My commitment to anarchism is something which ended with sociology, more specifically when I realised that I understood anarchism to entail the overcoming of social structure. Seeing that as a conceptual impossibility, I came to see anarchism as untenable. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, not least of all because it’s become clear to me that it was my conception of anarchism that was untenable. 

There’s an interesting section in Zizek’s Trouble In Paradise in which he discusses the ‘triple impossibility’ of a social order constituted through nothing more than free association. He doesn’t use the term anarchism, but I think he is effectively talking about the aforementioned conception of it. From pg 126:

The idea of organizing society in its entirety as a network of associations is a utopia which obfuscates a triple impossibility: 39 –there are numerous cases in which representing (speaking for) others is a necessity; it is cynical to say that victims of mass violence from Auschwitz to Rwanda (and the mentally ill, children, etc., not to mention the suffering animals) should organize themselves and speak for themselves; –when we effectively get a mass mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people self-organizing themselves horizontally (Tahrir Square, Gezi Park …), we should never forget that they remain a minority, and that the silent majority remains outside, non-represented (This is how, in Egypt, this silent majority defeated the Tahrir Square crowd and elected the Muslim Brotherhood); –permanent political engagement has a limited time-span: after a couple of weeks or, rarely, months, the majority disengages, and the problem is to safeguard the results of the uprising at this moment, when things return to normal.

A really interesting section from Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, analysing the challenging facing populist movements who have mobilised successfully around an imagined national unity. From pg 144:

At a more directly political level, US foreign policy elaborated a detailed strategy of how to exert damage-control by way of re-channelling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints, as was done successfully in South Africa after apartheid, in the Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, and so on. At this precise conjuncture emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to take the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of ‘totalitarian’ temptation –in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

The ideas are pretty familiar but I nonetheless really like this section from Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, pg 86. I’m trying to use the notion of cognitive triage to explore how obsessive self examination subtracts from time and energy actionable for working with others to address social issues.

A series of situations that characterize today’s society perfectly exemplify this type of superego-individualization: ecology, political correctness and poverty. The predominant ecological discourse which addresses us as a priori guilty, indebted to mother nature, under the constant pressure of the ecological superego-agency, addresses us as individuals: What did you do today to repay your debt to nature? Did you put all newspapers into the proper recycling bin? And all the bottles of beer or cans of Coke? Did you use your car when you could have used a bike or public transport? Did you use air conditioning instead of just opening the windows? 49 The ideological stakes of such individualization are easily discernible: I get lost in my own self-examination instead of raising much more pertinent global questions about our entire industrial civilisation.

In my recent work, I’ve been writing a lot about ‘temporising’, a concept I borrowed from Margaret Archer’s work in the hope of developing it further. In the reflexivity sense, temporising involves trying to find a solution to a present dilemma through the exercise of temporal agency. 

I spoke earlier did this week at a symposium on social temporalities about the extreme forms this can take, such as extreme early retirement’s subordination of present hedonism in pursuit of anticipated future satisfactions. But the reality can be much more mundane, such as putting off an impulse towards healthy living until you return home from a trip abroad that involved a lot of time in pubs.

Temporising involves not just prioritising our concerns but establishing a temporal order in terms of which we pursue projects to enact them. But I’m unhappy with how rationalistic this framing is. It conceives of the affectivity of the concerns but not the affectivity of the sequencing itself. This is why I now find myself turning to Zizek for inspiration. From Trouble In Paradise, pg 68:

Imagine the following scenario: in the private sphere, I am unhappily married, I mock my wife all the time, declaring my intention to abandon her for my mistress whom I really love, and while I get small pleasures from invectives against my wife, the enjoyment that sustains me is generated by the indefinite postponement of really leaving my wife for my mistress.

There are pleasures opened up through postponement, ones which can also be transvaluative in relation to others: an X becomes sweeter still through being my last X, even if this investment in it as the last creates a compulsion to repeat. This is just one example but I think there’s a rich terrain opened up through this mode of analysis. 

