Thursday, April 27, 2006

Partial Objects And Over-Identification Strategies

Ian Parker, author of Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction, tells the following story as symtomatic of Zizek's political oscillations and ambivalence in his on-going attempts to embrace death drive: "Here is a true story. In the middle of a crisis and crackdown in Slovenia toward the end of the 1980s Slavoj Zizek telephoned an academic colleague in Britain late at night. This is before Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia and when the League of Slovene Communists was making some last desperate attempts to maintain power. The crackdown was directed at the opposition movement, in which Zizek and the NSK, the Neue Slowenische Kunst, were active. So, Zizek is on the phone during this political crisis in an agitated state. He tells his colleague how bad things are, that there is a total clampdown on the opposition. His colleague is sympathetic. Zizek goes on to tell him that things are even worse than that, for in every workplace a "commissar" has been appointed to monitor and control dissident activity. His colleague is very sympathetic, even slightly alarmed by the picture Zizek is painting. And it is even worse than that, Zizek says, for even in the universities, in every department a commissar has been appointed to keep order. His colleague in Britain exclaims that this is indeed dreadful. And, Zizek then informs him that there is only one good thing in the midst of all this. What is that, his colleague asks. In my department, Zizek says, "I am the commissar". "

Rambling Thomas, in a comment at Jodi's I cite, writes:
"This point came up in the seminar I am, by coincidence, taking with Zizek, where he gave an example that seems to tie some of these ideas together. Zizek's example of subversive conformity was of his being a member of a dissident group in Slovenia, publishing a newspaper the day after a rigged Soviet election, with the headline reading something like "Surprise Landslide Victory for Communist Party!" The headline is an example of conformity insofar as the elections are supposed not to have been rigged; therefore the huge margin of victory is supposedly a "surprise." Yet, of course, the gesture is subversive since everybody knows (but is not allowed to say) that the elections are rigged: the headline in fact reveals the absurd open secret of the rigged elections."

It is probably the case that Zizek has articulated assorted permutations of this Slovenian election story (and whether we want to believe it or not is another matter): another version of this incident during the elections in the 1980s was that the opposition published a newspaper on the eve of the poll with a headline that predicted a victory for the League of Slovene Communists. Zizek and his colleagues were immediately rounded up by the authorities to be questioned, but they had done nothing wrong, "merely" drawn attention to the fact that it was of course inconceivable that the Communists would not win an election.
Clearly, art collective NSK and Zizek had noticed something crucial about the way the ideological apparatus worked in Yugoslavia, that it required the phenomenon of "dissidence" as a kind of buffer zone between individuals and the state. The knowing cynical distance from the ruling ideology, the fact that everyone knew it was a sham, actually enabled it to function, actually constituted its very condition of possibility, ideology's necessary dialectics. People could complain and complain and complain about how voting never changed anything, that you could never believe what politicians said, that conforming with the regulations was bureaucratic idiocy, but this did not stop them from conforming, from accepting things and even being happier to do so when they "knew" they had no real part in it, that they had some precious individual Space to which they could always retire or escape, some inner sacred core or hard sanctified ("trans-ideological") kernal that was forever immunised from the ritual spectacles.

Overidentification [as a political strategy, "pretending to pretend"], on the other hand, takes the system at its word and plays so close to it that it cannot bear your participation. In that way you are much more subversive, much more dangerous.
Some more far-flung illustrations, from Slovenia, from America, from Ireland:
One of the component groups of NSK (Neue Collectivism) got an award in 1987 for their poster celebrating the day of youth and Tito's birthday. But this celebratory poster quickly turned into the "poster scandal" when it was discovered that the NSK had submitted an old Nazi poster, leading to the strategy of overidentification, its successful application, immediately becoming politically charged.
In the US, political satirist Michael Moore some years ago [as portrayed in his TV documentary, Moore's TV Nation] entered an unusual candidate in the US Congressional elections: a Ficus plant. He was able to do this because he followed to the letter all of the rules, regulations, bureaucratic procedures and so on of the electoral process. The Ficus plant, needless to say, was duly elected, the competing candidates being conservative and "uninteresting."

