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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

That’s Not Socratic: Walter Benn Michaels, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek (Part 2)

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 10/17/06 at 02:14 PM

This post is a reply to the statement made in the last chapter of Walter Benn Michaels’s recent book The Trouble With Diversity, that “the point of the book is not that people, including its author, should be virtuous” (191). I am writing a third post on the book because I am impressed with Michaels’s ability to articulate questions of ethical responsibility in academia. I don’t agree with his answers to these questions. He is, as one says, worth arguing with.

I hope to show two things:

1. That Michaels’s decision to include the chapter entitled “About the Author” undermines the ethical foundations of his book.

2. That Michaels’s argument is an eloquent example of a whole school of self-divided thought I will call “legalistic,” one which, interestingly enough, is evaluated and rejected in Paul’s epistles.

The full and candid admission of one’s guilt is the ultimate deception, the way to preserve one’s subjective position intact, free from guilt. In short, there is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by [...] too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way. (Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute 46)

During the summer in which most of this book was written, a homeless man lived in the railroad underpass Michaels can see out his study window. A more virtuous person might have been at least tempted to go down and bring him some breakfast or maybe even invite him in for a shower and a meal. It never occurred to Michaels to do either of these things. Mainly he wished the man would go away. And his desire for the man to just not be there does not contradict the argument of this book: it’s more like the motive for the argument of this book. The point is not that we should be nicer to the homeless; it’s that no one should be homeless. (Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity 192)

Let me try to paraphrase, in philosophical terms, the argument Michaels is making at the end of his book. He is arguing that his own subjective response to specific instances of poverty or inequality is not relevant to his objective claims about the tragedy of inequality as a national and global phenomenon.

However, were the facts of his life truly irrelevant to his book, he would not have included them. Instead, they are relevant as pieces of irrelevant information that we nonetheless know. What does this mean?

It means that Michaels is establishing an ethical model of obligation to the law, rather than making subjective experiences or interpersonal relationships the cornerstone of ethics.

For example, let’s say Michaels’s book is wildly successful. It provokes a change in the American political landscape that leads, in turn, to the massive social changes necessary to eliminate homelessness. This means, of course, that Michaels and the rest of the American upper class face a significant increase in taxes, to pay for new schools, new infrastructure, and new social services. This isn’t far-fetched. Look at the difference between the American tax structure and that of any First World country in Europe.

Michaels learns that he can successfully dodge his new tax obligations, and return to the income he was making prior to these reforms. (Small-scale tax evasion isn’t far-fetched either.) Since he is only one person out of 295 million, his decision will not cause homelessness or inequality to re-appear.

No matter what Michaels does, he’s in trouble, ethically speaking. If he does dodge his taxes, he’s proven that what he really wants is for someone else to take care of the situation for him. If he keeps paying them, then he’s doing something inconsistent with his behavior while writing the book: he’s now helping the underprivileged at cost to himself, with the only difference being a change in the legal code.

Michaels is saying that his ethical obligations are those prescribed by American law. At the same time, he’s claiming that from somewhere beyond current law comes the ethical obligation to argue in favor of equal opportunity. How could that beyond possibly exist without recourse to the subjective?

In other words, Michaels’s argument breaks down at the moment when he is asked to assume personal responsibility for the ethical beyond that enables him to critique our current discourses and laws. (He cannot argue that this beyond is impersonal without descending into interminable debates about practicalities. For example, if the motive is simply not to have to see the homeless, it would make more sense to support something in Chicago similar to the current effort in Los Angeles to “clean up Skid Row.”)

This is precisely why Badiou and Zizek both focus on the Pauline opposition between the “Spirit” and the law – because of the strange self-division created when a person understands their obligations to themselves, and their own inclinations, differently than they do their obligation to the law.

Zizek considers the “legalistic” position from the Lacanian standpoint of guilt and enjoyment. Whatever one may feel about Lacan’s theories, it is quite arguable that legalism creates a contingent kind of Lacanian triangulation with the person as both the subject of the statement (belief in the law) and the subject of enunciation (transgressive personal actions and desires). Thus:

Obedience to the Law cannot but appear as the ultimate opportunistic manipulation which implies a totally external relationship towards the Law as the set of rules to be tweaked so that one can nevertheless achieve one’s true aim [...] I can tell the truth without guilt [...] because it is only truth that matters, not my desires invested in it. (142)

So, I set myself up as the willing victim of the Law (e.g. as the payer of taxes) in order to indulge in the otherwise guilty pleasures of indifference to my fellow man and simple greed: “[Walter Benn Michaels] makes $175,000 a year. But he wants more; one of his motives for writing this book was the cash advance offered him by his publishers” (191).

Michaels is not some sort of villain. Rather, it is possible to describe his position as something given in the structure of Law, which Paul opposes to agape. Badiou writes:

For Paul, the man of the law is one in whom doing is separated from thinking. Such is the consequence of seduction by commandment. [...] Basically, sin is not so much a fault as living thought’s inability to prescribe action. (83)

Paul does not see the “living unity of thinking and doing” (88) as something easy; in fact, the accomplishment of this unity is the whole significance of his conversion.

