The Political and Its Disavowals

From The Ticklish Subject

Slavoj Zizek

If, then, the notion of hegemony expresses the elementary structure of ideological domination, are we condemned to shifts within the space of hegemony, or is it possible to suspend — temporarily, at least - its very mechanism? Jacques Ranciere's claim is that such a subversion does occur, and that it even constitutes the very core of politics, of a proper political event.

What, for Ranciere, is politics proper?"' A phenomenon which, for the first time, appeared in Ancient Greece when the members of demos (those with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice) not only demanded that their voice be heard against those in power, those who exerted social control - that is, they not only protested the wrong [Ie tort] they suffered, and wanted their voice to be heard, to be rccognized as included in the public sphere, on an equal footing with the ruling oligarchy and aristocracy - even more, they, the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice, presented themselves as the representatives, the stand-ins, for the Whole of Society, for the true Universality ('we - the "nothing", not counted in the order - are the people, we are All against others who stand only for their particular privileged interest'). In short, political conflict designates the tension between the structured social body in which each part has its place, and 'the part of no part' which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality - of what Balibar calls egaliberte, the principled equality of all men qua speaking beings. Politics proper thus always involves a kind of short circuit between the Universal and the Particular: the paradox of a singulier universel, a singular which appears as the stand- in for the Universal, destabilizing the 'natural' functional order of rela- tions in the social body. This identification of the non-part with the Whole, of the part of society with no properly defined place within it (or resisting the allocated subordinated place within it) with the Universal, is the elementary gesture of politicizalion, discernible in all great democratic events from the French Revolution (in which le troisieme etat proclaimed itself identical to the Nation as such, against the aristocracy and the clergy) to the demise of ex-European Socialism (in which dissident 'forums' proclaimed themselves representative of the entire society against the Partv nomenklatura)....

...Let us return, however, to Ranciere's basic emphasis on the radical ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the 'gap' between formal democracy (human rights, political freedom, etc.) and the economic reality of exploitation and domination. One can read this gap between the 'appearance' of equality—freedom and the social reality of economic, cultural, and other differences either in the standard 'symptomatic' way (the form of universal rights, equality, freedom and democracy is simply a necessary but illusory form of expression of its concrete social content, the universe of exploitation and class domination), or in the much more subversive sense of a tension in which the 'appearance' of egaliberte, precisely, is not a 'mere appearance' but evinces an effectivity of its own, which allows it to set in motion the process of the rearticulalion of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive 'politicization'. (Why shouldn't women vote too? Why shouldn't, working conditions be of public political concern?, etc.) One is tempted here to use the old Levi-Straussian term 'symbolic efficiency': the appearance of egaliberte is a symbolic fiction which, as such, possesses an actual efficiency of its own - one should resist the properly cynical temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different actuality...

...The distinction between appearance and the postmodern notion of simulacrum as no longer clearly distinguishable from the Real is crucial here. The political as the domain of appearance (opposed to the social reality of class and other distinctions, that is, of society as the articulated social body) has nothing in common with the postmodern notion that we are entering the era of universalized simulacra in which reality itself becomes indistinguishable from its simulated double. The nostalgic longing for the authentic experience of being lost in the deluge of simulacra (detectable in Virilio), as well as the postmodern assertion of the Brave New World of universalized simulacra as the sign that we are finally getting rid of the metaphysical obsession with authentic Being (detectable in Vatlimo), both miss the distinction between simulacrum and appear- ance: what gets lost in today's'plague of simulations' is not the firm, true, non-simulated Real; but appearance itself. To put it in Lacanian terms: simulacrum is imaginary (illusion), while appearance is symbolic (fiction); when the specific dimension of symbolic appearance starts to disintegrate, the Imaginary and the Real become more and more indistinguishable. The key to today's universe of simulacra, in which the Real is less and less distinguishable from its imaginary simulation, lies in the retreat of 'symbolic efficiency'. In sociopolitical terms, this domain of appearance (of symbolic fiction) is none other than that of politics as distinct from the social body subdivided into parts. There is 'appearance' in so far as a part not included in the Whole of the Social Body (or included/excluded in a way against which it protests) symbolizes its position as that of a Wrong, claiming, against other parts, that it stands for the universality of egaliberte. here we are dealing with appearance in contrast to the 'reality' of the structured social body. The old conservative motto of 'keeping up appearances' thus takes a new twist today: it no longer stands for the 'wisdom' according to which it is better not to disturb the rules of social etiquette too much, since social chaos might ensue. Today, the effort to 'keep up appearances' stands, rather, for the effort to maintain the roperly political space against the onslaught of the postmodern all- embracing social body, with its multitude of particular identities.-'"


