Readers of Slavoj Žižek are familiar with the superego injunction to ‘Enjoy!’. This superegoic injunction is a codename for desire in our age of globalization:
It was Nietzsche who observed that ‘human beings do not desire happiness, only the Englishmen desire happiness’—today’s globalized hedonism is thus merely the obverse of the fact that, in the conditions of global capitalism, we are ideologically ‘all Englishmen’ (or, rather, Anglo-Saxon Americans…). So what is wrong with the rule of the pleasure principle? In Kant’s description, ethical duty functions like a foreign intruder that disturbs the subject’s homeostatic balance, its unbearable pressure forcing the subject to act ‘beyond the pleasure principle,’ ignoring the pursuit of pleasures. For Lacan, exactly the same description holds for desire, which is why enjoyment is not something that comes naturally to the subject, as a realization of his or her inner potential, but is the content of a traumatic superegoic injunction. (Žižek, 2012)
Žižek has been showing the significance of this injunction in various contexts, in helping us to detect various forms of compulsions that effectively keep the system going. However, this ‘continuation’ of the system is certainly not a forward progression, but -let us say- an historical antiprogression in which many production & development systems of modern capitalism are becoming piece by piece unsustainable theoretically and practically on their respective historical foundations.
This is not to say that our actions are distinguished from capitalism, capitalism itself from the resistance against it, or antiprogression as we call it from partial progressions of various kinds. Insofar as we cannot understand it, we cannot reason on it, we cannot be part of it, the whole thing that includes social media, resistances, fundamental rights, immigration, war, peace, hunger, economy, ecology, commons, communication, tradition, lifestyle, terrorism, agreements, institutions and so on and so on that we call ‘humanity’ at times, ‘civilization’ or ‘capitalism’ at times, becomes a mystery that cannot be captured by some kind of a principal contradiction, so to say.
In a recent conference in Istanbul (Tok, 2013) apropos of the Gezi Park resistance, Alain Badiou asked a question to express such a principal contradiction: How can we combine the question of ‘equality’ with the question of ‘freedom’ today, given that they were defined and solved as two separate problems in the French revolution? These two separate solutions correspond to what we now know as ‘law’ and ‘art’.
In Gezi Park and other resistance movements, we can observe the return of this question of the French revolution. In general, globally, it is becoming clearer and clearer that ‘law’ has become equality for those that are more free, and ‘art’ has become freedom for those that are more equal. In the same conference, Slavoj Žižek proposed to revitalize Rousseau’s concept of General Will as the new universality of this emerging revolutionary question.
General Will as Full speech
A social problem becomes a ‘revolutionary question’ insofar as it cannot be reduced down to ‘issues’ and ‘topics’. Such reductions may reach at grammatically and/or politically correct sentences, policies, reports, figures, activities, balances, but none of these ‘assets’ can express itself as General Will.
The concept of General Will is closer to the psychoanalytic concept of ‘full speech’:
Full speech is speech which aims at, which forms, the truth such as it becomes established in the recognition of one person by another. Full speech is speech which performs. One of the subjects finds himself, afterwards, other than he was before. That is why this dimension cannot be evaded in the analytic experience.
We cannot think of the analytic experience as a game, a lure, an intrigue based on an illusion, a suggestion. Its stake is full speech. Once this point has been made, as you might have already noticed, lots of things sort themselves out and are clarified, but lots of paradoxes and contradictions appear. The value of this conception is precisely to bring out these paradoxes and contradictions, which doesn’t make them opacities and obscurities. On the contrary, it is often what appears to be harmonious and comprehensible which harbours some opacity. And inversely it is in the antinomy, in the gap, in the difficulty, that we happen upon opportunities for transparency. This is the point of view on which our method is founded, and so, I hope, is our progress. (Lacan, 1988)
Full speech is a speech act that can result in decisions that can be conscious or unconscious. These decisions can be said to belong both to the speaker(s) and the listener(s), since ‘full speech is defined by the fact that it is identical to what it speaks about’ (Lacan, 2006). Since General Will of a revolutionary question consists of full speech, what we call ‘capitalism’ is ultimately any situational background that can prepare for such full speech.
To describe the situational background of the current revolutionary question, let us return to the superego injunction to ‘Enjoy!’. This is something closest to us, something we can recognize in our relations and communications. To give an example from the technologies of new times, consider the well-known figure of a narcissistic social media user that compulsively tries to increase the number of his/her followers, or the number of positive responses to his/her items. What is this narsissistic figure, of which millions exist in all around the globe? Is it an evidence of degeneration? Or is it to be accepted as part of our civilization’s ‘progress’, or as we may as well call it, ‘antiprogress’? In his earlier work, Žižek suggested ‘mandatory narcissism’ as a social form of capitalism (Žižek, 1986).
