A Plea for Malignant Substances: Revolution, Totality, Utopia

Here’s something worth reading:

21. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; or, the Baby and the Bathwater.—It has been said that the essence of liberalism is a facile separation of the good from the bad, as though systems—economic, philosophical, whatever—could be simply carved up and the undesirable elements discarded: Competition is good but poverty is bad, so let’s just get rid of poverty (while retaining the dynamic that sustains it); Marx is good but revolution is bad, so let’s forget about revolution (while educating undergraduates in the poetry of Capital). Totality, incidentally, is the name for the rejection of this tendency, which is as common as ever—it is virtually the editorial policy of the New York Times—but a seemingly contrary tendency is equally insidious. This is to conflate a philosophical concept not with its dialectically necessary other but with an ideological cognate. Utopia is a case in point: the construction of utopias is a transparently ideological operation, but the notion of utopia—that is, the reservation within thought of an horizon that is not merely the present—is essential to any genuine politics. Indeed, the failure to think utopia in this strong sense leads directly to utopia in the first sense—in particular, to the utopia (never called that) of a market without poverty. This corresponds to Hegel’s “bad infinity” of infinite approximation as opposed to the properly infinite judgement. The same goes for Totality, the denigration of which in current thought serves to discredit the dialectic by associating it with the thematics of the eradication of difference, with which it has nothing in common.



Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics, William E. Connolly (Foreword), Carsten Strathausen (Editor), Bruno Bosteels (Afterword), ISBN: 0816650292

The above is from Nicholas Brown and Imre Szemán’s Twenty-five Theses on Philosophy in the Age of Finance Capitalism (which are fairly consistent in their brilliance) in A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics (contributions in which vary considerably in strength). As the post title indicates, I link the content of this thesis with Zizek’s observation that ideology often functions by offering something ‘deprived of its malignant substance’ (decaffeinated coffee, non-fat cream, love without ‘falling in love’—that is, dating-agency-arranged relationships). Beyond equally nefarious ‘risk-free trials’, many of the final forms taken by cultural commodities promise to deliver the processed goods free from their harmful contents, which have been isolated and neutralised. According to the still-current yet laughable ‘totalitarian thesis’ which has been so fondly taught by liberals, the risk of totalitarianism is latent in any thought of totality, and particularly so in the construction of utopias which dare to think counterfactually (i.e. philosophically) rather than in terms of a merely ‘improved’ reproduction of the extant. The liberal response to the question of progressive social change and emancipatory justice has been, therefore, to present an always defanged—counter-revolutionary, reformist, and finally substanceless—notion of progressive change.

There are several others among the twenty-five theses that also merit attention, so I’ll post some of them up sometime.

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