Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

Baudrillard, Zizek and Laclau on "common sense" - a critique


During the mid to late nineteenth century, an important change occurred in the history of political and philosophical thought. A number of thinkers increasingly came to question the assumptions of traditional philosophy, which tended to deduce its political perspectives on an a priori basis. The change was encapsulated in Karl Marx's statement, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it" (German Ideology p. 123).

The critique captured in this statement was to produce important theoretical effects. While philosophy cannot directly change the world, it can aim to participate in projects to change it by redirecting its attention away from closed debates about a limited range of supposedly foundational concepts, and towards the study of the political and philosophical beliefs, attitudes and practices which make up the everyday life of the diverse strata of the world's population who do not engage in specialised political thought. To be sure, many philosophers stuck to their old ways; but a sizeable number of critical-minded theorists began, from a number of different angles, to describe, analyse, and discuss the transformation of everyday beliefs. If the point is to change it, and this change is to extend beyond the limited circles of political theory and philosophy specialists, theorists need to find ways to influence and alter beliefs and practices. And if it is to extend beyond the superficial field of official politics, theory has to engage with beliefs and practices as they occur in everyday life - the sole area in which most people are politically and philosophically active.

Gramsci's work is an outstanding example of this. For Gramsci, philosophy and politics are not the sole preserve of specialists; everyone engages in philosophical activity since everyone holds some conception of the world and life which underlies their practice, and everyone engages in politics since everyone's practical activity promotes some ways of thinking and acting over others. Everyone is also on some level an ethicist, a scientist, an aesthete and so on. Gramsci calls the conception or conceptions of the world which presently occur in everyday life "common sense". It is important to treat these everyday worldviews with respect, and not to leave them in the state of voicelessness to which social inequality often consigns them. However, theorists should not automatically endorse these views, which are often confused, contradictory, manipulable, neophobe, and prejudiced. Instead, one needs a CRITIQUE and a critical practice, similar to the critique of a particular theorist's philosophy but directed against common sense instead. This critique should be taken to the masses by "organic intellectuals", who should aim to encourage more critical and coherent beliefs through a political, cultural and pedagogic practice drawing on immanently critical elements within common sense itself. The critique of common sense is for Gramsci the main goal of political and philosophical theory - MORE important in terms of its social relevance than the critique of specialist philosophers.

A similar project can be detected running through the work of many other critical theorists in the period from the 1920s to the 1970s. Barthes, Benjamin, Goffman, Hoggart, Krauss, Marcuse, McLuhan, Negri, Reich, Sartre and Vaneigem, to mention only the a few, embarked on an analysis and critique of everyday beliefs, alignments and practices as part of their diverse theoretical projects.

It is my contention, however, that this concern has abated substantially since about the 1980s, and that it is far less common in contemporary political theory. To be sure, a few writers, such as Foucault and Deleuze, still take up these kinds of concerns to some extent. Many recent theorists, however, have moved away from the critique of common sense and the analysis of everyday beliefs, often returning to a purely metaphysical type of theorising. Their politics has similarly moved away from projects of overcoming common sense and towards a faith in the immediate effectiveness of purely INDIVIDUAL acts, pragmatic politics, or, in a few cases, waiting for a nihilistic catastrophe. While transgressive acts may have some value in shaping individual identities and constituting countercultural group identities, they are unlikely to transform POPULAR beliefs unless they can find a way to bypass the pervasive processes of labelling transgression as abnormal, immoral or unnatural. Similarly, it is unlikely that any transformative event, or social reforms with wide-ranging effects, can occur without a prior basis in everyday worldviews, which is unlikely unless common sense can be overcome.

This paper focuses on three theorists who I feel demonstrate this tendency particularly strongly: Slavoj Zizek, Ernesto Laclau (including his collaborations with Chantal Mouffe), and Jean Baudrillard (excluding his early, Barthesian-inspired work). I shall critique each of these thinkers in relation to how they deduce or describe everyday beliefs, the analysis they offer of these beliefs, and how their transformative strategy relates to common sense.


The work of Jean Baudrillard, examined over time, shows within one body of work the pattern I am suggesting is affecting contemporary thought as a whole. In his early work, especially The Consumer Society, written in 1970, Baudrillard provides an intriguing account of how everyday perceptions and actions may be influenced, constructed or manipulated by a variety of processes which substitute SIGNS of social phenomena for their actuality and which produce a new, generalised oppression based on consumption as a process of production of sign-value. This insightful approach still shines through from time to time in Baudrillard's work - for instance, in some of his discussions of simulation in the Gulf War. On the whole, however, his recent work is set on a different trajectory, away from this kind of structural discourse analysis and towards an abstract set of asserted claims of dubious theoretical status.

His short essays on the masses are particularly problematic in this regard. Unlike his earlier work, Baudrillard makes little effort to examine the discursive character of mass subjectivity in essays like "In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities", instead deducing mass alignments from his own, prior assumptions about the nature of society. His basic project - to analyse mass indifference without resorting to ideas of alienation and failure (13) - is valid; but his means of pursuing it is highly problematic.

Baudrillard takes a contradictory position on common sense which runs to the roots of his method. On the one hand, he poses as offering an approach which annihilates the existing system of meaning, and he attacks it constantly. On the other, several of his most important concepts, such as "the masses" and "the social", are plucked straight from everyday usage, with their contradictions intact. Baudrillard makes no attempt to define these concepts and, indeed, plays constantly with their contradictory usages. This can lead to confusion, as for instance with Baudrillard's indecisiveness over whether peasants are a part of the masses or not. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the masses exist or not. Defending his use of the concept, Baudrillard claims he is merely prowling round acritical notions to achieve theoretical effects (SSM 4). It is a leitmotif not a concept (SSM 4) and has nothing to do with any real body of people (SSM 5), Baudrillard tells us; "statistics and surveys" are a "ritual" with "no real object", and the masses are constructed by them through circular signals (SSM 31-2). The masses "don't exist", they are merely the shadow cast by power, he says (SSM 48). This implies that the concept of "masses" is a purely discursive construct with no relation to the people who fill in surveys or, if it relates to them, which constructs them entirely.

but he uses the concept as if the "masses" ARE a real, more-or-less autonomous group who act and even have strategies. The masses are a group of people with a specific status, he tells us elsewhere (SSM 5). Throughout his account, the masses are a "they", who are a stratum (albeit an opaque and blind one - 21), have existential conditions (eg. atomisation)and social effects (eg. causing a vaccuum in society - 6). When he tries to resolve this contradiction, he does so via further contradictions: the silent majority is an IMAGINARY referent, but it exists; the masses exist statistically but not socially; they only exist via simulation (SSM 20). His theory is therefore confused about its relationship to common sense at the very level of his own relationship to language. If surveys construct the masses, the masses cannot be a group with their own dynamics, outside the official discourse; besides, surveys require a "matter" so to speak which is "worked" by them but autonomous of them.

Baudrillard's attitude to the masses in Consumer Society was straightforward enough: they are participating in a dominant structure which is pervasive but unsatisfying. In his later work, his position becomes confused and contradictory. On the one hand, he denies subjectivity to the masses, claiming they are a void without demands or identity which refuses meaning, a silent, "dumb like beasts" (SSM 28), a "nothing", a force which absorbs and neutralises through its inertia (SSM 1-2), with no history or enemy or desire (SSM 2-3), "A black hole which absorbs the social" (SSM 4), with no self or other or political potential (6). Their nonexistence falsifies political discourse which wrongly assumes that the masses EXIST behind all the surveys and information about them, when in fact they do not exist and especially are not committed to any historical or political agenda (SSM 37-8). They "do not choose", producing only a lack of differentiation (SSM 35); they are "innumerable, unnameable and anonymous", and their strength is rooted in destructuration and inertia (SSM 43). Further, they have "nothing to say to us" and "no meaning" (SSM 49) (which raises the question of how Baudrillard can nevertheless write of their significance).

