Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Douglas Lain, pt 2 (archive 2012)

Douglas Lain is an author, blogger, and podcaster, whose two much recent books are “Wave of Mutilation” and “Pick Your Battle,” his memoir on Marxism and urban foraging.  You can find Doug’s blog yourself and listen to his podcast. 

Skepoet: You and I have been observing how ideologically constructed the idea of a non-ideological left has been in the media around occupy. I think you mentioned Tom Frank’s interview on Media Matters for an example, but you can see it in Klein  and other thinkers. This seems very similar to the “non-ideological” presentation of the early 20th century conservatives.  Do you think there is some pathology here?

Douglas Lain: What Thomas Frank did recently, during an interview with Bob McChesney, is stake out his own liberal-capitalist position as the one that is both reasonable and real, whereas the far-right and historical far-left are both utopian.  He said that because the nation is suffering through hard times the Fox News closed/ideological universe is much more attractive to people.  He explicitly compared Fox News viewers to American communists who wore blinkers when it came to the Stalinist crimes of the former Soviet Union.  So, in a sense, Frank red-baited Fox News viewers.

You know, the slogan for my podcast Diet Soap used to cleanse your sins while losing weight, but that was before I fell under the sway of Zizek.  So now my slogan is “now with ideology.”  Rather than advertising Diet Soap as a product that will scrub away excesses and lead you to something pure the slogan promises to add something to you.  That special “uh-huh”  ingredient. (  Now instead of a path into the neutral reality of the real world I’m looking for that bit of something special, the idea that I might add. I’m looking for the ideology I need.

The weird thing is that I hope to escape the drive for a non-ideological space by accepting ideology as somehow mixed in with the real world. That is, the world can never appear to us as neutral…and that’s a neutral fact.


Skepoet: Take Frank to be a liberal, but in a strange way, liberalism isn’t that “liberal” in the classical sense anymore.  It’s assumes sort of an Endstaat of rational management. But I almost admire the libertarians for all of their delusions about markets because they actually still take liberal logic seriously.  Do you think the cynicism is somehow pre-figured into Liberalism?

Douglas Lain: I’m not sure cynicism is built in, but defeatism is I think.  Maybe those two attitudes aren’t very far apart.  It seems to me that people who call themselves “liberal” today are actually people who are more closely aligned to a kind of Marxist longing or some kind of radical socialist tendency. Thomas Frank, for example, would like to transcend Capitalism.  He definitely rejects classical liberalism, but he doesn’t believe in any radical alternatives to it.  A schizophrenic blend of socialist longing and resignation to live within what is possible is what I see.

One way that that kind of resigned “liberalism” is maintained is by clinging to ideologies that deny ideologies.  Post-structuralism, for example, is a nice shield against seeing the incoherence of this new “liberal.”

Skepoet: But there is something essentially conservative about Post-structuralism I think. I don’t just mean that in the way look of saying “Nietzsche was a reactionary” or “Paul DeMan was a fascist,” but in the sense that it privileges particularities to a point that any critique of the current becomes impossible to make on any grounds.   Do you see this contradiction?

Douglas Lain: I agree with you, however in order to make the claim that poststructuralism has a conservative effect you have to first counter their claim that we are beyond structures.  What, after all, could they be conserving or holding onto if there is no consistent totality out there?

Skepoet: Go back to classic skepticism, if there are no structures then there is no ground to oppose anything agreed to be popular opinion or current prejudice.  Make sense?

Douglas Lain: I think that makes a bit of sense.  But maybe we should figure this out a bit more firmly.  For instance is there a difference between an ontological ground and an unconscious structure built on relationships between well…signs or signifiers…that determines or directs how we approach the world but that does not, ultimately, support the world.  This is what I think Zizek means when he talks about the reality of the virtual, or what Lacan is on about when he speaks of the kernel of the real that the symbolic order relates to but does not contain.

What’s odd to me is how post-structuralism actually seems to be as teleological or ontological as any other philosophy precisely because these philosophers, like Coffeen’s Deleuze.

Daniel Coffeen is, by the way, the kind of philosopher I like because first of all he’s been nice enough to appear on my podcast several time (in fact he may be the most frequent guest, although Dennis Perrin and Margaret Kimberley are also stellar guests who I’m lucky enough to have on regularly), and secondly because he’s accessible as he writes what I think of as pop philosophy.  That’s what I aspire to also, by the way.  Not sure how well I do at either side of that though.

Anyhow, it was Hegel who sided with ancient skepticism over modern skepticism, which from my way of thinking would mean that an anti-humanist approach to radical philosophy would be properly Hegelian.

Here’s a quote from Hegel I’ve pulled at random from the internet: “Knowledge is not a matter of inference from noninferentially warranted states. There are no such states.”

