The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: Slavoj Žižek

Ideological Diversity, the University, and the Uses of Screen Adaptation

Interesting piece from Times Higher Education about the progressive political views held by almost all academics in the USA and embedded in the research they create: not just in the form, but in the actual content. The author, Musa al-Gharbi, avers that academics routinely “exaggerat[e] conclusions when convenient while finding ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research that threatens their identity or perceived interests.” Generally this is to support a progressive bias, says al-Gharbi. A knock-on effect of this is that conservative-leaning persons don’t feel comfortable in academia, and find it harder to build a career, leading to the proliferation of extremely well-funded and influential “think-tanks” comprising conservative thinkers and researchers. Another knock-on effect is that academia has very little credibility among large sectors of the population.

On a narrowly political scale, one has to note that academia’s commitment to progressivist-leftist ideals has not strengthened the left in the USA. The president is very right-wing, and the two houses of parliament are now both controlled by the Republican Party. Academia’s influence on society, then, is a depressingly negative one, pushing people towards the opposite extreme.

Academia needs to come to terms with and to engage in dialogue with its right-wing other. An argument I am kind of making in an upcoming publication is that one way to do this is through the use of transtemporal adaptations – that is film/tv (or other media, in theory, though not in my practice as yet) adaptations of novels from another period. Say, the Victorian period. The fact is, almost all writers from that period have various opinions far to the right of the people who tend to watch adaptations of the novels, and of people who write these adaptations. Dickens in Oliver Twist, for example (the example I am using in said upcoming publication), subscribes to fairly hardcore anti-semitism in Oliver Twist, in the character of Fagin; makes his heroine, Rose, a pure and sexless angel-in-the-house type; signifies Oliver’s moral superiority with an otherwise inexplicable upper-class diction, and so on. All of this causes problems for adapters, because to reproduce such ideological functions could make Dickens appear to modern sensibilities shallow, old-fashioned and even obnoxious. So, consciously or unconsciously, Dickens’ less progressive opinions are toned done, left out or turned round.

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Oliver Twist 2007 BBC series. An adaptation that consciously problematized Dickens’ text. Image from https://opionator.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/oliver-twist-2007/

These operations of toning down, etc., become important at the moment of comparative narrative analysis. Being acquainted with what appears in the novel in a different form to the adaptation, we become aware of the ideological otherness of Dickens. This provides a mild shock, as we are regularly assured that Dickens was a progressive writer, a great champion of the poor, a “seeker after gentle justice” etc. – which is, indeed, approximately half true. By being forced to juxtapose this genial image with the problematic reality of Dickensian ideology, we gain insight into the complexities of the formation of ideological consciousness. We also problematize the more presentist stance presented by the adaptation, in its toning down, etc. What seemed natural in the context of the adaptation alone, “how things really are”, is seen now as a deliberate choice, one informed if not dictated by the ideological presumptions of our time and place. And this problematization is absolutely a worthy goal in our climate. This was Žižek’s aim in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009),  ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6), and it is something that is still a long way from being done with sufficient rigour in academia.

 

University and Entrepreneurship

Again, I want to look at the role and goals of the university and the challenges it faces, concentrating in this post on the university where I work, DCU. Michael Burawoy, writing principally about a US context, identifies three major crises afflicting the university at the present time: a budgetary crisis, a regulatory crisis, and a legitimation crisis (“The Great American University“, Contemporary Sociology, 41:2, 2012, pp. 139-149).

Burawoy identifies the budgetary crisis as the most important. The situation is more complicated, however, than just calling for more money. Burawoy mentions that “University budgets have grown astronomically” (141). This brings its own problems: in return for such huge investment, universities are expected to give back in a quantifiable way, through patents, aiding industry and developing joint ventures. It is a striking paradox that the increase in budgets is what leads to a budgetary crisis, but such is capitalism (or just human greed?): even too much is never enough.

That is the trouble of working in the modern university: though huge sums are involved, administration and bureaucracy expand so that each department, each research centre, still feels constantly economically pressured, some to a greater extent than others. This is not going to change any time soon. University funding is becoming increasingly linked to industry and to the business economy, as in the big EU funding call Horizon 2020, for which the development of “Competitive Industries” is one of the three central roles of the university. The others are “Excellent Science” and “Better Society”, but it is no accident that “Better Society” is the last-named of the three in the call. The listing on the Horizon website should be read as reflecting actual priorities: 1) science; 2) industry; 3) society. The lines between the university and industry/business are thus being blurred. With that will come the constant pressure to increase profit margins, to provide quantitative evidence of impact and economic contribution.