On the other, he refers to them as if they are players in a game or one side in a class struggle, with goals, strategy and intentionality: they "free" themselves from "simplifying terror" via "an explicit and positive counter-strategy" of absorbing information without giving feedback (SSM 10-11), a "retaliation" and "refusal" (SSM 14), a "revenge" on the political elite for silencing the masses (SSM 23); there is no manipulation, only a "game", "played on both sides with the same weapon" (SSM 29-30), a "denial" of meaning (SSM 49), an "antagonism" between an elite which wants to spread power and meaning and a "residual, senseless mass" which tries to distort, neutralise or diminish this (SSM 38); with an "allergy" or "defiance" towards meaning (SSM 36), an "offensive practice" or "ruse" (SSM 43), a resistance to manipulation, a withdrawal into privacy to avoid manipulation (SSM 39), and a "strength" built on inertia which enables them to absorb the system's imperatives but redirect them into "fascination" (SSM 43-4); an "inescapable confrontation" between the masses and the social (SSM 47), and a resistance which is not even passive (SSM 104), which uses the media as a tool to resist meaning (SSM 105-6). By a purely interpretive sidestep, Baudrillard converts passivity into activity.

This active mass can furthermore be manipulated, in contradiction to Baudrillard's earlier claims; the media makes the masses prefer medium to message (SSM 35-6).

Baudrillard's claims about mass beliefs in "Consumer Society" are backed by evidence, albeit often from the discourse of the dominant rather than the masses themselves. Even at this point he assumes too rapidly that a tendency present in the media or among elites will automatically root itself very deeply in the personalities of the masses. In his later essays, this gets even worse. For instance, he claims that a lack of a "differential term" - that is, of enemies or conflict - is crucial to massified consciousness (SSM 21). This accurately reflects the surface ideology of adverts and many politicians, but spectacular societies also involve the INVENTION of enemies. David Matza (BD 196-7), for instance, claims that the model of consensus is mainly created by MISidentifying social problems with a specifiable group of outsiders. There is also much literature on "moral panics" which Baudrillard seems to have entirely missed.

Baudrillard thinks his account of the masses is confirmed by disinterest in politics and "public" debates (12-13), and that this is a resistance to political manipulation (SSM 39). He is wrong. This disinterest is relative: at the time of The Consumer Society, Baudrillard still recognised that this disinterest can be shattered by sudden uprisings. Further, it is quite possible to explain such disinterest without falling back on the crude kind of theories of mystification Baudrillard cites as the only alternative to his view (SSM 12-13). Brinton, and Albert and Hahnel, for instance, have analysed disinterest as an insulation built into authoritarian character-structures which enables people to cope with capitalism. Baudrillard's earlier work similarly involves a model of how the consumer society produces disinterest. Furthermore, political manipulation is, as Gramsci and others show, closely intertwined with the supposedly "meaningless", "apolitical" discourses of everyday life. It is simply not possible to withdraw from politics; one always participates in practices which influence social outcomes and others' actions, so that the illusion of withdrawal from politics is actually a naturalisation of a particular kind of political system. Baudrillard's explicitly stated view that everyday practice is beyond representation and the politics (SSM 39) is therefore wholly mistaken and leads him to effectively endorse the naturalisation of politics (even though he tries to avoid ENDORSING something he sees as meaningless and therefore not endorsable - 40-1. Actually he does endorse indirectly via loaded language). He also misses the dimension of political INTRUSION into everyday life - for instance, the aggressive police presence which blights so many inner-city communities, and the linked phenomenon of a politicised fear of "crime". At this point, in contradiction to Vaneigem, Reich and Foucault as well as his earlier work, Baudrillard also wants to deny a liberatory potential to resistance in everyday life (SSM 40-1).

Baudrillard sometimes substitutes his own views for evidence, as when he discusses what "we" the audience experience (GW 39).

Baudrillard's claim that the masses are "dumb", silent and conduct any and all beliefs (SSM 28) and "the reversion of any social" (SSM 49) is problematised by the persistence of subcultures and countercultures, while his claim that any remark could be attributed to the masses (SSM 29) hardly proves that it lacks its own demands or beliefs. He is leaping far too quickly from the confused and contradictory nature of mass beliefs to the idea that the masses lack - or even reject - meaning per se. He wants to portray the masses as disinterested in meaning, instinctual and "above and beyond all meaning" (SSM 11), lacking even conformist beliefs (87-8) and without a language of their own (22). This is contradicted by extensive evidence on the construction of meaning in everyday life, from Hoggart on working class culture to Becker, Lemert, Goffman and others on deviance. Even in the sphere of media effects, the evidence from research on audiences, such as Ang on Dallas viewers and Morley on the Nationwide audience, suggests an active construction of meaning by members of the masses, negotiating with or even opposing dominant codes of meaning. This may well show a decline of that kind of meaning promoted by the status quo - but it hardly shows a rejection of meaning per se. When the masses act stupid, it may well be due to what radical education theorists term "reactive stupidity" - an adaptive response to avoid being falsified and "beaten" by acting stupid. Baudrillard again wrongly conflates the dominant system with meaning as such. Indeed, Baudrillard seems to have changed his mind AGAIN by the time of the Gulf War essays, when he refers to the MEDIA, not the masses, as in control (GW 75), and to stupidity as a result of "mental deterrence" (GW 67-8), which produces a "suffocating atmosphere of deception and stupidity" (GW 68) and a control through the violence of consensus (GW 84).

Baudrillard's view that the masses respond to official surveys and the like in a tautological way (SSM 28) may well be true, without proving what Baudrillard claims it does about the absence of meaning in the masses. The attitudes of subaltern groups towards dominant beliefs has often taken such forms throughout history, but this does not preclude the parallel existence of what Jim Scott terms "hidden transcripts" - a parallel set of beliefs with a separate structure of meaning which are not compromised by power. Baudrillard does not dig deep enough into evidence on mass culture to assess whether such transcripts exist or not. He simply assumes the omnipotence of the official, "public" system of meaning. Further, his claim that what passes through the masses leaves no trace (SSM 2) is very problematic, as his claim that the masses are the negation of all dominant meanings (SSM 49).

There are some very strange 'proofs' in Baudrillard's work: for instance, the claim that people don't believe the myths they adopt rests on the statement that to claim the opposite is to accuse the masses of being stupid and naive (SSM 99-100). He does not explain why we should not believe this - especially since he elsewhere calls them "dumb like beasts"!

Occasionally, Baudrillard acknowledges evidence against his approach: namely, the research of the "two-step flow" theorists on audience effects, and also the kind of syncretic resistances analysed by Scott, which resist the dominant social system and reinterpret or "recycled" its messages towards different codes and ends, often linked to earlier social forms (SSM 42-3). However, he does not dwell on such evidence. This, he says, is simply a different issue, unrelated to the question of the MASSES as "an innumerable, unnameable and anonymous group" operating through inertia and fascination (SSM 43-4). Attempts to recreate meaning at the periphery are a "secondary" matter (SSM 103-4).

