Universalism’s Irrational Outburst Brian Carr

Why does the contemporary revivification of universalism within a self-identified critical theory’ conflate the terms’deconstruction and cultural studies, among others’that this special issue may want to clarify? From the perspective of much of this new universalism, the terms of our duo, cultural studies and deconstruction, are parasitic on one another and, finally, just part of the same problem: they grant particularity an undue attention; they are in a complicitous relation to global capital; they are tied to neo-liberal multiculturalism; their love affair with relativism renders them incapable of making normative judgments; and they are part of a factionalizing difference-machine that is said to operate intellectual commonsense today. More often than not, such charges are flimsy, overblown, argumentatively unsupported, and at times absurd. In what, then, does their critical force and intellectual reach consist? I approach this special issue of Culture Machine in an oblique fashion, asking after the function of this contemporary strain of critical theory that, in its renewed assertion of universality, would like to see our pair submitted to a third term, triangulated into a relation whereby both deconstruction and cultural studies are forced to give up (on each other) in favor of this version of critical theory.

At the dawn of the last decade, Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism declared that without a general sense of a cultural dominant”without, that is, some grasp of our present totality’we fall . . . into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable’ (1991: 6). Jameson dubbed this cultural dominant postmodernism’ and explicated it as a cultural logic’ in which late capitalism obliterated the relative semiautonomy of the cultural from the economic, transformed the utopian possibility of critical distance or any externality toward late capitalism into an illusion, and destroyed any previously enjoyed bodily or critical coordination in time and space. Suggesting we are consigned to the perpetual present, to a particularity so radical we face the potential obliteration of subjectivity, he went on to warn that if we do not get hold of this cultural dominant’this formal frame in which the cultural and the economic are to be conceived’we risk any hope of emerging from the night of our schizophrenia, our agential and affective collapse.

The recent hypercathexis to universalism, especially from within critical theory, relies heavily upon the reasoning, diagnostic power, and rhetorical persuasiveness of Postmodernism. I evaluate this phenomenon here by considering three thinkers who offer quite similar estimations of contemporary political, social, and academic life. My approach to Jameson, Masao Miyoshi, and Slavoj Žižek avowedly distills their work in order to isolate the rhetorical moves, thematic elements, and preoccupations they share. Reading them specifically in relation to the crisis’ of Marxism and the rise of British and US cultural studies, my goal throughout is to understand how and why it is that some critical theorists have routinely associated cultural studies and deconstruction with the basest forms of multiculturalism, particularism and liberalism while overidentifying critical theory with universalism, totality and a properly political left knowledge project. Quick to defend universalism and the philosophico-political legacy that underwrites critical theory, these thinkers assert that cultural studies’already wallowing in the ruins of marxism and critical theory’projects no cultural dominant’ favors only diversity and particularity’ (Miyoshi, 2000: 39), and abandon[s] the . . . goal of global social transformation’ (Žižek, 1999: 3).1

The critique, revision, and reprioritization of marxism, as well as the concomitant rise of feminist and race studies, were perhaps the greatest precipitants to forming the standoff between cultural studies and critical theory with which I am concerned. Indeed, without taking notice of this reassessment of marxism, the circumstances of cultural studies’ analytic attentiveness to the category of culture is largely inexplicable. But for Jameson, Miyoshi, and Žižek, the fall away from marxism appears only as an eradication of considerations like totality, determination, political economy, and universality. The pitch of cultural studies’ critique of marxism became so high, especially after cultural studies experienced what Stuart Hall calls the two ruptural moments around feminism and race,2 that a strain of critical theory developed an acute skepticism of cultural studies’ revisionism, some of which was thought to be, in Jameson’s terms, a sinister’ form of anti-intellectualism’ (1993: 29).3

Lest I appear to believe too much in the deep divide that separates cultural studies and critical theory in this rendition, let me say I employ this cultural studies-critical theory as a heurist distinction precisely because it is so patently erroneous, so inflammatory, and so self-serving. There is in point of fact no hard and fast way to absolutely distinguish cultural studies from critical theory, both because the variety within each is too great to be satisfactorily united by shared criteria and because the points of contact between cultural studies and critical theory (assuming for a moment they are strictly two positions) are multiple and too originally entwined to maintain their difference. At best cultural studies and critical theory designate differing critical modulations that are not properly opposed.

My interest is not in taking sides regarding the division between cultural studies and critical theory but in reading the disciplinary knowledge politics that reproduce this division. While Jameson, Miyoshi, and Žižek turn us toward universalism in the name of better addressing global capitalism’ and the direness of the political situation outside the academy, I submit that the very logic of particularity and universality’that is, the operation of the hegemonic link’through which the political is theorized by these same thinkers should be read as operative within the academy.4 Critical theory’s increasing vilification of cultural studies qua endorsement of capitalist particularity is one index of critical theory’s felt particularization by cultural studies’ academic influence, a particularization that critical theory outsources as a political problem external to academic knowledge formation. Because, as Raymond Williams points out, we can never observe economic change in neutral conditions’ (1983: 280) and because the object-world more generally is construed by, and is not external to, the methods, discourses, and field-imaginaries by which it is known, we are obliged to read the apparent crisis of the present as a disciplinary and epistemological contest over what counts as the political, how that should be evaluated and scaled, by what means, and in whose interests.