Unlike my previous post, I wasn’t actually looking for this. I just noticed it when browsing the recent philosophy releases on Amazon:

August 2014: The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan
September 2014: Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova)
October 2014: Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism
November 2014: Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism
December 2014: What Does Europe Want?: The Union and Its Discontents (with Srecko Horvat)

 

I’ve long been a little bit fascinated by Žižek. I find him utterly hypnotic to watch and have consumed countless YouTube lectures by him. I genuinely enjoy his journalistic output and have read a lot of it via the Guardian, London Review of Books and the New Statesman. I find his short books immensely readable and his longer books rather tedious. I’ve never been able to work out how seriously I take him as a philosopher. I find myself simultaneously drawn to him and repelled by him. I find his politics brave yet vacuous. I find his ideas occasionally illuminating yet more frequently elusive. He’s a strange thinker who disrupts my evaluative habits, preventing me from fitting him into the categories I use with other writers and revealing the limitations of those (overly neat) categories in the process.

However the thing that intrigues me most about Žižek is his voluminous output. He is a publishing phenomenon – something attested to by the regurgitation of blurbs about him on each new book. He transcends his work, becoming a brand in a manner so knowing that his status resists easy condemnation. In an important way he is a product of the neoliberal academy: the superstar professor who uses his global brand to float free of the scholarly and collegial ties that otherwise bind. Partly this is a contradiction that can be observed in other left wing intellectual superstars – Chomsky is the most obvious example and this is why their ‘spat’ was so fascinating to many. But Žižek seems at least quantitatively different in the sheer scale of his output.

According to the Žižek bibliography on wikipedia, he has published 55 books since 2000. 55 books in less than 15 years. I was curious about whether this amounts to the sheer weight of writing that it would superficially appear to be. In assessing this I’ve excluded papers, letters, interviews, collections of his writing, things that are co-written, his joke book (!), edited collections and what is apparently a reprint of his doctoral thesis. I’ve also excluded anything that I’m unable to categorise reliably which excludes the books published in Slovenian that haven’t been translated yet (as far as I’m aware). In other words, this is an extremely conservative figure for Žižek’s output since 2000. Not least of all because it excludes his vast journalistic writing (though obviously we know that, in an important sense, it includes this).

For purposes of an exercise in procrastination, I was content to simply add up the total pages of each book (as listed on Amazon) in order to gain an overall figure of the quantity of his writing. Obviously I realise that neither publishing or writing really works this way – there’s also the open question of how much regurgitation there is between each of these books. Here’s the full list:

Absolute Recoil: 440 pages
Trouble in Paradise: 240 pages
Event: 224 pages
Year of Dreaming Dangerously: 144 pages
Less Than Nothing: 1046 pages
Living In The End Times: 520 pages
First As Tragedy, Then As Farce: 168 pages
Violence: 224 pages
In Defence of Lost Causes: 504 pages
How To Read Lacan: 128 pages
The Parallax View: 448 pages
Iraq: 224 pages
The Puppet and the Dwarf: 190 pages
Organs Without Bodies: 232 pages
Welcome to the Desert of the Real: 160 pages
On Belief: 176 pages
The Fright of Real Tears: 144 pages
Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism: 288 pages
The Fragile Absolute: 208 page
The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: 46 pages

There are those I’ve read and enjoyed (First As Tragedy, Year of Dreaming Dangerously), those I’ve started and given up on (Less Than Nothing, Living In The End Times) and those I’ve read but cannot remember a single thing about (How To Read Lacan, In Defence of Lost Causes). There are also many I’ve never heard of. They come to a grand total of 5754 pages. That’s actually rather less than I expected. In a very rough way this quantity of output could be seen to amount to 411 pages per year since 2000. To reiterate: I do realise that neither writing nor publishing actually work this way. However it could be argued that any overestimate inherent in how crudely I’ve measured this is likely offset by the vast array of material that I’ve excluded from the count.

