Thursday, 11 August 2005

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Zizek and Utopian Universalism? Maybe? I spent parts of yesterday and today mulling over Jodi's essay on "Zizek and Democracy." First, I want to echo Luther Blissett's remark about the entertainment value of Zizek's thought as Jodi describes it. Its hair-pin turns exhilirate and this quality extends to students of his thought. Take Jodi's account of the implications of Zizek's criticism of identity politics: An example from the U.S. might be Rosa Parks: at issue was not simply her particular seat on a bus or even the racist practices of busses in Montgomery, Alabama. Rather, the laws of segregation, and indeed, the racism of U.S. law most broadly, of U.S. willingness to enforce a system of apartheid, were at stake. One can imagine what could have occurred should the therapeutic and particularized practices of institutionalized identity politics have been in place: Rosa Parks would have discussed her feelings about being discriminated against; the bus driver would have dealt with his racism, explaining that he had been brought up that way; and, perhaps there would have been a settlement enabling Parks to ride at a discounted fare on weekends and holidays. Maybe the two would have appeared together on a television talk-show, the host urging each to understand and respect the opinion of the other. Ultimately, the entire situation would have been seen as about Park’s specific experience rather than about legalized segregation more generally. Zizek's claim that identity politics, to paraphrase Jodi, eliminate the possibility for systemic change by reformulating systemic problems as personal issues strikes me as fundamentally correct. Then again, I came to the essay already believing that identity politics often trivialize concepts of social justice by subordinating them to an ethos of personal expression, so the nodding of my head in assent as I read those passages didn't shock. My major difficulty with the essay can be guessed by anyone who knows my feelings about psychoanalysis. Zizek relies on a psychoanalytic model of human and social development that I think profoundly misguided. From what I can tell, psychoanalytic concepts function for Zizek as both philosophical truisms (capable of standing toe-to-toe with the categorical imperative) and psychological fact. Reading this unnerves me. Just as I nodded in assent with his account of the identity politics without surprise, however, I also shook my head in dissent without shock. I knew coming into the essay that I would find that part of his argument unconvincing. That said, I do have some questions and criticisms for Jodi about the essay. Some of them derive from my ignorance of Zizekian thought, others from my ignorance of political science. One or two may be the product something other than ignorance. In other words, consider every claim below prefaced by an invisible "I think I think that." The criticisms first: Zizek strikes me as a profoundly utopian thinker. I understand that he fashions himself as such because he sees a lack of viable alternatives within democracy or capitalism (on which more shortly), but he never offers anything but suggestions...
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The Interpronomicon, or Samizdat for the Literary Scholar Before I get started: If you're a regular reader but didn't comment on yesterday's post, I'm still 28 readers short of winning the bet, so I'd love it if you checked in. On to business! Theory business! (ignores collective groans ) When I lunched with my advisor this past Monday, he told me about a very dangerous book with a very froufy front cover called Literary Interest. He warned me that while I should read this book I should under no circumstances attempt to emulate the style of Steven Knapp's argument. Nor should I attempt to learn anything from it. I should read it, acknowledge that it exists then squirrel it away until such a time as I might have tenure. He said it would ruin my chances of an academic career, a social life or ever getting remarried after the wife realizes how much better she can do than me. (We have that sort of advisor/advisee relationship.) According to my advisor, Steven Knapp wrote this book shortly before disappearing across the Mexican border to fight alongside Poncho Villa. Or becoming the 11th provost of Johns Hopkins. One of the two. The point being you're damned curious to know what's contained in this little volume--it runs all of 142 pages before reaching its horrifying conclusion--but since I've only read the first chapter, you'll have to wait. I know that's inconsiderate of me to build up your hopes only to shatter them mercilessly on the cold ceramic tile I recently installed on Acephalous. (Do you like?) I fully intended on presenting you with a taste of the Interpronomicon tonight. Then it dawned on me that the first chapter works the argument of his and Walter Benn Michaels' "Against Theory" and "Against Theory II" through its implications for Milton's Paradise Lost. And that can't be that dangerous because I already know it. I've read both those essays and my career, life and marriage are still intact. There there be dragons ain't the scout's shout yet. They must not appear until chapter two, which I'll read tomorrow. All the theoretical equivalents of dragons and flatbreads concocted from the blood of Christian children (I am Jewish and have to eats my matzahs) will be communicated on the morrow, once I have fully imbibed the evil that is! that is! that is! negative capability? Negative Capability!?!

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