In keeping with my ongoing thinking about desire-pleasure and embodiment in the context of my Space, Time, Revolution course with Kanishka Goonewardena at University of Toronto, I’d like to unpack Slavoj Žižek’s fourth ‘intonation’ of ‘the act’ with the specific intervention of questions of desire, embodiment, and transformation.
In a chapter of his recent book, The Actuality of Communism, entitled “In Search of the Act” Bruno Bosteels outlines four “intonations” of Slavoj Žižek’s elaboration of ‘the act.’ Bosteels traces Žižek’s repeated and non-chronological revision and return to the notion of the act as part of a larger set of discussions meant to address the relationship between the historical failures of ‘actual’ communism and its continued problematic appeal in left philosophy and politics. Bosteels attempts to exculpate the actuality of communism from the perilous tendency of the ‘speculative left’ to desire a communism purified of its historical failures through a violent appropriation by philosophy. For Bosteels, “The point is somehow to perceive communism not as a utopian not-yet for which reality will always fail to offer an adequate match, but as something that is always already here, in every moment of refusal of private appropriation and in every act of collective appropriation” (2011:39, my italics).
From here, I will set aside the broader philological/philosophical context of Bosteels project, to focus on one concept. To honor Bosteels’s exegetical method, I’ll briefly schematize the the first three iterations of the act which he traces across Žižek’s oeuvre, before intervening in the fourth.
Drawn largely from The Sublime Object of Ideology, the first intonation of the act lies in the “radical [self]-destitution of the subject” facilitated by an encounter with the real (179). In this context, the real is in fact the usually absent structuring void of the symbolic which sometimes appears as the utter meaninglessness of the so-called symbolic order. Žižek understands this as the realization of a sheer idiotic or obscene enjoyment (And this is how we understand Žižek, right?). This realization, which amounts to an abandonment of the ideal self under the condition of understanding the meaninglessness of the real, does nothing to transform either the self or the symbolic order. This can partially be understood as the notion that “I know very well, but act as if I don’t” which Žižek has recently discussed in relation to the apocalyptic forecasts of global warming. Relatedly, at the level of the self (via psychoanalysis) it could be seen as the traumatic realization that sex will not bring fulfillment. While, at the level of politics, it can be understood as the realization of the impossibility of communism, where the latter names the possibility for a radical departure from the existing social order (183). No transformation here, let alone radical transformation!
The second intonation, according to Bosteels, marks a shift on precisely the possibility of radical transformation. This is accomplished by changing the very conditions on which subjective truth is possible. Called ‘the act proper,’ this second intonation “is not only a gesture that ‘does the impossible,’ but an intervention into social reality which changes the very co-ordinates of what is perceived as ‘possible’; it is not only ‘beyond the Good,’ it redefines what counts as ‘Good.'” (Žižek, quoted in Bosteels 2011:185). In other words, this act remakes the very conditions of the subject as a mode of transformation which overcomes the traumatic limitations of the first intonation.
Bosteels locates the third sense between the first two, as “a strict fidelity to principles…regardless of the political or ideological content” (188, quote reordered). There are perhaps innumerable examples of this third sense in everyday politicking on both the right and the left. Žižek uses the John Paul II’s views on conception (anti) as an example on the right. Bosteels cites Bill Clinton’s devotion to healthcare as an example on the left (188).
It is the fourth and final intonation, the primordial “arch-act,” that I’d like to unpack a bit further. The arch-act signals “a strange repetition of the answer to that quintessential philosophical – or theological – problem, namely, the coming into being of something out of nothing” (199). This fourth iteration of the act follows one of two instances (the other in the ‘Conclusion’ ) in which Bosteels points to not only the failure of the ‘ontological turn’ in philosophy, which is often aligned with the speculative left, but also the ‘reality’ that “flux, difference, and becoming – far from being subversive answers to a dominant ideology of stability, identity, and being – are rather spontaneous forms of appearance of the underlying sameness of late capitalism” (198). Bosteels situates the arch-act in the context of Žižek’s attempt to rebut predominantly philosophical readings of Lacan with a more political question focused on the conditions for the emergence of a new order (200-201). Here (as in the footnote 35 [201-202]) the notion of becoming is understood as a process of the political as opposed to a politics of existing ‘social beings.’ The crux of this process bears resemblance to Badiou’s concept of consequential fidelity; Žižek calls it the “morning after” as it is manifested in the question “Well, what do we do now that we’re cured?”