Of course there is economic change and of course it bears on the political, on subjectivity, on the aesthetic, on agency, and so forth. But this new universalism’s rhetorical force and reliance on critical blame are just too tied to disciplinary and field debates not to attend to the scene of academic knowledge production in which any such contests are necessarily waged. This is not to discount altogether the analysis of the political offered by this version of critical theory; it is simply to say that the enmity toward cultural studies and its supposed cognates cannot be regarded as an accidental or an isolatable part of the problem. My aim is to explicate how critical theory’s call for universalism’and its claim that we are suffocating in our particularity’is strictly commensurate with critical theory’s own felt particularization and its attendant effort to renew its own universal delegacy. This critical theory not only wants us to reinvest in universality: it wants to function as the universal through which the political discourse of universality is to be recharged. When this critical theory talks of hegemony and universality, it is usually speaking of the sustainability of its own.

Žižek cautions that when we forestall the possibility of universalization, when subjects are gripped only by a radical particularity, [t]he only way to articulate . . . universality’the fact that I, precisely, am not merely that specific individual exposed to a set of specific injustices’consists, then, in its apparent opposite, in the thoroughly “irrational” excessive outburst of violence’ (1999: 204). Žižek assigns this irrational outburst’ to the imagined experience of the skinhead’: that subject who is merely the effect of the complicity between global capitalism and multiculturalism’s supposed academic forms (any use of multiculturalism’ is roughly substitutable, for Žižek, with particularism, cultural studies, identity studies, feminism, liberalism, deconstruction, difference’and visa versa). We are to assume that, for Žižek, the skinhead’s violent, irrational outburst is not to be endorsed’and yet there is an unmistakable sympathetic affection for him. After all, this skinhead is besieged by an undue particularization and, while he responds imperfectly, there is simply no other choice for him: he acts excessively’ in a situation that Žižek likens to absolute closure. The bizarre warmth Žižek shows the skinhead comports with critical theory’s own irrational outbursts toward cultural studies, a breeding ground for particularization. It is, in short, critical theory’s particularization that leads it to lay violent claim to a dimension that exceeds itself’universality’precisely in order to ward off the threat of its own particularization by academic and non-academic pressures that, for the sake of rewriting this very narrative, I agree to group under the name cultural studies’.

Universality Lost

Jameson, Miyoshi, and Žižek are united foremost by their sense that the political present is marked principally by failure, loss, and a widespread retreat from the promises of an earlier, but often unspecified, moment or tradition. Žižek tells his reader, for instance, that The Ticklish Subject is motivated primarily by his sense that these are especially troubled times.5 According to Jameson, the shift in the determination of global capitalism means that we should wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital’ (1991: 9). Repeating this logic, Miyoshi’s essay, Ivory Tower in Escrow,’ is even divided into two parts, the first of which delineates the catastrophic corporatization of the university that, as the second part reveals, is coterminous with and exacerbated by the humanities’ unfortunate fall into difference’ and particularity. Humanities intellectuals’especially the progressive’ ones, as Miyoshi says’have become increasingly skeptical’ of Marxist humanism,’ thereby retreat[ing]’ from the line of intellectual and political resistance’ and providing the economic corporatization of the university with its intellectual rationale (2000: 39)

According to Žižek, contemporary political thought (working under the name postmodernism or cultural studies) proceeds with such vapid terms that we are in fact living in a post-political’ regime. The post-political’ is governed by a thematics of suffocation’ where the potential for life beyond individualist particularity has been eradicated: Today, we are dealing with another denegation of the political, postmodern post-politics, which no longer merely “represses” the political, trying to contain it and pacify the “returns of the repressed,” but much more effectively “forecloses” it’ (1999: 198).6 Foreclosure, as distinct from (neurotic) repression, is of course the term for that which occasions psychosis in Lacanian psychoanalysis. We are right at home with Jameson, whose subject, lacking depth and involved in a temporality that engulfs’ him, is hailed as schizophrenic’ (1991: 26-27).

Both Miyoshi and Žižek read this post-political’ scene in terms of the isomorphism between particularity (vaguely aligned with representational multiculturalism and identity politics) and global capitalism. Miyoshi sets the reader up for this understanding, claiming that he will track

the gradual rejection of the idea of totality and universality in favor of diversity and particularity among the progressive’ humanities scholars. This ideological shift seeks to rectify enlightenment collectivism, and it is no doubt salubrious. At the same time, it must be recognized that the idea of multiplicity and difference parallels’in fact, endorses’the economic globalization described in part 1 of this essay. (2000: 39)

With his sense that multiplicity and difference’ necessarily both parallel’ and endorse’ economic globalization, Miyoshi comes into alignment with Žižek, for whom the ideal form of ideology of this global capitalism is multiculturalism, the attitude which, from a kind of empty global position, treats each local culture as the colonizer treats colonized people’as “natives” whose mores are to be carefully studied and “respected”‘ (1999: 216). Žižek’s thesis on multiculturalism is nicely captured in an article, Multiculturalism: or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,’ which was published, as was a version of Jameson’s postmodernism article thirteen years earlier, in New Left Review.

