The Crisis of the Negative: The Relativist Right Never Change

Two things inaugurated the blogosphere’s engagement with accelerationism: the financial crash of 2007/08 and Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Zack Synder’s 2006 film, 300, for Lacanian Ink.

I discovered this the other day by doing a big deep dive and, whilst I’m saving a proper excavation of this moment for something else, I can’t stop thinking about it at the moment as all the usual suspects come out with their dumbest middling takes on the Black Lives Matter movement. They tend to look like this:

The furious facepalming going on in response to this is obviously justified but I’m just so bored of it at this point. The contrarianism is so tired but it’s also been dismissed so many times over the years. You’d think we’d have moved on. Unfortunately not.

Not that this is something unique to this account. There’s little difference between this shit and the stuff that about a dozen other accounts put out on Twitter. You know who they are. From where I am, they’ve all just morphed into some indistinguishable blob of Justin Murphy podcast alumni. I have most of them on mute.

What this has to do with the moment the accelerationist blogosphere was born is that, funnily enough, accelerationism basically came about in response to this sort of Žižek Edgelord Playbook. It was moronic then, almost fifteen years ago, and it’s moronic now, but the difference is that everyone seems to have forgotten the reason why.

I’m sure everyone remembers 300 — for the memes if not for its actual storyline. (I don’t think I ever saw it, personally, but all those kicking memes are still ingrained in my mind like an inescapable pop song.) Since its release is 2006, most have tried to forget about it, however, despite its influence being hard to ignore. That’s because it is generally considered to be a precursor to a lot of alt right bullshit.

There’s a great article on this that was written a few years back for the AV Club, which argues:

This is a movie that makes a grand, mythic spectacle out of the whole defending-the-white-homeland trope, and if you look at the YouTube comments on any of the scenes [described] above, you will witness some serious human ugliness. It would be a pretty big stretch to blame 300 for Donald Trump or whatever, but the movie really did lionize the heroic white warriors fighting to repel the endless dark-skinned hordes — to, in the gravelly narrator’s words, “rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.” (Oh no! Mysticism!) This sort of bullshit did help establish a world where Donald Trump could be elected president, and it deserves to be remembered for that. It’s an influential movie in all the wrong possible ways. It’s our Birth Of A Nation.

This was written in 2017 but of course 300 is a film that Slavoj Žižek once wrote a glowing appraisal of back in 2007.

In stereotypically Žižekian fashion, the Slovenian philosopher uses his article on 300 in Lacanian Ink to attempt to subvert the film’s fascistic overtones and instead affirm its narrative of militaristic and sacrificial discipline from the left.

Ignoring the film’s racialised antagonists, amongst other things, he disagrees with the ways the film has been “attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq”. Instead, Žižek argues that the film should “be thoroughly defended against these accusations.”

Žižek’s case is superficially contrarian. For starters, he points out that the film in fact tells the story of “a small and poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larger state (Persia), at that point much more developed, and with a much more developed military technology”. The Spartans are clearly the underdogs and so, if we are to draw parallels between the film and the US’s then-recent interventions in the Middle East, surely the supposedly American — that is, white — heroes of the saga are instead representative of the Taliban?

This is most clear following the film’s climax. “When the last surviving group of the Spartans and their king Leonidas are killed by the thousands of arrows”, Žižek argues, “are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today’s US soldiers who push the rocket buttons from the warships safely away in the Persian Gulf?”

Žižek does not go on to suggest that the film is an opportunity for consciousness-raising, however, as one might generously expect, through which the American movie-going public might potentially develop empathy for the Other. Instead, he argues that the film offers the left a chance to develop a revolutionary spirit through discipline and sacrifice. Quoting his friend and fellow philosopher Alain Badiou, he writes:

“We need a popular discipline. I would even say… that ‘those who have nothing have only their discipline.’ The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power — all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.” In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This controversial argument emerges from Badiou’s suggestion — in the same 2007 interview from which Žižek is quoting — that the left should make contact, once again, with the militancy of Marxist-Leninism, albeit in a form appropriate to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Žižek’s suggestion that 300 is somehow representative of this move is unconvincing and no doubt purposefully antagonistic, but Badiou’s original argument is nonetheless an interesting one.

The left, he argues, seems allergic to effective organisation, precisely because it is the State that organises most effectively. In trying to negate the State — that is, embody everything that the State is not — the left are dooming themselves, relegating themselves to never becoming more than a weak, impotent, subservient and disorganised opposition to bourgeois oppression and state power.

It’s a familiar position. You might even think it’s not far from Terese’s shitpost above, but, unlike that tweet, there’s a little bit more to it.

