‘Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity’ by Slavoj Žižek reviewed by Stefan Pedersen

Reviewed by Stefan Pedersen

About the reviewer

Stefan Pedersen is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at The University of Leeds, where he …

More

Slavoj Žižek is now a true public intellectual and anything he writes is going to get published no matter how lightly worked through it is. Like a Thief in Broad Daylight bears some of the hallmarks of a work that has been hastily put together for mass market consumption. For instance, Žižek blatantly disavows academic convention by cutting and pasting film synopsis after film synopsis from Wikipedia. In addition, there is a chapter on MeToo that might have fit better as a standalone piece. But once one sees past the blemishes, this work offers a wealth of subversive insights. It is these, which both forms a red thread throughout the work in terms of narration and the political changes subtly argued for, that make the work worth reading.

The argument the book presents is primarily a corrective to the notion that identity politics is incompatible with universalism. Žižek is concerned with the need to balance the overt focus on particularity, so prominent in both contemporary radical and academic discourse, with an appreciation for the universalist aspects of contemporary existence. To sum up Žižek’s much more elaborate argument, the relationship between the two is perhaps better described as a configuration of ‘yin and yang’ than one of ‘either-or’. The work itself is composed of four loosely interconnected chapters or essays of about equal length, in addition to a shorter introduction, as well as a conclusion which is almost a full-length essay on its own.

The first chapter ‘The State of Things’ is concerned with the universal aspect of global capitalism, or what for the sake of brevity can be construed as ‘the enemy’ which, as all followers of Sun Tzu will be aware, ought to be known before it can be successfully defeated. There are two ways to battle this enemy. The first is a Sisyphean task that Žižek thinks is ultimately futile, namely to ‘continue to play the humanitarian game of taking care of those left behind’ (22) i.e. the many losers in a capitalist world economy. The second is to fully commit to a fundamental reordering and ‘tackle the much more difficult task of changing the global system that generates them’ (22). Those in the know will be aware that Žižek has long ago committed to the radical solution, which has the upside of being a lot more thorough. There is also another universal aspect to contemporary existence which Žižek sees fit to point out here: ‘Phenomena like global warming make us aware that, with all the universality of our theoretical and practical activity, we are at a certain basic level just another species living on the planet Earth’ (33). In short, Žižek is pointing out that our existence is enveloped by these two systemic realities, capitalism on the one side, planetary habitation on the other. These are both omnipresent from the vantage point of human beings, or ‘universally’ there. They are both, as it turns out, malleable. If one of these universals must be sacrificed to save the other, capitalism must go, and thanks to the onset of the Anthropocene, that is no longer a hypothetical scenario (34-5).

The second chapter, ‘Vagaries of Power’, unsurprisingly for those familiar with Žižek’s previous work, uses a parable about Lenin and the October Revolution to explain that ‘what Lenin really learned from Hegel’ was to appreciate ‘the concept of concrete universality and its use in politics’ (65). This is apparently a lesson currently lost on zealous defenders of identity politics. ‘Concrete universality’ is by Žižek presented as the sensible position between the extremes of nominalism – the view that universals do not exist – on the one side and a fully abstract universality on the other. The ‘concrete’ part of it means understanding that no two situations are exactly alike, since ‘there are no “typical situations” all we are dealing with is exceptions’ (65). The universality lies in ‘the totality that regulates the concrete context of exceptions’ (65). Further, an appreciation of ‘concrete universality’ does not mean that particular identities must be abandoned in favour of universal ones but realizing that all particular identities are necessarily subsumed to their universal opposite ‘as the “work of the negative” that undermines every such identity’ (65). The ‘work of the negative’ is a Hegelian term – also employed by Freud and Lacan, so this is a concept Žižek is highly familiar with. But the crucial message is here that, even though personal particularity is not to be underappreciated, we must also realize that we are all still subject to certain universal forces – with ‘the universal capitalist system’ at the fore (65).

The third chapter, ‘From Identity to Universality’, sees Žižek engage with the rise of populism. Populism, he argues, is one of the symptoms of ‘the big social disease of our time: Huntington’s’ (115). This social disease afflicting contemporary world politics, Žižek cleverly names after Samuel Huntington’s ever popular ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. This thesis, as Žižek observes, is now being used to legitimize the only alternative to conflict between civilizations which its internal logic will allow for, namely ‘the peaceful coexistence of civilizations’ (116). ‘Civilizations’ here broadly overlaps with nations and especially the greatest powers among these, thereby making nationalism the ideological expression of this worldview. This affliction, to the relief of strongmen like Putin and Xi, spells the end of liberal internationalism and the human rights regime. According to Žižek, this ‘New World Order that is emerging’ still allows for ‘the smooth functioning of global capitalism’ because ‘there is no contradiction between market globalization and the accent on one’s own particular “way of life” in the cultural sphere’ that it emphasizes (116-17). Against the prevailing nationalist winds, the EU stands alone in offering ‘the only model of transnational organization with the authority to limit national sovereignty and the task of guaranteeing a minimum of ecological and social-welfare standards’ (117). Which is ‘why the idea of European union is worth fighting for, in spite of the misery of its actual existence’ (117).

