Posts Tagged ‘zizek’

Cynical ideology is a powerful explanatory tool. It is important to be clear about ideology, its function, and the effects of ideology and ideology critique. There is a common sense definition of ideology: the warping of reality. Marx’s definition of ideology in Capital follows a similar path but with a twist of obliviousness: “they do not know it, but they are doing it,” he writes about humans who do not understand abstract labor and thus to unknowingly accept a wage for less than the value of their labor (“The Commodity,” Capital). Ideology in this formulation is the naiveté that emerges when consciousness drifts from reality to delusion. The greater the miscrecognition, the most warped the representations of the social world, and the wider the separation of a subject from effective causes. This problem stated as such implies its own solution: a critical-ideology procedure can “lead the naïve ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve (ideology) itself” (Sublime Object, 28).

Certainly there are some critics of naiveté that promise ways to peer behind illusion to see how things “actually are,” as if there were truer, more accurate ways to see social reality. Frederic Jameson calls this approach to ideology critique ‘conspiracy theory,’ as its focus on ‘unmasking’ or ‘unveiling’ social realities presupposes that action will follow such denuding (“Cognitive Mapping,” 356). Conspiracy theory further approaches ideology through an elitist approach to knowledge whereby a select few hold enough privileged knowledge while the rest are kept in a state of naiveté. (more…)

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Wolf_of_Wall_Street_40486THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

An excellent contemporary example of cynical ideology can be seen in the reception of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street. In terms of content and narrative arc, Wolf fits the template of Scorsese’s biggest films, which have always been character studies, promised by name – Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas – and delivered by chronicling the character’s idealistic rise to the top that is ultimately dragged down by the weight of the outside world. Film critics were immediately polarized about The Wolf of Wall Street. The film’s protagonist, Jordan Belfort, was not Scorsese’s standard anti-hero fair – it does not explore the contingencies of history by probing who “could have been a contender” nor does it reveal the ugly hand of justice through “a man who stood up … to the filth.” This is a film about the predatory wolf behind the raging bull of Wall Street.

Predation is depicted in Wolf as a narrative of excess. The film begins with a plucky Belfort showing up to work hard. His first big lesson in exploitation comes at lunch with a coked-up lecture sealed with a chest-thumping ritual – a practice Belfort incorporates into the pep talks he later gives to his own rabid pack of brokers. Within the first few minutes, Black Monday puts a quick end to Belfort’s good faith; in what follows, he learns to promise others the moon, only to steal a small sliver of it for himself and a select throng of followers. (more…)

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To say that desire is part of the infrastructure comes down to saying that subjectivity produces reality. Subjectivity is not an ideological superstructure.

At the time of Leninism, the government had to be overturned – the trade unions were economists, traitors – power had to go to the Soviets: in short, there was an idea, there was something. But here, really, there is no idea. There’s nothing at all. There’s the idea of macroeconomics, of a certain number of factors: unemployment, the market, money, all abstractions that have nothing at all to do with social reality.

-Félix Guattari, “Crise de production de subjectivité,”

Seminar of April 3, 1984

In a seminar in 1984, Félix Guattari argued that the crisis affecting the West since the early 1970s as, more than an economic or political crisis, a crisis of subjectivity. How are we to understand Guattari’s claim?

Germany and Japan came out of the Second World War completely destroyed, under long-term occupation, both socially and (8) psychologically decimated, with “no material assets-no raw materials, no reserve capital.” What explains the economic miracle? “They rebuilt a prodigious ‘capital of subjectivity’ (capital in the form of knowledge, collective intelligence, the will to survive, etc.). Indeed,they invented a new type of subjectivity out of the devastation itself. The Japanese, in particular, recovered aspects of their archaic subjectivity, converting them into the most ‘advanced’ forms of social and material production. [. . .] The latter represents a kind of industrial complex for the production of subjectivity, one enabling a multiplicity of creative processes to emerge, certain of which are, however, highly alienating.”2

Capitalism “launches (subjective) models the way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars.”3 Indeed, the central project of capitalist politics consists in the articulation of economic, technological, and social flows with the production of subjectivity in such a way that political economy is identical with “subjective economy.” Guattari’s working hypothesis must be revived and applied to current circumstances; and we must start by acknowledging that neoliberalism has failed to articulate the relation between these two economies.

