Saturday, April 16, 2011

Zizek On Retroactive Freedom And Changing One's Destiny: The Imagination And Choice

I am approaching the end of Zizek's In Defense Of Lost Causes. It is very long and very difficult and I am struggling to appreciate it as a whole. I will be studying it for a while when I am done reading it. But right now I want to hone in on one of Zizek's claims and try to tease it out a little bit.

The notion I want to explore is Zizek's claim that " 'Freedom' is thus inherently retroactive: at its most elementary, it is not a free act, which, out of nowhere, starts a new causal link, but a retroactive act of endorsing which link/sequence of necessities will determine me" (IDOLC, 314). Now, what does this mean precisely? I once came up with this idea of 'retroactive freedom' on my own. But I meant something different than what Zizek means.

In order to parse this idea I'm going to look a little more closely at the paragraphs where Zizek expounds these ideas. I'll then make some references to Deleuze's work that Zizek cites. I'll then try to connect it to my reading of Collingwood. And finally I'll try to bring the whole thing together and explain how this notion of retroactive freedom fits into Zizek's larger goals for In Defense Of Lost Causes.

This notion of retroactive freedom is contained in a subsection called 'the act'. In that section Zizek seems to be trying to explain how it is that radical emancipatory politics could be realized, how we could make a push for utopia. He says that his definition of utopia is not some "simple imaginary impossibility," but is "utopia in the more radical sense of enacting what, within the framework of the existing social relations, appears as 'impossible' [...]." (310, his italics). So what Zizek is stressing in his definition of utopia is its relational character: it is about making radical change within an already existing world, it is grounded in concrete history and circumstances.

But placing this emphasis on the relational character of revolutionary action prompts questions about the relationship between choice and historical causality/momentum. Zizek warns against "the positivist vision of history as an 'objective' process which determines in advance the possible coordinates of politics interventions; within this horizon, it is unimaginable that a radical political intervention would change these very 'objective' coordinates and thus, in a way, create the conditions for its own success" (311). Zizek asserts, on the contrary, that we should not understand history in this linear objective way, but rather as something in which people are capable of acting within. Revolutionary action, however, has a retroactive character: "An act proper is not just a strategic intervention into a situation, bound by its conditions – it retroactively creates its own conditions.... The properly dialectical solution to the dilemma of 'Is it really there, in the source, or did we only read it into the source?' is thus: it is there, but we can only perceive and state this retroactively, from today's perspective" (311-312). What this means is that revolutionary action has to decided which past legacies, which historical determinants, it will use as a basis for action.

Zizek then clarifies this idea with a discussion of the nature of choice and action in general. He discusses Deleuze and Kant, "for whom I am determined by causes, but I (can) retroactively determine which causes will determine me.... in other words, we retroactively determine the causes allowed to determine us, or, at least, the mode of this linear determination. 'Freedom' is thus inherently retroactive...." (314). Zizek puts it more clearly when he says "This, perhaps, is the most succinct definition of what an authentic act is: in our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) coordinates of our identity, while an act proper is the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual 'transcendental' coordinates of its agent's being.... while the pure past is the transcendental condition for our acts, our acts not only create an actual new reality, they also retroactively change this very condition" (315). This idea seems somewhat clear to me. It seems like a very nice way to resolve the obvious problem of historical determinism by explaining how choice operates within its confines. It reminds me of what I called 'meta-strategic thinking' in my Society's Implicit War essays. Zizek makes this relationship between determinism and choice crystal clear at the end of the section 'the act'. He argues that "although we are determined by destiny, we are nonetheless free to choose our destiny.... Destiny and free action (blocking the 'if') thus go hand in hand: freedom is at its most radical the freedom to change one's Destiny" (316). We are free to 'choose our destiny' because we don't have one simple destiny: we have a variety of different experiences that provide us with multiple perspectives that we can choose among. We are thus free to choose among possible 'destinies'. Hopefully I'm writing clearly about this idea, because it makes sense in my head.

But now I would like to ask how this would be possible on a subjective level, what it would look like, what it would feel like on a personal level. And I think that Collingwood's definition of the imagination goes a long way in explaining how this would be possible. Collingwood defines the imagination as the space between sensations and ideas in which we can consciously manipulate traces of our past experience. When we try to imagine the color red, all we are doing is using consciousness to prolong the life of our experience of seeing read. Collingwood believes that as we have sensations they are swept away in the flow of sensation and experience and can be swept beneath the surface and forgotten completely. But if we are capable of exerting consciousness we can prolong the life of sensations and keep them in our minds for a longer amount of time. This capacity of consciousness to extend the life of past sensations, for Collingwood, is the imagination.

Now when Zizek's notion of retroactive freedom meets Collingwood's definition of the imagination, the implications should be obvious: it is through the imagination that we are capable of 'choosing our destiny'. As I said above, the reason we are able to do this is because we have a huge array of experiences that provide us with many possible ways of thinking and acting. In short, we are not determined in the singular, but deal with a constellation of potential determinants. So what faculty of the mind would allow us to single out one of these determinants and make it the impetus for our action? The answer should be obvious: the imagination is the mental faculty that would allow us to single out one of those determinants as the best course for our action to take.

This is what Zizek means when he said "I am determined by causes, but I (can) retroactively determine which causes will determine me...." or when he said "in our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) coordinates of our identity, while an act proper is the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual 'transcendental' coordinates of its agent's being." If we just live unreflectively then we will just follow our destiny, but if we decided to act then we will single out a course of action that is also embedded in our experience, but may have been overshadowed by an experience that was previously more determinate.

In my life, for example, I have experiences with both anger and compassion. It might be really easy for me to lapse into anger and cynicism. I could be furious and bitter and angry with people. But I also have experiences with being silly and playful, being friendly. Both of those things are coordinates of my being that I could follow. But I would like to think that I can choose which one of those coordinates, which one of those destinies I will follow. Furthermore, it is my imagination, my consciousness, that can single out one of those destinies as more worthy. Thus I will choose among my determinants, and thus I will take action, and thus I will change my destiny.

Interesting stuff. I told myself I wanted to try and understand how this stuff fits into the larger picture of In Defense Of Lost Causes, but I don't think I can do that right now. It is enough to have clarified Zizek's notion of retroactive freedom and to have linked it so soundly with Collingwood's definition of the imagination.

Over and out.

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