Conformity and its Discontents


/1/ – The Sordid Lives of Philosophers

In the documentary film Derrida Jacques is asked what he would ask a classic philosopher about and he answers “his sex life.”

It is strange, to say the least, given his rants about sex, toilets and other vulgarities, that Slavoj Žižek in the opening to The Parallax View Žižek seems to point out the ridiculousness of discussing philosophy in regards to sex, in particular the sex lives of philosophers. There has always been varying levels of sexuality in philosophy. Kant’s attack on masturbation, St. Augustine’s confessions as well as man’s erection as God’s punishment for false pride, the short circuit between high/low function in Hegel (in the example of the penis as both used for urination and insemination) and so on (The Parallax View, 12-13).

I have to wonder if it is simply the obscene pleasure of finding some ‘undignified’ in a supposedly proper and polite realm such as philosophy or if there is some kind of celebrity at work here.

A Great Work by Astra Taylor

In Astra Taylor’s documentary Žižek!, the title theorist/philosopher discusses the strange case of his own academic celebrity and argues that philosophy is a modest discipline and that the main task of philosophy “is not to solve problems but to redefine [problems].” So on the one hand he argues you don’t need philosophy for something that is definitely a problem, like a asteroid coming to blow up the planet and he also argues that philosophy does not just simply ask weighty questions such as “Is there truth?” but asks instead “what do you mean when you say something is true?”

So if we take philosophy to be not a high brow stuffy thing then where does the enjoyment come from when, for instance, I discover that Alain Badiou is a fan of the cheesy film The Bridges of Madison County? And that’s a real one I didn’t just make it up. And of course, anyone who knew who Badiou was would have to try hard to suppress laughter and disbelief at that statement.

There’s a kind of exciting ordinariness to that or, in Taylor’s documentary when Žižek is in a small video store in NYC and he purchases Being There (one of my favorite films) and I remember feeling stupidly excited by that fact. So there’s a kind of ideology at work there when we see our own stupid vulgar interests shared by others, we think oh, like me! And, as Žižek talks about in the film, that is the true form of ideology – not the ideology of ‘I’m a Marxist, Jew, Christian whatever’ but that ‘I’m not just a radical lefty, I’m actually a warm and fuzzy human being who likes Orangina, and rhubarb and Being There and blah blah blah.

/2/ – Decaffinated Reality

There was a study done recently, fairly well publicized (was mentioned on an episode of Boston Legal even), that argued that celebrity was a concept hardwired into our brains. The test came down to giving several primates the choice between drinking a sweet juice that they were fond of or being able to look, for just a few moments, at a picture of the head ape of their group, their leader/rockstar whatever. Overwhelmingly the creatures chose to look at their precious leader.

Celebrity w/out celebrity

It’s a scary prospect particularly with the advent, or occurrence of, celebrity without celebrity with Paris Hilton being at the forefront. It fits well into another talk present in Žižek!. Instead of general moderation or seemingly uninhibited hedonism we have the new hedonism which includes, in itself, its own limit. Examples are everywhere – decaffinated coffee, non-alcoholic beer, fat free milk, Chocolate Laxative (Z’s favorite) and now – Paris Hilton. Of course (not really) one feels obliged to bring up pornography here as well, or virtual sex in particular (sex w/out sex) in regards to the infamous sex tape scandal. In A Cup of Decaf Reality Žižek argues how the mask of our social reality is in many ways ‘more real’ then our ‘true’ hidden selves. So what should we make of the fuzzed-out night vision ‘reality’ of Paris’ sex tape? The question of course if whether Rick Salomon always intended to release the tape in the way he did, as he began to profit from them after initially threatening his former room mate who leaked the tape online. There’s no sense of reality to be had except to question why such a tape would cause the fuss it did. It seems less about a private moment being exposed and more about viewing the gap between celebrity and plain, vulgar, boring sex.

Hilton is, sadly, always already important (at least symbolically) and the short circuit between her ‘private’ and ‘public’ life shows that many already accept her importance. There is a celebrity ideology at work. The phrase, I think which all of this turns around is ‘taking things seriously.’ There is a certain amount of cynicism, a certain amount of distance that reinforces our ideological belief. Whereas some who believe too much actually cause far more damage to the system than those who stand slightly apart. Here there is the example of Joker and Gomer Pile from the film Full Metal Jacket discussed in The Plauge of Fantasies:

Ironic distance wont save you

“This part of the film ends with a soldier who, on account of his overidentification with the military ideological machine, ‘runs amok’ and shoots first the drill sergeant, then himself; the radical, unmediated identification with the phantasmic superego machine necessarily leads to a murderous passage a l’acte. The second, main part of the film ends with a scene in which a soldier (Matthew Modine) who, throughout the film, has displayed a kind of ironic ‘human distance’ towards the military machine (on his helmet, the inscription ‘Born to kill’ is accompanied by the peace sign, etc. in short it looks as is he has stepped right out of MASH!), shoots a wounded Vietcong sniper girl. He is he one in whom the interpellation by the military big Other has fully succeeded; he is the fully constituted military subject (The Plague of Fantasies, p. 21).

