Notes on Zizek’s Absolute Recoil (2)

When ever Marxists lift their attention from vulgar matters and start creating theories of the subject, it is always the bourgeois subject that seems to need theorizing. Perhaps there is no other kind.

Althusser illustrates his theory of ideology with an anecdote about being hailed in the street by a cop: “Hey you!” In recognizing (or rather mis-recognizing) oneself when being hailed as the subject addressed by power, one become the subject of an ideology.

But what if one takes this anecdote seriously and asks about what else might happen in the encounter with a cop in the street? As I write, people in the town of Ferguson near St Louis is still taking to the streets and refusing to be ‘good subjects’ over the shooting by a cop of an unarmed young Black youth.

For people of color, “Hey you!” might mean something quite different. It might mean that it does not matter whether you are guilty or not, or whether you think you are guilty or not. A cop has seen you who automatically ‘knows’ you are guilty.

A person of color in today’s United States might be less worries about the hail of address and more about the hail of bullets. There is no neat partition between the ideological and repressive state apparatuses. The police rather selectively turn the ideological face toward property-owners, but it is the repressive boot that many people so more regularly get to see.

Moreover, it matters which street you happen to be on. There is no universal abstract ‘street’. All streets have qualities, affordances, ambiances – psychogeographies – and much else besides.

Surely Althusser might have known this. He was writing just after the peak of the Algerian war, when the Paris police were at war with Algerian freedom fighters, when Paris regularly had curfews, and Algerians were ending up dead in the Seine with their hands handcuffed behind their backs.

And surely his “Hey you!” anecdote owes more than a little to Sartre, who had used a similar anecdote about cops and the street to illustrate what a situation is. If I go out after curfew, I exercise my freedom, but I don’t know the exact contours of freedom’s limit. The cops might be there to challenge me, or they might not. Not only do street have affordances, they can be variable. Sartre, who in other respects probably started the Marxist obsession with the bourgeois subject, at least knew a little bit about streets.

But none of these are objections that occur to Zizek, in his commentary on Althusser in Absolute Recoil. The sort of street Marxism that passes from Sartre to Debord and Lefebvre, does not show up in Althusser or Zizek, for whom the anecdote about what is clearly the bourgeois subject being hailed by the police grounds a theory of universal subject – which is to say, the bourgeois subject.

Althusser’s anecdote does deal with the relation between ideology and repression, but in the following manner: first, force can be shown, so as not to have to be used; secondly, force does not even have to be shown, so as not to have to be used. Zizek: ”First, one makes a show of force so as not to have to use it; then, one does not make a show of force so as not to have to use it. We are effectively dealing here with a kind of negation of the negation….” (53)

The first is the real, the second is the symbolic. And so even with the non-showing of force, force is still present as that “little piece of the real” (54) still inheres in the symbolic. Zizek’s reading of Althusser is a fun one – if one is a bourgeois subject. For Zizek what elides Althusser’s theory is the gap in knowledge that requires supplement with belief. In Althusser the ideological field constructs subject positions, while a science does not. In Zizek, it is ideology all the way down.

Zizek will then use the cop-anecdote to found an allegedly ‘radical’ materialism, one not ‘just’ about the priority of the material, but the “immanent materiality of the ideal order itself” (55) Note, however, that the prior level of the material, that of a ‘street Marxism’, here does not occur at all. We immediately to the ethereal real of the bourgeois subject.

Our subject is then not going to be the unreasonable use of direct violence against Black bodies by cops who seem to get their armaments out of Marvel comics. Rather it is going to be the unreasonable taint at the heart of reason itself, the impossibility of a knowledge that does not traverse non-knowledge. Any actual materiality can only ever be mentioned in passing in Zizek: his subject is the subject, which is everywhere.

