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A Brief Critical Manifesto

August 14, 2009

https://i0.wp.com/www.nature.com/nature/journal/v443/n7114/images/443909a-i1.0.jpgI no longer want to be right.

The more I think about it the clearer and more obvious it becomes. I am over it. I do not need it and I do not want it.  I am, in short, ‘post-right’.

Do not get me wrong; I am not suggesting that somehow all thoughts and opinions are of equal value trapped in a meaningless web of relativity. This is a pile of bull-crap so old as to be stale rather than steaming, which all but the most retarded (sorry that was inappropriate – I meant “spastic”) flies have long since departed.

I am a clear and unambiguous elitist in the sense that I do not believe all opinions are of equal value. I believe there is a ‘return to reflection’ or a ‘pay-off to pensiveness’ or whatever fumbled alliterative collection of words best captures the idea that if you think about stuff, if you make an effort to understand something, you may have something more valuable to say that someone who does not. If you do not believe this is true then you are probably an idiot, your time has past and your king has left the throne. This is the age of Obama now.

No my point is different. My point is to ask, what is the actual return to trying to persuade people who already disagree with you? How long for example have Americans been split fairly evenly between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, see-sawing between an elephant and a donkey, which trumpet and bray at one another in a cacophony of all too often (but  perhaps not always) useless moralism; the other is always clearly morally bankrupt.

Perhaps moralism should have died in the concentration camps, perhaps it should have died when the state of Israel was thrust upon the Arab world as ethical reparation, perhaps it should have died when the injustices of Israeli action was used to justify the transformation of men and women into martyrs, perhaps it should have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, perhaps it should have died at the feet of Terry Schiavo.  But it hasn’t and it won’t. But here I think the correct structure is found in Lacan’s conceptualisation of atheism: “the true formula of atheism is not God is dead– even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father –the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious”.

I think then I would echo the words of Pierre-Simon Laplace, the great French astronomer and mathematician who was one of the first people to present a ‘mechanical’ theory of the universe. When asked by Napoleon about the place of God within such a system he replied simply, “je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese”. Moralising (to me the logical implication of any claim to be right), I simply do not need you.

What I present here then is a critique aimed not at the hypocrite but the critic, above all the self-styled ‘progressive’ critic. My suggestion is this: that often when making a choice to engage with the obvious hypocrisies and injustices of the world the progressive critic becomes simply a tool of the system they wish to expose.

One of the great insights of the work of Slavoj Zizek is his analysis of the workings of ideology. Near the beginning of his book The Sublime Object he points out that we all know that money is just paper and virtually worthless in itself, but that we all behave towards money as if it were some special substance of intrinsic value, and it is precisely that gap between our stated beliefs and our actions that brings this property of money into being. His point is that ideology isn’t located simply at the level of our conscious thoughts, but rather at the level of practice. This has probably never been a more important insight. We live in a hypercritical age; with so much information available to us consciousness has never been greater of political and economic realities. And yet what impact has this consciousness had?

Many critical voices will be happy to concede that the arguments and ideologies used in the actions of elites or governments function, consciously or not, as mechanisms of displacement, ultimately disguising the true power relations at work.  But yet at the level of action those same people will go on to wade into debate with those same ideas, delighting in pointing to their fallacies and hypocrisies as they serve up their own ‘true’ account in its place.

Zizek has a typically controversial, vulgar, and slightly uncomfortable joke which captures this action perfectly. One day a poor farmer is walking home from the fields with his wife when an invading soldier riding along the road catches up with them. He announces to the farmer he is going to rape his wife, but more than that, because the road is dusty he expects the man to hold his balls as he does it. If he does that then he will spare both their lives. Afterwards, as the soldier rides away, the farmer sits there smirking to himself. Angrily his wife asks ‘how can you sit there smiling when I’ve just been raped by this man?!’, to which he replies ‘no, you don’t understand – I managed to get some dust on his balls!’.

The critic of course plays the part of the farmer in the joke; the point is not to dirty the balls of systems that violate and wrong. At best this displaces resistance away from the actual injustice; at worst that act of resistance becomes integral to that injustice’s successful functioning.  The soldier would perhaps have found it much harder to do what he did if the farmer hadn’t been distracted trying to dirty his balls; his act of subversion in the end was assisting in the greater crime.

The dialectical logic is obvious: it is too simple to believe that argument and critique are always oppositional; instead often they can be trapped in one mutually constitutive relation.  Ideology can not only survive the existence of its critique, but can in fact be completed by it.  Often the true critical act then is not direct engagement. I have no need to show you are wrong; in fact the paradox at work here is that this might be the biggest favour I could offer.

