Monday, 21 July 2008

Insulting the Audience

What happened to the lost art of (Marxist) insult? The past master of this art was of course Guy Debord. This is a classic:

One of us remembers him at the College de France in 1966, sitting in on Hyppolite's course on Hegel's Logic, and having to endure a final session at which the master invited two young Turks to give papers. "Trois etapes de la degenerescence de la culture bourgeoise francaise," [three stages of the degeneration of French bourgeois culture] said Debord as the last speaker sat down. "Premierement, l'erudition classique"[at first, classical erudition]-he had in mind Hyppolite himself, who had spoken briefly at the start of things-"quand meme base sur une certaine connaissance generale. Ensuite le petit con stalinien, avec ses mots de passe, 'Travail,' 'Force' et 'Terreur.' Et enfin-derniere bassesse-le semiologue." [even if based on a certain general knowledge. Then comes the little Stalinist cunt, with his words from the past, 'Work,' 'Strength,' and 'Terror.' And finally - the last degradation - the semiologist].

In the same article TJ Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith do their best to revive the art, and I particularly like this comment on Eric Hobsbawm (and anyone else who has read his insufferably pompous autobiography might sympathise):

Eric Hobsbawm's "history of the short twentieth century"-his "report," as one wag put it, "to a Central Committee that just isn't there any more." The very idea of pressing too hard on Hobsbawm's omissions and excuses as a historian was denounced a priori by NLR as "anti-Communist." One law for young-Hegelians, it seems, and another for unrepentant Stalinists. To have been over-optimistic about the revolutionary potential of the Watts proletariat is one thing; to have spent one's life inventing reasons for forced collectivization, show trials, the Great Terror, the suppression of the East German and Hungarian uprisings, and so on ad nauseam, quite another. The former is the ranting of primitive rebels, the latter the hard analytic choices of Marxist history.
In fact in reply to one of their barbs Peter Woollen objected their essays "bile and flashes of sectarianism", "their incessant jabs and slurs", and, in true school-teacher style pronounced "I can see no place for the old S.I. habit of ad hominem personal invective, which T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith still seem to value. I cannot believe it encourages better understanding of anything. In truth, I am really surprised they wish to keep it alive." Refusing the usual propition Clark/Nicholson-Smith replied "If such counterattacks are ad hominem, that is because it is people who misrepresent and keep silent - not just "signs and meanings.""
What prompts my concern and interest in the loss of this art - or its marginalisation - is that I regard it as implying an effect of political disorientation. The inability to pin a thinker down politically in such a fashion seems to imply loss of confidence in such positions (or the usual fear of being "reductive"). This concern has been spurred by my own work on Latour and Savonarola's comment; as well as completing a review essay of which it has been simultaneously suggested that I could have been harsher and that I was becoming an "old curmudgeon" (becoming?).
Of course, we could say with Peter Wollen this is an art well lost; being both (potentially) childish and presupposing a ridiculous level of political confidence. Personally, to add to the irony, I have a mortal fear of being insulting (although, perhaps because of that, I am often inadvertantly insulting). What's lost, however, is the capacity to identify and critique with great rapidity and so to avoid the way in which textual complexity can be deployed against political or theoretical judgement. In the case of Latour, from his published positions, he's pretty obviously right-wing in a fairly repellent (to me) manner. This doesn't obviously invalidate everything he says / does, but the fact this politics doesn't seem much discussed or pointed out seems to me an indication of lack of confidence from the "left".
In fact, the more one examines the political positions taken by thinkers in theory (my field) the more disquieting it often becomes - especially because of a common running together of political and theoretical radicalism often leads to the occlusion of awkward questions of what people did politically. Of course we are all familiar with the endlessly debated "grand" cases - but here if any rapid insulting or positioning gets done it is usually from the liberal centre (or what I would regard as the liberal right...). The exception that proves the "rule" (until my speculative contention is blown out of the water) is Žižek - who is constantly subject to such labelling (in fact it would be amusing to compile a full list of such ad hominem insults and the range of political and other quirks they embody - I'm guessing it would cover a wide range). Žižek himself doesn't engage in the practice and seems bemused and irritated about how he attracts such criticisms - although he is certainly an excellent critic and not inclined to mercy. This is true of In Defence of Lost Causes (2008), although complicated by his statement about frienship at the beginning that invites the reader to sift which vicious criticisms are truly personal and which comradely. An odd moment which I don't know if anyone out there has attempted or can guage.

