The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lenin’s wager: the right to truth

Lenin’s legacy to be reinvented today is the politics of truth. We live in the “postmodern” era in which truth-claims as such are dismissed as an expression of hidden power-mechanisms – as the reborn pseudo-Nietzscheans like to emphasize, truth is a lie which is most efficient in asserting our will to power. The very question, apropos of some statement, “Is it true?”, is supplanted by the question “Under what power conditions can this statement be uttered?”. What we get instead of the universal truth is the multitude of perspectives, or, as it is fashionable to put it today, of “narratives” – not only literature, but also politics, religion, science, they are all different narratives, stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and the ultimate goal of ethics is to guarantee the neutral space in which this multitude of narratives can peacefully coexist, in which everyone, from ethnic to sexual minorities, will have the right and possibility to tell his story. THE two philosophers of today’s global capitalism are the two great Left-liberal “progressives,” Richard Rorty and Peter Singer – honest in their consequent stance. Rorty defines the basic coordinates: the fundamental dimension of a human being is the ability to suffer, to experience pain and humiliation – consequently, since humans are symbolic animals, the fundamental right is the right to narrate one’s experience of suffering and humiliation. [1] Singer then provides the Darwinian background. [2]

Singer – usually designated as a “social Darwinist with a collectivist socialist face” – starts innocently enough, trying to argue that people will be happier if they lead lives committed to ethics: a life spent trying to help others and reduce suffering is really the most moral and fulfilling one. He radicalizes and actualizes Jeremiah Bentham, the father of utilitarianism: the ultimate ethical criterion is not the dignity (rationality, soul) of man, but the ability to SUFFER, to experience pain, which man shares with animals. With inexorable radicality, Singer levels the animal/human divide: better kill an old suffering woman that healthy animals… Look an orangutan straight in the eye and what do you see? A none-too-distant cousin – a creature worthy of all the legal rights and privileges that humans enjoy. One should thus extend aspects of equality – the right to life, the protection of individual liberties, the prohibition of torture – at least to the nonhuman great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas).

Singer argues that “speciesism” (privileging the human species) is no different from racism: our perception of a difference between humans and (other) animals is no less illogical and unethical than our one-time perception of an ethical difference between, say, men and women, or blacks and whites. Intelligence is no basis for determining ethical stature: the lives of humans are not worth more than the lives of animals simply because they display more intelligence (if intelligence were a standard of judgment, Singer points out, we could perform medical experiments on the mentally retarded with moral impunity). Ultimately, all things being equal, an animal has as much interest in living as a human. Therefore, all things being equal, medical experimentation on animals is immoral: those who advocate such experiments claim that sacrificing the lives of 20 animals will save millions of human lives – however, what about sacrificing 20 humans to save millions of animals? As Singer’s critics like to point out, the horrifying extension of this principle is that the interests of 20 people outweighs the interests of one, which gives the green light to all sorts of human rights abuses.

Consequently, Singer argues that we can no longer rely on traditional ethics for answers to the dilemmas which our constellation imposes on ourselves; he proposes a new ethics meant to protect the quality, not the sanctity, of human life. As sharp boundaries disappear between life and death, between humans and animals, this new ethics casts doubt on the morality of animal research, while offering a sympathetic assessment of infanticide. When a baby is born with severe defects of the sort that always used to kill babies, are doctors and parents now morally obligated to use the latest technologies, regardless of cost? NO. When a pregnant woman loses all brain function, should doctors use new procedures to keep her body living until the baby can be born? NO. Can a doctor ethically help terminally ill patients to kill themselves? YES.

