Killing the Kool-Aid, or Why we need better critiques of oppression

Another day, another “Why x song/y film/z book is racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist/kyriarchal”. Nothing changes. This piece is about a strategy among many identity politics circles that makes a prominent form of political expression out of the deconstruction through discourse analysis of various forms of popular media and art to reveal undercurrents of oppression. Such analyses have been around since discourse analysis began, however there has been a huge expansion as of late with the increasingly sharing-friendly nature of online interfaces and social networks, the changing economics of various publishing sites which force writers to write ever more niche puff pieces, and the increased nurturing of new voices in autonomous online spaces.

This strategy has an analytical toolbox built around such theories as Foucault’s biopower, whereby language constitutes subjects and the relations between them through discourses that structure social reality, in ways that not only divide people through dichotomies in the guise of truth, but also privilege certain groups over others. Yet, for the large part, these analyses overlook the more radical implications of Foucault’s earlier work. Similarly, you find a lot of references to Judith Butler as a way of incorporating post-structuralist feminism, yet without much attention paid to her Lacanian influences. Setting aside any academic grievances I may have with this pop deconstruction, the point I wish to make is that it is simply ineffective, that such critiques fail to grasp the true fabric of our ideological oppression or what lies beyond it. In this post I highlight the form of modern ideological consumption whose seductive power goes beyond what these critiques envisage, and why it is important to engage ideology at this level.

Our capitalist society is based around consumption, and this fact structures the way we relate to our world in most of our everyday experience. Given the increasingly contingent and decentred nature of everyday experience, we are required to rely on commodified ideological symbols to give meaning to our actions and coherence to our lives. I picture this process as an exchange, almost economic, in nature. We invest in ideology, and in exchange we get an immersive experience of enjoyment. Our elementary experience on the receiving end of this exchange is what Žižek, after Lacan, calls “jouissance”. Jouissance should not be confused with pleasure; rather, it is closer to enjoyment- that is, it is not simply about getting what we want, but rather the joy of being able to participate in an unconscious, irrational order beyond the often clearly-circumscribed boundaries of pleasure. This order grounds us, accepts us as beings who experience and produce pleasure, and is the basis upon which we get a kick out of our consumptive experiences.

What’s crucial for Žižek is that the order we interact with is unconscious, and our interaction with it is always mediated through its symbols. Hence by engaging in political discourse we do not engage with it directly, but rather take it as the unspoken goal or centre around which our political goals and aesthetics revolve. In the context of the movies, music and books we consume, the best way to think about jouissance is what these texts grant us in exchange for the suspension of disbelief we grant them in order to experience them more or less as intended by their authors and therefore open ourselves up to their message, or that which drives what we call the “textual integrity” within the interaction between viewer and text.

The unconscious nature of our engagement with ideology has two main implications for the left’s ideological critique generally. The first is that, insofar as such critiques highlight the way underlying oppression is reproduced through action within this discursive field, following the structure of Marx’s famous description of ideology “sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (they don’t know it, but they are doing it), they fail to go far enough. They must consider that “sie wissen was sie tun, aber trotzdem tun sie es” (they know what they are doing but they do it anyway). It is entirely possible to be a faithful subject of ideology while standing at a critical distance from it, for one’s jouissance in the context of a text does not depend on ignorance of the oppressive or pathetic nature of the text- as stated above, even direct political engagement ignores. Žižek’s excellent analysis of M.A.S.H. and Full Metal Jacket makes this point most effectively. Often it’s not so subtle- I have seen many friends of mine who take offence at the misogyny in much modern pop and R&B dance to such songs at parties. The best example of this in the last year was Blurred Lines, which was also a huge commercial success. The voices of all those bloggers and academic were drowned out by the collective cognitive dissonance that syncopated cowbells and sleazy calls of “hey, hey, hey” represented. In fact, nowadays so much cultural expression is based around that critical distance- doing something “ironically” so often and with such intensity that the boundaries of irony break down and the action is revealed as purely ideological. I suspect most consumers of today’s “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic” films, books, tv shows and music are somewhere on the scale between wilful ignorance (those who come across such critiques but tend to ignore their implications because of their aesthetic of political persuasion) and ironic enjoyment (my feminist friends who dance to Blurred Lines), and these critiques are utterly ineffective where they are concerned.

In some cases such critiques do make a difference, such as when the writers, producers and directors of a particular show are highly responsive to their audiences and/or hold the same values of equality, yet for some reason fail to “check their privilege” and include elements that cause offence due to their racism, sexism, etc. However to hold this as the main strategic objective of such deconstruction is to assume an educative role for the left, one that simply reinforces the role of such groups as caretakers and producers of particular situated knowledges, rather than engaging the contested fabric of ideology, and challenging the ideological co-ordinates of those who produce such texts. In fact, there may be a particular form of ideological jouissance involved in the role of the critic, however this is a somewhat more controversial point and I will elaborate on it in another post.

In many other cases this form of critique becomes excessive and glib, and here their tribalism shines through. Take all those critiques that ask- “Why isn’t Hollywood paying more attention to the transgendered?” or “Why does Beyonce’s new album pay no lip-service to the gay community?” My immediate reaction is- who gives a flying fuck? Neither directors, nor singers nor authors (the good ones, anyway), are there to please audiences or reflect their political concerns; rather they are only recognized as artists in their field because they focus on things they are passionate about and reflect their own experiences, passion that shines through in the quality of their art. The same can be said of those critiques that demand recognition of particular histories- ignoring, of course, that enjoyment of these texts already presupposes the suspension of disbelief.

