Tag Archives: Philosophy

Slavoj Žižek – Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept

Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept

Slavoj ŽižekEvent: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept (Melville House 2014)

With Žižek, you sort of have to take the good with the bad.  Event falls into the category of the “bad”.  He explains the philosophical concept of the “event” as developed primarily by Alain Badiou — though Badiou is only mentioned briefly toward the end as the person who largely developed this view of “events” 25 years ago.  Anyway, an “event” is “[a]t first approach, . . . the effect that seems to exceed its causes” (p. 5) but it is further “the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme” and jumps from one point to another through pervading deadlocks, (p. 7), in which “reality includes fiction (or fantasy),” and “the right choice only emerges after the wrong one.”  (p. 95).  Such an “event” is not inherently good or evil, it has no specific content.

Žižek typically alternates between “big” and “little” books, with some newspaper pieces and other miscellany interspersed.  His last “big” one was a reinterpretation of Hegel, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (2012).  His last “little” one, aside from mere collections of interviews, was The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012).  As usual, he borrows quite a lot from his prior works, I spotted bits lifted from In Defense of Lost Causes (2008), Less Than Nothing and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously without really looking that carefully.

Although his “little” books are often more readable, due to less space for aimless digressions and uninteresting turf wars with other academics, this one lacks that readable quality.  He addresses points he has made elsewhere, often verbatim, but shortens them to the point that they will hardly be comprehensible unless you have read his other works, possibly even multiple prior works.

So, like Badiou, Žižek works out the position of continental philosophy that “ideology” has supremacy over “facts”.

“In an event, things not only change, what changes is the very parameter by which we measure the facts of change, i.e., a turning point changes the entire field within which facts appear.”  (p. 159).

His arguments here seem flimsy most of the time.  This is strange because he’s made these arguments before, more convincingly.  There just does not seem to be a good reason for these arguments to be so curt and thin, conclusory even.  He moves on to the next before it seems like he’s finished his prior thought.

A book like this just encourages the man’s critics who label him a charlatan.  It is for the most part uninteresting and superfluous.  To the extent that there are a few small new ideas, better to wait until the next time, when Žižek recycles and expands them to the point where they are interesting and defensible.  The man still has interesting things to say (take, for instance a recent newspaper op-ed, “ISIS Is a Disgrace to True Fundamentalism”).  Some of that wit makes brief appearances here, like comments on how weird and lewd acts in public are not part of some sort of “regression” to an animalistic state but a continuation of the privatization of public space (akin to the “enclosure of the commons”) — it is public space that is disappearing, not private space.  Event as a whole, however, seems like a throwaway.

Alain Badiou – In Praise of Love

In Praise of Love

Alain Badiou with Nicolas Truong (Peter Bush, transl.) – In Praise of Love [Elogie de l’amour] (New Press 2012, Flammarion 2009)

Alain Badiou is among the more vital philosophers alive today.  Not that many care.  He appears in Godard‘s Film Socialisme delivering a lecture to an empty hall on board a cruise ship (Godard insists he listed Badiou’s presentation on the ship’s social itinerary).  It is worth mentioning this because Badiou references the film project in this book, In Praise of Love, but also because the book draws its title from another Godard film of the same name.

Badiou begins the slender — and highly readable — volume critiquing the role philosophers have or have not played in investigating love.  He finds the sexless, lonely philosophers who make up a basic course in the field somewhat poor in experience.

For Badiou, love is about “see[ing] the world from the point of view of two rather than one.”

“[W]hat kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one?  What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?  This is what I believe love to be.” p. 22

He calls this a “Two scene.”  It is “the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.”  It is something more than the concerns of a single individual.

“[Love] is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.” p. 25

This is a proposition that requires, most fundamentally, a risk.  In his own philosophical jargon, mentioned in the book but also explained in plain terms, this initial encounter is an “event” (a concept he laid out in Being and Event [L’ être et l’événement] (1988)).  An “event” is something that is only authentically possible when it seems to exceed its causes, a rupture in what seems possible under prevailing norms giving rise to a fleeting subjective decision point about how to experience the world.  There is just something likeably good about this thesis.  But even if there might be widespread agreement on this point, for Badiou, it is only a starting point.