I don’t find anything remotely inconceivable about the idea of writing 411 pages in a year. Where it becomes surprising is when considering how consistently it would be necessary to sustain this sort of rate – I assume there’s an editorial infrastructure around Žižek which takes much of the work out of the many additional publications (edited collections, interviews etc) and also that pitches books to him at least some of the time. In this sense his commercial success likely translates into institutional scaffolding that reduce the cognitive load of writing i.e. reduces the number of things he has to think about in order to move from one project to the next. It’s also hard not to wonder if some of the contents of these books are just transcriptions of the many public talks he does (not that I think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with this) and that these invitations in turn enhance the writing process by offering a constant stream of ideational prompts and regular opportunities to refine ideas.

Even so, he still writes a hell of a lot with a remarkable consistency. In spite of his self-presentation as dishevelled and chaotic, it seems rather unlikely that he’s a binge writer and that he instead has a very regular writing routine. The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve become really intrigued by the conditions of his working life and how they facilitate his prolific output. As part of the project me and Filip Vostal are discussing at the moment, looking at the acceleration of higher education and its implications for scholarship, I’m increasingly aware that I’d like to do a case study of Žižek as representing a mode of public intellectualism facilitated by the accelerated academy. I don’t begrudge him his success but I’d like to understand it more than I do – particularly the intersection between his commercial viability and his scholarly virtues or lack thereof. I think many trends that are reshaping academic life find their expression in the figure of Žižek and writing this post has left me with a greater degree of clarity about why I find him so intriguing.

There’s an interesting article by Žižek on the Guardian website. It’s a little too pop-sociological for my tastes but it’s nonetheless an engaging read. However the first paragraph of the article is lifted verbatim from his The Year of Dreaming Dangerously:

During a recent visit to California, I attended a party at a professor’s house with a Slovene friend, a heavy smoker. Late in the evening, my friend became desperate and politely asked the host if he could step out on the veranda for a smoke. When the host (no less politely) said no, my friend suggested that he step out on to the street, and even this was rejected by the host, who claimed such a public display of smoking might hurt his status with his neighbours … But what really surprised me was that, after dinner, the host offered us (not so) soft drugs, and this kind of smoking went on without any problem – as if drugs are not more dangerous than cigarettes.

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/21/prix-pictet-photography-prize-consumption-slavoj-zizek

or

(Žižek 2012: 47)

It seems most of the subsequent article is contained within this chapter of the book. I think self-plagiarisation is rife within academia. I’m not condemning it – well perhaps I am a little bit – as the pressures underlying it are something I’ve encountered relatively early in my career. I’ve been conscious for a while in my work on asexuality that I’m not saying anything new. I’m just finding new ways to express the same thoughts, framed in response to a particular invitation. I’ve had two short books about asexuality planned for at least a couple of years now (one an introduction and overview of the literature, the other a popular[ish] look at the history of sexual culture through an asexual lens) but I’m not sure I’ll ever get started on them because I’m conscious of how egregiously repetitive they’ll be (to me at least). My point is that the invitations to publish can often outstrip the novel ideas & arguments which one is being invited to make public.

So I think the pressures towards self-plagiarisation are experienced widely. But I think Žižek is particularly prone to giving into them, as perhaps are all prolific authors. I’ve read a lot of Žižek books and I read a lot of his popular articles (I subscribe to the LRB and New Statesman and I read the Guardian obsessively). I frequently experience déjà vu when reading Žižek and have long suspected he reproduces large chunks of text between books. But I’ve never cared enough to look it up and this is the first time I’ve ever been able to place a regurgitated paragraph from memory.

Žižek has published at least 50 books since 2000. If Žižek’s self-plargisation is a rife as I suspect it is then I see this as a reductio ad absurdum of the capacity to publish 50 books in 15 years. However I’d hate to go too far in the other direction. I think repetition of arguments is inevitable and often desirable. I think the creative process is fundamentally iterative and a continued struggle to say what we’re trying to say is integral to clarifying what we think. I also think the imperative of ‘publish or perish’ makes repetition to some extent unavoidable. But where is the line to be drawn? I’m honestly not sure and this post is not intended to be as condemnatory as some might take it to be. I intuitively feel there’s something slightly rude about regurgitating your own prose verbatim without citation. But I’m equally resistant to drawing abstract boundaries between (acceptable) repetition and (problematic) self-plagiarisation that don’t take any account of the specificity of discipline and intellectual trajectory. Given these conflicting intuitions, I’m not sure whether this tendency, rooted as it is in structural changes within higher education, definitely threatens originality, though I suspect that it might. Perhaps we need the Niall Ferguson index to metricise our way out of this incipient dilemma:

