House of Cards and the dark underside of liberal democracy

Political dramas have never been quite my thing. The image I’ve had of them is about a bunch of grey bureaucrats having petty fights over office positions. Yet I did check out House of Cards for the good reviews it has gotten. Plus, I was interested in the supposedly cynical and realistic depiction of White House politics that the show seemed to offer. After two seasons my feelings are mixed: As the upside-down American flag in the show’s logo implies, HoC presents itself as a critical unraveling of what we liked to call “democracy”, putting shamelessly on display all the corruption and manipulative maneuvers politicians engage in. But, on the other hand, the show does not seem to be aware of its own ideological underpinnings and – paradoxically, perhaps – does not go deep enough in its critique of ideology.



Frank Underwood in the series poster – appropriately with blood on his hands


For those of you not familiar with the series, the story is about a Democrat congressman Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) who, after being denied the position of the Secretary of State, decides to go solo and starts acting on his plan to climb the ladder of power. He is supported by his wife Claire who is running a charity organization. As the story goes on, Frank gets ever more ruthless and pragmatic, ready to lie and to manipulate, to blackmail and even to kill journalists to cover his tracks. If Frank ever had any ideological commitments, it is clear that he’s lost them all, as he’s ready to sign any piece of legislature if it serves the purpose of advancing his career.

I won’t go into any further detail about the plot (see it for yourself!). From this rather short introduction it should be quite clear what “politics as usual” looks like for the creators of the show: the Congress consists of a group of self-interested and power-hungry representatives, ready to engage in tactical maneuvers to act on their motives and to sell themselves to lobbyists if the situation calls for it. It is a very cynical universe. If the ideology of democracy calls for politicians to represent and act on the will of the electorate, it is clear that this is not the vision House of Cards subscribes to.

The show seemingly has a very anti-ideological edge. As Randy Shaw explains in his piece on Huffington Post:

House of Cards portrays a political world where nobody (except perhaps the Tea Party) is driven by actual beliefs. That’s why its characters betray unions after winning their votes, environmental groups are shown making deals with corporate polluters, and reporters who actually believe in searching for “truth” are portrayed as hopeless knaves.

The White House is all about realpolitik. The only person in the series who makes an attempt to stand for the promises made to the electorate, Peter Russo, faces a gruesome end as Frank kills him and stages it as a suicide. His fate was essentially the same as that of naive and optimistic Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot”. It is not ideology, which is the driving force behind politics. Only the most ruthless ones succeed in the game of power.

This cynical universe is what Margaret Canovan – modifying terms adopted from Oakeshott – calls the “pragmatic” aspect of democracy. According to this view, democracy is about an institutional framework, within which groups and individuals act according to their particular interests, form coalitions and try to build consensus via discussions and compromises. What this institutional framework does is to provide a space for peaceful reconciliation of conflictual interests in an era of mass communication and mass mobilization. Although Frank Underwood might be a ruthless egotist, his actions do not take place in an institutional vacuum. He might try to circumvent the rules but they are, nonetheless, there, and they limit what he can do. Sometimes he even takes advantage of the rules, as seen, for example, in the scene where he – in the position of the President of the Senate – delivers a motion called “call of the house” to compel absent Republican senators to be present at the Senate Chamber so that a quorum would be present.

Opposing the pragmatic aspect, we also have what Canovan calls the “redemptive” aspect of democracy. The redemptive side is all about the People (with a capital P). According to this view, democracy is simply another name for executing the Will of the People, and in this way it is able to bring salvation through politics. The redemptive aspect has an anti-representational side to it: democracy should be about people taking charge of their own lives directly and not being controlled by a bunch of bureaucrats, who conduct discussions in secret and engage in corruption. In fact – since it is the very ideology of democracy – this redemptive vision is what we hear all the time whenever we hear politicians and intellectuals praising democracy in public speeches. It is also what politicians rely on when they try to appeal to voters (“Vote for us, for we will make sure your voice is heard!”). House of Cards mocks this view of politics. We are all the time shown how the public appearance of politicians, their appeals to the electorate, contradicts their actual practices (secret to the public, of course). Frank Underwood is definitely not a singular exception but merely the pinnacle of this rule.

Canovan’s point is that we can’t have one without the other. Both aspects of democracy exist simultaneously side by side. As she says, pragmatic politics without the redemptive aspect is like keeping a church going without faith: a self-defeating process. When politics gets too complicated, too corrupted, too opaque, and too alienating to the public, the redemptive side is going to reassert itself with a vengeance. This is how Canovan understands populism. It is an inherent part of democracy, keeping the pragmatic part of it in check. Where we find populist parties winning ever larger shares of votes, we will also find a technocratic, corrupt and bureaucratic government, to which these parties are reacting. This seems not to be the case in House of Cards though. There appears to be not much redemptivist-populist agitation going on. In fact, the only close picture we get of political protesters in the show portrays them as fakes (they were quickly assembled together by a teachers’ union and were easily derailed by Frank). And anyone acting with such motives is doomed to a miserable failure.


Now, as I see it, there are two ways to interpret this cynical-realistic universe of House of Cards (that is, if you don’t want to accept it as it is). The first one is to say that it is a kind of criticism of contemporary politics. Nobody wants to live in a society where all that politicians do is acting according to their own self-interest. Nonetheless – and this is what House of Cards seems to be saying – that is the reality of our situation. There’s a kind of journalistic ethos going on here: the ultimate political act is to expose reality as it really is, without the veil of ideology.

One could find some support for this view in the fact that many of the “good guys” in the show are either journalists or hackers, both of whom pose a serious threat to Frank and the business of politics in general. Even Zoe Barnes – the nosy journalist from season 1 – who seemed to side with Frank for a moment turned out to be very dangerous to him in the end, so much so that he decided to kill her. Much of season 2 consists of Frank trying to stop two of Zoe’s journalist colleagues from uncovering his master plan, and he succeeds in this in the end. A depressing moment for journalism.


Zoe Barnes

In spite of these crushing defeats, the media is depicted as quite an omnipotent force in the show. Good PR is everything to these politicians. Make one mistake in your public appearance and your political career is over. Many of the battles between Frank and his antagonists are played in this very field. For example, during the teachers’ strike early on in the show, Frank was able to end the strike simply by staging a fist fight between him and the teachers’ union’s lobbyist Marty Spinella, ruining Marty’s media reputation. Frank also used this tactic to bring down Peter Russo by having him appear drunk on the radio.


Peter Russo

Not to underestimate the weight of Frank’s crimes and his certain demise if those crimes were exposed to the public, but I think the show is a bit too optimistic about the force of media. The problem today is not that we’re lacking information – especially after Wikileaks – but that we’re unmoved by it. Was the United States forced to cut back on its war operations after Wikileaks exposed the war crimes and all the collateral damage of American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Moreover, the conditions in Guantanamo Bay have been known even before Wikileaks and – after more than 10 years – the prison is still standing. But, you might say, how about the personal reputation of politicians? Couldn’t you at least take an individual person down by discrediting him or her publicly in the media? Well, as much as I would like to believe in that, I think the careers of people like Silvio Berlusconi prove otherwise. He’s been accused of illegal activities many times but has kept on returning to the political arena. Besides, we live in an era where politicians can even belittle and make fun of themselves in public (which makes me doubt whether political satire has lost the subversive core it might have once had).

But somehow I doubt that the creators of House of Cards are on a mission to expose the realpolitik of the White house in the hope that this might perhaps make us more critical of politics. The second interpretation would be that perhaps there’s really no agenda here. The world is fucked up and that’s it. Maybe the writers of the story are really just cynics and want to document reality as it is, without happy endings to please utopians and idealists. This would put the show to the same category as Game of Thrones – a series even more cynical than House of Cards. If we interpret the story this way it becomes a kind of an exposition of the egoistic nature of human beings and the corruptive effects of power and money.


The kind of a world presented in House of Cards (and Game of Thrones) is very tempting. There is something very alluring about the unveiling of appearances and getting to know the real motives behind the characters. Moreover, the appearance of cold hard realism is tempting; it’s a bittersweet pleasure to see the world in all its ugliness. But the alluring effect of shows like House of Cards should make us question why we’re drawn to the kind of realism presented in them. If we enjoy the show, it’s a sign that we’re ideologically engaged with it, that it caters to our fantasies about reality. In fact, the anti-ideological edge of House of cards is misleading, because it presents as reality the kind of a world that we find in the predominant liberal ideology, albeit in a dark guise.

