Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent. Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009
There are many things I’m afraid of in this world, but wrestling with a theoretical text that is beyond my intellectual capacity is not one. Over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of displaced aggression from students who felt overwhelmed by theoretical texts. But the problem seems to be a top-down one. The attitude of a culture toward theory (or toward intellectuality in general) is felt at every level, including at the level of curating-by-poll, or in the sweeping under the rug of museum education departments some of the thornier issues confronting art. Anti-intellectualism occupies brains; it values the skimming of surfaces and it reduces complexity to slick slogans; it compromises democracy, particularly at a moment of extreme political and ideological complexity. It isn’t surprising that in the 1970s Derrida was intensely involved in opposing a move toward “rationalizing” education in France by arguing for the value of philosophy, and was also successfully involved with others in pushing for philosophy to be taught at the high school level in France [Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?].
The U.S. academic world, as well as the so-called art world, has had a love/hate relationship with theory. Theory – that writing which concerns itself with a structural understanding of history, language, phenomena, events, and subjectivity – seems to be under intermittent attack in the US. The right posits it as elitist, and the left and liberal-left often posit it as useless in relation to politics. The spoken and unspoken assumptions of the anti-theoretical are that theory consists of jargonistic language written and spoken by charlatans. For the anti-theoretical left in particular, theory shirks its political and historical responsibilities. Noam Chomsky’s recent attack on Slavoj Zizek is classic in this regard. He complains that Zizek’s type of theory is frivolous because it’s not “scientific” or “serious.” There’s no question in my mind that Zizek “won” that debate. Frankly, Zizek won even before he responded to Chomsky’s attack, because it’s apparent from his comments that Chomsky has never read Zizek’s books. It seems to be the case that many disparage Zizek’s writings without reading him (i.e. “I did read a book of his, about fifteen years ago…). It’s clear that Chomsky hasn’t read Zizek because if he had he would know that Zizek’s writings incorporate history, and apply theory to contemporary political events, and that his writing is quite clear, albeit requiring some understanding of terminology which I would think Chomsky could manage to master if he were interested in any writing that was not positivist. The same disregard for reading seems to apply to disparagers of Derrida (who Chomsky also threw into the mix when he sent out the first volley in the exchange).
Left and liberal pragmatists and positivists who are allergic to theory evade examining the complexities of political subjectivity, and thus have to resort to platitudes when questions are raised as to how new political subjects might arise in the midst of the seemingly totalizing political and economic crises we now face. The only way positivists can explain why those who suffer often don’t rebel is to overemphasize the raw power of the oppressor, an explanation that leads to closure.
And then there’s the most anti-intellectually derided category of theory, “pure” theory, that writing – usually of the philosophical type – that does not incorporate history and does not apply itself except very obliquely to contemporary phenomena, and may – what a horror – actually involve the learning of a vocabulary, or an acclimation to a writer’s particular use of language. That kind of writing is hard for the uninitiated and undereducated to penetrate, but it’s in that kind of writing that I often find glimmers of insight into painfully contorted ideological knots. I was sent such a text recently, for advice on where it might be published. I understood only about a quarter of the text, with effort, and I can’t personally think of where it could be published here, but it reminded me of the relationship of such texts to concepts of democracy. Because although I value and benefit from the kinds of philosophical writings and other kinds of theory that are applied and co-mingled with history, such texts are largely directive. “Pure” theory creates a different space; it asks you to move toward your own applications and references. It produces just the sort of subjectivity that governments such as ours are at pains to foreclose with their technocratic and plutocratic education “reforms.”