The first thing to discern here is the hidden utopian dimension of such a survivalist stance. The easiest way to detect ideological surplus-enjoyment in an ideological formation is to read it as a dream and analyze the displacement at work in it. Freud reports of a dream of one of his patients which consists of a simple scene: the patient is at a funeral of one of his relatives. The key to the dream (which repeats a real-life event from the previous day) is that, at this funeral, the patient unexpectedly encountered a woman, his old love towards whom he still felt very deeply – far from being a masochistic dream, this dream thus simply articulates the patient’s joy at meeting again his old love. Is the mechanism of displacement at work in this dream not strictly homologous to the one elaborated by Fredric Jameson apropos of a science-fiction film which takes place in California in near future, after a mysterious virus has very quickly killed a great majority of the population? When the film’s heroes wander in the empty shopping malls, with all the merchandises intact at their disposal, is this libidinal gain of having access to the material goods without the alienating market machinery not the true point of the film occluded by the displacement of the official focus of the narrative on the catastrophe caused by the virus? At an even more elementary level, is not one of the commonplaces of the sci-fi theory that the true point of the novels or movies about a global catastrophe resides in the sudden reassertion of social solidarity and the spirit of collaboration among the survivors? It is as if, in our society, global catastrophe is the price one has to pay for gaining access to solidary collaboration…

When my son was a small boy, his most cherished personal possession was a special large “survival knife” whose handle contained a compass, a sack of powder to disinfect water, a fishing hook and line, and other similar items – totally useless in our social reality, but perfectly fitting the survivalist fantasy of finding oneself alone in wild nature. It is this same fantasy which, perhaps, give the clue to the success of Joshua Piven’s and David Borgenicht’s surprise best-seller The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. [3] Suffice it to mention two supreme examples from it: What to do if an alligator has its jaws closed on your limb? (Answer: you should tap or punch it on the snout, because alligators automatically react to it by opening their mouths.) What to do if you confront a lion which threatens to attack you? (Answer: try to make yourself appear bigger than you are by opening your coat wide.) The joke of the book thus consists in the discord between its enunciated content and its position of enunciation: the situations it describes are effectively serious and the solutions correct – the only problem is WHY IS THE AUTHOR TELLING US ALL THIS? WHO NEEDS THIS ADVICE?

The underlying irony is that, in our individualistic competitive society, the most useless advice concerns survival in extreme physical situations – what one effectively needs is the very opposite, the Dale Carnegie type of books which tell us how to win over (manipulate) other people: the situations rendered in The Worst-Case Scenario lack any symbolic dimension, they reduce us to pure survival machines. In short, The Worst-Case Scenario became a best-seller for the very same reason Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, the story (and the movie) about the struggle for survival of a fishing vessel caught in the “storm of the century” east of the Canadian coast in 1991, became one: they both stage the fantasy of the pure encounter with a natural threat in which the socio-symbolic dimension is suspended. In a way, The Perfect Storm even provides the secret utopian background of The Worst-Case Scenario: it is only in such extreme situations that an authentic intersubjective community, held together by solidarity, can emerge. Let us not forget that The Perfect Storm is ultimately the book about the solidarity of a small working class collective! The humorous appeal of The Worst-Case Scenario can thus be read as bearing witness to our utter alienation from nature, exemplified by the shortage of contact with “real life” dangers.

We all know the standard pragmatic-utilitarian criticism of the abstract humanist education: who needs philosophy, Latin quotes, classic literature – one should rather learn how to act and produce in real life… well, in The Worst-Case Scenario, we get such real life lessons, with the result that they uncannily resemble the useless classic humanist education. Recall the proverbial scenes of the drilling of young pupils, boring them to death by making them mechanically repeat some formulas (like the declination of the Latin verbs) – the Worst-Case Scenario counterpoint to it would have been the scene of forcing the small children in the elementary school to learn by heart the answers to the predicaments this book describes by repeating them mechanically after the teacher: “When the alligator bites your leg, you punch him on the nose with your hand! When the lion confronts you, you open your coat wide!” [4]