What does the ideology of liberalism tell us? That we’re ultimately singular individuals acting on our own self-interests. Our actions might not be carefully considered and calculated (as the rational choice theory and game theory – commonly used in mainstream economics – suggest) but there is always a selfish motive behind them. Even if we seem to act altruistically, it can always be said that it’s only because we want to feel good about ourselves. From this singular self-interested actor we can then derive the values associated with classical liberalism and contemporary individualism, such as personal liberty, the individual’s right to freedom of action and self-expression.

It is, of course, possible to criticize the kind of views liberalism presents to us. It is possible to say, for instance, that we are not atomic selves but that our selfhood is constructed in our social relations and, therefore, that we’re social actors. Moreover, if you are psychoanalytically aligned, you could say that we’re, in fact, split subjects (the conscious and the unconscious). In this view the human being is characterized by antagonisms and contradictions. It is impossible to reduce actions merely to simple selfish motives because it’s in our nature that there is always a conflict of various motives. But this is not the place to advance a criticism of the liberal human being. My purpose was merely to show that the cold realism of House of Cards is alluring precisely because it appeals to the kind of ideological fantasies we’ve all been raised into.

Where do we find the symptoms of this liberal ideology in House of Cards? Putting the general outlook of the series aside for a moment, the most obvious sign for me is the lack of collective action/actors in the show. The closest we come to that is during the teachers’ strike early on in the show. But, as was already explain above, we don’t really get a good picture of the protesters. And the whole conflict was personified and resolved as a conflict between two individual people: Frank and Marty. Peter Russo’s rallying of the shipyard workers also died before it even begun and – again – in the form of Russo’s personal failure. There’s not even much party discipline in the show. Democrats are as eager to deceive each other as Republicans. Individual careerism is the only game in town.


Marty Spinella’s futile protest

Big business is also personified in the form of greedy lobbyists and businessmen (a story written from another perspective would have maybe shown them as disposable parts of bigger automatic machine called “capital” – an abstraction but a real one). However, it is to the benefit of the show that big business is such a huge presence in House of Cards. There are three constraints for political maneuvering in the show. The first is the law, the second is PR and the third is business. Politicians are shown to be not only dependent on lobbyists and in tightly knit relations with business people but also constrained by business interests in the range of decisions they can make and the kind of options they have on the table. This is especially relevant considering that the last 30-40 years in the United States and Europe have been a period of low investment (and, therefore, low growth) and the rise of global financialization – trends, which have increasingly limited the scope of governments’ policy options and increased public debts, therefore placing states at the mercy of their creditors (for a compelling account of this history, see Wolfgang Streeck’s “Buying Time”).

Another curious symptom of ideology at work in the show is the figure of the innocent president. Garrett Walker is quite a sympathetic figure. He doesn’t seem to be engaged in political scams and, together with his wife, is portrayed as a kind of a human figure with normal human problems (he goes to marriage counselling with his wife). Unfortunately, he is also easy to fool, as Frank constantly demonstrates throughout the series. This figure of the innocent president is not a singular peculiarity; it can be found in many other (American) TV series and movies. For example, in the latest season of 24, president James Heller expresses his anger for not having been told about a drone strike, which killed civilians somewhere in the Middle East. If my memory serves me right, he is given a perfect reply: in order to keep his hands clean, Heller shouldn’t be informed about such dirty activities happening on the ground. The point is clear: the president should be above realpolitik and saved from the dirty business of politics as usual. By the way, this is also the kind of a relationship, which Frank has with Garrett in House of Cards. Frank keeps serving Garrett (with his own hidden motives, of course) by ethically questionable tactics with Garrett’s discreet approval. He is OK with Frank’s methods, as long as he is kept in the dark.


Garrett Walker

Why is this figure of the innocent president a symptom of ideology? Once again, I need to refer to Žižek and his views on cynicism. For, according to him, total cynicism is impossible because the cynical worldview – that the world is cruel and full of egotists, etc. – is sustained by an object, which, as it were, remains ignorant and innocent. Žižek has many examples to illustrates this logic. One of them is the connection between the late 60’s sexual revolution and the figure of the innocent child. As we all know, the sexual revolution loosened up our moral standards, diversified sexualities considered pathological before and even lead to extremities, which remain controversial to this day. However, this development was coupled with another trend: the emergence of the figure of the innocent child. Whereas in psychoanalysis and during the times before the sexual revolution, children were considered sexual beings (Freud among others), in modern times children are extremely desexualized and the figure of the pedophile has become like an incarnation of Satan on earth. It is as if, even though sexuality is now perhaps more diverse and visible than ever, there has to remain an innocent gaze, someone who is not aware of what is happening – and this gaze is embodied in the figure of the innocent child. To take another example, from TV this time, there is a wonderful depiction of this same logic in the vampire series True Blood. Sookie’s (the protagonist) grandmother dies early on in the show but Sookie seems strangely unaffected by this, as if her beloved grandmother’s death didn’t have any emotional impact on her. However, the secret to her unaffected state of mind is soon revealed. Before she died, Sookie’s grandma had baked a pie. It is only when Sookie takes the pie out of the fridge and starts eating it that she breaks down in tears. The pie was a stand-in for her grandma; as long as the pie remained intact, the fact that the grandma was really dead hadn’t really hit Sookie on an affective level.

Going back to House of Cards, the figure of the innocent president is, I think, a stand-in for the purity of politics. As long as the head of the White House remains ignorant of it, realpolitik can go on. The cynical universe of House of Cards needs a character like Garrett Walker to sustain it; he is a symptom of the kind of an ideology House of Cards propagates. so what would have been the way out of this deadlock? I would say: go all the way! Attack the object, which sustains one’s ideology. In other words, deprive the president of his innocent status and portray him as a corrupt politician like everyone else, or, perhaps even better, as a person corrupted by his office and status. If the authors had done it that way, they would have rendered visible the corruptive nature of the political system as such. Now the show seems to sustain the illusion that politics would be different with different actors: remove the corrupted politicians and all would be fine.


It’s time for a conclusion: House of Cards, in spite of its attractive cynicism and anti-ideological edge, remains caught in the ideological constraints of contemporary liberalism. Frank Underwood, far from exposing to the audience the real nature of politicians behind their democratic rhetoric (as if didn’t already know), complies just nicely with a) the figure of a liberal human being acting on his or her own self-interest and b) the image of politics as a play field of individual actors trying to climb the ladder of power, which, I think, is the dark underside of consensus politics. The latter, as explained above apropos Canovan, refers to the pragmatic view of democratic politics, which emphasizes the role of institutional constraints as peaceful containers and reconcilers of conflicts between adversaries with their own specific interests. The goal of these constraints and deliberative proceedings is, of course, to establish a consensus among all parties, therefore coming to a solution, which serves everyone involved. Of course, the implication of this is that the parties involved should be able to leave their particular interests aside and come to a compromise, which benefits all. Frank Underwood, although able to circumvent the rules and use them to his own advantage, exists solely within this ideology of consensus – as its dark shadow. He doesn’t stand for universality but particularity; his motive is not the universal interest but his own private one.

I do not think politics should be about reaching an agreement between adversaries. what this consensus view of politics hides is the irreconcilability of deep antagonisms, which constitute the society. Apropos class struggle, it is impossible to find lasting agreements between capitalists and the rest of the people (workers and the unemployed), for the very existence of the former depends on the exploitation of the latter. To take a very concrete example of this, during a time of crisis higher wages cannot be in the interests of capitalists because to raise wages is the same as to cut profits. Moreover, mass unemployment, especially if welfare programs and labor legislation are weak, actually benefits capitalists: it is a way for them to pressure people into accepting lower wages and poorer conditions of work. Welfare of the mass of people is not in essence aligned with the interests of capitalists, who are always forced to act on the basis of the profit motive.

What this exploitative relation between capitalists and the rest of the people also implies is the asymmetricity between their respective positions. Whereas the former stands for particularity, the latter stands for universality. The interests of capitalists are particular interests, only serving the class of capitalists, while the interests of the rest of the people stand for the universal interest of the demos, of people as such. The ideology of consensus politics implies the particular nature of the actors involved in the decision-making process, therefore obscuring, not only the antagonistic relations of the actors, but also the place of universality – for universality is not represented in the reached consensus but in the interests of one apparently particular party in the debate, the party standing for the people (as opposed to the capitalists).

So, if Frank Underwood is not the kind of a figure of a politician we need, what would be? I’m willing to take cue from Žižek, who has issued a call for a new master figure for the Left in the form of a Leftist Thatcher. As we all know, Margaret Thatcher was relentless in her attacks against the working class. Most famously, she was able to suppress the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Žižek attributes to her the ability to change the entire coordinates of political debate, transforming the way we talk about the economy and what is possible:

Margaret Thatcher, the lady who was not for turning, was such a Master, sticking to her decision which was at first perceived as crazy, gradually elevating her singular madness into an accepted norm. When Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies – the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field.