The strategic plan currently in operation in DCU is titled “Transforming Lives and Societies“. The Chancellor’s Introduction thereto refers to an emphasis on “social, cultural and economic progress”. So already we note that DCU is not emphasizing the economic quite to the extent that Horizon does, instead giving first place to the social, and to the broad idea of “transformation”. This is continued in the President’s Introduction, which names the primary responsibilities of the university as being to:

  • our students
  • our society
  • our economy

So society comes before economy, but the university’s responsibility to the economy at large is still significant.

Reading a little deeper into the Strategy Plan, and DCU’s established identity as the “University of Enterprise” becomes clearer. “Enterprise” has been the university’s USP in relation to other Irish university for some time. The university’s first strategic objective relates to the students. The second is: “To be recognized internationally as a leading University of Enterprise”. This has two main strands: one involves making each student and staff member into an entrepreneur; the other involves engaging with enterprise locally, nationally and globally.

In the priority given to this objective, the properly economic displaces the more broadly social. An entrepreneur is identified by his or her economic activities. The most salient definition from OED:

One who undertakes an enterprise; one who owns and manages a business; a person who takes the risk of profit or loss

Being an entrepreneur is related to financial risk.  Learning how to take financial risks is key to the identity of the student.

But I am still an academic who has been schooled very much in Victorian literature. Therefore, the idea that the cultivation of financial speculation is the desideratum of the university, or even that it is a good at all, is immediately problematic. The centrality of the figure of the entrepreneur in DCU’s strategic plan places the economic viewpoint of the university firmly within capitalist orthodoxy. Indeed, the purest form of new capitalism is based around the idea of the “entrepreneur-of-the-self”:

[E]ach worker becomes his or her own capitalist, the “entrepreneur-of-the-self” who decides how much to invest in his or her own future education, health and so on, paying for these investments by getting indebted […]. [E]veryone is a capitalist getting indebted in order to invest. We are here a step further from the formal equality between the capitalist and the worker in the eyes of the law – now they are both capitalist investors (Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit, loc 2023 et seq.)

In summation, it remains debatable whether promotion of a purely capitalist vision of the self (i.e. the entrepreneur) is a good way of fulfilling a university’s responsibility to society – or, indeed, to students. But with that note of irresolution I must conclude, and will continue to think around such matters in future posts as I complete a series of posts on the language of the strategic plans of Irish universities.

 

 

The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was essentially a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)

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Jurgen Klopp. What a boss [in the Žižekian sense].

 

Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).

 

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Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss reveals himself ascold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and with the symbolic authority bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.

Model Prisons: Thomas Carlyle and Rod Liddle

A call to rehabilitate the writings of Thomas Carlyle came in last week’s Spectator, in an article written by Rod Liddle. Liddle focuses on a little-known late essay of Carlyle’s, “Model Prisons“, from the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). I wrote about this essay in an earlier post. It’s an attack on the “model prison” system which had been introduced in Victorian England, and which aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment. As such, the regime was not as harsh as the norm. This system was also famously attacked by Dickens in a chapter of David Copperfield, in which Dickens implicitly argued that the system bred hypocrisy among prisoners, who feigned penitence to get the benefits of model prison treatment. This chapter appeared in late 1850, so it is highly probable that Dickens had read Carlyle’s “Model Prisons”, and that it had fed his own anger at the system. Carlyle’s deep influence on Dickens is well known.

So “Model Prisons”. If Dickens liked it, and Liddle likes it, it must be good, right? Well, it has its moments. Carlyle is angry: sometimes tediously so; sometimes spectacularly so. In fact, the piece that Liddle quotes is the same one I quote in the aforementioned earlier post, a rather strikingly bad-tempered description of the physical appearance of the inmates he saw on a visit to the prison:

Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such. Stupidity intellectual and stupidity moral (for the one always means the other, as you will, with surprise or not, discover if you look) had borne this progeny.

So the prisoners looked like animals; worse than that, they actually looked positively demonic (” imps”). All of them! They were also STUPID – in block capitals. You can’t talk about people like this anymore, even criminals. Or maybe you can – Liddle did, after all, quote this very passage in the context of his piece on why prisons need to be made harsher environments.

It’s tempting to see this in the context of a post-Trump world: all bets are off, and violently authoritarian rhetoric that would have been unthinkable in Western democracies in recent times has become part of the discussion again. In such a context, it’s not incredible that the Latter-Day Pamphlets could finally attain the popularity and esteem that has eluded them throughout their publication history thus far.

