Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Conformity, Over-Identification, Perversion, Sublimity ...

Jodi, at I cite, writes:
The Conformist

Recently (in a thread on Long Sunday as well as elsewhere), I was accused of being a conformist. I say accused because the overall tone of the remark was neither blandly descriptive nor particularly complementary. I've wondered about this. What does it mean to conform and why might conforming be behaviour seen as unlaudable? Why might the appellation conformist be an insult?

On one level, it seems obvious: the conformist seems not to think for herself, at best, and to be an Eichmann-like follower, at worst. "Just following orders." Here "conform" suggests compliance, obedience, and, perhaps, more, compliance and obedience without thought. But is it really so simple?

We might also do well to recognize that conform means to adapt or adjust. So one who conforms is also one who adapts to certain circumstances. "When in Rome...." It could be an attribute, say, of being a good guest or traveler. From this perspective, a failure to conform might be more than simply irritating, it might also suggest the ugly American insisting that everything go his way. "Where are my hamburgers?" Some dictionaries include "to be in harmony" in their definition of conform. There is something pleasant, well, harmonious, about this way of thinking about conformity, as if its lack or absence were dissonant, jarring, unpleasant.

A failure to conform might be the ultimate in arrogance, a making of oneself into an exemption, she to whom no norm applies, she who is above all norms, she who acts as she pleases when and where she pleases. The non-conformist here makes her own rules, but it is hard to call these rules sense they really refer to an absence of rule, to being above all rule, being unruly. But surely this is not a particularly attractive or admirable way of being, this diva-like quality of demanding specific kinds of sparkling water and only, only green M&Ms. It may well be original, unique. And that is no doubt a good thing because too much of such dissonance is cacophonous, maddening, a kind of madness.

We might do well to notice that speaking and writing require conformity, that the pleasures of irony, dadaism, and jokes play with our conformity, drawing us out of it, making it strange to us, and then, releasing us back to this conformity, now somewhat different, not quite the same.

Is it so easy to conform, in these times of symbolic inefficiency? I moved a lot as a child--living in South Carolina, Washington, Louisana, Nebraska, and Texas before I was 5. Conforming, adapting, was pretty useful. And, is it possible that each conforming movement becomes a kind of addition, a change, a way of making conforming itself more complicated, more multi-layered, less simple: how, for example, to be at home enough to be elsewhere? If we are elsewhere, unadapted, have we really gone anywhere or haven't we brought too much of what and where we were before with us, so much in fact that we can't be in another place?

And, then, what about Zizek? What I have in mind is of course being fully in ideology, playing by the rules, fully identifying with the system. Zizek frequently points out that this full identification, conformity, is one way of disrupting a system, of giving up that point of distance or non-identity that actually supports it. Really playing by the rules can be subversive of these very rules insofar as it ignores the obscene superego supplement.

Three different responses:

[1] Conformity: Could the attractions of quotidian conformity revolve around the fear that if one does effectively break up the chains of the symbolic order, one is expelled into the void of psychosis [a failed "subjective destitution"]? Or, how is it possible not only to resist effectively, but also to undermine and/or displace the existing socio-symbolic network - the Lacanian "Big Other" - which predetermines the only space within which the subject can exist?

And this when such ordinary conformity is seen as perversion: the basic structure of perversion is that you perceive yourself as the instrument of others' jouissance. This is why, for example, Don Giovanni is a pervert. What is his seductive magic? His gift is not that he is beautiful, but that he can guess or discern the fantasy of each woman, and he tries to stage that fantasy. Which is why Lacan says une par une--une pour une; for each her own specific fantasy. For the pervert is totally void, he is there only to serve the other, to be the slave of the other's fantasy. This is very nicely expressed by Lacan: the formula of perversion is the simple reversal of the formula of fantasy. This is exactly what [supposedly] is meant to happen in psychoanalysis.

The pervert self-consciously identifies, not with the symptom but with the fantasy as a program, and thereby fills out the petit objet a, whereas the Lacanian analyst holds it empty and receptive in some way to the future.

Mr Z again: "This [the passage from desire to drive, from fantasy to symtom -- P] is what people usually overlook when they concentrate only on generalities. Lacan discusses this in the mysterious final pages of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964; he says that when you go through fantasy, la traversee du fantasme, you lose desire, you become pure drive. Again, when people talk about the truth of desire, they simply overlook that. In The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan defines the final, concluding moment of analysis as the one when you step out, when you don't have desire any more, in this sense. You become the being of the drive; you pass from the side of the divided subject to the side of the object. Which is why the analyst is an object in this sense. I also agree with you if your point is that this is in a way extremely close, almost imperceptibly close, to the perverse position. Although the gap is there--absolute but almost imperceptible."