So, it would be interesting to decouple the particular egoistic motives of Frank Underwood and the relentlessness according to which he acts. Do we not need someone who is as determined as he is on our side? Do we not need someone who is able to push through our views without resulting in a weak compromise? Do we not need someone who would not accept the rules of the debate as given but have the debate on our terms instead? Iron determinacy and an uncompromising attitude are not necessarily bad features for a politicians to have. In fact, they are precisely the kind of features we should expect from a political figure who acts according to the interests of the people, or, in other words, the universal.


Lessons in Revolution: Snowpiercer, Marx, Rancière

During the last few years cinema has been penetrated by class struggle in the form of “Hunger Games” and “Elysium”. The spectacle of visual effects in both of them has blasted on the screen the dire situation of rising inequality all around the world, a trend which is far from a red herring. The Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho – who also brought us “The Host” and “Mother” among other movies – and his crew gave their contribution to the list and produced their own cinematic representation of class struggle in the form of “Snowpiercer”, possibly the best film of the year and definitely the most revolutionary one.



Poster, with Curtis on the front.


The film takes place in the near future when the earth has frozen up (making life impossible on earth) due to a failed experiment of climate engineering (large-scale manipulation of the atmosphere in an attempt to stop global warming). The remains of humanity are packed on a gigantic train called Snowpiercer, which circles around the globe with the power of a perpetual motion engine. The train is extremely stratified along class lines: the tail of the train is inhabited by poor rabble while wealthy elite take up the rest of the train. In a Marxist fashion, there exists a relation of exploitation, which sustains the class system: children of the inhabitants of the tail are frequently taken from their parents and brought to the front of the train (to work the train’s engine, as it is revealed later on).

The film follows a rebellion iniatiated by the tail inhabitants and lead by a man called Curtis. With their collective force they’re able to defeat the elite’s guardians and move towards the head of the train car by car with the aim of overthrowing the rule of Wilford, the creator of the train and the head of its social hierarchy. In addition to Curtis and Wilford, there are also some other characters whose roles are central to the story. One of them is Minister Mason, who acts as the representative of Wilford (and the elite as a whole) and commands the guardians. Another central character is Namgoong Minsu, a prisoner released by Curtis. He designed the security system of the train and Curtis persuades him to help the tail inhabitants advance towards the head. Curtis also has a mentor, an older man named Gilliam, who dies during the rebellion. As will be seen later on in a plot twist, he turns out to be a double-faced character who has been plotting behind Curtis’s back.


Curtis and his people facing the train’s police force.


Namgoong Minsu

The film is a showcase of Bong’s characteristic style of film-making. The physical setting of the story – the train with all its various cars – allow him to play out his genre-smashing and pace-shifting technique. The atmosphere of the movie keeps shifting as Curtis’s forces move through the train. The film starts from the decayed tail cars, creating a dystopian atmosphere, but quickly erupts into action as the revolt starts moving. After Curtis captures Mason, who he uses as a hostage and a guide to advance further to the prosperous cars of the elite, the film takes comedic turns and even has a surreal flavor to it, reminding me very vaguely of Godard’s “Weekend” and less vaguely of Gilliam’s “Brazil”. When we finally get to Wilford’s car at the front, the film has shifted its shape from a rather clearcut class struggle form into a multifaceted work of art and social critique.


The thematics of social stratification in this film shine through immediately in its visuals. The tail cars are dark, trashy, crowded, precisely the kind of a visual representation of deprivation one easily imagines. The tail’s poverty seems to culminate in disgusting protein bars, which serve as food in the tail (considering the popularity of protein snacks in the fitness boom nowadays, what an irony!). Later the tail inhabitants learn that the bars are actually made of insects that are being processed in one of the cars. In contrast to the tail, the cars reserved for the elite are clean, technologically advanced and filled with interior design. The film also drives home the point that fashion is a symbol and privilege of social status: whereas the tail inhabitants wear ragged clothes, Minister Mason looks like a judge from Project Runway.


Tail inhabitants, with Gilliam on the right.


Tyranny goes Gaga: Minister Mason

However, the immediate setting of social inequality is not what makes this movie progressive or revolutionary in its logic. What I will try to do in this text is to show the intrinsic Marxist framing of class struggle in the film, which sets it apart from similar movies. It is this framing, which challenges the audience to think about revolution in ways movies like Elysium never could. The analysis that follows is going to focus on two points. First, the role of ideology in legitimizing class hierarchy (or what is called the spirit of capitalism in the Weberian tradition of sociology). And second, the anti-systemic logic of the ending twist (watch out for spoilers!).

i) There is another benefit in the train setting than just allowing Bong to play freely with his approach to film-making, it also allows Bong to show glimpses of contemporary Western capitalist societies in a kind of satirical light (the train’s society is, of course, not capitalist, but it is fairly obvious what it’s supposed to represent). As the tail inhabitants march towards the front of the train, we get to see all sorts of facilities and places of leisure provided for the elite. The classroom car is especially memorable as it embodies in an almost embarrassingly straightforward form the orthodox Marxist account of how ideology operates: ideology is a veil covering, legitimizing and naturalizing the class hierarchy and relations of production, obfuscating the true nature of the society for its inhabitants. The classroom car is a satire of school as an ideological state apparatus: children are being indoctrinated to comply to the social order of the train by a ridiculous ideological song about Wilford and the sublime properties of the train’s perpetual motion engine.


Education or indoctrination?

There’s also a materialist philosophy of religion at play in Bong’s movie. In the beginning of the film Minister Mason gives a lecture to the tail inhabitants who have been showing signs of disobedience where she speaks of Wilford and the train’s engine as holy beings, elevating them to a god-like position. I was immediately reminded of something I read in Chris Harman’s People’s History of the World where he notes that in pre-historic societies granaries and other systems of distributing food and resources in the society were commonly elevated to the status of religious worship along with their guardians. In Snowpiercer the perpetual motion engine is what keeps the train moving and all its inhabitants alive, i.e. it is the material basis for the reproduction of the train’s society. Is it not natural for such an object to be mystified in a religious vein? And doesn’t this elevate the engine’s creator to the status of a god?

As we know from the critics of orthodox Marxism, the conception of ideology as a veil covering up the true relations of domination and exploitation in the society – while there’s truth to it – does not quite capture all the ways ideology operates and is linked with the economic conditions and relations of the society. A range of thinkers from Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello to Slavoj Žižek have noted how ideology is not just some kind of a discourse or a rhetorical trick to fool the oppressed into submission, it is also a structuring principle of social reality in itself; ideology is not just a way to legitimate the actually existing social order, it also helps to bring this social order about. For example, Žižek understands ideology as a set of unconscious beliefs, which we follow in our daily actions. The mystery of beliefs is in the way they work seemingly without anyone actually doing the believing. Žižek likes to illustrate this in connection with the Marxist notion of commodity fetishism: Nobody actually believes that the stupid paper bills in my pocket are valuable as plain physical objects but, nonetheless, they will accept them as means of payment as if they had some magical properties, which make them valuable and allow them to serve as money. In this sense ideology is not in what we believe but in what we actually do.

But this is a digression. What I wanted to show here is that Snowpiercer employes very consciously the orthodox notion of ideology as a veil obfuscating the true nature of the society. It’s a very simple satire but serves to remind us that contemporary capitalist socities are far from post-ideological. Ideology is very much alive and kicking, even if we would better off to resort to the likes of Žižek rather than orthodox Marxists in order to understand how we’re being persuaded and bribed to submit to the imperatives of our economic system.

ii) The Marxist punch proper only appears in the very end of the movie. Curtis, Minsu and his daughter finally get to the front car, the home of Wilford and the location of the perpetual motion engine. Curtis is finally going to execute his plan: to overthrow Wilford’s rule and take control of the engine. Minsu, however, has other plans. He wants to blow up the door next to the front car, which leads to outside of the train. His intention is to abandon the train and live outside, on land, in the hopes that the earth’s climate has warmed up enough to sustain life. What is at stake in the choice between these two options? Who should we side with? Let’s examine these questions in the light of the course of events the film takes.

Wilford meets Curtis with a very unpleasant surprise: he had planned everything all along. As he explains to Curtis, the train has a very delicate eco-system, which is founded on maintaining the hierachical social order of the train. As this balance is disturbed, measures have to be taken in order to establish harmony once again. At this point, the population of the tail had grown too large. It needed to be cut down drastically: precisely 74% of the tail inhabitants had to die for the sake of restoring the train’s eco-system. In a kind of trade-off, Wilford’s intention was to let the rebellion advance a few cars further from the tail and stop there. This was planned together with Gilliam, Curtis’s mentor, who is now revealed to be one of the bad guys.

