Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Žižek-ing the sign-language non-interpreter interpreter

Since I've had a couple of occasions recently to comment on the putatively Marxist philosopher
Slavoj Žižek, I thought I would continue with another Guardian commentary of his on Nelson Mandela's death and the media treatment of it, The 'fake' Mandela memorial interpreter said it all 12/16/2013.

But before I get into that one, I was struck by this from David Atkins, a blogging partner of Digby's at Hullabaloo. In a post about the maldistribution of wealth in the US, in which he refers to the wealthiest as the "asset class," he ends with this defensive comment (Assets versus workers again: Wealth is even more disturbing than income inequality 12/18/2013):

But that's just not so. And in a world of increased globalization, mechanization and deskilling, the decoupling of the asset class from the working class is going to become even more severe.

I'm not the first person to say this, but just because Marx didn't have the right answer, doesn't mean he wasn't asking the right questions. State Communism was obviously a dramatic failure. But that doesn't mean our dominant economic system represents the pinnacle of human freedom and progress, either.
As I understand it, David is not only active in the Democratic Party but he's young enough to have no adult memories of the Cold War and the often-warped polemics that were part of it.

So, perhaps from a somewhat more jaded perspective, I'll make some comments about agreeing in some way with something Karl Marx or some famous Marxist may have said.

First, there's this from Jorge Bergoglio/Pope Francis I: "“Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended" when, say, a junkie bigot like Rush Limbaugh calls him a Marxist. (Joshua McElwee, Pope: There won't be women cardinals National Catholic Reporter 12/14/2013)

Catholic teaching on economics is complicated, not least because the Church held on to feudal-based criticisms of capitalism well into the 20th century. So it's sometimes hard to tell whether a sweeping Catholic criticism of capitalism is "progressive" in the sense of looking toward an improved future or "reactionary" in terms of looking back to an imagined ideal feudal economy and society. But whatever, the Pope's merits or failings, he obviously knows how to deliver a diplomatic "Bite me!" to fools who criticize him superficially.

To today's Republicans, liberal=moderate=progressive=Marxist=Communist=socialist=atheist=Nazi. The Republican Party has adopted a segregationist outlook, complete the babbling foolishness that the John Birch Society and White Citizens Council were practicing back in the 1950s and 1960s and their political ancestors of the paleo-conservative variety were practicing before that. In other words, if you're a Democrat, or defend labor unions, or question mindless American nationalism, they're going to call you a Marxist. There's a range of appropriate responses, the Pope's representing the polite end of the spectrum, and some form of "bite me, a*****e!"

Cold War polemics condemned "Marxism," "Marxism-Leninism," "Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought" and other variations of challenges to capitalism, as such. On the center-left/liberal/social-democratic side, Good (non-Communist) Marxism was defended against Bad (Soviet or Chinese or Communist) Marxism. To undermine Marxist or other groups abroad that might be pro-Soviet especially, the CIA liked to promote "Third Force" groups with revolutionary/reformist aims that were neither Marxist or overtly reactionary. Then there were the Trotskyists, who I once heard defined as the people who support revolution everywhere except where there's one going on.

Karl Marx is the classical critic of capitalism. In my first homework assignment in graduate business school, I had to read excerpts from Adam Smith, the classic advocate for capitalism, and Karl Marx. (Okay, it was a Jesuit school, and the Pope's a Jesuit; draw what conclusions you will!)

Marx was born in 1817 and died in 1883. He got some things right, like the chronic tendency of capitalist economies to have recessions, called "crises" in his day, a tendency toward extreme concentrations of wealth, and the ability of great wealth to exercise disproportionate control over even the most democratic of governments. Some things, like what is know as the secular tendency of profit margins to fall, the eminence of an end to the capitalist order, not so much. It's no sin to recognize either. Lots has happened in the world since 1883, e.g., two world wars, the rise fall of the USSR and the Eastern bloc, global climate change. If Marx were still alive and working at 196 years of age, he would have adapted his analyses to changing times.