Similarly, at times, Baudrillard admits both the unsatisfactory nature of the society of the spectacle for many of its participants, and the existence of spheres of belief and discourse beyond its borders. For instance, people don't fully believe the hyperreality which substitutes for reality (SSM 99); some groups, so-called "savages" such as the Arab masses, are not submerged in simulation and can still become passionately involved in, for instance, war (GW 32); the real still exists underground (GW 63). Indeed, although his analysis of the Gulf War suggests that the WEST is trapped in simulacra, his account of the rest of the world suggests it follows a different logic (eg GW 65). Wars or non-wars today are waged by the west against symbolic logics which break with the dominant system, such as Islam (GW 85-6), to absorb everything which is singular and irreducible (GW 86). Also, though he thinks the risk of it is low, he admits that an accident, an irruption of Otherness, or an event which breaks the control exerted by information can disrupt the "celibate machine" of media control (GW 36, 48). If this is the case, however, there is no basis for assuming its totality, and it is still meaningful to try to win people over to alternatives. In SSM Baudrillard retreats from this analysis, suggesting the reduction of society to a rat race is a result of the masses' resistance to 'objective' economic management (SSM 45) - the system benefits as a result but that is not the main issue. This contrasts with Baudrillard's earlier analyses and also those of others such as Illich, who see the destructive social effects of such competition. However, Baudrillard does attack "the social", which he identifies with control through information, simulation, security and deterrence (SSM 50-1) - though how it can be resisted since he thinks it "produces" us is never explained.

Baudrillard tends to conflate existing dominant beliefs with thought and meaning per se. As a result, he leaves it impossible to critique dominant ideas in a meaningful way. For instance, he poses political problems in terms of "resistance to the social", with the social in general being conflated with the EXISTING social system (SSM 41); ditto on the existing sign system, which Baudrillard identifies with meaning per se. In such cases, Baudrillard misses the whole question of countercultural practices and the creation of alternative hegemonies.

Baudrillard's conflation of meaning per se with dominant beliefs leads to a refusal to countenance the possibility of transforming mass beliefs. Raising the cultural level of the masses, Baudrillard claims, is "Nonsense" because the masses, who want spectacle rather than meaning, are resistant to "rational communication" (SSM 10). An "autonomous change in consciousness" by the masses, Baudrillard tells us, is a "glaring impossibility" (SSM 30) - though he never tells us how he deduces this. Furthermore, he also claims that people who try to raise consciousness, liberate the unconscious or promote subjectivity "are acting in accordance with the system" (SSM 109). This anathematisation is a result of Baudrillard's strange claim that the system's logic is based on total inclusion and speech! It is on this basis that Baudrillard rejects argument based on empirical claims and locates truth outside such claims (SSM 121-2).

From the second pole of his contradictory argument about the masses, which portrays them as de facto agents engaging in resistance, defiance and so on, Baudrillard wants to draw a politics starting from the refusal of meaning (SSM 15), and from the contradictory combination of the two he draws his model of hyperconformity as annulling control (SSM 30-3). He can't deal with the contradiction, especially since he uses terms which imply consciousness - such as ruse and offensive practice - when he admits the object of such terms is acting unknowingly (SSM 43). Indeed, he actually writes as if one can UNKNOWINGLY carry out a CONSCIOUS act (SSM 42). This is sinister, reproducing the Stalinist idea of objective alignment - especially when used against Baudrillard's theoretical rivals (SSM 123).

Further, it is not clear from where he is deducing his idea that one can destroy a system by pushing its logic to the extreme (SSM 46), which he sees as a resistance to demands to participate (SSM 106-8). There are a few cases of the letter of the law being used to subvert its implementation, such as go-slows at work; these, however, are rooted in concrete practices elsewhere. There are also a few cases of hyperconformity disrupting official projects - for instance, the disastrous effects of Chinese peasants' literal reading of Maoist imperatives to (eg.) kill all birds. These, however, did not actually LIBERATE anyone or DESTROY the system; and most hyperconformity simply produces a more oppressive variant on the system - for instance, hyperconformist racism produces genocide. He also never sets out the stakes of the conflict between the masses and society or the effects of the masses' victories, though he vaguely links these to the (unspecified) goals of radical critics (SSM 49). Indeed, he uses the opt-out that our present epistemology prevents us knowing what possibilities would be offered by the system's destruction (SSM 52). Furthermore, to be a resistance, there would have to be an AGENT CHOOSING to be an object.

Baudrillard's sectarianism is clearly shown by his belief that popular rethinking of ideas is always a "misappropriation" or "radical distortion" rather than an improvement (SSM 8). He also engages in a highly essentialist attack on popular ethics, representing the stress on real practices and small images in popular religion as "degraded", banal and profane, a way of "refusing the categorical imperative of morality and faith", as well as of meaning, because it stresses immediacy in the world (SSM 7-8). Popular ethics, as Hoggart, Scott and others show, is far more than a mere refusal, and its rejection of the transcendentalism of the intellectual allies of dominant strata is hardly evidence that they are degraded, banal or anti-ethical. Furthermore, on an empirical level, fatalism DOES occur in popular ethics, contrary to Baudrillard's claims.

The problem is further complicated by Baudrillard's vague claim that something passes between the masses and terrorism (SSM 52-3), which seems to imply that isolated terrorist acts can somehow transform overnight the entire structure of meaning by rendering representation impossible and meanings reversible (SSM 54, 116), and which is also based on a definition of terrorism which is so restricted that it rules out virtually all actual "terrorists" and which Baudrillard admits (116) does not fit the identities of the Baader-Meinhof group, the one example he gives. His politics results directly from the artificial grimness of his analysis of popular beliefs, since it involves a radical subjectlessness and a random blow against victims who are punished for being nothing (SSM 56-7). Like Zizek, he calls for the suicidal destruction of one's own perspective (SSM 69-70), and denounces everything short of this as strengthening the system (SSM 72). Furthermore, his model of social change, which rests on the inevitability of implosive catastrophe (SSM 61), has no room for any human intervention. It simply assumes that another reality lies beyond our own perspective which can be reached in this way, but which is presently blocked by our way of thinking (SSM 104). Baudrillard substitutes "logical exacerbation" and "catastrophic revolution" for alternatives (SSM 106), and locates the frontier of struggle at the level of "production of truth" (SSM 123). The progressive side of this struggle seems to involve unknowability and fascination.
The lack of alternatives seriously blunts Baudrillard's critical force, and can even lead to conservative positions, such as portraying manipulation of the media as better than pursuing truth (GW 46).

SSM: In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (and other essays)
GW: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place
CS: The Consumer Society


Ernesto Laclau's work, both alone and with Chantal Mouffe and others, is marked by a concern with the issue of identity. Since this work relates to everyday life, making sweeping claims about it (eg. MPI 2), for instance, that 'society' appears as naturalised but social practice overflows this (MPI 3) and that practices in everyday life are not entirely repetitive (NRRT 183-4), and since Laclau claims to be drawing heavily on Antonio Gramsci's work, one might be led to expect a discussion of common sense. In practice, however, Laclau offers political theory of a far more traditional kind.

Laclau locates himself, not in relation to a critique of common sense, but mainly via a critique of Marxism (HSS 1-2), and his genealogy of the present refers solely to other political theorists (NRRT 237), not to the history of everyday life and ideas.