Curtis also learns what the children kidnapped from the tail inhabitants are being used for: the perpetual motion engine is sustained by child labor. Bong plays out an incredibly effective contrast here. Wilford’s car is beautifully decorated, even if slightly anemic, while the engine appears on the background like a sublime relic from ancient times. However, one only needs to remove one of the floor plates to expose the horror that keeps the place from falling apart: one of the children is being kept in a very tiny place in the middle of complicated machinery beneath the floor. The sight of exploitation is being kept at bay by only a thin layer of floor plates.


Wilford and the perpetual motion engine.


Underneath the floor…

To add insult to injury, Wilford crowns his master plan by telling Curtis that he wants to make him the new head of the train. Wilford is getting old and is in need of a replacement and he thinks Curtis is up for the job. Curtis is now faced with a very strange dilemma. What he thought he needed to fight for is being offered to him on a plate. The horror of this confrontation is that he is completely at a loss as to what to do. He thought he was fighting against the elite’s greed and Wilford’s lust for power. What he intended to do after overthrowing Wilford was to lead the train’s society differently, in an equal and democratic vein, without exploitation and oppression. But now – having been informed by the inevitability of social inequality – he can’t see any other options than turning into another Wilford, as despotic and as cruel.

It could be said that Bong shows here how even class struggle itself can be incorporated into the capitalist social order. The working class is kept at bay by reformist bribes, which will keep them calm and satisfied, while relations of domination and exploitation continue to exist. However, I think Bong’s point goes a little bit further than this and ends on an optimistic note. What Snowpiercer does is invoking the old line from Marx from his The Civil War in France: “[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (The First International and After, p. 206) The tail inhabitants cannot simply march in to Wilford’s car, take the power to their own hands and establish a just social order. The (eco-)system by which the train operates is inherently unjust regardless of who pretends to rule it; there’s no other way to keep the engine alive and the train’s (eco-)system in balance than by domination and exploitation. This is the hard lesson in revolution Curtis faces.

It is hard not to see the analogy with present day capitalism. The train’s perpetual motion engine bears too much resemblence to capital that it cannot be a coincidence. What is capital – the self-propelling movement of money for the sake of making more money, production for the sake of expanding production, consumption for the sake of consumption – if not a perpetual motion engine, which feeds on human lives? And doesn’t Wilford’s cruel calculation – 74% – of the required loss of human lives resemble the quantitative logic of present day austerity with its reductions in public spending and cuts in labor costs? What Snowpiercer challenges us to think about is this: What if austerity is just a consequence of the logic of the capitalist system as such? What if austerity is the best capitalism can offer?

So, what’s the way out? Bong seems to credit Minsu with an answer: the goal is not to take power within the current system but to abandon the whole system as such. In the end the door to outside is blown up open and the train goes off the rails. Only two kids are left alive. They wonder outside the train and see a polar bear walking on the snow. It’s a proof that the earth’s climate has become inhabitable again and there’s life outside the train. In spite of the collapse of the train, it is a profoundly optimistic ending; another kind of a society is possible, but the hard lesson in revolution is that it will require overthrowing the entire system.


What’s the meaning of politics in Snowpiercer? The film essentially culminates in a very anti-systemic and revolutionary view of politics: politics is the collective resistance to oppression inherent in the system as a totality. However, there’s another opposition at play in the film, which can be approached from the perspective of Jacques Rancière’s philosophy of politics, laid down in his Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. The crux of his argument is that politics begins when oppressed and marginalized groups render themselves visible in the public arena, posit themselves as beings equal to everyone else and identify themselves with the totality of the society/social system. In politics the notion of equality disrupts/displaces the established social order.

Rancière contrasts politics with what he calls the Police. This doesn’t refer to actual police forces but to the ideologico-institutional social order, which assigns every individual to his or her proper place in the society. This can be conceived through social roles, which can be professions, gender roles, etc. (such as “woman”, “man”, “father”, “mother”, “teacher”, “student”). The Police reduces society to its individual parts, leaving no residual. It is the proper functioning of its individual parts, according the logic of the Police, which sustains the smooth running of the society and guarantees social harmony. For Rancière, the notion of “consensual democracy” is a system of this kind: it reduces the society to its individual parts (demographic groups, professions, special-interest groups, identity groups, etc.) and attempts to reconcile all the various interests of these individual parts into a coherent whole (for example, by parliamentary forms of governance and decision-making). In Snowpiercer, Wilford also obeys the logic of the Police. But his view of society is not consensual democratic but social darwinist: the train forms a delicate eco-system, in which every social group and individual has its proper place, the displacement of which results in disruptions in the eco-system.

In opposition to the Police, politics proper disrupts/displaces the established ideologico-institutional formation. Real democracy begins when an oppressed and marginalized group, which doesn’t have a place in the society, asserts itself on a political arena, declares itself equal to everyone else and identifies itself with the totality of the society/social system. Politics emerges precisely from the above mentioned residual, which isn’t supposed to exist in the calculations of the Police. For Rancière, the paradigmatic examples are proletarians (the working class) and women. Proletarians, as we know from Marx, do not have a place in the bourgeois social order. In contrast to the bourgeois fantasy of equal individuals making free decisions and contracts in the market, the capitalist social order is actually penetrated by class inequality: the class of owners of the means of production exploit the class of proletarians, who do not possess anything but their own labor-power, which they are forced to sell to their employers. As for women, what makes feminists political in the Rancièrean sense is their non-identification with the gender role they’ve been assigned to; a feminist will not accept the role of, for example, a submissive domestic housewife assigned to her by conservative ideologies but demands equality. In Snowpiercer, politics encapsulates in the struggle of the tail inhabitants against the place assigned to them by Wilford and his crew.

Rancière warns us about the temptation to conceive of politics as reconciliation of various interests achieved by rational discussion (à la Jürgen Habermas). Before any discussion can take place, social groups have to be constituted as legitimate parties in the discussion. It is here, on a level below reconciliation of interests by rational discussion, where politics takes place. It is the struggle of a social group to constitute itself as a party in the discussion. It is only after this has taken place when their demands can be recognized and conceived, not dismissed as incomprehensible noise (take the common image of a protester spouting meaningless nonsense). What Snowpiercer warns us about, in a Rancièrean vein, is the conception of politics as technocratic governance of the society, especially its economic system. Technocracy reduces politics to the management of economic policy by “experts” and limits our options to austerity and regulation of interest rates. As Marx reminds us, the governance of our economic system is always a political question.

Snowpiercer also rejects another Police logic, one that is perhaps more ideological, namely the logic of social darwinism (or, if you prefer a similar demographic version of the doctrine, Malthusianism). The usual formulation of this “theory” goes something like this: Social darwinism – ridiculously popular on discussion forums on the internet – reduces the society to the struggle of individuals for survival. The logic of the survival of the fittest is not only a gross distortion of the actual science of evolution but also a way to naturalize all the inequalities we perceive in our society. Poverty becomes a weakness of character, the result of natural incompetence and failure in the struggle for survival. Social darwinism – in spite of its cynicism – is a theory of social harmony: every individual is assigned to his or her place by the logic of survival while the society appears to form an eco-system where the strong succeed at the expense of the weak. Inequalities get naturalized and grounded in bad genes. The falsity of this logic is apparent to every social scientist. We don’t live in a state of nature (an imaginary construct if there ever was one) where the struggle for survival is supposed to take place but in a society dominated by the logic of class relations and other social systems, all of which are historically contingent and subject to change.

All it takes is collective resistance.

The Work Ethic as Cruel Optimism: On desires, drives and Kuroko no Basket

In the introduction to The Parallax View, Slavoj Žižek invites the reader to think the absurd: to apply Hegelian dialectical analysis to sexual practices. What makes this exercise ridiculous is not directly its sexual content but the “short circuit” between two levels, which usually don’t appear in the same text: high philosophical theory and low mundane life. I’ve been doing something quite similar in this blog, namely applying theoretical concepts to low-brow entertainment. The following text is loyal to this approach and extends my theoretical engagement with anime.


Žižek also remarks somewhere that the ideological currents of today’s society are best exemplified in Hollywood movies and, most of all, in cartoons (I only need to point to his commentary on Kung-fu Panda). Couldn’t this also be the case with anime? In a previous post, I have already discussed the meritocratic ideology or, if you will, the work ethic frequently played out in anime. There I attempted to point out some oppressive dimensions of the meritocratic ideology of hard work. To put it more specifically: capitalism cannot keep the promises it makes due to its structurally unequal nature and, therefore, the demands made on the working subject become unbearable for him or her. In this post I will return to these topics but with a slightly different conceptual approach.