The argument that cultural studies’assumed to be structurally tied to multiculturalism, identity politics, particularism, etc.’is especially complicit with global capitalism relies on a questionable set of assumptions about causality, externality, and determination. Moreover, the external critique of multiculturalism (or any of the terms we have mentioned) proceeds as if there has not always been an imminent critique within multiculturalism about its effects, limits, and shortcomings, especially when these involve an overemphasis on representation and commodification.7 The thinkers I consider here establish a causal relation between the external’ form of global capitalism’apprehended as a new objective phenomenon’and its internalization’ in the form of cultural studies, naive particularism, and blank forms of multiculturalism.

This internalization model conflates two arguments: (1) that the various politics of Difference . . . have been made possible only by . . . consumer society’ (Jameson, 1993: 37) and (2) that this fact means that they are complicitous and coextensive with consumer society (here substituted for the now more common global capitalism’). But this is little more than a logical non sequitur. To know the conditions of the emergence of something’especially when the causal relation between consumer society’ and new social movements is itself arguable’is to say nothing necessarily about the effects of that newly emerged thing. Our critics tend toward pre-critical formulations of determination and causality on this score, claiming that the political resistance of cultural studies is no resistance, since cultural studies is just the intellectual reflection or internalization of global capitalism.

The structural logic underwriting Miyoshi’s and Žižek’s dismay with cultural studies exists in preformation in Jameson’s monumental Postmodernism. Jameson’s text symptomatizes marxist critical theory’s uneasy face-off with cultural studies’ emergent and multivalent critique of determination, totality, and critical distance. The hallmark of Jameson’s Postmodernism is its claim that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally’ (1991: 4). He contends that this integration’ of the cultural and the economic has serious consequences for a marxist analytic that has imagined the relative semiautonomy of the cultural sphere’ from the economic base (1991: 48). If our analytic is oriented toward a moment where the semiautonomy of culture could be sustained, the question arises as to what kind of critical practice will be adequate to our present in which this semiautonomy is vulnerable. This, for Jameson, is the unique predicament of the postmodern.

The grand and continuous cause of this new’ critical disorientation comes, in Jameson’s account, from outside the academy and the Left. By his assertion, late capitalism has rendered the possibility of critical distance”and of the cultural act outside the massive Being of capital”a mere illusion (1991: 48). The critical distance afforded by modernism has thus transmuted, through the late’ appellation of capitalism, into a postmodernism devoid of such distance:

[D]istance in general (including critical distance’ in particular) has very precisely been abolished in the new space of postmodernism. We are submerged in its henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the point where our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and practically (let alone theoretically) incapable of distantiation. (1991: 48-49)

While Jameson asserts that this hyperproximity is the effect of the demands that late capitalism has made on previously modernist critical frameworks, I suggest we might begin to track a different genealogy, one that contests the periodization of the postmodern as an apparently new, global experience of submersion. The critical predicament in which Jameson claims we find ourselves is not merely traceable to the external’ force of late/global capitalism, but is itself the experiential effect of new and emergent critical practices inside the academy, namely those organized under the sign of cultural studies.8

The loss of critical distance and perspectival bearings is clearly a loss proper to marxism and the marxist critical theorist, since the force of Jameson’s diagnosis rests on the disorientation of marxism’s methodological premises. Such loss is both evident and recuperated in Jameson, most conspicuously in his position on the status of culture. Seemingly accepting the charge that culture is subordinated to the economic within marxist protocol, Jameson argues that culture should be prioritized precisely because of economic determination.9 Because, for economic reasons, there is now no intelligible distinction that can be made between the economic and the cultural, Jameson exclaims that culture is now a more vital concern for the marxist critic:

[T]o argue that culture is today no longer endowed with the relative autonomy it once enjoyed as one level among others in earlier moments of capitalism (let alone in precapitalist societies) is not necessarily to imply its disappearance or extinction. Quite the contrary; we must go on to affirm that the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion; a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life’from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself’can be said to have become cultural’ in some original and yet untheorized sense. (1991: 48)

Cultural studies generally has diverged exactly here by arguing that is not just the historical shift in the determination of capital that compels us to consider culture an indispensable factor.10 It was one of cultural studies’ animating gestures to claim that the significance of culture is raised less by capitalism’s historical reconfiguration than by methodological exigencies. For many cultural studies practitioners, the point is that there is a theoretical, not necessarily an historical, insufficiency in much of the marxist account of the relation between the cultural and the economic.