Zizek:“Hegel’s point is that the endless postponement of the arrival of a fully moral universe is not just an effect of the gap between the purity of the Ideal and the empirical circumstances which prevent its full actualization, it is located in this Ideal itself, inscribing a contradiction (a self-sabotaging desire) into its very heart.” (56) For those for whom irrational violence does not arrive first from without.

For Zizek, contra Habermas, the tendency to cheat, lie, to ‘distort’ language, is not a secondary effect but is at the core of language itself. Hence a certain internal difficulty in those regimens for producing good bourgeois subjects in which one goes through the rituals, the external manifestations, and in the process becomes a believer. In Pascal, and in a different mode in Althusser, external obedience is the beginnings of faith – or in Althusser’s terms, of ideology.

For Zizek, of course, it all “functions in a much more twisted way” (62) The [bourgeois] subject, who hears the “Hey you!” in the street, feels both innocence but also Kafkaesque guilt upon being hailed. “What remains ‘unthought’ in Althusser’s theory of interpolation is thus the fact that, prior to ideological recognition, we have an intermediate moment of obscene, impenetrable interpellation without identification, a kind of vanishing mediator that has to become invisible if the subject is to achieve symbolic identity….” (64)

Or in short, who is the bourgeois subject before it becomes the bourgeois subject, (mis)recognizing itself as hailed? But why should that even be our question? Why not ask: who is the Black man hailed by the police in today’s America? What if there is no universal act of ‘enhailment’ into the space of ideology? Who even gets to be a subject? Who rather gets a bullet in the back?

Thus, we can answer Zizek’s question, but perhaps not in the way he intended. Zizek: “What would a materialism look like which fully took into account this traumatic core of subjectivity irreducible to natural processes? In other words, what would a materialism look like which fully assumed the main result of transcendental idealism: the gap in the natural order signaled by the emergence of subjectivity?” (72) It would give us a definition of the bourgeois: those for whom there appears to be a gap in the natural order.

The truth of Althusser’s theory of the bourgeois subject is to be found in Badiou’s reversal. For Althusser subjectivity is ideological, for Badiou, Truth is subjective. This is the foundation of Badiou’s bourgeois communism. Zizek’s position will end up close to this, but not before subjecting Badiou to the strictures of a more orthodox Lacanian critique. What the two of them together – Badizek – opposed is “democratic materialism.”

Zizek: “The predominant philosophical struggle occurs today within materialism, between democratic and dialectical materialism – and what characterizes dialectical materialism is precisely that it incorporates the idealist legacy, against vulgar democratic materialism in all its guises, from scientific naturalism to the post-Deleuzian assertion of spiritualized ‘vibrant’ matter. Dialectical materialism is, first, a materialism without matter…it is a materialism with an Idea…” (73)

Now, I have my differences with the post-Deleuzians on precisely their proclivities towards forms of vitalism (hence my interest in strong critics of vitalism such as the neglected Needham). But here I must close ranks with the post-deleuzians against the onslaught of this nonsense.

Zizek: “materialism’s problem is how to explain the rise of an eternal Idea out of the activity of people caught in a finite historical situation.” (73) Well no, but that is Badiou’s problem. The answer is the mystified notion of the event as a kind of non-dialectical, contingent starting point of the dialectic.

If for Althusser the subject is the one interpolated by the “hey you,” of the ideological state apparatus, in Badiou the subject is the one who says yes to the event. The subject is curiously not that which has free choice, but is the product of a free choice, a choice of fidelity to an event. But who exactly gets to be a subject of an event?

On this Badiou has changed his mind. In Being and Event, only those who name and love the event are its subjects. Later, in Logic of Worlds, the event includes other kinds of subjects besides those who affirm it, even though it still excludes the neutral observer. Now there is the faithful subject, the reactive subject, the obscure subject and “the resurrection.” The event localizes the void in the subjects who not only affirm it but acknowledge it.