As the second season recently ended, it is only appropriate to make my case with the sports anime Kuroko no Basuke (engl. Kuroko’s Basketball). The synopsis of the show follows the trails of other sports anime. Borrowing from Wikipedia:

The basketball team of Teikō Middle School rose to distinction by demolishing all competition. The regulars of the team became known as the “Generation of Miracles”. After graduating from middle school, these five stars went to different high schools with top basketball teams. However, a fact few know is that there was another player in the “Generation of Miracles”: a phantom sixth man. This mysterious player is now a freshman at Seirin High, a new school with a powerful, if little-known, team. Now, Kuroko Tetsuya, the sixth member of the “Generation of Miracles”, and Kagami Taiga, a naturally talented player who spent most of middle school in the US, are aiming to bring Seirin to the top of Japan, taking on Kuroko’s former teammates one by one.

If you know anything about anime in general and sports anime in particular, you’ll immediately get the gist. This is a show about ambitious goals, hard work and the emotional turbulence involved in the process. We get to follow Seirin High School’s basketball team as they go through hard training, extremely intense matches and personal emotional conflicts with former friends and enemies. The underlying theme of the show is, of course, the very spirit of meritocracy: with hard work, self-discipline and determination, you’ll be able to overcome all obstacles. This is played out in various ways as our team faces opponents, who are almost impossible to beat, and even some lost battles (namely the match against Kuroko’s former team-mate, Aomine).

The show also plays with the theme of rivalry (it’s a sports anime, afterall). How is it possible to maintain friendly relations with your toughest rivals? This doesn’t only hold between Kuroko and his former team-mates, the generation of miracles, but also between Kagami and his good friend from his childhood who, like Kagami, also returned back from the US to Japan and plays in an another team. As interesting as this topic of rivalry versus friendship is, I’m going to put it aside for now and focus on the antinomies of the show’s work ethic.



What kind of an affective economy does the meritocratic ideology (defined here as the idea of success depending on the individual effort put into it – “hard work pays off”) rely on? On the first sight the work ethic seems to operate by the logic of desire: the desired object is the thing, which you aim for and which is supposed to bring you satisfaction once you’ve achieved it by your own efforts. In the case of Kuroko no Basuke, the object of desire could be said to be winning a tournament. This is what our protagonists work so hard for, beating everyone else in the game and taking the first place.

However, this is not the whole story. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, makes a distinction between desire and drive. Both forms of attachment are attachments to an object but the forms of these attachments differ. For Lacan, the object of desire overlaps with its loss and only emerges as lost. That is to say, if I understand it correctly, the desired for object only exists as a counterpart of your desire. That is why the desire of our protagonists is never going to be fully satisfied: there will always be other tournaments, other opponents, other challenges. The object of desire is a fleeting object, something which escapes our grasp once we think we have reached it.

Drive, on the other hand, operates by a different logic of affective engagement. Whereas desire finds its momentary satisfaction in reaching its goal, the lost object of desire, drive find its satisfaction in this loss itself. Drive is the compulsion to repeat failed attempts to reach one’s goal. In this sense it is a countermovement to desire. As Žižek explains:

[A] drive does not bring satisfaction because its object is a stand-in for the Thing, but because a drive, as it were, turns failure into triumph – in it, the very failure to reach its goal, the repetition of this failure, the endless circulation around the object, generates a satisfaction of its own. As Lacan put it, the true aim of a drive is not to reach its goal, but to circulate endlessly around it. (The Parallax View, p. 63-64)

In the match that concludes season 2, between Seirin High School and Yōsen High School, there is a wonderful short dialogue between Kiyoshi, Kuroko’s team-mate, and Murasakibara, Kuroko’s former team-mate and one of the generation of miracles. In the first half of the match Murasakibara’s team appears to be overpowering Kiyoshi’s with their strong defense. In spite of this Seirin’s morale is high. Annoyed with the no-giving-up spirit of Kiyoshi, Murasakibara snaps at him:

Murasakibara: “You never learn. I just don’t understand why people work so hard when they can’t win.”
Kiyoshi: “Whether or not I can win doesn’t matter. Working towards a goal is just so much fun, I can’t help myself.”

These two lines follow different logics, the first one that of desire and the second one that of drive. Murasakibara can’t understand why would someone not be discouraged by failure to reach one’s goal. This is common sense. What good comes from endlessly failing to achieve anything, failing to fulfill one’s desire? Kiyoshi, on the other hand, finds satisfaction in working towards a goal, which is to say, in endless circulation around it. Whether the goal will be reached or not is not the main point for Kiyoshi. What he wants is to repeat the game over and over again regardless of failure or, what would be more appropriate for drive, to reenact failure over and over again.

So what if we conceptualized the work ethic as drive instead of desire? What if there is a movement in the process of working your way towards a goal from the desire to reach it to the drive to endlessly repeat the failure to reach it? In Kuroko no Basuke this is played out whenever our protagonists get fired up as a consequence of defeat. Some examples: After the first match with Aomine’s team Kagami is forced to face his weakness, but only to be motivated by it afterwards. Kuroko goes through something similar in the second match with Aomine as he is able to block all the polished techniques Kuroko worked so hard for. The pinnacle of this logic of defeat-as-triumph is, of course, Kiyoshi “the Iron Heart” who never gives up even after repeated failure.


Apparently the Japanese get kicks out of failure in real life as well. In cross-cultural comparisons of motivational patterns of Japanese and American people, studies have found that whereas Americans typically work harder in response to their own successes relative to their failures, the Japanese work harder in response to failures relative to their successes. This difference is attributed to different cultural logics of Japan and the United States. Whereas the American society values independency and the excellence of individual achievement, the Japanese society is guided by more conformistic values. Placing emphasis on one’s shortcomings allows the Japanese to improve themselves in order to meet conformistic expectations. (see Toivonen et al. 2011: “Unable to conform, unwilling to rebel? Youth, culture and motivation in globalizing Japan”)

In my previous post on the antinomies of the work ethic I made a claim that repeated failures to reach one’s goal wears out the working subject. Not only are you expected to reach impossible goals, you’re not even allowed to give up in response to the repeated failures to reach them. Perhaps I should have added an exception: the kind of work ethic described here is bound to wear out the working subject, unless he or she is Japanese!

But it’s not that simple either. The article mentioned above attempts to explain the so called hikikomori phenomenon. The term refers to a group of teens and young adults withdrawing themselves not only from employment, education and training but also from face-to-face social contacts. The authors put this phenomenon in the context of labor market restructuring that has been taking place in Japan for the past few decades. As a consequence of globalization, unemployment has soared (especially for young people) and jobs have become increasingly “casual” (part-time, fixed term, variable hours, etc.). Due to these structural changes more and more young people are thrown to the labor market to compete for diminishing secure jobs, and less and less young people have access to a decent and secure income, occupational training, full social security benefits and a legitimate social status. (for an excellent account of similar changes that have taken place in Western economies, see Boltanski & Chiapello 2005: “The New Spirit of Capitalism”, especially chapter 4: “Dismantling the World of Work”)

The word often used to describe the current “new normal” of insecurity is precarity. A precarious situation is marked by an insecure work status, un- or underemployment, low income and weakened social benefits and poor psychological welfare (for a text on the psychological consequences of the new spirit of capitalism, see “Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety” by JD Taylor). Social withdrawal can be explained as a disillusioned reaction to the current labor market, which has nothing to offer for young people. They are less and less able to conform to the norms of finding a secure job and gaining the expected social status by traditional means. There’s nothing to be learned from failure. In this context the traditional work ethic, the ideology of everything-is-possible-with-hard-work, is cruel.

So, perhaps the term which captures best the affective economy of the work ethic is cruel optimism? I’m borrowing this term from Lauren Berlant, who wrote a book with the same title. She describes cruel optimism as a relation to an object, which you desire but which is actually an obstacle to your flourishing:

“[C]ruel optimism” [is] a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic. What’s cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their wellbeing, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world. (Cruel Optimism, p. 24)

In the context of the work ethic, we might find cruel optimism in the betrayed promise of rewards for your hard work. No matter how hard you try, you might never be rewarded for it, yet you remain attached to your repeated attempts to reach your goals, finding one insecure job after another in the hope that one day you’ll find the right one, with an actual possibility of security and upward mobility. Cruel optimism could be described as a kind of a bittersweet drive to reenact the scene of betrayed optimism.