On the level of evidence, Laclau treats discourse analysis as a substitute for, rather than a companion to - empirical analysis, which he dismisses as "impressionist and sociologistic diescriptivism ignorant of its own conditions of discursivity" (HSS 2). So he subordinates empirical issues to an abstract discussion of speculatively constructed "conditions". This approach is made even worse by the fact that his discourse analysis never extends beyond the limits of political theory. Laclau simply assumes that this has relevance to everyday life. In practice he admits the need for empirical studies (NRRT 235). But it is hard to see how his theory can be tested, since such core elements as the impossibility of the social and the necessity of antagonism as a constitutive outside do not have a verifiable or falsifiable empirical referent. It is therefore likely that empirical applications of Laclau's work would repeat the pattern he denounces in others as trawling reality for signs of their own correctness (NRRT 241). Also, Laclau makes empirical claims about everyday beliefs - such as a supposed trend away from belief in objective necessity (NRRT 216) - which are questionable (in this case, for instance, on the basis of the spread of globalisation discourse among other issues), and for which he provides no evidence.

Faced with contradictions in common sense, Laclau EMBRACES these as expressing diverse subject-positions within each subject (HSS 84), which he uses to show that the idea of an integrated self is misrecognition (NRRT 92), and as being something "We all participate in" (HSS 124 ["we all participate in contradictory belief-systems"]). This leaves him openly endorsing self-contradiction in an utterly acritical way. Faced with the problem that the social logics he embraces - for instance, of pluralism and democratic unity - are incompatible, he claims that this is not a problem since these are not logical beliefs and the social field is not closed (HSS 183, 185, 189-90) - which doesn't get round the problem that they may well also be incompatible in practice. His introduction og the bourgeois discursive figure of "balance" (HSS 184) and resultant "mutual limitation of... effects" (HSS 190) does not solve this problem, merely displacing it to a question of WHERE one strikes the balance. Instead of critiquing the incoherence of common sense, Laclau endorses it. He also ends up implying that people don't really exist; all that exists is subject-positions in an external structure of meaning (eg. HSS 115). Attempts to reconcile this with people's self-experience as an integrated subject lead him back to a traditional, and deeply-flawed, false consciousness problematic (NRRT 92).

Further, Laclau comes close to universalising appeals to common sense as necessary to repress knowledge of antagonism (HSS 125), to endorsing social exclusion (HSS 136-7), and to maintaining a need for hypocrisy (HSS 188, 190-1). He also endorses Thomas Mann's claim that humans are by nature submissive (MPI 16), talks as if 'we' really do have a shared tradition, lifeworld and political culture (NRRT 130, 189), advocates the use of a repressive "we" (NRRT 219-20), and naively appeals to "OUR practical life" (NRRT 182). And the idea that pragmatic theories of truth are "democratic" (NRRT 196) clearly idealises common sense.

Laclau and Mouffe are inconsistent about the relationship between articulation and identity. In principle, they believe "identity is modified as a result of... articulatory practice" (HSS 105; cf.54), and one can discursively create radical identities (HSS 158).

In practice, however, they slip into what they elsewhere denounce as an "essentialism of the elements", assuming the existence of prior identities constituted by a social field and advocating the use of articulation to create an unstable unity out of these elements (eg. HSS 94). Articulation is "a political construction from different elements" (HSS 85) in which "organisation is... external to the elements themselves" (HSS 94) and the role of articulation is to link subject-positions or antagonisms together discursively (HSS 168-9), establishing chains between otherwise separate concepts (HSS 174), coming AFTER and integrating pre-existing dispersed elements (NRRT 196). In their descriptions of articulation, it involves attaching "wild" individual antagonisms to a fixed set of liberal concepts which act as nodal points (HSS 171-2), and Laclau even talks about a core of "trade union activities in the strict sense of the term" which can be contrasted to solidarity and other hegemonic activities (NRRT 208). Articulation therefore presumably accepts preconstituted elements as they are, though they never explain exactly what one should DO if one wishes to articulate discourses.

They can't really escape their commitment to accepting prior elements, though they try to wriggle out of it, mainly through the concept of overdetermination (HSS 87). Even so, their theory seems to rule out any direct challenge to common sense, that is, to the discursive field and the elements themselves. If Laclau and Mouffe want effects at this level, they expect them to follow naturally from articulation: the articulation ITSELF changes the elements into moments of something broader (HSS 105-6); articulation itself specifies and defines individual demands and so is not external to them, since it shapes their imaginaries (NRRT 230-1) and alters the identity of the elements it articulates (NRRT 242). The reason Laclau believes this seems to be that he assumes identity to be a purely relational construct (NRRT 207) - a theoretical rather than an empirical reason.Actually, articulation simply reinterprets rather than changing social relations: it can turn a worker into a citizen while retaining the structure of work, but to alter the structure of work it would have to pass over into a critique of everyday modes of thought and action, which in the form it has in Laclau and Mouffe, it cannot.

Laclau and Mouffe also do not establish on an empirical level that the "floating" identities which are the elements to be articulated actually exist; they simply ASSERT that there are many such elements available (HSS 136, 171), and Laclau says that our identities are NOTHING BUT a set of precarious social positions (DSST 92) - a postulate which may well explain his reluctance to look at actual people and their motives. I suspect, however, that it is fairly likely that present identities - both within common sense and in political activist communities - are far more hardened and harder to articulate than Laclau and Mouffe admit, and that people acting on one "subject position" are not as ambivalent as Laclau and Mouffe think in terms of broader ideological commitments. They talk as if people are just sitting around waiting for someone to articulate their partial concerns! - popular struggles "do not... tend to converge" unless actively hegemonised (HSS 141; cf. 133-4). The anti-capitalist movement is proof that activists have far wider concerns than Laclau and Mouffe credit them with. Subject-positions are always-already part of common sense ot some other conception of the world, and therefore are NOT available for all and any articulations, as Laclau and Mouffe claim they are (HSS 171). In addition, as Matza shows, many actions result from existential anxiety and INsecurity about identity, and involve "drift" between different identity categories. It is also not clear how Laclau reconciles the idea of floating signifiers with the idea that articulation is ALWAYS present in political movements - which suggests that an articulatory intervention would have to REarticulate rather than articulate (NRRT 230-1). Indeed, at another point Laclau states that struggle is always BETWEEN articulations, not between articulation and its absence (NRRT 242), which throws doubt on how he can speak of floating elements.

Where do the elements come from? Laclau and Mouffe sometimes imply that they have an extra-discursive base (HSS 109), but usually treat them as necessarily already discursive (eg. 111). They claim that subject-positions cannot constitute themselves as distinct, unarticulated positions (HSS 122), and yet they also set up a bogeyman of the possibility of intersubjective disorder (HSS 188) which assumes precisely such a possibility (cf. also on totalitarianism and the impossibility of suture). Apparently they identify the autonomy of elements with "antagonism", another active void of the same kind Zizek uses (HSS 125-6). When they actually discuss specific elements, such as the rebellion of the young, they resort to simplistic narratives of social causation (HSS 164). The problem is also that they have not tried to think the specificity of everyday life as a sphere of discourse.

