Thursday, November 12, 2015

Power vs Authority

This is the sense in which one should render democracy problematic: why should the Left always and unconditionally respect the formal democratic 'rules of the game'? Why should it not, in some circumstances at least, call into question the legitimacy of the outcome of the formal democratic procedure? All democratic leftists venerate Rosa Luxemburg's famous dictum, 'Freedom is freedom for those who think differently'. Perhaps, the time has come to shift the accent from 'differently' to 'think': 'Freedom is freedom for those who think differently' - ie, only for those who really think, not for those who blindly (unthinkingly) act out their opinions. What this means is that one should gather the courage to radically question today's predominant attitude of anti-authoritarian tolerance. It was, surprisingly, Bernard Williams who, in his persipacious reading of David Mamet's "Oleanna", outlined the limits of this attitude"
A complaint constantly made be the female character is that she has made sacrifices to come to college, in order to learn something, to be told things that she did not know, but she has been offered only a feeble permissiveness. She complains that her teacher... does not control or direct her enough: he does not tell her what to believe, or even, perhaps, what to ask. He does not exercise authority. At the same time, she complains that he exercises power over her. This might seem to be a muddle on her part, or the playwright's, but it is not. The male character has power over her (he can decide what grade she gets) but just because he lacks authority, this power is mere power, in part, gender power.
Power appears (is experienced) 'as such' at the very point where it is no longer covered by 'authority'. There are, however, further complications to Williams view. First 'authority' is not simply a direct property of the master-figure, but an effect of the social relations between the master and his subjects: even if the master remains the same, it may happen, because of the change in the socio-symbolic field, that his position is no longer perceived as legitimate authority, but merely as illegitimate power. (Is such a shift not the most elementary gesture of feminsim: male authority is all of a sudden unmasked as mere power?) The lesson of every revolution from 1789 to 1989 is that such a disintegration of authority, its transformation into arbitrary power, always precedes the revolutionary irruption. Where Williams is correct is in his emphasis on how the very permissiveness of the power-figure, his restraint from exercising authority by directing, controlling, his subject makes that authority appear as illegitimate power. Therein resides the vicious cycle of today's academia: the more professors renounce, 'authoritarian' active teaching, the imposition of knowledge and values, the more they are experienced as figures of power. And, as every parent knows, the same goes for parental education: a father who exerts true transferential authority will never be experienced as 'oppressive' - it is, on the contrary, a father who tries to be permissive, who does not want to impose his views and values on his children, but allows them to discover their own way, who is denounced as exerting power, as being 'oppressive'...

The paradox to be fully endorsed here is that the only way effectively to abolish power relations is through freely accepting relations of authority: the model of the free collective is not a group of libertines indulging their pleasures, but an extremely disciplined revolutionary collective. The injunction that holds together such a collective is best encapsulated in the logical form of double negation (prohibition), which, precisely, is not the same as direct positive assertion. Towards the end of Breacht's "Die Massnahme", the Four Agitators declare:
It is a terrible thing to kill.
But not only others would we kill, but ourselves too if need be
Since only force can alter this
Murderous world, as
Every living creature knows.
It is still, we said
Not given us not to kill.
Notice, the text does not say, 'we are allowed to kill', but, 'it is still not permitted (an adequate paraphrase of vergonnen) for us not to kill' - or, simply, it is still prohibited for us not to kill. Brecht's precision is here admirable. "It is allowed to kill" would have amounted to simple immoral permissivity; 'it is ordered to kill' would have transformed killing into an obscene-perverse superego injunction, which is the truth of the first version (as Lacan put it, the permitted jouissance inexorably turns into a prescribed one). The only correct way is thus the reversal of the biblical prohibition, the prohibition not to kill, which obtains all the way to the anti-Antigonean prohibition to provide a proper funeral ritual: the young comrade has to 'vanish, and vanish entirely', ie, his disappearance (death) itself should disappear, not leaving any (symbolic) traces.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Universal Exception"

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