Nevertheless, I suggest that Carlyle does not lend himself to an uncomplicatedly authoritarian ideology, even if he espouses it. The reason is similar to the reason given by Zizek for his contention that David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is not a totalitarian film. Perhaps Dune does, Zizek concedes, eroticize power. But in doing so it also “displays the underlying phantasmic support of ‘totalitarianism’ in all its inconsistency” (The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 1997, p. 92). This, I submit, is what Carlyle does for all forms of authoritarian power, and is the reason why he has been historically read with more appreciation roughly leftist figures (from Walt Whitman to Keir Hardie to Mahatma Gandhi). Carlyle is uneasy reading for any respectable authoritarian, and never more so than when he’s vociferously agreeing with everything they hold dear.

The reason is that the quasi-sexual lust for power and control that a critic might contend underlies the politics of the authoritarian is laid embarrassingly bare in Carlyle’s writings. Following the above description of the prisoners, Carlyle enters into a passage whose fantasmic underpinnings are clearer to a 21st-century reader than they were, perhaps, to a 19th-century reader (or Carlyle himself). He’s considering whether the philanthropic notion of guiding erring sinners “by love” is a viable method. Unsurprisingly, he’s not wholly amenable to the idea:

These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? A collar round the neck, and a cart-whip flourished over the back; these, in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them; and now when, by long misconduct and neglect, they had sworn themselves into the Devil’s regiments of the line, and got the seal of Chaos impressed on their visage, it was very doubtful whether even these would be of avail for the unfortunate commander of twelve hundred men!

Carlyle’s imagery of the collar and the whip evoked for his Victorian readers a long-vanished (or, alternatively, spatially distant) world of slavery and conquest. For us, though, such images are more redolent of elaborate erotic scenarios. Thus, Carlyle’s images are not only politically reprehensible, but also embarrassingly intimate. In the guise of espousing a strict authoritarian politics, Carlyle is actually performing a completely unbridled freedom of discourse, laying bare those very aspects of his psyche that are most unacceptable to persons anywhere on the conservative spectrum. That is one of the reasons why Carlyle strikes me as essentially a leftist figure, even if he wouldn’t have consciously wanted to think so. At some level, he was sabotaging all of his explicit politics with the very extreme form in which he irrationally insisted on espousing them, providing the very weapons with which such positions could be easily critiqued and dismissed.

 

Against Method: Why Feyerabend insists that we read Carlyle, with asides on the US Election and the Current Politico-Ideological Climate

Perhaps my favourite book of all those I have read throughout my academic life so far is Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (first published 1975; I will refer to the Verso 2010 publication edited with an introduction by Ian Hacking and based on Feyerabend’s final edition of 1993 [he died in 1994]). Its influence on me has so far not been very advantageous in career terms: a criticism I have come up against several times is that my methodologies do not tend to be very sophisticated by academic standards. It is by invoking Feyerabend, among other things, that I try to defend this: I’m not looking for theoretical sophistication; I don’t accept that thought in the humanities is well served by an insistence on theoretical sophistication. Rather than directly defend this position at this point, I will recap a few key arguments from Feyerabend’s book, which will give some indication of the arguments I try to use on this point.

Feyerabend came from a scientific background, and he was interested in progress in science. His central contention was that this progress came about not through following tightly structured research according to well-developed methodologies, but through retaining an openness to experimentation and a general looseness of approach. Feyerabend was very historicist about this point: he less wanted to prove theoretically that it was so than to show that this was how scientists from Einstein to Galileo worked. Thus, he quotes Einstein in the opening pages, on the idea that the scientist should appear as a kind of “ruthless opportunist” (2), when it comes to epistemological method, picking up data and ideas wherever he can find them, rather than confining himself to what such data/ideas as were considered scientifically proven according to the dominant paradigm.

Feyerabend describes his epistemology in the opening lines as “anarchism”, being careful also to differentiate his position from political anarchism. Nevertheless, this designation and that implied by the famous “anything goes” statement on page 12 has led to Feyerabend being rather misunderstood. One might well think he disavows all standards of truth, and is a pure postmodernist-relativist. However, Feyerabend should be absolutely distinguished from relativism. He does not think all methods are, in the final analysis, of equal validity, but he does think the final analysis never comes. The point for Feyerabend, rather, is not to prejudge. We cannot take account of all the evidence if we stick to a single methodology, so we have to keep open at all times to other approaches, even ones that have been dismissed by authorities. Handily, the edition I consult has a “Postcript on Relativism” from Feyerabend that tackles this misconception about him. Here he clarifies that he allows for rival methodologies because “there cannot be any theory of knowledge (except as part of a special and fairly stable tradition); there can be at a most a (rather incomplete) history of the ways in which knowledge has changed in the past” (284; Feyerabend’s italics). If we can never have a full theory of knowledge – at least not until the post-apocalyptic final analysis – then we have to try and stay as open to epistemological pluralism as we can.

