Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts on Realism and Solidarity (or, Celebrity Deathmatch: Zizek vs. Chomsky)

Several posts on this blog have discussed 21st century attempts at realism (Griffin’s post on Zero Dark Thirty, Owen’s post on Syriana, my post on The Wire). That topic is, I think, closely tied to how peoples movements (the current protests in Turkey and Brazil, the Occupy movement etc) are documented and received. In this piece I want to offer my own take on Zero Dark Thirty’s attempt at realism, discuss historicism in Slavoj Zizek’s and Noam Chomsky’s appraisals of protest movements, and tie that in with problems I see with American solidarity with revolutionary movements abroad.
Noam Chomsky
            The first half of Noam Chomsky’s 2010 book “Hopes and Prospects” contains transcripts of talks he gave around Latin America in the four years preceding the book’s publication. One recurrent theme in Chomsky’s work is “historical amnesia”. Chomsky describes the historical trends surrounding American imperialism in Latin America; the US government’s main foreign policy concerns (with that region among others) throughout its history have centered around increasing military surveillance and corporate exploitation. The press, because of “historical amnesia”, ignores rather than documents events (the state-sponsored kidnapping of democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Arstide in 2004, one among countless examples) which would point to easily discernable historical trends in military and corporate interests. In this way, the American view of the world is de-historicized. This jibes with Griffin’s criticism of Zero Dark Thirty, the film about the manhunt for bin Laden; that the film presents “Central Asia as a place where bad things happen”,  “We never get an inkling of perspective on the causes or even many of the consequences of the American war machine”. Because of this lack of historical awareness, the film is a failure as a work of realism. But I think there is more to it than that. If “Zero Dark Thirty” dealt with terrorists and their motives, then history would matter- bin Laden’s rage was mostly directed towards forces of globalization and empire, his religious fervor more of an incidental cultural artifact than a motivating cause. However, the film deals with CIA strategists on the ground- they may be agents of History, but they don’t know they are. They work in an ahistorical world, one where military strategy and goals are designed to line up with the expansion of empire. Chomsky writes, “By the end of WWII… US industrial production more than tripled, while industrial rivals were severely damaged or destroyed. The US had literally half the wealth of the entire world, along with incomparable security and military power, including nuclear weapons. High level planners and foreign policy advisers determined that in the new global system the US should ‘hold unquestioned power’ while ensuring the ‘limitation of any exercise of sovereignty' by states that might interfere with its global designs… Since then, fundamental policies have changed more in tactics than in substance.” Zero Dark Thirty’s realism would have been more than just an affectation if it had confronted the disparity between the moneyed “strategic interests” that deemed the war a useful tool and the CIA operatives who risked life and limb to capture and kill Osama bin Laden- essentially participating in an ideologically constructed narrative rather than a mission of real pertinence. This disparity creates people like (now disgraced) General Stanley McChrystal, who essentially lived to be biographied and had no stake in the war effort, as well as characters like Maya (portrayed by Jessica Chastain), whose insatiable drive to capture and kill bin Laden comes off as increasingly Quixotic as the al Qaeda leader disappears from the headlines.

