In the often-quoted joke from comedy act The Marx Brothers, the character of Groucho is asked the simple question “Tea or Coffee?” to which he answers, “Yes, please!” – the gesture of refusing the question at its purest. In the context of contemporary responses to the place of Left wing politics, such a response is invaluable in allowing us to eradicate the false dichotomies that plague such debates surrounding the topic resistance. In particular, the opposition between action vs. inaction seems pertinent, particularly in post-election Australia, taking on a variety of forms within cultural spaces. Indeed, it appears as though the anti-theoretical impulse comes from a certain fear of political deadlock, yet, such a claim seems to ground itself in the false logic that action only begins after theory ends. On this topic, Judith Butler observes that:
those who fear the retarding effects of theory do not want to think too hard about what it is they are doing, what kind of discourse they are using; for if they think too hard about what it is they are doing, they fear that they will no longer do it.
Crucially, Butler problematises the fear latent within many Leftist circles that when faced with political paralysis, theory succumbs to an entirely self-generative process that always continues to delay taking action. Here the words of Herbert Marcuse words have a certain critical resonance: “The groundwork for building the bridge between “ought” and “is”, between theory and practice, is laid within theory itself.”
Within some contingencies, a form this antagonism takes is the false opposition between active resistance – under the banner for ‘fighting for real change’ – and inactive resistance, exemplified through the figure of the University professor who spends all their time reading and discussing critical theory, at the detriment of investing in collective action. Such a dichotomy, while tempting in its clear active/passive logic, fails to allow itself the time for clear of orientation, resulting in a tendency towards immediate, often individual reactions to points of catastrophe. In effect, this position fails to understand what one is rebelling against and rather, focuses on the how in rebellion, a method that often falls squarely within the logic of capital.
Such a position often culminates into the ‘ethical life’ (shopping ethically, recycling, eat less meat), a socially available position popular within wider Left wing populist groups that often contains within it a guilt-oriented, individual approach to the question of political action. Such a misidentification on the part of the Left is, in effect, a huge victory for Right wing politics, as the very possibility for structural change is totally discounted in favour of a ‘personal is political’ approach to large issues. To clarify, these acts in themselves are not to be discarded, but the moral superiority gained from shaming our friends, co-workers and often ourselves for not ‘living ethically’ offsets blame for corporations, as issues of structural concern are obfuscated and foisted onto individuals in the guise of individual symptoms.
Admittedly, it is difficult not to see fault in the individual when Barnaby Joyce brings a lump of coal into parliament as a way of demonstrating absolute indifference to the concerns of climate change, yet such anger should always be redirected higher. While it often seems like the only solution is fighting against that which is socially available, this position means that the time for theoretical (re)orientation passes by too quickly, to the point where what counts as action has little to no overall impact if the structure remains as is.
What to do at such an impasse? Ironically, the solution to be found might come through the writing of a certain Joyce, not Barnaby, but James. While on the basis of content, Joyce’s writing is not overtly political, yet for psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, it revealed a certain theoretical point that might present itself as useful in understanding the nature of political symptoms. In Lacan’s seminar long investigation of Joyce’s writing, he stumbled upon what he refers to as the sinthome, an irreducible mark present in the subject that, unlike a temporally present symptom that can potentially be overcome, remains structurally inherent. It is in this sense that critics who label theory a ‘self-fulfilling’ and ‘infinitely recurring’ process are mistaken, as it is rather the stance of ‘ethical living’ that becomes locked into an endless metonymic repetition, precisely because the structure is left unindicted and intact.
On the topic of the symptoms, philosopher Peter Rollins clarifies:
A symptom is that phenomenon which is in our body, but not of it. It is that thing we either don’t see, or try to ignore (our outbursts of anger, nervous twitch etc.). Yet the symptom, if we listen to it, speaks a truth. It tells us that something isn’t right in our world. The symptom is thus a protest against something that is bad in our lives … The point then is not to ignore the symptom, but to listen to it … By doing this the symptom is transformed.
As Rollins goes on to argue through Lacan, by listening to the symptom – something that in this case can be taken for the practice of theoretical reorientation – it is revealed that ones actions, while well intentioned, are aimed at the wrong place. Lacan’s point in the context of our discussion of ‘ethical living’ is that one can’t truly escape from their own self-destructive nature, as it is constitutive of the human. Far from seeing any resistance as futile and resigning ourselves to total inaction, such an insight should impel us to consider the difference between small solutions to symptoms and actions that aim at the wider structure, at the sinthome behind the symptom. While Lacan maintains the impossibility of getting rid of the sinthome as it is that which maintains consistency in the subject, the knowledge of its structural base allows one to pick ones punches in places where change can be effected – on the level of legislative policy – such as enforced regulations on corporate exploitation and carbon emissions.
In a sense, the decline of Left wing politics today stems from the psychic investment in small solutions to bigger problems, as we see the problem of ecological catastrophe as something that can be solved through individual ethical consumer acts, rather than a problem relating to structural control of resources. When one reconciles with the nature of the sinthome, specifically, its connection to a variety of symptoms, one can look beyond individual instances of rebellion (often locked into ethical consumption – if such a thing in fact exists) towards speculating on acts that can have structural impact.
Ultimately, the lesson here is not that one should not stop addressing symptoms (recycling, resist buying palm oil products, using solar energy), but rather, to not see these individual tasks as a political solution as such. Rather, by allowing oneself to see symptoms contingent on a structural core that organises and causes them, a proper political solution is established. In a time where 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, 62 people own as much wealth as 3.6 billion of the poorest half of the world population and the Amazon Rainforest burns before us; misrecognition comes as at a grave cost.
Words by Laurent Shervington