There is a ratio that really would be good to have as a metric of the seriousness of a public intellectual. It is the ratio of words read to words written. Ideally, I would say, that ratio should be between 100 and 1000 to 1. But in the case of the Invincible Krugtron, I begin to suspect it has now fallen below unity. (When he does read a book, he mentions it in his blog as if it’s a special holiday treat.)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/niall-ferguson/krugtron-the-invincible-p_b_4073956.html

The notion of ‘clarity’ is a contested one within social theory. This was made clear to me when various posts of mine, often just embedding videos of other people speaking, attracted a lot of indignation on Twitter. There are some people who really don’t like Lacan and Žižek being criticised for their lack of clarity. The latter still bothers me, given how much I enjoy his work and how much of it I read. For instance I’m currently reading his Hegel magnum opus* – the seeming inability of some people to accept it is possible to enjoy someone’s work while also criticising them baffles me. Or perhaps I’m still indigent about being called ‘scientistic’.

Rather than rehearsing this tedious internet dispute, my point is to stress that writing clearly and writing well can be antithetical. I think Žižek often writes well, in the limited sense that his work is often enjoyable to read, while nonetheless rarely writing in a way that could be called clear. I think John Rawls writes clearly, in the sense that one knows where one stands with him, while nonetheless writing tedious prose. I mean this in the sense that it is clear what he is saying and why he is saying it. This is sustained throughout a text. Therefore it becomes possible to relate to him in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

It’s this capacity to relate to the arguments a theorist makes in a text which has been on my mind since reading the chapter on Goffman in Ian Craib’s (wonderful) Experiencing Identity. In this chapter, he identifies the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” which runs through Goffman’s work, such that “the world calls, everyone can hear it, it is reasonable that someone try to answer” (p 76). He offers a wonderfully incisive critique of this rhetorical deployment of obviousness:

To read Goffman is to be seduced or to refuse seduction. It is not to enter into a critical dialogue, nor is it to understand another’s view of the world. Initially one must lose oneself in his world or keep out of it altogether. The seduction fails or succeeds through a double strategy. In the first place, the reader is led into an ‘identification-in-superiority’ with Goffman. We become privileged observers in a special way: we see through tricks, acts, illusions of all sorts. With Goffman the reader is no fool. the reader becomes an ‘insider’, his or her status is confirmed by the systematic use of argot and suspicion. The alliance is confirmed when the suspicion is extended by Goffman to himself; it becomes a knowing alliance in which both Goffman and the reader admit to the possibility that Goffman might be fooling the reader. The systematic ‘frame-breaking’ of the introduction sets up a knowing conspiracy which achieves seduction through a revelation that seduction may be what is happening. It is not that we are taken in by Goffman’s openness, rather we side with him because of his admitted trickiness. We ourselves become tricky, knowing and suspicious. (pg 79)

He goes on to develop this line of argument, contending that “rarely does [Goffman] take the responsibility for what he is saying”. I’m not sure Žižek takes much responsibility for what he is saying either. This is my fundamental suspicion about opaque writing – it tends to undermine active intellectual engagement** by suppressing the propositional content of the argument. In any argument there are a multiplicity of points which can be affirmed or contested, with varying degrees of significance given their locations within the unfolding structure of the argument. Many of these nodal points will call into question the logic of the argument itself, or at least open up the possibility of it being reframed. By suppressing the propositional content of the argument (which all prose will do to some extent) we close down certain lines of response. Texts which lack clarity tend to obscure these and, through doing so, preclude an experience of being monologued at becoming one of having a dialogue with. For instance I find Žižek difficult to engage with because reading him is like having a very entertaining, interesting and learned scholar drunkenly monologuing at you in a high speed way. It can be great just to sit and listen. It  can get boring and you make your excuses and move to a different table. But what it never facilitates is a dialogue.

