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April 24, 2006


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Conforming can be a posture - an appearance of agreement when in fact you are biding your time.

It is also the way to demonstrate the inherent contradiction of a given situation - "you want what? Ok, here you go...".

But conforming is different from acceptance - an entity conforms to a shape - it tries to fit in - but it stays separate.

Whereas someone who fully embraces the shape - wants and tries to be assimilated by it - well, I have no sympathy for them.


PE Bird--I like very much your differentiation between conformity and acceptance; fitting into is not the same as becoming.

And, then, I start to wonder is full assimilation by the shape possible? And, I would think not. But, is the desire for full assimilation necessarily worthy of condemnation? If we think of it as a desire for oneness or full the elimination of grasping, monkey mind, maybe it isn't awful but a kind of impossible aspiration not to be apart, alone.


I suppose to conform is to confirm but not necessarily to affirm. If we are 'always already' complicit, then conformity may become tactical, provided it's self-conscious(?)

In any case, it shouldn't be about the morality of (non-)conformity. We all know morality's for suckers and shouldn't be affirmed. . .

This leads me into thinking about the place or non-place of difference. And also about potential, immanence, the negative dialectic, etc.

I've been reading Deleuze and Adorno simultaneously, and I experience a kind of pulse of affinity between Adorno's thinking against identity and Deleuzian becoming.

This is not helpful. Sorry.


Isn't the point of liberal arts education to teach young minds how to view the world through a different lens? As freshmen we arrive on campus with a preconceived notion of society/global issues that is derived from family values and local traditions. College is supposed to broaden our horizons and teach us to understand that there is life beyond our localized world. Hopefully, we leave college with a broad understanding of ourselves and the world, rather than remaining insulated and ignorant.

The College Republicans have taken extreme measures to present their views (and, I agree, they can be creepy), but in my mind their actions are justified because they feel as if their local traditions and values are under attack. Rather than trying to display a wide range of views, the faculty has grown militant to the point of polarizing the campus. For professional intellectuals, it amazes me that they can’t find nuances in a discussion over the war in Iraq. They hate George Bush for oversimplifying the War on Terror as “good guys vs bad guys”, but they don’t realize they display the same “you’re either with us or against us” mentality when they cry “blood for oil”.

While some students have embraced the faculty’s activism, others have turned have turned into reactionaries. This is a natural outcome. The College Republicans are reacting to what they perceive as a threat from the majority. If the majority actively seeks to undermine the values of the struggling young minds, shouldn’t they expect a reaction? I guess the faculty has a difficult time swallowing the fact that activism comes different shapes and sizes. So it’s alright for Muslims to thwart modernity and protect their traditions by blowing up civilians, but it’s not alright for to Christians plant crosses in the ground as a pro-life statement?

Yes, the College Republicans embrace of the abortion issue maybe extreme, but you must also acknowledge their opposition, who acts and has acted in the same extremity (i.e. NARAL, PSU). I challenged the faculty and left wing students my junior year, not because of their ideology ( I’m not a Republican, nor a conservative), but because of their blatant hypocrisy. The Progressive Student Union maintained the largest budget ($12,000/yr) of all the clubs on campus. This money wasn’t used as for public good; it was used to fulfill a private goal of spreading their ideology. Rather than trying to unify the student body, via a concert, the PSU spent the school’s money on anarchist work shops. They purposely cut out the rest of the student body to assuage their bourgeois guilt. If they truly believed in their ideology, they wouldn’t have treated the rest of the student body with contempt. Maybe it was a lack of creativity on their part, but why use hate speech to promote peace?

The faculty and their left-wing students control the means of production as they use their position in the classroom to export their ideology. It seems to me that the faculty cares more about promoting ideology than they do about shaping balanced citizens. In the eyes of the faculty it is the students who are the vehicles for the revolution, they’re not individuals. It’s the responsibility of the faculty to mold active citizens, even if their students choose to be pro-life. Is it the parents’ responsibility to determine their child’s sexual orientation?


Sorry, I posted on the wrong discussion...my bad

Adam Kotsko

I agree about biding one's time. Strategically, one may want to conform simply so that the full stakes of one's opposition are not misunderstood -- for instance, in early Christianity, they paid their taxes so as not to be confused with a mere tax revolt (or at least that's the way people reconstruct the history).