Guattari further observes capitalism’s capacity to foresee and resolve systemic crises through apparatuses and safeguards that it came to master following the Great Depression. Today, the weakness of capitalism lies in the production of subjectivity. As a consequence, systemic crisis and the crisis in the production of subjectivity are strictly interlinked. It is impossible to separate economic, political, and social processes from the processes of subjectivation occurring within them. (more…)

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The role of critique in contemporary cinema has been displaced. Consider the story of Chicago gang member Danny Toro, who would watch Scarface almost every day for 10 years despite the film’s heavy-handed critique of its gangster protagonist Tony Montana. Perhaps as equally perplexing, the film American Psycho is popular among many yuppies even though its point is to critique the masculinity and violence of a financial culture much similar to their own. Or even more striking: fraternities across the country hold “Fight Club” events inspired by David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s book although the film is an in-your-face condemnation of preppy social climbing.

Diagnosing this problem, Slovenian philosopher and critic Slajov Zizek writes that we no longer live in an age where “they know not what they do,” but rather: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” To make his argument, Zizek echoes the theory of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that we have entered the age of “cynical ideology” whereby the demystifying correction of ideological camera obscuras no longer motivates social action – or in the words of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the critique has “run out of steam.”

The alternatives suggested by all three are disappointing, however: Zizek proposes empty political doctrines (“signifiers without a signified”), Sloterdijk recommends a return to the irony and sarcasm of the Greeks (“kynicism”), and Latour calls for a “stubborn realist attitude” (“empiricism”).

In contrast to these three alternatives, I propose contemporary theories of affect as replacement for the diagnostic and effective functions of ideology critique. (more…)

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The problem with the concept of ‘cynical reason’ is not that it gives us no hope but that it presumes that people are in the know and just don’t care. But really, the problem is that people don’t care to know. This means that there is still a power to knowing. Yet such a power has to be used as a weapon and not as a cure. For, if they don’t care to know, truth is only as good as it is more useful than illusion. [Because, the question is not why truth works but why illusion is so effective.]

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In his response to Butler in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Žižek challenges Butler’s notion of re-signification.  Žižek notes that it’s not that re-signification is never effective, it’s just that both the two imaginaries on the left – the democratic welfare state imaginary and the ‘really-existing-Socialism’ – have been all but exhausted (325).  Rather than resignify the symbolic coordinates of a particular identity, Žižek argues that one should transform the universal ‘principle’ that structures the existing symbolic order.  Žižek is not shy in suggesting why he thinks a full-scale re-structuring is necessary because “it is the very focus on the notion of Real as impossible that reveals the ultimate contingency, frailty (and thus changeability) of very symbolic constellation that pretends to serve as the a priori horizon of the process of symbolization (221).  On the next two pages, as well as in the last chapter, Žižek reiterates that his political project is one of hegemony, however.  To be more explicit, one part of Žižek’s strategy is to sacrifice all attachments and identifications in an ethical act so the ethical figure is not required to compromise her desire, draining the Symbolic’s ability to hold the subject hostage – mirroring the famous line from David Fincher’s Fight Club “It’s only after you’ve lost everything are you free to do anything” (Revolution 249-53).

While I agree with Žižek that the constitutive Real provides a possibility for going beyond resignification, his strategy of hegemony sidesteps the Foucaultian conception of productive power. An analytics of power changes if the productive effects of power are taken into account.  In a post-sovereign society, there is no longer a singular referent for all relations of power.  The production of power is relocated to a multiplicity of sites.  Instead of relying on a naïve humanism that would assume essential aspects of human rationality, desire, and sociality, productive power allows one to create a social topology that accounts for reproducing life (HS 92-100).  Additionally, productive power shifts the terms of debate away from freedom and repression.  Freedom implies that social, political, economic and cultural forces inhibit an otherwise unfettered subject.  Instead, productive power proposes that different potentialities are to be increased or restricted as they are produced (increasing efficiency or productivity at performing certain tasks, added responsiveness to certain discursive pronouncements), but in a manner that is always radically circumscribed by its conditions of possibility because they rely on their conditions of possibility for their reproduction.  Put another way, freedoms are produced, not liberated.


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