Frank Smecker – Night of the World: Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity (Zero Books, 2014)

By • Sep 30th, 2014 • Category: Liburu Kritikak

Inadequate Capitalism: Berfrois Interviews Frank Smecker

September 29, 2014

by Daniel Tutt

objectfranksmeckerFrank Smecker is an emerging voice in the canon of social theory and philosophy, and is a graduate student at Duquesne University. He wrote Night of the World: Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity, a radical rethinking of the objective forms of knowledge. objectdanieltuttDaniel Tutt is currently a third year (ABD) PhD candidate in continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and media studies at the European Graduate School. He is also an activist in interfaith dialogue and anti-Islamophobia. objectberfroislogo

I had the pleasure of interviewing philosopher Frank Smecker on his new book, Night of the World: Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity published by Zero Books. Frank’s book is a real contribution to the field of philosophy and cultural critique, and I highly recommend it for theorists and thinkers that are interested in engaging with thinking through current problems while thinking. We too often suspend thinking in our rush to do something. And why not?

The world is burning all around us as we watch unthinkable tragedies unfurl from our laptops and television screens. We wonder when the crisis will give us a break, when we will have a real summer? So sure, we act, but we don’t infuse our action with a careful or a committed thinking. Frank brings a familiar style of thinking to our contemporary social problems, and this book is a welcome addition to the Hegel-Lacan-Žižek field of dialectical polemical cultural critique.

What is the aim of his book? It is to isolate how objectivity functions in our contemporary life-world. He grounds objectivity in a German idealist lineage and elects Kant and Hegel as the real fathers of modern objectivity. In essence, objectivity refers to the way that we as subjects assume that there is a deeper knowledge beyond the object, and as such, we believe that there is something that can be accessed. But these objects can only ever be for us, they can never be objective in and of themselves.

Objectivity is then brought into our present, late capitalist period, where the resources of Lacan, and his insights into the symbolic and the real are brought to bear on the category of objectivity. For Lacan, objectivity seeks to close the gap of a point de capiton, or a master signifier that takes the place of this void. Objectivity is thus established by the symbolic order as such, by the society around us, and objectivity in fact becomes the same thing as consciousness. In a Hegelian sense, objectivity is the objectification of Spirit; it creates the dimension in which spirit can recognize its presence in the Real, as such.

By situating objectivity at the level of ideology, while placing it within a dynamic, experimental and, at times, unorthodox interplay with Hegelian and Lacanian philosophy, The Night of the World offers a unique and radical re-thinking of objectivity. Encompassing a constellational array of wide-ranging subjects, from popular culture, politics, history, science, and philosophy, while deploying an engaging prose that is both incisive and seamlessly tangential, Smecker is both an ally with, and emerging voice in, the field of Zizekian dialectics. Incorporating Zizek's philosophy, Smecker speculates over both objectivity and ideology, evoking methods of thought not so prevalent since German Idealism was all the rage. In the spirit of Kierkegaard, The Night of the World is the result of an imaginative hypothesis. And that is only the half of it. Written in a style that will undoubtedly leave the reader itching to read it again once finished, The Night of the World is an ongoing engagement with an abundance of additional postulations, whose sole purpose is to produce more products of thought.

By situating objectivity at the level of ideology, while placing it within a dynamic, experimental and, at times, unorthodox interplay with Hegelian and Lacanian philosophy, The Night of the World offers a unique and radical re-thinking of objectivity. Encompassing a constellational array of wide-ranging subjects, from popular culture, politics, history, science, and philosophy, while deploying an engaging prose that is both incisive and seamlessly tangential, Smecker is both an ally with, and emerging voice in, the field of Zizekian dialectics. Incorporating Zizek’s philosophy, Smecker speculates over both objectivity and ideology, evoking methods of thought not so prevalent since German Idealism was all the rage. In the spirit of Kierkegaard, The Night of the World is the result of an imaginative hypothesis. And that is only the half of it. Written in a style that will undoubtedly leave the reader itching to read it again once finished, The Night of the World is an ongoing engagement with an abundance of additional postulations, whose sole purpose is to produce more products of thought.