As well as essentialising the 'elements', they also essentialise what they sometimes call the "social field" and occasionally a "tradition" - roughly, the political climate. They treat this as transcendent and above challenge, and, in contrast to Gramsci's attempts to CHANGE this climate by altering the conceptions of the world on which it is based, they treat it as above criticism. For instance: Marxism CANNOT renounce liberalism but may ONLY try to deepen and expand it (HSS 176). Demands are supposed to respect preconstituted social spaces (HSS 184-5), and reality and the present are transcendent absolutes which necessarily contaminate, deform and destroy theories (NRRT 205). So instead of people changing the world, Laclau maintains that the world necessarily destroys human projects. Further, since they treat the 'social field' as a kind of LIMIT on effective discourse (HSS 168) and existing social logics as "structural limits" (HSS 190), they are unable to consider changing beliefs below a superficial level. Laclau is also inconsistent since, while he denounces traditional Marxists for failing to adapt to the social field, he is very quick to demand a "break" with this field and a return to "deeper roots" when it conflicts with his own ideas, as in the case of the equality-freedom and liberalism-communism binaries (NRRT 239). Further, Laclau's anti-essentialism falls down when the posited essence is some kind of negativity, and he still uses a very essentialist false-consciousness problematic when dealing with common sense beliefs which conflict with his own theory (NRRT 92, 186).

Laclau also tends not to talk about people changing or even articulating popular beliefs, but about ideas abstractly impacting on ideas, as if all people can do is fit with the norms of an ideological marketplace external to us. The ability to appeal to existing mass views is in Laclau "political usefulness" (NRRT 227) and the kind of language he uses about this is all in passive voice or deagentified: political categories show THEMSELVES to be useful if THEY manage to present themselves as natural; THEIR erosion begins when THIS capacity declines (NRRT 227); political ideas have a "productivity" and agglutination between ideas either does or does not OCCUR NRRT 228). This ignores the need for HUMAN practice in promoting or undermining ideas, is highly fatalistic, and also leaves little basis for assessing ideas. It is as if he thinks political success directly proves validity. Laclau has "little doubt" that the new, productive imaginary will be around concepts such as "democratic revolution" (NRRT 228), but he present absolutely no evidence for this claim, which is distinctly problematic in the light of recent anti-capitalist (and other) movements. Similarly: Laclau's version of micro-level hegemony is about relations between ideas, not people: "how systems of difference ARE RE-ARTICULATED... [as] equivalence", and "how transformist POLICIES REABSORB discourses of polarity" (NRRT 235) - so the microscopic particles of Laclau's analysis are ideas, not people. Laclau denies having a passive conception of the subject (NRRT 210), but such formulations clearly suggest that such a conception is an operative assumption.

Laclau's use of Gramsci is highly problematic. Gramsci's analysis of common sense is one of a number of aspects of his project which go missing in Laclau's reading.

Laclau and Mouffe exaggerate the role of what Gramsci calls "traditional intellectuals", and are naive about how ideas, in Gramscian terminology, "become organic". They think debates in political philosophy "may... contribute decisively to shaping the common sense of the masses" (HSS 174) and Laclau says that, since its politico-ideological categories form part of actual political discourse, deconstruction of political theory directly affects political life (MPI 2)!. Laclau claims, however, that his approach extends the Gramscian concept of the organic intellectual. However, he misses the importance of social rootedness and critique of common sense in this concept, linking it instead to articulation of dispersed activities and mediation between culture and practice (NRRT 195). (This inverts Gramsci's model of organic intellectuals, since it would render Croce organic due to his indirect influence when Gramsci saw him as the epitome of a traditional intellectual).

Actually, Laclau and Mouffe seem to deny the possibility of changing existing beliefs, since it is precisely by FITTING WITH existing beliefs that Laclau and Mouffe see philosophies becoming organic (HSS 175). Laclau's examples of political action involve ACCEPTING what he terms the "unshakeable beliefs" of the "masses" (CHU 82-3), and he even uses such beliefs as the proofs of theories - as what he calls "conditions of credibility" (NRRT 244). And his activity and theory occur WITHIN COMMON SENSE, with hegemony being based on a string of rhetorical displacements (HSS 64). Hence Laclau can also speak of a "market" of ideas (CHU 190) - which of course assumes a rational choosing agent. When he wants to change popular beliefs, he lurches to the other extreme, claiming such arguments should always involve assertions from OUTSIDE existing belief-systems and not an immanent or logical critique (NRRT 244).

They have a great deal of faith that the masses are listening to what political theorists and politicians are saying, and absorbing it at a deep level - for instance, Laclau's discussions of Hobbes imply that the possibility of social communication is established at the level of elite politics (MPI), as do some other passages (HSS 96) - for instance, questioning the political order is seen as leading to identity crisis (HSS 126), and democracy has become "the fundamental instrument of the production of the social" (HSS 155). The only evidence they present for such effects comes, NOT from everyday life, but from political theory - for instance, the fact that some neo-conservatives feel threatened by the expansion of democratic discourse (HSS 165). It is not surprising that Laclau should therefore claim that representation and hierarchy are necessary (CHU 211-12). Further, it is clearly a blatant overstatement to call Thatcherism - a surface-level political phenomenon which won the temporary and syncretic allegiance of at best 20% of the population - an "organic ideology" which "construct[s] a new hegemonic articulation", can "unify multiple subject positions" and cause a "displacement of the frontier of the social" (HSS 176)! The change effected by Thatcherism is clearly in official, public discourse, not in everyday life (except, of course, for its disastrous social effects). Similarly, Laclau may well be exaggerating the everyday significance of the end of the Cold War (MPI 1). Laclau also claims that gradual and partial reforms such as the New Deal "were made possible only through significant alterations in the more global social imaginaries" (CHU 198) - clearly suggesting that minor changes at the surface level of politics alter underlying identities substantially - and that action and identity-construction are the same process (NRRT 210-11).

Actually, it is doubtful whether political theorists even "contribute decisively" to shaping the common sense of politics, graduates, let alone the mass of people who never read their work. And politicians are almost universally hated and capable of only the most superficial impact on common sense. As research by Kershaw, Grunberger, Peukert and others show, even in totalitarian societies, political elites are only able to exert the most marginal influence on everyday beliefs and practices. Outside such societies, politicians tend to pose as representatives of existing mass beliefs and do not make any serious efforts to transform mass beliefs and practices. Laclau and Mouffe ignore the existence of a whole layer of de facto political beliefs constructed in everyday life, beyond the reach of political elites, which minimise or syncretically recycle the effects of elite-level politics. Although they expand their concept of the "political" beyond official politics, they also refuse this label to many everyday resistances (HSS 152-33). However, the only political practices which have had a substantial impact on mass beliefs are those, such as the French revolutionaries, which involve what Gramsci terms an "intense critical labour" of pedagogic, cultural and prefigurative activity, producing a revolution in everyday life at a molecular level - something far more active and less superficially political than Laclau and Mouffe's theory allows for.

This exaggeration leads to a use of the concept of "common sense" which is equally superficial, referring mainly to the pseudo-consensus created by politicians' manipulation of official, "public" political discourse - which Laclau and Mouffe accord the high-flung status of a "social imaginary" (HSS 160, 163). They do ALSO call for replacing possessive individualism with a "new common sense" based on equivalence between demands (HSS 183) - though they don't explain on what level they see "possessive individualism" operating, and this call could merely be for an alteration in official public ethics.

Perhaps because of this naivety, they misread organic ideology as meaning ideology embodied in social apparatuses (HSS 67, CHU 48) or as simply another word for articulation (NRRT 195), completely missing Gramsci's concern with transforming popular beliefs. They also evade the question - crucial in relation to their rose-tinted view of western societies - of the role of consumerism, education, the media and so on in promoting beliefs and identities. Further, Laclau's version of hegemony involves showing oneself to be able to manage and control a political community (MPI 16), so that, for instance, the main public forms of a totalitarian regime can be described as hegemonic (NRRT 238). This inverts Gramsci's usage, where hegemony as persuasion and cognitive and emotional appeal is distinct from domination, that is, rule by force.

