22 March 2013
This piece was submitted by Aaron Day.
“The really practical statesman does not fit himself to existing conditions; he denounces the conditions as unfit.” – G.K. Chesterton
What does it mean to be Queer today and living “outside” of crisis? Here’s one thought experiment.
First, let us consider the basic interpellation of subjects both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of crisis. Inside a crisis, as in a car-crash or watching as a toilet over-fills, the spontaneous imperative is always un-meditated action. This means that not only do we act out of the drive of an impulse, but that we foreclose any potential anxiety in the place of narrativised certainty: “I cannot think about this. I must do something.” We can hypothesise that what triggers this response is therefore nothing ‘rational’ or considered but, rather, a discharge of anxiety. Crisis is, by its nature, the irruption of some traumatic, irrepressible kernel into our complacent everyday lives that we cannot effectively integrate—that ineffable x which must be ‘dealt with’ at no matter what cost.
Outside a crisis, or even ‘looking into’ a crisis, the subject’s position to this x is a lot different. When the first plane struck the first tower on 9/11, the predominant reaction of witnesses in the adjacent second tower was not to react or to panic, but to continue working as though nothing at all had happened. It was as though, even in the unbearable witness of potential danger, the average subject still could not effectively associate the symbolic efficacy of ‘the workplace’ with its disturbing negation ‘out there.’ And is this not the very position of the Queer subject today, who, even in witness to the deaths and exclusions of hundreds of thousands of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people on a daily basis, framed through news reports, social media, and statistical research, still cannot effectively bring themselves to stage a unified opposition?
In psychoanalysis, this apparent cognitive dissonance between signified danger and subjective inaction is generally referred to as disavowal (‘I know very well, but—’). The disavowing subject “knows very well” what is going on, and even what the presumed consequence of x is, but still chooses to “act” as though they do not really believe it. So the position of the Queer “out of crisis” is just this: I know very well what the crisis is, but still I cannot really act like I know.
This “acting” in opposition to “knowing” can be extrapolated, I claim, as the general status of performativity in ideology today. By this token, the ideological performative presumes the structure of disavowal because it “knows” what causes social injustices, imbalances of power, and widespread inequality, but still cannot bring itself to “act” as though it knows. For example, I know very well that my peaceful, tranquil life lived outside of poverty and dejection is only the necessary obverse to the very conditions that make poverty possible, but because of the complex social web in which I find myself caught, and my every day duties and responsibilities, I cannot reasonably ‘sacrifice’ my own privilege for the equality of others. Ideology today is thus the mask of social complexity invoked to ‘naturalise’ causal states of being—the causality of any particular trajectory painted as the only trajectory at all possible. This performativity, in general, insists on an overdetermined state of realism as a way to defend the status of its prevailing symbolic background (e.g., ‘it is unrealistic/too radical to demand nationwide reform of institutional poverty because we’re always going to have poverty’).
The question this all brings us to bear of course is, how then do we break the deadlock of disavowal? The answer isn’t so simple as to “expose the truth” as some frustrated Queer radicals might proffer. As we have already established, people generally already “know” the truth, and they might even be appalled by the truth, but still they do not “act.” The answer lies firmly, therefore, in this acting itself.
The recent and on-going student occupation at the University of Sussex runs into the very problem at the heart of this deadening performativity. However, the lynchpin of this problem is not so much that the students involved are not doing ‘enough’ to provoke real change to the imminent outsourcing of the University’s labour, but that the performative conditions for this outsourcing of labour have always-already been marked as causal determinations, naturalised ‘as givens’ by their complex and ‘out of hands’ manifestation.
It is thus because we protest ‘as students’ against the tyrannical hands of the inscrutable Big Other that our efforts to disrupt and sabotage these on-going changes can only ever be re-doubled as hysterical provocations, of ‘proving’ the very power that the Big Other has over us to effect its own agency. Our very acting out from the predicated position of the disenfranchised voice is what gives the prevailing ideological infrastructure its elasticity to effectively silence us; the guise of tolerance functions as a performative sublation. This is why we moved so quickly from standing in as a threat to the established order to being ‘welcomed in’ to ‘join the debate’—pushing the agenda for real change into food for thought: de-caffeinated, easy-to-stomach politics.