So what are the consequences for a researcher in the humanities of a Feyerabendian epistemology? One, I suggest, is that we become very much aware of the provisionality and historicity of our own ideologies and metanarratives. This sounds rather postmodern. In theory, perhaps it is, but in practice, it is not. Because postmodernism, though allegedly it rouses us from our certainties, in practice has given rise to a young intelligentsia who are as complacent about their own positions as any group can be.  The political consequences of having an academic/press/internet intelligentsia who manage absolutely no sympathetic engagement with opposing positions has recently manifested in England in the Shy Tory phenomenon, wherein everybody in media and most people in media-run polls express a preference for liberal politics, but then vote Conservative on the day. By denying a platform to speak for persons of a right-wing persuasion, we don’t abolish the sentiment associated with such a persuasion – rather we strengthen it by melding it with a strong sense of disgruntlement among right-wingers, who begin to conceive of themselves as a silent majority, being essentially kept down by the media and the intelligentsia. This may be about to become a whole lot more live as an issue, if the Trump campaign in the US elections does perform better than expected on polling day. Then, finally, we might start seeing some meaningful movement from academics about speaking to those who are outside the loop.

So, I’m not talking about science here – and neither was Feyerabend, a committed humanist whose favorite point of reference in Against Method was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I’m talking about how we make sense of our own and each other’s lives. We shouldn’t do that by developing our own theory at the expense of all others, but by practicing standing outside that theory and applying an external standard of judgement. We need to engage with the Other. And here my contention is that we need – to truly step outside contemporary academic ideology – not to engage with and identify with any group we consider victimized. This would be in itself the ideological move par excellence. Let us recall Žižek here:

[T]he key feature of the ideological constellation that characterizes our epoch of the owrldwide triumph of liberal democracy: the universalization of the notion of victim. The ultimate proof that we are dealing here with ideology at its purest is provided by the fact that this notion of victim is experienced as extra-ideological par excellence: the customary image of the victim is that of an innocent-ignorant child or woman paying the price for politico-ideological power struggles. (Metastases of Enjoyment, 213)

To truly step outside contemporary ideology we must identify with our true Other: the exploiter, the non-victim, the self-perceived alpha male, the colonizer, the racist. We must seek to identify the grain of validity and empirical truth that must lie within any such position, even if we we are accustomed to demonize it. And we must use our knowledge of this position against ourselves, against our own smug certainties. It will not be a comfortable ride.

Here is where Carlyle comes in. He identifies with the racist and the colonizer, and he lauds the alpha male. He hates victims and the weak. He espouses all the positions from which we shrink, but which, had circumstances been otherwise, could have been our imbibed and internalized ideology. Engaging with Carlyle is precisely what we should be doing, rather than finessing a, say, Foucauldian theory of power, as though our object were not life in its indefinable and untheorizable wholeness, but the works of a selected canon of theorists who shape our ideology and whose work is expected to yield a coherent whole if only we continue theorizing it with all our intellectual might.

And, doubt it not, even in Carlyle we will find a redeemable core. We will find expressed some issues of continuing relevance. Maybe they are not expressed in a theoretically convincing way, maybe the methodology is paradigmatically outdated, but we should agree with Feyerabend that this is not all. We should still take on these theoretical failures and “make the weaker case the stronger” (14), because strengthening our own case, on our own terms, is worth little, except in a narrowly academic sense. Something about Carlyle worked for a 19th-century readership, and we should try and isolate and recover it; we could concentrate on his failures, but that doesn’t advance our understanding. It is by engaging with the truths of our opponents, of the Others, that we advance.

 

 

Žižek , Carlyle and Happiness

One of the concepts that Slavoj Žižek has frequently debunked is “happiness”. In a webchat from the Guardian from 2014, for example, he is asked if happiness is still an important idea, and replies:

Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog, I think we should say something similar about happiness. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

Zizek citing Gordon Gekko from Wall Street to back up his point is deeply ironic, highlighting the tensions in Žižek’s supposed communist ideals, but his questioning of happiness is worth reflecting on. It’s not something we reflect on spontaneously: we assume that happiness is, by definition, that towards which we should and do strive. Žižek is rather Nietzschean here, however, in his prioritization of the notion of struggle and in his allusion to masters and slaves. Or perhaps we might say he is rather Carlylean here, for Carlyle pre-empted Nietzsche in this area.

