Beyond Utopia?: Response from Jan Vanvelk
"We Are Trying to Change the World"

Friday, May 4, 2012

A sign from Occupy Oakland, taken from Zizek's essay in The Guardian
[On April 26 and 27, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for a conference, Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, and the Coming of “Spring.” Below is the second of three closing roundtable responses from Jan Vanvelk, a visiting graduate student in literature from Illinois’ sister university, K.U. Leuven.]

"We Are Trying to Change the World"

Written by Jan Vanvelk (Literature)

On The Guardian’s website, Slavoj Žižek makes an attempt to envision the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement. His concern is that the protestors display the attitude also present in May 1968, an attitude which, although inspired by the right ideals, threatens to succumb to the alluring idea of "having a good time" rather than an unequivocal commitment to purely political resistance. Žižek acknowledges, however, that “‘capitalism’ is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.” The protest movements seem to be discovering a new language, a new way to speak about problems otherwise trapped in a rhetoric that denies any extra-capitalist speaking. In opposition to a critique of the financial crisis based on personal greed and a general decline of individual morality stands the critique of the system itself. Žižek believes that it is possible to invent a language that is able to speak in the terms of such systemic critique. Therefore, art criticism – seen as an important aspect of the analysis of culture and of society’s formative role in constructing or maintaining the capitalist status quo – is charged with a double task: providing insight into these economic structures while also inventing a new language.

Criticism’s promise in this case is identical to the promise of theory. Now, do not ask me what either of these terms mean, precisely: for our present purposes, I think it will be fruitful to suggest that criticism sticks more to its "object", while "theory" tends to place more weight on the scale when it comes to general claims or patterns that are, ideally, more susceptible to a consideration of a wider range of "objects". However, in defining a "cultural object," we are always-already speaking with a crippled tongue: the restrictions of generic categorizations that rely on ideological mechanisms are tainting our "means of perception" from the very start. But, as turns out to be the case, this seems to be only a temporary set-back when it comes to critical and theoretical discourse. It is always able to recuperate exclusions (from the canon, for example) as the source of a kind of utopian power, one that nurtures the margin as the incarnated enclave of possibility itself.

Indeed, in his well-known valuation of the genre of science fiction, Fredric Jameson (following Herbert Marcuse) speaks of the utopian imagination as,

This passage appeals to "SF"’s ability to succeed by failure in the sense that it is always unable to fulfil its own promise: it will never be able to imagine the future, yet with this a priori acknowledgment comes extraordinary signifying power, the ability to articulate our own intellectual, imaginative and epistemic boundaries. This truly subliminal moment of contemplation is, in my view, also a source for concern. Theoretical or critical practice itself displays an enormous power in prefiguring its own observational limits, a power that allows the aesthetics of utopia to speak about its own boundaries, attributing to the hermeneutic extraction controlled by the utopian impulse, a potential for totalization, the possibility that it has set the terms of its own critique.

A photograph from Tahir Square, provided by Mohammed Bamyeh.
The double task of criticism entails on the one hand engaging with the discovery of the already-there, to say something about the "reality" of cultural practices. But insofar as criticism is enable to comment on the real, a normative dimension is ultimately unavoidable because the descriptive moment opens up, even promises, to supply an alternative discourse in which we could talk about politics, about the contemporary crises in our society. Whether on the level of the utopian aesthetic or on the critical-theoretical practice, the stakes with which our game – my apologies for the word – is played, only increase the political danger that our own ideological aberrations pose.

If the utopian aesthetic is not kept in check, it will make us blind precisely to the things Jameson warns us about in his article, such as the historical nature of utopian texts. If we engage with the questions of our time, as Žižek and many others have done following the Occupy movement and the events of the Arab "spring," it is of great importance to accept the necessity for a new language to be "invented", but the sheer power of our political promise that is delivered through scholarly or academic criticism all the more enforces the imperative that we scrutinize our own project rigorously. This can only be achieved, in my opinion, by reading in a truly utopian fashion, that is, “to succeed by failure”: a reading that always accepts its own hermeneutic limitations, that takes in the raw materiality of the text – and I mean "text" in the broadest possible sense. This practice, one that could just as well be called “rhetorical reading”, might be the best treatment – but never cure – for ideological aberrations we have.


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Zsuzsa Gille said...

Dear Jan,
Great insights. I actually really liked what Jeffrey said somewhat in response to Zizek: namely that to the extent that OWS created new practices, some new subjectivities may have started to emerge and we cannot know for sure how these experiences and practices will some day lead to exactly the kind of radical politics Zizek seems to find lacking right now.

By the way, like Lauren, I too spent a great few months in Leuven, so let me tell you how much I love your university! Please stay in touch!


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