I think that the matter of tactical conformity keeps before us the complexity of conformity in a complex situation: it may be unclear (to the conformist as well as anyone else) what exactly one is conforming to; what appears to be conforming to office expectations might be tactical undermining, biding one's time, following the golden rule, a yoga practice, working on a part of a movie, an accident, etc...


Conformity, Over-Identification, Perversion, Sublimity ...

Interesting questions, Jodi. Three different responses:

[1] Conformity: Could the attractions of quotidian conformity revolve around the fear that if one does effectively break up the chains of the symbolic order, one is expelled into the void of psychosis [a failed "subjective destitution"]? Or, how is it possible not only to resist effectively, but also to undermine and/or displace the existing socio-symbolic network - the Lacanian "big Other" - which predetermines the only space within which the subject can exist?

And this when such ordinary conformity is seen as perversion: the basic structure of perversion is that you perceive yourself as the instrument of others' jouissance. This is why, for example, Don Giovanni is a pervert. What is his big trick? His gift is not that he is beautiful, but that he can guess or discern the fantasy of each woman, and he tries to stage that fantasy. Which is why Lacan says une par une--une pour une; for each her own specific fantasy. For the pervert is totally void, he is there only to serve the other, to be the slave of the other's fantasy. This is very nicely expressed by Lacan: the formula of perversion is the simple reversal of the formula of fantasy. This is exactly what [supposedly] is meant to happen in psychoanalysis.

The pervert self-consciously identifies, not with the symptom but with the fantasy as a program, and thereby fills out the petit objet a, whereas the Lacanian analyst holds it empty and receptive in some way to the future.

Mr Z again: "This [the passage from desire to drive, from fantasy to symtoms -- P] is what people usually overlook when they concentrate only on generalities. Lacan discusses this in the mysterious final pages of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964; he says that when you go through fantasy, la traversee du fantasme, you lose desire, you become pure drive. Again, when people talk about the truth of desire, they simply overlook that. In The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan defines the final, concluding moment of analysis as the one when you step out, when you don't have desire any more, in this sense. You become the being of the drive; you pass from the side of the divided subject to the side of the object. Which is why the analyst is an object in this sense. I also agree with you if your point is that this is in a way extremely close, almost imperceptibly close, to the perverse position. Although the gap is there--absolute but almost imperceptible."

[2] Over-determination [from Rand to the neo-cons]: Zizek argues, "Ayn Rand’s fascination for male figures displaying an absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath’s famous line, ‘every woman adores a Fascist’. Is, however, such a quick, ‘politically correct’ dismissal of her work really accurate? The properly subversive dimension of her ideological procedure is not to be underestimated: Rand fits into the line of ‘overconformist’ authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it. Her over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself, as the title of one of her books (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) suggests; according to her, today, the truly heretical thing is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare, etc. sugar-coating. So what Pascal and Racine were to Jansenism, what Kleist was to German nationalist militarism, what Brecht was to Communism, Rand is to American capitalism ... It was perhaps her Russian origins and upbringing that enabled her to formulate directly the fantasmatic kernel of American capitalist ideology." This formulation made a lot of sense during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when much of the world was moving to the left in response to reactionary if pure over-ideological identifications like Rand's, but what about today, when Rand's rantings have now become the [near-global] socio-political status quo?

[3] [Symbolic] Sublimity (Principles): Groucho Marx, when caught in a lie, answers angrily: "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?

"The logic is here the same as that of Anne Frank who, in her diaries, expresses belief in the ultimate goodness of man in spite of the horrors accomplished by men against Jews in World War II: what renders such an assertion of belief (in the essential goodness of Man; in the truly human character of the Soviet regime) sublime, is the very gap between it and the overwhelming factual evidence against it, i.e. the active will to disavow the actual state of things. Perhaps therein resides the most elementary meta-physical gesture: in this refusal to accept the real in its idiocy, to disavow it and to search for Another World behind it. The big Other is thus the order of lie, of lying sincerely. And it is in this sense that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" [from Yeats' The Second Coming, 1920-- P]: even the best are no longer able to sustain their symbolic innocence, their full engagement in the symbolic ritual, while "the worst," the mob, engage in (racist, religious, sexist...) fanaticism? Is this opposition not a good description of today's split between tolerant but anemic liberals, and the fundamentalists full of "passionate intensity"?"

