Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zizek and Rorty on the Real

An interesting aspect in Slavoj Zizek’s writings is the way he says something about and uses the concept of “the Real,” yet the Real he describes is similar to the reality that Rorty describes which philosophers and other beings have tried to grasp. For Rorty the real or reality is a philosophically empty concept. We have different candidates for the Real: God, Matter, What Is, Truth, Nature, Knowledge, but the debates about it are inconclusive and it seems to just serve as an unknowable ultimate justifier for our beliefs. Rorty’s pragmatic solution is to stop talking about it.

Zizek’s Real from Lacan is a gap, lack or absence, in a way not there, yet it’s incorporated into a psychoanalytical-philosophical understanding that gives it a useful role in helping us to understand ourselves and the world. The Real as a lack or absence lay at the center of our symbolic order and is why we can’t create a finished intellectual system. It is that uncanny, indefinable attractive something that causes certain objects to attract and entrance us. It is the trauma around which we construct our selves and repeat our behavioral patterns which contradictorily both offer to resolve the trauma and help us to avoid confronting it.

So Rorty says reality as the really real is not there and not a good use of our time to think about. Zizek says yes, it isn’t there in the way people want – a substantial something, a graspable bedrock – but in its absence it is there and has a determining presence which we see in its effects. He analyzes its qualities of attractiveness and repulsiveness. It’s the psychology of what ultimately isn’t there but can’t be gotten rid of.

There’s an Eastern spiritual version of this. The ultimate stuff is paradoxical: The Tao, Nirvana, Atman, the Non-Dual are ineffable and yet named. We try to grasp It or surrender to It but the very effort to know It causes It not to be known. It is beyond conceptuality. But the Eastern practices do believe there is a final attainment or resolution, whereas Zizek and Lacan don’t think there is.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Artifice and Authenticity

Just saw a movie about the life of Joe Strummer of the punk band The Clash: “The Future is Unwritten” (Great title.) It raises a knotty, disturbing set of issues for me. First, there’s my comparing myself to a great, successful, creative guy. But I’m not as prone to that issue as in the past since I now see more clearly my issues around wanting to “be a somebody” and have an escape route for it.

Second, is the painfulness of the combination of my hero’s personal failings – in this case his narcissism – and his great success in creating powerful, authentic, valuable art: The Clash’s music. The movie showed how Strummer made the decision to join the cool guys – Mick Jones and Paul Simenon - to form The Clash and abandon not only his then current band – the 101’ers – but also abandon his hippie persona and with it his hippie friends. Later, when he became moderately successful with The Clash and old friends approached him, he ignored them. They didn’t fit in with his new image. And in the home movies of the early years of The Clash and their marketing films, you can see their narcissism; the conscious creation of their superiority and their adoption of the attitude that the full-of-themselves famous exhibit. It’s remarkable how that persona infiltrates their bodies and minds so that you can see it dripping from their faces, gestures and walk.

(It was funny to see Bono of U2 in the movie talking about how great it was to see The Clash in Dublin because they weren’t like the usual rock stars driving their Rolls Royce’s into swimming pools. Maybe not, but the movie makes clear that the members of The Clash cultivated a thick and highly self-conscious image of themselves as cool, raw rockers. And yet they made a cool, raw rocking album.)

The interesting contradiction is that accompanying this conscious image-management is an artistic expression of integrity, authenticity and quality. It’s like my friend’s problem with T.S. Eliot. He loved his poetry until he found out Eliot was an anti-Semite. It ruined it for him. But should it, or must it?

Perhaps the two things – one’s personal behavior and being and one’s artistic creations – can be unrelated. And we make the mistake of thinking that they are connected. I always find it funny that people want to interview actors and read about them because they generally aren’t interesting people.

It’s our own narcissism which is the problem: we want our artistic heroes who create works that express our innermost being to personally embody those qualities. We meld their person with their art because their art touches our person. We are looking for an ego-ideal, a fully integrated image of right being and put those artistic heroes into that role of personal and artistic perfection. When their flaws show, it is a narcissistic wound for us the fan. They are the dream of our unrealized selves, realized imaginatively, and so they do great work for us and it wounds us when they fail.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Mechanics of Psychological Self-Awareness

Swans Commentary, the online political and literary site, accepted my review of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” I’ve been reading and excited about Slavoj Zizek’s writings and I’ve been trying to add to my blog more. These events caused a regression to a problematic psychological approach to living which I became conscious of and tried to change.

I described the problematic psychological approach in a couple of posts in October of 2005. I was living along a spectrum whose two poles were “being an intellectual somebody” and “being an intellectual nobody.” The desired goal was to “be an intellectual somebody” and the feared failure was to “be an intellectual nobody.” The value of my life was determined along that spectrum.

This pathological spectrum is opposed by an alternative approach to life in which I try to “be myself” through following my desires. In the former approach, I imagine an external scale of recognition and rate myself according to it, in the latter approach, I follow my inner desires, interests, and what I “feel like doing.” Instead of being a split person who projects a self-judgment outside myself and then tries to live up to it, I look inward first to find the desires in the moment and then act motivated with their energy.

Recently I found myself at the computer on a day off trying to find something to do but not knowing what to do. I wanted to write or read something but didn’t know what. I’ve had enough experience with such states to know that, when they occur, I need to stop what I’m doing and just sit and do nothing. After sitting for a moment I saw that behind the pressured search for something to do was the repeated thought: “what should I do now, what should I do now…” I realized that with the recent excitements stated above, I was getting ahead myself. The desire to do things had turned into the belief that I “should” do things and so I needed to find things to do. Instead of recognizing and following desire, I was being directed by the pressure to “keep it up,” to “find something creative to do,” to find what I “should do now.” To manufacture the kind of life that I imagined I should be living. That “should” is maintained by a distance from myself. “Should” implies a model and rule to follow, some image to live up to; a molding of myself in its image. Opposed to this is the arising from within of desire: “feeling like” doing this or that and then pursing it; having an inclination to do this or that.

Realizing this seemed interesting so I felt motivated to write it down and it became what I did next, which is this piece.