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Reading between the lines

The spectre haunting academia

James Heartfield signs up to a manifesto of assertive subjectivity, or would do if it were one

  • The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre Of Political Ontology, Slavoj Zizek, Verso, £20 hbk

Slavoj Zizek opens this book with a take-off of Marx's Communist Manifesto. A hundred and fifty years ago Marx took advantage of the capitalist world's fear of communism, to warn that a spectre was haunting Europe, the spectre of communism. It was a bluff that worked: in 1848 communism as a political movement was negligible in its influence, little more than a vague idea. Marx took the guilty fears of the ruling classes and made them into a manifesto, a manifesto that founded the very movement itself.

Zizek, the Slovenian-born philosopher, replays the joke in the following terms: 'A spectre is haunting Western academia...the spectre of the Cartesian subject. All academic powers have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre.' Zizek names feminists, new-age obscurantists, postmodern deconstructionists and deep ecologists as differing intellectual trends which now coalesce in their hostility to what he calls the Cartesian subject.

Described in philosophy by René Descartes, the rational subject is well known to us all. It is us - thinking, choosing, acting subjects, who decide our own destinies. Zizek's argument is that these qualities are today being challenged by the radical-sounding theories that depict the subject as exclusively male, an exploiter of nature, and so on. It is a good argument - one which myself and others have made before in this magazine.

So I endorse Zizek's plea that 'it is high time that the partisans of Cartesian subjectivity should, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of Cartesian subjectivity, with the philosophical manifesto of Cartesian subjectivity itself'. But as everybody knows, two Cartesian subjects in the same room constitute a split, so I am duty-bound to air some criticisms of this Ticklish Subject.

The first is ultimately trivial, but immediately not so: Zizek's style, notwithstanding a great opening, is terrible. Recommending The Ticklish Subject to the people I know has raised questions about my sanity. True, too many of them are unlettered philistines who would do anything other than read a book, but Zizek's cryptically insular academic references would test all but an in-crowd of tenured postmodern leftists. To his credit, Zizek jokes and livens up his tales with anecdotes and film references - such as the tale of the Slovene translators who over-compensated for years of bowdlerised film subtitles after the Berlin Wall came down. But unless you are familiar with self-manage-

The opaque style is a shame, because there are jewels behind it. Zizek's assault on the dogma of multiculturalism is excellent, precisely because it is not a right-wing whinge about race. On the contrary, his attack is from the left. 'The ideal form of ideology of this global capitalism is multiculturalism...a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism', he writes. This is a courageous breach with the consensus, akin to Kenan Malik's attack on multiculturalism in The Meaning of Race (Macmillan, 1996). Malik's point was that the muticulturalists' argument that the human race was necessarily divided between discrete cultures in practice reproduced the old racial ideology, in less explicitly elitist form, though with similar consequences. Zizek, too, sees through the flannel, noting that 'the multiculturalist's respect for the Other's specificity is the very form of asserting one's own superiority', and further that 'it tolerates the Other in so far as it is not the real Other, but the aseptic Other of premodern ecological wisdom, fascinating rites, and so on'. Zizek is also good on the lifelessly anti-ideological ideology of Tony Blair's Third Way, which he points out is emblematic of the absent political centre of contemporary life.

The limitation of Zizek's Ticklish Subject is that he does not hold fast to the opening insight of a degradation of human subjectivity. Reading this off of its philosophical rejection, he fails to situate the attack on subjectivity in the historic defeat of the oppositional subject of the working class. Remaining at the level of ideas, he does not give the full measure of the real evacuation of subjective agency in the long defeat and disaggregation of the labour movement, and its culmination in an uncontested polity and culture. Consequently, when Zizek moves outwards from ideas, to a practical engagement, the central theme of the book remains tangential to material conditions, where it ought to have characterised these conditions themselves.

Zizek's attack on multiculturalism could have gone on to argue that this ideology was itself the expression of a loss of agency among oppositional movements - that multiculturalism exemplified the disaggregation of a society that had lost direction. Instead his complaint is that multiculturalism leaves the 'real problem' untouched.

The real problem is the 'logic of capital', and that 'the global capitalist system was able to incorporate the gains of the postmodern politics of identities to the extent that they did not disturb the smooth circulation of capital'. In itself, this is not wrong, but it leaves social order (the 'global capitalist system') and multiculturalism unrelated, except accidentally, or negatively, in that the one does not disturb the other.