During last decade, such narcissistic adoption of social media was something consistently criticised by public, private, political, … all kinds of established social institutions. To return to our key phenomenon; the injunction to ‘Enjoy!’ that was apparent in social media narcissism was something these societal institutions tried to purge, to cleanse themselves of, or at least something to keep a secure distance from. In the ‘public spaces’ of society, it was expected from all reasonable human beings with a care for ‘society’ to try to keep a footing on at least some such ‘public’ organizations/institutions or people affiliated with them, and keep their socio-narcissistic activity in their ‘private’ spheres, even if this activity becomes increasingly ‘common’ as a global phenomenon. However, social media was also a problem for ‘private sphere’, as it become a popular locus of jealousy and all kinds of other relational problems.
What does social media stand for, and how does it have a political force? To make a provisional definition: social media is playfulness against the immersion of capitalist game. This might be associated to Roger Caillois’ well-known distinction between game (that consists of rules for winning/losing) and play (that is without rules, consists of playfulness), but that would be another approach to the question (Caillois, 2001). Insofar as it can ‘aim at’ and ‘form truth’, social media can produce full speech as in analytic experience, thereby becoming a locus for General Will.
To speak of loci to place our speech, we need a concept of time or history that is appropriate for our speech acts. In what ‘tense’ can we describe the historical situation? It is a common habit to describe history in past tense, as I did in previous paragraphs. But this use should not to be taken in the sense of ‘something will be over’ or in a catastrophic sense that ‘something will destroy itself’. This would be coining hypotheses about the future that we are evidently unable to test. I would rather interpret past tense in a sense that our system is becoming more and more ‘vulnerable’, in a sense used by cryptanalysts, except that it is getting vulnerable not to decryption, but to decipherment.
A decryptor wants to find the key to a ‘Crypt’, so his time passes when he finds this key. However, a decipherer (like Freud or Marx) is not after some key, since he does not see a locked Crypt. He knows that the truth lies in the concrete process, in the accumulation of images in dreamwork or the accumulation of capital in history, in the concrete form of this accumulation. So, a decipherer’s time passes only when the cipher can repeat itself in a new context, when the given concrete process can be captured in some text, some discourse or some model. A decipherer is not after some locked Crypt, to find its key, to open it or to destroy it altogether, but he’s after a cipher, simply to repeat it truthfully.
In whatever we say or do, keeping in mind that sayings become doings and doings become sayings, the truth will be in the instances we recognize, in a way that what is said or done shall be its own evidence. We can call this self-evidence by the psychoanalytic concept of suture, which according to Miller implies the position of a taking-the-place-of. (Miller, 1966)
To be concrete, what we are after is not some imagined future, but a collective suture of knowledge and action towards it. Note that a suture of knowledge is not like the societal institiutions we know of: universities, courts, unions, political parties, governments, non-governmental organizations, etc. Such an institution with missions, visions, plans and projects for an imagined future has to exist in a present where history has ended. To become a suture of knowledge means to sew up this scissure between past that has ended and present that drew a line between itself and its past. We can be a suture only when our past is present while our presence belongs to history. In this case, our action or speech in the present shall be this suture, which I have just called a cipher, a recoding of reality that is its own key.
To come to the point of this paper, I want to present a cipher that will be referred to as antiprogression chain, which consists of the interrelations among four basic terms. These four are: authority, expectation, body and mechanism. Their interrelation is represented by a chain in the following form:
In this chain, upper and lower levels can be considered as superstructure and substructure in a Marxist sense. To put it simply: authorities are grounded on expectations, and bodies are grounded on mechanisms. Moreover, according to the cross-relations that link the chain: authorities are shaped by mechanisms and bodies are shaped by expectations. These relations can be put in different words, but the basic structure of the chain will remain the same.
This structure can be explained in terms of different distinctions. Consider these explanations: An authority represents a ‘use’ with a certain utility, whereas a body represents a ‘play’ with a success. Authorities make themselves listened, bodies make themselves seen. Authorities are symbolic codes, bodies are imaginary instances.