Stuart Hall has reminded us consistently of cultural studies’ vexed relation to marxism, rejecting as entirely mistaken’, the notion that marxism and [British] cultural studies slipped into place, recognized an immediate affinity, joined hands in some teleological or Hegelian moment of synthesis, and there was the founding moment of cultural studies’ (1996: 266). Hall claims cultural studies in the early 1970s was pursuing several questions which marxist theory couldn’t answer,’ a fact that led many to think more seriously about the work of Antonio Gramsci (1996: 266).11 The encounter between cultural studies and marxism beg[an] [and] develop[ed] through the critique of a certain reductionism and economism,’ which Hall thinks is not extrinsic but intrinsic to marxism; a contestation with the model of the base and superstructure through which sophisticated and vulgar marxism alike had tried to think the relationships between society, economy, and culture’ (1996: 265).12

Although Jameson hypothesizes that economic factors oblige us to attend to culture, we are remiss to ignore the way cultural studies propelled the newfound urgency of culture’ but without reinvesting in the economic’s analytic supremacy’hence the grounds for the demeaning association of cultural studies with the merely cultural’.13 It is no coincidence that Jameson’s defense of culture emerged after the first shockwaves of a specific conjunctural moment: the ascendancy of British cultural studies and the nascent rise of its US counterpart, the incursion of academic feminist and race theory, and the critique of foundationalism and canonicity in the humanities. How, from within such a context, could one afford to ignore the cultural level? And what would it mean to reorient the approach so that the periodization of the economic base’s relation to the superstructures is not achieved at the expense of providing an historical and theoretical evaluation of the changing disciplinary and political operations that granted culture greater methodological prominence? If we do not want to say that intellectual foci are absolutely generated and controlled by the economic circumstances in which they exist, then it is only reasonable to ask after the precise nature of the connection between intellectual field formations and objects of study. These are exactly the kinds of questions that cultural studies has been able to ask, in part by refusing the sort of determinism that reduces the relative autonomy of institutional knowledge projects.

Intellectual fields go largely unnamed in Jameson’s Postmodernism, but one can approximate their generative role by noting how in Žižek and Miyoshi’both of whom demonstrably rely on Jameson’s key theses’the reader is given an overdose of apparently bothersome intellectual fields and political projects strung together: multiculturalism-cultural studies-feminism-deconstruction-postmodernism-postcolonialism-identity politics-particularism.14 To put it schematically, Miyoshi and Žižek import the structural features of Jameson’s system’they still find a loss of totality, a rejection of universalism, and a troubled critic’but the culprit in this dire situation now is not so much late capitalism as the intellectual projects, such as cultural studies, that Miyoshi and Žižek argue function for capitalism. What Miyoshi and Žižek make clear, and further what they establish retroactively to have been the case in Jameson, is the extent to which the suffocation,’ waning of affect,’ and ultra-particularity of the present is the experiential effect of a hegemonic struggle internal to the so-called academic Left.

All three critics advance arguments that spectacularly conflate a negative evaluation of current academic fields like deconstruction or cultural studies with a claim that the subject has lost his (and it is his) bearings.15 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has argued a similar point, claiming that Jameson’s postmodern thesis, which is palpably reactive toward deconstruction, depends upon the deduced experience of a general U.S. ideological subject when faced with Van Gogh, Warhol, Munch . . . when placed in the Bonaventure. Rather than prove that the subject has disappeared in postmodernism, the entire analysis hangs on the present of the subject in a postmodern hyperspace where it feels that old-fashioned thing: a loss of identity’ (1999: 319-20). Postmodernism, turning on the disposition of the subject,’ repeatedly insists that we are experiencing this loss of identity, wrongly homogenizing its readership with such declarations as: [O]ur perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism’ (1991: 9 39). It is no quibble, since Jameson’s analysis requires such presuppositions, to say that we are in point of fact not all formed in the space of high modernism’. Protest particularity as he may, his is a subject with some unmistakably particular, and particularly precious, qualities.

Despite their vigilant opposition to cultural studies as identitarian and particularistic, Jameson’s, Miyoshi’s, and Žižek’s propositions feature the staring role of a remarkably particular subject. But this is just the point about the universal-particular relation: One cannot be against the universal or the particular as such, since they are ineradicable aspects not ontologically discrete conditions. The universal is a formal category, an empty one, to the extent that nothing is in-itself universal or particular. It is the action of a certain procedure of politicization’but not the only sort of politicization, pace Žižek’that enables any given particular to stand in for the universal. And while our thinkers do not avow that they are altogether against the particular, the extremity of their characterization of the political present reads like a treatise against particularity itself. This very willful eradication of particularity paves the way for particularity’s inexorable return, whether, as in Jameson, the description of the particularity of the present is itself predicated on a subject imbued with an occulted particularity or whether, as in Žižek, the circumvention of white particularity’s entitlement is misrecognized as white particularity’s wrongful injury at the hands of contemporary multiculturalism.

Universalism’s Rage: or, Identity and the Post-Political’

From various new calls for a common language’ to rampant critiques of cultural studies as factionalizing, critical theory has leveled its anger against the intrusion of particularism’s special disease: identity.16 Jameson’s essay, On “Cultural Studies”‘, contains a section entitled, Cultural Studies as a Substitute for Marxism’, in which he is especially worried that marxism within cultural studies is for the most part evidently understood as yet another kind of group identity . . . rather than as [a] kind of problematic’. Because marxism is reduced to an identity, U.S. cultural studies can equally well be seen to be a “substitute” for Marxism as a development of it’ (1993: 28). This is a striking formulation, especially because of the way that it registers the marxist’s’ particularization (his reduction to a group identity’) and the supporting assumption that identity is not a critical problematic; identity means suffocation and reduction for our thinkers here, and hence it cannot be opened up to a politics of any kind. We remember, however, that even Jameson’s report on this factionalism was marred by his own distinctly identitarian exposé of the marxist’s’ quandary.