I find Žižek to be a very particular sort of reading experience, which is perhaps why I enjoy reading his books. What I’d like to understand more broadly is this relationship between the phenomenology of reading and the rhetorical style of theorists. I think Craib captures something important about Goffman and there’s the possibility of extending an analysis of this form to other theorists:

The alliance with the reader, then, is in the face of a world which is ‘just like that’. All one can say immediately is, ‘Yes, it is like that’, or ‘No, it is not’. In fact, neither response is adequate, or both are equally adequate: some aspects of the world are ‘like that’, others are not. To break free of Goffman’s guiding gestures is to begin to distinguish what he is really talking about, and it is a matter of looking at the questions that come out of his descriptions, but which remain unanswered and often unasked (pg 79-80)

My most rewarding experiences of reading theory have come from those who I was initially sceptical of but then was largely persuaded by (Archer) or those who I was initially persuaded by but then developed a scepticism towards (Crossley, Giddens, Elder-Vass). It’s this experience of moving closer or moving further away from a body of work, through textual engagement, which I’d like to understand better than I do. What sorts of relations does a text facilitate with its reader? What implications do these have for the reader’s mode of engagement? How can we understood these as a relationship between two distinct sets of properties and powers: those of the reader and those of the text?

*Consciously I’m genuinely interested in it. I’m also hoping it’s broad enough in its scope to help flesh out the limited (and limiting) intellectual map of contemporary continental philosophy I’m working with. Though it’s hard not to wonder if I have some unconscious motive in relation to these disputes about Žižek that irritated me so much at the time (whereas few things on the internet do these days).

**I use the word ‘tends’ very consciously here. I think there are countervailing tendencies, often arising from determined readers keen to cut through the thicket of obscurity, operating here in a way which ensures that philosophy of this sort doesn’t descend into oratory.

Edited to add: Reading Ian Craib is like having a relaxed chat over a pint on a sunday afternoon in a quiet pub.

I’ve been chatting on-and-off with Andrew McGettigan recently about left-wing intellectual culture & he just sent me this absolute gem of a quote:

And I define a hack as a man who refuses to improve the production apparatus and so prise it away from the ruling class for the benefit of Socialism. I further maintain that an appreciable part of so-called left-wing literature had no other social function than that of continually extracting new effects or sensations from this situation for the public’s entertainment. [94]

– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’

So as most people reading this will probably realise, Žižek bashing and boosting has been somewhat in vogue within certain sections of the academic blogosphere in recent months. The Sociological Imagination was an enthusiastic part of this recently, through an ever-so-slightly polemic blog post penned by Steve Fuller,

Slavoj Zizek may be great at beating up on grand old men of the anti-establishment such as Chomsky, but he is a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century. Whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath. Zizek can’t seem to imagine any other political alternatives, which may suit his vast legions of followers, who are ‘politically inert’ by most conventional understandings of the phrase. This was really made clear to me in his latest piece for the Guardian, which celebrates the importance of cyberspace whistleblowers, who if ultimately regarded as ‘progressive’, will be for reasons that we have not quite yet figured out. At the moment, they look like fleas on the arse of history.

http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/13940

This prompted a spate of obnoxious comments which I saw no point in posting. Previous articles I’d posted myself, which were far from dismissive of Žižek, had prompted people to post abuse at the @soc_imagination – it was initially amusing to be told I was a reactionary and have my scientism denounced before  it eventually just got tedious. But then I’ve always been mildly contemptuous of academic cultural politics in a way that I tend to keep to myself, lest I wander round the academy inadvertently insulting people. My intention in writing isn’t to be vituperative, in fact I’m trying very hard to avoid this, but simply to observe that the ratio of rhetoric to action among the academic left can often be distressingly low.  As a biographically orientated sociologist I have a pretty clear understanding of the reasons why this is so and, as someone whose activism has often been squeezed out while grappling with a far from ideal work/life balance over the last five years, this understanding is informed by self-reflection as much as social observation. However I nonetheless think this is a problem and, oddly enough, some of Žižek’s ideas have been important in elaborating my understanding of how this is so.