Žižek further argues that the collective focus on culture distorts the ‘cognitive mapping’ of ‘those exploited and marginalized’ who, instead of engaging ‘in a universal emancipatory struggle’, end up living in fear of each other, with ‘local lower classes’ on one side and ‘immigrants’ on the other (125). When culture is employed to distract the populace from seeing their economic interests being undermined, Žižek sensibly argues that to embrace nationalism is not the solution.  It is a ‘fatal limitation’ to counter ‘the rise of Rightist populism with Leftist populism’ (126). It is as if Žižek is aiming to say that ‘socialism in one country’ is a flawed strategy for beating back the rising tide of right-wing populism since that is a genuine global problem in need of a universalist solution. Žižek could here have added that backing populist causes such as ‘Brexit’ from a left-wing perspective only serves to validify and reinforce the nationalist ideology at the heart of the global right-populist counter-revolution. But, in a move disappointing this reviewer, the attention is now turned to MeToo.

The fourth chapter, ‘Ernst Lubitsch, Sex and Indirectness’ sees Žižek go off on what is in many ways an unnecessary tangent about MeToo. It is true that Žižek does in this chapter strike a welcome and overall eminently sensible contrast to right-wing commentators that have engaged with this aspect of identity politics earlier, such as Jordan Peterson. For example, Žižek, in line with feminists in general, argues that the despicable acts of Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men ‘were not cases of private pathology, they were expressions of the predominant masculine ideology and power structures’ and that it is ‘the latter that should be changed’ in an effort to put an end to this kind of abusive violence (152). But it gets more interesting at the end of this chapter, which characteristically includes a treatment of both the films La La Land and Black Panther, when Žižek informs the reader that the latter film had forgotten ‘a precious lesson of Malcom X’ (182). Namely, that ‘to attain true universality, a hero must go through the experience of losing his/her roots’ (182). Then he goes on to mention Leo Strauss, who is strongly associated with reading political theory with hidden, or esoteric, messages in mind. Could Žižek be hinting that the path to a better world starts with abandoning our most rooted (religious/national) identities?

Žižek continues pressing a similar point in the conclusion ‘For How Long Can We Act Globally and Think Locally?’. Here, he observes that ‘only in a specific situation – a change in ideological sensitivity – does the realization that our ideological edifice is dissonant lead to its disintegration’ (207). He continues with pointing out that ‘for example, although slavery was obviously incompatible with Christian morality, it took a long time before it became intolerable for the majority’ (207). Žižek here, it might be surmised, encourages the reader to draw the conclusion that a global morality is incompatible with subscribing to the same nationalist identity that is at the root of right-populism. If that is the case, then this is a crucial lesson that those who aspire to follow in the footsteps of Corbyn, Sanders and Varoufakis should take to heart – but then my interpretation could also be wrong. I suggest, with Žižek, that it is best if you make your own conclusions (203). Despite the shortcomings mentioned, this is essential reading for those interested in our common future on planet Earth.

7 February 2019

16 comments

    1. In light of your comment I would like to specify that it was me (the reviewer) who used the term ‘strongmen’ here in an effort to explain the implications of what Zizek was saying. So the term itself is not used by Zizek in the passage I am relating my comments to. In the book Zizek notes that Xi has recently urged other world leaders to ’embrace globalization’ (117). And Zizek also adds that ‘there is no place for what Europe stands for in the New World Order of Trump, Putin, Modi, Mugabe and Erdogan’ (117). And then I make the inferrence that since Xi is no less of a nationalist than these other leaders, he also belongs in this group.

      When contrasted with this group, the EU stands not only for instituting international cooperation but also represent the sole major defender of the Human Rights regime left in contemporary world politics, which is something Zizek makes plain but not explicitly by using these terms (117-18). And what category of leader would be the main beneficiary of the fact that the US under its current leadership has decided to exert less pressure over alleged Human Rights abuses? I would say that the world’s ‘strongmen’ is an apt answer to that question.

  1. I’ve never been much of a fan of Zizek’s ‘cocaine Marxism’. However, this collection of ‘Zeitgeist’ stories are among the plainest and most honest ones that Zizek has written. He provides a quite readable text, with lots of provocative rhetoric about the world situation and the incongruities of everyday life. He tries to illuminate what the “complexities”, paradoxes and ironies of life in contemporary society are about, and poses some difficult questions for Marxist theorists to answer. It remains ‘rhetorical’ stuff though, with all sorts of assertions which elide between fact and fiction, supported with anecdotes, sentiments, poesis and analogies.

    The main drawback of the Zizekian approach is that, because he fails to frame or explain the ‘complex’ problems of the epoch in any realistic, systematic, and scientifically acceptable way, he also fails to reach any real solutions about what to do about the problems. Instead, Zizek resorts to vague moral appeals (and some subversive directives). So at the end of Zizek’s story, readers are really no further ahead with getting on top of the ‘complexities’, except that they may have gained some new insights about the troubles of our times, in ways that they did not formulate so dramatically or poetically themselves.

    Zizek thinks that late capitalist civilization is disintegrating. Opportunism, corruption, cynicism, indifference and nihilism are rife. People know this very well. Yet they believe that nothing ‘will’ be done about it, and they are encouraged to think that nothing ‘can’ be done about it. They shrug, and say ‘so what’. So, ‘The task of the Left is not just to propose a new order, but also to change the prospect of what appears possible’. A broad popular leftwing movement is needed, which can win over discontented groups that are drifting to rightwing populism. Radical social change is needed ‘to civilize our civilizations’. The Left has to re-civilize society, believe it or not.