The performativity of Sussex occupy is thus compounded by the “knowledge” at the heart of its manifestation alongside the inability to effectively “act” this knowledge without it being somehow neutered or ‘swallowed by’ the causal trajectory of the outsourcing itself. While undoubtedly we can mark this as a hysterical position on the part of provocation between ‘the occupiers’ and ‘the establishment’, when it comes to the precise organisation of this resistance, a slightly different discursive dynamic presents itself. This difference can be determined by the locus of knowledge (S2) on Lacan’s graph illustrating the Discourse of the University:
As fitting as its name might be for this instance, the fundamental abstraction at stake in this discourse is the excluded/disavowed position of the Master-Signifier (S1) relative to the production of the barred subject ($) in the mediation of knowledge. As Slavoj Žižek identifies, “the constitutive lie of the university discourse is that it disavows its performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things.” This means that when I go to the doctor, I see myself addressed not by a master who knows (S1), but by ‘knowledge itself’ (S2) to determine the symptoms of my ailment. Of course, the necessary obverse to this truth is not that I am simply the object-vessel (a) into which this knowledge subjectivises me, but that I am all the same an anxious, hysterical character addressing the doctor as a Master, demanding reassurances to my wellbeing.
The disavowed “knowledge” at the heart of the Sussex Occupy movement is, along these lines, the performative truth of realism that causes its protestors to foreclose their narrativised places in this struggle. Lacan, famously, to his students involved in the radical movements of the 60s rebutted, “What you are looking for as revolutionaries is a new master—you will get one.” Today, the story is no different. What we as Sussex occupiers are looking for is charitable reassurance that our oppressors are plastic enough to ‘accommodate’ the very crises they bring to our tables. In short, we want new versions of the same old Masters. Through the management’s commodity-driven embracement of its student body’s outrage, what we are getting back is simply the dark mirror to our own self-hystericization.
Another mirror this organisation holds to its own discourse comes through in its emphasis on the ‘breadth’ and variety of its speakers. Because such a discourse bears no extrinsic Master-Signifier (no singular, reductive, affirmative voice) it is forced to carry the democratic ‘multiplicity’ of many voices all at once engaged in a neutralised ‘network’ of general causes. This is what we get in the shape of ‘debates’ and ‘discussions’ held in the event of the occupation itself. This is why the Master-Signifier (S1) on Lacan’s graph holds the place of the barred/disavowed position. Because we cannot formulate for ourselves a unifying cause of exclusionary action, any action we do endeavour to take is destined to be subsumed by the common, prevailing causality. By this same token, imagine if slaves in exile (in any crisis, even) were to publicly hold democratic seminars in order to discuss the various complexities, contingencies and conflicts of their imminent emancipation. The problem is thus not the organisation or the action of the protest—the problem is informing this organisation, calcifying this action.
Forging the Act (a Defence of Paranoia)
“On the crest of progress, we can’t balance on the wave / If the measure of success is only tallied in the lives we save.” – Bad Religion, “Crisis Time”
As Queer voices go, the theoretical struggle today is more and more a matter of inclusion, multiplicity, and complexity. As an unrepentant Lacanian, I am all too often accused of over-reliance on reductive terms in my analysis. I exclude often necessary contingencies from what I am talking about, focusing more on universal theory than on the complex detail of reality. I am abstract, one-sided, and dogmatic. Nonetheless, against the fashionable sway of post-structuralism, I remain steadfast to my position. If the symbolic role of the Master-Signifier can teach us anything it is that exclusion is always the name of the game. And crisis, as we have no doubt established, is the same principle.
Eve Sedgwick, in her essay on paranoid and reparative reading, talks about a suspension of “strong theory” in favour of the potential for lapses, surprises and transformative errors of localised affect theory. Sedgwick’s critique points the way towards a less anticipatory, self-annihilating paradigm, towards something that can properly accommodate the exclusions and complexities of the structured ego—reiterating the very Queerness in Queer lives.
