Thursday, 17 May 2012

(Christos) - Utopianism and Violence

Ok, here it is...sorry it's long and incoherent.

In our final meeting, I would like to address two concerns, both of which are rather nebulous (the first more than the second) and which should therefore be taken as bases for discussion.

The first takes as its point of departure Berlin’s thesis in ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ from 1978, succinctly presented in the following two statements (the emphasis in both occasions is mine):

The idea of a perfect society is a very old dream, whether because of the ills of the present, which lead men to conceive of what their world would be like without them - to imagine some ideal state in which there was not misery and no greed, no danger or poverty or fear or brutalising labour or insecurity - or because these Utopias are fictions deliberately constructed as satires, intended to criticise the actual world and to shame those who control existing regimes, or those who suffer them too tamely; or perhaps they are social fantasies - simple exercises of the poetical imagination. (20)


What is common to all these worlds, whether they are conceived of as an earthly paradise or something beyond the grave, is that they display a static perfection in which human nature is finally fully realised, and all is still and immutable and eternal. (22)

What interests me here is that Berlin’s anti-utopianism, meaning his mistrust of all political systems that assume that ‘human nature is … immutable and eternal’, shares something (if only in spirit?) with the notion of ‘Original Sin’ that takes on a revolutionary/radical significance in Sorel/Proudhon (according to Blanton, also in Marx) AND that is also at the heart of various brands of conservatism (Quinton, Gray). I know that this is not to say much – for the key to understanding the politics of Sorel and Proudhon and the politics of conservatives such as Burke, Coleridge, Eliot rests in how they interpret ‘Original Sin’ – to distinctly antithetical ends. Yet Berlin’s formulation, and the place occupied by this notion (traditionally a theological doctrine but argued in the works of the above thinkers on entirely secular grounds) in his thought, at least merits, I think, our attention. Does it appear in the works of other thinkers studied in our reading group? Is it a dated/anachronistic framework through which to approach politics?


The second concern has to do with the role assigned to violence by thinkers including Sorel, Gobetti and Proudhon (and the opposition to violence of others). In thinking about the question of violence, I would like to bring in – dear-oh-dear – Žižek. Very briefly, Žižek dinstinguishes between two different kinds of violence: subjective and objective (a category that, in turn, includes symbolic and systematic violence):

This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call our “house of being” … this violence is not only at work in the obvious – and extensively studied – cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. (1)

The “catch” in understanding this ‘systemic’ violence is that it is ‘invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent … something like the notorious “dark matter” of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. (2)
Žižek proceeds to examine ‘the hypocrisy of those who, while combatting subjective violence, commit systematic violence that generate the very phenomena they abhor’, locating – as he always does! – the ultimate cause of violence in what he terms the ‘fear of the Neighbour’. He bemoans post-political bio-politics (‘an awesome example of theoretical jargon which, however, can easily be unpacked: “post-political” is a politics which claims to leave behind old ideological struggles and, instead, focus on expert management and administration, while “bio-politics” designates the regulation of the security and welfare of human lives as its primary goal’ (34)).

There’s also plenty of Lacanian and Heideggerean reading of violence inhering to language itself. I was interested in his discussion of Heidegger on violence in Introduction to Metaphysics – a fundamental violence that exists in the ‘essencing’ of language:

Violence is usually seen in terms of the domain in which concurring compromise and mutual assistance set the standard for Dasein, and accordingly all violence is necessarily deemed only a disturbance and an offence… The violence one, the creative one who sets forth into the unsaid, who breaks into the unthought, who compels what has never happened and makes appear what is unseen – this violent one stands at all times in daring… Therefore the violence-doer knows no kindness and conciliation (in the ordinary sense), no appeasement and mollification or prestige and by their confirmation … For such a one, disaster is the deepest and broadest Yes to the overwhelming … Essential de-cision, when it is carried out and when it resists the constantly pressing ensnarement in the everyday and the customary, has to use violence. This act of violence, this de-cided setting out upon the way to the Being of beings, moves humanity out of the hominess of what is most directly nearby and what is usual.

Žižek interprets this ontological violence as at the centre of Heidegger’s reading of the chorus from Antigone on the uncanny/demonic character of man. He writes:

As such, the Creator is “hypsipolis apolis” … he stands outside and above polis and its ethnos; he is unbound by any rules of “morality” (which are only a degenerative form of ethos); only as such can he ground a new form of ethos, of communal being in a polis… Of course, what reverberates here is the topic of an “illegal” violence that founds the rule of the law itself … the first victim of this violence is the Creator himself, who has to be erased with the advent of the new order that he grounded. (59)

Right – so assuming Žižek is right and provided that his analysis is a useful and pertinent frame, several questions arise:

(1) Is the kind of violence advocated by Sorel/Proudgon subjective, objective, subjective and complementary to objective violence?
(2) Does it prevent or lead to the politics of fear (bio-politics)?
(3) Does it renounce the political (politics based on a set of universal axioms)?
(4) Must the intelligentsia (Heidegger’s Creator) die?
(5) Finally, what are we to make of recent instances of violence (London Riots, for example?). For Žižek instances of violence such as the Paris outbursts of 2005 constitute a ‘a passage a l’acte’ or ‘an impulsive movement into action which can’t be translated into speech or thought and carries with it an intolerable weight of frustration’ (65). Because it lacks utopian vision, this violence should be understood in terms of ‘a vague, unarticulated ressentiment’ (63). Another kind of violence – Žižek finds this in Saramago’s Seeing – involves abstaining through anti-social (non-political) behaviour: ‘If one means by violence a radical upheaval of the basic social relations, then, crazy and tasteless as it may sound, the problem with historical monsters who slaughtered millions was that they were not violent enough. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do’ (183). Is this relevant to Gobetti’s anti-social behaviour?

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