So, back to Singer, one cannot dismiss him as a monstrous exaggeration – what Adorno said about psychoanalysis (its truth resides in its very exaggerations) [5] fully holds for Singer: he is so traumatic and intolerable because his scandalous “exaggerations” directly renders visible the truth of the so-called postmodern ethics. Is effectively not the ultimate horizon of the postmodern “identity politics” Darwinian – defending the right of some particular species of the humankind within the panoply of their proliferating multitude (gays with AIDS, black single mothers…)? The very opposition between “conservative” and “progressive” politics can be conceived of in the terms of Darwinism: ultimately, conservatives defend the right of those with might (their very success proves that they won in the struggle for survival), while progressives advocate the protection of endangered human species, i.e., of those losing the struggle for survival. [6]

One of the divisions in the chapter on Reason in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit speaks about “das geistige Tierreich” (the spiritual animal kingdom): the social world which lacks any spiritual substance, so that, in it, individuals effectively interact as “intelligent animals.” They use reason, but only in order to assert their individual interests, to manipulate others into serving their own pleasures. [7] Is not a world in which the highest rights are human rights precisely such a “spiritual animal kingdom,” a universe? There is, however, a price to be paid for such liberation – in such a universe, human rights ultimately function as ANIMAL rights. This, then, is the ultimate truth of Singer: our universe of human right is the universe of animal rights.

The obvious counterargument is here: so what? Why should we not reduce humankind to its proper place, that of one of the animal species? What gets lost in this reduction? Jacques-Alain Miller once commented an uncanny laboratory experiment with rats: [8] in a labyrinthine set-up, a desired object (a piece of good food or a sexual partner) is first made easily accessible to a rat; then, the set-up is changed in such a way that the rat sees and thereby knows where the desired object is, but cannot gain access to it; in exchange for it, as a kind of consolation prize, a series of similar objects of inferior value is made easily accessible – how does the rat react to it? For some time, it tries to find its way to the “true” object; then, upon ascertaining that this object is definitely out of reach, the rat will renounce it and put up with some of the inferior substitute objects – in short, it will act as a “rational” subject of utilitarianism.

It is only now, however, that the true experiment begins: the scientists performed a surgical operation on the rat, messing about with its brain, doing things to it with laser beams about which, as Miller put it delicately, it is better to know nothing. So what happened when the operated rat was again let loose in the labyrinth, the one in which the “true” object is inaccessible? The rat insisted: it never became fully reconciled with the loss of the “true” object and resigned itself to one of the inferior substitutes, but repeatedly returned to it, attempted to reach it. In short, the rat in a sense was humanized; it assumed the tragic “human” relationship towards the unattainable absolute object which, on account of its very inaccessibility, forever captivates our desire. On the other hand, it is this very “conservative” fixation that pushes man to continuing renovation, since he never can fully integrate this excess into his life process. So we can see why did Freud use the term Todestrieb: the lesson of psychoanalysis is that humans are not simply alive; on the top of it, they are possessed by a strange drive to enjoy life in excess of the ordinary run of things – and “death” stands simply and precisely for the dimension beyond ordinary biological life.

This, then, is what gets lost in Singer’s “geistige Tierreich”: the Thing, something to which we are unconditionally attached irrespective of its positive qualities. In Singer’s universe, there is a place for mad cows, but no place for an Indian sacred cow. In, in other words, what gets lost here is simply the dimension of truth – NOT “objective truth” as the notion of reality from a point of view which somehow floats above the multitude of particular narratives, but truth as the Singular Universal.” When Lenin said “The theory of Marx is all-powerful, because it is true,” everything depends on how we understand “truth” here: is it a neutral “objective knowledge,” or the truth of an engaged subject? Lenin’s wager – today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever – is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position – truth is by definition one-sided. This, of course, goes against the predominant doxa of compromise, of finding a middle path among the multitude of conflicting interests. If one does not specify the CRITERIA of the different, alternate, narrativization, then this endeavor courts the danger of endorsing, in the Politically Correct mood, ridiculous “narratives” like those about the supremacy of some aboriginal holistic wisdom, of dismissing science as just another narrative on a par with premodern superstitions. The Leninist narrative to the postmodern multiculturalist “right to narrate” should thus be an unashamed assertion of the right to truth. When, in the debacle of 1914, all European Social Democratic parties (with the honorable exception of the Russian Bolsheviks and the Serb Social Democrats) succumbed to the war fervor and voted for the military credits, Lenin’s thorough rejection of the “patriotic line,” in its very isolation from the predominant mood, designated the singular emergence of the truth of the entire situation.