I am siding with Murasakibara. When it appears that Seirin High School’s basketball team is able to break Yōsen’s strong defense, Murasakibara goes on full offense with a point to prove: he wants to show that hard work won’t pay off because the game of basketball favors tall players. As a two meters tall giant, he completely overpowers his opponents and scores with ease due to his height. For Murasakibara, who is disillusioned with basketball, the game is not fair: hard work is being undermined by systemic constraints of the game itself, which favor some at the expense of others. Unfortunately, but predictably, the show won’t allow proof for Murasakibara’s claims. In the end Kuroko and his team-mates outsmart him and his team, therefore proving again that everything is possible if you just work your way through it.

In her analysis of Rosetta and La Promesse, Belgian movies about precarious workers, Berlant remarks how both of these films end in an optimistic scene, once more soliciting the audience a hope that perhaps, in spite of the poor conditions of the protagonists in these movies, everything might turn out to be OK for them in the end. In this way, as Berlant says, “[t]o be made to desire a normativity hangover trains the audience in cruel optimism” (p. 178). Perhaps Kuroko no Basuke should be treated in the same way? Is it not simply just another anime to the extensive list of shows training the audience in the (cruel) optimism embedded in the traditional work ethic?

The Negative Ontology of Subjectivity: Reflections on (Anti-)Cartesian and Hegelian conceptions of the mind

New year! and…uh…old topics?

Out of all the field of philosophy I’ve been investing a huge part of my time in reading philosophy of mind; the mind/body relation has been interesting for me since forever. So now that I’m minoring in philosophy in university I could finally put all of that into use in my seminar paper, which officially concluded my philosophy studies. That sounds a lot more epic than it was in reality because the paper turned out to be a complete mess. But, nonetheless, I wanted to write about the topic in this blog as well so here are some of the topics that have caught my attention lately.


The mind/body dilemma is an ancient one but the modern conception of it runs something like this: How is it possible that there is an ontological relation between the mind (that is to say: subjectivity, perception, thought, mental content, etc.) and the body (objectivity, physical entities, the “outer” world as opposed to the “inner” world the subject)? These two realms appear to be impossible to reconcile; the subjective world of perception, feeling and thought and the objective world physical entities and forces seem incommensurable.

The modern conception of the dilemma can be traced back to Descartes who separated the mind from the body with his epistemological method. The question for Descartes is the following: “Is there something whose existence I can’t doubt?” The answer, of course, is the existence of the “I”, cogito, the pure thinking subject. Everything that is outside of my own pure subjectivity I can doubt, such as the existence of my laptop, this blog or even my physical body, but I can’t doubt the fact that I think, which proves my own existence to me. Thinking is being.

From this Descartes deducts his dualistic metaphysics. The world, according to Descartes, is composed of two substances. The first substance is the substance of the mind, the substance of pure thought. The second one is the substance of matter, the substance of extensionality. The human being is a combination of the two substances: on the one hand human beings possess thinking minds, one the other hand they also have material bodies. But now Descartes runs into a problem. How is it possible for the two substances to be in a causal relationship with each other? If the two substances really are qualitatively separate, therefore incommensurable, how is it possible for the mind to affect physical reality and vice versa?

Descartes didn’t have an answer for this and the problem has remained ever since. The problems of “Cartesianism” (the name of this doctrine draws from Descartes’s name) have caused modern philosophers to distanciate themselves from Cartesian thought. Contemporary philosophers usually possess an explicitly anti-Cartesian stance, of which there are many varieties. One could, for example, deny the existence of the soul that is separate from the body. That is to say, there is really only one substance, matter. The sort of anti-Cartesianism that I’m the most familiar with takes issue with Descartes’s dualistic approach. According to this view Descartes’s error lies in his strict separation of the inner subjective realm of thought and the outer objective realm of physical objects. One could say that the mind is always already “embodied”, that lower-level bodily sensations affect reasoning, etc. One could also claim that there is really no separation between the “inner” and the “outer”, etc.

The separation of the mind from the body appears to anti-Cartesian thought as a dualistic contradiction that somehow needs to be reconciled. Otherwise we’re going to run into problems such as the problem of causality. As a rule the modes of reconciliation turn to monism in one way or another: one can either eliminate the existence of one substance and affirm the existence of the other (eliminative materialism or subjective idealism) or one can try to break the dualistic formula by attempting to merge the opposing realms together in a non-contradictory sense. I’ll take an example of the latter in the following.


One very intriguing anti-Cartesian approach is the one taken by Bennett & Hacker in their work Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). Positioning themselves not only as opposed to dualistic views of the mind but also to simplistic eliminativist-reductionist formulas (professed by brain scientists and philosophers alike), their criticism of Cartesianism is not only aimed at traditional dualists but also at contemporary neuroscience-driven theories. According to Bennett & Hacker contemporary theories are guilty of what they call “brain-body-dualism”, the tendency to ascribe to the brain similar functions Descartes ascribed to the thinking mind (or mental substance).

Whereas for Descartes consciousness, perception, thinking and so on were attributes of the mind, for contemporary neuroscientists and similarly oriented philosophers it is the brain, which thinks, perceives and is conscious. But, Bennett & Hacker add, it is not the brain, which thinks or perceives, but the human being whose brain it is; it is necessary for a human being to possess a functioning brain in order to think and perceive but it is not the brain, which does the thinking and perceiving nor are perceptions and thoughts located in the brain. (In a similar way it is essential to have a steering wheel in your car while you drive but the driving is not in the steering wheel.)

Furthermore, according to Bennett & Hacker, behind the brain-body-dualism lies a faulty conception of the nature of subjective experience. According to this flawed view, subjective experience is treated as an entirely private phenomenon only accessible to the subject experiencing it. Other people only have indirect access to the private experiences of the subject by observing his or her behaviour. The idea is that whereas I have direct access to my own feelings, such as the sensation of pain, others can only observe my behaviour, for instance acting like I’m in pain, and infer what I might be feeling. But this doesn’t hold because:

[T]he primary warrant for the ascription of psychological predicates to another person or to an animal is conceptually bound up with the meaning of the relevant predicate. Pain-behaviour is a criterion – that is, logically good evidence for being in pain – and perceptual behaviour […] is a criterion for the animal’s perceiving. That such-and-such kinds of behavior are criteria for the ascription of such-and-such a psychological predicate is partly constitutive of the meaning of the predicate in question. (p. 82)

That is to say, in order for me to use the concept “pain” and ascribe it to myself or other people, I must know what this concept means. And the meaning of the concept partly consists of the relevant behaviour, for instance screaming in pain or physically avoiding the source of the pain. Because observable behaviour in this way partly constitutes the meaning of the psychological concepts we use it is not palpable to treat subjective experiences as entirely private phenomena. Thus, the dualistic distinction between my “inner” subjective mental states and my “outer” behaviour that is observable by others is a false one.

I think Bennett & Hacker fail both in and for themselves, that is, they fail to understand the inaccessibility of our mental states and they also fail in terms of their own logic. Taking the latter first: Bennett & Hacker admit that sometimes it happens that a person could be faking or acting out an emotion that he or she is not experiencing. One could also hide what he or she is feeling so that we can’t observe it by his or her behaviour. Therefore we don’t observe other people’s mental states directly but “as directly as possible” (B&H actually say something like this). However, if observable behaviour is “logically good evidence” to ascribe a psychological predicate to a human being we’re observing, where does this possibility of error come from? “From induction!” say Bennett & Hacker, “of course, behaviour is not a guarantee of the presence of the mental state it seems to refer to since we can always be mistaken and led astray by surface appearances!” (OK, they don’t say precisely this but that’s what their argument seems to come down to.) For Bennett & Hacker the connection between behaviour and the mental state expressed by it is both logical and non-logical (inductive): on the one hand behaviour is supposed to be constitutive of the meaning of the psychological predicates we use, but on the other hand we can only establish this connection by inductive inference (thereby admitting the possibility of error, which means there’s always going to be a gap between behaviour and the mental state expressed by it).

Bennett & Hacker are also too eager simply to fuse together my private access to my feelings and the feelings themselves (“I do not have access to pain, I feel pain”). As Zizek remarks somewhere in The Parallax View (2006), when dualists say that other people do not have direct access to my subjective mental states they forget to add that the same applies to myself also. It is characteristic of human beings that their own subjective feelings remain inaccessible to them as subconscious desires, motivations etc. Furthermore, the fact that my own mental states are inaccessible to myself gives rise to specifically human emotions, for instance the conflicting emotions that arise in me when I deny or suppress my own subconscious desires.

