Thursday 3 November 2011

What do we want?

Are there any other stories? What constitutes another story, as opposed to moaning about the prevailing and utterly disempowering discourse?

I’m often excited by what Slavoj Zizek chooses to write and speak about, and often disappointed by what he writes and says. After more than thirty years of trying, I still struggle to understand psychoanalytic and post-structuralist thinkers. Not to mention his apparently extreme case of ADHD. But on this year’s protests and riots, he seems to have found a more accessible voice and it’s as innovative and exciting as I always thought it might be. And he seems to have been speaking and dialoguing ‘on the barricades’, not just viewing the action from the towers of academia.

Reading this piece on the LRB Blog this week – an especially punchy version of what he’s been saying all over the place - was one of those ‘Yes!’ moments that sadly seem to get rarer as you get older. After evoking with devastating clarity the dynamics of globalisation and ‘democracy’, he goes on to address just as clearly the universal criticism of the anti-capitalist protesters’ lack of a concrete agenda:

The Wall Street protests are just a beginning, but one has to begin this way, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content. So we should not be distracted by the question: ‘But what do you want?’ This is the question addressed by male authority to the hysterical woman: ‘All your whining and complaining – do you have any idea what you really want?’ In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’
Great stuff – thank you! This is so much what I’ve been thinking: let’s not condemn the lack of an agenda. Of course, there has to be an agenda. But there also has to be a beginning, even if this must be without one. Zizek’s metaphor is such good one. Think of a woman (it’s usually a woman) steeling herself to leave an abusive partner: does she generally know already what she wants instead? Should she hang around until she does?

Elsewhere, Zizek says:
There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The 20th-century alternatives obviously did not work.

… What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new.
There is also resonance here with Buddhist philosophy and practice: the willingness to ‘sit with’ doubt and questioning, the famous ‘don’t-know mind’. It’s not a negative or passive thing, but hard and brave and necessary.

Coincidentally, I find today a perfect image of this state in Dave’s poem and another in Roselle’s.


Rosie said...

the words "dont know" seem to stick in many peoples' throats don't they?
Thanks for the links to the poems too...

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for the link to the article. Not a publication I read much.

Anonymous said...

Yes, sitting without knowing is the hardest thing for me in writing. I also think that protest is legitimate as a starting point. It's valid to say "this is wrong" without yet having the cure.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Excellent excellent!

Sabine said...

thank you for the wonderful link, also the one to Spitalfield

Parmanu said...

Great stuff indeed - thank you, Jean, for sharing these.