In a closer analysis, one should exhibit how the cultural relativism of the “right-to-narrate” orientation contains its own apparent opposite, the fixation on the Real of some trauma which resists its narrativization. This properly dialectical tension sustains today’s the academic “holocaust industry.” My own ultimate experience of the holocaust-industry police occurred in 1997 at a round table in the Centre Pompidou in Paris: I was viciously attacked for an intervention in which (among other things) I claimed, against the neoconservatives deploring the decline of faith today, that the basic need of a normal human being is not to believe himself, but to have another subject who will believe for him, at his place – the reaction of one of the distinguished participants was that, by claiming this, I am ultimately endorsing the holocaust revisionism, justifying the claim that, since everything is a discursive construct, this includes also the holocaust, so it is meaningless to search for what really happened there… Apart from displaying a hypocritical paranoia, my critic was doubly wrong: first, the holocaust revisionists (to my knowledge) NEVER argue in the terms of the postmodern discursive constructionism, but in the terms of very empirical factual analysis: their claims range from the “fact” that there is no written document in which Hitler would have ordered the holocaust, to the weird mathematics of “taking into account the number of gas ovens in Auschwitz, it was not possible to burn so many corpses.” Furthermore, not only is the postmodern logic of “everything is a discursive construction, there are no direct firm facts” NEVER used to deflate the holocaust; in a paradox worth noting, it is precisely the postmodern discursive constructionists (like Lyotard) who tend to elevate the holocaust into the supreme ineffable metaphysical Evil – the holocaust serves them as the untouchable-sacred Real, as the negative of the contingent language games. [9]

The problem with those who perceive every comparison between the holocaust and other concentration camps and mass political crimes as an inadmissible relativization of the holocaust, is that they miss the point and display their own doubt: yes, the holocaust WAS unique, but the only way to establish this uniqueness is to compare it with other similar phenomena and thus demonstrate the limit of this comparison. If one does not risk this comparison, of one prohibits it, one gets caught in the Wittgensteinian paradox of prohibiting to speak about that about which we cannot speak: if we stick to the prohibition of the comparison, the gnawing suspicion emerges that, if we were to be allowed to compare the holocaust with other similar crimes, it would be deprived of its uniqueness…

Lenin As a Listener of Schubert

So how can the reference to Lenin deliver us from this stuff predicament? Some libertarian Leftists want to redeem – partially, at least – Lenin by opposing the “bad” Jacobin-elitist Lenin of What Is To Be Done?, relying on the Party as the professional intellectual elite which enlightens the working class from OUTSIDE, and the “good” Lenin of State and Revolution, who envisioned the prospect of abolishing the State, of the broad masses directly taking into their hands the administration of the public affairs. However, this opposition has its limits: the key premise of State and Revolution is that one cannot fully “democratize” the State, that State “as such,” in its very notion, is a dictatorship of one class over another; the logical conclusion from this premise is that, insofar as we still dwell within the domain of the State, we are legitimized to exercise full violent terror, since, within this domain, every democracy is a fake. So, since state is an instrument of oppression, it is not worth trying to improve its apparatuses, the protection of the legal order, elections, laws guaranteeing personal freedoms… – all this becomes irrelevant. The moment of truth in this reproach is that one cannot separate the unique constellation which enabled the revolutionary takeover in October 1917 from its later “Stalinist” turn: the very constellation that rendered the revolution possible (peasants’ dissatisfaction, a well-organized revolutionary elite, etc.) led to the “Stalinist” turn in its aftermath – therein resides the proper Leninist tragedy. Rosa Luxembourg’s famous alternative “socialism or barbarism” ended up as the ultimate infinite judgement, asserting the speculative identity of the two opposed terms: the “really existing” socialism WAS barbarism. [10]