Very few parties in the world outside of China would identify themselves as Marxist parties these days. Because, you know, times and political challenges have changed since 1883. Even if some major problems like the extreme maldistribution of wealth and income persist and recur. As Arlo Guthrie once said, "Some things change, you know. Some things don't."

One of the economists that has great insights into the euro crisis is Yanis Varoufakis, who I quote here with some frequency. In Confessions of an Erratic Marxist: Keynote speech, Subversive Festival, Zagreb, Croatia – 14th May 2013, he explains that while his professional work has been largely in the Keynesian framework, his larger theoretical outlook is one he considers to be a Marxist one:

In summary, not one of my academic publications can be thought of as explicitly Marxist, while my energies are channeled into preventing capitalism’s collapse. Nonetheless, all along, from my student days in Britain to this very day, the only way I could make sense of the world we live in is through the methodological 'eyes' of Karl Marx. In itself, this 'fact' renders me a theoretical Marxist. Moreover, I feel Marxism in my bones every time I am engaged in any form of intellectual pursuit: from discussing the Arab Spring to debating the intricacies of Art with my artist partner. Furthermore, a democratic, libertarian, socialist future is the only future that I would be willing to fight for. A most peculiar Marxist no doubt, but a Marxist nevertheless.
Make of that what you will. But anyone who just dismisses Varoufakis' solid economics work, which is highly relevant to the euro crisis today, on the grounds that he used the "M" word to describe his outlook, well, it would be a pretty airhead approach to take.

Varoufakis has an expanded version of that presentation in Confessions of an Erratic Marxist in the Midst of a Repugnant European Crisis 12/10/2013.

Which brings us to the article by Slavoj Žižek, a self-described Marxist who has become a notable "public intellectual." In other words, his opinions on current events get more attention than those of most professional philosophers like himself. As I've said before, it's often hard to tell when Slavoj Žižek is making a serious argument and when he's clowning around. Maybe there's no distinction in his case. And by his own somewhat convoluted approach, the very fact that he is a prominent public intellectual who gets occasionally published in the mainstream press is prime facie evidence that the powers that be don't regard his opinions as being in the least threatening to the established order. Whatever.

This piece is thought-provoking. It's about the fake interpreter, who is apparently a schizophrenic, a criminal and maybe even a murderer, who did sign-language translation for President Obama's speech at Mandela's funeral event. And this from Žižek is food for thought:

Jantjie's performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning. Those of us who hear well and do not understand sign language assumed that his gestures had meaning, although we were not able to understand them. And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much more intended for us – it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered[?]

I remember how, in the first "free" elections in Slovenia in 1990, in a TV broadcast by one of the leftist parties, the politician delivering the message was accompanied by a sign language interpreter (a gentle young woman). We all knew that the true addressees of her translation were not the deaf but we, the ordinary voters: the true message was that the party stood for the marginalised and handicapped.

It was like great charity spectacles which are not really about children with cancer or flood victims, but about making us, the public, aware that we are doing something great, displaying solidarity. [my emphasis]
The line between the thought-provoking and the cynical can sometimes be a thin one. But I'll give Žižek credit for the former in this one.

But that first sentence I quoted from him - "Jantjie's performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning" - tends to invoke for me Huck Finn's reaction to Tom Sawyer's pretentious and incomprehensible explanations for things: I have no idea what he's talking about, but, boy, does it sound grand!

What I tended to focus more on with the interpreter story was this. The NSA spies on what pretty much sounds like every electronic communication link and every database and every mobile phone in the world. But our NSA super-protectors against The Terrorists ... let this guy stand next to President Obama at his speech at Mandela's funeral? They couldn't even figure out he wasn't a real sign-language interpreter?

And they say they may never figure out how much information Edward Snowden took from their super-duper databases that protect us against The Terrorists always and everywhere. Oooo-kay!!

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1 comment:

Kristo Jackal said...

Since it was telecast worldwide many people might have noticed the fake gestures of the translator. It was an offense actually. The person who intruded the ceremony should be punished.

Regards,
Kristo Jackal
DUI Attorney Tampa