Particularly his account of cynicism, which at least as I understand it*, argues that post-ideological culture tends towards an over-estimation of subjective belief: people congratulate themselves on not being ‘taken in’ by ideology while nonetheless construing their circumstances in a way which engenders objective complicity. My political problem with Žižek is the peculiarly post-ideological form of idolatry his work seems to engender – what difference does Žižek make? What’s the point of Žižek? I’ve never heard an answer to this question which isn’t irredeemably subjective, construing him as a diagnostician of late capitalism in a way which implicitly invokes some objective and proactive correlate, the specification of which is indefinitely deferred. Or in slightly plainer language:  Žižek fans always talk about him as if his work is deeply practical in its implications and yet never seem to say what these are exactly. My accusation is that his work often engenders a subjective sense of one’s political outlook as being intellectually sophisticated while contributing nothing, in fact often detracting from, objective action. This is what prompted me to write this post, which I’ll finish soon lest it become overly rambling, which I cite to illustrate my point in a way which will hopefully be conducive to friendly debate:

Subsequently, this is also why I argue that Zizek provides us with the only space for the left. Any other leftist project (“social scientifically literate” or otherwise) is by definition fundamentally apolitical if they only remain within the possible, but Zizek allows us to revive the ‘politics proper’ which is central to some of the most radical sociologists and social theorists (including, I would argue, C. Wright-Mills whose criticism of abstract empiricism in describing the sociological imagination embodied the Marxian dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”). Zizek shows us a way to break from contemporary ‘social sciences’ which spends its time and resources describing society in an age where it is needed more than ever to change society for the better.

http://esjaybe.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/the-only-space-zizek-and-the-sociological-imagination/

On the contrary I think Žižek provides us with an intoxicating rhetoric to describe this aim but offers little to nothing which helps do it and in fact muddies the waters and makes ‘resistance’ seem much more theoretically complicated than it often is. I write in the paragraph above the quote that his work ‘seems’ to engender this tendency because I’m completely open to changing my mind about this. Plus it’s probably useful to reiterate the point that I read a lot of Žižek and, more so, I don’t do it in a ‘know thine enemy’ kind of way. I read him because I enjoy his work. I have more of a problem with how his work is taken up and deployed than I do with the man himself. Žižek clearly likes reading, writing and speaking. He lives the pampered life of the international academic superstar. He is a brand. He is also idolised. I’m not dismissing him on this basis – in fact I’m not dismissing him at all – not least of all because Chomsky, one of my  life long heroes, is just as much of a brand and is equally idolised. In fact it was this meeting of the two most high profile brands on the academic left which meant their public spat, contrived in large part by academic web editors such as myself, attracted the attention which it did. Nonetheless I do think the Žižek and Chomsky brands tend to dominate the intellectual attention space of the left, simply taking up room that would be occupied by other scholars and activists – thought this bothers me much more in the case of the latter than the former.

*And I hasten to add that if I haven’t understood his meaning correctly then I couldn’t care less. I read Žižek because I find him enjoyable and often thought-provoking, approaching him in an exegetical way is like reading the Daily Mail. I understand why people might do it, I’m sure I’m intellectually capable of it but left to my own devices it’s the last thing in the world I’m ever going to choose to do.

This interview (via Open Culture) will perhaps divide opinion. It follows on quite nicely from John Searle’s comments about Foucault, Bourdieu and continental obscurantism which I found recently. Before I express a view, let me offer a preamble: I own and have read a lot of Žižek books, though the ratio between my owning and my reading of the book is quite telling. I also think that, contra his critics, he can actually write pretty well, though seemingly only in his shorter books i.e. he often doesn’t write well. But I’m also aware that I like Žižek in pretty much the same way I sometimes like going out to get extremely drunk. I like the way that reading a Žižek book involves (to me at least) being engulfed by a torrent of verbosity, with the rapid fire and often barely coherent patchwork quilt of names and ideas being interrupted by those occasional moments of startling lucidity which, in the unpredictable zig-zag between incoherence and insight, work to lend the experience a sense of profundity entirely out of proportion to the actual weight of the propositions being put forward in the text (not a million miles away from the way in which drunken intellectual debates can sometimes feel incredibly profound because they occasionally lead to the unexpected elaboration of preexisting positions in spite of  what is, if you’re honest, the generally low quality of the discussion). So I find it hard not to agree with Chomsky here:

What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing.