[2] Over-Identification [from Rand to the Neo-cons]: Zizek argues, "Ayn Rand’s fascination for male figures displaying an absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath’s famous line, ‘every woman adores a Fascist’. Is, however, such a quick, ‘politically correct’ dismissal of her work really accurate? The properly subversive dimension of her ideological procedure is not to be underestimated: Rand fits into the line of ‘overconformist’ authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it. Her over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself, as the title of one of her books (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) suggests; according to her, today, the truly heretical thing is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare, etc. sugar-coating. So what Pascal and Racine were to Jansenism, what Kleist was to German nationalist militarism, what Brecht was to Communism, Rand is to American capitalism ... It was perhaps her Russian origins and upbringing that enabled her to formulate directly the fantasmatic kernel of American capitalist ideology."

This formulation made a lot of sense during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when much of the world was moving to the left in response to reactionary if pure over-ideological identifications like Rand's, but what about today, when Rand's rantings have now become the [near-global] socio-political status quo?

[3] [Symbolic] Sublimity (Principles): Groucho Marx, when caught in a lie, answers angrily: "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?"

"The logic is here the same as that of Anne Frank who, in her diaries, expresses belief in the ultimate goodness of man in spite of the horrors accomplished by men against Jews in World War II: what renders such an assertion of belief (in the essential goodness of Man; in the truly human character of the Soviet regime) sublime, is the very gap between it and the overwhelming factual evidence against it, i.e. the active will to disavow the actual state of things. Perhaps therein resides the most elementary meta-physical gesture: in this refusal to accept the real in its idiocy, to disavow it and to search for Another World behind it. The big Other is thus the order of lie, of lying sincerely. And it is in this sense that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" [from Yeats' The Second Coming, 1920-- P]: even the best are no longer able to sustain their symbolic innocence, their full engagement in the symbolic ritual, while "the worst," the mob, engage in (racist, religious, sexist...) fanaticism? Is this opposition not a good description of today's split between tolerant but anemic liberals, and the fundamentalists full of "passionate intensity"?"

All of this seemingly nonsensical logic succinctly summarises the operation of the symbolic order, in which the symbolic mask-injunction, the cultural construction, takes precedence over the direct reality of the person who assumes or projects this mask and/or internalises this injunction. Moreover, this whole operation seems to involve the structure of fetishist disavowal: "I know perfectly well that Humans do horrible things, but nevertheless I believe Humanity to be essentially Good and to be capable of Good", or "I know very well that things are the way I see them /that this person is a corrupt weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge, so that when he speaks, it is the Law itself which speaks through him". In other words, I effectively believe his words, not my eyes, i.e. I believe in Another Space (the domain of pure symbolic authority) which matters more than the reality of its spokesmen or, indeed, the reality of scientific empiricism, of "the facts", of the Reality Principle. The cynical reduction to reality thus falls short: when a judge speaks, there is in a way more truth in his words (the words of the Institution of law) than in the direct reality of the person of judge - if one limits oneself to what one sees, one simply misses the point. This paradox is what Lacan aims at with his les non-dupes errent: those who do not let themselves be caught in the symbolic deception/fiction and continue to believe their eyes are the ones who err most.

"What a cynic who "believes only his eyes" misses is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our experience of reality."


Blogger fatnigger said...

I wanted to say something to strike him weird.

So I said - 'I like Slavoj Zizek, and I like his beard.'

2:17 PM  
Blogger Murr said...

...Groucho Marx, when caught in a lie, answers angrily: "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?"...

Who are you going to believe: Zizek or your own eyes? I think this quote is my favorite example of Zizek's passion for misremembering movies: in Duck Soup this line is actually spoken by Chico Marx, who is dressed up as Groucho.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Sure, Murr, but doesn't that just reinforce Zizek's point rather than undermine it?

After seeing Harpo disguised as Groucho in her room [just after Chico had done precisely the same], Chico-as-Groucho then returns, and when Margaret Dumont tells him she just saw him leave "with my own eyes", Chico-as-Groucho replies "Well, who you gonna believe - me or your own eyes?"


3:33 AM  
Blogger Murr said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:02 AM  

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