The Fellowship of the Ficus Plants

In Ireland some years ago, a group of students entered as a candidate in student elections at a Dublin university a tape-recorded VOICE [analogies with V for Vendetta aside, this is also reminiscent of the Voice in both Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse and David Cronenberg's Videodrome, recordings masquerading as "real people"] of some registered but mysterious, hermetic student, who may or may not have actually existed. Once again, the Voice was duly elected, the competing candidates being conservative and "uninteresting."

While it is clear that in both of these cases, the organisers of the prank or "stunt" were simply "pretending" [engaging in mere pomo irony, a knowingly hollow miming of the electoral process] in order to draw attention to the sheer poverty of the policies of competing election candidates, they (Moore and the students) nevertheless still believed in the underlying integrity of the electoral process itself, in democracy as Master Signifier, ie "If only we had better candidates, all would be well with democracy" etc. There criticism amounts to a simple, modern variation of "The Emperor Has No Clothes" viz, "Political Candidates Have No Personal Integrity" : but the undressing of the King or the unmasking of politicians does not work - though not because their personality or charisma is indestructible, but because the unmasking only destroys their personality, their personal charisma, not the power of the symbolic place of the King or of Democracy —when we undress him, we realize that "he is not truly a king" or "he is not a worthy political candidate". . . and then endeavour to proceed in the search for a true one. [So in political fetishism, as with commodity fethishism, it is never enough simply to disavow the politician (or the commodity)].

The paradox in both cases here, and uncritically accepted by everyone involved, was that both non-human/undead "winning" candidates were deemed invalid, were subsequently rejected by assorted authories - governing bodies, election-oversight commitees etc, anti-democratic rulings that were never subsequently contested by anyone, the runner-up "human" candidates instead being deemed elected. The effect of the "scam" was thus paradoxically to undermine democracy, ostensibly in order to defend it but actually in order to protect something else entirely ("But you can't have a dumb plant as a political leader. It's not human!"), the fantasy of a kind of sentimental humanism that imagines a "real human being" behind such media constructs as the likes of Arnold Schzwarzenegger and George Bush, or anyone else.
Of course, a proper [pretending to pretend] political strategy of over-identification would, in the two examples above, have challenged the final rulings of the extra-legal bodies, the dismissals of the winning "candidates," a move that would continue to over-identify with the very form of democracy itself, so nihilating, so dismissing its phantasmatic underside or kernal of support, the "real essential person, the inner ego-self" that is imputed to lie behind, to reside in, the candidates.

I thing Jodi further teases out these points in her analysis of the Zelig-like, human-cameleon performance of the Mime artist: " ... for, it is the mime who draws our attention to the absorption to a form in conformity, as if to tell us that a conforming that understands itself as retaining an original element that does not conform, a specialness that is held apart from the form, a uniqueness that is retained, is, in fact, pure, complete conformity, conformity as such. Full and complete conformity is that conformity that thinks it is not full and complete. The mime, by virtue of the fullness of his mimcry, draws out the specificity in an individual's conformity: the specificity that, ostensibly precious, the mime demonstrates to be meaningless, idiotic. The mime, then, isolates as a meaningless kernel of enjoyment that sense of individuality constitutive of full conformity."

The lesson is therefore clear: an ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it, that there is a rich human person beneath it: 'not all is ideology, beneath the ideological mask, I am also a human person' is the very form of ideology, of its 'practical efficiency'. Close analysis of even the most 'totalitarian' ideological edifice inevitably reveals that, not everything in it is 'ideology' (in the popular sense of the 'politically instrumentalized legitimization of power relations'): in every ideological edifice, there is a kind of 'trans-ideological' kernel, since, if an ideology is to become operative and effectively 'seize' individuals, it has to batten on and manipulate some kind of 'trans-ideological' vision which cannot be reduced to a simple instrument of legitimizing pretensions to power (notions and sentiments of solidarity, justice, belonging to a community, etc.). Is not a kind of 'authentic' vision discernible even in Nazism (the notion of the deep solidarity which keeps the 'community of people' together), not to mention Stalinism? The point is thus not that there is no ideology without a trans-ideological 'authentic' kernel but rather, that it is only the reference to such a trans-ideological kernel which makes an ideology 'workable'.


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