    Zizek’s own “preferred vision” as an academic is that of ‘a united world with all its particular ways of life thriving, each of them asserting its difference from others, not as an antagonistic relationship, not at the expense of others, but as a positive display of creativity that contributes to the wealth of the whole of society.’ People, Zizek concludes emotionally in the end, can reach true freedom only when they volunteer to serve in a ‘Cause’ that is greater than themselves.

    All fine and good, but this does not differ much from what hundreds of millions of liberals, social democrats, Greens and conservatives are already trying to do. At the same time, a return to ‘Classical Marxism’ is impossible, because the world is a different place now. It leaves Zizek’s antiquated Freudo-Marxism between a rock and a hard place.
    Zizek does actually suggest that a strong leader is needed, a ‘strongman’: “we need a new Lenin, a Lenin who would tolerate, demand even, a figure like [Hollywood actor and movie director] Ernst Lubitsch at the head of his Control Commission.” Zizek rather likes that idea. What exactly this has to do with the ‘democratic values’ Zizek says he believes in, remains unclear.

    I don’t mind the fact that Zizek liberally uses Wikipedia articles for his writing. But Zizek goes badly wrong, when he recommends “Let a hundred WikiLeaks blossom!”.

    Anybody who thinks that, if you indiscriminately dump tens of thousands of stolen confidential official documents in cyberspace so that anybody can read them, that this is going to improve political discourse… has got to be joking. It is not just immoral, but adds even more political confusion. The truth is, that all the information that democratic citizens need for an effective and persuasive politics is accessible in officially available documents, if they are prepared to do the research.

    It would be much better, I think, if Zizek did that research himself, and as a wealthy academic he has plenty time available to do it. You don’t promote better moral behaviour, by massively violating privacy rights, deliberately creating information chaos, and by causing unforeseen problems for large numbers of people whom you don’t even know.

    Zizek’s continued fascination with the Bolsheviks is largely misplaced. The 1917 Russian revolution proved, that a relatively small group of dedicated revolutionaries could overthrow a tyrannical government which continued to pursue a horrific, murderous and useless war. What it did not prove, is that these revolutionaries could build a viable socialist democracy, once they had consolidated their political regime. A century later, society has changed greatly. For those reasons, the 1917 Russian revolution – a political experience from which much can certainly be learnt – cannot be an ‘exemplar’ for a progressive socialist transformation of society now. Zizek’s dream of a new Lenin, as the saviour of humanity (with built-in “add-ons” that in hindsight seem important to academics), is not really helpful for a mature political discussion today. For a viable socialist politics, we need something much better than that.

    1. “Anybody who thinks that, if you indiscriminately dump tens of thousands of stolen confidential official documents in cyberspace so that anybody can read them, that this is going to improve political discourse… has got to be joking. It is not just immoral, but adds even more political confusion. The truth is, that all the information that democratic citizens need for an effective and persuasive politics is accessible in officially available documents, if they are prepared to do the research.”

      I doubt many Marxists will share your sympathy for the functionaries of capitalist imperialism “victimized” by Wikileaks. The bourgeoisie and its state apparatus is the enemy of the global proletariat; there is no moral obligation to respect the “privacy rights” of those who have murdered and destroyed the lives of hundreds of millions of people and who live luxurious off of the extorted labor time of billions of workers. As for sowing “political confusion”, that is the modus operandi of the capitalist superstructure and the corporate media in particular. To blame political confusion and ignorance on Wikileaks is absurd when the vast majority of people, even politically engaged people, have never even read Wikileaks and only know of it through condemnation from the corporate media.

  2. A basic question that ought to be asked about Zizek’s narrative, I think, is the following one: if it is true that most of us are nowadays – in varying degrees – a bunch of opportunistically self-interested, corrupted, cynical, indifferent and nihilistic people, caught up in situations which we have little control over, what then could moral appeals in the name of a lofty Cause actually hope to achieve?

    For in that case, there appears to be little chance of the possibility for social amelioration, and it might even be argued that the human race has gone rotten, and therefore is fast approaching its own doom. All politics then becomes a useless and futile charade in that sense, and a revolutionary overthrow of the political regime could hardly create any better world.

    Presumably this is not actually what Zizek wants to argue, he wants to argue that despite the nasty aspects of human nature in our time, there are also possibilities and potentials for progressive social change. In that case, it must be the case that although opportunism, corruption, cynicism, indifference and nihilism do indeed exist, these phenomena are not nearly as pervasive as they are made out to be.

    Along these lines, it could be argued that most people do strive for what is good, healthy and true, even if their efforts may involve a battle with all kinds of contradictions in everyday life (in part, precisely because of the disappearance of moral consensus or persuasive moral exemplars in society).

    Sigmund Freud (a source of inspiration for Zizek via Lacan’s interpretation) wasn’t a Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. Freud’s theory was originally a response to the human barbarism of World War I (1914-1918). Freud certainly revolutionized the understandings of Western psychology, he created space to talk about sexuality, but the point is that socially he was rather conservative: he was rather pessimistic about the possibilities of ever ameliorating the human condition radically (cf. his book “Civilization and its discontents”).

    Human life in Freud’s view basically is what it is, people just have to learn to live with it. The most people could aspire to, is a better adjustment to or a more realistic attitude to the circumstances and challenges they face, with better self-insight (that might be arrived at through therapy based on psychoanalytic science).

    Freud died just at the time when World War 2 broke out, and the war gave a new lease of life to his philosophy. Nevertheless, the post-war era also witnessed a tremendous attempt to reconstruct society in better ways, and a lot of real human progress was made, including in the behavioural sciences.

