[eDebate] critchley the kritiker versus zizek the policymaker

Kevin Sanchez let_the_american_empire_burn
Sun Apr 19 08:40:39 CDT 2009

allow me to begin with an extended quotation from simon critchley, the
full text of which is available here: http://www.politicaltheory.info/essays/critchley.htm
-- we'll then attempt to apply this to policy debate...

"Let me move on now to the question of the state. We inhabit states. The
state - whether national like Spain or Britain, transnational like the EU or
imperial like the USA - is the framework within which conventional politics
takes place. Now, it is arguable that the state is a limitation on human
existence and we would be better off without it. Such is perhaps the
eternal temptation of anarchism, and we will come back to anarchism.
However, it seems to me that we cannot hope, at this point in history,
to attain a withering away of the state either through anarcho-syndicalism
or revolutionary proletarian praxis, or through the agency of the party for
example. Within classical Marxism, state, revolution and class form a
coherent set: there is revolutionary class, the universal or classeless class
of the proletariat whose communist politics entails the overthrow of the
bourgeois state. But if class positions are not simplifying, but on the
contrary becoming more complex through processes of dislocation, if the
revolution is no longer conceivable in Marx's manner, then that means that,
for good or ill, let's say for ill, we are stuck with the state, just as we are
stuck with capitalism. The question becomes: what should our political
strategy be with regard to the state, to the state that we're in?

...In a period when the revolutionary subject has decidedly broken down,
and the political project of a disappearance of the state is not coherent
other than as a beautifully seductive fantasy, politics has to be conceived
at a *distance* from the state. Or, better, politics is the praxis of taking
up distance with regard to the state, working independently of the state,
working in a situation. Politics is praxis in a situation and the work of
politics is the construction of new political subjectivities, new political
aggregation in specific localities, new political sequences.

Perhaps it is at this intensely situational, indeed local level that the
atomizing force of capitalist globalization is to be met, contested and
resisted. That is, it is not to be resisted by constructing a global
anti-globalization movement that, at its worst, is little more than a
highly-colorful critical echo of the globalization it contests. It is rather
to be resisted by occupying and controlling the terrain upon which one
stands, where one lives, works, acts and thinks. This needn't involve
millions of people. It needn't even involve thousands. It could involve just
a few at first. It could be what Julia Kristeva has recently called the domain
of 'intimate revolt'. That is, politics begins right here, locally, practically and
specifically, around a concrete issue and not by running off to protest at
some meeting of the G8. You shouldn't meet your enemy on their ground,
but on your own, on the ground that you have made your own.

Politics is praxis in a situation that takes up a distance from the state. ...
But the thought that I want to retain is the idea of true democracy as not
being incarnated in the state, but rather enacted or even simply acted - 
practically, locally, situationally - at a distance from the state. I am trying
to think of democracy as a movement of disincarnation that works
concretely beneath the state's abstraction. It calls the state into question,
it calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the
state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in
order to better it or attenuate its malicious effects.

...[W]oring towards a control of the place from which one speaks and
acts, working together in a situation as a political subject committed to a
plan, a place, a space, a process, an event [-] this is not just possible, it
is actual, and where it is not actual, it is actualizable: in the institial spaces
occupied by the dispossed in the great metropolitan centers, or more
generally, in the workplace, in housing projects, in schools, in univerisities,
in hospitals, in shelters for asylum seekers, all over.

...[P]olitics is not rare or seldom and to adopt such a position is finally
defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations
of our times can invite pessimism, ...but they can also invite militancy
and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and
imagination, and invitation, finally, for our commitment and responsibility.

...The revolution is not going to be generated out of systemic or
structural laws. We are on our own and what we do we have to do for
ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention. No ontology or
eschatological philosophy of history is going to do it for us. Working at
a distance from the state, a distance that I have tried to describe as
democratic, we need to construct political subjectivities in specific
situations, subjectivities that are not arbitrary or relativistic, but which
are articulations of an ethical demand whose scope is universal and
whose evidence is faced in a situation. This is dirty, detailed, local,
practical and largely untrilling work. It is time we made a start."

this suggests an alternative framework for policy debate, one wherein
we no longer ask, 'what policies should the u.s.f.g. enact?', but 'what
policies should the debate community endorse?'. due to the specific
characteristics of the activity, this is not primarily a question of law,
but of discourse. that is to say, it's more useful to imagine ourselves
as actual participants in a political debate than to imagine ourselves
as fiaters of a governmental plan. in both cases we debate possible
courses-of-action (policies), however in crithley's framework, we do
so at a conscious "distance from the state". this means returning to
the local terrain on which we find ourselves - his examples including
"schools" and "univerisities". it means avoiding abstraction, working
on concrete issues, taking control over the places where one speaks
and acts, inventing new concepts of what it is to be a participant in
debate. crucially, it's a matter of democratic empowerment, and an
invitation to optimstic militancy. this is what we could refer to as
the activist paradigm, as opposed to the statist paradigm, and it's
been around implicitly at least since the creation of the kritik, even
though it is rather neatly summarized in the above quotation.

with a few brief lines of questioning, slavoj zizek effectively refutes
crithley's alternative...