All of this seemingly nonsensical logic succinctly summarises the operation of the symbolic order, in which the symbolic mask-injunction, the cultural construction, takes precedence over the direct reality of the person who assumes or projects this mask and/or internalises this injunction. Moreover, this whole operation seems to involve the structure of fetishist disavowal: "I know perfectly well that Humans do horrible things, but nevertheless I believe Humanity to be essentially Good and to be capable of Good", or "I know very well that things are the way I see them /that this person is a corrupt weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge, so that when he speaks, it is the Law itself which speaks through him". In other words, I effectively believe his words, not my eyes, i.e. I believe in Another Space (the domain of pure symbolic authority) which matters more than the reality of its spokesmen or, indeed, the reality of scientific empiricism, of "the facts", of the Reality Principle. The cynical reduction to reality thus falls short: when a judge speaks, there is in a way more truth in his words (the words of the Institution of law) than in the direct reality of the person of judge - if one limits oneself to what one sees, one simply misses the point. This paradox is what Lacan aims at with his les non-dupes errent: those who do not let themselves be caught in the symbolic deception/fiction and continue to believe their eyes are the ones who err most.

"What a cynic who "believes only his eyes" misses is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our experience of reality."


Hi Jodi. This is great post. I think the Zizekian turn in your argument here is crucial. And, as you seem to be saying, of course, it hangs around the late Lacanian theory of ideology and that wonderful underside of the Lacanian economy, the sinthome. I guess the question would be here how to make the sinthome speak, how to bring it to a state of being that can do disturbing, dislocating, work. Plenty to think about...

Dominic Fox

It might be worthwhile to make a distinction between the -ITY and the -ISM.

ConformITY is one thing; conformISM another. Conformism entails a belief in conformity as a good in itself, and a corresponding tendency to see non-conformity as immediately sinister, the start of a slippery slope leading inexorably to outright wickedness. All of the interesting questions you raise about the value of conformITY in various situations are foreclosed by conformISM.

What the person accused of conformISM is being accused of is unthinking validation of conformITY, and (more to the point) a knee-jerk reactiveness against any non-conforming behaviour or expression.

It's a good (that is, effectively stymieing irrespective of fairness or accuracy) accusation to throw at academics, because the idiom of academic discussion is recognisably *different* from that of mainstream public speech, and any attempt to preserve the discursive facilities and privileges afforded by that idiom can readily be caricatured as pedantry and pack-behaviour. (Never mind that a conversation about sports in a public bar will be equally facilitated by discursive convention, and equally ruthlessly policed).

The weak claim is that academics make noises that have an ostensibly non-conformist *content*, but that they are "as bad as the rest of us", if not worse, when it comes to matters of conversational etiquette. The strong claim is that this conformITY of expression is a symptom of a conformIST mentality, which extends beyond etiquette into the region of a "political correctness" of thought and gesture, and a compulsion to engage in rituals of exorcism and disavowal whenever this "correctness" is perceived to have been breached. That mentality is actually rather common; the most I think one can say with any fairness is that academics are not immune to it.

Adam Roberts

Jodi writes: 'A failure to conform might be the ultimate in arrogance, a making of oneself into an exemption, she to whom no norm applies, she who is above all norms, she who acts as she pleases when and where she pleases...'

Another way of putting this might be: 'Who are you? Are you the one to whom other people are expected to confirm, or are you trying to confirm to the ideal set by somebody else?' Hitler, say, was terribly conformist in lots of ways: bourgeois tastes in art and music, say. But he was also the person to whom an entire nation was expected to conform, which puts him in a different category.

Actually the Hitler ref is off the point, and a cheap shot to boot. The psychoanalytic drift of many comments is more to the point, I'd say. Anyone who's raised children will tell you: the newborn baby is not a conformist. You (parents, family) must confirm to her. Conformism is the learned behaviour constitutive of the superego; the entry of the reality principle; what differentiates a baby from a toddler, child, adult etc.