    The new sciences of human behaviour are not nearly so pessimistic as Freud was about the human condition: the potential always exists for people to better their lot through better life choices. They can take real action to improve their situation, transforming themselves and their lives. Human nature has its bad sides, yes, but it also has its good sides, that can triumph over their bad sides. That optimistic message is very essential to know for people who strive to create a better world. Maybe people aren’t all good, but they are certainly not all bad either.

    The main pitfall of the new psychological science is, that is it still stuck with the unrealistic thesis of “methodological individualism”. People are assumed to be themselves the cause of what happens to them, they are in that sense always responsible for what happens to them.

    This creates two mysteries: (1) the ultimate mystery of why people are confronted by (adverse) circumstances which are not under their control, (2) the mystery of how a new popular morality is actually formed and diffused. There are individuals and there is society, but how exactly are they connected?

    The first mystery I mention originates out of the existential dualism (or dialectic) that people do not only create their own social relations, but are also, as members of society, socially related in ways that they did not make, and have little real control over. They have to deal with both kinds of social relations at the same time.

    The second mystery arises, because morality is generally considered to originate in the personal values of individuals, and therefore any change in social morality presupposes that individuals can and will personally change their own values. Given that people in a neoliberal market society can freely choose their own values, it is very difficult to have any social or political grip on that – the creation of a better social morality becomes a rather elusive project.

    The most one could do, is try to “influence”, “educate”, “preach” or “nudge” people so they will hopefully take the “right” direction, even although there is no consensus about what that “right” direction actually is and why. Beyond that, there is only the enforcement of the legal system as a backstop, which defines the limits of tolerance for human behaviour.

    It seems to me, that if we want a better social morality, scientific scholars ought to inquire more comprehensively into how moralities are actually formed, sociologically, historically and psychologically. We can bewail the presence of opportunism, corruption, cynicism, indifference and nihilism, but it is another to explain convincingly why they arise, what their causes and effects are.

    The weakness of Zizek’s position is, that he doesn’t really explain that, and I think he cannot explain that. He cannot do it, I think among other things because Freudianism and Marxism are largely incompatible perspectives, and because there is no good scientific evidence for the validity or truth of Freudian psychology. Much of Freudian psychology turns out to be metaphysical theory that is not scientifically verifiable, at best it is an “interpretation” of the spiritual life of humankind. Zizek is, in a sense, an apostle of that spirituality.

    Maybe the Freudian interpretation can generate interesting and even illuminating “metaphors” and “analogies”, but it ultimately cannot resolve the issue of moral amelioration in any way other than religions do: you “have to have faith”, you have to “believe” (which is also what ideology tells us). If you don’t believe in God, you still have to believe what the psychotherapist says.

    It is certainly true that “beliefs” are hardwired in the human brain. The brain must frequently “assume” things to steer behaviour, prior to and in the absence of any experiential evidence proving that the assumptions are valid or true. But obviously it is preferable to ground a faith in solid scientific evidence about what can and cannot happen, than in unproven or superstitious speculations about the workings of the human mind.

  3. An easy refutation of the view that Freud is entirely wrong is Antonio Damasio’s work, Oliver Sacks, and recent neuropsychoanalysis e.g. Joseph LeDoux. Another thing that shouldn’t be done when critiquing Zizek is to critique Freud without critiquing his appropriation by Lacan, Zizek’s primary influence along with Hegel. One can see spiritualism (idealism) in both Hegel and Lacan, and one can do the same from Freud.

    The big difference to Freud was his suggestion that his theoretical assumptions (as well, I think, that of Adler (rubbish Jung)) would be replaced evolutionary biology or brain science. This seems to be the case, if Damasio and LeDoux are anything to go on. Freud began as a neuroanatomist, so it wouldn’t be surprising for him to make such a declaration, because he began as a naturalist, but so use for an intrepretivist method called introspection (the first method used for psychological research after psychophysics by Wilhelm Wundt). Psychology is moving beyond its Galilean stage, slowly, and its methodological individualism (where it cannot apply, e.g. beyond the nervous system and just before the endocrine system). To suggest Zizek is a spiritualist because of Freud is inane, if not stupid. One should instead blame his returning Marx to Hegel, through Lacan. If anything, one should do the same for Marcuse. I doubt most folks would like to do so. Personally, I would prefer to naturalize whatever they were saying. Recent work by Brian Leiter, naturalizing hermeneutics of suspicion and its descendants, seems to aim at this direction.

    Also, to say Freud is wrong because he is pseudoscientific, if Popper is wrong in his solution to the demarcation problem, would be to beg the question. The only pseudoscience would then be whatever falls into the criteria of bad science (epistemically bad, though some would also include ethically bad).

    The fact that recent neuroscientists have reclaimed Freud (or the more significant parts of his work) from the world of bad ideas makes Freud’s work, at the very least, theoretical, not metaphysical, e.g. no metaphysical vocabulary baggage in the work, unlike early to middle Marx or Nietzsche, though all three work in the realm of what Ricoeur called hermeneutics of suspicion. Psychology was not yet an established science in Freud’s time, and so relied on such hermeneutics. It would also be anachronistic to judge old science by the standards of new science. Something good for its time, bad for current times, can still be important given its theoretical influence in succeeding scientific programs.

    Lastly, to critique Zizek, one must critique how he uses his influences. I can hardly disagree with his use of Freud through Althusser’s appropriation of overdetermination, but I can disagree with what he values in the semiotics of Lacan. One could replace Lacan for any other semiotician, if such a field has any value to Marxist political economy at all. I have my doubts.