Let us consider, for a moment, Carlyle on happiness. Fortunately, Past and Present (1843) has a chapter called “Happy” which provides a convenient subject of analysis. He opens the chapter with the assertion that “All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble”. Work is, of course, for Carlyle the greatest good, and it is against this that the nebulous notion of happiness has to contend.

Does not the whole wretchedness, the whole Atheism as I call it, of
man's ways, in these generations, shadow itself for us in that
unspeakable Life-philosophy of his: The pretension to be what he calls
'happy'? Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has his
head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and
divine laws ought to be 'happy.' His wishes, the pitifulest
whipster's, are to be fulfilled for him; his days, the pitifulest
whipster's, are to flow on in ever-gentle current of enjoyment,
impossible even for the gods. The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be
happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people
clamour, Why have we not found pleasant things?

This passage admittedly solidifies some of Carlyle’s flaws. He introduces the concept of “wretchedness” and then, bewilderingly, announces that he calls it “Atheism”. Arbitrary and subjective re-definition of words is a common feature of Carlyle’s prose – one of the most annoying of its features, indeed. He appears to give no weight to received definitions: Atheism has a definition; why is he giving it another one that has nothing to do with it? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t actually defend his position. He does state it quite baldly, though, and that is useful, if only to enable disagreement and dismissal.

Then we get into Carlyle’s abusive rhetoric that can, in certain moods, be quite fun to read. The “pitifulest whipster” of this extract is the seeker after happiness. This character has a consciousness of something, but it is an idealistic notion, not one with any material foundation, conceivable but not attainable: thus consciousness of the concept is productive of the very opposite. Carlyle, as he made clear in the classic early essay “Characteristics”, hates self-consciousness, so a concept that focuses us on the pursuit of our own happiness is not likely to please him. The concept of happiness produces self-consciousness, self-consciousness produces misery. Working, on the other hand, protects against self-consciousness, and thus against misery.

It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man, That he cannot
work; that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled. Behold, the
day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly over; and the
night cometh, wherein no man can work. The night once come, our
happiness, our unhappiness,--it is all abolished; vanished, clean
gone; a thing that has been: 'not of the slightest consequence'
whether we were happy as eupeptic Curtis, as the fattest pig of
Epicurus, or unhappy as Job with potsherds, as musical Byron with
Giaours and sensibilities of the heart; as the unmusical Meat-jack
with hard labour and rust! But our work,--behold that is not
abolished, that has not vanished: our work, behold, it remains, or the
want of it remains;--for endless Times and Eternities, remains; and
that is now the sole question with us forevermore!

Happiness is only allowable, then, as a function of work. And the worker cannot recognize himself as happy, for if he becomes conscious of it, that’s where his problems begin. Still less is happiness applicable to the superior persons, the “masters” as Žižek might say. Rather than happiness, then, we have two options: to prioritize the element of struggle in our existence, to always ensure that we are struggling against ourselves and the world; or to lose ourselves in work. The first is Žižek’s remedy, and it demands self-consciousness; the second is Carlyle’s, and it forbids it. By the time one has gotten far enough to actually reading 19th-century politico-moral reformers like Carlyle, one is already mired in consciousness of the plight of this world and of oneself. Forgetting oneself is out of the question. But we can still use Carlyle to question those parts of ourselves that we can’t eradicate. Maybe, even by reading him, we are keeping open a space for the possible radical transformation of the self in a post-self-conscious age. That’s something that even Žižek could get behind.

 

Hero and Master: Carlyle and Žižek

Carlyle’s theory of the Hero no longer enjoys much in the way of scholarly repute. “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here” is not a formulation to which many modern thinkers would subscribe. Famously, of course, it enjoyed considerable currency in the 19th century, and its shadows can perhaps be seen later in Freud’s speculative account of human history in Totem and Taboo (1913), wherein primitive history is indeed controlled by an all-powerful despotic leader, albeit one who had to be overthrown and murdered to make way for a more democratic leadership. History, for Freud and other anthropologists of the era like Frazer, had been the history of Great Men, but modern history had moved away from the paradigm.

But perhaps the Hero or Great Man isn’t dead. Perhaps if we consider the more acceptably theoretical figure of the master we will discover echoes of Carlyle’s concept. The master is often associated with Jacques Lacan. As well As Lacan’s theory of the “discourse of the master”, there is also his assertion, often quoted by Slavoj Žižek, that the revolutionaries of 1968 in Paris were “hysterics who demand[ed] a new master.” It would appear, then, that even when the master disappears from history, he remains in the human unconscious, even that of the most revolutionary subjects.