I would also add that, in order for us to experience the other as a subject, as an intentional agent with his own thoughts, intentions, desires and so on, he or she precisely must remain behind the veil of appearance. If we could directly observe the intentions, wants and emotions of others in their behaviour they would cease to be subjective agents and turned into robots, i.e. objective mechanical processes. There has to remain an impenetrable dimension of subjectivity in others in order for us to experience them as subjects. Intersubjectivity arises not out of a harmonious process or recognition between two participants but out of an ontological scandal of two solipsisms.


So, perhaps the correct path would not be to somehow close the gap between subjectivity and objectivity, or between consciousness and the material realm of physical objects and processes. Perhaps the Cartesian contradiction is not to be solved but to be treated as an ontological constituent of consciousness? Perhaps the contradiction arising from the problem of how consciousness could emerge from biological processes is not due to our limited cognitive capacities or conceptual confusion but is simply an ontological fact? Perhaps the world appears contradictory to us because it really is contradictory?

This seems to be the stance taken by the Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou. Here’s a quote from her text on brain plasticity and the dilemma of consciousness, What Should We Do With Our Brain? (2008, orig. 2004):

The transition from the neuronal to the mental supposes negation and resistance. There is no simple and limpid continuity from the one to the other, but rather transformation of the one into the other out of their mutual conflict. We must suppose that mental formation draws its being or identity from the disappearance of the neuronal, born of a sort of blank space that is the highly contradictory meeting point of nature and history. Only an ontological explosion could permit the transition from one order to another, from one organization to another, from one given to another. The neuronal and the mental resist each other and themselves, and it is because of this that they can be linked to one another, precisely because […] they do not speak the same language. (p. 72)

For Malabou the “neuronal” (could as well be taken as the totality of the material/biological basis of consciousness, although Malabou privileges the brain) and the “mental” (subjective consciousness, experience, thought, mental states etc.) are contradictory realms. They are incommensurable, they “resist each other”, and this mutual negation of the other is precisely what links them together. Unlike for Bennett & Hacker, for Malabou, the “transition” from biology to consciousness can only take place as a result or as a form of an “ontological explosion”.

Have we escaped the problems of Cartesianism now? It seems that we’re back to square one: the physical and the mental are incommensurable, contradictory, so there’s no way to explain the causal connection between the two. However, for Malabou, as a Hegelian, there’s only one substance, the substance of materiality, the substance of nature. The subject does not form its own mental substance (as for Descartes) but only arises as a negation of its own material substance. The ontology of the subject is, at its core, negativity. Moreover, the split between consciousness and its biological basis overlaps with the self-contradiction of nature itself:

If there can be transition from nature to thought, this is because the nature of thought contradicts itself. Thus the transition from a purely biological entity to a mental entity takes place in the struggle of the one against the other, producing the truth of their relation. Thought is therefore nothing but nature, but negated nature, marked by its own difference from itself. (p. 81)

Malabou is not trying to play the anti-reductionist game of dualists. She repeatedly makes it clear that she has nothing against reducing consciousness, the self, mental states etc., to physical processes taking place in the brain. However, for Malabou this process is still contradictory and characterized by metaphysical incommensurability between the two since they’re only connected through the negation of each other. As Zizek notes, for Malabou, the statement “the mental is the neuronal” does not mean that mental contents are traceable to physical processes in the brain but that the mental arises out of a neuronal deadlock, i.e. the mental overlaps with the contradiction taking place in the neuronal processes themselves.

From this one could perhaps move on to the biological evolution of consciousness (a topic which I sadly can’t tell much about). If Malabou is correct in insisting that consciousness emerges from a contradiction taking place at the level of the biological, it would have to be shown how an organism, in its natural biological development in its environment, runs into a deadlock that it cannot solve without the powers of reflection provided by consciousness. I’m not yet entirely satisfied with an explanation like this since there’s still a problem with how such powers of reflection are suddenly granted to the purely biological organism.


Before on moving on with Malabou, I’ll have to take a detour through Hegel since Malabou’s theory is a deeply Hegelian conceptualization. I do not want to embarrass myself here and pretend that I understand Hegel but I have read his Phenomenology of Spirit (1977, orig. 1807) quite recently. The book is obnoxiously difficult and remains impenetrable to me in its details but I could still spot the the same substance/subject relation, borrowed by Malabou, in Hegel’s preface to his book:

[T]he living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself. This Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity, and is for this very reason the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its antithesis. Only this self-restoring sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself – not an original or immediate unity as such – is the True. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual. (p. 10)

And further:

The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general. This can be regarded as the defect of both, though it is their soul, or that which moves them […] Now, although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of the substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and Substance shows itself to be essentially Subject. (p. 21)

I could be totally far off with my interpretation (assisted greatly by Malabou and Zizek) but here goes nothing: for Hegel what appears to us as an outer world inhabited by physical objects is already “mediated” or “posited” by consciousness. That does not mean that without consciousness physical objects would somehow cease to exist but merely that the object-form, “thinghood” as Hegel puts it somewhere, does not exist as such but only in relation to the subject/consciousness. Of course, my laptop would not cease to exist if I wasn’t thinking about it or perceiving it, but it’s only an “object”, a concrete positive entity, in relation to my conscious reflection. My laptop’s “thinghood” is a result of it being mediated by my consciousness.

At the same time the disparity between the “I”, the subject/consciousness, and the object confronted by it is the same as the disparity of the substance with itself. This is relatively easy to understand if you just take into account that, as a subjective consciousness, you nonetheless exist in the same metaphysical reality as the objects you confront. Your conscious reflection of objects is, at the same time, reality reflecting on itself (because your consciousness is a part of reality). The subject-object relation is merely the form in which substance “repels” itself from itself and appears to itself as an object separate from it.

Through this process of self-negation/mediation, where the substance repels itself from itself, it is constituted as a subject and gains access to its own positive content (i.e. it receives an objective form with all sorts of concrete attributes). Jumping back to the topic of the biological evolution of consciousness: perhaps the disparity that exists between consciousness, perception, thought, mental states etc., and biological/neuronal entities is merely the result of the self-mediation of nature itself whereby the physical body can’t help but appear to conscious reflection as a concrete object separate from subjective qualia?


Back to Malabou: a central concept which Malabou utilizes is that of plasticity, a term Malabou derives from Hegel. A plastic entity is a thing, which is able to be molded not only by an external agent handling it but also by itself, its own activity of self-formation. The latter supposes resistance to forms imposed on it from the outside; in order to form itself through its own activity, the thing can’t be entirely molded by external factors and therefore has at least a minimum capacity of resisting external forces. Plasticity is not polyformism, endless malleability, an infinite flux of forms, since the plastic thing also aims at retaining its identity through temporal changes.

In What Should We Do With Our Brain? Malabou explores the concept of plasticity found in brain science. As is well known by psychologists and brain scientists, the brain is not a fixed organ but goes through constant changes. Perhaps the most radical shifts happen during the early childhood. Infants are born with “incomplete” brains. That is to say, human babies are not born with fully developed brains but their development continues through childhood and adolescence in interaction between the child and his or her environment. As the child ages some synaptic connections are strengthened while others weaken. Learning does not in fact stop in late adolescence but continues throughout the age span of a human being and is of course reflected in the formations taking place in the brain. A third form of brain plasticity is a reparative one: brains are able to fix injuries and the functions taken by certain parts of the brain can be moved to another location. Through all these forms of plasticity human beings shape their own brains; brain plasticity guarantees the historicity of this central organ.