My argument, however, is a defence of the ‘paranoiac’ Queer position over these more flexible, less anticipatory paradigms. As already outlined, the general problem with an always-open discourse is not that the Master-Signifier is absent (as such a discourse would only be ideal), but that it is always somehow disavowed or obstructed from view, allowing it to continue shaping our views unchallenged. In trying to ‘understand’ what a garden is, for example, the “weak theory” Sedgwick proposes aims to analyse every blade of grass and every worm and soil grain at hand—not to get the ‘big picture,’ but to become intimately familiar with what’s really out there. The problem with such an analysis, of course, is that in order for it to work we must have a minimally pre-established framework for what constitutes the exact boundaries of a garden worth analysing. This performative disavowal is a failure to acknowledge the subject’s eternal entanglement in the signifiers ‘garden’ and ‘not garden’ that make a close inspection palpable in the first place. And today is no different: we critics of ideology hinge our every idea only on the predicated ballpark boundaries that call for a ‘reformation’ or a rehabilitation of present-day capitalism. Thus it comes as no surprise, with all irony intact, that Sedgwick’s critique of strong theory must fall back on the very minimal-framework ‘strong’ paranoiac classification (of numerical listing the features of paranoia) it attacks.
So my question is both naïve and crucial: why not paranoia? The paranoia I am talking about, of course, is not the paranoia of a specific object (as in the racist or homophobe, whose ‘fear’ of the intrinsic values of the Queer or the Person of Colour is constructed like a fantasy), but of the paranoia informed through the affect of anxiety. Contrary to the fetishist fear, paranoiac anxiety holds only the negative-object of the Real in its grasp—or, that is to say, out of its grasp. This empty void ‘stands in’ for the un-representable kernel of the subject’s own symbolic displacement in the symbolic order.
A general paranoiac in this case is performative in the purest sense. This anxious subject reasonably looks both ways before crossing the road—not because the road is secretly “out to get him,” but rather, because he knows full well that the road holds no specific desire either way. The subject also pre-supposes (anticipates) some general, universal structure that makes ‘garden’ a translatable phenomenon, even in knowing that the garden is never really in-and-for-itself enough to represent this structure. The garden and the road both desire nothing from us, and yet it is as though their symbolic displacements are enough to make our affective relations to them palpable. In the interpellation of subjective reality, it is this appearance of the fiction, I claim, that is most crucial to our understanding and acting upon ‘socially constructed’ phenomena. A paranoiac—because of his openness to a specific discursive universality—is altogether more prepared to “act” when it seems that this world is out of joint.
Urging to the victims of the second tower in 9/11 that a “second plane might strike” would of course have been a paranoid position par excellence, but it is, of course, a paranoia informed by an anxiety that tells us more about the traumatic unpredictability of the Real than any standard appeals to rationality could. As Lacan is constant to remind us, anxiety, because it is the only affect without a symbolic attachment, is the only emotion “that does not deceive.” By this token, Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life explains how paranoia is not only a defence mechanism against suffering, but is also an effective tool for “preventing a catastrophe.” Paranoia is the subject’s way of expressing disconnectedness and indifferent rejection from others, transforming this anxiety into its symbolic inversion—it is not that I am being ignored by the other, but that the other is ‘like’ a conspirator against me.
Is this not the very truth of the paranoiac Queer subject today? As time and time again we Queer theorists have observed, our lives are no longer simply the focal point of some collective and intentional cabal “out to get us.” It may be more accurate to say that we are now more ‘tolerated’ than ever, and maybe even loved—that others do not desire to see us dead, but rather that they simply do not care. But it is precisely within this ‘not caring’ itself, in this very lack of a specific desire for us, that we find ourselves more and more the victims of non-subjective, systematic violence. We are the victims of passionate indifference.
And the same holds true for the students of the Sussex occupation: the uncanny truth is that the management simply “doesn’t care” about us. This is precisely why I claim that the performative imperative must always be a full embracement of paranoiac disavowal: we “know” very well they do not care, but this makes it all the more crucial to “act” like we do not know. By this inversion, we not only ‘fill in’ the empty contents of the other’s desire with the necessary Master-Signifier, but we stage for ourselves a reliable and uniform framework within which to act against this void of an unreality.
Our goal as activists and as Queers “outside of crisis” is thus quite simply to ‘act as though’ there were a monolithic crisis at stake, even if it’s more complicated than that. This is the only way to break the deadlocks of ‘gentrification’ and re-invigorate the Queer scene with the urgency necessary to stage its own emancipatory politics. The key to overcoming performative disavowal, therefore, is to target it with its formal negation; whereas the university discourse’s disavowal is the Master-Signifier that elevates the entanglement of power structures to the sublime status of ‘reality’, the disavowal of the Master’s discourse is the barred-subject itself, allowing the naïvely impassioned occupier/Queer to ‘fall into’ (rather than ‘step outside of’) the very causes he strives to make manifest.