Adam Roberts

A PS: maybe the Hitler ref isn’t so off the point, in that case. One feature of cultural representations of Hitler, it’s often seemed to me, is that he must be portrayed as continually falling into towering, hand-waving, spittle-on-chin-tantrum Rages. This is part of our cultural model of the type of Hitler … perhaps because he was non-conformist enough to register as a kind of monstrous Baby in uniform?


Yes - full assimilation is impossible, a fantasy. In assimilation both parties are changed, but on what terms? It's ambigious.

In the comment above about IST/ITY - maybe one who merely conforms (engages in conformity) understands the fantastic component of conforming, while the conformist fully desires

Should the desire for assimiliation be condemned? No. It is a starting point to transform into a drive for change/disruption.

I like the suggestion above to investigate sinthome - its a concept I have some difficulty getting my head around.


"It is through imitative repetition that invention, the fundamental social adaptation, spreads and is strengthened, and tends, through the encounter of one of its own imitative rays with and imitative ray emanating from some other invention, old or new, either to arouse new struggles, or (perhaps directly, perhaps as a result of these struggles) to yield new and more complex inventions, which soon radiate out imitatively in turn, and so on indefinitely." - Gabriel Tarde _Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology_ http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/tarde/laws.pdf

This post reminded me of the fun I had in thenth grade during an English class where the topic of consideration was conformity and I paralized class discussion by submiting that non-conformity was simply another form of conformity. It really would only work in the tenth grade.

The whole idea of conforming having positive features seems of importance to me when considering Jameson or Spivak (which never came up in the symposium however) where it is a matter of the dominated making their way within the dominant - inserting oneself into hegemonic discourse, so to speak.

Rambling Thomas

Jodi: "Zizek frequently points out that this full identification, conformity, is one way of disrupting a system, of giving up that point of distance or non-identity that actually supports it."

peBird: "It is also the way to demonstrate the inherent contradiction of a given situation - 'you want what? Ok, here you go...'"

Jodi: "Zizek's discussions of Charlie Chaplain and of Roberto Benigni. And, they may likely be mixed up, but I imagine a scene/screen of jackbooted soldiers in lockstep, the quintessential image of fascist conformity. And, then, I think of Benigni and Chaplain whose mimicry exposes and dissolves the unity of the group."

This point came up in the seminar I am, by coincidence, taking with Zizek, where he gave an example that seems to tie some of these ideas together. Zizek's example of subversive conformity was of his being a member of a dissident group in Slovenia, publishing a newspaper the day after a rigged Soviet election, with the headline reading something like "Surprise Landslide Victory for Communist Party!" The headline is an example of conformity insofar as the elections are supposed not to have been rigged; therefore the huge margin of victory is supposedly a "surprise." Yet, of course, the gesture is subversive since everybody knows (but is not allowed to say) that the elections are rigged: the headline in fact reveals the absurd open secret of the rigged elections.

This isn't mimickry per se, but the logic is the same as in the discussion of Chaplin and Begnini. What ties the two together is the notion that the subversive intent is completely obvious throughout, yet no one is able to say why, for fear of bringing the whole house of cards down.

PS -- thanks for linking to my blog -- I suddenly feel part of a community...


conformity to what? to which group? ...progressive might do well to open up Freud's Civ. and its Discontents occasionally, if not Skinner. It could be the case the wide-spread pathology, near-psychosis, if not the real thing is much more prevalent than naive marxists or sunday-school liberals would like to believe. Politics from a pathological POV presents many problems that traditionalists--lib., con. marxist, -- tends to overlook or downplay. Stare at Vegasopolis for a few hours and one may start re-perusing some Thoreau if not Bakunin along with the Freud as well .........


Rambling Thomas, it is probably the case that Zizek has articulated assorted permutations of the Slovenian election story (and whether we want to believe it or not is another matter): another version of this incident during the elections in the 1980s was that the opposition published a newspaper on the eve of the poll with a headline that predicted a victory for the League of Slovene Communists. Zizek and his colleagues were immediately rounded up by the authorities to be questioned, but they had done nothing wrong, "merely" drawn attention to the fact that it was of course inconceivable that the Communists would not win an election.