In the diaries of Georgi Dimitroff, which were recently published in German, [11] we get a unique glimpse into how Stalin was fully aware what brought him to power, giving an unexpected twist to his well-known slogan that “people (cadres) are our greatest wealth.” When, at a diner in November 1937, Dimitroff praises the “great luck” of the international workers, that they had such a genius as their leader, Stalin, Stalin answers: “… I do not agree with him. He even expressed himself in a non-Marxist way. /…/ Decisive are the middle cadres.”(7.11.37) He puts it in an even clearer way a paragraph earlier: “Why did we win over Trotsky and others? It is well known that, after Lenin, Trotsky was the most popular in our land. /…/ But we had the support of the middle cadres, and they explained our grasp of the situation to the masses … Trotsky did not pay any attention to these cadres.” Here Stalin spells out the secret of his rise to power: as a rather anonymous General Secretary, he nominated tens of thousands of cadres who owed their rise to him… This is why Stalin did not yet want Lenin dead in the early 1922, rejecting his demand to be given poison to end his life after the debilitating stroke: if Lenin were to die already in early 1922, the question of succession would not yet be resolved in Stalin’s favor, since Stalin as the general secretary did not yet penetrate enough the Party apparatus with his appointees – he needed another year or two, so that, when Lenin effectively dies, he could count on the support of thousands of mid-level cadres nominated by him to win over the big old names of the Bolshevik “aristocracy.”

Here are some details of the daily life of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the following years, which, in their very triviality, render palpable the gap from the Stalinist nomenklatura. When, in the evening of 24 October 1917, Lenin left his flat for the Smolny Institute to coordinate the revolutionary takeover, he took a tram and asked the conductress if there was any fighting going on in the center that day. In the years after the October Revolution, Lenin was mostly driving around in a car only with his faithful driver and bodyguard Gil; a couple of times they were shot at, stopped by the police and arrested (the policemen did not recognize Lenin), once, after visiting a school in suburbs, even robbed of the car and their guns by bandits posing as police, and then compelled to walk to the nearest police station. When, on 30 August 1918, Lenin was shot, this occurred while he got in a conversation with a couple of complaining women in front of a factory he just visited; the bleeding Lenin was driven by Gil to Kremlin, were there were no doctors, so his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya suggested someone should run out to the nearest grocer’s shop for a lemon… The standard meal in the Kremlin kantina in 1918 was buckwheat porridge and thin vegetable soup. So much about the privileges of nomenklatura!

Lenin’s slanderers like to evoke his famous paranoiac reaction at listening to Beethoven’s appasionata (he first started to cry, then claimed that a revolutionary cannot afford to let himself go to such sentiments, because they make him too weak, wanting to pat the enemies instead of mercilessly fighting them) as the proof of his cold self-control and cruelty – however, even at its own terms, is this accident effectively an argument AGAINST Lenin? Does it not rather bear witness to an extreme sensitivity for music that needs to be kept in check in order to continue the political struggle? Who of today’s cynical politicians still displays even a trace of such a sensitivity? Is not Lenin here at the very opposite of the high-ranked Nazis who, without any difficulty, combined such a sensitivity with the extreme cruelty in taking political decisions (suffice it to recall Heydrich, the holocaust architect, who, after a hard day’s work, always found time to play with his comrades Beethoven’s string quartets) – is not the proof of Lenin’s humanity that, in contrast to this supreme barbarism, which resides in the very unproblematic unity of high culture and political barbarism, he was still extremely sensitive to the irreducible antagonism between art in power struggle?

Furthermore, one is tempted to develop a Leninist theory of this high-cultured barbarism. Hans Hotter’s outstanding 1942 recording of Schubert’s Winterreise seems to call for an intentionally anachronistic reading: it is easy to imagine German officers and soldiers listening to this recording in the Stalingrad trenches in the cold Winter of 42/43. Does the topic of Winterreise not evoke a unique consonance with the historical moment? Was not the whole campaign to Stalingrad a gigantic Winterreise, where each German soldier can say for himself the very first lines of the cycle: “I came here a stranger, / As a stranger I depart”? Do the following lines not render their basic experience: “Now the world is so gloomy, / The road shrouded in snow. / I cannot choose the time / To begin my journey, / Must find my own way / In this darkness.”

