Saturday, February 19, 2005


Mark Kaplan is right to insist on the sometimes weight of certain words. (Although sometimes it is not quite, of course, as simple as saying "point taken." Neither is it sufficient to invoke the false assurance of a "we," saying something like, "we defer.") But in any case, the "recovering Habermasian" come Zizekian Jodi Dean links to a provocative article that deserves wider mention:

There is a new joke circulating in the post-vote liberal press: prominent sections of the Left are now advising that in order to avoid any further drift into irrelevance it should compromise its principles and adopt a new Bible-toting symbolism capable of appealing to the swing voters of Middle America. The punch line, of course, is the notion that the Left has any principles left to compromise! Principles require a non-cynical approach to the political, and cynicism is precisely the strategy the Left has embraced so it can justify its pragmatic opportunism as the height of "enlightened" thinking. The rise to cult celebrity of John Stewart and Comedy Central's The Daily Show is a case in point. Most weeknights The Daily Show entertains a primarily younger audience with a savvily cynical Left take on current events. With shrewd hilarity, Stewart and his cohorts relentlessly puncture the solemnity of the official political discourse in the U.S., all under cover of what is billed as "fake news". "Fake news" is what allows Stewart to evade any political responsibility for the state of political discussion on the Left while remaining an idol of the Left. Laughing the seriousness out of all "principles", Stewart is the "real" idol of a supposedly idol-less Left (and his faking not being an idol only adds to his idol-ness). Yet what Stewart conveniently doesn't get is that in Bush's "America" the fake is what keeps the (manufactured) "real news" looking like reality. The cultural politics of the "fake news" of Comedy Central is to produce the "real fake" so that the Brian Williams and Peter Jennings of the world look less fake.

Is this not the same role, ultimately, as that played by shows like 24? Whether comforted in the tired evenings with benign satire, or with a sensational collage of vulgar stereotypes and reactionary, semi-coherent plot lines and mediocre dialogue, the difference is, as they say, the same. The actual workings of power and ideology have received a fresh round of immunizations, safely assimilating again the potential real menace of meaningful critique.
In fact, "After Theory," the populist left has started marketing a new commodity: the uncritical reading. "Uncritical" is, for the populist left, the code of brave defiance against reason and critique and a celebration of what it represents as the people's wisdom. "Uncritical reading" is the Left's latest attempt to naturalize by spontaneity the ideological working of capitalist cultural politics. Through "uncritical reading"—which is the sign of "reading from the heart" (and a not-so-secret attack on science, critique, and objective understanding of the world)—it posits a pre-critical authenticity that precedes all reading, and celebrates an uncritical thinking (a resistant irrationality, a pre-textual essence or experience that cannot be conceptualized, etc.) that is present in all critical thought. Uncritical reading critically trains the student to turn away from objective class interests and toward values, religion, and even superstition, all in the name of the spontaneous. Uncritical reading is a continuation of the left's interpretive strategy that in the 1980s and 1990s found in every quietistic text a moment of resistance and argued that power was actually in the hands of the weak. After the disastrous end of that project, resistance reading has been transformed into uncritical reading—a reading that resists the knowledge of the world (which might be used to transform the world) and embraces instead matters of affect.

I don't know. I certainly agree with the general spirit of this. At times I've found myself arguing just such a line, querying the general disposition of much hypertext and self-styled postmodern "theorists," calling for a much-needed critique in terms of economic class, and invoking Zizek on the cynical, ironic viewer. (Incidentally, proclaiming oneself "postmodern" is just not, you know, something one does, if one wishes to be taken seriously, as I think Caterina Fake once pointed out, back when I first started reading blogs.) But then there's also a sense in which these (especially Internet) tendencies toward uncritical, light (light as in Terry Gilliam's terrorist-stricken restaurant in Brazil), affective reading represent more than just a passing trend or a still deeper entrenchment of habitual cynicism and denial. They are also of course indicative of real and substantial changes in the 'tele-techno-media' texture of our environment. Which is not for a minute to suggest that they are merely natural, or that a disservice to critical thought isn't done every time they are spoken of in a way that somehow naturalizes them. Whether these evolving tendencies represent anything like an End of History or not, as some a notion hardly worth dignifying with a response. (Without my response they are already striving hard to become a self-fulfilling prophesy (is there any other kind?) And in a sense, one cannot help but respond, and every day.) But keen observers are those who recognize a red flag (as they say) whenever the word "failure" is invoked as self-evident, beyond all doubt (as in the "failure of Theory," "failure of Communism," "failure of the 60's," etc.) Such phrases often betray an entire host of common, clichéd prejudices--in short, a worldview--whether they intend to do so or not. And the phrase "failure of the left" is not always untouched by this tendency. As the film Control Room concludes, on a Howard Zinnian note, the tragedy is in people remembering only one thing: Victory (whether "History" or disengenuous, attempted performative utterance). Another such prejudice would be that 'deconstruction' somehow dogmatically priveleges affect over fact. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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