True to a Žižekian-inspired dialectical project, Smecker grounds his philosophical discourses and polemics in a Marxist mode of materialism. He engages in and with the stuff of late capitalism: popular film and television, journalism, jokes and finds answers for an escape or an outlet in radical leftist politics. In fact, I found the most refreshing part of his text to be his conversation on how objectivity fits into revolution and questions of politics and freedom.

Tutt

What made you want to become a theorist? Do you consider yourself a philosopher or a theorist? Is there a difference between a philosopher and a theorist in your mind?

Smecker

I don’t know if I ever wanted to become a theorist. I struggle with this position. For me, it’s a hystericized — and therefore neurotic — position, through and through. I’m sometimes repulsed by my own behavior; I hate theorizing because I can’t stop doing it. It’s lunacy. I question too much, I always have, and I’m often too hasty with it all. My book is a perfect example. I should have slowed down, taken extra months to edit the book more carefully, and so on, because now, I’m just not entirely happy with it — it’s a “this is not that” sort of thing — and so I must write another one. I’m impatient. Everyone who is close to me has told me that. Anyway, do I consider myself a theorist? I don’t know. On account of my hysterical nature, sometimes I think I’m closer to being a philosopher insofar as philosophy’s a form of psychosis.

As regards whether there’s a difference between theory and philosophy or not, the common doxa is that philosophy is conceptual, while theory is practical. But is this distinction really necessary? Are they not, really — in a paradoxical sense — one and the same? I see philosophy the way Hegel did, as an action, as a matter of making use of its thought determinations. So I don’t think philosophy and theory can be separated from each other: they’re “montages of the same fractured unity,” if you will.

Now, if philosophy is, as they say, made up of principles that have their basis in theory, then philosophy exists precisely to be applied to the content that theory generates, does it not? Thus philosophy is more theoretical than theory itself — why? Not because: philosophy requires theoretical content in order to actualize a reason for its own existence; but rather: theoretical content, in its original state, is always in a state of disarray, and thus theory requires philosophy to undo the mess it has put itself in. Philosophy, to use Žižek’s dialectic here, is none other than the site of theoretical antagonism. As such, it’s the paradoxical element that stands for the absence of itself, insofar as all there “is” is an inconsistent abundance of theoretical postulates, a vortex of thought that has emerged from, and circulates around, an absent center, a radical nothingness, a void that not only bears an immutable lack of (absolute) knowledge and understanding, but which stands for absolute difference just the same: an irreducible gap situated between thought and its empty place of inscription. This is precisely what Hegel meant by his claim that the Absolute begins with a radical lack. This is a human condition we’re talking about, one that has its basis firmly rooted in a radical lack of knowledge and understanding about the reality in which we’re placed. We desire knowledge because of the very lack that sustains this desire.

In any case, philosophy is what one would call a universal, a point of “condensation” in which, by which, and through which the entire mess of theoretical inconsistency seeks its resolve; it is the One that “totalizes” this multiplicity. But we should remember that, for Hegel, this One is not some monadic totality of absolute enclosure; this One always falls apart, it always fails, precisely because philosophy, as such, persists only in the very tension, the non-coincidence, between all particular theories it tries to reconcile and itself. Philosophy thus accounts for a dislocation of the antagonism inherent in the multitude of theory itself; as such it “is” the difference between philosophy and theory. And so this Twoness-within-One truncates philosophy, foreclosing it from ever achieving identity with itself. And it’s this tension that accounts for the dialectic between theory and philosophy. Žižek, in the introduction to his book about Deleuze, even alludes to this when he writes that, “the proper space for philosophy is these very gaps and interstices,” which are opened up by other disciplines that yield impasses to comprehension, which are akin, these impasses, to, say, Kant’s paralogisms. Anyway, the crucial point is that: The choice between philosophy and theory is a false one. The true choice is: both please! You can’t isolate one from the other.