Here we have the endless meaningless march: “It burns under both my feet, / Even though I walk on ice and snow; / I don’t want to catch my breath / Until I can no longer see the spires.” The dream of returning home in the Spring: “I dreamed of many-colored flowers, / The way they bloom in May; / I dreamed of green meadows, / Of merry bird calls.” The nervous waiting for the post: “From the highroad a posthorn sounds. / Why do you leap so high, my heart?” The shock of the morning artillery attack: “The cloud tatters flutter / Around in weary strife. / And fiery red flames / Dart around among them.” Utterly exhausted, the soldiers are refused even the solace of death: “I’m tired enough to drop, have taken mortal hurt. / Oh, merciless inn, you turn me away? / Well, onward then, still further, my loyal walking staff!”

What can one do in such a desperate situation, but to go on with heroic persistence, closing one’s ears to the complaint of the heart, assuming the heavy burden of fate in a world deserted by Gods? “If the snow flies in my face, / I shake it off again. / When my heart speaks in my breast, / I sing loudly and gaily. / I don’t hear what it says to me, / I have no ears to listen; / I don’t feel when it laments, / Complaining is for fools. / Happy through the world along / Facing wind and weather! / If there’s no God upon the earth, / Then we ourselves are Gods!”

The obvious counter-argument is that all this is merely a superficial parallel: even if there is an echo of the atmosphere and emotions, they are in each case embedded in an entirely different context: in Schubert, the narrator wanders around in Winter because the beloved has dropped him, while the German soldiers were on the way to Stalingrad because of Hitler’s military plans. However, it is precisely in this displacement that the elementary ideological operation consists: the way for a German soldier to be able to endure his situation was to avoid the reference to concrete social circumstances which would become visible through reflection (what the hell were they doing in Russia? what destruction did they bring to this country? what about killing the Jews?), and, instead, to indulge in the Romantic bemoaning of one’s miserable fate, as if the large historical catastrophe just materializes the trauma of a rejected lover. Is this not the supreme proof of the emotional abstraction, of Hegel’s idea that emotions are ABSTRACT, an escape from the concrete socio-political network accessible only to THINKING.

And one is tempted to make here a Leninist step further: in our reading of the Winterreise, we did not just link Schubert to a contingent later historical catastrophe, we did not just try to imagine how this song-cycle resonated to the embattled German soldiers in Stalingrad. What if the link to this catastrophe enables us to read what was wrong in the Schubertian Romantic position itself? What if the position of the Romantic tragic hero, narcissistically focused on his own suffering and despair, elevating them into a source of perverted pleasure, is already in itself a fake one, an ideological screen masking the true trauma of the larger historical reality? One should thus accomplish the properly Hegelian gesture of projecting the split between the authentic original and its later reading colored by contingent circumstances back into the authentic original itself: what at first appears the secondary distortion, a reading twisted by the contingent external circumstances, tells us something about what the authentic original itself not only represses, leaves out, but had the function to repress. Therein resides the Leninist answer to the famous passage from the Introduction to the Grundrisse manuscript, in which Marx mentions how easy it is to explain Homer’s poetry from its unique historical context – it is much more difficult to explain its universal appeal, i.e. why it continues to give us artistic pleasure long after its historical context disappeared: [12] this universal appeal is based in its very ideological function of enabling us to abstract from our concrete ideologico-political constellation by way of taking refuge in the “universal” (emotional) content. So, far from signalling some kind of trans-ideological heritage of the humankind, the universal attraction of Homer relies on the universalizing gesture of ideology.