When challenged in an interview, Laclau claims that issues concerning culture and the media are very important (NRRT 190) - though this seems only to mean struggles within, for instance, art as a specialist sphere.

Though Laclau and Mouffe's concept of discourse supposedly encompasses non-linguistic practices, they seem unaware of the way in which existential situations can encourage particular kinds of identity. Rather, they assume that identity is shaped through the historical evolution of "imaginaries", which they seem to identify with the views of particular political traditions. Although Laclau denies it, furthermore, there are constant overtones in HSS of a passive view of the subject as "produced" and "constructed" at the level of discourse and language, so that one should try to alter these meta-structures rather than convincing individuals.

Laclau's explicit transformative project, "radical democracy", while supposedly extending democracy into new aread, appears to be directed mainly at "public spaces" rather than everyday life, and Laclau does not discuss what a democratisation of everyday life would look like. His analyses frequently short-circuit between the need for A nodal point and the need for the concept of democracy as this point. Further, his commitment to NOT challenging the dominant 'social field' leads him to accept and embrace rightist ideological projects such as the discourse of globalisation (CHU 212), as well as supporting order on principle, making the content of order a secondard issue (MPI 15), and seems to be under the strange impression that western so-called liberal democracies actually involve the "possibility of unlimited questioning" (DSST 187). Further, his emphasis on pragmatics and verisimilitude (eg. NRRT 124-5), his endorsement of "communitary construction" (NRRT 194) and his rejection of the hermeneutics of suspicion (NRRT 185) fuse his politics into common sense. A pragmatic politics may well reproduce all the worst prejudices and incoherence of common sense. And Laclau even uses the term "common sense" to mean something he is in favour of: an ethical unity emerging from debate (NRRT 243).


HSS - Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau and Mouffe)
NRRT - New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time
CHU - Contingency, Hegemony, Universality
MPI - The Making of Political Identities (Laclau; Laclau and Lilian Zac)


Zizek's work is presented as being about everyday life, among other things: the synopsis of Plague of Fantasies says it is about the "antagonism between... ever greater abstraction of OUR lives" and the "pseudo-concrete images which surround us"; while that of Sublime Object of Ideology claims to be about "the ideological fantasies of wholeness and exclusion which make up human society". Zizek furthermore CLAIMS to be attacking "common sense" beliefs (eg. PF 62), though more often, his relation to everyday beliefs is refracted via philosophical or, more rarely, so-called 'public' debates (DSST 215-16). In fact, on closer inspection, Zizek's approach turns out not to treat everyday beliefs very seriously, whether on the descriptive, analytical or transformative level.

When he uses empirical cases, Zizek treats them at such a level of abstraction as to misunderstand them totally; for instance, he misinterprets the SYNCRETIC use of dominant ideologies in peasant resistance as a form of hyperconformity (PF 148). He also makes deductions to explain everyday phenomena - such as the rise of "fundamentalisms" - at such a level of abstraction as to completely bypass the social actors who hold views or engage in practices. His analysis of fundamentalisms as expressing the real, horrific nature of mainstream multiculturalism (PF 154) is hardly sustainable if the motivations of actors are analysed at the level of the actors themselves. But Zizek does not pursue such an analysis, because he adheres to an especially strong form of structural determinism in which we are primordially determined by an opaque network (PF 9-10). Sometimes his method leads him very far of the mark: for instance, attempts by MNC's to hide sweatshop labour lead Zizek to the conclusion that capitalism views work as a crime (DSST 133-4), thereby evading the whole structure of capitalist work-ethics: the idea that the rich earned their wealth through hard work, the "Protestant ethic", productivism, and so on. At other times the popular moment of movements vanishes as Zizek reduces history to the internal development of structural forces. The revolution against the Ceaucescu regime, for instance, was a "coup stages by the nomenklatura itself" according to Zizek (DSST 7). And his general approach to everyday life is merely to assert what he thinks it involves: at one point, for instance, he simply asserts the existence of 3 lines of separation and a hermeneutic horizon in it (PF 133).

Furthermore, Zizek frequently makes factual claims about everyday life with very little basis. Some of his claims - for instance, that social deviants such as violent neo-fascist street gangs see themselves in the same (liberal determinist) terms projected onto them by 'experts' and show "ironic detachment" in their acts (FA 9, TS 202-3) - are contradicted by evidence (in this case, Matza's studies of delinquency. He also frequently substitutes his own opinions for evidence on popular beliefs - for instance, claiming to speak for "the spectator" in relation to films (PF 184).

Zizek also tends to assert his own views as "fact", without presenting evidence for them (PF 191). This involves a highly uncritical attitude to common sense, implying that immediate impressions are directly true. His method of "mental experiment" (eg. PF 191) also tails common sense. In one particularly excessive case, he claims that the intuitive appeal of a concept directly proves its truth as a universal: even though a concept has no referent on the level of facts, it is a valid concept because "it has haunted our imagination for decades", and if reality doesn't fit this perception, "So much the worse for reality" (CHU 244). Similarly, what look suspiciously likt Barthesian myths are for Zizek "more real" than reality: for instance, a staged performance is more real than common, imperfect but actual acts (FA 66). This treats common sense wholly uncritically: the true notions which result from it are almost identical to Barthes's concept of "myths", and the political effect is devastating: for instance, it offers the status of transcendent truth to mythical figures such as the "benefit scrounger" and the Nazis' "Jew", even if not a single individual fits the image!

In relation to the content of everyday beliefs, Zizek is surprisingly naive. He is certainly capable of the kind of critical awareness associated with, for instance, Barthes, as is shown when he analyses the ideological significance of toilets (PF 4-5). However, there is a crucial difference here. Firstly, Zizek leaps far too rapidly to conclusions: one instance of a particular ideological phenomenon rapidly becomes a universal psychological principle. Indeed, his explicit method authorises this. Secondly, Zizek tends to naturalise and absolutise elements of common sense. Although his criticism exposes them as socially constructed and ideological, his ever-present tendency to metaphysicalise phenomena means he frequently turns elements of common sense into general postulates of psychology or belief or meaning per se, thereby facing us with an artificially stark choice between accepting such flawed discourse as necessary and adopting a de facto nihilist position of rejecting the whole of the system of meaning in the name of its disavowed kernel, the Lacanian Real. This approach is noticeable, for instance, in his concept of primordial alienation, his discussion of substitutionism and "forced choice", and his discussion of belief in mythical externalities. What vanishes here is the possibility that a kind of discourse present in everyday beliefs may nevertheless be open to critique from within a different system of meaning. Therefore, common sense - a historically specific set of incoherent beliefs and attitudes - is treated as if it is identical with thought as a whole. Worse still, when Zizek finds a contradiction in everyday beliefs, or even in technical uses of a word, he uses it to suggest the word, and what it designates, is two contradictory things at the same time (PF 97)! He assumes that when a Stalinist leader uses the word "symptom", they must mean the same thing he does (DSST 100). And he reduces the inconsistency of common sense to the supposed constitutive inconsistency of desire (PF 75-6). Indeed, he frequently treats contradictions in common sense as representing underlying existential contradictions (TS 56)!! And he even claims that supposedly spontaneous apolitical beliefs express genuinely transcendent aims which should be politically central! (TS 178). Worse still, he claims that discursive naturalisation is necessary for politics (CHU 100), and also seems to endorse exclusionary and anathematising discourse (CHU 95)..