"The main ambiguity of this position resides in a strange non sequitur:
if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish the state (and
capitalism), why act with a distance toward the state? Why not *with(in)
the state*? Why not accept the basic premise of the New Left's Third
Way? ...In other words, is not Critchley's position one of relying on the
fact that *someone else* will take on the task of running the state
machinery, enabling us to engage in critical distance toward the state?
Furthermore, if the space of democracy is defined by a distance toward
the state, is Crithley not abandoning the field (of the state) all too easily
to the enemy? Is it not crucial what form the state power has? Does not
Critchley's position lead to the reduction of this critical question to a
secondary place: whatever state we have, it is inherently nondemocratic?

...Is this dilemma not all too *coarse*? Is it not, in effect, a case of "binary
opposition"? That is to say: even if the emancipatory progress cannot be
directly ground in an "objective" social necessity, even if it is true that "what
we do we have to do for ourselves"..., it presupposes a certain specific
historical site[.] ...Does not Critchley's position, then, function as a kind of
ideal supplement to the Third Way Left: a "revolt" which poses no effective
threat, since it endorses in advance the logic of hysterical provocation,
bombaring the Power with "impossible" demands, demands which are not
meant to be met?...

Against Critchley's call for modest local "practical" action, I am therefore
tempted to cite Badiou's provocative thesis: "It is better to do nothing
than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible
that which Empire already recognizes as existent." Better to do nothing
than engage in localized acts whose ultimate function is to make the
system run more smoothly (acts like providing space for the multitude of
new subjectivities, and so on). The threat today is not passivity but
pseudo-activity, the urge to "be active", to "participate," to mask the
Nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, "do something";
academics participate in meaningless "debates," and so forth, and the
truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power
often prefer even a "critical" participation, a dialogue, to silence - just to
engage us in a "dialogue," to make sure our ominous passivity is broken."

that's from chapter 6 of 'the parallax view', but the refutation continues
here (in response to critchley's book, 'infinitely demanding') : http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/zize01_.html
-- this will seem contradictory at first glance, but we'll resolve it shortly...

"The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on 'infinite'
demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know
it, such an 'infinitely demanding' attitude presents no problem for those in power:
'So wonderful that, with all your critical demands, you remind us what kind of
world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where
we have to make do with what is possible.' The thing to do is, on the contrary,
to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite
demands, which can't be met with the same excuse."

this suggests a resuscitation of the traditional framework of policy debate,
one wherein we (again) find it useful to ask, 'is this a policy demand of the
u.s.f.g. that is strategically well-selected or is it a demand for which it is
better to do nothing?'. notice that both the affirmative and negative teams
have their respective roles in arguing out this question, and the matter is far
from settled beforehand. indeed, to dismiss the u.s.f.g. is to rely on others to
run things for you, to presume that all government is undemocratic, and to pose
no real threat to the status quo. in zizek's framework, we should consider, on
a case-by-case basis, the usefulness of debating specific policy proposals,
and the role of the tournament framework is defensible as a testing-ground
to air out finite demands. this does not curtail debate-inspired activism, but
just as old notions of fiat gave way to the primacy of discursive value, this
paradigm does spare in-round discourse of having to be something it's not: it
may help reform the activity, but it is poorly-suited to reform the real world.
this paradigm doesn't eliminate kritik ground; on the contrary, it releases it from
the burden of presenting a policy alternative. that is to say, there *are* "false
problems" - problems which it *is* effectively meaningless to debate, problems
for which no solution need be given because it's instead more useful to point
out how the way we're approaching said problem is itself part of the problem.
but there are also true problems - as zizek explains (from 17-seconds to 1:35)...


if i had to put a tag-line on that video excerpt, it'd be close to this: 'in cases
of real external threats, philosophical critique is irrelevant'. and considering it
is a philosopher who is speaking (not to mention, one who is often-quoted by
kritik debaters), that's some well-credentialed evidence!

in contradistinction to the statist paradigm and the activist paradigm, i'll call
this the strategic paradigm. criticism welcomed.

-- kevin.sanchez at gmail.com

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