Miyoshi places deconstruction on the addendum to Jameson’s complaint, declaring that identity politics . . . now has the imprimatur from the philosophy of difference’ (2000: 46). For both Jameson and Miyoshi, the corrosive, particularistic nature of deconstruction’s philosophy of difference’ is exacerbated by any talk of identity-difference. Yet in their reactive posture toward particularity, difference, and identity, our critics remain fully within particularism’s orbit. Miyoshi for instance registers in an inverted way his identitarian attachments precisely as he mocks the intellectual identitarian factionalization he believes this philosophy of difference’ has wrought:

[I]n a humanities department now, feminists vie with ethnic groups as well as the male of all kinds; among feminists, essentialists contest anti-essentialists; assaults on the ludic posties’ become the career of postludic’ academics; post-Marxists reject orthodox Marxism; conventional disciplinary scholars hold in contempt cultural studies writers; novelists despise theorists who can’t sell products; theorists look down on creative writers as ignorant and self absorbed; empirical historians are convinced that theorists are moonstruck obscurantists; queers believe they are the best because their identities are identity-less. (2000: 46-47)

Queers,’ granted no reciprocal agent of their squabble, are the only ones in Miyoshi’s scenario who are not in a specific battle with some other group and they are almost alone in being named more as identities than as an intellectual field. Aside from the inanity of this claim’and it has an evaluative bite that the others clearly do not’Miyoshi not surprisingly mocks the one new critical practice formed primarily out of the very possibility of understanding identity as a problematic. With no subject assigned to this enunciation, one is invited to regard Miyoshi as the atypically unnamed adversarial agent, one who is being ratcheted down from the universal to the particular.

Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject also frontloads a newly particularized subject who validates, against multiculturalism-cultural studies, that the only way to resist the production of isolated particularities under globalized capital is by (re)asserting the dimension of Universality against capitalist globalization’ (1999: 211). The spokespeople for this subject are leftist “critical theorists”,’ those who stand to reject both liberal multiculturalism and fundamentalist populism’who clearly perceive the complicity between global capitalism and ethnic fundamentalism’ (1999: 221). Žižek argues that, in its very attention to race and ethnicity, cultural studies has promoted a post-political neo-racism in which cultural recognition matters more than socioeconomic struggle’ (1999: 3). Contrary to Rey Chow’s argument that critical theory has wanted to maintain a pristine’ posture with respect to race (1998: xxii), Žižek insists that cultural studies introduced a vicious racial particularity into contemporary political thought.

This racial particularity has given rise to what Žižek calls the Id-Evil’ of the skinhead. Id-Evil’ is Žižek’s term for the surging cruelty of skinhead violence, which is grounded in no utilitarian or ideological reason’ since the skinhead reveals that it makes him feel good to beat up foreigners,


their presence disturbs him’ (1999: 201). Žižek uses Id-Evil, then, to mark an outbreak of racial hatred that is structured and motivated by the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between the Ego and jouissance, by the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance at the very heart of it,’ not by any actual loss whites have undergone in the contemporary moment (1999: 201).17 It is common for Žižek to link a metaphorics of violence to the jouissance of the Real and to do so in a way that is admittedly anti-historicist, but stipulating that this new’ form of racism is not a response to real’ economic or other forms of loss seems to miss the constitutive relation between fantasy and history in the structure of racism’s operation. Žižek claims that when the political practice of universalizing particular impossible’ claims is foreclosed, new forms of racism’ appear that screen their elementary rage through apparently plausible narratives of loss (1999: 199): All the talk about foreigners stealing work from us, or the threat they represent to our Western values, should not deceive us: under closer examination, it soon becomes clear that this talk provides a rather superficial secondary rationalization’ (1999: 201). Žižek grants ideology the quality of secondary’ and superficial’ talk’, leading us to believe that what is new about postmodern racism’ is this mechanism of screened rage: the rage is not, for Žižek, determined by any historically specific fantasmatics of white loss, but is instead only ideologically’ or narratively covered over by them.

Is not the insinuation that racist ideology is a cover for the Real of a contentless, generalized antagonism at odds with Žižek’s more routine claim that the ideological should be distinguished, as Althusser showed, from the pre-Freudian dream?18 In The Sublime Object of Ideology and elsewhere, Žižek contends: ideological fantasy structures reality itself . . . [I]n the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy is on the side of reality’ (1989: 44). Why does Žižek’s explanation of new racisms’ read precisely as an attempt to extricate the fantasy of white loss from its reality? And why miss the Lacanian point that the subject is the effect of the ideological fantasy?19 Žižek seems to believe that the threat to whiteness must be real in some objective, verifiable, or justifiable sense for it to be legitimately apprehended as such by whites;20 otherwise, white retaliation is not racially motivated, it is not really about’ race, but is spurred by a dimension that splits the social, by that which makes the social unbalanced’: the Real.