Zizek: “We thus have three (logically, if not temporally) consecutive moments: the primordial unlocalizable void of multiplicity; the event as the localization of a previously unlocalizable void; and the process of subjectivization which emerges out of the free decision to choose fidelity to the event.” (77)

One is reminded here of Sartre, perhaps the great thinker of the bourgeois subject, for whom the world just is, made by nobody, maintained by nobody, just waiting for the bourgeois subject to arrive to give it all meaning. That same Sartre who had the nerve to accuse the woman and the waiter of living in bad faith. Bourgeois subjects tend not to know who makes the world for them, and to be rather judgy about those who do.

But if it takes a special event to make a subject, what about those of us wannabe bourgeois subjects who live in boring times? Even better! Those are the times of the anticipatory subject who holds open a place for a political subject to come – the philosophical subject!

The philosopher gets to be the proto-bourgeois subject. Zizek: “… the subject is prior to the process of subjectivization: this process fills in the void (the empty form) that is the pure subject.” (80) You won’t get to be Lenin (and still less Bogdanov) but – even better! – you get to be Plekhanov.

The subject is thus not the unstable, provisional, plural thing that it might be for ‘democratic’ materialisms, be they deleuzian or not. For this so-called dialectical materialism the subject is first and last, first the empty frame, the pure form, and then the full subject that chooses to affirm the event in some manner.

This is unfortunate, as in Zizek the question never really gets asked as to what produces the subject other than the pure empty frame of the subject. If there was a productive side to the deleuzian or democratic materialism, it is in work such as Maurizio Lazzarato’s Signs and Machines, or Béatriz Préciado’s Pornotopia and Testo Junkie – works which really inquire into the apparatus that produces subjects and their corresponding objects. These books seems to me closer to the Marxist tradition in asking after the means of production – in this case not of the commodity but of the corresponding subjects that might produce and consume them.

Another point on which one might choose to side (with some reservations) with the deleuzians is in their refusal of a priori hierarchies of the human and the non-human. Here Zizek joins hands with those like Ray Brassier who want to celebrate a kind of scientific rationality which can only be a firstly human but then possibly posthuman attribute.

Weirdly, the marking off of the human is here going to be for quite opposite qualities, in the one case for a rationality that can supersede the human, the other for a rationality that is always and necessarily traversed by some merely human and subjective irrationality. And, as is all too clear from Althusser’s interpolation scene, or Badiou’s insistence on the rarity of the event that makes the subject – only certain humans ever seem to get to be fully human – even if these are philosophers who claim to speak in the name of a universality.

As Zizek notes, (apropos Badiou) animals merely follow their tasks, they do not reflect upon them. Humans, however, have the magical capacity to decide to follow or more often not follow the event. Zizek: “the human being is a lazy animal.” (83) The subject gets bored, depressed, melancholic. Here he touches for a moment on a lively contemporary theme.

This depressive subjectivity has its uses, as it is also a way of evading interpolation. In the over-developed world, the worker is supposed to be ‘on’ all the time, constantly innovating and disrupting itself. As Franco Berardi notes (in a deluzian mode) depression is now a common form of resistance, even if not actively chosen to be such.

Zizek wants to find a contradiction between Berardi and Hardt + Negri on this. For the former, the ‘cognitariat’ withdraws from such demands, for the latter, it is supposed to plunge on in to immaterial labor, the increasingly social quality of which will eventually render the capitalist class superfluous. But really, it is more that neither Hardt + Negri nor Berardi have a sharp enough analysis of the contemporary means of production, which at one and the same time draws the social directly into production, but yet renders it asocial, unable to compose itself as itself.

But if given the ‘choice’, one has to go here with Hardt + Negri and Berardi and the other deleuzians, who at least are asking the right sorts of questions, about how subjectivity is industrially produced, rather than finding again and again the same transcendental subject, which is of course always there when one applies a hermeneutic strategy whose whole point is to always find it.