Drawing from Arthur Rimbaud‘s line in A Season in Hell [Une saison en enfer] that “love needs to be reinvented” he stresses the need to continually choose to construct the “Two scene”.  This, in Badiou’s jargon, is a “truth procedure.”  In the face of changing events he sees a need to reinvent the “Two scene” in the context of each circumstance, which is to say moving from point to point, to replay the initial declaration and “find the terms for a new declaration.”

“Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” p. 32

Badiou denigrates the view of love in a typical theatrical play being about and culminating with marriage, the sorts of stories in which the wedding takes place at the end and we are to assume that therefore “love” has been achieved, and is over, complete.  He instead, somewhat provocatively, points to Samuel Beckett as “a writer of the obstinancy of love.”  Perhaps another example beyond those given by Badiou, within the limited range of Hollywood movies, is the film The Five-Year Engagement (2012), in which the main characters initially try to sort out their lives before getting married only to repeatedly choose to view their lives in terms of a being a couple.

Badiou even applies his ideas of love to politics.  He sees it as a way to limit identity politics, and “integrate the most extensive divergences” in a kind of internationalism that permits real equality.  He contrasts that project of “love” with the “reactionary project” that “is always the defense of ‘our values’, . . . as the only possible identity.”  This is his perspective on multiculturalism, and continues his support for secular states in which people of different religions, cultures and ethnicity can live together.

Some of the specific examples illustrating the concepts tackled in the book may be highbrow, or at least very French.  But Badiou frames his discussion of love in terms that are freed from the contexts of his examples.  Badiou’s thoughts on love are at once immediately understandable and uniquely his own.  He is most concerned with what sustains a way of subjectively experiencing the world.  He sees “love” as an important process for doing so that is more than just a one-time declaration, or a finish line.  It is an unstable thing.  This is what makes it so vital.  Philosophy is all about asking better questions.  Badiou is asking questions that confront everyone.  He’s put the question forward in a way that has a curious blend of practicality and theoretical weight.  Curious readers should give his ideas a chance.

Ole Bjerg – Making Money

Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism

Ole BjergMaking Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso 2014)

With Making Money, Ole Bjerg presents a philosophical — and psychoanalytic — analysis of contemporary economics and finance.  He draws explicitly from the theories of Slavoj Žižek. What he delivers is one of the most coherent offerings yet on the nature of contemporary economics.  The first parts of the book map out the basic philosophical/psychoanalytic concepts being applied, and briefly traces their roots.  Primarily, these involve assessments of the “orders” of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary.  These are concepts that Žižek imported directly from French psychiatrist/philosopher Jacques Lacan.  From that foundation, the theories are applied to explain the origins and conception of money itself.  This is among the most enlightening parts of the book.  Many others have explored this topic (notably, David Graeber‘s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2010), among others).  But this telling is rather concise, with much of the space in the book devoted to a theory of money that is scrupulously consistent with a single theory, rather than just a patchwork of isolated, if compelling, commentaries that stop short of articulating a unifying theory.  Then, in the final parts of the book, Bjerg tackles the elements of the recent crisis in the financial/banking sector, and concludes, briefly, with essentially a single policy recommendation.  Overall, he’s written one of the most compelling and cohesive accounts of modern economics and finance.  Although, no doubt, his reliance on the continental philosophy of Žižek for his analysis will rekindle all the usual disputes about the utility of continental philosophy.

The title of the book derives from the observation that banks are quite literally given the nearly unique privilege (aside from increasingly impotent governments) of “making money” from thin air.  In order to clear accounts between clients, and between themselves, banks use “fractional reserve” policies to loan out far more “credit money” than they possess (reserves) in terms of government-issued cash, gold, or the like.  This is sort of the basis for Bertold Brecht‘s quip from The Threepenny Opera, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”  Bank (credit) money now dwarfs government (fiat) money.  But in that empirical shift toward credit money, Bjerg also detects a philosophical shift.  Credit money fuels derivatives trading — the practice of banks and financial institutions making bets (default swaps, futures, etc.) derived from the “risk” associated with other financial activities (price movements on bonds or stocks, etc.).

