Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Benign neglect as capital

A few days ago I passingly referred to Zizek's "plea for differance." There's a sentence that might catch one's eye interested in how Zizek positions himself vis-a-vis Derrida as this is by no means an obvious alliance (especially considering Zizek's willingness to antagonize pretty much anyone, including a spat with Critchley concerning Infinitely Demanding , and that with his prestige there are no negative consequences, only further notoriety).

So maybe claiming solidarity with big D is more in line with his iconoclasm. Zizek writes:

"now when the Derridean fashion is fading away it is perhaps the moment to honor his memory by pointing out the proximity of the topic of my work to what Derrida called différance, this neologism whose very notoriety obfuscates its unheard-of materialist potential."

Oops, I gave away the "notoriety" ploy. Zizek throws a leather jacket over Derrida's shoulders whether he likes it or not.

I single this line out because it is very, very similar to how Derrida positions himself vis-a-vis Marx in Specters of Marx. I don't have the text in front of me but the thrust is that Derrida "always" felt an affinity for Marx's analysis but had to wait until it was fading from ascendancy in the politics of the French Academy for him to engage it honestly and fully. Fair enough. Zizek's repetition of this gesture almost verbatim raises it to the level of analysis.

On one hand it is intuitive that one would avoid engaging admitted masters of the discipline out of the anxiety of influence. You can lose yourself in Marx or Derrida's oeuvre--many have. A philosopher seeking to attain that height for him or herself wants a playing field that admits of his or her own contributions, a sort of stepwise program similar to that by which French professors work their way back in from the geographic periphery to the prestigious center of the intellectual arena.

In this later engagement the philosopher must not admit that he feared his antagonist. He (I use the masculine because I am talking about the examples of Z and D) feared being unfairly hamstrung by external conditions in his duel. His neglect was indifferent, haughty, and benign in that it never affected his disguised ability to confront the master or the real value of the master (the fading reputation is only the disillusionment of dilettantes and trend-followers). It is crucial, in fact, that there remains some kind of late-career hurdle to sustain the new master and show that he too has not begun to fade. I don't know how long this rhetoric has gone on but I see a pretty straight line from Kant's "if I have seen farther..." to the present day. The history of philosophy does not want for quips about its accomplishments.

All of which I find unobjectionable except that I see this also developing a sustained conspiracy between master philosophy and benign neglect. Benign neglect is a show of respect, a way for the dialectic of philosophical work to play out, and ultimately irrelevant to the truth/value of master philosophers, who judge the worth of each other unerringly across months or centuries. But "benign neglect" is also a certain attitude and set of practices directed toward many others whose material existence forms the capital of philosophical work--and while a criticism of the anthropological machine would point first to, say, postcolonial regions or the working class, I am thinking here of how philosophical benign neglect affects animals as they come into philosophical consideration. I am afraid that the animal will always be the last mantle to be hefted, an insurmountable problem that is maintained as formally insurmountable precisely because master philosophers engage it in their final duel.

Or, as in the opening chapter of The Open, the problem of the animal is the final mantle of philosophy in general. One can read this gesture as either "messianic," the possibility of ending the thousand year reign of the anthropological machine, or in the genealogy of philosophy conserving its capital.