Monday, June 29, 2015

Re-Appraising the Motives of Western Democracy Movements (Part 2 of 2)

"Democracy" is not merely the "power of, by, and for the people," it is not enough just to claim that, in democracy, the will and the interests (the two in no way automatically coincide) of the large majority determine the state decisions. Democracy - in the way this term is used today - concerns, above all, formal legalism: its minimal definition is the unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game. "Democracy" means that, whatever electoral manipulation took place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were effectively "democratic": in spite of obvious electoral manipulations, and of the patent meaninglessness of the fact that a couple hundred of Florida voices will decide who will be the president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections, Bill Clinton made an appropriate acerbic comment: "The American people have spoken; we just don't know what they said." This comment should be taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don't know it - and, maybe, because there was no substantial "message" behind the result at all. This is the sense in which one should render problematic democracy: why should the Left always and unconditionally respect the formal democratic "rules of the game"? Why should it not, in some circumstances, at least, put in question the legitimacy of the outcome of a formal democratic procedure?

Interestingly enough, there is at least one case in which formal democrats themselves (or, at least, a substantial part of them) would tolerate the suspension of democracy: what if the formally free elections are won by an anti-democratic party whose platform promises the abolition of formal democracy? (This did happen, among other places, in Algeria a couple of years ago, and the situation is similar in today's Pakistan.) In such a case, many a democrat would concede that the people was not yet "mature" enough to be allowed democracy, and that some kind of enlightened despotism whose aim will be to educate the majority into proper democrats is preferable.

This strategic suspension of democracy is reaching new heights today. The US were putting tremendous pressure on Turkey where, according to opinion polls, 94% of the people are opposed to allowing the US troops' presence for the war against Iraq - where is democracy here? Every old Leftist remembers Marx's reply, in The Communist Manifesto, to the critics who reproached the Communists that they aim at undermining family, property, etc.: it is the capitalist order itself whose economic dynamics is destroying the traditional family order (incidentally, a fact more true today than in Marx's time), as well as expropriating the large majority of the population. In the same vein, is it not that precisely those who pose today as global defenders of democracy are effectively undermining it? In a perverse rhetorical twist, when the pro-war leaders are confronted with the brutal fact that their politics is out-of-tune with the majority of their population, they take recourse to the commonplace wisdom that "a true leader leads, he does not follow" - and this from leaders otherwise obsessed with opinion polls...

When politicians start to directly justify their decisions in ethical terms, one can be sure that ethics is mobilized to cover up some dark, threatening prospects. It is the very inflation of abstract ethical rhetoric in George W. Bush's recent public statements (of the "Does the world have the courage to act against Evil or not?" type) which manifests the utter ETHICAL misery of the U.S. position - the function of ethical reference is here purely mystifying, merely serving to mask the true political stakes (which are not difficult to discern). In order to trace these stakes, recall how the geopolitic hardliners like to compare today's situation of the US to that of a patient on dialysis: the US ªway of life´ in all its aspects, including the ideological ones, crucially depends on the availability of a certain minimal amount of the oil supply, only one third of which can be provided by the US themselves. The US are thus like a patient on dialysis whose survival depends on the influx of oil mostly controlled by the Muslim population which is antagonistic to the US values and might - in short, a patient whose dialysis machine is controlled by a crazy doctor who hates the patient... The only way to avoid the permanent threat is to directly take control of the key oil suppliers in the Middle East. The gradual limitation of democracy is clearly perceptible in the attempts to "rethink" the present situation - one is, of course, for democracy and human rights, but one should "rethink" them, and a series of recent interventions in the public debate give a clear sense of the direction of this "rethinking." In The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria, Bush's favored columnist, locates the threat to freedom in "overdoing democracy," i.e., in the rise of "illiberal democracy at home and abroad" (the books subtitle). He draws the lesson that democracy can only "catch on" in economically developed countries: if the developing countries are "prematurely democratized," the result is a populism which ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism - no wonder that today's economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule. The immediate lessons for Iraq is clear and unambiguous: yes, the US should bring democracy to Iraq, but not impose it immediately - there should first be a period of five or so years in which a benevolently-authoritarian US dominated regime would create proper conditions for the effective functioning of democracy... We know now what bringing democracy means: it means that the US and its "willing partners" impose themselves as the ultimate judges who decide if a country is ripe for democracy.

