fistful of zizek

I think Žižek presents the most compelling argument thus far for how resistance might be practiced under the regimes of protocol, the control society, and biopower. While Žižek doesn’t offer this theory in terms Galloway, Deleuze, or Foucault and Nealon employ, I think the relationship between Žižek’s work and that of the other theorists I’ve mentioned is fairly clear.

Žižek argues that subversion must take the form of the “empty gesture,” the gesture that is offered only in the expectation that it will be refused. For Žižek, subverting the fantasy of the false choice becomes a real act of subversion and resistance. As he writes, “the truly subversive thing is not to disregard the explicit letter of the Law on behalf of the underlying fantasies, but to stick to this letter against the fantasy which sustains it” (29). That is, to resist means not to avoid the (illusion) of choice in the empty gesture, but to take it at face value; not to deny choice (or argue that it is being denied) but to revel in choice, to exploit the opportunity (falsely) offered as a genuine moment of agency and autonomy. “In other words,” writes Žižek, “the act of taking the empty gesture (the offer to be rejected) literally—to treat the forced choice as a true choice—is, perhaps, one of the ways to put into practice what Lacan calls ‘traversing the fantasy’: in accomplishing this act, the subject suspends the phantasmic frame of unwritten rules which tell him how to choose freely—no wonder the consequences of this act are so catastrophic”. The fantasy of the empty gesture is not the fantasy of having one’s way—if only I could accept the offer!—but rather that of the offer qua offer: it is understood, expected that the offer will be rejected—because that is what one does. One does not say “yes” to the empty gesture without, as Žižek demonstrates, provoking catastrophe.

I think this is a promising mode of resistance. In some ways, it echoes the work done by groups like the Yes Men. The name here is intriguing: rather than resisting through negation (“No!”), the Yes Men have used satire and irony to show up the hypocrisy of governments and NGOs alike. However, their actions are not done through protesting as such, but through infiltrating these bodies and using their own logic against them. In the link above, for example, a Yes Men operative proposes to the WTO that private ownership of labor—i.e., slavery—would benefit African nations in the same way that private ownership and industrialization has already benefited them. Plainly, the plan is abhorrent, but what is abhorrent about it is not the implication of slavery qua slavery, but that the promotion of slavery is made according to the rules of free-market capitalism; the argument of an enslaved workforce is derived from the same logic that urges private investment in African industry and resources. In Žižek’s terms, the Yes Men are “sticking to the letter” of the Law, but the Law in this case is flawed; the forced choice here—privatization of all parts of production, including labor—is made under the empty gesture that no body or organization would accept this choice because it is (ostensibly) so plainly a violation of human/humane ethics and international standards.

What complicates this as a form of resistance, to my eyes, is that it requires an audience or observer who is capable of recognizing the logic of the satire and irony. That is, it demands an audience who is engaged enough with the issues at hand and the modes of resistance being deployed to see these acts as resistance and not simply just a “prank” or, worse yet, as a viable proposal for resolving economic crises in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not saying that people are dumb, though I have serious questions about whether such acts could work on a large enough scale to be politically productive when many people might not recognize them as being political acts of resistance. Rather, I am more concerned about the second consequence, that tactics like those of the Yes Men will be taken at face value and that, for example, privatized labor will be enacted by overeager capitalism. In this case, Žižek’s qualms about the ethics of such forms of resistance are of utmost importance. The question that needs to be asked, then, is not just one of how to resist power and capital, but rather how can we use the empty gesture effectively—without allowing for the empty gesture to be taken at face value in ways that would be counterproductive to progressive causes?

On one hand, it is tempting to say that no organization, body, or company would be so daft as to accept such a proposal as privatized labor. But . . . it is not a contention I have much faith in. I think it is far more likely that without making plain the emptiness of such empty gestures such proposals as privatized labor could become a reality. What, then, is the cost of such an outcome? If it ultimately leads to greater outcry, resistance, and protest to such practices, can we accept a few thousand (or million) people being enslaved? Or is the cost in human dignity too great?

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