Tutt

Your book, Night of the World; Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity is a major accomplishment for the field of critical theory and philosophy. Žižek is certainly central in your work, and I find your deployment of Žižek to be refreshing in that you don’t imitate his style as I think many do, but you rather invent a new mode of inquiry. Do you consider yourself a Žižekian? How do you intend to incorporate Žižek into your work in the future?

Smecker

You know, I can honestly say that I haven’t given much thought as to whether I’m a “Žižekian” or not. But I can say that his hermeneutics of Hegelo-Lacanian theory has greatly influenced the way in which I view the world. Žižek’s work has, without a doubt, proffered an intellectual direction that I’ve chosen to follow as regards theoretical work. For that reason, I do see myself as a sort of “Žižekian” ally, if you will: to not only introduce, help restore, and situate within the context of today’s dominant culture and its symptoms the fundamental concepts of Lacan’s work, but to also accomplish a sort of “return to Hegel” on my own account—to play my part in rectifying today’s misleading image of Hegel as being some “monadic totalist”, and to help advance the image of Hegel’s negative dialectic as being more akin to a “black hole” around and through which everything passes.

In terms of incorporating Žižek in my future work, the answer is an unequivocal Yes. There is no doubt. In fact, I’m currently amassing notes for my next book, which will be dealing exclusively with themes of universality, negative ontology, and subjectivity as an autonomous negative force (in the Kantian sense) of “over-determination”, and how all this philosophico-theoretical “blah-blah-blah”, as some of my friends like to call it, is actually extremely invaluable for emancipatory leftist politics. I can’t say when the manuscript will be complete, I’m also compiling a book of essays at the moment, and I begin graduate school in less than a week, so I’m going to be a busy bee for sure, at least in the near future. But I can say this: because Žižek and his contemporaries aren’t going to live forever, there’s a sort of responsibility, I believe, that belongs to my generation, and to those on the horizon, to carry the gauntlet onward. It’s unforgivable at this juncture in history, to live in this day and age, and not radically, militantly, subversively question the very status quo that has generated the sufficient conditions for today’s atrocities: new forms of racism, social exclusion, and apartheid; climate change, unprecedented ecological devastation and its pursuant species extinction rates; the corporate theft of communally held lands and other commons, the worsening of income disparity, the privatization of the intellect, and the overall exacerbation of class struggle.

I insist on petitioning for a better future, one in which capitalism is both a mere incubus of our collective memory, and, for that reason, an empirical fact of the past that will remind us that history is not necessary but is the radically contingent outcome of traumatic struggle. And I feel strongly that, in order to bring this kind of future into being, we must employ profound philosophical thought before choosing any kind of decisive action. And I’m not discouraging action, by any means — we won’t change a damn thing if we don’t act — but perhaps we’d fare better to think dangerously before acting effectively.

Tutt

What are your thoughts on the field of Žižek studies today? Is there such a thing as a Žižekian or is this a philosophical style? Who do you think is doing exemplary work in this field today?

Smecker

The field of Žižek studies today is both potent and extensive for what it is. Not only does it encompass a multitude of punishingly complex philosophical systems, it also spans an immense and variegated terrain of intellectual and pop cultural subject matter. From media and communications theory, to film and social theory, literary and cultural criticism, and so on down the list, it’s as if there’s nothing that isn’t vulnerable to Žižek’s exhaustive dialectic. And so I think that, what is happening here, essentially, is that the ideas of Hegel, of Marx (and the broad philosophical systems in which their ideas and engagements were initially couched), and of Lacan (including the Freudian psychoanalytic theory that Lacan, who, with acute rigor, and not to mention an Oscar Wilde-like wit, worked so hard to revise) are not only being fused together in the nexus that is Žižek’s theoretical work, but, moreover, this bundle of theoretical accomplishment is being disseminated with such a pervasive force that it’s giving rise to new forms of thought, new forms of thought that aim directly at questioning the very establishment that sought to stigmatize and ostracize figures like Hegel, Marx, Lacan and their respective methodologies and systems of speculative and theoretical analysis. It’s literally a ‘terrific’ field of study, in the sense that I think it frightens those who have become too complacent these days, mired in simple thinking. And really, the stupid irony to this is that, it’s this retreat into simple thought—you know, the kind that basically borderlines complete mindless idiocy; like, the brain just shuts off and accepts the social domain to think for you; you get home from a long day of toilsome work, slouch in a chair, and just unglue from reality and watch television for hours, or animal videos on YouTube. Whatever it is, this retreat from questioning and critiquing the very social domain that interpellates you is the real terror, it’s the very source of the danger one is retreating from, no? We should be like Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s Network: avow that our business-as-usual lives are bullshit, and assert that we’re not going to take it anymore.