  4. I am not at all suggesting that “Zizek is a spiritualist because of Freud”. This is a simple misrepresentation of what I argue. What I argue is, that Zizek is an apostle or advocate of the metaphysical/spiritual concept of human nature espoused by Freud, the Freudians and Lacan in particular. And that this position is incompatible with the thought of Karl Marx.

    François Roustang’s criticism of Lacan, based on actual participation in Lacan’s inner circle, shows Lacan’s ideology to be mostly nonsensical and arbitrary, i.e. unscientific. We ought to unmask and get rid of the Lacan cult… the sooner the better. Just as we have to get rid of Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar as a general theory of linguistics.

    Nor am I arguing that “Freud is wrong because he is pseudoscientific”, and I never said any such thing. Some of his work is pseudoscientific, yes, in the sense that he made claims purporting to be true, without having any real evidence for them. But many of Freud’s speculations about human nature can be regarded as “proto-scientific”, and in this sense, some neurologists are still interested in some of Freud’s ideas even today, because they provide heuristic ideas about “what might be the case”.

    The least you might say about Freud, is that he was actually interested in the inner world of his patients, unlike most modern psychiatrists nowadays, who just want to test out some pills on their patients (“who knows for sure, what is actually going on inside the patient?”).

    Karl Popper was wrong in his idea of demarcating science from non-science, and this was demonstrated very clearly by Imre Lakatos. Lakatos showed, that there are no crucial experiments in science in the sense that Popper uses that concept, and that Popper’s concept of “falsificationism” is simply erroneous. Popperianism is also a cult, and it ought to be got rid of, through relentless criticism of the pseudo-scientific Popperian cult.

    Scientific statements according to Imre Lakatos are “fallible” statements (they could be wrong) which at least in principle must be “testable”, even if we do not know exactly how to test them yet, or don’t have the technology yet to test them. But that Lakatosian definition of scientific statements is very far removed from Popper’s crude, propagandistic and vulgar falsificationist model.

    Karl Popper makes a crude nonsense of what scientists actually do, because he depicts scientists as people who only “muddle through with trials and errors, hoping to falsify hypotheses”. That can describe at most only a small part of inglorious scientific work.

    Louis Althusser was a proven anti-humanist, a proven misogynist, and a proven neo-Stalinist and sometime Maoist, who in his autobiography boasted about having plagiarized his ideas from his colleagues, and even detailed his reasons for murdering his own wife, even although he previously claimed he was insane when he murdered her (incredibly, the British Marxist Richard Seymour actually apologized for Althusser’s insanity, in a Verso blog!).

    What is disturbing, is not so much the comical writings of Slavoj Zizek themselves, but the number of leftist academics who take him seriously, and provide Zizek with credibility and intellectual cover.

    The strongly objectionable characteristic of Zizek’s philosophy and of his academic-Leftist backers is that they want to tie Marx to a bunch of latter-day quacks and nutcases. How then can anybody be surprised, that Marx today has very few friends in Britain and Western Europe anymore? Of course, “if that is Marxism”, almost nobody wants to be associated with it… and you can hardly blame people for dropping Marx!

  5. As a point of clarification, I should perhaps emphasize that the German words “Geist” or “Geistlich” (and similar words in Nordic languages) have no exact equivalent in English. For example, the title of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes is translated alternately as “Phenomenology of Mind” or “Phenomenology of the Spirit”. In French, Geist can be translated alternately as “esprit” or “intelligence”.

    When you use the word “spirituality” in English, then Britons will often think of new age religion, or going to the pub, or African songs etc. Some also say, that English is a more “empiricist” language, or that because the experimental science of the mind arrived much later than the ordinary words used to describe mental phenomena, that different countries at different stages of development still have different descriptions for these things.

    Zizek is very concerned with the life of the mind, in a lively way, but there are certain problems in translating the concepts in different languages, not in the least because there are simply no standard terms to talk about spiritual (Geistliche) phenomena. Perhaps there will never be any unanimity about them, given the personalized meanings that individuals attach to their mental life.

    If I recall correctly, Friedrich Engels at one time mooted that “spirit” (Geist) does not exist (for a philosophical materialist), it was more a religious idea that he rejected as an atheist. Similarly, Alex Callinicos rejected to concept of a “soul” as an “unscientific” notion (although he favoured Hal Draper’s essay on the “two souls of socialism” which he used in party propaganda for “socialism from below” rather than “socialism from above”).

    This was along the lines of “I don’t believe in ghosts”, a rejection of superstition. I personally do not think this approach is correct or accurate, but I agree that humankind does not at present have any exact language or standard terminological conventions to talk about these things. Freud developed a secular language and a set of concepts to talk about mental/spiritual states, it is just that the general validity of the descriptions mostly cannot be proved. You cannot directly observe e.g. the ego, the superego and the id, it remains an “interpretation” of behavioural patterns and mental states.

    Similarly, I recall that when I studied educational psychology, a behaviourist teacher told us that “intelligence is simply what the tests measure”, but nobody has been able to prove that any particular measure of intelligence is objectively correct. At best you can say, that the measures have a certain operational utility or pragmatic usefulness to identify and sort out the ability to perform certain tasks, in evaluating psychiatric patients, military personnel, workers or students for administrative or management purposes.