Žižek’s argument that the skinhead’s Id-Evil erupts because of an anticipatory foreclosure of universalization conflates the fantasy of abolished politically productive antagonisms’the feeling that the universal has been fundamentally barred’with some belief that we are all actually denied universalization and are all effectively consigned to an engulfing particularity. Cultural studies, multiculturalism, deconstruction and so forth may have been party to spurring the reactive fantasy that we are reduced to radical particularity, but they have not created or promoted an actually existing political condition like the one about which Žižek claims we should be alarmed. Žižek discusses the contemporary political scene as if this denied universalization, ensnared particularity, and foreclosure of the political has been realized, as if it was the result of global capitalism’s instrumentalization of everything (except critical theory) from cultural studies to multiculturalism, from democratic politics to academic knowledge domains. Žižek’s calculation of this dominant ideological reason is a fine example of a pernicious ideological style today: now that difference is truly running the show, since particularity has won, the universal is being given a bad break. Who is going to stand up for universality now that particularity has the strength to ravage it?

Our thinkers have all in one way or another answered to this anxious defense of universality, assigning blame for this dire situation to any number of academic and nonacademic villains. To defend the universal one must believe in a narrative that justifies universality’s demolition, and in this narrative Jameson, Miyoshi, and Žižek have found many of the culprits that conservatives are happy to condemn, often for the same reason: academic fields with some identity-based association, theoretical projects like deconstruction that are deemed to be somehow in support of particularity, anti-disciplinary fields such as cultural studies, and anything associated with multiculturalism. What is alarming is not so much that these thinkers overlap rhetorically with a conservative ethos here, since this fact alone does not necessarily exhibit much, but that they seem identified with the structured fantasy of loss and injurious particularization that Žižek’s skinhead employs. Jacqueline Rose suggests something similar about Jameson’s comments on difference and postmodernism: There is, at moments, a striking similarity between this critique of the heterogeneity of specific interest groups and some of the discourse of the Right against the demands of feminist and ethnic groups’ (1988: 250).

Žižek’s belief that the political present represents the realization of universality’s demise formally draws on Ernesto Laclau’s model where universality is an empty signifier’ and thus has no necessary content. He fails, however, to take heed of Laclau’s crucial insistence that [n]ot any position in society, not any struggle is equally capable of transforming its own contents in a nodal point that becomes an empty signifier’ (1996: 43). In Laclau, the unevenness of the social,’ which is not to be ontologized as a given or ground, must be brought to bear on the question of hegemony and the particular-universal articulation (1996: 43). Without any recognition of this unevenness, Žižek can implicitly skirt Laclau’s point and subsequently premise his entire argument on the claim that contemporary post-politics’ implies the total’which is to say not uneven’foreclosure of the hegemonic field.

By using a formal-mechanical approach to apprehend the hegemonic relation, Žižek has already presupposed the flattening of the social he wants to unveil as the current political situation. Judith Butler explains how, in much of Žižek’s work, he seems to think history and culture are domains external to the formal theory of hegemony: [T]heory is applied to its examples, and its relation to its example is an “external” one, in Hegelian terms. The theory is articulated on its self-sufficiency and then shifts register only for the pedagogical purpose of illustrating an already accomplished truth’ (2000: 22). Butler rightly shows how Žižek’s formal theory is elaborated externally and prior to the cultural’ example that then guarantees or proves the formal theory. Now we can pursue the skinhead further, asking how Žižek’s technological approach to this example occasions a massive slight of hand in which he unwittingly analogizes the skinhead’s predicament to that of the African American unemployed lesbian mother’.

Coda: Irrational Outbursts’

A certain racial morphing occurs in The Ticklish Subject when, after having characterized the skinhead’s irrational outburst’ as proof of the foreclosed nature of the political, Žižek suddenly transfers the metaphorics of skinhead violence to another example: an African American unemployed lesbian mother’ (1999: 203), also judged to be a particularized subject shorn of recourse to universality. In moving through his description, which is meant to counter liberal-tolerant particularisms that pin subjects to identities, note that the declared agent, the African American unemployed lesbian mother,’ comes to take on the attributes that were associated with the previous portrayal of the skinhead’s violence:

What . . . a tolerant procedure precludes is the gesture of politicization proper: although the difficulties of being an African-American unemployed lesbian mother are adequately catalogued right down to its most specific features, the concerned subject none the less somehow feels’ that there is something wrong’ and frustrating’ in this very effort to mete out justice to her specific predicament’what she is deprived of is the possibility of metaphoric’ elevation of her specific wrong’ into a stand-in for the universal wrong’. The only way to articulate this universality’the fact that I, precisely, am not merely that specific individual exposed to a set of specific injustices’consists, then, in its apparent opposite, in the thoroughly irrational’ excessive outburst of violence. (1999: 203-4)


his passage rhetorically transmutes the particularization of the African-American unemployed lesbian mother”a figure Žižek invokes in part because, for him, she is a particularization so thorough as to be ludicrous’into the condition of the particularized skinhead.21 Because Žižek cannot narrativize how this African American unemployed lesbian mother’ might elevate’ her condition through her function as a stand-in for the universal, he must import the metaphorics of skinhead violence to imagine this woman’s release from particularity. Of course, such a metaphoric transfer is intelligible only within Žižek’s formal model since, surely, the violence he describes is proper to the skinhead. He is the one who, whatever his social lot, feels entitled to the universal even if that means violence toward those particulars’ he imagines have forestalled the universal altogether.22

The skinhead allegorizes critical theory’s current unrest, allowing critical theory to delegate its experiential particularization to the agent of an irrational outburst who, though clearly not to be endorsed, is understandably’ responding to a world in which global capitalism, multiculturalism, cultural studies, and deconstruction have gone unchecked. Like the skinhead figure, both Jameson’s marxist critic and Miyoshi’s anti-queer and identity-tied subject think the world is closing in on them (suffocation, collapse of critical distance, reduction to identity) and they are unable to regain universal dexterity; hence the call, in Miyoshi’s terms, that we should relearn the sense of the world, the totality’ (2000: 50).

