BP, the Real, and Aristotle

Taking advantage of some time off – even if in an airport – I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. This small little book – really a long essay at 81 pages – is an excellent example of a text that actualizes Zero Books’ goal of publishing books that are ‘intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’ A strong case is made for this agenda in the main body of the text. Fisher is also able to merge many of the arguments of Deleuze and Guattari and Žižek in a way that is delightfully accessible. This is indeed a book worth reading. There was one paragraph, however, that got me thinking about the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the context of praising Žižek for giving Lacan’s Real-reality distinction much of the contemporary currency it has garnered, Fisher argues that

For Lacan, the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us…Environmental catastrophe is one such Real. (p. 18).

As a resident of south Louisiana one might think that if anyone would be getting a good hard glimpse of the Real that is ‘suppressed’ by capitalist realism, Louisianians would be the ones. But that is not the case at all. All one hears on television news and talk radio, from Governor Jindal on down to the very fishermen and oil workers whose lives are impacted, is that the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling is a huge mistake and ought to be abandoned. Even if the moratorium was a knee-jerk reaction to the spill and other, more efficient solutions are possible without shutting down the drilling industry and the economic livelihoods of those connected to this industry, the priority is clearly economic rather than environmental. I suspect a reason why the oil spill has not led to a glimpse of the Real is that the Real is not ‘an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void’ that is suppressed in order to maintain the naturalness and unquestioned realism of capitalism. The very distinction between the Real and reality smacks to me of what Davidson refers to as the third dogma of empiricism. Despite the fact that Quine, in his famous “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” essay, broke with one of the cherished cornerstones of the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition – the analytic-synthetic distinction – Quine nonetheless continued with another unquestioned dualism—namely, the conceptual scheme and content dualism. In order to make sense of the notion that there are incommensurable worldviews or conceptual schemes, Quine and others rely on the assumption that there is a content independent of all conceptual schemes (for Quine these are sensory firings) and our resulting knowledge and worldview is a result of this content somehow coming to be processed by the scheme. In the same way, if reality depends on a Real that needs to be suppressed, then it would seem the Real is autonomous of the acts of suppression that are inseparable from and constitute contingent, historical realities. There’s a similar criticism of Žižek in Butler. Žižek, Butler argues, sees all social formations as following upon the same necessary constitution of an outside, or as being ‘reduced to a “lack” with no historicity, the consequence of a transhistorical “law”.’ (from her essay “arguing with the Real”). In other words, there is the constitutive outside, the Real, that is independent of the historical formations and realities that are ‘real-ized’ and constituted when the Real is suppressed.

How do we explain the reaction (or better, non-reaction) of people in south Louisiana to an environmental catastrophe if not for the fact that there is serious denial and suppression of the Real going on? Fisher gives us two suggestions in his book. The first, which one also finds in Aristotle, is that ‘the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends [is] a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market.’ The second suggestion follows from Spinoza: ‘I believe that it is Spinoza who offers the best resources for thinking through what a ‘paternalism without the father’ might look like.’ I couldn’t agree more with the second suggestion. It is with Spinoza that we can think through politics without the third dogma, without correlationism; or, with Spinoza we have the possibility of political realism (à la speculative realism). I’ll deal with the first suggestion and save the second for another day. In his Politics Aristotle distinguishes between ‘a certain natural kind of property-getting’ that is limited to the needs of a self-sufficient household or state and an unnatural ‘“acquisition of goods [Chrēmatistikē]” where there is ‘no limit to wealth or property.’ These two modes are frequently confused and there is a very important reason for this. First, the confusion results when there is a failure to distinguish the property itself from the fact that ‘Every piece of property has a double use.’ To use Aristotle’s example, a shoe may be used either to put on your foot or to offer in exchange.’ In itself offering the shoe in exchange is not unnatural, for the ‘exchange [of] one class of useful goods for another … is not contrary to nature and is not a form of money-making [Chrēmatistike] and it keeps to its original purpose: to re-establish nature’s own equilibrium of self-sufficiency.’ (emphasis mine). On my reading of Aristotle on this point, and developing a political theory I think can be teased out of Latour, exchanges are acceptable and natural if they enhance the systematic connection and networks of humans and nonhumans. This is a form of universal, as Latour admits in We Have Never Been Modern, but one that is a consequence of an expanding network of humans and nonhumans that establish a degree of systematic equilibrium. Social and cultural formations are thus to be understood as dynamic systems of humans and nonhumans at the edge of chaos, and the chaos is not a Real distinct from these formations but rather is the excess that each formation presupposes and which are taken up by other dynamic systems (think of Whitehead here). There is thus no pure chaos, but only chaosmos. On the other hand, there is money-making, and for Aristotle when it is money itself rather than the goods necessary for ‘nature’s own equilibrium and self-sufficiency,’ then ‘there is no limit to the amount of riches to be received from this mode of acquiring goods, and as a result it becomes an unnatural and unsustainable mode of acquisition. Capitalism is thus unsustainable by its very nature, and yet we continue to call for it – we want the moratorium to end so the drilling can continue, so the economy can move along, and since we cannot do without the petroleum which is part of so much of what I buy, including the laptop I write this on. Aristotle gives a very good reason for why we want and clamor for the relentless pursuit of capitalism, even if we recognize its unsustainability: the reason, Aristotle claims, is that while many ‘are eager for life but not for the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire also an unlimited amount of what enables it to go on.’ By confusing our unlimited desire for life with the goods necessary for the ‘good life,’ we are led to believe we need an unlimited amount of goods or wealth. The presupposition upon which capitalist realism depends – namely, that ‘resources are infinite’ – is not the result of an ironical, cynical attitude brought about by suppressing the traumatic Real, but rather it is the very unlimited desire for life that has been abstracted from the dynamic equilibrium system of humans and nonhumans, from the ‘good life’ as Aristotle understands it. It is the incommensurability of human and nonhuman, the pervasive belief that there are mute, ahistorical facts and speaking historical humans, humans who speak on behalf of the facts, that more than anything has fostered the continuing attitude that natural resources are in the end not connected to our human lives. Yet this contemporary attitude, the neoliberal worldview, is its own dynamic system of humans and nonhumans, but it’s a system that is almost unthinkable today, or at least unthinkable as a system of humans and nonhumans, politics and nature, and it is unthinkable not because it is an unrepresentable X, but because we have been told in so many ways and in so many different contexts that facts are facts and that’s that. It is precisely thinking what has been largely unthinkable that is so desperately needed now, and perhaps the economic crisis of 2008 (and its continuing aftermath) will serve to hasten such thinking. And Fisher is certainly right: we can turn to Spinoza as a source for developing, thinking, and engaging a political realism.


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