Similarly, in relation to the concept of myth, Zizek's position is a step backwards from Barthes's. Whereas Barthes's analyses of myths in culture, politics and everyday life were critical, exposing hidden biases in such a way as to enable them to be overcome, Zizek's approach tends to turn the myths he extracts from sources such as films and jokes into eternal facts of psychological structure. For instance, what for Barthes would probably be a "myth" of humour, a set of second-order significations of "funniness" which encourage some people to watch a comedy programme even if they themselves do not laugh at it, is for Zizek a demonstration that "my most intimate feelings can be radically externalised; I can literally 'laugh... through another'" (PF 109). Faced with differences in everyday life in France, Britain and Germany, Zizek sees them as expressing existential differences (PF 5) in a way Barthes would probably have labelled mythical. Similarly, it is all very well claiming that anti-Semitism isn't referring to real Jews, but to the mythical figure of "the Jew" (PF 76-7) - but anti-Semitism necessarily involves the identification of the two. Barthes would be well aware of the need for such a critique of the role of myth in anti-Semitism, but Zizek wants to take this mythical character as an excuse to evade its character also as truth-claim. His advice on how to counter anti-Semitism is that one should simply refuse to admit that the anti-Semitist is talking about Jews at all (SOI 48). Zizek's method is therefore a step backwards from Barthes's. Indeed, the short-circuit Zizek wants between individuality and universality via "sweeping generalisation" and the claim that a single case expresses the absolute directly (CHU ****), is almost certainly mythical in Barthes's sense. Furthermore, Zizek claims that "apparently innocent" references "always" contain myth (PF 4), which closes off the possibility of critiquing it. His idea that myths ALWAYS involve a SINGLE central figure (TS 175) is a gross exaggeration based on a few atypical examples. And his concept of the Real may well be based on a myth of void-ness in Barthes's sense.

Linked to this, Zizek hops quickly from single instances - often drawn from political thought - to claims referring to everyone in a particular country, time period, or even humanity. For instance, in relation to the Holocaust, Zizek claims we should not aim to expose the truth, but to "confront the way we ourselves... are always-already involved" in it (PF 215), for instance, through racist prejudices. Reich, Sartre and Gramsci similarly emphasised the importance of analysing how fascist prejudices reflect deeper common sense beliefs, and a number of anti-racist studies, such as Errol Lawrence's essay "Just plain common sense: the roots of racism" and several studies of media racism, have built on this insight. But Zizek's version is different, in a way which negates its critical capacity. Instead of attacking how particular everyday beliefs and practices include, promote or encourage racism, he conflates the specificity of these beliefs and practices into a generalised, apparently universal complicity, which he then reduces to a SELF-critical method. Self-criticism by a relatively progressive philosopher cannot expose popular prejudices, and furthermore, Zizek appears to see this critical gesture as the WHOLE of an ethical stance on racism, without considering the need also to OVERCOME racist beliefs once they are exposed. Perhaps Zizek naively thinks exposing them already overcomes them; or maybe he wants a new version of the old Stalinist motto of waiting for the revolution - or more precisely, for "traversing the fantasy".

In the case of nationalism, Zizek's analysis is wholly metaphysical, and his crude and unbacked assertion that the nation results from an abstract 'need' for a naturalised sense of social belonging (CHU 114) ignores the whole complex question of the political and existential construction of nationalism addressed by, among others, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm.

Zizek also writes as if common sense is genuinely universal - as if the ritualised phatic discourse of common sense really does constitute "OUR everyday mores", proving the universal applicability of Lacanian concepts (PF 27). If common sense is a philosophy, however, it is possible to be outside it, and to break with it. Zizek here cuts off the possibility of a transformative politics. At times, Zizek even uses present PERCEPTIONS as if they are beyond criticism, revealing the truth of what they perceive (PF 69) - further endorsing common sense (though inconsistently, since at other times his views are highly counterintuitive). Similarly, he fully accepts the CAPITALIST idea that one can show authentic love through superfluous expenditure, because this is something "we" supposedly do in our "daily lives" (PF 52).

Zizek does have a string of general claims about what the "subject" does; eg. that the subject universalises him/herself through an act of distancing from a particular situation (PF 222). However, these claims are only ever demonstrated on an abstract level, as metaphysical principles; Zizek provides no evidence that such processes occur in everyday life (indeed, his evasion of evidence and his tendency to assume conscious motives to be inauthentic bar him from doing this). Where he does provide examples, they are usually from film, literature, or occasionally the practices of political LEADERS. Furthermore, several passages show that he is unaware of the gap which separates organic ideologies from the beliefs of traditional, specialised intellectuals. He writes as if philosophers, musicians and the like directly cause or express changes in popular, or universal, beliefs and alignments (eg. PF 204-5).

This tendency reflects a broader tendency to metaphysicalise. Marxist concepts such as "commodity fetishism" and "class struggle", despite their limitations, provide a possible way into analysing everyday beliefs. However, when Zizek adopts such views, he twists their meaning in such a way as to render them uselessly metaphysical. In contrast to such theories as those of Gramsci and Negri, Zizek turns "class struggle" into a metaphysical referent, an invisible Real of antagonism which prevents the transparency of the social (PF 216). And, breaking with Marxist critiques of alienation and reification, Zizek wants to turn commodity fetishism into a non-ideational phenomenon demonstrating the primacy of social structures. Rejecting the idea that commodity fetishism is a philosophical belief, Zizek thinks it is something everyone knows is untrue but that people act on regardless, because of structural determinism (PF 172). Zizek's analysis, which suggests that actions resulting from naturalised beliefs are not really human acts but rather, a kind of external reality (PF 105), reproduce the very reified outlook Marx is trying to criticise. He wants to posit the "efficiency of the symbolic institution" as something external (PF 100-1), when actually it is an effect of beliefs. (Incidentally, this is also in contradiction with his view that there is no such thing as the big Other and that beliefs need to be defeated by admitting that one holds them). Gramsci in contrast deduces that apparently unfounded acts express the existence of a second, subterranean philosophy in contradiction with the one which is officially supported, and open to the same kind of critical challenge. Besides which, commodity fetishism and the like are often very openly declared: (New Labour New Language *******). for instance, Channel 4 News tells us that capitalism is "like the weather - and you can't change the weather". For Zizek, however, there is no possibility of such "organic ideologies" operating - solely on the basis of his faith in the theoretical postulate that belief in ideology requires distance (PF 77).

Zizek's politics is built around the metaphysical category of the Act or Event, defined in a closed way, via its structural significance. While a few such acts occur in everyday life according to Zizek, as in the case of Mary Kay Letourneau (TS 185-6), their frequency (or lack of it) is irrelevant in Zizek's theory. Zizek does not try to establish the significance of the Act for everyday belief-systems, or locate it in relation to them, although the radical dislocation from an entire symbolic and imaginary/phantasmic edifice implicit in the concept of the Act implies that Zizek believes - again with no foundation - that Acts suddenly transform the whole of common sense. Zizek claims that the Act directly explodes everyday alignments (TS 48-9), a conclusion he reaches by purely speculative means. The problem is that an isolated Act is as likely to be suppressed or ignored as to have broader effects on popular beliefs.