As for the US themselves, Zakaria's diagnosis is that "America is increasingly embracing a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy. /.../ The result is a deep imbalance in the American system, more democracy but less liberty." The remedy is thus to counteract this excessive "democratization of democracy" (or "deMOREcracy") by delegating more power to impartial experts insulated from the democratic fray, like the independent central banks. Such a diagnosis cannot but provoke an ironic laughter: today, in the alleged "overdemocratization," the US and the UK started a war on Iraq against the will of the majority of their own populations, not to mention the international community. And are we not all the time witnessing the imposition of key decisions concerning global economy (trade agreements, etc.) by "impartial" bodies exempted from democratic control? Is the idea that, in our post-ideological era, economy should be de-politicized and run by experts, today not a commonplace shared by all participants? Even more fundamentally, is it not ridiculous to complain about "overdemocratization" in a time when the key economic and geopolitic decisions are as a rule not an issue in elections: for at least three decades, what Zakaria demands is already a fact. What we are effectively witnessing today is a split into ideological life-style issues where fierce debates rage and choices are solicited (abortion, gay marriages, etc.), and the basic economic policy which is presented as a depoliticized domain of expert decisions - the proliferation of "overdemocracy" with the "excesses" or affirmative action, the "culture of complaint," and the demands for financial and other restitutions of victims, is ultimately the front whose back side is the silent weaving of the economic logic.

The obverse of the same tendency to counteract the excesses of "deMOREcracy" is the open dismissal of any international body that would effectively control the conduct of a war - exemplary is here Kenneth Anderson's "Who Owns the Rules of War?" (in The New York Times Magazine, April 13 2003), whose subtitle make the point unambiguously clear: "The war in Iraq demands a rethinking of the international rules of conduct. The outcome could mean less power for neutral, well-meaning human rights groups and more for big-stick-wielding states. That would be a good thing." The main complaint of this essay is that, "for the past 20 years, the center of gravity in establishing, interpreting and shaping the law of war has gradually shifted away from the militaries of leading states and toward more activist human rights organizations;" this tendency is perceived as unbalanced, "unfair" towards the big military powers who intervene in other countries, and partial towards the attacked countries - with the clear conclusion that the militaries on the "big-stick-wielding states" should themselves determine the standards by which their actions will be judged. This conclusion is quite consistent with the US rejection of the authority of the Hague War Crimes tribunal over its citizens. Effectively, as they would have put it in Lord of the Rings, a new Dark Age is descending upon the human race.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Too Much Democracy" (4/14/03)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Post-Modern Anxiety, Part Deux

Drowning in the Real!
One should bear in mind Lacan's lesson here: accepting guilt is a manoeuvre which delivers us of anxiety, and its presence signals that the subject compromised his desire. So when, in a move described by Kierkegaard, one withdraws from the dizziness of freedom by seeking a firm support in the order of finitude, this withdrawal itself is the true Fall. More precisely, this withdrawal is the very withdrawal into the constraints of the externally-imposed prohibitory Law, so that the freedom which then arises is the freedom to violate the Law, the freedom caught into the vicious cycle of Law and its transgression, where Law engenders the desire to "free oneself" by way of violating it, and "sin" is the temptation inherent to the Law-the ambiguity of attraction and repulsion which characterizes anxiety is now exerted not directly by freedom but by sin. The dialectic of Law and its transgression does not reside only in the fact that Law itself solicits its own transgression, that it generates the desire for its own violation; our obedience to the Law itself is not "natural," spontaneous, but always-already mediated by the (repression of the) desire to transgress it. When we obey the Law, we do it as part of a desperate strategy to fight against our desire to transgress it, so the more rigorously we OBEY the Law, the more we bear witness to the fact that, deep in ourselves, we fell the pressure of the desire to indulge in sin. The superego feeling of guilt is therefore right: the more we obey the Law, the more we are guilty, because this obedience effectively IS a defense against our sinful desire.
-Slavoj Zizek, "Anxiety: Kierkegaard with Lacan"

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Primum non Nocere

ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν
I'll boil easier than u, crush my bones into glue
I'm a go getter
The system's in red, the room is inbred
I'm a go getter