    In the Soviet Union, big efforts were made across half a century to root out religion, in the name of doing away with superstition in the process of modernization, but the Party was unable to succeed, and today in Russia the concern with spirituality and churchgoing is again very much alive, suggesting that the powers of human spirituality cannot extinguished, even they are fought against very comprehensively. President Putin certainly regards the moral conscience of believers as an important political factor to be reckoned with. Freudian psychology was also rejected in the Soviet Union until the 1970s, but today there are Freudians in Russia.

    In general, “spirituality” as an dimension of ordinary life ought not to be confused with “spiritualism” or specific spiritual doctrines, it is better seen I think as just part of the everyday life of the mind, which cannot very well function without metaphysical assumptions to guide activity in the presence of unknowns, unprovables or uncertainties. But what science is concerned with, is what we can experimentally test and prove about all that, which may be much less than all the theories of the mind can envisage. Yet we can empirically demonstrate some things about the mind quite reliably, through careful experiments, you don’t even have to be a scientist to know that. It may not be everything, but it is something, and certainly not “less than nothing”, which to me suggests spiritual impoverishment.

  6. Friedrich Engels lampooned the spiritualism of his own epoch in an essay titled “Natural Science and the Spirit World” which is included in his “Dialectics of Nature”. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch10.htm

    However Engels also refers in the same work to the “cheerful spirit of free thought” which is a spirit in a quite different sense than conjuring up ghosts in a seance.

  7. As regards the “hermeneutic of suspicion”, Philip Rieff (a thoughtful American sociologist) summed it up very well (quoted here at some length):

    “Against the conventional assumption that each knows himself best in his own heart, Freud supports the Nietzschean assumption that each is farthest from his own self and must journey through experience in search of it. He surpasses even the Romantics in his deprecation of mere intellect. He calls into question all self-insight, intuitive as well as intellectual. Not only does Freud anticipate that, when a patient offers a seemly account of his conduct, the analyst will be able to detect aggressive or erotic motives which the patient’s account has concealed. More damaging to the pride of self-insight is the fact that, even as he charges that real motives are generally hidden behind some rationalization, Freud denies the importance of the conscious lie, the deliberate deception of others. It is for its continual self-deceptions that he reproves the ego:

    “In every case, the news that reaches your consciousness is incomplete and often not to be relied on. Often enough, too, it happens that you get news of events only when they are over and when you can no longer do anything to change them. Even if you are not ill, who can tell all that is stirring in your mind of which you know nothing or are falsely informed? You behave like an absolute ruler who is content with the information supplied him by his highest officials and never goes among the people to hear their voice. Turn your eyes inward, look into your own depths, learn first to know yourself!” (Sigmund Freud,”A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis” ( 1917), SE XVII, p. 143).

    The Freudian solution to the ego’s fallibilities was to permit the self’s knowledge to be directed by the professional acumen of an analytic “other”. Despite Freud’s own unaided success, a physician is generally needed to play policy adviser to the overdignified sovereign ego, and with his knowledge to correct the ego’s ignorance. To “know thyself’ is to be known by another. This was Freud’s powerful revision of the Delphic injunction, and by which he intended to make psychoanalysis the most disenchanting of sciences. What Copernicus had done to man’s universe, what Darwin had done to man’s ancestry, Freud claimed to have done to man’s ultimate resource — his reason. Yet no more than Darwin was misanthropic was Freud anti-rationalist. Rather, he was a cautious advocate of the rationalist tradition, registering a very modest claim on behalf of reason for its own sake: only understood as the frailest of mental powers does reason stand as an outside chance of hegemony.” (Philip Rieff, Freud: the mind of a moralist. London: Methuen, 1965, pp. 69–70).

    In his crude quasi-Parsonian sociology, Althusser recommended the psychological theory of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan in the French Communist Party journal La Nouvelle Critique specifically as a “science of the (human) unconscious” (how can you have a “science of the unconscious”? Good question!). In the glossary of his famous book Reading Capital (co-written with Étienne Balibar), Althusser announced:

    “The biological men are only the supports or bearers of the guises (“Charaktermasken”) assigned to them by the structure of relations in the social formation.”

    The question then is, if this is your overall cynical concept of human nature, how can humans ever succeed in making a better society? At the very least, I would think, it would be healthier to balance a “hermeneutics of suspicion” with a “hermeneutics of human affirmation”, i.e. of the powers of humans to change their world, despite everything that gets in the way of it (for more in-depth treatment of the theoretical issues, see e.g. Richard Askay and Jensen Farquhar, Apprehending the inaccessible; Freudian psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology. Evanston (Illinois): Northwestern University Press, 2006).

    One of the messages of the now forgotten revolt of 1968 – which Althusser disparaged – was, that people need not just to “read” the news, they can also “make” the news, if they want.

  8. Simply put, the Althusserian idea of “overdetermination” is like saying that “we all have to die sometime, but we can die from all kinds of causes, and any of those individual causes (or any combination of them) could lead to our death at any time”.

    Or, if you do not like that analogy, it is like saying that “desire is a universal and recurrent experience, and that people will have sex or eat meals for all kinds of reasons of motives, but why exactly they will or will not have sex or eat meals right now, depends on specific contingent reasons or motives, or alternatively any specific combination of them (which changes from time to time).”

    With this way of talking, you can always hedge your bets in social analysis, and you are always right, just like the politburo was always right.