Zizek's emphasis on the Act seems to rule out attempts to transform or overcome common sense through critical activity. The Act, after all, is a radical break with the subject's own rational beliefs. Indeed, Zizek never really discusses how one goes about bringing about an Act, especially in relation to others. Rather, he seems to assume that a purely individual gesture will be radically effective across society. Furthermore, he is very vague on where this Act leads. Even in relation to the subject, the Act is a leap into the void, so it is impossible to BUILD anything on the basis of it. The problem may well be that Zizek is extrapolating from psychoanalytic practice, which has a very different relational structure to any possible POLITICAL intervention. Furthermore, it is by no means clear that ex nihilo Acts which break with one's conception of the world occur anywhere in everyday life. Matza, for instance, clearly shows how illegal acts arise, not ex nihilo, but by a process of "drift" starting from beliefs very close to those of the mainstream. Zizek's Act also locates ethics firmly outside everyday life - ignoring the presence of everyday ethical alignments. Indeed, Zizek even claims that the Act proves that everyday life is a lie! (PF 130).

In Zizek's claiming that the Act - a radical break with imaginary as well as symbolic structures - is necessary for political revolution (PF 48), he is contradicted by the weight of evidence available in, for instance, peasant studies. Similarly, there is a lot of evidence against his claim that imaginary alignments which contradict public conformist positions are nothing but the harmless disavowed supplement which makes the latter possible (TS 264). Jim Scott, for instance, provides substantial evidence of petty resistances and subversive imaginaries, which usually serve as a harmless supplement of conformism, passing over into open rebellion in unusual circumstances; and Matza shows that social deviance can occur as a process of "drift" from mainstream alignments without there ever being a decisive break or Act in Zizek's sense. Thus petty theft by servants may ordinarily enable them to psychologically cope with their servitude, as Zizek claims (PF 34); but it also provides a discursive basis for them to attempt wholesale expropriation of the masters in some circumstances. The petty resistances whereby soldiers cope with and humanise their experience of war may well, as Zizek says, enable them to fight and thereby sustain militarist ideology(PF 20), but it can also pass over into mutiny, mass desertion, "fragging" and so on. Carnivals MAY stabilise power by allowing contained transgression, as Zizek argues (PF 73) - but they can also pass over into conflict with the state (see Scott ****). And grumbling conformity may well be compatible with Stalinist systems (DSST 90-1) - though hardly what they want; it too can slip across into resistance: Havel's greengrocer can become a secret resister, like the superficially conformist Germans who hid Jews during the Nazi regime. Furthermore, from Mao's polemics against "liberalism" (****) and Hitler's condemnation of the lack of war-consciousness (Kershaw ****) to the ERT's attempts to suppress non-vocational education and landlords' attempts to ban inversion woodcuts (Scott ****), the practice of oppressors hardly confirms Zizek's view that power needs and therefore tolerates petty resistances. One reason Zizek misses this is that he denies on principle - without looking at the evidence - that hidden transcripts of the oppressed could occur. The oppressors, he claims, would have to be stupid to miss such transcripts (DSST 124) - a claim which misses the point that such transcripts are constructed precisely TO conceal them. Resistance in everyday life is nearly always drift, not Act; in his metaphysical refusal to even consider this possibility, Zizek renders his politics hopelessly sectarian and irrelevant.

Zizek also calls for an openly dogmatic outlook which assumes the absence of any shared ground with opponents (eg. PF 216) and treats some issues as beyond rational discussion (PF 26). Indeed, Zizek even uses the successful spread of ideas as evidence of their loss of radicalism (PF 102). This rules out in advance any transformative politics directed at overcoming common sense, settling instead for a narrow sectarianism which creates a desert around itself. Even in the extreme case of fascism, it is hard to see how one could possibly persuade peripheral supporters away from fascism unless one sometimes treats fascist claims as open to rebuttal through argument. However, given that he reinterprets Marx's "the point is to change it" to mean that the point is to change interpretations (PF 90-1, 96), it is by no means clea that he actually wants to change the world at all. Furthermore, his entire method relies on Zizek himself standing somehow above what he criticises, with a kind of gnostic direct access to the truth of society.

It appears, therefore, that Zizek has no real project of overcoming common sense, despite initial appearances. When he does criticise it, this is due to its place in his more-or-less metaphysical project of reinterpreting the world and constructing a formal ethics of the Act. Thus, Zizek attacks the triviality of inane everyday exchanges... but only so as to present these as a way of avoiding an encounter with the Lacanian Real (DSST 196). Similarly, his theory has space for mass action - but only as something to be manipulated to produce an authentic Act (DSST 117). He even goes as far as to express an elitist disdain for so-called "banalities" as "unworthy of being objects of thought"! (TS 133). He admits his approach to everyday life is based on concerns which are separate from it, using everyday instances only as illustrations of theoretical points (FA 105-6), in effect, as a pedagogic tool rather than a serious focus of analysis. Zizek seems to retain a dual faith: firstly, that he knows people better than they know themselves, that he is the anamorphic mirror and has no need to prove it; and secondly, that what exists expresses an ahistorical set of absolute structures which are open to decimation by the Act but not to any kind of systematic critique. This leaves him unable to critique "common sense" or everyday beliefs or practices.

PF - The Plague of Fantasies
TS - The Ticklish Subject
FA - The Fragile Absolute
DSST - Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?
CHU - Contingency, Hegemony, Universality


To conclude, Zizek, Laclau and Baudrillard all deal with common sense and everyday life in a totally inadequate way. If we are to restore the relevance of political and critical theory to transformative politics, we should try to recover and transcend the insights of those earlier thinkers who looked seriously into the issue of everyday life, and to recover the project of an analysis and critique of common sense from the metaphysical quagmire in which it is once more submerged.

Any theory which ignores common sense renders itself irrelevant to extra-theoretical issues and unable to change the world. Everyday beliefs involve their own philosophies which should be treated in a dignified way, not ignored or reduced to epiphenomena of elite practice, and not misappropriated by theorists or politicians claiming to be the representatives or guardians of it. Such use ends up being manipulative and selective, and returns everyday beliefs to a state of voicelessness. Ordinary people speak far more clearly when they speak for themselves, rather than via some pseudo-mediator.

However, theorists should not support or tail these beliefs. Common sense is neither unitary nor universal, and it is not reducible to coherence even within an individual consciousness. Those who support common sense as "democratic" or as an alternative to theory should consider, for instance, how common sense attitudes to "crime", while aiming to remove it, end up causing extensive suffering - both through the barbaric practices such attitudes encourage, and through the "crime" which the attitudes and practices actually increase (cf. Lemert, Cohen, etc.). Even if evridence such as this is completely discounted, supporters of common sense have to deal with its incoherence. We find within common sense workers who oppose trade union militancy while supporting militant and even violent action in their own sector (Femia, "Gramsci's Theory of Consciousness"); juvenile delinquents who condemn categories of act that they themselves engage in (Matza, "Delinquency and Drift"); and people who call for all murderers to be executed - but for Tony Martin to be freed. In addition, common sense is extremely prejudicial - from its manipulated outgrowths in consumer culture to its use of exclusion as a source of integration. The common sense of one culture can easily lead it to colonise and oppress others; the common sense of animist cultures seems to westerners' common sense as absurd witchcraft. The common sense of the psychologically "normal" is the root cause of the oppression of the psychologically different.

To rediscover the potential for political, critical and philosophical theory to contribute to the transformation of the world, we should take up once again the concern with common sense and everyday life, in a way which combines an interest in what beliefs, assumptions and attitudes these involve with a project of critique linked to a political, cultural and pedagogic practice designed to transform these beliefs.


  • At August 7, 2010 at 7:54 AM, Blogger Kala said…

    Sorry to bother you with this! Seeing that you are familiar with Zizek and Baudrillard, I would really appreciate it if you could refer me to some texts where Zizek gives a critical response to "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place", because the texts I have found thus far only refer to it in passing or in a non-critical manner.


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