The key narrative is an explanation of how money serves a symbolic function, and the modern world permits banks to create “credit money” independent of governments and ordinary citizens.  This narrative allows Bjerg to offer some quite substantial commentary on one of the most fundamental (and fundamentally unresolved) questions of economics: what is “value” and how is it determined?  Applying Žižek, Bjerg concludes that there is economic “value” that is a hard kernel of an unknowable truth (the Real), represented only by purely symbolic representations of “price”.  In the contemporary age, the imaginary “fantasy” in finance and economics is of “being in the market”, which posits that the mere ability to offer (symbolic) prices in the a market is the desire (ideology – in the imaginary order) that drives the economy. In neoclassical economics, statistics (math) and the “efficient market hypothesis” are the dominant ways that “being in the market” is expressed.

Bjerg faults “efficient market hypothesis” models for what Žižek has called (in In Defense of Lost Causes, referring to a Donald Rumsfield speech) “unknown knowns” in the four-part schema of kinds of knowledge: “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, “unknown unknowns” and “unknown knowns” (the last being the one that Rumsfeld neglects to mention).  The “unknown knowns”, according to Žižek, are “the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves.” This recalls Charles F. Kettering‘s quip, “It ain’t them things you don’t know what gets you into trouble, it’s them things you know for sure what ain’t so.”  Bjerg states that “risk management” embedded in models built on the “efficient market hypothesis” disavow the existence of systemic risk, and refuse to acknowledge the volatility and risk that they engender in the really-existing economy of the present:

“The knowledge that the model does not conform to the nature of actual reality is not incorporated into the model itself.  It remains an unknown known.”  (p. 229).

More specifically, Bjerg states:

“the unknown known of financial markets [is] the notion that prices in financial markets behave in a way that makes them subject to probabilistic reasoning.  This form of reasoning in finance presupposes the distinction between known unknowns (the direction of future price movements) and known knowns (the historic price volatility of an asset).  The unknown known is the very distinction between these two categories of knowledge.”  (p. 228).

This offers a strikingly clear explanation for how neoclassical economics can create complex mathematical formulas to model economic activity that fundamentally break down due to a lack of connection between their variables and the real world — an effort to act as if the symbolic is the real, in Žižek’s/Lacan’s terms.  The denial of the ideology that desires “being in the market” facilitates and reinforces financialization of the economy.

There is a kind of dual causality in modern finance and economics that places money further away from “real value”.  Symbolic constructs (financial derivatives) are piled on top of symbolic constructs (prices, risks), with the “belief in being in the market” seen as the endgame.  This sort of thinking ties the two symbolic constructs together such that each legitimates the other, while marginalizing the role of “real value” (production, etc.).  The inherent limits of “real” production imposed by scarce labor and raw material resources is sidestepped to allow theoretically unlimited “credit money” creation.  This sort of thinking also basically sidesteps the notion of conscious political objectives beyond the mere creation and maintenance of “a market”.  A few examples in the book highlight this.  Right after the 2007-08 financial crash, Ben Bernanke claimed that “we won’t have an economy on Monday” without a government bailout of the financial sector, which reveals a mode of thinking that only recognizes a desire for financial markets to exist (“being in the market”) and no discernible desire for other political ends, such as equality, public health and welfare, etc.  Rather than an explicit discussion of the desires that political processes should pursue, the desire for “being in the market” is disavowed — assumed away.