Anyway, forgive my digression, to answer your next question as best I can, I would say that—if I can be so bold as to make such an assertion — to be a “Žižekian” is to not entrust a complete summary of thought to his work, or, for that matter, to any other thinker’s work with which Žižek engages. A sweeping comprehension of Žižek’s texts, of course, requires a certain rapport, one that’s both intimate and unorthodox with the texts of Hegel, Lacan, Marx, Kant, Schelling, as well as Badiou, and many others; it also requires an astute engagement with the concepts of structural linguistics and, of course, with film. This I’m certain of. Anyhow, in any given case, there are many folks right now doing exemplary work in this field. Though often considering themselves first as Lacanians or Hegelians rather than Žižekians, there are a number of individuals doing a stellar job pushing Žižek’s scholarship forward: Todd McGowan, Fabio Vighi, Joan Copjec, Henry Krips, Adrian Johnston, to name not everyone but only a small handful that stand out at the moment.

Tutt

I want to move to the central topic of your text, objectivity. You provide a very interesting set of philosophical itineraries and legacies to unpack this concept. Where does objectivity begin? It seems that it starts with Kant’s Copernican Revolution, is that correct, or could we locate it even farther back in the history of thought?

Smecker

In terms of the book itself, my point of departure regarding objectivity begins, actually, with Hegel, with his three significances of objectivity, which I associate with Lacan’s ISR triad, though one cannot (and should not) pull this off without taking a detour through the profundity of Kant’s handiwork, just as well. No less important to note: the aim of my book is to short-circuit this point of departure with Freudo-Lacanian theory. That is to say, the intention is to show how objectivity plays a constitutive role in universal modes of desire such as philosophy, science, and religion, insofar as these domains are in the business of satiating man’s desire to know, to create meaning, and so on.

In other words, the sole function of objectivity, I argue, is to provide and maintain the internal consistency that holds together its subjects’ “reality principles” (one’s ability to assess the reality of the external world), which are always-already ideologically mediated by objectivity, an elemental ideology that reveals itself as empirical fact or necessity.

But yes, the notion of objectivity has, without a doubt, been present in philosophical thought since its inception, to the extent, of course, that we see objectivity as a sort of avatar for man in his desire for knowledge, in his desire to yoke together truth and reality. Do we not see this, for example, in Plato’s theory of knowledge? In The Republic—I believe it’s section VI—one can read there a description of objective knowledge, which is distinct from knowledge derived by way of sense perception. Due to the ephemeral nature of objects and their appearances, Plato writes, knowledge decocted therefrom offers no stable foundation on which an actual science can thrive. Thus it’s through pure intellect, rational cognition only, that man is able to ascertain a more intelligible and permanent level of knowledge: Ideas, in and of themselves, which exist objectively, independent of both the mind that grasps them and the objects to which they refer.

