus is life!”

It’s disconcerting to be told that an energy drink is the pathway to a meaningful, centered life, but here we are. It reminds me on one level of Zizek’s critique of “Western Buddhism,” whereby the spirituality of the Eastern world is instrumentalized to help workers cope with the stress of their jobs. While his focus on Buddhism is probably disproportionate, the basic point remains — think of what yoga has become in the US, for instance.

What’s misleading in Zizek’s stance, however, is the implication that supplementing work with spirituality is something new. Agamben’s description of the monastic workday in The Highest Poverty reminds us that there has always been a “zone of indistinction” between work and spirituality in the Christian tradition (and I assume the monks suffering from accedia would have appreciated a bottle or two of Five-Hour Energy). Leaving aside the obvious references to the “Protestant ethic,” we find the same overlap in Marxism, where productive labor is put forth as “the chief end of man.”

In other words, the problem with Five-Hour Energy’s claim that an energy drink meant to help you through the workday is also a mystical experience isn’t that it debases spirituality — it’s that they’re fundamentally on the right track. That really is how our culture thinks about work, even in its most radical self-critique. It’s a Hegelian-Zizekian “infinite judgment,” like “the Spirit is a bone” — “Marxism is a Five-Hour Energy commercial.”

Consider the possibility

Is this Left Forum panel a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have determined that conspiracy-based thinking is just the kind of obscurantism that thrives on the political right. The panelists seem determined to make a mockery of the left by going beyond the proverbial “circular firing squad” and accusing those they disagree with of being active collaborators with the enemy — effectively staging a Stalinist show trial that will confirm the worst suspicions of the persuadable mainstream. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Conspiracy Theory Industry to unhinged pseudonymous bloggers who now only talk to each other, having been blocked by all reasonable people. It is they who laid the groundwork for putting forth the model of 9/11 Truthers and Birthers as the pinnacle of hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

To what are “contrarians” contrary?

It’s an iron-clad rule: whenever someone declares himself [sic] a “contrarian,” you can know with absolute certainty that everything that comes out of his mouth will be a well-worn cliché. Contrarians never say that maybe we should totally abolish capitalism, or that maybe we should all become cyborgs, or that maybe we should consider eating four meals a day instead of three — it’s always something like “I know that I’ll catch a lot of flack for saying this, but the traditional three meals are the best way to distribute our food intake.” Their bold, outsider perspective always allows them to see that the most tired bromides of acceptable mainstream opinion actually have a lot going for them. The market really does solve problems better than government. We really do need to get the deficit under control. Women really are worse at math, and black people really do need to stop whining and recognize that all their problems are their own fault. Edgy!

Wherein is contrarianism contrary? Surely it’s not in the content of the statements. Rather, it’s the rhetorical stance. The contrarian takes the counterintuitive position that mainstream opinion is under constant attack, that the ruling class is the underdog. This rhetorical stance serves to inoculate the reader against genuine critique of the status quo — and the inevitable outraged response to click-bait “contrarian” argument is an intrinsic part of the process. Every comment thread appears to confirm the contrarian’s rhetorical trick: “See how much abuse we contrarians take for our brave, out-of-season testimony to truth?”

The question is why this rhetorical ploy is so appealling to so many, and on this point we have rare insider testimony from a genuine contrarian: Matt Yglesias. Discussing his reasons for making the terrible mistake of supporting the Iraq War, he lists some substantive reasons but then becomes painfully candid:

You can, however, always get more psychological. I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people.

Perhaps we can say that there’s a deeper contrareity at work in contrarianism, then: the attempt to hold together the contrary poles of embattled dissent and utterly mainstream opinions, to speak the truth to power by serving the powerful. It’s the white man’s attempt to “have it all,” to hold onto substantive power while also taking a shot at the prestigious “victim” status to which he lamentably does not have access — and we all know how irritable white men get when they’re told there’s something they can’t have.

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