Badiou grounds this problem of opposites, of mirroring the State in negative, within Marxism. “For Marx,” he argues, “the dialectical conception of negation defined the relation between philosophy and politics — what used to be called the problem of dialectical materialism.” Drawing on German idealism, Marx argued that Hegel’s philosophy of the dialectic — the idea that the comprehension of a unity between opposites, through logic and reason, leads to the production of new thought — must be applied to lived experience in the material world rather than just the life of the mind. When considering the constitution of a capitalist society, this means understanding the interrelations of the working and ruling classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, so that the proletariat might rise up and escape the unjust conflicts that keep the system in motion. To do this, the proletariat must understand the positivity of their nonetheless negative position. This is to say that it is only in affirming the strengths of their negative existence — for instance, their greater numbers over a relatively small elite — that the proletariat can change the world.

However, for Badiou, this conception of the negative in relation to political praxis is no longer sufficient. He explains:

Just as the party, which was once the victorious form of insurrection, is today outdated, so too is the dialectical theory of negation. It can no longer articulate a living link between philosophy and politics. In trying to clarify the political situation, we also need to search for a new formulation of the problem of critique and negation. I think that it is necessary, above all in the field of political action, to surpass the concept of a negation taken solely in its destructive and properly negative aspect. Contrary to Hegel, for whom the negation of the negation produces a new affirmation, I think we must assert that today negativity, properly speaking, does not create anything new. It destroys the old, of course, but does not give rise to a new creation.

It is Badiou’s interjection here, suggested indirectly through the garish cultural expositions of Slavoj Žižek, that sent up a flare over the blogosphere of the late 2000s. Badiou, unfortunately, seemed to be correct; the then-recent protest movements, particularly Occupy, which had emerged following the financial crash certainly seemed largely inept for the task at hand.

Steven Shaviro, who (amazingly) continues to run the blog The Pinocchio Theory, was the first to pass comment on Žižek’s article. Shaviro suggests that, rather than extending Badiou’s argument, he only manages to epitomise it absolutely. Although he may believe that he is firmly on the side of a rationalist Marxist-Hegelianism, through which “the free subject of Reason can only emerge through a ruthless self-discipline”, Shaviro instead argues that Žižek’s “contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists … or evolutionary theorists like the guys … who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.”

In other words, this is precisely the sort of negativity that Badiou was denouncing. Žižek isn’t producing new thought or action through his contrarianism; instead, he only entrenches the mire of postmodern impotence displayed routinely by the relativist right. As Shaviro damningly declares, Žižek “totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.”

It is nonetheless intriguing, considering the vast amount of material Žižek has produced throughout his career that attempts to skewer this kind of ideological trap, that he would find himself so complicit in that which he claims to despise. Shaviro concludes with a similar bemusement, noting how his “theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Žižek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.”

Nevertheless, thanks to Žižek’s utter embodiment of the issue at hand, Badiou’s initial question somehow manages to penetrate the postmodern fuzz. We are indeed in the thrall of a “crisis of the negative”, as he calls it. “Our problem today is that the destructive part of negation is no longer, in and of itself, capable of producing the new.” It is from here that accelerationism was born.

The post-Ccru crowd took this charge very seriously and, for all their missteps and wrong turns, they consistently produced school after school of thought that — even if only for a time — revitalised a para-academic domain of philosophy and politics and, in some cases, made genuine in-roads into the hallow halls they’d previously hoped to escape from. They were all the more capable of doing this, I believe, because they kept this crisis of the negative in mind. They knew what impotence looked like and did their best to escape it whenever it started to take hold.

The Twitter gobshites have no such aspirations, obviously — although they’ll continue to trade on their PhDs if they’ve got them — and no such capabilities. There’s no desire to actually effect anything on display here. It’s the sort of post-European bourgeois ineptitude that defines so many East Coast edgelords. All soft hands and plush chaise longues and drinking problems, but they’re far more bovine than Madame Bovary.

The impotence of this sort of post-right thinking demonstrates the extent to which they missed out on the lesson from Occupy. They’ve slipped back into — or, even more likely, never left — the right-wing need to say dumb shit loudly for likes, emboldened by the system they claim themselves to be free radicals within.

Of course, Terese and her sort don’t openly define themselves by what they reject, but they are nonetheless parasites that feed upon the sensitivity of popular opinion. It looks all the more pathetic in this moment, as an emboldened left is fucking shit up and making changes in a way that previous protest movements couldn’t force through. The fact that that is as true over here in the UK as it is in the US is astounding — we never get anything done!

Disavowing this kind of rubbish is worthwhile, but it is best to remember the above as well, I think. This Žižekian playbook is dusty, but its also demonstrative of the kind of thinking those with genuine nous have been ridiculing for a long, long time. And we’re in a moment where the left is showing signs of shirking off the gravitational pull of an impotent black hole they gleefully lurk on the edges of.

Break loose.

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