So, in a sense, it was Plato who first adumbrated the difference between pure and empirical cognition, which Kant would later take on in his Critique of Pure Reason. And of course, it was Aristotle, remember, who sought to discredit Plato’s mythical province of Forms, insisting not that knowledge isn’t universal, but that all meaningful statements have their basis in some empirical account (even though, if you read his Metaphysics, one can see that he was very aware of a priori thought such as logic and mathematics, which deals exclusively with thoughts as thought, as abstractions by themselves). In any event, Aristotle believed that, to use a cliché: the world as we know it is closely connected to the phenomenal world as we describe it. But, again, the suspicion just won’t go away: How are we to be so sure that the knowledge we have about some external thing pertains strictly to the thing itself, to properties of the thing as it is without me? Description is a loaded term, for what’s at stake in it is the nature of thought’s relation to reality.

The real aporia is that reality is caught up in thought, in the causal chain of Reason; and, vice versa, thought is caught up in the very reality it thinks about. Objectivity, I believe, is a sort of “defense formation” aimed against this inherent deadlock (which is perhaps the innermost core of reality itself). Hence today’s fetishization of objectivity: the ideal that leads one to believe that access to some intimate nature or truth of an object-in-itself can be granted. Though one shouldn’t fail to acknowledge that what’s being hidden behind the phenomenal appearance, is, as Žižek puts it, the fact that there’s literally nothing to hide.And it’s precisely this duplicity that shouldn’t be subtracted from the object, for it’s nonetheless this very antagonism that’s constitutive of the very phenomena we strive to represent objectively.

Anyway, I’ve bandied about long enough. To answer your question, I see the salvo of intellect between Plato and, later, Aristotle, as the herald of objectivity’s entrance into the history of thought.

Tutt

You tackle objectivity from a number of different theoretical registers: you deal with it from the standpoint of Hegelian self-alienated spirit, the Lacanian three registers of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real and you show how objectivity functions in the media and in intellectual life. But the most central functions of objectivity, and where it rears the most ideological damage is in the sphere of capital. What is it about capital that makes it associated with objectivity? Why does capital require objectivity?

Smecker

Objectivity, on the one hand, I argue, is that which serves to conceal the ruptures and rents in the social field of meaning. It’s an attempt to reconcile the irresolvable antagonisms, the irreducible fissures, the failures of understanding, and so on, which beset our reality; what Lacan designates as the Real (and I’m not unaware that the Real is a heavily packed term, but let’s go with this somewhat cursory definition for now). Objectivity, then, is constitutive of the larger ideological universals that serve to veil the Real as such. So in this sense, objectivity also refers to the Real, to something we can’t access without some modicum of symbolic mediation, while simultaneously referring to the larger ideological edifices of which it’s part and parcel.

Now, to jump tracks for just a moment, if one looks carefully enough, one will notice that, in capitalism, things work a bit differently than they had before in past forms of ideological closure. Here, in the ideological space of capital, individuals seek their enjoyment in desired objects and desired knowledge that are interned within the very ideological system that produces these desired items. Therefore one’s enjoyment remains rigidly confined within the very order it should otherwise be transgressing. Or rather, one’s enjoyment is, paradoxically, rigidly confined in an extremely polymeric ideology: capitalism gains strength, its interpellative agency becomes more potent, its very structure bends and swells and thrives with every transgression. Why? Because with capitalism, in capitalism, everything is reduced to a brutal economic reality (including science itself; for the lion’s share of scientific discoveries end up serving only the networks of capital), and in such a space capital’s objectivism becomes our only reality, and thus literally everything, prohibited or not, eventually becomes absorbed into the world of capital. This is precisely how capital is able to self-engender.

Let us not forget, too, and this is important, that human subjectivity is that which is constantly attempting to overcome a lack, to reconcile these gaps in the symbolic social field — that is why capitalism exists in the first place: it sinisterly dons the visage that it completes this lack, tessellating the social field with false images of wholeness, despite never really doing so; so we continue to play the game precisely because we desire something we’ll never have but which capitalism nonetheless vows to offer us: wholeness. So capitalist ideology tells us to enjoy, to enjoy it all; but because no single thing, no object, no commodity can ever fully satisfy our desires and make us complete, capitalism, as a system, therefore relies on this inbuilt inadequacy precisely in order for it to continue to function. We keep producing and buying, producing and buying… It’s this very contradiction between capitalism as a system and capitalism as an ideology—the fact that capitalism cannot give what it demands of us to desire — that sustains and perpetuates capitalism per se as a function of human desire.

Frank Smecker's mesmerizing book, Night of the World, has weaved the threads of our disjointed consciousness into a narrative that is eloquent, coherent, and illuminating. Smecker is an exciting new voice in contemporary cultural theory and philosophy. ~ Stephen Lee Naish, Author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film Night of the World seamlessly weaves through complex philosophical conjunctions and cultural practices in order to articulate a theory of ideology for today's world. Smecker argues that objectivity has become the prevailing ideological form, but he refuses to surrender the terrain of objectivity to ideology. His book is a struggle against this ideological structure in an effort to reclaim a new mode of objectivity that has its basis in the contradictions of subjectivity. It provides a thorough overview of the ways that contemporary ideology penetrates into our being and proffers a political antidote. ~ Todd McGowan, Author of Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis An original, truly refreshing endeavour to situate objectivity at the level of ideology. Smecker makes use of Zizek's trademark blend of Hegel and Lacan to delve into, unpack and reconfigure what we regard as "objective" reality. More importantly, he reminds us that any blind acceptance of objectivity today equals serving the interests of capital and feeding the criminal divisions it produces. In pursuing its critical aims, Smecker's book is theoretically sophisticated while attaining high readability almost effortlessly. ~ Fabio Vighi, Co-director of the Zizek Centre for Ideology Critique at Cardiff University, UK

Frank Smecker’s mesmerizing book, Night of the World, has weaved the threads of our disjointed consciousness into a narrative that is eloquent, coherent, and illuminating. Smecker is an exciting new voice in contemporary cultural theory and philosophy. ~ Stephen Lee Naish, Author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film
Night of the World seamlessly weaves through complex philosophical conjunctions and cultural practices in order to articulate a theory of ideology for today’s world. Smecker argues that objectivity has become the prevailing ideological form, but he refuses to surrender the terrain of objectivity to ideology. His book is a struggle against this ideological structure in an effort to reclaim a new mode of objectivity that has its basis in the contradictions of subjectivity. It provides a thorough overview of the ways that contemporary ideology penetrates into our being and proffers a political antidote. ~ Todd McGowan, Author of Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis
An original, truly refreshing endeavour to situate objectivity at the level of ideology. Smecker makes use of Zizek’s trademark blend of Hegel and Lacan to delve into, unpack and reconfigure what we regard as “objective” reality. More importantly, he reminds us that any blind acceptance of objectivity today equals serving the interests of capital and feeding the criminal divisions it produces. In pursuing its critical aims, Smecker’s book is theoretically sophisticated while attaining high readability almost effortlessly. ~ Fabio Vighi, Co-director of the Zizek Centre for Ideology Critique at Cardiff University, UK

And so, of course, today’s ideology of “intellectual objectivity” also serves as a false supplement to an immutable lack in our network of knowledge about the world and our selves. This is also highly conducive for capitalism’s self-engendering: we allow the fetishization of objective facts, data and statistics, to attempt to satisfy an insatiable desire to know, to supplement the immutable lack of absolute knowledge that sustains the very desire to know more. And so we end up with a whole field of egocentric specialists: talking heads and health gurus and economic analysts — the whole gamut of “subjects supposed to know”. In any case, commodity fetishism, and intellectual objectivism — the commodification and privatization of experience and the general intellect — serve to cover up the fact that we’re covering up a lack.

To put it bluntly: capitalism requires this level of objectivity precisely because, without it, none of us would actually believe in the idiotic aphorism that tells us: “There is no alternative to capitalism.” Our dogmatic faith in, and reliance on, “objectivity”, overlaps with our fidelity to capitalism. And I hope it comes to an end soon.

Tutt

I like how you turned to the question of capitalism and its relation to desire and drive. I was in complete agreement with your idea that capitalism itself seeks to sell drive; it does the work of making drive desirable. But ultimately capitalism can’t sustain a relation towards drive for it would result in a culture of psychotic subjects – of course in some sectors of our economic life, we already have this. What do you decide on in this debate amongst psychoanalytic theorists of capitalism today, as it pertains to drive and desire?

Smecker

Ultimately, I see capitalism as a function of desire. My reasoning behind this is, for the most part, laid out in my answer to your previous question. And yes, as I write in my book, it does appear to be the case that capitalism seeks to sell the perfect drive. But again, I disagree with anyone who posits the claim that capitalism is a function of drive. What makes logical sense to me, is that, if we define ‘function’ in its proper mathematical sense, as a relation between two “sets” that “associates a unique element of the second set with each element of the first,” then it’s clear that capitalism, as a function, is in constant service of linking people to their desires, which requires constant work and expansion of its own domain/co-domain, which refers to the roles of commodity production and consumerism, no?

Tutt

You write that capital presents a Real that conceals a certain command and this is the reigning ideology of belief in today’s time. Towards this notion of command, you note that command is paradoxical as it “removes subjects from the horror of the world.” Objectivism thus results in an ironic distancing from social problems, but this strikes me as a very odd form of command in that it’s a command that removes subjects from the world. What is the role of the command in contemporary forms of objectivism?

Smecker

Let’s take the idea of objective journalism. Essentially, the injunction behind this mode of reporting is: “Put your thoughts and feelings, your ideological biases aside, and just tell it like it is.” The problem with this, of course, is that, as we know, a small number of large corporations control the major media these days. This only enhances the suspicion that “objectivity in the newsroom” is none other than a tactical maneuver: although it sounds good, the push to remain neutral and nonpartisan serves merely to boost the commercialization of journalism — especially when today’s media corporations are among some of the largest beneficiaries of the global capitalist economy, using trade organizations and the free market as a means to increase profits. By these lights, the injunction to remain objective seems to play a key role in suppressing conscionable dissent directed at the capitalist economy that would otherwise encumber profitable revenue.

But at a deeper, more radical level, in truth, facts and data about an event always conform to some determination that has its basis in interpretation. Our approach to objective reality is supported by certain a priori assumptions we have about the world, whether we’re conscious of these assumptions or not, and these assumptions are shaped and informed by a larger ideological machinery, so to speak.

To put it differently, objective facts about the world and our place in it are not exempt from ideology; the latter “is” the underlying fantasies that regulate our relation to objective reality itself. So to mindlessly obey the injunction—Be objective! is to partake in a sort of proto-psychotic fantasy in which subjectivity, or rather, self-relating subjective truth (the truth about one’s own (symbolic) position in society) drifts towards obsolescence. Here, the gap between what is symbolic and real closes in on itself. Is this not precisely what’s behind today’s “abstract violence”? One can kill thousands of people without personally drawing any blood. Let me provide you with an example. Warren Anderson, the retired CEO of Union Carbide, he was responsible for the deaths of so many people in Bhopal, India, and yet, he never laid a finger on a single Indian person. He’s probably an upstanding member of his community, and so on. The point is: it’s the alliance between objectivity and capitalism that maintains a certain sense of distance from, “unawareness” of, one’s own involvement in capitalism’s crises and catastrophes the world over. Warren Anderson did play a responsible role in the Bhopal incident, and that’s an objective fact, insofar as objectivity faithfully represents one’s subjective position in the larger socio-symbolic order.

What I’m getting at it this: In order for anyone to simply coexist with the presence of capital, let alone partake in the world of capital, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on the promotion of avarice and competition, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on wealth disparity, widespread subjugation, and thus hatred and envy toward others whose assets, resources, etc, are coveted. To simply coexist with the presence of capital, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on such wholesale atrocity, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on the very crises it engenders, and yes, one must act as if they have no involvement whatsoever in these execrable conditions in which capital thrives. And to maintain this “as-if” attitude, this belief,one must remain obedient to today’s ideological injunction: one must remain “objective.” Do you see the problem here?