From a political standpoint, the substitution of legalism for Pauline unity is why Michaels’s book is not properly “Socratic,” despite its provocative style. In two of the greatest of Plato’s dialogues, it is what Socrates does, within the limited sphere of the everyday, that makes him a destiny in the Nietzschean sense. It is by his actions that Socrates counters the Greek assumption of living at the “end of history.” The first such moment is his rejection of Alcibiades’s advances in the Symposium, a move that is legitimated by Socrates’s own partial endorsement, earlier that evening, of physical beauty and physical love. Socrates is not saying that seduction should be against the law; he is simply refusing it in the moment out of an excessive love of truth.

The second, and more significant, moment is his refusal to accept exile in the Crito. It is quite arguable that the Athenians were playing a sort of game with Socrates, one in which he would accept parting ways with them. As Nietzsche writes:

In view of this indissoluble conflict, when he had at last been brought before the forum of the Greek state, only one kind of punishment was indicated: exile. [...] But that he was sentenced to death, not exile, Socrates himself seems to have brought about with perfect awareness and without any natural awe of death [...] The dying Socrates became the new ideal, never seen before, of noble Greek youths. (from The Birth of Tragedy, section 14)

The monstrous excess and dissymmetry of preferring death to exile secures Socrates his legacy. The same principle applies in Christianity. Zizek writes, “The appearance of Christ was a ridiculous and/or traumatic scandal” (121). He explains:

We get ‘If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to him also your left cheek!’ — the point here is not stupid masochism, humble acceptance of one’s humiliation, but simply to interrupt the circular logic of re-establishing balance. (125)

Michaels is actually reassuring us, when he describes his reading habits and discomfort around the homeless, that he is not ridiculous. He should be. Under certain conditions, that is the only way to make action the equal of thought, and to restore to thought its efficacy.


Basically, sin is not so much a fault as living thought’s inability to prescribe action.

Another interesting post, Joseph. What do you think about the play between public and private that structures the argument in the religion chapter (6)?

The first six chapters of the book are, in effect, public, while the last one is private. While Michaels works to make his public arguments clean and logical, the private realm is messy and problematic. In chapter 6, as I point out in my most recent post, Michaels insists, reasonably enough, on taking univesal claims offered by differing religions at face value. Hence differing religions are necessarily in contention and Jeffersonian tolerance is impossible or, at least, unethical. He thus denies those about whom he is reasoning the type of internal “slippage” he himself exhibits, if not flaunts, in his last chapter. Doesn’t this make the public sphere unworkable?

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The full and candid admission of one’s guilt is the ultimate deception, the way to preserve one’s subjective position intact, free from guilt. In short, there is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by [...] too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way.

AKA the La Chute-maneuver, no?

By ben wolfson on 10/17/06 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Badiou’s reading of Paul on the question of Law is formally identical to the traditional Lutheran exegesis and is pretty close to being anti-Semitic.  Reading Santner’s Psychotheology and, through that, what Zizek says about Paul’s relation to the law in Puppet and the Dwarf leads to a much more plausible reading of Paul.

That’s kind of beside your main point—but still, one should not trust Badiou’s reading of Paul.  If you only want to read philosophers, Taubes or Agamben are a lot better.  Or even Religion within the limits....

By Adam Kotsko on 10/18/06 at 05:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, thanks for the compliment. I have mixed feelings about Michaels’s chapter on religion, as I do about the rest of the book. On the one hand, I am aware that the evangelical right has secured a certain amount of cooperation from more moderate believers by forcing them to admit the universality of religious claims. So, in that sense, Michaels is right to point out the relevance of religion to the public sphere.

On the other hand, Michaels rejects the basic premise of faith by rejecting Biblical and doctrinal authority. His argument ends up looking like this: “Since you believe in God, you must believe in a religious universe for all of us. We can’t accept that because we don’t share your faith; we reject appeals to faith and religious authority out of hand. Thus we condemn your attempts to enter the public sphere to failure.” This is fine, but (as I suggest in the post) Michaels never explains how he can exclude religion, yet hold himself to an extra-rational ideal of equality. He also ignores religious traditions based on non-communicable experiences, i.e. mystical traditions. These sorts of beliefs can still have an impact on individual behavior.

The reason I’m hesitant to compare Michaels’s own situation with the normal dissonances of religious belief and everyday tolerance is that I don’t think cognitive dissonance is the strongest form of toleration in religious belief. I think subjectivism or perspectivism works much better.

Like Richard Rorty, Michaels often refers to an imaginary national consensus (for example, in favor of equal opportunity, or against adultery) when he needs to score ethical points without founding them. Such sentences, in both men’s work, take the form: “Most of us would agree...”

Ben, what’s the “La Chute maneuver”? It sounds like something awesome.

Adam, c’mon now, I don’t tell you what to read. Badiou is much less explicitly anti-Semitic than Zizek (in The Fragile Absolute, at least). Zizek goes into detail about the Jewish fixation on the letter of the law, to the point of mentioning Israeli pig farms.