Assuming we are truly committed to the problem, we will surely have to reappraise the kind of anti-institutional sentiment offered up by Jameson: I don’t particularly care what ultimate form [cultural studies] ends up taking, or even whether an official academic discipline . . . comes into being. That is probably because I don’t much believe in the reform of academic programs to begin with’ (1993: 18). While I respect the extent to which Jameson remains critical of the institution as a locus for change, such dismissive comments should be read in relation to critical theory’s hegemonic function within certain kinds of left critical thought. Insofar as critical theory remains blind to its own stakes in the hegemonic relation within the university, it inevitably particularizes cultural studies’meanwhile, paradoxically attributing the effects of particularization to cultural studies’and the multicultural’ bodies often organized under its banner. Although critical theory’ wants increasingly to get out from under particularity’projecting it rather classically onto cultural studies as the agent and evidence of particularity itself’we would do well to begin to think more seriously about the pathos by which this is proceeding in these troubled times.’ So long as critical theory and cultural studies remain unable to diagnose the institutional politics of academic knowledge, they will both fail’not to harmoniously converge, a useless dream anyway, but to know when their respective differences are ones that matter.

I wish to thank four people who contributed to’regardless of their agreement with’this article: Ernesto Laclau, for commenting on my preliminary formulation of this argument; Jan Radway, for her discerning attention to an earlier draft; and to Rachel Price and Jennifer Rhee, for amplifying my thinking.


1 Jameson, Miyoshi, and Žižek do not all necessarily call for universalism’ by name or do so in the same way; nevertheless, they mark a tendency within contemporary critical theory that has become unsympathetic toward cultural studies, particularity, deconstruction, and multiculturalism. There are many thinkers within critical theory, among them Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, who have been rethinking universality without this more reactionary sentiment. My use of critical theory,’ while qualified throughout, is in no way exhaustive of that field’s rich contributions.

2 Hall claims [t]here were at least two interruptions in the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies: The first around feminism, and the second around questions of race’ (1996: 268).

3 Jameson is especially unimpressed by cultural studies’ and postructuralism’s quick dismissal of totalizing’ theories. He claims that this is one of the fundamental poststructural indices of error’ (1993: 30). I agree with Jameson that there are rather naïve charges leveled against totalization’; in this sense, he is surely right that it can be a fundamental anti-Marxian stereotype [and] the hoariest of all negative buzzwords’ (1993: 30). But it would not be fair to say that critiques of totalizing (or, as Jameson says, Grand’) theories have been either uniform or useless, or that they are automatically calls for particularity, random difference,’ or a postmodern’ celebration of diversity.

4 Much of this scholarship’s habitual invocation of the global’ dimension tends to obscure more than it explains. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us that The “globe” is counterintuitive. You walk from one end of the earth to the other and it remains flat. It is a scientific abstraction inaccessible to experience. No one lives in the global village.’ Since no one lives in the global village, Spivak asks the better question: In what interest, to regulate what sort of relationships, is the globe invoked?’ (1998: 329).

5 He claims The Ticklish Subject is philosophical in its basic tenor, [but] it is first and foremost an engaged political intervention, addressing the burning question of how we are to reformulate a leftist, anti-capitalist political project in our era of global capitalism and its ideological supplement, liberal-democratic multiculturalism’ (1999: 4).

6 Approaching the post-political’ via Laclau’s model of the particular-universal relation, Žižek declares that universalization’where the possibility of the hegemonic link requires that a particular at once metaphorizes its interests and magnetizes others’has become blocked:

What post-politics tends to prevent is precisely this metaphoric universalization of particular demands: post-politics mobilizes the vast apparatus of experts, social workers, and so on, to reduce the overall demand (complaint) of a particular group to just this demand, with its particular content’no wonder this suffocating closure gives birth to irrational’ outbursts of violence as the only way to give expression to the dimension beyond particularity. (1999: 204)

7 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner show that critical multiculturalism’ was always suspicious of the possibilities of its cooptation and modulation, spurring them to find ways to preserve the practical possibilities that interested us [in “critical multiculturalism”] without becoming spokesintellectuals for what has turned out to be, as we had already anticipated, liberal multiculturalism’ (1994: 107).

8 Raymond Williams cautions that there is a perspectival problem inherent in any analysis of economic change and its causal relation to other elements: The shaping influence of economic change can of course be distinguished . . . [b]ut the difficulty lies in estimating the final importance of a factor which never, in practice, appears in isolation’ (1983: 280).