Today, however, we are dealing with another form of the de-negation of the political, postmodern post-politics, which no longer merely 'represses' the political, trying to contain it and pacify the 'returns of the repressed', but much more effectively 'forecloses' it, so that the postmodern forms of ethnic violence, with their 'irrational' excessive character, are no longer simple 'returns of the repressed' but, rather, represent a case of the foreclosed (from the Symbolic) which, as we know from Lacan, returns in the Real. In post-politics, the conflict of global ideological visions embod- ied in different parties which compete for power is replaced by the collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists . . .) and liberal multiculturalists; via the process of negotiation f' interests, a compromise is reached in the guise of a more or less universal consensus . Post-politics thus emphasises the need to leave old ideological divisions behind and confront new issues, armed with the necessary expert knowledge and free deliberation that takes people's concrete needs and demands into account.

The best formula that expresses the paradox of post-politics is perhaps Tony Blair's characterization of New Labour as the 'Radical Centre': in the old days of ideological' political division, the qualification 'radical' was reserved either tor the extreme Left or for the extreme Right. The Centre was, by definition, oderate: measured by the old standards, the term 'Radical Centre' is the same nonsense as 'radical moderation'. What makes New Labour (or Bill Clinton's politics in the L'SA) 'radical' is its radical abandonment of the 'old ideological divides', usually formulated in the guise of a paraphrase of Deng Xiaoping's motto from the 1960s: 'It doesn't matter if a cat is red or white; what matters is that it actually catches mice': in the same vein, advocates of New Labour like to empha- size that one should take good ideas without any prejudice and apply them, whatever their (ideological) origins. And what are these 'good ideas'? The answer is, of course, ideas that work. It is here that we encounter the gap that separates a political act proper from the 'administration of social matters' which remains within the framework of existing sociopolitical relations: the political act (intervention) proper- is not simply something that works well within the framework of the existing relations, but something that challenges the very framework that determines how things work. To say that good ideas are 'ideas that work' means that one accepts in advance the (global capitalist) constellation that determines what works (if, for example, one spends too much money on education or healthcare, that 'doesn't work', since it infringes too much on the conditions of , capitalist profitability). One can also put it in terms of the well-known definition of politics as the 'art of the possible': authentic politics is, rather, the exact opposite, that is, the art of the impossible- it changes the very parameters of what is considered 'possible' in the existing constellation.'"1                                                     

When this dimension of the impossible is effectively precluded, the political (the space of litigation in which the excluded can protest the wrong/injustice done to them) foreclosed from the symbolic returns in the Real, in the guise of new forms of racism, this 'postmodern racism' emerges as the ultimate consequence of the post-political suspension of the political, the reduction of the State to a mere police-agent servicing the (consensually established) needs of market forces and multiculturalist tolerant humanitarianism: the 'foreigner' whose status is never prop- erly 'regulated' is the indivisible remainder of the transformation of the democratic political struggle into the post-political procedure of negotiation and multiculturalist policing. Instead of the political subject 'working class' demanding its universal rights, we get on the one hand, the multiplicity of particular social strata or groups, each with its problems (the dwindling need for manual workers, etc.) and, on the other, the immigrant, ever more prevented from politicising his predicament of exclusion.

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