Don't hold no harm
Don't hold no harm

(Verse 2)
My children despise my wonderful lies
I'm a go getter
I see thru' ur walls & ur space down ur halls
I'm a go getter


The fever I feel, the fake and the real
I'm a go getter
My world just expands, things just break in my hands
I'm a go-getter

(Chorus x2)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Deborah Turbeville

In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.
- Alfred Stieglitz

Saturday, June 20, 2015

An Allegory

There's a murmur in the air,
And noise in every street—
The murmur of many tongues,
The noise of numerous feet—
While round the Workhouse door
The Laboring Classes flock,
For why? the Overseer of the Poor
Is setting the Workhouse Clock.

Who does not hear the tramp
Of thousands speeding along
Of either sex and various stamp,
Sickly, cripple, or strong,
Walking, limping, creeping
From court and alley, and lane,
But all in one direction sweeping
Like rivers that seek the main?

Who does not see them sally
From mill, and garret, and room,
In lane, and court and alley,
From homes in poverty's lowest valley,
Furnished with shuttle and loom—
Poor slaves of Civilization's galley—
And in the road and footways rally,
As if for the Day of Doom?
Some, of hardly human form,
Stunted, crooked, and crippled by toil;
Dingy with smoke and dust and oil,
And smirch'd besides with vicious soil,
Clustering, mustering, all in a swarm.

Father, mother, and careful child,
Looking as if it had never smiled—
The Sempstress, lean, and weary, and wan,
With only the ghosts of garments on—

The Weaver, her sallow neighbor,
The grim and sooty Artisan;
Every soul—child, woman, or man,
Who lives—or dies—by labor.

Stirr'd by an overwhelming zeal,
And social impulse, a terrible throng!
Leaving shuttle, and needle, and wheel,
Furnace, and grindstone, spindle, and reel,
Thread, and yarn, and iron, and steel—
Yea, rest and the yet untasted meal—
Gushing, rushing, crushing along,
A very torrent of Man!
Urged by the sighs of sorrow and wrong,
Grown at last to a hurricane strong,
Stop its course who can!
Stop who can its onward course
And irresistible moral force;
O vain and idle dream!
For surely as men are all akin,
Whether of fair or sable skin,
According to Nature's scheme,
That Human Movement contains within
A Blood-Power stronger than Steam.

Onward, onward, with hasty feet,
They swarm—and westward still—
Masses born to drink and eat,
But starving amidst Whitechapel's meat,
And famishing down Cornhill!
Through the Poultry—but still unfed—
Christian Charity, hang your head!
Hungry—passing the Street of Bread;
Thirsty—the street of Milk;
Ragged—beside the Ludgate Mart,
So gorgeous, through Mechanic-Art,
With cotton, and wool, and silk!

At last, before that door
That bears so many a knock
Ere ever it opens to Sick or Poor,
Like sheep they huddle and flock—
And would that all the Good and Wise
Could see the Million of hollow eyes,
With a gleam deriv'd from Hope and the skies,
Upturn'd to the Workhouse Clock!

Oh that the Parish Powers,
Who regulate Labor's hours,
The daily amount of human trial,
Weariness, pain, and self-denial,
Would turn from the artificial dial
That striketh ten or eleven,
And go, for once, by that older one
That stands in the light of Nature's sun,
And takes its time from Heaven!
- Thomas Hood

Friday, June 19, 2015

Misplaced Guilt and the Impossibility of Meaning

The dream of the burning child is found in the seventh chapter of "The Interpretation of Dreams." Freud introduces it as a model dream, told to him by a woman patient, who had herself heard it in a lecture on dreams. Freud narrates the dream as follows:
A father had been watching beside his child's sick-bed for days and night on end. After the child had died, he went into the next room to lie down, but left the door open so that he could see from his bedroom into the room which his child's body was laid out, with tall candles standing round it. An old man had been engaged to keep watch over it, and sat beside the body murmuring prayers. After a few hours' sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: 'Father, don't you see I'm burning?' He woke up, noticed a bright glare of light from the next room, hurried into it and found the old watchman had dropped off to sleep and that the wrappings and one of the arms of his beloved child's dead body had been burned by a lighted candle that had fallen on them. (Freud 1985a: 652)
Freud invites us to wonder why the dream occurred, in circumstances in which the most rapid awakening was called for. The first answer he provides, in line with one of the general theses of "The Interpretation of Dreams," was that the dream contained the fulfillment of a wish to deny the child's death. He writes: 'For the sake of the fulfillment of this wish the father prolonged his sleep by one moment. The dream was preferred to a waking reflection because it was able to show the child once more alive' (1985a: 653).