Here Zizek is repeating Frederic Jameson's mistake of presuming that the analysis of the underlying social system is completed in classical Marxism, and demoting his own analysis to a discrete sideshow of ideological forms. The problem is that the degradation of subjectivity as an historic reality could not leave the underlying 'smooth circulation of capital' undisturbed. As Phil Mullan explained in the June issue of LM, capital itself is paralysed by a failure of subjectivity, its circulation actively disrupted by the unwillingness of investors to take risks.

Zizek's weakness is all too apparent in what could be the most interesting part of his book - a critical examination of the influential theory of the 'risk society' promoted by the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens. The theory is that risk is now endemic, because it is no longer just accidents of nature but human action itself that throws up potentially disastrous, unintended consequences, like pollution or genetic diseases. Instinctively, Zizek understands that the radical expansion of risk calls into question the very possibility of bridging the gap between 'knowledge and decision, between the chain of reasons and the act which resolves the dilemma'.

Here he ought to grasp that the breach between act and decision is one that is subjective, expressed in the theory of risk, rather than an objective condition of the growth of industry and technology. In risk theory, Zizek confronts the most pernicious example of the attack on subjectivity, because it paralyses the very possibility of action with scaremongering tales of unimagined consequences. But instead of faulting the risk theorists for their attack on Cartesian subjectivity, he does the opposite. He criticises them because 'they leave intact the subject's fundamental mode of subjectivity: their subject remains the modern subject, able to reason and reflect freely, to decide and select his or her norms, and so on'. He thinks that risk theory gives too much priority to the rational subject.

Failing to see that the risk theory evacuates the possibility of rational choice for the subject, Zizek's criticisms of risk theorists fall back into a traditional leftist complaint that they fail to treat risks as products of capitalism. Zizek is not really engaging with the new conditions that are expressed (however perversely) in risk theory - namely the very topic of his own book, the attack on subjectivity. Instead he is asking that their complaints against human intervention should be assimilated into his own anti-capitalism. He thinks that he is putting their risk theory on a surer footing, by giving it some Marxist credentials. But all he is doing is lending the rhetoric of Marxism to the same paralysing anxiety that is formalised in risk theory.

In fact, a dose of anti-capitalist rhetoric is entirely commensurable with the attack on subjectivity. Zizek thinks that it is strong to insist on 'some kind of radical limitation of capital's freedom, the subordination of the process of production to social control'. On the contrary, 'social control' in this climate could only mean a conservative constraint. And limitations upon 'capital's freedom' in the current climate could only lend themselves to constraints upon all our freedom, in the name of safety and ecological balance. The contemporary campaign against genetic science is the best example of this. This 'social control' is government reacting to the precocious activism of a tiny handful riding a much larger wave of anxiety. In the name of ignorance, scientists are being prevented from researching the growth of genetically modified organisms. The demotic fervour of this campaign reaches its highest pitch with the banal observation that the companies that fund the research are profit-driven.

If Zizek had held more firmly to his initial insight, instead of treating it as an add-on to a traditional Marxism, he could have seen through the real meaning of the risk theory. Instead, his old allegiances only lend themselves to the very thing that he set out to criticise, the attack on the Cartesian subject.

Bridget McBeal

Are the growing numbers of single women free spirits or just kidding themselves? asks Tessa Mayes

  • The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life, Marcelle Clements, WW Norton and Co, £18.95 hbk

Marcelle Clements' the improvised woman attempts to understand the 'most significant trends' in America, where 43 million women are now single. In Britain over 40 percent of adults live without a partner. This is the age of, in Bridget Jones speak, the Singletons.

Interviews with over 100 American single women reveal the diverse nature of single life and its 'new families'. They are unmarried by choice, serial cohabitees between relationships, monogamous lovers who live separately, single parents, 'child-free' women, celibate women who have numerous friends, those who cohabit with friends, divorcees, or widowers. Generally these women are not desperate to have a man but are open to the idea of the perfect partner.

Negotiating this new social and emotional landscape is tricky. Clements points out that fears of rejecting the traditional family exist alongside the excitement of a newfound independence. The single state is one of flux, as women 'improvise' their lives in a society where no role models exist, offering each other contradictory advice.

However, at the heart of Clements' appreciation lies a fundamental mistake. She confuses independence with being alone.