[1] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989. Along the similar lines, Habermas, Rorty’s great opponent, elevates the rise of “public space” of civil society, the space of free discussion that mediates between private lives and political/state apparatuses in the Enlightenment era. The problem is that this space of enlightened public debate was always redoubled by the fear of the irrational/passionate crowd which can, through the contamination (what Spinoza called imitatio affecti), explode into murderous violence based on superstitions manipulated by priests or other ideologists. So the enlightened space of rational debate was always based on certain exclusions: on the exclusion of those who were NOT considered “rational” enough (lower classes, women, children, savages, criminals…) – they needed the pressure of “irrational” authority to be kept in check, i.e. for them, Voltaire’s well-known motto “If there were no Gold, one would have to invent him” fully holds.

[2] Peter Singer, The Essential Singer: Writings on an Ethical Life, New York: Ecco Press 2000.

[3] Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, New York: Chronicle Books 1999.

[4] On account of its utter “realism,” The Worst-Case Scenario is a Western book par excellence; its Oriental counterpart is chindogu, arguably the finest spiritual achievement of Japan in the last decades, the art of inventing objects which are sublime in the strictest Kantian sense of the term – practically useless on account of their very excessive usefulness (say, glasses with electrically-run mini-windshields on them, so that your view will remain clear even if you have to walk in the rain without an umbrella; butter contained in a lipstick tube, so that you can carry it with you and spread it on the bread without a knife). That is to say, in order to be recognized, the chindogu objects have to meet two basic criteria: it should be possible to really construct them and they should work; simultaneously, they should not be “practical,” i.e. it should not be feasible to market them. The comparison between The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and chindogu offers us a unique insight into the difference between the Eastern and the Western sublime, an insight far superior to the New Age pseudo-philosophical treatises. In both cases, the effect of the Sublime resides in the way the uselessness of the product is the outcome of the extreme “realistic” and pragmatic approach itself. However, in the case of the West, we get simple, realistic advises for problems (situations) most of us will never encounter (who of us will really have to face alone a hungry lion?), while in the case of the East, we get unpractically complicated solutions for the problems all of us effectively encounter (who of us was not caught in the rain?). The Western sublime offers a practical solution for a problem which does not arise, while the Eastern sublime offers a useless solution for a real common problem. The underlying motto of the Eastern Sublime is “Why do it simply, when you can complicate it?” – is the principle of chindogu not discernible already in what appears to our Western eyes as the “impractical” clumsy form of the Japanese spoons? The underlying motto of the Western Sublime is, on the contrary, “If the problems do not fit our preferred way of solving them, let’s change problems, not the way we are used to solve them!” – is this principle not discernible in the sacred principle of Bureaucracy which has to invent problems in order to justify its existence which serves to solve them?

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, London: Verso Books 1996.

[6] In an incident at the US academia, a couple of years ago, a lesbian feminist claimed that gays are today the privileged victims, so that the analysis of how the gays are underprivileged provides the key to understanding all other exclusions, repressions, violences, etc. (religious, ethnic, class…). What is problematic with this thesis is precisely its implicit (or, in this case, explicit even) UNIVERSAL claim: it is making exemplary victims of those who are NOT that, of those who can be much easier than religious or ethnic Others (not to mention the socially – “class” – excluded) fully integrated into the public space, enjoying full rights. Here, one should approach the ambiguity of the connection between gay and class struggle. There is a long tradition of the Leftist gay bashing, whose traces are discernible up to Adorno – suffice it to mention Maxim Gorky’s infamous remark from his essay “Proletarian Humanism” (sic! – 1934): “Exterminate (sic!) homosexuals, and Fascism will disappear.”(Quoted from Siegfried Tornow, “Maennliche Homosexualitaet und Politik in Sowjet-Russland,” in Homosexualitaet und Wissenschaft II, Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel 1992, p. 281.) All of this cannot be reduced to opportunistically flirting with the traditional patriarchal sexual morality of the working classes, or with the Stalinist reaction against the liberating aspects of the first years after the October Revolution; one should remember that the above-quoted Gorky’s inciting statement, as well as Adorno’s reservations towards homosexuality (his conviction about the libidinal link between homosexuality and the spirit of military male-bonding), are all based on the same historical experience: that of the SA, the “revolutionary” paramilitary Nazi organization of street-fighting thugs, in which homosexuality abounded up to its head (Roehm). The first thing to note here is that it was already Hitler himself who purged the SA in order to make the Nazi regime publicly acceptable by way of cleansing it of its obscene-violent excess, and that he justified the slaughter of the SA leadership precisely by evoking their “sexual depravity”… In order to function as the support of a “totalitarian” community, homosexuality has to remain a publicly disavowed “dirty secret,” shared by those who are “in.” Does this mean that, when gays are persecuted, they deserve only a qualified support, a kind of “Yes, we know we should support you, but nonetheless… (you are partially responsible for the Nazi violence)”? What one should only insist on is that the political overdetermination of homosexuality is far from simple, that the homosexual libidinal economy can be co-opted by different political orientations, and that it is HERE that one should avoid the “essentialist” mistake of dismissing the Rightist “militaristic” homosexuality as the secondary distortion of the “authentic” subversive homosexuality.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977, p. 178.