    Via analogy, the Freudian concept of “overdetermination” was adapted by Althusser to be applied to whole societies, viewed as structured social totalities. This seemed like a genial way to counter crude economic reductionism or economism in Marxist theory. It postulated that any of the various component parts of a real society (not just the economy, but also the political, legal, ideological, cultural, and social superstructures etc.) could contingently emerge as a “structure in dominance” (although all the interlinked parts formed a cohesive totality that rule all the parts, and even though economic relations might “in the last instance” determine everything else).

    On closer inspection, however, this apparently brilliant hyper-abstract conception turns out to be crucially vague (if not altogether vacuous). The concept of overdetermination assumes, but cannot unequivocally and verifiably demonstrate, “what determines what, and why that is”, “which developmental possibilities are ruled out”, and “which tendencies are most likely to happen”.

    Just about any combination of the social mosaic can happen, if you twist and turn the Althusserian theoretical kaleidoscope. There are contradictions and linkages at every level and sector of the “social formation”. Everything is connected to everything else. Just about anything can follow from that, within certain very broad and general constraints.

    So the “overdetermination” actually turns out to be “underdetermined” in the sense that the necessity of any specific result in the future of society is almost impossible to define or predict. Any forecast is too general to be useful, and therefore cannot provide much guidance or orientation.

  9. What ‘determines’, according to Marx, is conscious human productive activity. Not ‘economics’, not ‘matter’, not ‘genes’, not ‘elite science’, not ‘nature’. We are the source of our own ‘determinations’: and so, we can change them. Thus, for Marx, human freedom is our concern.
    There are no ‘experts’ who can outvote the vast majority of humans; no select elite who ‘know science’, which the rest of us can’t have access to; and thus we can democratically control ‘science’.

  10. @LBird: We cannot have “democratic control” over the content of science, because whether something is scientifically true or false is not something that you can adjudicate with a “democratic majority vote”. The huge majority may get it all totally wrong, and a small minority might get it absolutely right.

    The huge majority might get it all wrong, because they don’t actually understand all the scientific arguments. A solitary scientific expert can be correct, even although the vast majority of people concerned disagree with him (until he is proved right, and his view is vindicated, which might happen only decades later).

    For good science to happen, scientists need a “relative autonomy” from commercial and political interests, and freedom from parasites, thieves, meddlers, saboteurs, fraudsters and malicious hackers. We can have “democratic control” over scientific work, only in the sense of funding sources, influencing the priorities of scientific research, the right to criticize scientific work etc.

    Marx and Engels pictured humans as both externally determined and internally self-determining; hence the need for a “dialectical” and reflexive understanding of the freedoms and constraints in human life. But as far as I am aware, Marx and Engels never said that we are “the source of all our own determinations” (except possibly in some tautological sense). But maybe you mean something different by that turn of phrase. In neo-Hegelianism, anything can mean almost anything, so I might have misunderstood things.

    Faced with the challenge of solving a scientific problem, a pluralist approach makes sense, if nobody has as yet found a definitive scientific solution to the problem. That requires the right to have a different opinion about what the solution is likely to be (the “right to dissent”).

    However once a definitive solution has really been discovered, it does not make much sense anymore to maintain a pluralist approach, and most scientists will adopt the definitive solution – that is what was proved to work.

    Since the definitive solution could yet be modified or improved on, it is not necessarily completely wrong to pursue an alternative to the mainstream either. It is just that pluralism is not an “eternal virtue”, but context dependent. If people agree they are going to do things a particular way, because it was definitely proved to be the right way to do it, it becomes confusing if other people go and do all kinds of different things nevertheless. This may retard progress, instead of advance it.

  11. Thanks for your reply, Jurriaan.
    I’m afraid we have a difference of political and philosophical opinion. I’m with Marx, who argued that society can’t be separated into an elite group ‘who have the special scientific ability to know’ and a mass group ‘who don’t share this elite scientific ability’.
    In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote:
    “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”
    As with Marx, I don’t think that there is a ‘superior’ elite which has abilities that the mass of society doesn’t have.
    Put simply, if this ‘science’ can’t be explained to the ‘huge majority’, then it’s not a ‘science’ for humanity. The role of the elected expert, whether political, philosophical or scientific, is to explain their views those who elected them, and to allow the ‘huge majority’ to determine the ‘truth’ of those views. The can’t be ‘two parts’ to society, if we are to have a democratic socialism worth its name.
    You seem to agree with this approach in parts of your comment:
    “Faced with the challenge of solving a scientific problem, a pluralist approach makes sense, if nobody has as yet found a definitive scientific solution to the problem. That requires the right to have a different opinion about what the solution is likely to be (the “right to dissent”).”
    Where we disagree is that apparently there can eventually be a ‘definitive scientific solution’ where the ‘huge majority’ can’t understand this ‘solution’. This political and philosophical approach would leave us in the hands of witches!
    Of course, in our present society, run by a ruling class, a democratic approach won’t work.
    But if we aspire to a democratic socialist/communist society in the future, which we will build using democratic methods, then we have to start from the belief that any ‘science’ worth its name in a democratic society would be a democratic science.
    This political and philosophical belief is what separates Marx from ‘the materialist doctrine’. There isn’t a final, ultimate, definitive ‘truth’ that a special elite ‘know’. You even touch on this yourself:
    “Since the definitive solution could yet be modified or improved on, it is not necessarily completely wrong to pursue an alternative to the mainstream either.”
    It’s either ‘definitive’ or it isn’t – only the ‘huge majority’ can determine their own ‘definitions’, and thus, as Marx argued, change them. That’s democratic control of social production.