9 Williams claims that the base-superstructure model is no more than an analogy,’ one that does not necessarily imply economism or any monocausal determinism. He quotes from one of Engels’ letters to clear up the issue:

According to the materialist conception of history, the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. (qtd. in Williams, 1983: 267)

For Engels, the superstructures not only exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles [but] in many cases preponderate in determining their form’ (qtd. in Williams, 1983: 267).

10 Hall will sometimes, especially in his earlier essays, make the familiar case that the problem with Marx is that he has not been reconciled with contemporary capitalism. To think otherwise would den[y] one of the central premises of Capital‘that the capitalist mode of production is constantly developing, and this in turn requires a continuous labour of theoretical development and clarification’ (1977: 43). In this essay, he does claim that the superstructures have a greater effectivity’ and determining character’and in this sense can in some epochs, be dominant’ (50)’but the thrust of cultural studies in general, and even parts of this article as well, suggests that marxist conceptions of determination have abiding formal-theoretical limitations.

11 For Hall, the turn to Gramsci within cultural studies was more a displacement than an augmentation of marxism: [Gramsci’s] importance for this moment of British cultural studies is precisely the degree to which he radically displaced some of the inheritances of marxism in cultural studies’ (1996: 276).

12 Ernesto Laclau’s critique of marxist determinisms (such as the last instance’) is relevant here: When it comes to the last instance, the convictions of the “refined” materialist are not much different from those of the vulgar materialist’ (1988: 76). As a consequence, marxism loses it plurality; the language games within that history and its relation to our period are defined and codified beforehand. Marxism is accepted or rejected in toto; Marx’s texts are not read as one reads texts by Freud, Hegel, or Plato, that is, by questioning them from the perspective of our own problems and present situation’ (1998: 76).

13 Butler claims, as do I, that there is a contemporary trend to relegate new social movements to the sphere of the cultural, indeed, to dismiss them as being preoccupied with what is called the “merely” cultural, and then to construe this cultural politics as factionalizing, identitarian, and particularistic’ (1997: 265).

14 For Spivak, Postmodernism‘s anxiety about difference and undecidability’ is keyed to the academic incursion of poststructuralism and to a misunderstanding of Derrida (1999: 312-24). I agree with Spivak, but would simply add that the theory of difference’ that Jameson, Miyoshi, and Žižek all oppose is much more closely aligned with the debasement’ of poststructuralism to the level of politicized identity rubrics. Indeed, the juncture of poststructuralist thinking and the political theorization of the new social movements is part of what constitutes a dominant strain of cultural studies. For the three thinkers here, we might say that in cultural studies exists an especially worrisome form of deconstruction.

15 Jacqueline Rose finds the absence of any women from Jameson’s account at once glaring and mundane: [I]s it necessary to point out yet again that not one woman figures in Jameson’s account of the postmodern, or indeed, modernist cultural production?’ (1988: 246). Rose points to figures like Barbara Kruger to show that some contemporary art that is at once protest at and pastiche of the same sexual economy’ (1988: 246)’not that this would matter too much, since, for many, the sexual’ before economy’ is what would diffuse the potential for real’ protest.

16 Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s Empire is the latest mega-call for a renewed sense of totality and a common language.’ This new common language would do what the languages of anti-imperialism and proletarian internationalism did for the struggles of a previous era’ (2000: 57). As with Jameson’s Postmodernism, this totality is declared in Empire‘s title and through the imperative: [T]he concept of Empire is the framework in which the new omniversality of subjects has to be understood’ (2000: 25, emphasis added).

17 In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud anticipates this idea of Id-Evil: It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct . . . of power instincts. This “cultural frustration” dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings. As we already know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle’ (1961: 44).

18 Althusser, referring to the conceptualization of ideology in Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology, claims: Ideology is thus thought as an imaginary construction whose status is exactly like the theoretical status of the dream among writers before Freud’ (1994: 121).

19 In the phantasy,’ Lacan claims, the subject is frequently unperceived, but he is always there, whether in the dream or in . . . forms of day-dreaming. The subject situates himself as determined by the fantasy. The fantasy is the support of desire’ (1998: 184). He is even more clear and concise in Ecrits, cautioning that any attempt to reduce [phantasy] to the imagination, because one cannot admit its failure, is a permanent misconception’ (1977: 272).

20 Judith Butler provides a way to understand how white racism imagines itself as always threatened and, hence, always justified in its violence. Referring to the Rodney King case, Butler reasons: hit in exchange for the blows he never delivered, but which he is, by virtue of his blackness, always about to deliver’ (1993: 19).

21 Miyoshi has a similar caricatured version of multiculturalism and particularity: Picture the variations: aged and impoverished women, rich Korean men who speak no English, gay middle-class Lebanese-American males who are newly jobless with no families’ (2000: 44).

22 The formal features of white privilege involve a claim to injured status and to a presumptuous universality. In the US case, Robyn Wiegman notes: Apartheid structures, both slavery and Jim Crow segregation, indeed universalized whiteness through the entitlements of the citizen-subject, but they simultaneously mobilized a vast social geometry of white particularity, as the declarative warning “For Whites Only” ominously suggested’ (1999: 73). Because universalization always bears the trace of particularity, the process of particularization alone cannot reorient hegemonic positions.


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