Predictably enough, Zizek does not really inquire very far into the production of the subject today. Instead, we get that old Zizekian chestnut, Chesterton, and his charmingly everyday defenses of religious orthodoxy, and this time without the twist. For Chesterton, the law-breaker is boring, whereas the police are interesting. Promiscuity is boring, marriage is a “true adventure.” (87) Heresy is boring, orthodoxy – be it Catholic or Lacanian, is supposedly a hoot. Here for once Zizek is not kidding.

And thus, the non-evental time turns out not to be a problem either: “the properly Hegelian approach posits the anticipatory ‘empty’ subject as the universal model, as the zero-level of subjectivity – it is only in the void of anticipation that the universal form of subjectivity appears as such.” (87) One simply repeats the philosophical procedure over and over, awaiting an event that comes from without – even if it gets a little boring.

It may well be the case that the one thing that is not obvious about a philosophy is what it actually does. But what could not be clearer about Zizek is the way he legitimates the existence of a philosophically inclined bourgeois subject in an era which probably no longer has or needs either a bourgeoisie or subjects. The ruling class is of another order now, and the machines that manage bodies and produce objects may no longer exactly produce subjects to correspond to them, even on the rather generous understanding of ‘subject’ as the deluzians understand to the term.

What could be better in such an age to be a kind of Jesuitical-Lacanian sage? Awaiting the great event which one secrets hopes and even knows will not happen. Producing the purely philosophical subject that only has to prepare the way. Taking an interest only in those things that speak to such a mode of thinking. Let’s talk about Wagner and Heidegger and Beckett – just like the bourgeois intellectuals of old! Let’s not sully ourselves with any knowledge of how the world actually works. And in our leisure time – pulp fiction, and Pulp Fiction. All with the charming and seemingly daring alibi that this is a “dialectical materialism.” No wonder it has been popular, even if – like the actual diamat of old – the charm is wearing thin.


McKenzie Wark

  • Radek Piskorski

    I don’t understand why it’s only the bourgeois “for whom there appears to be a gap in the natural order”.

    • Ivan

      I think the issue at hand is more the positing of a universal, transcendental subject who turns out to be instead just a Western, bourgeois subject. It is for this subject that this gap is assumed to exist. For other, non bourgeois subject this or other gaps may also be present, the point is that the experience of subjectivity and the functioning of ideology may be very different to a young black man, say, in Ferguson. This is the fundamental problem with the Zizek subject.

      • mckenziewark

        It makes the subject as effect unavailable as object of analysis, because its assumed to be transcendental, and hence in a sense given as universal.

        • nicholasballesteros

          isn’t this mainly argument mainly taken from Foucault’s critique of Kant? That Kant’s formula of positing the universal subject of Reason must be flipped into a practical analytic of subjective singularities. so Foucault in turn posits the study of limits on the subject from the viewpoint of arbitrary constraints given through forms of rationalities and technological practices (governmentality etc.) but i guess the counter gesture i want to suggest (and why i think zizek always dismisses foucault) is that this discursive domain seeks to erase the gap by usually refering to some historically originary and more ‘pure’ state. or that it seeks solidarity through victimhood which is to only stay within those confines. i think the best example of how zizek’s formula can work for the non-borgeois subject (or the western subject who is nonetheless different from the western subject) is the haitian revolutionaries singing the marseilles. the true message being not “expropriate the expropriators!” , but “we are more french, than even you french!”

          • nicholasballesteros

            basically that the the universal bourgeois subject can only truly be actualized by those who are, according to the logic of the ‘symptomal torsion’, the exluded who’s very exclusion generates the coordinates of the order itself, and the standard life as normal everyday for everyone else

    • mckenziewark

      The bourgeois understands him/herself as subject in the sense of being autonomous, singular, bounded, and in a relation of exteriority with nature, held as property.

  • dmf
Previous post

Notes on Zizek's Absolute Recoil

Next post

Spatial Ordering of Exile: The Architecture of Palestinian Refugee Camps