If the argument is taken to mean that Jewish people are always looking for some way to cheat, then we are back at the horrible caricature of the Jewish usurer. Still, as a secular person interested in theology, there are points where I have to distinguish between religions and decide which traditions are most persuasive; that is a philosophical decision and not a form of discrimination.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/19/06 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was recommending, not telling.

Look at Badiou’s chapter on the law, though—the Jewish law is death, is sin, etc.  He has to explain away sections where Paul praises the law.  He even goes so far as to claim that it’s simple expediency for Paul that the love command is found in the Old Testament.  But Paul was Jewish.  He understood his mission to the Gentiles as grafting the Gentiles onto God’s promise to the Jews.

I could go on.  Badiou seems to me consistently to get Paul wrong in ways that end up scapegoating Judaism.  Tacky stereotypes are bad, and I’m not going to defend Zizek’s use of them.  Still, Badiou’s argument strikes me as just duplicating the moves that lead to an anti-Jewish misunderstanding of Paul.  Zizek post-Santner is better about that; Agamben and of course Taubes are better still. 

This isn’t some kind of political correctness thing—I’d choose Christianity over Judaism any day.  It’s about properly understanding the text at hand.  Badiou does not seem to me to be a reliable guide for understanding Paul.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/19/06 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very interesting post. I was wondering how you might think Zizek or Badiou would respond to/differ from Kierkegaard, thinking especially of the teleological suspension of the ethical, and the ‘absurdity’ of his knight of faith. I thought the ideas were similar, but I’m sure there are nuances (or siesmic faultlines) of difference between their respective thoughts on this subject. Any thoughts?

By on 11/01/06 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I have some kind of hazy recollection that in one of the Zizek books I haven’t read, he does a lot of work with Kierkegaard. It’s possible that that work has led up to his studies of Paul.

In any case, for my part, I think that the ideological commitment implied by Kierkegaard’s notion of infinite resignation is critical to the continuance of radical politics at this point in history. In Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard posits that faith is the only means of sublating the contradiction between the aesthetic and ethical, and this standpoint shows itself in some of my critiques: my critique of indifference to the aesthetic in The Trouble With Diversity, as well as my attempt to indicate an ethics without Law, following Zizek and Badiou (and, of course, Paul).

That said, the terms of Kierkegaard’s text should not be interpreted in an everyday sense—“absurd” does not mean “impractical,” nor does “infinite resignation” suggest accomodation to the way things are. Kierkegaard tended to write about isolated individuals, such as Abraham; in order to re-state his project in political terms, it’s essential to define the absurd as the unassimilable. Zizek has a wonderful passage in The Fragile Absolute about unassimilable acts, including the scene in The Usual Suspects where Keyser Soze kills his own family.

Likewise it is crucial to define “infinite resignation” as a state of political commitment informed, but not extinguished, by the international failures of leftist radicals in the twentieth century.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/01/06 at 06:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph --

I’m not sure how this escaped your notice but Michaels has written at some length on Zizek.  See “Empires of the Senseless” in “The Shape of the Signifier,” for instance.  And it’s not flattering.

By on 02/27/07 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Apologies for the delayed response. I’ve read the essay version of “The Shape of the Signifier,” not the book.

I did the best skimming I could via Amazon’s book search, but I was annoyed at the tossed salad approach to discussing theorists—Michaels seems to feel that just because he dislikes Zizek, Hardt and Negri, etc., he can collapse contemporary political philosophy into a single gigantic discourse.

I would be glad to respond to a paraphrase of his attack on Zizek, in the interest of determining whether that would invalidate my comparisons, if you would be willing to hazard one.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/17/07 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michaels’ criticism of Zizek focuses on his “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” What he points to is Zizek’s commitment to the philosophy of the “Act” at the expense of what Zizek calls the “Cause.” All ideological causes (socialism for WBM) are simply forms of “contingent historical circumstance” for Zizek.  What Zizek is interested in is that “something for which one is ready to risk one’s life.” The nature of this “something” is left vague: freedom, honor, autonomy, and “the very excess of life” are the phrases he returns to (and G.W. would likely share those values).  Once the “Cause” is transformed from socialism into the “excess of life” (what used to be called “Desire").  Rather than any particular set of beliefs or values—it becomes less a matter of success or failure in terms of a set of goals—but the process of acting itself that is valued.  Along these lines Zizek goes on to affirms the role of the terrorist not because of their specific agenda, but because they are “more alive” than we are.  (Alternately, to combat terrorism is to become as alive as the terrorist: “confronted with the ‘prisoner who knows,’”’ Zizek writes, “and whose words can save thousands,” we should, in the “brutal urgency of the moment,...simply do it” (103).  What Zizek’s Nike-inspired phrasology should key us to is his commitment to life, energy, act, “whether we are living our lives to the fullest,” at the expense of questions about what we are living for.

By on 03/22/07 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment


This is a very cogent and helpful summary of Michaels on Welcome to the Desert of the Real. I have the misfortune of not having read that volume yet; I’m provisionally willing to accept both Michaels’s account and his understandable objection.

Of course, that wouldn’t mean that Welcome to the Desert of the Real exhausts Zizek’s corpus, or that Michaels and Zizek don’t have other perspectives in common.

Thanks for this.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/22/07 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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