As Levi Bryant, a minor celebrity in the philosophically-inclined blogosphere, put it in a wonderful post on his Larval Subjects blog:

Michael Foucault, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Marx, and Gloria Steinem do far more to produce just change, it seems to me, through their analysis of the dynamics of power and the interests involved than do the moralists. When did moralism ever prevent a single death? When did a normative theory ever prevent a holocaust? When did an ethical theory ever halt a single despotic government? If anything, it seems to me, we instead always see normative discourse on the side of the despots and sadists.

But more than that, those who aspire to change things need not always do it by showing how those with whom we disagree are wrong.  It is precisely in engaging with the ideas they present that we can perpetuate the ideology not challenge it. Instead we need to be questioning the coordinates themselves, examining not the picture but the frame.

If you don’t agree with me, well…err….whateverz.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Hajduk permalink
    August 14, 2009 8:06 pm

    An interesting post. Permit me to make a couple of points:

    “No my point is different. My point is to ask, what is the actual return to trying to persuade people who already disagree with you? How long for example have Americans been split fairly evenly between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, see-sawing between an elephant and a donkey, which trumpet and bray at one another in a cacophony of all too often (but perhaps not always) useless moralism; the other is always clearly morally bankrupt.”

    There is a great return to trying to persuade people who disagree with you.

    You make a good point with reference to the increasingly poisonous debates in the USA – one almost wonders how long the Republic will hold together. But that obscures a far more fundamental point.

    For a start, one does not need to always hold the ‘other’ as morally bankrupt. Indeed, that assertion would be at odds with the very foundation of liberal thought – that certainty does not exist. That the very reason for deliberative institutions and the aggregation of mass preferences while simultaneously holding certain rights inviolable is this exact uncertainty. The true liberal admits that they do not have the right way, the only way; that bar the preservation of essential freedoms, society and its individual components – ie people – must be allowed to go about in their own way the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

    This is not to say the liberal ideology forbids its own defence from external threat – the fight against the ideologies of the absolute in the 20th century is a prime example.

    The good liberal could hold National Socialism as morally bankrupt because it revoked the non-negotiable rights reached at by the progress of human reason.

    But the good liberal (in the philosophical, not US political, sense) would not hold his Democrat or Republican opponent as morally bankrupt; rather, he would reach for the words of Voltaire, and the contest of political will would take place in a carefully proscribed political sphere.

    Which brings me onto my next point: that this process of debate, persuasion, critical appraisal and self-reflection has actually produced meaningful normative shifts that have changed the rules of the game massively.

    “When did moralism ever prevent a single death?”

    That depends on what kind of causation you would demand to satisfy the question.

    Directly, it is probably hard to prove either way. Then again, the abolition of the death penalty in the UK for example was borne not of pragmatic reasoning but rather an increasingly wide revulsion to the idea that the state justice system should be able to take the life of one of its own citizens.

    “When did a normative theory ever prevent a holocaust?”

    Same problem of causation as above – but one can compare the treatment of racial, religious and political minorities in liberal Britain between 1933-45 and that of the Soviet Union and Germany. Not saying the UK comes out free of sin – but it is impossible to deny the marked difference in respect for fundamental human dignities. Differences, I might add, developed intellectually and implemented politically through the slow efforts of ‘moralisers’.

    One also has to realise that the abolition of the slave trade in the UK – and later the USA – was actually pushed forth vociferously by ‘moralisers’ in the truest sense. In other words, activists drawing from religious morals.

    “When did an ethical theory ever halt a single despotic government? If anything, it seems to me, we instead always see normative discourse on the side of the despots and sadists.”

    I would say this is quite a curious statement given that the increase in the frequency of non-despotic regimes over the last three hundred years has coincided with the progress of human reason. The ethics and norms of the enlightenment, aside from their perversion and reversion in the twentieth century, gave birth to the democratic governments of today.

    The norms (if not, ultimately, practice) of liberalism underlay the overthrow of absolutist monarchy in the thirteen colonies and then France. And perhaps consider that what most frightens despotic regimes are not rifles and bombs, but ideas and communication. Maybe today, norms are sometimes hijacked by autocratic regimes exploiting the intellectual ennui of the West – but only yesterday were they the nourishment of hope for millions in the Communist bloc.

    Maybe the farmer was a fool the first time round, but I’ve read enough history to know that the knight and his ancien regime can be strung up from a lamppost all too easily.

    Maybe the problem isn’t whether we are looking at the frame or the painting, but rather that most of the time we can only see and understand change after it has happened.

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