  12. I don’t exactly know what you mean by an elite. Real elites do exist on some criterion, in the sense that in every field of endeavour there are people who perform at the top of their field, and who are quite influential in how people think about that field – they are intellectual and practical leaders or exemplars. That has always been the case, and that is unlikely to change very much in the foreseeable future. In this sense, you also have a “scientific elite”.

    Of course, the fact that people are highly talented and capable, and work at the top of his profession does not of itself decide the issue of how much wealth and income they should be entitled to have. That is a different question (they could be rich, or poor). There are many different arguments about what the maximum income differentials between the lowest incomes and the highest incomes (or lowest skilled and highest skilled occupations) “ought to be”.

    Elites can also be thought of simply as “the wealthy” (or “the wealthiest”) people. But rich people are not necessarily the smartest, or the most talented, or the most scientific (although they obviously must have very considerable skills and knowledge if they get rich largely by their own effort).

    Probably most elite physicists would accept the most developed modern versions of quantum physics as being approximately true, or at least preferable to any alternative theories of the subject-matter. However the vast majority of humanity doesn’t understand this science, which has existed now for roughly a hundred years, and they don’t consciously apply it to their lives either.

    A lot of science can be presented in popularized form, at least with regard to the basics. But some science presupposes a lot of specialized knowledge, in order to understand it properly, and therefore most laypeople do not understand it. That is unlikely to change very soon. It is also almost impossible for any one person to master all the sciences in existence.

    I am certainly in favour of more popular, participatory and representative democracy where it is needed, I am merely saying, that you cannot decide whether something is true or false purely on the basis of a majority vote about whether something is true or false.

    Something is objectively true or false, irrespective of how many people happen to regard it as true or false.

    What I am not in favour of, is the modern leftist idea that democracy means, that everybody should have the right to interfere and meddle in other people’s affairs and other people’s business, whatever the reason, simply because that is “democratic” or because that is what “socialized ownership” means.

    I do not think myself that this idea is either democratic or socialist, I think it is tyrannical. It would be more sensible to argue along the lines that people should have a say in matters which really affect them directly, and for which they can take some responsibility.

    In a pretty clear Jacobin article about environmental problems, dated 21 July 2021, Zizek argues dramatically that the “last exit to socialism” in the future (before death and ecocide) is likely to be some version of “war communism”, since the human race has failed to adopt other, perhaps easier exits when it could have (this idea is borrowed and adapted by Zizek from Andreas Malm, a Swedish ecologist). https://jacobinmag.com/2021/07/slavoj-zizek-climate-change-global-warming-nature-ecological-crises-socialism-final-exit “War communism” refers to the communist political policy in the Russian civil war, which featured expropriations, confiscations, rationing, slaughter of soldiers and civilians, the “red terror” and the “white terror” etc. The world, that is, would by analogy be saved from total ecocide, by forcing people militarily to act, live, work and behave in a sustainable way (militarizing society).

    As a counterargument, the problem with that theory is that, confronted and threatened by pervasive “green terrorism”, people are probably going to be so afraid, hostile and resisting, that they aren’t going to do much to save the world from ecocide, at least not voluntarily. Yet, to save the world you do need a lot of volunteers and goodwill to make things better. If voluntary cooperation is lacking, a lot of what is done will be done badly, and very inefficiently.

    I think myself the problem is rather different than how Zizek frames it: the modern Left is mystified about how you can get people to cooperate, and how you can unite people together to work well for common goals. They don’t understand about cooperation, competition, management and authority, and they just want to throw democracy at us, as if democracy is the universal panacea that can solve all the problems or improve everything (it can’t). Their idea is, that everybody ought to be able to have a say and an input about everything, even if they have no prior understanding, affiliation or experience of things.

    I don’t think that is a very good idea at all, I think it would lead to a lot of confusion and it could easily paralyze or logjam decision-making at every level of production, distribution, consumption, government activity and enterprise activity. Very soon this sort of democracy would probably lead to its contrary: a dictatorship, which tells people what to do with the threat of force. In fact, “war communism” is a sort of military dictatorship.

  13. Thanks again, Jurriaan, for your comments.
    As I said earlier, we don’t share the same political and philosophical starting point. For democratic communists influenced by Marx, all social production is powerful, and thus must be under democratic control. There can’t be any unelected elites, in any area, including science. It’s the job of any elected elite to EXPLAIN to their electors. If they can’t do that (or claim that they can explain to themselves, but not to us), that is politically unacceptable. Perhaps this link covers some of the issues involved:
    https://bostonreview.net/science-nature/gregory-e-kaebnick-science-doesnt-work-way
    I regard the ‘physicist/maths/reality’ belief as very similar to the medieval belief in ‘priests/Latin/bible’. Whilst the priests claimed access to the bible through Latin, which the laity couldn’t read, the priests had power to determine what the bible ‘said’, and the laity had to meekly accept that as ‘Truth’. Of course, once the Protestant movement translated the bible using a language that the laity could read, revolution followed, and the rule of the priests was overthrown. So it will be with ‘objective reality’, once we have access to an explanation which we can all understand – and thus vote upon this ‘truth’.
    Perhaps our political difference is between a faith in humanity (me), and a faith in a small part of humanity (you). I think that any socialism/communism must start from the former, and that it’s the latter that will lead inevitably to dictatorship, but not to democratic social production.
    I don’t believe in well-meaning elites, in politics or science.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *