Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Spectre of The Decline of Symbolic Efficiency

Has been haunting Western intellectuals for some time:

"What was - and not what is- authority? For it is my contention that we are tempted and entitled to raise this question because authority has vanished from the modern world. Since we can no longer fall back upon authentic and indisputable experiences common to all, the very term has become clouded by controversy and confusion. ... most will agree that a constant, ever-widening and deepening crisis of authority has accompanied the modern world in our century."

Hanna Arendt, "What is Authority", 1963.


  1. warszawa1:47 PM

    "And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
    The element of fire is quite put out;
    The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no mans wit
    Can well direct him where to look for it."

    - Jodi Donne (1572-1631).

    Tough times we live in, and nothing to be done. But the weird thing is that Donne's and Arendt's symbols are still decipherable.

  2. Jodi Donne!Oops!

    what I find most irritating is that the engines and creators of this problem are bewailing it. How can you use 'symbolic deficiency' as an excuse for political idleness and at the same time use a word like 'psychotic' in this eccentric and unjustified way? It is true that adult discourse has degraded in the mass media, and the university, but these purported 'analyses' are what is actually creating the problem. There's no way to talk to Jodi Dean as if she were rational, informed and adult. It's like conversing with a psychotic - there are objets a everywhere with no subjects for example, and if you ask who the subject is, she says "what"? These is Dean, it is the mystical thinking she's chosen. At LS I saw they think thay can dragoon debord into their passive politics. The audience for such a remark is p^resumed brain dead, or at least ignorant, easily duped by verbal prestidigitation. What Debord noticed is accurate; it is not interchangeable with this foolish argument they are making about 'whom to believe'? And Debord had plenty of proposals for creative resistance and revolt, for struggle against the capital spectacle's domination; entirely the opposite of the stance taken there.

  3. Anonymous3:26 PM

    "Our world has become infinitely large and each of its corners is richer in gifts and dangers than the world of the Greeks, but such wealth cancels out the positive meaning — the totality — upon which their life was based. For totality as the formative prime reality of every individual phenomenon implies that something closed within itself can be completed; completed because everything occurs within it, nothing is excluded from it and nothing points at a reality outside it; completed because everything occurs within it ripens to its own perfection and, by attaining itself, submits to limitation. Totality of being is possible only where everything is already homogeneous before it has been contained by forms; where forms are not a constraint but only the becoming conscious, the coming to the surface of everything that had been lying dormant as a vague longing in the innermost depths of that which had to be given form; where knowledge is virtue and virtue is happiness, where beauty is the meaning of the world made visible."

    --Lukacs, Theory of the Novel

    My understanding of Lacan is rudimentary, but in practical political terms, wouldn't a decline in symbolic efficiency be a good thing? As in: what luck that there are now all these cracks in the ideological edifice!

  4. I think w you would like this George S Trow book Within the Context of No Context It isn't leftist - he's a liberal - but its just a very good analysis of what television has done to Americans. You hit it with the impoverishment of affect. But something also happened ina cademia: in the seventies and eighties, challenges were made in the humanities by the students. First women, then people of color, demanded a different canon and new ways of reading culture. The original effect was the importation of left theory (Raymond Williams and the like) and the reading of Marxists; then the university responded. They invented american deconstruction - De Man, Jonathan Culler. It was designed to "feel" a little like the left stuff that the students had chosen, to have a similar vocabular, an air of subversiveness; it was not old fogey, it was the reaction disguised as "fashion", seeming new and therefore superkewl. Something so new had to be leftist. But of coruse it was ultra-right, with a decided right wing pedigree - Nietzsche, Heidegger, instead of Marx. You traded in Marx for this Nietzsche and Heidegger. So you had the challenge from the students - literature is not what has always been supposed, it is also ideology;, it can oppress, we have to read it differently, historically - diverted into something that seemed even more radical but was really reaction, extreme reaction, the only way reaction could work, not in a tweed suit with a pipe but dressed up as a cyborg. The reagan era right's specialty. The shared assumption of all this very diverse theoretical stuff was not only can't you do anything, you can't even say anything.

    meanwhile, leftists continued to speak intelligibly. People of color took the lead in leftist academy. This is why slavoj zizek has to emasculate his black colleague in his fantasies. The left-of-color, in universities, in art production, leads the camp that still commands language meaningfully.

    the symbol whose collapse is causing this grief among the brevetted clerks, you will notice, is really "aryan". This is the one symbol without a referent which everyone kvetching about symbolic deficiency is endlessly trying to repair, to reenergise. It is alluded to everywhere. For Americans, this ideology of the 'paranoid' dissident is an old white supremacist warhorse. You could replace the 'conspiracy theorists' in Jodi's 'argument' with 'black people' and reproduce exactly the mainstream white supremacist discourse which developed in response to the civil rights movement. Of course,people of color suspect the white house of 911 involved in much higher percentages than white people. You can't say 'people of color are paranoid' frankly, but its the veiled position here, in code. The lament is for the threats to the solidity of the "aryan" and the rejection of White Authority.

  5. for lacan, symbolic efficiency literally means the relation in the sign. For Jodi, it means the authority of television. The collapse of the former, in the spectacle, as Debord observed it (in a certain class and environment), is a bad thing but for the latter to collapse, for the big white cock to wilt and not triumph over the flyswatter, should be yes welcome to leftists. But not to control freak, sadistic pseudo-leftists, for obvious reasons.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. "the US desired 911" is a statement which has certain implications. "The US" is of the same order of being as "Germany" in Nazi discourse. You will notice you can't say "Britain desired 7/7" or "New York and New Jersey desired 911". The assertion's only purpose is the construction of a mystical Volk-style (if on the surface post-racial, because that's unfashionable) Nation with a national will. Only fascists speak of a national will in this way.

    The "aryan" - (the "new aryan" is not a biological but effectively a class/national construct) - is the unspoken theme of all this stuff. This is why the degradation of discourse and the irrationalism that is obviously pouring out of the televisiopn and university - capitalist institutions - is blamed on "the mob" while the source of the problem is absolved and absolves itself even as it continues to manufacture the problem.

    We have no more shared standards! Diversity is the enemy, the filthy swarms of paranoids! This is Le Pen and every other of his type, complaining about the foreign smells of cooking in apartment building hallways, the babel of languages and cultures, the vitiation of that (never existing) wholeness of homogenous volkitude. The nostalgia for the mythic golden age of symbolic efficiency is Wager via Rosenberg; this is just the same old radical right shit and babytalk, dressed up as cutting edge dissident 'political theory' (much as it dressed itself up as the hot new thing the last time around).

  8. The way to deal with successful dissidents is always to question their mental stability. Jean Betrand Aristide is only the most recent successful left head of a popular movement to be subjected to distant psychoanalysis. Also 'paranoid' and 'psychotic'. It's an American tradition to describe people of color organizing and effecting change as crazy, as mentally unstable and as dangers to the sane (white) coherence of public discourse. No one would bother psychoanalysing 911 truth if it weren't so successful a movement; and this is the oldest, more tired, cliché tactic to deal with popular movements and their leadership, especially in the US where it has always been bolstered by race.

  9. Anonymous5:29 PM

    "for lacan, symbolic efficiency literally means the relation in the sign."

    Ah, thanks. Raymond Williams indeed would be of help here: the relation in the sign is social and dynamic. No excuse for passivity among intellectuals there.

  10. exactly, anon.

    for lacan, language is quasi-divine; its mystical, not material-social-produced/reproduced by people in history.

  11. Anonymous11:05 PM

    colonel yes the origin of language is mythical, kabbalistic, but according to de saussire, language is based on a SOCIAL CONTRACT and in this sense, language in Lacan is also a social phenomenon. (I can't quite get from your words here what your own vision of language is - Chomsky?) It is social norm standard prejudice prohibiton etc that gets transferred through language. Lacan doesn't dabble so much in the social consequences of language because he is a psychologyst! He is interested in the individual's relation to society, not in sociological themes (he may have had opinions about them, but he didn't turn that into a pseudo-''science'' like Zizek did) Can we now finally stop misplacing the problem in Lacan, where it just isn't?

    But even that misplacing is not the problem, really. The problem is when you take a segment of Lacan's psychoanalysis such as the expression ''symbolic efficacy'' and apply it to politics, the very expression ''lack of symbolic efficacy'' becomes a lack of symbolic efficacy itself. It can be attached to anything: politics, culture, economics, art... you name it. And its meaning will change as well. It sort of generates its own perpetual demise, as you also suggested.

    Precisely because it's all a LINGUISTIC METAPHOR, removed in a manner of speaking from its original Symbolic Order - Lacan's teaching. It's symbolic efficacy (tm) as an entertainment commodity, and it effectively turns 911 into a Hollywood catastrophe movie. Nobody mentions the necrophiliac-scopic pleasure in observing this decline, I mean the fall of the Phallic towers, which is quite similar to the enjoyment of horror movies, for example, like the Dawn of the Dead.

    A decline of symbolic efficacy can on the one hand lead us to the assumption (which Jodi Dean basically makes) that we should de-invest in the activity of interpretation, because without any stable or fixed meaning, without the Law of the Father to set the rules of how one uses and words and how one interprets, without a STANDARD in other words, it's all relative, really, and the Truth will never be found, our efforts will be wasted in the search for Truth.

    But a decline of symbolic efficacy can also lead us to the idea that since standards have been lost, we should resurrect an authority figure (for example - George Bush) to serve as the Law of the Father, who will affix meanings to words once again, give a standard. And this is exactly what has happened, what I tried to say in my parody of 911. Americans have already dealt with the decline of symbolic efficacy, by voting for a repressive rightwing Daddy. George Bush is the new Phallic order for America.

    So this very notion, symbolic efficacy, is completely useless - it doesn't explain anything. It can be good and it can be bad.

    Besides as I must have mentioned before Lacan with his almost-mythic belief in language would have proposed that we deal with the issue legally, by checking documents, calling the government to responsibility for their WORDS, for the contracts laws guarantees of liberty and democracy... we would require them to provide an answer to say Michael Moore's accusations of a conspiracy between Bush and Bin Laden, et cetera. In any case he would certainly underline LAW and RESPONSIBILITY, because these are natural companions to the Symbolic Order as such.

    Warszawa, since I landed in the discussion midway (fucking blogger comments which take hours to load), I am not exactly sure what your proposal is, so maybe you'd care to explain.

    If you're saying that we should strive not to interpret this problem philosophically at all, choosing instead to examine it geopolitically and strategically, and using marxist tropes like class, property, value and power, then I'm all with you, because I think the real issue is that the rich classes of the Empire want to expand international conquest, and whether Americans vote for Bush or Hilary Clinton, whether their symbolic efficacy is thereby restored or not, this conquest will continue, and if it is not stopped or at least modulated, it could lead to a world conflict.

    (But you don't have to destroy poor Lacan in the process, because in fact he is not to be blamed for the existence of Zizek on the academic scene)

    And if we HAVE TO use poststructural thought, then I think someone like Deleuze and Foucault is much more useful, because they use the trope of ENERGY in their thinking and the prime-time goal of imperial conquest is ENERGY RESOURCES (not even the most sophisticated cinematic machine for exploitation like the one Beller describes can function without Energy !!!)

    That could for example get the Americans to think about the consumption of energy, or that the government is better advised to search for new energy sources and energy-rationing strategies, than on making more and bigger cars and weapons, justifying wars for oil.

    P.S. another thing - the very first DAY after 911, 10-11 namely, my mother called me to read an excerpt from the Serbian press which read ''the government of the US worked in a conspiracy with Al Quaeda to bring the towers down because that would provide a justification of the war on terror.'' So if Jodi thinks her new investment in conspiracy theories is original, I can only laugh in a condescending and smug fashion.


  12. Anonymous11:21 PM

    the most important marxist trope here being the discrepancies capital creates, such as the necessity of it EXPANDING, for which it needs to create wars and consume vast amounts of energy...
    i don't think it's so important anymore whether the proletariat takes up the struggle against it, or the burgeois and the prole united, just as long as ACTION IS TAKEN because capital is going to kill the burgeois and the prole in the end!!! dejan

  13. warszawa1:46 AM

    Colonel (and Dejan), thanks for all that. I'm too pushed for time to reply properly right now, but I just saw this, from Margaret Kimberley in the Black Commentator:

    Halliburton Detention Centers

    February 20, 2006

    Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their country and become unapologetically paranoid. Paranoia should now be the normal state of mind for thinking people. Sneers and dismissive remarks about "conspiracy theorists" must be ignored. ...

    - The same author wrote an excellent article about four years ago, in which she pointed out the utter impausibilty of the government's account and said (words to this effect): Black people have always been 'conspiracy theorists' and not for no reason. - I'll try to find the actual quote later.

  14. warszawa1:47 AM

    Forgot the link:

  15. warszawa2:12 AM

    Ah, here it is:

    Trust No One

    by Margaret Kimberley

    The Black Commentator, Feb. 12, 2004

    Paranoia is usually the reserve of conspiracy theorists of every political stripe, fans of science fiction, and Black people. We are given a pass because of the horrific treatment meted out to us throughout American history. Slavery, lynching, the Tuskegee experiment and COINTELPRO give us paranoia rights while others are mocked and dismissed for expressing their suspicions of malfeasance by the powerful. But other Americans would be better served if they acknowledged their own need to question authority and to doubt the benevolence of their leaders.


    Because the times are ripe for all thoughtful men and women to be suspicious it might be helpful for democracy if all Americans tried to think like Black people. ...

  16. warszawa2:21 AM

    From ZNet, yesterday:

    February 18, 2007

    Eisenhower's Mistake: A Tale of an Astonishing Letter to the Former German Chancellor

    By Andrej Grubacic

    ... A few days ago I was reminded of Willy Wimmer, one of the few conservative German politicians arguing against the war in Kosovo (and criticized, by [the] Frankfurter [Allgemeine] Zeitung, predictably enough, as a "conspiracy theorist"). A well informed Serbian conservative weekly published a translation of the letter from Wimmer to the German Chancelor Schroder. The letter is a report from a conference held in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, organized by the State Department and the American Enterprise Institute. The subject of this conference, attended by numerous prime ministers "from Baltic to Macedonia", was the Balkans and expansion of NATO.

    Wimmer had heard many interesting things in Bratislava. For instance, that "Operation Horseshoe" - the plan allegedly conceived by the Serbs to drive the Albanian population out of Kosovo in 1999 - was a propaganda invention; that the purpose behind the Kosovo war was to enable the USA to correct an oversight of General Eisenhower's in the Second World War and to establish a US military presence in the Balkans with a view to controlling the strategically important peninsula. He heard a high ranking American official saying that the American aim was to draw a geo-political line from the Baltic Sea to Anatolia and to control this area as the Romans had once controlled it (one would suppose that American "mare nostrum", or "our sea", is not the Mediterranean, but the Atlantic). Wimmer had a distinct impression that everyone agreed (and could have cared less) about the fact that NATO humanitarian attacks are illegal under international law, and were done very deliberately, in order to establish the precedent for future "humanitarian" actions without a UN mandate.

    One of the many interesting things about this letter is that Wimmer is by no means a leftist activist. Not even a left-leaning critic of "American imperialism". He was, at the time of writing the document, not only a defense policy spokesman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but also a Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Co-operation in Europe. ...

  17. Anonymous4:58 AM

    the US desired 911" is a statement which has certain implications. "The US" is of the same order of being as "Germany" in Nazi discourse. You will notice you can't say "Britain desired 7/7" or "New York and New Jersey desired 911". The assertion's only purpose is the construction of a mystical Volk-style (if on the surface post-racial, because that's unfashionable) Nation with a national will. Only fascists speak of a national will in this way.

    I think actually the statement does something worse. Because the statement doesn't say ''the US government willed 911'', one can surmise that the American people (the ''US'') are all a bunch of arrogant self-deluded assholes who got exactly what they deserved when their unconscious (the repressed) returned to them in the form of the symptom (the towers collapsing).

    So according to this statement, it is not the American government that is Aryan, but the American PEOPLE. They were so lulled in their fantasies of omnipotence that they didn't see the barbarians coming.

    Being half-baked psychoanalysis, the statement can be read in many different (but usually catastrophically misleading) ways.


  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Just one thing first quickly

    Dejan you say "Americans" have chosen to restore law of father with GWB.

    One thing the general style of philosophizing about political matters can lead to is this loose game with reality

    In fact, less than half of the American electorate voted for anyone in the last two prez elections, and less than half of those who did voted for GWB.

    He has never been legitimately elected anywhere. (His victory of the immensely popular Ann Richards in Texas was probably a fix too)

    Less than a quarter of the enfranchised electorate (which is by no means actually equal to the adult population) actually cast votes for GWB: let's be clear on this.

    How much less we still don't know.

    The best estimate is that GWB received about the % of American votes as Le Pen got in France last time around.

  20. The way this should be said is that

    75% of the American electorate did not vote for GWB. His support among the adult resident population is even smaller.

  21. It's important not to portray this junta as the embodiment of some "general American will" or collective psyche.

  22. That kind of stuff only tends toward a)legitimising the bush junta + policy and b)obfuscating its agency, protagonists and aims, giving it a veneer of the 'national-imperial' or whatever.

  23. sorry dejan, didn't see your last comment while i was commenting.


    But this is clearly the aim of the whole dance, precisely to concoct this aryan nation.

    One could ask Jodi did Arab Americans desire 911? The answer has to be "they're not really part of the Volk/Nation". The thing that desired is this entity, this mystical union modelled on the Nazi volk/nation.

  24. and the desiring mystical unityn assumed has a mystical bond to the Land, thus "911" strikes the whole nation, the land as national territory (not New York and Washington, but "the US", a mystical whole).

    It's very creepy but not surprising; this shit is always popular among the disgruntled lower echelons of the bourgeoisie, like Anthony, whose dissatisfaction with the current order is completely egoistical (his debt, his deprivations). He should be able to live like a gentleman; he was born to live like a gentleman, and it isn't right for him to be excluded, but this has nothing to do with other people's deprivations and difficulties and suffering; his idea of social change is his own class mobility. He is part of that nation, "the US", needing renewal, but he didn't kill any Iraqis today (didn't "Iraq" desire 911 too? Oh don't be silly, Iraq is not the mystic nation/volk that is the subject of history) so that's not his problem.

  25. Haha, you have egg all over your faces after yesterdays excellent and comprehensive take down of 9/11 conspiracy theories on the BBC.

    You've wasted years of your lives!

  26. Oh the BBC said they'd found the dubyaembdee? But France Television said its still missing? And CNN reports that it may be behind five thousand pairs of Fratelli Rossetti shoes in Huge Chavez lavish shoe closet? But Fox says its possibly fallen into the hands of Islamcisits in Chad, or Sudan? How symbolic efficiency declines! Whom to believe? Whom can I trust? The BBC, Vivdendi or Berthlesmann? Or Sony? Coke or Pepsi? Which is really "it"? The playstation or the other one?

  27. warszawa9:37 AM

    Yes, you're lucky to live in Britain, "dan". I hear the bbc's investigative journalism is at least as fearless as its cookery programmes these days. They have the vast financial resources of the nation's license fees and a long and proud tradition of impeccable research and sharp focus. The BBC's reputation, like the current US President, is quite unimpeachable.

    So I presume they interviewed Michael Meacher, Paul Thompson, Nafeez Ahmed and Kirsten Breitweiser at considerable length, then, did they? And then came the lengthy grilling of Rumsfeld and Myers to find out what they were actually up to that morning. (What a scoop - only the BBC could have managed that.) No doubt they asked why Bush wasn't removed from that classroom immediately after allegedly having been told, "America is under attack." (The Secret Service probably just guessed that even Evil Muslims would not be so unsporting as to endanger tiny schoolchildren.) Did the Beeb's hardnosed sleuths mention the Northwoods document? Even if not, Daniele Ganser's account of Operation Gladio must have been fascinating to viewers previously unacquainted with it, not to mention the three German Arabists' justly-famous analysis of the shocking mistranslations on the Pentagon's Bin Laden "Smoking Gun" video. The Beeb's analysis of the astnonishingly selective anthrax attacks (remember them?) was, I'm sure, jolly incisive, nearly as trenchant as their close examination of all that insider training. No doubt Professor Benjamin DeMott was asked for his opinion on the work of the 9/11 Commission ("a whitewash and a fraud") - and I'm sure they quoted the words of Senator Max Cleland, spoken shortly before he "resigned" from that Commission ("It's disgusting! America is being scammed.") And then they'll have finished up with "conspiracy theorist" Zbigniew Brzezinski's recent peculiar address to the CFR.

    Sorry I missed all that. It must have been simply enthralling.

    Anything else any good on the telly last night, "dan"? Big Brother? Teletubbies? The Weather?

    P.S. Correct me if my account of that programme is in any way wrong. Somebody said it was in fact a cheap, smug and shallow hit-job, but I told him not to talk that way about my dear old Auntie.

  28. In your face!

  29. By the way, reminding us of how the US couldn't even plant WMD in Iraq doesn't exactly help the conspiracy theorists case on 9/11.

  30. warszawa2:38 PM

    "By the way, reminding us of how the US couldn't even plant WMD in Iraq doesn't exactly help the conspiracy theorists case on 9/11."

    "dan", let's not beat around the bush: you are a timewasting, credulous, powerworshipping, peabrained prick.

    1. "The US" is neither a conscious subject not an agent and can no more plant WMD than it can plant beans.

    2. The fact that the Great Train Robbers didn't get away with the Great Train Robbery does not demonstrate that the Great Train Robbers didn't commit the Great Train Robbery.

    3. The fact that the Manson Gang did not kill John F. Kennedy does not demonstrate that they didn't kill Sharon Tate.

    4. No one here "reminded" you of how "the US [sic] couldn't even plant WMD in Iraq"; you simply imagined that they did, or you hallucinated it, or else you simply made it up. Or (most likely) you are simply too stupid to know or care what you're scribbling.

    5. You are a timewasting, credulous, powerworshipping, peabrained prick.