And Žižek himself is very much alive to this feature of our unconscious. Trouble in Paradise (2014) has a subsection entitled “Towards a New Master” in which he argues for the historical necessity for a master. It is the role of the master to “simplify [the situation] into a point of decision” (179). Žižek is explicit that in making the necessary decision, the master is bound by neither rationality nor by democracy. His historical example is De Gaulle, who claimed in 1940 to speak “on behalf of true France” even though he had no popular mandate (and, Žižek points out, had a democratic vote been possible, the Nazi-collaborator Petain would have won it). Žižek’s point is that De Gaulle’s assumption of the master role as the one who speaks for true France was unarguably for the greater good, and that a democratic approach here would have been been a disaster.

With reference to contemporary politics, Žižek again calls for a master, a “Thatcher of the left”, as only such a figure can transform “the entire field of presuppositions” (185) and create room for radical change. It is not that ultimate power will come to rest in the hands of the master, but that in the intermediary stage the voice of the master is key. And how to produce a master? Even Carlyle didn’t think that the Hero entirely produced himself from nothing: “No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannot set his own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate it into the stone that was given, with the tools that were given.” So to help free the space in which the master may speak, Zizek insists that “we should shamelessly reassert the idea of ‘vanguard'” (185). How we do this is not clear.

But the point is that the superior individual is central both to Žižek and to Carlyle. The difference is that for the latter he is the locus of absolute power and for the former he is a sort of vanishing mediator who ushers in the revolution then fades into the background. This is a surprisingly idealistic view of the master from Žižek. Where are we to find such masters, with the wisdom to provide guidance and the humility to step away from power at the right moment? Perhaps we don’t have the embodiment, but we have kept alive a certain ideal, and a moment may yet come when it can be put into practice.

Is it a Rhinoceros or an Elephant in the Room?: Reflections on Truth

A point that interests me greatly is the status of the concept of truth in contemporary intellectual thought. Insofar as postmodern and poststructuralist modes of thought remain hegemonic in intellectual culture, truth has very little currency. Similarly with our pluralistic and multicultural politics, which privilege a very relativistic approach to issues, rather than an insistence of a particular truth. Terry Eagleton writes, “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth” (After Theory, Verso, 2004, p. 103). Rather than offer a devastating and unanswerable critique of this position in this blog post, I can only begin by noting that this idea has never been acceptable to me. I cannot do without the notion of truth.

The absurdities of a position entirely dispensing with the notion are well illustrated by the famous anecdote about Wittgenstein and the Rhinoceros in the Room. On one of Wittgenstein’s first meetings with Bertrand Russell, he challenged Russell’s empirical epistemology and the argument somehow arrived at the point where Russell was prodding Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room they were occupying, but Wittgenstein insisted that he couldn’t be sure of that on an empirical basis and would not conclusively say there was no such animal in the room. So the matter remained unresolved. Perhaps by finding where people’s opinions lie in this matter, we can find out a lot about their general philosophical stance. I am certainly a Russellian on this point. But I wonder how he approached the argument: I suppose he tried to prove that there was no rhinoceros in the room, and failed as far as Wittgenstein was concerned. But did he confront Wittgenstein: did he say, “it is not provable that there is no rhinoceros in this room, not in the absolute theoretical sense you desire, but I do not believe that there is one, nor have I any reason to. And you, do you actually believe that there is one?”  Surely Wittgenstein would not be able to say he did, would have to admit that he didn’t really think there was one, at which the Russellian might say, “Then why argue? We neither of us think there is a rhinoceros here. If we did, we would be acting very differently, and feeling considerable fear, no doubt. Therefore let us not argue over what we both consider false, and what, so far as we know, no one has ever considered true. That is proof enough.” This is perhaps naïve, but constitutes somewhat of an appeal to honesty, and an appeal to argue over genuine points of difference, not over things that are simply unprovable at a very abstract level of rhetoric – and everything is unprovable at a certain level.

So there is a simple and direct truth about certain matters that we should be able to agree about, such as the non-presence of a rhinoceros in any given room (one can imagine exceptions, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, i.e., almost certainly never). These truths will only take us so far, of course, but they should be kept in mind. Hence I am wary of Žižek’s attempts to rehabilitate truth in a new form. Žižek, unlike most contemporary thinkers, writes about truth a lot. In one of his most accessible books, How to Read Lacan from the Norton How to Read… series (New York, 2007), Žižek gives his own version of truth, related to the Lacanian dictum Les non-dupes errant, which he translates as “Those in the know are in error”. His gloss on this dictum is as follows:

What is missed by the cynic who believes only his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality. A corrupt priest who preaches about virtue may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, it may prompt them to do good deeds. (33-34)

