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Saroj Giri, "Radical, Subversive Acts, or, the Myth of Contingency, Freedom"

saroj giri writes:

"Radical, Subversive Acts
Or, the Myth of Contingency, Freedom"

Saroj Giri

What makes individual cases of excess catapult from the particular to the universal? How is it that one particular event or person gets so highlighted at the expense of all other (counter-factual) particulars, so that the one universalised particular blocks our view of the rest? Isn’t this a prime ideological move in a commodity economy, under capitalism?

So often when we see someone achieving something under capitalism, when we find that somebody has made it big or has been successful in something we usually as a matter of habit perhaps associate it with the person’s individual abilities, luck, sense of enterprise, willingness to take risk etc.

This tendency to take up what is actually an effect of larger social relations to be just an individual thing is a widespread tendency under commodity fetishism. So we see only the individual and refuse to see the overall relations in which the individual exists. If the individual fails, that is due to the personal inability, bad luck etc of the person. If the person succeeds that is due to hard work and sense of enterprise etc of the individual. In either case, the individual is important, apparently.
It is quite clear, however, that the individual though is only a stand-in to prove a point about the larger social relations, about the system as a whole, the inherently democratic, flexible hence accommodative nature of the system, which after all rewards individual merit and enterprise: the particular comes to stand for a larger universal.

Indeed, some particular success story can be touted as a story which would be the story which would act as the lens through which the stories of other persons would now be looked at. So, for example, it is in the light of the ‘success story’ of Erin Brockovich that other attempts at fighting corporations will be judged. Here the particular becomes the universal precisely since it is the exception, precisely since it actually overlooks the particularities and necessities that apply to other cases, other individuals who might also want to get the better of the system. So the universal here is empty, it is tautological since it only retrospectively allows us to view particulars in its own light; its constitution has nothing to do with particulars as such. But isn’t this the general feature of most particular acts under commodity fetishism? And yet such particular, exceptional acts are so essential to the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism.

But this example of a success story cannot on its own become exemplary and act as the universal. It has to traverse the case of other particulars in order to act as the universal. And here it might encounter so many other cases of failures, of those who with the best of individual talents and sense of enterprise could not be successful. Of course if there are so many cases to the contrary, if this one case is not exemplary then it cannot become a universal in any sense. In fact if you were true to the particulars then one can actually claim that the system frustrates the desires and aspirations of majority of people and so the one case cannot act as the universal. In which case then that one exemplary case of success is the particular, the unique and the rest of the cases are what actually stand for the universal.

But just the reverse takes place for it is this one case of success which gets highlighted as the universal (this happens since for commodity production it is important to make people feel that their own individual initiative, hard work is most crucial, that they as individuals count…). And the reason why most people buy this is that this mobilises their own Real, the spectral other which is (re-)invested into the reality of commodity production through such universalised particular. The necessity of the fundamental dependence on the commodity, which binds the majority, is aestheticised, gains magical properties through, among others, such a universalised particular. What was the particular, unique exception now turns out to be the one through which necessity rules, the one which charges the system of necessity with loads of subjectivity and the interplay of signifiers. That one case is one of excess from the necessity of the system which then restores the balance.
And this happens also at a symbolic level where one particular comes to stand for so many other particulars, so that the first particular starts acting as a universal. What is actually the attribute of external particulars is taken to be internal to that one particular. This universal is then a tautological universal which does not say anything real about the society but is like one that provides the fullness to that society. Slavoj Zizek here gives the example of Shark in which all our fears and insecurities are transposed and concentrated onto this one particular.

Something similar can also take place say in the case of human rights where what are actually the rights of the white, propertied man is imposed on all humans. Here the particular is raised to the general, which is unacceptable: the rights of a socio-politically, racially specific group of people are imposed to all of humanity. What if however this demand for particular rights is itself now offering to be raised as the next universal, which would now show how democratic the system is etc? That is, a particular gets highlighted as a universal which is actually not inclusive of other particulars, which does not take account how other particulars stand, which actually overlooks how particulars are located, arranged or organised and hence blocks from view the necessity in which they are placed leading finally to the false celebration of contingency, autonomy, freedom etc.

Particular rights or preserving systemic balance
Now often there has been this critique that the individual is missed out under the homogenising effects of capitalism and industrialism. Now in each of the examples we see that it does seem true that the individual is always actually a stand-in to prove a point about society as a whole. So that it seems like as though challenging capitalism is to assert the unique, singular. But the point here is that it is precisely the unique and the singular that capitalism harps on. What capitalism wants to show is that it allows for the unique and the singular. And this it does precisely to cover up for the necessity which underlies capitalism, particularly the individual’s fundamental dependence on the commodity. So my point here in the examples above is not that what is actually a unique particular case like the achievement of an individual is immediately linked to a wider structural logic so that the singularity, the heterogeneity of the case is lost. Rather what I am saying is that it is in asserting the singularity, the particularity of the case that capitalism actually scores better than anything else.
What capitalism rather tried to do is that you can and you have actually got the better of the system: that is, it conceals the fact that the system thinks and does for you, that in spite of the contingencies that you see around you, it is actually the necessity which rules. Both the individual, unique cases (even subversive practices) and the Laclauian kind of universal to me seem the result of commodity fetishism where what is actually the effect of a wider network of relations appears as if it is the quality of the individual or of the particular universal. When it is a radical subversive practice, it looks like it is really unique and we feel it is ok to not even check whether it is in fact not mistaken to treat it as actually unique. What if even these radical subversive practices are an effect of commodity fetishism, that is, they are not really singular: this does not mean that these practices are born straight out of the social relations of capitalism, but that these practices are not as unique as they seem for they can easily be included in the larger flow of capital and the commodity, included as the included outside, the constitutive outside. It is these kinds of unique, singular practices that are highlighted as a universal under commodity production.

Thus the particular we pointed out at the beginning really becomes a universal, a representative case without including the particular necessity, thereby making it a false universal; it is therefore always contaminated by the particular. Hence even at the level of such universals there is always a struggle – such an exemplary case has to deal with so many other particulars that contradict the message it tries to convey about the system as a whole. In this sense, given that the necessity of the particular is not included so that the universal is a false universal, this exemplary individual case, radical subversive practice as well as Laclauian universal are all of the same character. They are far from a true universal which actually addresses the issue of the particular, the necessity inherent in things.

Thus such a universalised particular, which is a false universal, blocks other particulars from view or forever displaces them from attaining any significance; by doing this, it effectively makes all social agents feel that there is no systemic logic, no necessity which binds the social space so that individual enterprise, individual freedom truly exists. Thinking or acting ‘outside the box’, even certain radical acts that apparently subvert the systemic logic and posit a singular heterogeneity, a unique particularity, therefore, does not just block from view the underlying necessity but in fact is the oppositional determinant of the latter.

Positing a particular act, even a radical subversive act, as only a particular or as a false universal (a universal which does not take account of the particular, the necessity in things), amounts to actually, through excess, preserving the balance of the system: but isn’t this the New Age, hippie act par excellence? Thus the need to give rights to immigrants or the need for multiculturalism can actually be presented in such a way that it looks like if only this is done, society as a whole will realise its true or full potential.

Without a revolutionary universal subject which takes account of the particular necessity which is the rule of capital and the order of commodity production, this inter-play of the particular and the universal, of the global and the particular, of individual rights and cultural difference etc will keep engaging us in supposed acts of autonomy, contingency, heterogeneity, antagonism. Truly, all that is solid melts into air.