Cult Studs

Okay, we need a little amusement to cheer us up after hearing the news about the pope. Although some people are pointing out that it’s good news really: that it’s the Vatican shooting itself in the foot, that now people will realize how authoritarian it is after all. But I don’t know – I’m never very convinced by that kind of thing. Partly because it never seems to happen. People seem so happy to say ‘Oh how sweet, a nice authoritarian pope again.’

So we could do with a laugh. I know I could. I’m wrestling with revisions, and I’m finding this patch a struggle. Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, I’m having to drag them out by force, one at a time. I much prefer it when I get an idea and just re-write a page or two in one go. But on the other hand, I can always cheer myself up enormously by reflecting that I’m not having to revise such utter unmitigated bollocks as this:

What I will focus on here is Butler’s critique in Precarious Life of Georgio Agamben’s concept of the “homo sacer,” or “bare life,” which identifies the discursive limits of the Foucauldian concept of power as the sovereign exception over biopolitical life. I will argue that Butler, whose concept of the performative subject presupposes power to be the totalizing ground by which human subjects are made intelligible, perhaps unfairly rejects Agamben’s critique. His critique of power, I will argue, is much more in dialogue with Butler than she seems to allow, and arguably raises the stakes of Butlerian identity politics by illuminating the possibility that certain political subjects can be – in fact are necessarily, according to Agamben – erased entirely from biopower relations, or humanity itself, through what Agamben calls the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life.

Good stuff, don’t you think? Notice, just for one thing, how the hapless reviewer uses the identical emptily pompous phrase – ‘the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life’ – twice in the space of two sentences. (Okay not absolutely identical – he adds a word in the second appearance.) But notice more, oh so much more, the way the vocabulary is used as a little invisible pump to inflate some very obvious ideas into something that is meant to sound – like more than that. Like a great deal more than that. Wouldn’t you think people would eventually stop doing this kind of thing? Because people like me see them doing it and point it out and laugh raucously? Wouldn’t you think they would, some day, finally, embarrass themselves? I would. But they don’t. Why is that?

Judith Butler later clarifies Foucault’s theory of power, expanding upon its merely implied strategies for subjective resistance to dominant technologies of power and making the important intervention that subjectivity is not just an expression of the “top down” subjugation of an “individual” but is intrinsically performative. The performative subject is both inaugurated by power relations and at the same time is constantly recreating its discursive, epistemological law in dangerously supplemental, disruptive ways. Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford UP 1997) explores in depth what she, after Foucault, sees as the total immersion of the subject in power relations without recourse to an originary “individuality” or essentialized political identity who exists prior to the subject’s inauguration into power.

Right? Right.

Butler’s conceptualization of post-structuralist identity politics, like Foucault’s, relies on a presupposition of “power” as the matrix of intelligibility, or ground by and through which biopolitical subjectivity is inaugurated and “exists.” This grounding in power, for Butler, extends to the very body of the subject. Recent criticism of Foucault’s concept of power by Georgio Agamben in his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford 1995), however, convincingly argues that power indeed has an outside – namely its “sovereign exception” over what Agamben calls “bare life,” or the homo sacer.

And so on. It’s all like that. None of it is any different. It’s all the same. It starts like that, and it goes on like that, and it goes on like that some more, and it ends like that. Somebody – a guy named Don Moore, in fact, a nice wholesome name, sounds like a baseball player – wrote it like that, presumably on purpose. Maybe it’s a parody. Only I doubt it, because if it were a parody, it would probably be a lot better, so as not to give the game away. It would be much less repetitive, for one thing. The baseball player is a graduate student in English and ‘Cultural Studies.’ I was just being abusive about the phrase ‘Cultural Studies’ in conversation with my colleague a couple of hours ago, and that was before I read the bottom of this review where it tells us that the writer of it is in ‘Cultural Studies.’ I already hated the very phrase (I have that reaction that Goebbels talked about, you know the one). Now I hate it even more.

I wonder what Ratzinger thinks of Cultural Studies.

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