Zizek says something quite like this when he argues that an argument that the slogan “There is no such thing as nature!” should be the mantra of ecologists today.  And this is what I wanted to tell Coffeen recently when he was on the podcast, but didn’t quite manage to get across…or anyway, I didn’t convince him.  But the experience of something, from a Hegelian perspective, can’t be taken at face value.  Not even the experience of a concept can be taken at face value.  Because there are no neutral, preconceptional or noninferential states.

McKenzie Wark recently quoted Zizek on his facebook wall in order to point out the monstrosity of Zizek’s love of violence, but this love of violence is a consequence of Zizek’s belief that there is no natural knowlege, no noinferential state.

Skepoet: Do you think Wark is correct there?

Douglas Lain: I think it might be a way to avoid a certain kind of responsibility, yeah.  But it might also be a defense against the risk emancipatory violence brings to us.  I’m 40 now and I’m pretty vested in my projects and compensatory dreams.  What I’m wondering about is the possibility of over-identification as a strategy. Again this is Zizek stuff.  The idea is to reject the unspoken rules of a given desire or game.  So, for a writer, the rule that one used to rarely hear being explicitly stated is that one shouldn’t believe or be committed to the ideas in your own writing but should instead be committed to being vapid entertainment.  In my circles that has started to be explicitly stated, however.  In any case, I think framing the question in terms of responsibility maybe puts too much of an emphasis on voluntarism or heroic action.

I don’t quite know what the solution is, but I am working on finding the right line of questioning.

Skepoet: If the subjective of responsibility is plural, or collective, then it isn’t voluntary isn’t it?

Douglas Lain: It isn’t voluntary if its plural.  That’s right, but the political act that we’re aiming at is in fact what will create a new subjectivity.  The proletariat’s goal is to eliminate itself.  And what Lacan said to the students in Mai of ’68 might apply equally well to us.  What we’re seeking is a new master.  Or, from my point of view, a new abstraction that would replace value as its produced under Capitalism.  And, again, this is the tricky bit.  It’s not just a matter of whether or not we’re determined subjects individually.  That is, the charge against Althusser hardly seems to apply here because the problem exists even if we do posit that there is some natural basis for an individual’s subjectivity apart from the ruling ideas of his or her epoch. It might be possible to conceive of some natural basis for the individual.  The basis might be the body.  But a group subjectivity simply has to be ideological.  Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me.

Skepoet: I almost think that the seeking for a new subjectivity in a master may actually manifest itself literally.  What do you think of this?

Douglas Lain: If I’m understanding you correctly I think that’s the danger.  Just as an example, not a political example really, a frequent guest on my little podcast is a guy named Jason Horsley and he has a somewhat Jungian approach to his spiritual questing.  He realizes that being “a man” is a very difficult thing to do, especially without a real father, and he’s been trying to figure out a way beyond his need for a father, but he’s ended up acting out the most obvious Guru/father games.  He followed an obvious Guru con-artist in Canda for awhile, and he tried starting his own mini-cult for a bit, but none of this has been any kind of solution for him. So, again, this is why I value theory is attractive to me, because it shows how we human’s have already created a God for ourselves that has no human face.  The problem is that this God is hiding too much, maybe.

Skepoet: Recently you and I have gotten into debates with other Marxists about the Lacanian left?  I joked that Lacanian left was a left which was not one, but I actually think that this is changing. I think the Lacanian left is what is emerging, but doesn’t quite know its subject position or the content of the symbolic order it wishes to advocate.  What do you think that about this?

Douglas Lain: Well, I think it’s pretty hard to imagine a revolution being fought in the name of Lacan, but that might be a good thing.  When it comes to imagining a better society I think the Situationists were on the right track, but that those ideas have been co-opted into post-fordist Capitalism.

One thing to remember is that 2011 was another 1968.  The Arab Spring is huge, and while the Occupy Movement has been burdened by all the unconscious baggage of the old new left as well as the on the ground problems of homelessness and disaffection, it has been an incredibly hopeful moment.  One thing that would be good to realis is that the people struggling in Egypt need Occupy to succeed in the US and Europe, and we need the Arab Spring to win out as well.

Skepoet: Well that is a pretty dark undercurrent given the way things are going between the Muslim Brotherhood and military or the way it was used by NATO in Libya.  Do you think 1968 was a tragedy or a farce given the old Marxist turn of phrase?

Douglas Lain: I should read the Grundrisse I think, but I wonder if we might seek the farce.  Zizek talks about how Christ can only be understood through Paul and Marx can only be understood through LENIN.  Perhaps Mai ’68 will only be understood through its real world manifestation, it worldly corruption, in 2012?  That would make McKenna fans happy maybe?

Skepoet: I am sure we’ll be doing this again, so I’ll be chatting with you again and co-writing with you. So in closing, who will be our Paul to our Christ, Lenin to our Marx, and Lacan to our Freud?

Douglas Lain: Of course the expected answer is Zizek!!  And, given that I don’t have a better answer than that I’ll stick with it, even though I think Zizek is a clown.  Maybe precisely because I think he’s a clown.  Gotta keep my hands clean, after all.


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