As a fourth form of brain plasticity Malabou suggests the transitional plasticity that provides the link between the neuronal matrix and conscious identity-formation. Malabou goes on to the question of homeostasis, a state of an organism which keeps its identity stable, a state characterized by plasticity. In order to sustain the continuity of itself, an organism needs to keep itself in a homeostatic state. That is to say, it needs to strike a balance between itself and its environment and spend energy on its own maintenance:

The nervous system, like any system, is self-regulated, self-organized, which means that it expends considerable energy in assuring its own maintenance. Basically, in order to preserve itself from destruction, it must keep itself in the same state. Thus it continuously generates and specifies its own organization. (p. 74)

Every force affecting it from the outside necessarily disturbs this homeostatic order and calls for the intentional action from the side of the organism, thus providing it with the capacities of self-generation and resistance to environmental influences. Through this process of resistance the organism gains its identity, or, as Malabou beautifully puts it, “identity resists its own occurrence to the very extent that it forms it”. (p. 74) This is plasticity at work: the organism shapes itself not as a passive object at the mercy of its environment but as resistance to external influence. But the transition from homeostasis to self-generation is not a smooth one:

The ’chain’ that leads from elementary life to the autonomy of a free self, capable not only of integrating the disturbances arriving from the exterior without dissolving itself but also of creating itself out of them, of making its own history, is a movement full of turbulence. Homeostatic energy and self-generating energy are obviously not of the same kind. From this perspective […] one might suppose, at the very core of the undeniable complicity that ties the cerebral to the psychical and the mental, a series of leaps and gaps. (p. 75)

In her later works, such as Ontology of the Accident (2012, orig. 2009), Malabou focuses on the destructive forces of plasticity. It is typical of brain scientists and psychologists alike to celebrate the plasticity of the brain as a positive constructive property. However, plasticity also holds in itself scarier features as Malabou demonstrates. In the above mentioned essay Malabou is trying to conceptualize the loss of identity as a result of the destructive work of plasticity, triggered by trauma, injury or sometimes by no apparent external factor. It is particularly interesting how Malabou conceptualizes the position of a post-traumatic subject. Unlike for Freud, for whom the emotionally indifferent behaviour of the post-traumatic patient is a result of repression of the original trauma, for Malabou, the connection between the post-traumatic subject and the original trauma is cut. The patient’s original identity cannot be retained since the trauma has wiped it out; it has been destroyed by the negative work of the traumatic experience. The indifferent behaviour is not a result of repression (there’s nothing to repress) but rather a state of ahistoricity, discontinuity, the loss of identity and the birth of a new one, appearing out of nowhere.


What emerges out of Malabou’s theory is a kind of negative subjectivity, that is, subjectivity that only persists as a negation of its substantial being. In plasticity the subject not only takes form but also resists it, which means there’s always a possibility of auto-destruction, of purging oneself of substantial content and destroying one’s own form. The subject is not doomed to possess a certain kind of form but there always remains a gap, which allows the subject to distanciate itself from its form. This gap is nothing but the power of the subject to negate being.

One can immediately see how Malabou’s concept of the subject differs from Cartesian conceptions where the subject is a kind of a soul, a mental substance separate from its material substance. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that there is no substantial “self”. The “I”, as a substantial entity, does not exist. This is also the conclusion reached by Thomas Metzinger who argues, in his book The Ego Tunnel (2009), that what we call the “I” or the “self” is an illusion an organism creates for itself. The “I” is nothing but a kind of a virtual entity, a product of the organism’s self-reflective activity, which keeps its identity stable. Metzinger calls this virtual ego the “phenomenal self-model” (PSM).

The PSM could be understood as the representative theory of perception but applied to the subject itself. In perception we are not in direct contact with the object before us. The objects in our perception are always mediated by our perceptive faculties, such as the brain, and therefore the objects in our perceptions are actually representations of the objects we perceive. For example, when I see an apple in front of me the visual image is precisely that, a visual representation of the apple, not the apple as such. Metzinger’s idea is that the same is true when I am conscious of myself. When I think about myself or perceive myself the “self” that I reflect on is just a virtual representation of myself, not really a substantial entity.

Throughout his book Metzinger attempts to describe the functions and features of the PSM. For example, our bodies constitute a significant portion of our PSM. However, as Metzinger demonstrates through all sorts of psychological experiments, our experience of our own body, our representation or the model of our body, does not strictly overlap with our actual physical body. His favored example is the so called rubber hand illusion, where the test subject has the illusion that a rubber hand placed in front of him is a part of his own body. This, according to Metzinger, shows that we can integrate “alien” objects into our body-model. There’s also a psychological condition where the subject does not recognize his actual physical limbs as his own, even though they are actually attached to his physical body.

Zizek has argued against Metzinger in his Parallax View and his recent Hegelian opus Less Than Nothing (2012). As he remarks, Metzinger fails to counter the question: whose illusion the “self” actually is? For whom does the PSM exist? What exactly is the thinking being which creates an illusion of itself for itself? It obviously can’t be the ego, the “I” or the “self”, because we have just denied the existence of such an entity. As Zizek notes, we need to distinguish between the subject of enunciation and the subject of enunciated, that is to say, the subject as a subject and the subject as an object. In my phenomenal self-model I do not appear to myself as a subject but as an object of my conscious reflection.

Can we access the subject as a subject? Zizek quotes Kant from his Critique of Pure Reason:

The simple, and in itself completely empty, representation ‘I’ … we cannot even say that this is a concept, but only that it is a bare consciousness which accompanies all concepts. Through this I or he or it (the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than a transcendental subject of the thoughts = X. It is known only through the thoughts which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever, but can only revolve in a perpetual circle, since any judgement upon it has always already made use of its representation. (quoted in Less Than Nothing, p. 721)

In other words, whenever we try to think the subject as a subject, whenever I try to turn my conscious reflection to my own self, we already turn the subject into an object of our conscious reflection. The “I” as a subject remains inaccessible. But here’s the twist: for Zizek this is not some kind of an epistemological obstacle. The “I” does not remain inaccessible to us because of our faulty cognitive faculties but because it is posited as such in our conscious reflection. Whereas Metzinger claims that the “I” does not exist, Zizek claims that the “I” is precisely its own non-being. Or more precisely: the “I” only comes to being as a result of self-reflection, of “self-positing”.

Same thing in different words: the “I” is not a substantial entity but a process. More precisely: it is a process of self-reflecting activity where conscious reflection turns to itself and thus forms itself in this loop of self-reflection. We do not have first an ego equipped with powers of conscious reflection and then subsequently the ego just turns its reflection towards itself in self-reflection. The ego and the self-reflection are one and the same, that is to say, they are two aspects of the same process, which cannot be thought separate from each other.

This process of self-reflection whereby the ego is constituted as the object of (self-)reflection is characterized by Zizek as the failure of self-representation. The failure consists simply in this that the “I” remains forever inaccessible to the thinking subject. Moreover, the subject only emerges through this process of failure of representation. In Zizek’s words: “[A] subject tries to articulate (“express”) itself in a signifying chain, this articulation fails, and by means and through this failure, the subject emerges: the subject is the failure of its signifying representation.” (p. 730)

So, metaphorically speaking, when you have an identity crisis and travel to some lonely mountains for a few months to find yourself by meditative contemplation, it is ultimately an attempt in vain. “Of course!” Metzinger would say, “you couldn’t find yourself because your ‘self’ is just an illusion generated by your own contemplation!” However, you might get a different answer from Zizek, which would go something like this: “Metzinger is right, your attempt to find yourself was doomed to fail. But, in another sense, you did find yourself because your ‘self’ is nothing but your failed search process to find yourself.”


I concluded my paper with a challenge of dialectical materialism and I’m going to do that again. What I mean by dialectical materialism is of course not the orthodox Soviet philosophy bullshit but something quite else. There is a powerful argument against physicalism, which goes like this: physical phenomena can only be explained by other physical phenomena and, therefore, there is no causality between consciousness and the physical realm. Consciousness, experience, etc., become epiphenomenal, that is, phenomena that are completely redundant to physical reality. Therefore physicalism is not a good explanation of consciousness.

Another version of this argument is the zombie one: it cannot be known to us whether other people have a consciousness or not since we cannot directly perceive it. Even if we open up the skull and look directly to the brain, we simply do not see any conscious experience there. It is just plain brain tissue. Therefore we cannot deduce conscious experience from physio-chemical processes taking place in the brain. Again, the point of this argument is to show that consciousness needs to be something else than matter.

In reply to the first argument: it assumes that the physical reality is somehow a harmonious whole where determinism applies. That is, it is assumed that the physical reality is a perfect, completely self-consistent whole where everything follows the mechanical laws of causality. However, this is a very old-fashioned conception of physics, which has been long ago questioned by the new paradigm of quantum mechanics. The physical reality appears, rather, to be indeterministic or, as Zizek puts it nicely, ontologically incomplete. There are gaps and distortions in the physical reality itself, which open up the space for consciousness.

As for the second argument, I’m more and more convinced that it can be undermined by simply asking for whom do other people appear as zombies lacking any conscious experience? It is simply impossible for us to imagine a reality full of mindless zombies, not because it’s difficult to imagine human behaviour as mechanically generated, but because it’s impossible to eradicate our own position from the picture. The subject-object relation is implicitly present in the zombie argument. This further serves to prove that the gap between subject and object cannot be closed but merely held together as a unity of opposites.

The challenge of theorizing dialectical materialism consists in this that we need to conceptualize a material reality, which is indeterministic or, as it were, ontologically incomplete. Moreover, the irreducible gap between subject and object points to a material reality, which is already in itself internally divided. What absolutely has to go is the conception of material reality as a system of external objects in causal relations to each other, devoid of the negative power of subjectivity.