/3/ – Jouissance and Dogma

We could also, from the same text, bring in Žižek’s discussion of Lacan’s distinction of fool and knave. The knave is basically an ass, screwing up because of ignorance whereas the fool attempts to steal little bits of enjoyment (jouissance) from the master. The knave is the stereotypical neo-conservative hawk and the fool is the deconstructionist liberal in a contemporary context.

Again looking at a part of Zizek!, Žižek is attacked by an idiotic question essentially accusing Zizek of being a dogmatic Lacanian. Zizek’s response is to point out the few examples (he can only think of one – Gayatri Spivak) where the dogmatism of Derrida is challenged. He is, as he says, a “card carrying Lacanian.” The great point of Žižek’s comment is that why is it that because deconstruction at least appears as fundamentally anti-dogmatic, it has, in many areas of the academy become dogmatic. One would be hard pressed at any lit, cultural studies, what ever conference to not find deconstruction the dominant/dogmatic discourse.

The Subject of a Dogmatism?

What pisses Žižek off, as he puts it, is the assumption that Lacanian theory is a kind of ‘power discourse’ that supports all the bad non postmodern things or whatever. For anyone (is there anyone?) who’s read Alenka Zupancic, Joan Copjec, Mladen Dolar, Bruno Bosteels, Alain Badiou, and so on, it is clear that while they are heavily indebted to Lacan, they are also critical of him as well as very critical of each other.

These thinkers, some times roughly referred to as post-Marxist, represent the greatest challenge to the loop of knave – fool as well as recognizing that instead of the classic Freudian Super Ego whose injunction was to suppress desires, the injunction of Behave!, what we must recognize is that the injunction of late capitalism and the Lacanian Super Ego is Enjoy! This functions as a kind of capitalistic interrpellation which anyone who has been to Nogales could understand. I couldn’t count how many times a shop keep would walk up and simply say ‘how many?’ to me.

/4/ – Brands of Fame

One Stupid Loop

So then, as Žižek himself suggests in the film, it may be that his popularity acts as a kind of way of not taking him seriously. He’s the ‘Elvis of Cultural theory’ an ‘academic rock star’ and so on but it actually doesn’t mean anything for the breadth and depth of his ideas. His popularity is a kind of novelty, he stands out, whereas Hilton serves as a standard albeit in its most substanceless form. We could take a step further here and say that to enjoy Žižek’s celebrity is to play the fool – to revel in his celebrity without actually engaging his ideas beyond simply enjoying that his very presence ‘sticks it to the man.’ Hilton’s fame is that of the knave, the sheer weight of her symbolic existence proves enough to enjoy it. It’s the conformist pleasure to enjoy Hilton’s fame will ridiculing it without questioning why her fame is meaningful whereas to quip that Žižek is a ‘Marx brother’ and never read his books is anti-conformist just for the sake of it.

Near the end of Žižek! Slavoj notes that he intends to act out a kind of public suicide in order to resist his quirky dismissal. The point is to function in the place of the analyst, to not give others what they want but to question why they expect what they expect from you. Why is it that many folks ask Žižek what the political program for the left should be? It is because he is the ‘subject supposed to know’ on one level, but, far more telling, is the fact that we want someone to tell us what to do and how to do politics. The fact of the matter is, as we all should know, politics is a matter of doing though we act as if there is something more we could know or learn that would suddenly make politics happen in some way. So why, why this resistance? Because the capitalistic injunction to enjoy! is so strong. We want a revolution without loosing that which gives us pleasure. We’d rather remain trapped in the fool/knave loop.

In the film Žižek uses the words of Robespierre: “They want a revolution without revolution.”


2 Responses to “Conformity and its Discontents”

  1. 1 Jack-o-lantern

    i think i speak for everyone on this planet when i say paris hilton sucks !!!

  1. 1 El conformismo y sus descontentos: de Derrida a Paris Hilton « PENSAMIENTO DEL VACÍO

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