What Sedgwick neglected to realise in her critique of paranoia is that it is not the ‘skeptic’ or even the open-minded precariat whose conscience is more in-tune with the lapses, errors and mishaps that make transformative politics possible, but it is rather the single-minded idiot whose world is constantly shaped, ‘proven by’ and altered by the objects they ‘leave out,’ who stands to triumph and actually effect a reliable change to the predominant ideological regime.
Paranoia is thus about more than anticipatory bias and circular reasoning, it is about taking indifference personally, and about navigating oneself within the performative entanglements crisis presents. Without at least a half-way paranoid position, and without the efficacy of the Master-Signifier this entails, protests such as the Sussex occupy movement can only ever hope to be successful in their partial ‘negotiations’ with the very causality they struggle to erase. Even if the occupiers are successful in their hysteria, and if the whole operation to outsource labour is called off, the remaining residue is the very power-imbalance that put outsourcing on the agenda in the first place. Things can only change in these conditions so that they do not really have to change.
To this end, Žižek provides us the co-ordinates for constructing a Master-Signifier that not only tells the truth, but in effect, tells us the truth only insofar as it constructs a symbolic fiction:
A phenomenon can thus tell the truth precisely by presenting itself as a lie, like the Jew in the Freudian joke often quoted by Lacan: ‘Why are you telling me you are going to Cracow when you’re really going to Cracow?’ (telling the truth represented a breach of the implicit code of deception which ruled the relationship: when one of them was going to Cracow, he was supposed to tell the lie that his destination was Lemberg, and vice versa). – Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 224
It is precisely the “implicit code of deception,” as such, that can hope to calcify all contingent causes into a narrativised whole. Solidarity starts with the structure of a fiction—a veil of antagonistic sublation that proffers to tell the truth of social misrecognition. Queers today, therefore, must take an uncomfortable leaf from the bigots and the right-wingers that carry this ‘honest lie’ to its bitter end. The truth of this deception comes through precisely because it resists vulgar re-constructions of ‘social reality,’ favouring instead the affective conditions that make the lie a symbolic possibility in the first place. If, for example, we want to talk about an Epistemology of a closet, what better strategy do we have than to insist that the closeted queer position is the only authentic identity in a world that systematically excludes it as an excess?—that ‘coming out’ as a narrative fiction itself only ever runs complicit with the disavowed lie of Queer Solidarity and equality bolstered by neoliberal hegemony?
The title of this essay takes an aphoristic page from Rancière: today’s crisis is what I call the ‘crisis of no-crisis.’ It speaks of the crisis buried in what is yet implicit, unspoken and haunting. Even if we “know” what this crisis is, we cannot “act” as players within it. And worse still, even if we really are within the crisis, we cannot help but want to dissociate.
When Queers and when students want to talk about crisis as systematic and caused by more than proximate, contingent phenomena, we are all the time patronised back into a ‘reality’ bearing the uncanny shape of a fiction. The general reaction is, of course: “what about these real crises?” and we are shown the same precarious faces of ‘charity’ and ‘aid work’ compelling us to return to the deadlocks of disavowed capital investment. The ‘real crisis,’ in this case, tells us only to react out of helplessness: act so that you do not have to think about what caused this.
‘The crisis of no-crisis’ is different insofar as it takes a bold step into the readily paranoiac position of someone who believes “there is more to it” than what charity demands. The paranoiac bears the insignia of a Master-Signifier informing his actions and compelling him to stand as an equal opposition to the Big Other. This is not to simply decry that the Big Other is a farce, or that charity is unhelpful, but that there is a more productive and consistent Universality worth talking about. There is another story worth telling.
Stephen Grosz claims when the subject cannot speak of their trauma, and cannot give voice to the afflictions and spectres of their past, it is trauma that speaks through them, emerging in the form of a symptom. Today, Queers and Student occupiers can only speak from the ‘symptomatic’ angle of their own exclusion/disavowal from the symbolic order. We see ourselves only from the hysterical position of the desire of the Big Other, asking: “what am I to them?” and “how can I change them?” It is today, I claim, that we must angle our struggles differently—like patients “working through” the traumas of their pasts, the subaltern must speak on its own terms, discover what longings are still repressed, bring them out, and finally, stand for them.