The analysis in Making Money is meant to be a purely philosophical proof.  This is the book’s single greatest strength.  If you come to it looking for a catalog of citations to other writers, particularly economic ones, who have reached the same (or different) conclusions, then you are looking in the wrong place.  There have been, indeed, quite many economists who have reached essentially all the same conclusions as Bjerg (Veblen, Hudson, Keen, Hossein-zadeh, Nasser, etc., etc.).  But many critical economists, all “heterodox” ones who work almost entirely outside the realm of mainstream recognition, sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to write griping tracts that wallow in a sort of “sour grapes” mentality.  They bemoan that how no matter how correct they are, no matter how logically superior their arguments, no matter how many facts support them and contradict competing theory…no one listens — going so far as to even suggest that mainstream economists get where they are precisely because they are wrong.  Bjerg cuts through all of that.  He provides, in a sense, an independent proof.  He is able to step partially outside the fray, and describe the key aspects that bound the fray, because he resorts to psychoanalytic techniques.  Making Money places continental philosophy and psychoanalysis alongside anthropology (Graeber), sociology (Bourdieu), physical science (Soddy), and maybe a few other academic disciplines lining up against neoclassical economics, which is looking increasingly isolated from all other academic disciplines and rather nakedly aligned with the finance/banking sector and their political parties in a strictly partisan way.

That recommendation Bjerg makes at the end of the book?  Well, Bjerg arrives at the same conclusion that Nobel prize winning chemist Frederick Soddy arrived at almost a century ago: elimination of fractional reserve banking.  This sole policy proposal is about denying banks the ability to create “credit money”.  However, Soddy is not mentioned here — nor, for that matter, is Marx and Engels‘ demand in The Communist Manifesto: “5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.” Instead, Bjerg cites Irving Fisher‘s “100 percent reserve” proposal, and latter-day economists who endorse Fisher’s proposal (which was adopted from Soddy).  Whatever Bjerg’s reasons for citing the people he cites, this has the implicit effect of downplaying Soddy’s reputation as a “crank” and accentuates Fisher’s status as a respected pillar of conservative economics, thereby allowing Bjerg to proffer a grand compromise between politics of the left and right to reform finance.  More than likely, Bjerg will be ignored just as much as Soddy, Veblen, and all the others.  That is too bad, because at a conceptual level this book is far more compelling than anything dealing with economics that touches the bestseller lists.

But there is something else useful about Bjerg’s critique.  His appeal is at the level of psychology.  He is not directly politically attacking the captains of finance as being “bad actors”, though the result of his proposal would be to completely remove the greatest windfall privilege of the banking and finance sector and thereby decimate the finance sector as it really exists today.  Rather, he is trying to reveal what the banking sector desires through their economic theories.  At this level, anyone can ask: is that what I desire too?  It is hard to change desires.  But psychoanalysis posits that it is possible.  Bjerg is suggesting that it is better to work to desire something (anything) in the “real economy” of production than to merely desire “being in the market”.  The elimination of fractional reserve banking would be the most direct policy approach in making such a change.  It would allow the question of how money is created to be politicized, that is, put forward as a topic for explicit political debate.

Chomsky vs. Žižek

Under the category of “old news”, there was a long-distance argument back in 2013 between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek on the significance (or lack thereof) of each other’s work.

It began with Chomsky describing Žižek’s work as empty “posturing”.  Asked about the comments during a Q&A session for an unrelated presentation, Žižek responded (sort of).  Žižek’s initial “response” seemed rather stupid and full of baseless attacks.  So, Chomsky responded substantively, calling Žižek’s positions “fantasy”.  At that point, Žižek finally prepared a substantive written response.

The winner of this “debate”?  Žižek, clearly.  The early comments from Žižek were gibberish, but also possibly misquoted and certainly “improvised” as he later acknowledged.  But his final response points out some serious flaws in Chomsky’s “philosophy” and some clear hypocrisies.  Chomsky never responded thereafter, as best as can be seen.

For worthy summaries of the debate, and how it really represents a generic one between analytic philosophy (Chomsky) and continental philosophy (Žižek), see The Guardian and The Partially Examined Life.  This is much like the distinction between Isaac Newton’s (analytic) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (continental) views on color.