Lacan returns to the dream of the burning child in his Seminar 11, with a reading which departs radically from Freud's interpretation. Lacan questions: "What is it that wakes the sleeper? Is it not, in the dream, another reality?" (1994:58). Lacan finds in the dream, a horrifying encounter with the Real:
For it is not that, in the dream, [the father] persuades himself that the son is still alive. But the terrible vision of the dead son taking the father by the arm designates a beyond that makes itself heard in the dream. Desire manifests itself in the dream by the loss expressed in an image at the most cruel point of the object. It is only in the dream that this truly unique encounter can occur. (1959:59)
Slavoj Zizek, glossing Lacan, explains his reading:
First [the subject] constructs a dream, a story which enables him to prolong his sleep, to avoid awakening into reality. But the thing that he encounters in the dream, the reality of his desire, the Lacanian Real - in our case, the reality of the child's reproach to his father, 'Can't you see that I am burning?', implying the father's fundamental guilt - is more terrifying that the so-called external reality itself, and that is why he awakens: to escape the Real of his desire, which announces itself in the terrifying dream. He escapes into so-called reality to be able to continue to sleep, to maintain his blindness, to elude awakening into the real of his desire. (1989: 45)
For Zizek, the encounter with the Real is bound up with an (excessive) realisation of parental guilt. This is the horror encountered in the dream from which the father escapes in waking.

Cathy Caruth makes a further important reading of the dream. She argues that for Lacan: 'It is the dream itself... that wakes the sleeper, and it is in this paradoxical awakening - an awakening not to, but against, the very wishes of consciousness - that the dreamer confronts the reality of a death from which he cannot turn away' (1996: 99). She continues: 'For if the dreamer's awakening can be seen as a response to the words, to the address of the child, within the dream, then awakening represents a paradox about the necessity and impossibility of confronting death. Waking up in order to see, the father discovers that he has once again seen too late to prevent the burning' (1996: 100). Caruth's thinking on traumatic response is governed, however, by a profound concern for the possibility of survival. For Caruth: 'It is precisely the dead child, the child in its irreducible inaccessibility and otherness, who says to the father: wake up, leave me, survive; survive to tell the story of my burning' (1996: 105). The imperative to survive in order to testify is Caruth's supplement to the narrative. Her prose testifies to her sense of the dream, and its address to the father, as imperative. Lacan's observation, 'for no one can say what the death of a child is, except the father qua father' (1994: 59), is glossed by Caruth as: 'The father must receive the dead child's words' (1996: 106). Her move into a reading of the dream which privileges the imperative of a speaking that awakens others is, though ethically motivated, open to question.

Caruth's reading is at odds with Zizek's. This she acknowledges in a footnote, where she writes: 'Slavoj Zizek suggests that the awakening in Lacan's reading of the dream is the precise reversal of the usual understanding of a dream as a fiction and of awakening as reality: he argues that the awakening of the father in Lacan's reading is an "escape" from the real into 'ideology' (1996: 142). Disagreeing with Zizek, she speaks of 'the difficulty of accepting that awakening to a child's dead corpse, could ever be understood as an escape' (ibid.). For me, the brilliance of Zizek's reading is that it hazards an interpretation of the (missed) encounter with the Real: at its heart, Zizek suggests, is the father's impossible, tortured guilt in response to the child's suffering and death. This is what is worse than awakening to the knowledge of the child's death.

The dream of the burning child, and its interpretations, anticipate on several levels the concerns of this study. In the first place the manifest content of the dream of the burning child predetermines its relevance to a study of the ways of contending with the loss of children. More than the commentators above, I am interested in the dream literally because it is about the death of a child, about hesitance in facing and accepting death, about parental responsibility and guilt, and the impossibility of representation of such experience.
Emma Wilson, "Cinema's Missing Children"

To me, this "imperative of a speaking that awakens others" is the death drive or lamella. I've heard tales of survivors of mass killings and brutal rapes in which the only thing that kept the victim going was the thought of testifying as to the attrocities experienced. And then the disappointment once their actual stories were told... the let-down... and the depression which subsequently would set-in when "nothing was done" to rectify the injustices experienced. A 'ghost' was born.