While recognising that in such a pluralistic world you can no longer define women as either strictly married or unmarried, Clements offers an alternative definition. Women either conform to traditional stereotypes, or reject this for the liberation that comes with discovering ways to go solo. In other words, there are women who only experience married life and there are a million other ways women live beyond this. Our culture can no longer pigeonhole women. We are an undefined hybrid: Bridget McBeal characters with loads-of-friends.

Clements' argument is framed in feminist language. Women can choose 'emancipation' from marriage, declare 'freedom' from stifling relationships, and enjoy a new relationship but not be 'oppressed' by it. In their transition to the single state, women go through a 'psychological rite of passage to a different consciousness', embracing a 'creative solitude'.

The idea that single women are more independent than married ones or those in lifelong, monogamous relationships is a fashionable view. Reviewing the book for the Guardian, Joan Smith agrees that the 'single life embraces the pleasures of autonomy, of living to a fixed plan, or remaining open to experience'. This can only be explored when women are out of relationships. 'Single life', she writes, 'requires guts and self-confidence, often the very things which are sapped in a conventional marriage'. Journalist Kathryn Flett, describing the breakdown of her marriage in her book serialised in the Observer, considers that 'lots of women feel slightly cut adrift after they get married', as if women automatically change when they say 'I do'. Meanwhile, Sunday Times columnist India Knight argues that women find it difficult to conceive that 'one is fun'.

In fact, women's lives are not ultimately determined by whether they are in a relationship, out of one, or between the two. But the obsessive belief that relationships are all-important can dominate the way we live. From this perspective, changing your life becomes simply a question of how you negotiate your personal relationships. As a result, independence in Clements' view means independence from relations with men. Yet this belittles what independence means. Whoever you are with, for how long and in whichever way, the key to independence is independence of mind. It means knowing your own mind rather than being buffeted around under pressure from others. Taking an independent standpoint does not have to mean studying life in solitary confinement.

Clements argues that by looking to ourselves 'we may get...liberation, at least from others'. Why would we want that? You don't have to remove yourself from other people - celebrate life on Planet No Mates - to achieve independence or space to explore yourself. Once you have worked out what you want independently from others, you could always make demands on your man and maybe he will help you achieve what you want or - God forbid - have some better ideas. Clements' advice to look inwards for some kind of individualistic fulfilment presents a stunted view of women's liberation.

Just as Clements redefines the notion of independence, so some of the women interviewed for The Improvised Woman redefine what an adult relationship means. They say that they have 'relationships' with vibrators, children, or adults in a 'vague dating' situation (that is, they date a man they only vaguely like). Relating to anything or anybody becomes equally meaningful, missing the point that adult relationships offer something different and deeper.

Absent from the women's experience cited in the book is any description of them persevering with somebody, working out difficult areas and even learning from another person. Instead you have a catalogue of tried-but-failed relationships and the insistence that the new life is a constant source of meaningful revelations. As Clements notes, most women seem in search of constant novelty. 'We're in a hurry', she writes, in a world in which 'motion itself seems to have become a way of life'.

Perhaps it is not surprising that women are in search of the new, whatever form it takes. After all, the traditional family is constantly attacked as a site of abuse, where men dominate and women are stifled victims. However problematic the present, the assumption is that past lifestyles must be worse.

It is not that women don't know what they want: the most common fantasy is a regular sexual partner who visits several times a week. The trouble is how to get it. The author provides a useful description of how the ability to relate to the opposite sex is being undermined by therapy professionals. They encourage more emotional openness in a culture that goes so far as to celebrate dumping somebody as a positive sign of self-assertion.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

  • Lucky George: Memoirs Of An Anti-Politician, George Walden, Allen Lane, £17.99 hbk

Former tory education minister and Foreign Office official Walden tells a sad-funny tale of facing down the KGB and the yellow peril in China, only to realise that he himself is on the side of the Yahoos in the dying days of Margaret Thatcher's government. Walden's redeeming quality is his love of learning and ideas. The growing suspicion that the increasing number of students under his rule were not getting a demanding education led him to value excellence, and defend it against an inexorable dumbing down. His judgements are often sharp, such as the insight that the 'great parliamentarians' Powell, Foot and Benn were in reality 'escapologists from reality' whose imitation of profundity has too often been taken for the real thing. Anti-politics sums Walden up - he despairs of the cynicism of it all, a little cynically.

Will Deighton

Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999

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