[8] Jacques-Alain Miller, Ce qui fait insigne (unpublished seminar 1984-85).

[9] This also enables us to answer Dominick la Capra’s reproach according to which, the Lacanian notion of lack conflates two levels that have to be kept apart: the purely formal “ontological” lack constitutive of the symbolic order as such, and the particular traumatic experiences (exemplarily: holocaust) which could also NOT have occurred – particular historical catastrophes like the holocaust thus seem to be “legitimized” as directly grounded in the fundamental trauma that pertains to the very human existence. (Dominick la Capra, “Trauma, Absence, Loss,” Critical Inquiry, Volume 25, Number 4 (Summer 1999), p. 696-727.) This distinction between structural and contingent-historical trauma, convincing as it may appear, is doubly inadequate in its reliance on the Kantian distinction between the formal/structural a priori and the contingent/empirical a posteriori. First, EVERY trauma, trauma “as such,” in its very concept, is experienced as something contingent, as an unexpected meaningless disturbance – trauma is by definition not “structural,” but something which disturbs the structural order. Secondly, the holocaust was NOT simply a historical contingency, but something which, in its unique combination of the mythical sacrifice with technological instrumental efficiency, realized a certain destructive potential inscribed into the very logic of the so-called Western civilization. We cannot adopt towards it the neutral position of a safe distance, from which we dismiss the holocaust as an unfortunate accident: the holocaust is in a way the “symptom” of our civilization, the singular point in which the universal repressed truth about it emerges. To put it in somewhat pathetic terms, any account of the Western civilization which does not account for the holocaust thereby invalidates itself.

[10] One possible counter-argument is here that the category of the tragic is not appropriate to analyze Stalinism: the problem is not that the original Marxist vision got subverted by its unintended consequences, it is this vision itself. If Lenin’s and even Marx’s project of Communism were to be fully realized as to their true core, things would have been MUCH WORSE than Stalinism – we would have a version of what Adorno and Horkheimer called “die verwaltete Welt (the administered society),” a totally self-transparent society run by the reified “general intellect” in which the last remainders of the human autonomy and freedom would have been obliterated… The way to answer this reproach is to draw the distinction between Marx’s analysis of the capitalist dynamic and his positive vision of Communism, as well as between this vision and the actuality of the revolutionary turmoil: what if Marx’s analysis of the capitalist dynamic is not dependent on his positive determinations of the Communist societies? And what if his theoretical expectations themselves were shattered by the actual revolutionary experience? (It is clear that Marx himself was surprised by the new political form of the Paris Commune.)

[11] Georgi Dimitroff, Tagebuecher 1933-1943, Berlin: Aufbau Verlag 2000.

[12] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1972, p. 112.

Art: This is not a time for dreaming, Pierre Huyghe, 2004.

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