However it is described or explained, the chain’s function or truthfulness owes to its structure, which can be recognized in an immediate way. In other words, it obtains a valid ‘use’ or ‘authority’ only insofar as its image drawn on paper can become a ‘body’ that shall meet the ‘expectation’ of the reader, and insofar as this ‘body’ can ground itself on some ‘mechanism’, a language or a protocol of some communication or activity. It does not depend on an axiomatic structure, it does not depend on any external institution. It consists simply as a pattern whose repetitions we shall recognize when we see them: a cipher.
This chain can progress leftwards or rightwards by incorporating new terms, just like nucletides of a DNA double helix. Its progression has no direction: it is at the same time an antiprogression, a progression that continues because it is failing. This negativity can be expressed in different verbs: authorities are fooled, expectations are fueled, bodies fail, mechanisms fall, etc. But whatever term do we refer to, any fooling / failing / fueling / falling refers to the whole of the structure, as suggested by the etymological similarity, namely the common initial letter of these f-words. And the whole of the structure is nothing but the chain we have described above. In this precise sense, the chain that is being presented is a model both for progression and antiprogression.
Antiprogression Chains in The Purloined Letter
In this section, we will demonstrate the antiprogression model through a well-known story ‘The Purloined Letter’ by Edgar Allan Poe (Poe, 1845). The structure of this story was examined by Lacan in his ‘Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” ‘ (Lacan, 2006).
The story begins with the narrator visiting Dupin in his apartment and considering a discussion with him about the killing of Marie Roget, the affair of the Rue Morgue:
Then as the Prefect enters the apartment to tell about an official business -in a ‘coincidence’ according to the narrator- and then Dupin decides to keep the place dark. Prefect tells about oddities that made them puzzled.
Then he tells the initial event that led to his mission: the Queen had received a letter from a Baron, with whom she is in a secret liasion. Then her minister came at an unappropriate time, and stole the letter from her table. This act was effectively a blackmail to the Queen, who then charged the Police with a mission to recapture this letter back from the Minister:
It is significant that the Queen’s inappropriate liasion with the Baron does not shake her power to charge the police with a secret mission to protect this liasion. Her power is enabled by the ‘Royal’ mechanisms that ground her existence as a ‘Royal’ body. In this way, a ‘Royal’ chain can repeat itself as an antiprogression, in its failure, as a result of its failure.
The police searched Minister’s house, but could not find the letter. Then the Prefect, seeing the Police’s despair, secretly approached Dupin to ask for his help:
In the previous chain, Queen’s secret was the source of her failure to keep the letter. In the current chain, it is police’s failure that is the source of Prefect’s secret request to Dupin. In both cases, we see that structure repeats itself in an interchanging movement of failures and secrecies.
As the story goes on, other similar chains are formed, and in the end, they are eventually solved as Dupin succeeds in the task given to him. But what all of this has to do with capitalism?
Antiprogression Chains in Capitalism
The four terms we introduced and their positions in the chain may sound arbitrary. But if you look into any social intercourse that is part of what we call capitalism, in their most prototypical forms, you can see this chain appear. The color codes we used are also not arbitrary, ‘red’ for body and ‘blue’ for authority carry symbolic value in social relations. ‘Purple’ mechanisms ground the ‘red’ bodies, and ‘yellow’ expectations are remainders of such mechanisms, and that which can ground ‘blue’ authority.
To summarize our model, let us describe its process: authorities are grounded on various expectations that remained. These authorities match themselves to bodies, by recognizing and modifying the mechanisms that ground them. Then, bodies in turn match themselves to authorities, by recognizing and modifying the expectations that ground them. As a result, if we can follow the antiprogression of such chains, we can show (1) how expectations conflict through mechanisms, and (2) how mechanisms conflict through expectations.
Caillois, R. (2001) Man, play, and games, University of Illinois Press.
Lacan, J. (1988) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, New York: Norton.
Lacan, J. (2006) Ecrits: The first complete edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Miller, J. A. (1966) “Suture,” Cahiers pour l’analyse 1, Winter 1966
Poe, E. A. (1845) “The Purloined Letter,” Online: http://poestories.com/read/purloined
Tok, H. (2013) ‘Žižek and Badiou were in Istanbul’, Başkahaber, Online [TR]: http://www.baskahaber.org/2013/10/Žižek-ve-badiou-istanbuldayd-ozgurluk.html
Žižek, S. (1986) “Pathological Narcissus as a Socially Mandatory Form of Subjectivity.” Online: http://simongros0.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/slavoj-Žižek-pathological-narcissus-as-a-socially-mandatory-form-of-subjectivity/
Žižek, S. (2012) Less Than Nothing, New York: Verso.