Tutt

I really love this notion you present towards the end of your text about how objectivity can only be challenged through revolution. You note that revolution refers to how we perceive objectivity as such. So what does a revolution mean in these terms if we are speaking of revolution at the level of perspectival shift? What would be an example, perhaps even an historical example of this?

Smecker

Perspectival shift does not imply a perfectly safe and smooth transition from one state of conscious awareness to another. In fact, to effectuate a shift in perspective requires, first, a shift in conscious awareness, a tectonic shift in how we objectively view the world. But this must happen with sufficient and effective action. One must withdraw their allegiance from the ideological universal. The downside to this is that, it will likely result in political violence, intended or not—for example, was not the primary aim behind the uprisings in Tahrir Square in 2011 not to incite violence but to depose Hosni Mubarak?

Anyway, a seminal historical example of revolution that sticks out in my mind is the Haitian Revolution, which was essentially a very effective slave revolt that founded the Republic of Haiti. It was highly influenced by the French Revolution, by the way; with the French turned upside down, the black slaves of Haiti recognized an opportunity that was embedded in a “crisis”. Keep in mind, however, that the Haitians themselves endured nearly a decade of civil wars, multiple insurrections, and other strife before achieving what amounted to a very short-term victory.

Another historical example I find inspiring is the decolonization of Algeria. The actions carried out by the National Liberation Front (of which Franz Fanon eventually became a member) against the French Algerian authorities was a tremendous breakthrough, in my opinion, in terms of radically shifting the global perspective on colonialism. For the record, one should watch Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers; it really is a riveting and spectacular film.

But in terms of revolution today, I don’t believe it would look anything like these other events. It can’t. Society, governance, ideology — everything has evolved tremendously. Today’s social conditions — no doubt a result of yesteryear’s — are nonetheless diametrically different. For example, the degree of media, its digitization, its ubiquity and pervasiveness, is unprecedented. As we all know, the level of surveillance it can attain is just something else, and, mutatis mutandis, the degree to which it can play a pivotal role in social change is also promising, as evidenced by the events that took place during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Also, the severity of crisis in these times is unlike anything we’ve been up against before. As Žižek explains, in Living In the End Times, capitalism is coming up against a series of crises it can’t structurally deal with. So change — revolutionary change — is inevitable. The question is, will this change be for the better or not? Right now, it doesn’t look so good. Those in power have a lot of resources, a lot of sway, and they won’t hand over power or even cede some of it in exchange for a more just society just because we protest peacefully. Why would they? They’ve worked hard to accumulate what they have — unless, of course, one is a capitalist! But seriously, this is in no way a call to violence; it’s just that, clearly, we must think very deeply before we act at all.

In my opinion, the best possible political project, the one that makes the most sense to me, is firmly rooted in psychoanalysis. We must recognize our symptom, that which will not integrate into the larger order. This is the source of our freedom, of our liberation from the manacles of capitalism — restraints, I should remind you, that we’ve put upon ourselves.

I believe part of the task at hand is to carefully, tactfully, take the radical work that’s being done within academe outside of the smooth functioning domain of capital, and translate it into the language of the slums, the ghettos, the trailer parks, etc, precisely in order to politicize the ghosts of our society, today’s proletariat. We should stop speaking truth to power, that’s utterly ineffective: those in power know the truth. We should speak truth to those who can’t afford the luxury of a college education, who can’t afford a subscription to an intellectual leftist magazine, who couldn’t care any less about what, say, C-SPAN or The New York Times have to say, because, let’s face it, when these establishments, when these institutions recognize them, the underclass, they’re often referred to objectively, as another statistic. If we can politicize today’s proletariat, if we can courageously put to use today’s crises, then the imminent revolution will favor what capital does not: equality and liberty for the fellow man, and the fragile planet on which he thrashes and thrives.

A version of this interview was published at Spirit Is A Bone

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