Slavoj Zizek
            Slovenian philosopher and “Original Gangster” Slavoj Zizek offers a different critique of realism, and his own historicism. He assesses The Wire’s representation of the present and the Occupy movement’s reaction to the present through a Marxist lens. In my post from couple months ago  that dealt with Zizek explicitly I quoted from his book “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”; he stated that The Wire had failed to perform the “formal task” of rendering “in a TV narrative, a universe in which abstraction reigns.” That is, a world where neoliberal economic policies all-too-often (and all-too-arbitrarily) determine the living conditions of entire communities. Zizek, however, doesn’t offer any advice on how to go about fulfilling this “formal task”. His assessment of the Occupy Movement is similarly oracular (and perhaps obtuse). He urges us to look for “signs from the future”, i.e. events in the present that contain kernels of a future beyond capitalism. This line of thought is, I think, dangerously dualistic. Although far from being an orthodox Marxist (socialism or barbarism!, etc) Zizek maintains that our world is determined by our economic-philosophical epoch (in our case, capitalism), and that we ought to look for signs of the coming communist epoch within the present. It is no wonder, given the utterly abstract status he affords capitalism and communism, that he ends his book with theological musings rather than concrete advice for protestors or artists. Zizek’s attempt to tie protest movements from around the world together because of their shared connection to an utopian future rather than their shared interpretation of intolerable aspects of the present is dangerous, if only because it leads to navel-gazing rather than discussion.  Chomsky uses the term “really-existing-capitalism” to refer to the web of strategic interests that determine and interfere with economic practices. Here lies an important distinction between these two thinkers. Chomsky studies unjust tendencies that are continually asserted throughout history and applauds movements that recognize these tendencies and rise up against them, however rudderless the movements themselves are. The tone of his work is detached, yet tentatively optimistic. Zizek, and other strict anti-capitalists, is probably too radical to be widely relatable, and too prone to waxing philosophic about a human condition which claustrophobically oscillates between blindness and fatalism (we're blind to the forces determining us, yet aware that those forces will do us in). Marx wrote that truth is without
 passion and passion is without truth. The stark truths documented by Noam Chomsky bring to light a sea of moral relativism and cynicism that send one on excursions of philosophic passion which contain no essential relation to the truths that launched them. Finding a balance between the soft-spoken pragmatism embodied by Noam Chomsky and the brazen polemics of Zizek is a task for artists who hope to create works of realism as well as revolutionaries striving for a working understanding of the modern situation. Chomsky is occasionally bitterly sarcastic, and Zizek often narrates his own wooly solipsism, but neither of them gives in to those transgressive tendencies as far as I can tell.
         The current protests in Brazil and Turkey were widely reported in a blizzard of articles that were abundantly shared on Facebook. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has essentially turned on his people, mobilizing military forces to violently terrorize peaceful protestors. In Brazil, the government has been more positively (if superficially) engaged. But in both cases, the us vs. them mentality is the product of immediate material conditions, rather than a learned anti-capitalist viewpoint. The struggle in South America is between US-backed elites and peoples movements. For Zizek, capitalism is a transgressive abstract force; for Chomsky, it is a collection of historical tendencies. In Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, people are standing up and saying “no” to these historical tendencies, which are for them a daily fact of life. 
               In his “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Hegel equates abstraction with indifference; it makes sense then that living in an age where increasing overpopulation and increasing wealth inequality coexist (an increasingly few people who benefit from an economic paradigm are indifferent towards an increasingly huge number of people who are being fucked over by it) creates the impression that we live in a “universe where abstraction reigns”, as Zizek writes. Indifference reigns. Indifference towards historical tendencies. If American liberals are going to attain solidarity with protest movements abroad, it won’t be by occasional memetic appropriations in social media. Either we wait until the material conditions of our lives are determined as starkly as they are for people living in Latin America and Central Asia, or we confront the blithe indifference that exists beneath the surface of mainstream liberal narratives of progress. Otherwise, our solidarity will be worthless at best, toxic at worst.


  1. Very interesting, thanks a lot... hope you continue to dig in this site, I am still not confident we truly understand.

    Let me recapitulate in my own words how I understand you:
    Both Chomsky and Zizek interpret the global wave of protest movements as a reaction to capitalism. Through Chomsky's lense, people finally realize that their material living conditions are fundamentally a consequence of US imperialist capitalism. He should be optimistic then: The more people understand these facts, the shakier the foundation of empire.
    For Zizek, capitalism is less a concrete set of people, interests and policies, but an abstract matrix which determines the course of our lives. Through Zizek's lense, Occupy and Co could be "events in the present that contain kernels of a future beyond capitalism". However, change will not come automatically, but will depend on the strategic ability to bind together these multitudes into one broad movement. His hope: a common utopia can bin together these heterogeneous movements.His project: construct this utopia from the debris of earlier emancipatory projects (Marxism, Christianity, Lacan).
    Hence, the recent skirmish between them points to the differences in their understanding how "history works" and what the entry points for progressive actors are. Chomsky advises "raise awareness for the truth, e.g. by making known empirical facts", as the Emperor would fall when everybody can see that he is naked.
    In Zizek's view, capitalism as an ideology is a much more resilient force. Even if 'exposing the truth' is one indispensable element to shake people out of the matrix, making the matrix visible requires a standpoint outside of it (cannot see the forest because of the trees). At the same time, mobilising a critical mass of counter-hegemonic actors requires a common utopia (a future beyond capitalism). Only if people can imagine another/ better world, they are wiling to fight for it. And only this struggle can bring down the matrix/ empire.

  2. Hi MS, thanks so much for reading, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. You definitely understand my post! I think that the zizek/chomsky debate could hopefully open a space where chomsky's brand of pragmatism and zizeks emancipatory imagination can coexist and build off of each other, because both are (in my view) plausible and useful reactions to late capitalism.