Similarly, art collective NSK and Zizek had noticed something crucial about the way the ideological apparatus worked in Yugoslavia, that it required the phenomenon of "dissidence" as a kind of buffer zone between individuals and the state. The knowing cynical distance from the ruling ideology, the fact that everyone knew it was a sham, actually enabled it to function, was its very condition of possibility. People could complain and complain and complain about how voting never changed anything, that you could never believe what politicians said, that conforming with the regulations was bureaucratic idiocy, but this did not stop them from conforming, from accepting things and even being happier to do so when they knew they had no real part in it, that they had some precious individual Space, some inner core or hard kernal that was immunised from the ritual spectacles.

Overidentification [as a political strategy, "pretending to pretend"], on the other hand, takes the system at its word and plays so close to it that it cannot bear your participation. In that way you are much more dangerous.

Some far-flung illustrations, from Slovenia, America, and Ireland:

One of the component groups of NSK (Neue Collectivism) got an award in 1987 for their poster celebrating the day of youth and Tito's birthday. But this quickly turned into the "poster scandal" when it was discovered that they had submitted an old Nazi poster, leading to the strategy of overidentification immediately becoming politically charged.

In the US, political satirist Michael Moore some years ago [as portrayed in his TV doc Moore's Nation] entered an unusual candidate in the Congressional elections: a Ficus plant. He was able to do this because he followed to the letter all of the rules, regulations, bureaucratic procedures and so on of the electoral process. The Ficus plant was duly elected.

In Ireland some years ago, a group of students entered as a candidate in student elections at a Dublin university a tape-recorded VOICE [analogies with V for Vendetta aside, this is also reminiscent of the Voice in both Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse or David Cronenberg's Videodrome, recordings masquerading as "real people"] of some registered but mysterious, hermetic student, who may or may not have actually existed. The Voice was elected.

While it is clear that in both of these cases, the organisers of the prank or "stunt" were simply "pretending" [engaging in mere pomo irony, a knowingly hollow miming of the electoral process] in order to draw attention to the sheer poverty of competing election candidates, they (Moore and the students)nevertheless still believed in the underlying integrity of the electoral process itself, in democracy as Master Signifier, ie "If only we had better candidates, all would be well with democracy" etc.

The paradox in both cases here, and uncritically accepted by everyone involved, was that both non-human "winning" candidates were deemed invalid, were subsequently rejected by assorted authories - governing bodies, election-oversight commitees etc, rulings that were never contested by anyone, the runner-up "human" candidates instead being deemed elected. The effect of the "scam" was thus paradoxically to undermine democracy ostensibly in order to defend it but actually in order to protect something else entirely ("But you can't have a dumb plant as a political leader. It's not human!"), the fantasy of a kind of sentimental humanism that imagines a "real human being" behind such media constructs as Arnold Schzwarzenneger and George Bush, or anyone else.

Of course, a proper [pretending to pretend] political strategy of over-identification would, in the two examples above, have challenged the final rulings of the extra-legal bodies, the dismissals of the winning "candidates," a move that would over-identify with the very form of democracy itself, so nihilating, so dismissing its phantasmatic underside or kernal of support, the "real essential person, the inner ego-self" that lies behind the candidates.

And I thing Jodi draws out these points in her analysis of the Zelig-like, human-cameleon performance of the Mime artist: " ... for, it is the mime who draws our attention to the absorption to a form in conformity, as if to tell us that a conforming that understands itself as retaining an original element that does not conform, a specialness that is held apart from the form, a uniqueness that is retained, is, in fact, pure, complete conformity, conformity as such. Full and complete conformity is that conformity that thinks it is not full and complete. The mime, by virtue of the fullness of his mimcry, draws out the specificity in an individual's conformity: the specificity that, ostensibly precious, the mime demonstrates to be meaningless, idiotic. The mime, then, isolates as a meaningless kernel of enjoyment that sense of individuality constitutive of full conformity."


Rambling T--you have a terrific blog; hope you enjoy the neighborhood. Nifty that you are in a seminar with Zizek right now. At the risk of telling trade secrets, when my partner was complaining about students taking up his time, Z advised him to make up a list with time slots and fill in each slot with a made up name and then post the list on his door. So, it would look like he was keeping office hours, but really....

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