The exception on the side of engaging in such political positioning is Perry Anderson. While light on actual insult his work exemplifies a mode I much admire - the "slow blade" (cf. Dune), in which a devastating critique is dressed in the guise of positive or neutral report. In terms of actual political insult I hear that Ian Birchall is such a practitioner, and certainly he writes a very stylish review - as in this monumental effort on French trotskyism.
In fact, to call for the return of the insult as an art is precisely to avoid the use of it to end thinking - a true insult (political or otherwise) makes us think and, at the same time, exposes thought to ridicule. No doubt this carries risks but sometimes the endless care and respect of the usual forms exhausts itself and functions conservatively (as an intellectual practico-inert). The (relative) absence of the art, to recurr to an over-used term, does seem to me "symptomatic" and (two for the price of one) "problematic" as well.

T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International", October, Vol. 79, Guy Debord and the Internationale Situationniste (Winter, 1997), pp. 15-31 available here as well
Peter Wollen, T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Letters and Responses", October, Vol. 80, (Spring, 1997), pp. 149-151.


Savonarola said...

Finally, I have often ascertained that the abandonment of the ad hominem critique is the prelude to the abandonment of all critique, when it is not the sign of a subsequent transformation of this or that subversive who is displayed as a renegade. (Debord, Comments) Those who would above all like to avoid application of this critique to themselves, who still have something to defend in the spectacle, have never been at pains to justify this initial abandonment (this moderate extremism opposes its sense of measure against that which is excessive, the seriousness of its pseudo-objectivity, to "superficial" attacks or "personal questions"). But what would radical critique be without ad hominem argument? These people have preferred to forget that "theory is capable of seizing the masses when it argues ad hominem and it argues ad hominem when it becomes radical. To be radical is to seize things at their roots. Therefore, for man, the root is man himself" (Marx)."

This is taken from an odd text of a supposed "biographer" of Debord, Jean-François Martos, who rightly points out the ad hominem heights reached by Cette mauvaise reputation..., where GD inventories the crimes of the cretinous commentariat against his person (because it does not replicate the role of the insult in the fissiparous logic of the sect, this is superior as a text to learn from than the one on the Split in the SI, methinks). Indeed, one of the properly critical functions of Debord's much-descried megalomania could be seen as that of drawing the ad hominem to respond in devastating kind.

I wonder whether any useful distinctions and taxonomies can be made in terms of the types and strategies of insult: Debord's it seems to me harkens back, unsurprisingly, to the Left-Hegelians and Marx - in fact, it is almost as if (especially the late) Debord viewed the kernel of Marx not in Capital, but in the book-length excoriation and unmasking of Herr Vogt, which much to Engels's annoyance caused the critique of political economy to be delayed by a full year.

With Lenin, it seems the insult, while losing nothing in vitriol, is still ad hominem but also targeted at the particular tendency or deviation of which the insultee is a träger or personification.

Strategy-wise, I suppose the thorny issue is figuring out which targets are (a) worthy of and (b) effectively undermined by the ad hominem. The ease of the ad hominem against the ad hominem (this is the case with Vogt and the misrepresenters of Debord alike) contrasts with the strenuous requirements of insults against those (e.g. Latour) whose position is founded on the evasion-through-complication of polemic, who refuse the root for the network, and the hominem for the quasi. Somehow castigating him as a Thermidorian wine-merchant doesn't quite work...

As for Zizek, I sometimes wonder if the profusion of playground insults levelled in his direction (the sweating, the tics, the repetition, the funny acccent...) isn't also a reaction to the fact that, in person, he is a relentless gossip and purveyor of endless fantasies of retribution ("When Critchley's children reach the age of reason, they will be sent to the Gulag for their father's crimes, like in the old times...").

Incidentally, gossip too should be an object for Marxists, in the wake of Jameson's annotation in Marxism and Form: "In this sense it is perhaps not too much to say that gossip — that meeting place of conversation and art, that profoundly fertile vice of both Saint- Simon and Proust (and indeed of Balzac in a very different social milieu) — may itself stand as a kind of distorted figure of that passion for the human in its smallest details which will be ours in the transfigured society and the transfigured world."

Benjamin said...

Thank you for recalling the chain of pastiche in relation to Debordian insults. On types and forms of insult I'm reminded of attending a Critchley paper on humour a long, long time ago. Unfortunately all his jokes fell flat, but he tried to distinguish between two types of joke: 'good' jokes which mocked the teller and 'bad' jokes aimed at the Other. The only problem I thought was that jokes either work or don't (ie we laugh or not) and then we can examine them ethically or morally - as when we finish laughing and say 'that was disgusting' or 'that was horrible'. I wonder whether the insult has something of this performative effect - it works when it works, when we have that 'a ha' moment. That said, a typology or analysis along the lines you suggest would no doubt be necessary. I notice Gregory Elliott operates a variant of Lenin's strategy by digging up old deviations from the history of the left and then applying them to contemporary figures (ie Zizek as ‘artisan of a quasi-Third Period Marxism-Lacanism’ or Hardt and Negri's 'mutant Browderism' (the second making a brief appearance in The Persistence of the Negative).
As for those worthy of insult perhaps a list should be started ... Terry Eagleton?

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