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Posts Tagged ‘Ideology’

Žižek’s Real Desert

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

In short, America should learn humbly to accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation—what we are getting instead is the forceful reassertion of the exceptional role of the USA as a global policeman, as if what causes resentment against the USA is not its excess of power, but its lack of it. 

                             —Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Žižek does not overload his writing with normative statements.  Here, however, he clearly puts forth an “ought.”  He recommends that America accept its vulnerability.  What is not said in this sentence, but what is abundantly clear throughout the second chapter of Welcome to the Desert of the Real, is that accepting vulnerability represents, for Žižek, an alternate way between “the dialectical category of totality.”

Against the prevailing rhetoric that deludes Americans and other Western peoples into thinking that they have two choices—between “Them” or “Us,” “Capitalism” or “The Other,” “Inside” or “Outside,” “First World” or “Third World”—Žižek attempts more than merely to reveal a third-way between competing totalities.  He seeks instead to interrogate the competing totalities and to show how they are narrativized to mask the symptoms of our own desires.  He demonstrates that “We” have constructed our own fundamentalisms that oppose—yet mirror—the fundamentalisms of “The Other.”  There is an evil to both sides of whatever lies beneath constructed dualities; only by searching for that evil can we place 9/11 in its proper context.  The totalities of “Them” versus “Us,” for example, can be redefined such that Bush and Bin Laden “are both ‘Them’ against Us.”  The point of this recasting is to suggest that 9/11 and its aftermath do not represent grand moral narratives leading inexorably to a clear choice: for or against terrorism.  Rather, 9/11 and its aftermath are what upset America’s perception of itself as “an island exempt from this kind of violence, witnessing it only from the safe distance of the TV screen.”  9/11 was a wake-up to reality, not to morality.

For this reason, 9/11 and its aftermath ought to blur any simple claims to moral superiority as well as any ideological interpretation of the deaths of the victims.  9/11 did not bring about ethical or ideological clarity.  “Far from offering a case apropos of which we can adopt a clear ethical stance,” Žižek asserts, “we encounter here the limit of moral reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime.”

But few people are innocent, at least if innocence means completely removed from any system that is complicit in the rise of violence and extremism; nearly everyone is implicated in some system or another that contributed (and contributes) to the rise of fundamentalism.  To construct a crude “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative is to create a false abstraction that validates the very behavior that generated the hostility motivating the crimes to begin with.  To construct that narrative is to placate personal guilt and to shield “Us” from identification with “The Problem.”

Because of these arguments, Welcome to the Desert of the Real disrupts the apparent unity of the dialectical categories that Americans and other Western peoples accept uncritically.  It challenges the images and stories that seem to have as their goal the legitimation of violence.  Whatever one thinks of Žižek—I am, for the record, not a fan—his arguments in this book deserve careful consideration.

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Excerpt from “Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Conclusion”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Conservatism, Humane Economy, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Politics, Pragmatism, Transnational Law on August 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

A few months ago, the Libertarian Alliance, a London-based think tank, published my paper on transnational law.  Below is an excerpt from that paper.  The piece is available for download through SSRN by clicking here, or on the website of the Libertarian Alliance by clicking here.

In 1957, reviewing Philip Jessup’s Transnational Law, James N. Hyde wrote that “[t]ransnational law is not likely to become a term of art for a new body of law.”25  Mr. Hyde was wrong.  There has been a proliferation of relatively new law journals bearing “transnational law” in their titles: Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems: A Journal of the University of Iowa College of Law, Ashburn Institute Transnational Law Journal, Journal of Transnational Law & Policy, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Transnational Law Review, and Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.  There are LLM programs in transnational law (such as the one I am in), and there are even institutes and think-tanks devoted to the study and development of transnational law.  Transnational law has in fact become the term of art for a new body of law, and here we will consider the nature and meaning of this term as well as the corpus of law it has created.  It is perhaps not coincidental that the emergence of transnational law coincided with transnational poetics26 and other transnational trends in literary criticism because the legal and literary fields always seem responsive to one another.

One of the earliest references, if not the earliest reference, to the concept of transnationalism comes from the pragmatist philosopher and student of John Dewey: Randolph Bourne.  Bourne’s use of the term “transnational” recalls William James’s notion of religious pluralism as non-absolute and non-monist.27  Bourne appears to have revised and extended James’s pragmatism to fit the political instead of the religious or philosophical context, although James himself came close to addressing the former context in “A Pluralistic Universe.”  Bourne’s essay “Trans-National America” regarded transnationalism as a cousin of cultural pluralism, the notion that differences in belief across cultures and communities may not be equally valid but can be at least equally practical.  Against essentialism, monism, and absolutism, Bourne posits a consequentialist system of polycentrism that regards multiplicity as positive and collectivism as dangerous.  Society can and should be multiple and heterogeneous, not single and homogeneous, for a one-size-fits-all polis can only materialize through the stamping out of minority views and through the erasing of distinct, regional cultures.  Put another way, Bourne transforms James’s varieties of religious experience28 into varieties of political experience.

Kenneth Burke, a literary critic, sometime student of pragmatism, and Marxist converted into a non-“ism” altogether, argued later in his life that ideology and fanaticism – by which he meant “the effort to impose one doctrine of motives abruptly upon a world composed of many different motivational situations”29 – were destructive missions incompatible with pluralism or democracy.  Burke, who remained naively critical of the free market, nevertheless refused ideologies as simplifying what cannot be simplified: human behavior.  What Burke did not realize is that free market theories, especially those of the Austrian variety, are not deterministic: they refuse to pigeonhole people or to reduce them to economic calculations; they treat humans as unpredictable and spontaneous and celebrate the sheer variety of human behavior.  My point in referencing Burke is not to systematically demolish his economic preferences but to suggest that his wide-ranging theories have positive implications for our understanding of transnationalism.  One could argue that Bourne and Burke were the earliest expositors of transnationalist theories tied to the practical world and that Jessup and others merely repackaged Bourne and Burke’s dicta.  Regardless of whether Jessup either read or credited Bourne and Burke, the theories emanating from these two literary critics would have been in circulation at Jessup’s moment in history.  Jessup, widely read as he was, probably would have encountered Bourne and Burke’s transnationalism directly or indirectly. Read the rest of this entry »

Signs Taken For Truths

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics on October 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Recently I was reading Erika Lindemann’s book A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).  I was preparing for class and needed some inspiration from someone far smarter. I found that inspiration in Lindemann’s chapter “What Do Teachers Need to Know about Linguistics?”  I won’t go into how I used that chapter for class but would like to expand on what Lindemann calls “graphic conventions” (62).

Focusing on the “role language plays in composing, especially at the writing and rewriting stages,” Lindemann argues that writing instructors need a greater facility with English linguistics to understand the composition process—specifically, to understand how students select and appropriate diction (60).  This premise leads Lindemann into a discussion of alphabets and symbols with linguistic values (62).

Lindemann’s claims about how matters of taste are always braided with “our assumptions about what language should and shouldn’t be” are interesting, but this post discusses what language might be.

Language can become a vehicle for discovering “truth.” Literature, made up of language, can become, to employ Kenneth Burke’s phrase, equipment for living.  By “truth” I don’t necessarily mean moral truth.  I mean physical truth.  Language is a system of meaning that makes truth—the referent—intelligible even if it only signifies or stands in the place of reality.  Read the rest of this entry »

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