On the Role of the Public Intellectual

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


"Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak."
Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Korai/ Kouros

She's a model and she's looking good
I'd like to take her home that's understood
She plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time
It only takes a camera to change her mind
She's going out tonight, loves drinking just champagne
And she has been checking nearly all the men
She's playing her game and you can hear them say
She is looking good, for beauty we will pay - yeah!
She's posing for consumer products now and then
For every camera she gives the best she can
I saw her on the cover of a magazine
Now she's a big success, I want to meet her again!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dark Continents

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Derek Walcott, "A Far Cry from Africa" (1930)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Freedom for WHOM? to do WHAT?

How, then, do things stand with freedom? Here is how Lenin stated his position in a polemic against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries’ critique of Bolshevik power in 1922:
Indeed, the sermons which ... the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: “The revolution has gone too far What you are saying now we have been saying at[ the time, permit us to say it again.” But we say in reply: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements."”
This Leninist freedom of choice — not “Life or money!” but “Life or critique!” — combined with Lenin’s dismissive attitude towards the “liberal” notion of freedom, accounts for his bad reputation among liberals. Their case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom: as even Leftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion “formal,” so that “actual freedom” equals the lack of freedom.” That is to say, with regard to freedom, Lenin is best remembered for his famous retort “Freedom yes, but for WHOM? To do WHAT?” — for him, in the case of the Mensheviks quoted above, their “freedom” to criticize the Bolshevik government effectively amounted to “freedom” to undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counter-revolution ... Today, is it not obvious after the terrifying experience of Really Existing Socialism, where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized, situation in which the “objective” consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves . . . “); second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts “objectively mean,” so that their apparent 11 objectivism” (the focus on “objective meaning”) is the form of appearance of its opposite, the thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is “objectively” an enemy of the working class). Against this full contextualization, one should emphasize that freedom is “actual” precisely and only as the capacity to “transcend” the coordinates of a given situation, to “posit the presuppositions” of one’s activity (as Hegel would have put it), i.e. to redefine the very situation within which one is active. Furthermore, as many a critic pointed out, the very term “Really Existing Socialism,” although it was coined in order to assert Socialism’s success, is in itself a proof of Socialism’s utter failure, i.e. of the failure of the attempt to legitimize Socialist regimes — the term “Really Existing Socialism” popped up at the historical moment when the only legitimizing reason for Socialism was a mere fact that it exists . . . “

Is this, however, the whole story? How does freedom effectively function in liberal democracies themselves? Although Clinton’s presidency epitomizes the Third Way of today’s (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail, his health-care reform program would nonetheless amount to a kind of act, at least in today’s conditions, since it would have been based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration — in a way, it would “do the impossible.” No wonder, then, that it failed: its failure — perhaps the only significant, although negative, event of Clinton’s presidency bears witness to the material force of the ideological notion of “free choice.” That is to say, although the large majority of the so-called “ordinary people” were not properly acquainted with the reform program, the medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defense lobby!) succeeded in imposing on the public the fundamental idea that, with universal health-care free choice (in matters concerning medicine) will be somehow threatened — against this purely fictional reference to “free choice”, all enumeration of “hard facts” (in Canada, health-care is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.

Here we are at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the “psychological” subject endowed with propensities he or she strives to realize. This especially holds today, in the era of what sociologists like Ulrich Beck call “risk society,” when the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms: you have to change jobs every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment. Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay. Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or “second modernity” ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the “escape from freedom,” of the immature sticking to old stable forms ... Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, then 1 as it were automatically interpret all these changes as the results of my personality, not as the result of me being thrown around by market forces.