Or at least I agree with him up to a point. I don’t know enough about Chomskyan linguistics to substantiate the claim but I’m unsure as to what extent the positivist rhetoric is invoked here for effect and to what extent these are reflective methodological principles. Ironically, what knowledge of Chomskyan linguistics I do have comes largely, I think, from the eclectic (mis)appropriation of interdisciplinary concepts which characterises the work of cultural theorists (fair term?) like Žižek whom I occasionally feel compelled to read. But I do identify with the impulse to differentiate methodologically coherent theorisation, understood as part of a broader endeavour of collective knowledge production, from the kind of Theory represented by Žižek.

Think back to 2007. Did you believe the end of neoliberalism was nigh? I must admit I did. It seems rather naive in retrospect. Yet fast forward five years and consider the political terrain: we have witnessed a massive consolidation within the financial sector and an unprecedented attack on the welfare state across Europe. As if by magic, a crisis of the financial system has been reframed as a crisis of sovereign debt, with ‘austerity’ (in essence the structural adjustment programmes that the organs of international capitalism have long imposed elsewhere) being pursued with breathtaking alacrity, accompanied by the continual refrain that there is no alternative.

So what happened? This question is one which will undoubtedly preoccupy large swathes of the acdemy for decades. However I do want to offer a quick observation about the ideological dimensions to a set of processes which are reshaping global society to an extent which I suspect is still not entirely understood. This concerns what the financial crisis established for the population as a whole. What did we learn from it? Oddly, I think the answer is very little. How were ‘bankers’, as the pantomime characters to whom financial capital is reduce, perceived prior to the crisis? As greedy bastards. How were ‘bankers’, as the pantomime characters to whom financial capital is reduce, perceived after the crisis? As greedy bastards. I’m generalising wildly here before anyone feels the need to point it out. Likewise, if you know of any longitudinal polling data about attitudes towards bankers, I’d love to see it. Without doubt, there are significant numbers of people who either approve of bankers or regard them as a necessary evil.

My point is simply that the discursive construction of ‘the bankers’ (rather than more or less well-informed propositional claims about the actual characteristics of specific people working in a specific industry) really hasn’t changed as much as one might expect. Although of course the social significance of the negative characteristics imputed to bankers has increased: after all THEY broke THE ECONOMY because of THEIR GREED. But the general perception of the financial system has changed much less than would seem likely given that, well, it almost collapsed. In a sense, the financial crisis represented an affirmation of what we all already knew.

The moral failings of the financial elite were widely recognised prior to the crisis and no one did anything because we couldn’t and/or because we benefitted from its continuation. But a lack of illusion about the nature of the people in charge, with the accompanying cynicism about their motives, facilitated a widespread disjuncture best represented by the weird position of the traditional Labour supporter during the Blair years: subjectively critical but objectively complicit in the reproduction of the social structures which were the object of their criticism. The apparent absence of ideological illusion about the nature of finance capitalism itself, as well as the political pragmatism and turn away from ‘idealism’ which naturally accompanies it, functioned as a form of ideological control. As Žižek puts it,  “a cynical non-identification with the ruling ideology’s explicit content is a positive condition of its functioning: the ideological apparatuses ‘run smoothly’ precisely when subjects experience their innermost desire as ‘oppositional’, as ‘transgressive’“. We all knew that bankers are greedy bastards before the financial crisis. Then after the crisis this shared recognition becomes an object of public debate. Bankers are ‘bashed’. Then everything ‘returns to normal’?