Returning to Kristin Ross’s counterposition of the “long, boundless, and reasoned disordering of all the senses” (1988:102) and capitalism’s ‘ordered disorganization of the senses’ might go some distance to resolving the stalemate between “the analytic of finitude and lack” and the “vitalism of desire and plenitude” into which the fourth intonation of the act intervenes (Bosteels 2011:202). Žižek’s defense of Lacanian ‘radical creativity’ (i.e. something out of nothing) can be supplemented with a concrete understanding of the physical body – or aggregations thereof – as one potential site of “the possibility of a transformative act that would open up a new order not limited to the alternative of either the pure lack of desire or else the pure positivity of drives” (204). Here it is the body that may be a fluid constant moving across the gap opened in a transformative moment, providing what might be called a radical continuity capable of negotiating both the concrete memory of historical forms of oppression and alienation and the about-to-be-realized-but-still-prefigured reordering of the social-as-communal. In other words, the body might become a stabilizing context through which the non-chronological sequence of transformation (as acting on a prior state) can be realized.
But why do I insist on the body as context? I’ll briefly elaborate two reasons. First, the body is not merely, much less inherently, an accumulation strategy passively acted upon by capitalism. It is not, strictly speaking, a product of capitalism, though its particular injuries and expressions may be. Embodied resistance (or embodiment as resistance) to such strategies is sometimes manifested as illness, sometimes temporarily exorcized in pleasure, but generally managed through disembodiment i.e. the gradual disconnection from obvious signals of pain, decline, dysfunction, and crisis. While there is no inherent reason that this resistance would materialize itself politically, there is a strong potential to recondition these tensions by inviting acts which draw concrete connections between the everyday subjection to capitalist domination and the frequently occurring, if easily co-opted, moments of ecstatic outburst, pain, or resignation (loosely, Žižek’s first intonation of the act). This is perhaps a wishful statement: If only we could release such existing, latent tensions in the form of an act which reconditions the body to live in the other-wise-world of communism.
Second, I mean to take ‘self-management’ – a root principle of communism – quite literally at a very small scale. This harkens to Ross’s ideas regarding radical atomization as a pass to collectivity. It is quite difficult to imagine that the most developed strategists of self-avoidance (disembodiment), namely the highly capitalist country or the turbocapitalist subject, are an ideal starting point. (I don’t have the space or skill to deal seriously enough with the notion that it is from the ‘periphery’ or ‘extremities’ that a true radical/revolutionary break may usher in transformation of totality [256-257], but the metaphor seems consequential and Bosteels treats it thoroughly in his discussion of Bolivian Vice President and marxist theorist, Álvaro García Linera). It is equally difficult to extricate myself from the historical specificity of my own context. This is partially why I insist on the body; for very personal reasons, of course, but because it is the first point of entry I have cultivated into a narrow experience of ‘the collective.’
If the problem lies elsewhere, go to it.
Injury must not be fetishized, so much as acknowledged openly.
The solution may be universalizing, but it will be embodied heterogeneously.
I realize that such slogans veer dangerously close to a new age endorsement of ‘health and wellness,’ which is perhaps too easily dismissed to be a real locus for revolutionary transformation. They may also be too close to a notion of isolated radical separatist survivalism to be generalizable. So, it is with these risks in mind that I interrogatively beat a dead horse: If communism is the “name of the movement that permanently overcomes/abolishes the established order” then how do we understand our very own embodied movements as part of a continuous effort to buck that order while radicalizing the inherency of our daily needs (Bensaïd quoted in Bosteels 2011:283)?
I come now, perhaps belatedly and too briefly, to “The Current Situation and Our Tasks” (238). The first: “[W]riting, as it were, a history of communist eternity, in a counterfactually Borgesian sense” (239). Here we must understand that writing is not only the act of inscribing text on the page, but the very accumulation of bodily traces, of our acknowledged and enacted attempts at understanding and internalizing the concrete struggles of “different aleatory sequences of the communist hypothesis” (239). The second exhortation: “[C]ommunism must again find inscription in a concrete body, the collective flesh and and thought of an internationalist political subjectivity” (239). These tasks must be more than a metaphorical enrobing of the skeletal form of emancipation with the flesh and musculature of communism. We must augment these ‘tasks’ so that this skeleton does not merely dance at the edge of the historical failures of its reanimation.
First, find ourselves where we stand with the weight of history pressing as inexorably as gravity on our shoulders. Invite and allow that weight in concrete daily practices. These will be political because they cannot be otherwise.
Second, we must interrupt this pressure, obstruct it through our own decision, visualize it otherwise. Before the deluge comes the tiny pleasure of removing a single obstacle to reveal our own potential for self-emancipation from the tensions of the embodied memory.
It is not enough to know, we must also feel.
Bosteels, Bruno. 2011. The Actuality of Communism. London: Verso.
Ross, Kristin. 1988. The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and The Paris Commune. London: Verso.