This is not a particularly impressive passage, and Žižek has probably made this point more convincingly elsewhere, but taking this as representative of his position, we can note a few things: firstly, he equates empiricism with cynicism, and he essentially contrasts it with hypocrisy, preferring the latter. In the old argument, then, between conservative-Burkean “beautiful illusions” and liberal “inconvenient truths”, Žižek is a conservative. Secondly, his example doesn’t make his point. The notion of fiction structuring our reality sounds impressive, but the religious example of “good deeds” tells us nothing about the structure of our reality, but only of individual deeds. (I’m only taking into account this passage here. I’m sure I’ll come across other passages where Žižek makes the point about structure more satisfactorily.) So the example brings the rhetoric down to earth with a bump, and invites numerous questions. Or course, such a priest as Žižek describes may cause good deeds to be performed, but don’t we need to take into account all the consequences of his corruption and his whole being, rather than dismissing it all with the possibility of some good deeds?

Žižek is not wrong to suggest that good deeds as a result of social fictions need to be taken into account in any cultural analysis, he’s only wrong to introduce it not alongside, but at the expense of other criteria. Here again I put forward the approach of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend suggested that in the evaluation of any theory, both the logical force and the material effect need to be taken into account (Against Method). The Žižek of the above passage only wants the latter – and he gives no way of knowing how the latter can even be measured. Given his anti-empiricism, it would not be easy to do!

So if Žižek’s rehabilitation of the concept of truth is really the rehabilitation only of the name, to cover a quite different concept (material effect, in Feyerabend’s term, although it doesn’t even cover that very well), then we’re worse off than when we started. We can’t even agree on basic truths, as we always have to give way before material effect. As unfortunately often with Žižek, in the guise of making a basic philosophical statement, he’s muddying the waters and redefining terms in arbitrary ways. The real truth is, that we’re in agreement about the truth of many things in our everyday life; it is only in theory that there is a massive stumbling block. We can’t wholly solve our problems by appealing to the definitively and unproblematically true, but we certainly can’t solve them by discounting this factor altogether. That is the worst possible starting-point. So, though we like to argue about truth, let’s admit that practically, we do agree what truth is in many basic situations. Let’s admit that there is, in fact, no rhinoceros in the room. That this fact is, indeed, the elephant in the room!*

 

 

*”There’s no rhinoceros in the room” = rhetorical way of saying, some really basic empirical truths are worth accepting and not arguing over. “That’s the elephant in the room!” = figure of speech meaning the truth everyone knows but no one says. So the import of my final sentences is simply that we all having working definitions of truth, so let’s admit it, and not pretend we don’t, a la Wittgenstein and various post-modernists.

Defending Lost Causes and the Redemptive Moment in Carlyle

Žižek’s premise in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009) is one of my favorites. With reference to Hegel, Lacan, the French Revolution and Stalinism (!) among other things, he tries to isolate ‘the redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection’ (7). It’s not the arguments against these things are not valid, but that ‘this is not the whole truth’ (7). Žižek is careful to point out that he’s not defending Stalinism, et al., but ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6). I hadn’t read this book before completing my thesis, but it would have fit Carlyle like a glove. Indeed, I used quotes from Feyerabend that make almost the same point as Žižek here. Mill makes similar points about the need to defend unpopular arguments in On Liberty, as well. Of course, I couldn’t delineate and theorize the ‘redemptive moment’ in Carlyle with the panache or theoretical acumen of Žižek, and I didn’t really try, as, in the end, I felt the need to reject any limiting of Carlyle’s work or influence to a ‘moment’ – or at least, I couldn’t come up with one moment that encapsulated enough to make it central. But, ok, one moment from Carlyle that sums up his radical potential (probably unrealized in his corpus overall), here is one that does it for me, from the great Sartor Resartus (of course):

“You see two individuals, […] one dressed in fine Red, the other in coarse threadbare Blue: Red says to Blue, ‘Be hanged and anatomized;’ Blue hears with a shudder, and (O wonder of wonders!) marches sorrowfully to the gallows; is there noosed up, vibrates his hour, and the surgeons dissect him, and fit his bones into a skeleton for medical purposes. How is this; or what make ye of your Nothing can act but where it is? Red has no physical hold of Blue, no clutch of him, is nowise in contact with him: neither are those ministering Sheriffs and Lord-Lieutenants and Hangmen and Tipstaves so related to commanding Red, that he can tug them hither and thither; but each stands distinct within his own skin. Nevertheless, as it is spoken, so is it done: the articulated Word sets all hands in Action; and Rope and Improved-drop perform their work.