The second is that such critique, if it is to be truly effective, needs to focus on how the oppression that is immanent within the very structure, the very fabric and integrity, of the text, means that it fails as a text. This undermines the other side of the ideological wager outlined above, that of jouissance, for it points out how the text fails to create a genuine suspension of disbelief, or transcendental experience (by which I simply mean being able to relate to the text while simultaneously feeling connected to broader narratives, themes, or movements). In the words of the poet Kwame Dawes at this years’ Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, “Racist writing is a craft issue. A racist stereotype is a cliché. It’s been done. Quite a bit. It’s a craft failure”.

The uninterrogated fabric of these texts is effective not just because it covers up ideological excesses, which we call oppression, but mainly because, in the act of covering up, it appears as a beautiful lie, an ideological fiction which seduces the viewer through the offer of jouissance. Which is, of course, the true face of privilege- the ability to continue living an enjoyable lifestyle while ignoring its consequences on those less privileged, and while the world is falling apart around you. We defeat this lie not by exposing its falsehood but by showing how it is thwarted and powerless in light of the pervasive truth of the oppression it attempts to cover up, as well as the power of the humanity oppressed therein. Part of this does involve making the viewer more sensitive to oppression within the text, but more importantly, it’s about making viewers more critical of ideological fictions, about how unrelateable, uninspiring, narrow-minded, hypocritical, arrogant, and (more rarely) dehumanizing they are – in short, making them better at smelling the bullshit. I’m sure there’s a lot of critiques out there that do this already, and though I can’t find many right now, I think this rather simple and honest critique on burlesque is quite effective.

As a side-note, this perspective sheds light on the debate about a year ago regarding Helen Razer’s accusations that feminists get overworked about boring, mundane instances of oppression, which was responded to by pieces such as this article from Daily Life. The issue is not whether such instances of oppression are worthy of feminist critique, but rather why do many continue to buy the kool-aid of publications like the The Daily Telegraph and can we affect this consumption by pointing out how boring, mundane, useless and unentertaining such ideological texts are, qua their racism, sexism, etc., or do we have to change the material conditions which structure this consumption?

This textual structure is why Game of Thrones is able to get away with so much- by its very nature, audiences conceive of it as a form of escapism into carnal medieval fantasies and become comfortable with the degree of suspension of disbelief required, and in turn more readily accept its transgression of hard-fought political boundaries regarding representations of gender and ethnicity. Yet when stripped to its bare bones, we get an incredibly overrated show which rewards viewers with constant, almost instant gratification that, for me at least, got a bit tiring to receive after a while. At the very least, the carnal excess it portrays in the characters’ actualization of their desires begins to tear at the fabric or its textual integrity- it is this process we must uncover and we must call a bad show a bad show.

For Herbert Marcuse, whose writings from the 1930s (especially The Affirmative Character of Culture) remain relevant today, much of what gives the consumption of art its value in this modern age is this notion of escapism, which bears its own jouissance. This is especially true of bourgeois culture, which to Marcuse in his day represented almost all widespread Western cultural production. “High culture” represented an artistic space which, due to the purity and beauty attached to its canvas, was free of the ideological influences of everyday life. Therefore, the liberal dreams portrayed therein were seen to be noble expressions of the wishes of the artist to make art precede (political) life, and powerful in their ability to make us be seduced by the idea of a greater world. Yet in its very separation from the material realities of ideology, bourgeois art portrayed such ideas as possible only within an abstract space, and therefore acted as a valve for such radical dreams, or else as a reaffirmation that such dreams were (too) idealist, thereby reinforcing the status quo.

It says much about the way social norms have changed that we are critiquing Game of Thrones as a valve for unacceptable racism and sexism instead of unacceptable tolerance and equality, which are today largely the norm, yet Marcuse’s point remains relevant in two ways. Firstly, art imagined as a reflection of the current or ideal state of affairs rarely brings about a strong desire for change, and secondly, it is precisely when we think we are outside an ideological space that we are most influenced by ideology. The kind of art that the identity-political critiques addressed in this essay promotes is of the kind that holds necessary changes towards a better society as liberal pipe dreams, and we should do better than that. We should not forget the escapist role that much of today’s art plays, and from which it draws its jouissance.

Once we realize that there is nothing natural and unmediated in the enjoyment of oppressive but addictive and seductive texts, but that we are always required to give up something in order to believe their attendant fantasies, we truly start becoming more enlightened viewers, readers and listeners. Instead of projected liberal pipe dreams that don’t really involve changing the status quo, that we can enjoy because they appear as fantasies at a distance from us, we begin to demand participatory dreams, where we encounter our own failures but at the same time our ability to take a stand against our real enemies and change things, and are rewarded by better, less bullshit and more enjoyable texts. Undermining jouissance and its accompanying ideological investment in the status quo is one of the most important roles of the left today, even more important than uncovering every instance of ideological excess which we call oppression, and realizing this would make critiques of oppression in popular media much more sophisticated and incisive. Nor is undertaking this restricted to subversive textual analysis; rather it is naturally accompanied by changing our material conditions, the spaces which make such jouissance possible. Among Žižek’s overwrought argumentation, perhaps his most important takeaway is that, in order to transform society, we must transform our dreams. We must transform the conditions through which we take everyday actions, including our consumption of texts, to be expressions of our underlying desires and drives.


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