“Thinking reader, the reason seems to me twofold: First, that Man is a Spirit, and bound by invisible bonds to All Men; secondly, that he wears Clothes, which are the visible emblems of that fact. Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?—Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth. (Part 1, Chapter 9)

This, presented as a pseudo-quote from Teufelsdrockh, is a powerful thought-experiment which brings to the reader’s attention the fact that the law is, as Žižek said, grounded on a lie. The life and death of one are in the hands of another who is in no way essentially other, but has merely adopted or been given certain clothes which have the magical effect of producing obedience to instructions he may give in certain forms and in certain situations. Thus Carlyle is quite openly and with shocking frankness (this was mid-19th-century England) putting forward the Žižekian point that ‘the law is grounded on a lie’, that ‘its authority is without truth’ (Sublime Object of Ideology, Ch. 1). It is simply a matter of ‘clothes’: the essence of the judge and the criminal are no different; they are ontologically equal, yet one can casually bring death to the other, and employ the whole machinery of society to do so. This is a passage calculated to foment revolution in the minds of ordinary men and women, to inspire commitment to anarchism, the levelling of all persons and symbolic denuding of all. How could respect for legal and political authorities survive if this passage were taken to the popular heart? Impossible. Here, then, we have a radical core that should be kept in mind when we consider Carlyle’s reputation in the 19th c., one which invited us to look at all constituted authorities with a critical eye – to look at the people, not the symbolic authority with which they are invested.

 

Reflecting on Žižek with Carlyle

Slavoj Žižek is turning into a Carlyle in his own right at this stage. He’s been getting heat for his attitude to Syrian refugees as expressed in articles like this one. The congregation are starting to wonder, is the Z. just another reactionary bore who has somehow inveigled his way to the vanguard of intellectuo-academic culture. One is reminded of Carlyle’s publication of his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849), a work that called more or less emphatically for the return of slavery to the West Indies. This did not go down well. Froude (Thomas Carlyle: His life in London, 1884) writes:

A paper on the Negro or Nigger question, properly the first of the ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets’ was Carlyle’s declaration of war against modern Radicalism. Hitherto, though his orthodoxy had been questionable, the Radicals had been glad to claim him as belonging to them[.]

That’s right, and should be rememberd, Carlyle was a Radical – with a capital R. Carlyle was expelled (figuratively speaking) from the ranks of the Radicals, and his remained very far to the right according to public opinion since. J.S. Mill wrote an angry rejoinder to Carlyle’s piece, which is worth reading. (Both pieces were published anonymously, but they both were aware who they were arguing with – Carlyle, in particular, had an unmistakeable  style.)

Žižek’s piece is far less incendiary than Carlyle’s, which used brutally sadistic and dehumanizing language (trollish language, one would have to say), but then standards have changed, and imputations of racism, etc., are more serious than they were in Carlyle’s culture. In my thesis, I argue that we now tend to read Carlyle’s oeuvre through our pre-existing knowledge of his racist offensiveness (thanks to Said and other scholars who called him out over a century later), but that Carlyle’s contemporaries did the opposite – reading the nasty, brutal stuff through his earlier, sensitive-humanist stuff. Reading his obituaries, they basically ignored all the bad stuff and spoke of him as a humane writer who cared for the underdog and hated injustice (George Eliot’s 1855 essay is also a great example of this). They didn’t explain away Negro Question – they just ignored it. Now, one sniff of that particular paper, and it colours everything we know about Carlyle. It’s so far off the scale it indicts him immediately.

So a reading of the radical Carlyle is hard to get away with these days. Is Žižek heading in that direction? Do we read him differently from now on? There’s a lot of questionable material in Žižek- the really coarse and smutty (and often not very witty) jokes; this idea that ‘woman is a symptom of man’ (sure it can be intellectualized [and it was], but look at it baldly, unintellectually – it’s sexism at its purest); his equivocal obsession with the figure of ‘the jew’. Could we perform a Carlylean reading of his work: ‘actually he was just a boorish, racist chauvinist all along, rather than the great philosopher we thought he was – it’s all there from the beginning’. It is all there, I think, though maybe there’s lots of good stuff there, too. Žižek shows, as Carlyle did, that the line separating left from right is a thin one, and is not always where we think it is. Whatever the final message of Žižek turns out to be, it will be less important than it seemed to his acolytes. I suggest that Žižek was/is fun and charismatic, his mind moved at high speed and across vast conceptual spaces, and it was that ‘surplus enjoyment’ (as the man himself would say) that we all read him for in the first place, not the substantive content. And he gave and gives us that, more than any major contemporary thinker.

 

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