Phenomena like these make it all the more necessary today to REASSERT the opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom in a new, more precise, sense. What we need today, in the era of liberal hegemony, is a “Leninist” traité de la servitude libérale, a new version of la Boétie’s Traiti de la servitude volontaire that would fully justify the apparent oxymoron “liberal totalitarianism.” In experimental psychology, Jean-Léon Beauvois took the first step in this direction with his precise exploration of the paradoxes of conferring on the subject the freedom to choose. Repeated experiments established the following paradox: if, AFTER getting from two groups of volunteers the agreement to participate in an experiment, one informs them that the experiment will involve something unpleasant, against their ethics even, and if, at this point, one reminds the first group that they have the free choice to say no, and says nothing to the other group, in BOTH groups, the SAME (very high) percentage will agree to continue their participation in the experiment.

What this means is that conferring the formal freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom will do the same thing as those (implicitly) denied it. This, however, does not mean that the reminder/bestowal of the freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom to choose will not only tend to choose the same as those denied it; they will tend to “rationalize” their “free” decision to continue to participate in the experiment — unable to endure the so-called cognitive dissonance (their awareness that they FREELY acted against their interests, propensities, tastes or norms), they will tend to change their opinion about the act they were asked to accomplish.

Let us say that an individual is first asked to participate in an experiment that concerns changing eating habits in order to fight against famine; then, after agreeing to do it, at the first encounter in the laboratory, he will be asked to swallow a living worm, with the explicit reminder that, if he finds this act repulsive, he can, of course, say no, since he has the complete freedom to choose. In most cases, he will do it, and then rationalize it by way of saying to himself something like: “What I am asked to do IS disgusting, but I am not a coward, 1 should display some courage and self-control, otherwise scientists will perceive me as a weak person who pulls out at the first minor obstacle! Furthermore, a worm does have a lot of proteins and it could effectively be used to feed the poor who am 1 to hinder such an important experiment because of my petty sensitivity? And, finally, maybe my disgust of worms is just a prejudice, maybe a worm is not so bad — and would tasting it not be a new and daring experience? What if it will enable me to discover an unexpected, slightly perverse, dimension of myself that 1 was hitherto unaware of?”

Beauvois enumerates three modes of what brings people to accomplish such an act which runs against their perceived propensities and/or interests: authoritarian (the pure command “You should do it because I say so, without questioning it!”, sustained by the reward if the subject does it and the punishment if he does not do it), totalitarian (the reference to some higher Cause or common Good which is larger than the subject’s perceived interest: “You should do it because, even if it is unpleasant, it serves our Nation, Party, Humanity!”), and liberal (the reference to the subject’s inner nature itself. “What is asked of you may appear repulsive, but look deep into yourself and you will discover that it’s in your true nature to do it, you will find it attractive, you will become aware of new, unexpected, dimensions of your personality!”).

At this point, Beauvois should be corrected: a direct authoritarianism is practically nonexistent — even the most oppressive regime publicly legitimizes its reign with the reference to some Higher Good, and the fact that, ultimately, “you have to obey because I say so” reverberates only as its obscene supplement discernible between the lines. It is rather the specificity of the standard authoritarianism to refer to some higher Good (“whatever your inclinations are, you have to follow my order for the sake of the higher Good!”), while totalitarianism, like liberalism, interpellates the subject on behalf of HIS OWN good (“what may appear to you as an external pressure, is really the expression of your objective interests, of what you REALLY WANT without being aware of it! “). The difference between the two resides elsewhere: totalitarianism” imposes on the subject his or her own good, even if it is against his or her will — recall King Charles’ (in)famous statement: “If any shall be so foolishly unnatural s to oppose their king, their country and their own good, we will make them happy, by God’s blessing — even against their wills. “ (Charles I to the Earl of Essex, 6 August 1 644. ) Here we encounter the later Jacobin theme of happiness as a political factor, as well as the Saint-Justian idea of forcing people to be happy ... Liberalism tries to avoid (or, rather, cover up) this paradox by way of clinging to the end to the fiction of the subject’s immediate free self-perception (“I don’t claim to know better than you what you want — just look deep into yourself and decide freely what you want!”).

The reason for this fault in Beauvois’s line of argumentation is that he fails to recognize how the abyssal tautological authority (“It is so because 1 say so!” of the Master) does not work only because of the sanctions (punishment/reward) it implicitly or explicitly evokes. That is to say, what, effectively, makes a subject freely choose what is imposed on him against his interests and/or propensities? Here, the empirical inquiry into “pathological” (in the Kantian sense of the term) motivations is not sufficient: the enunciation of an injunction that imposes on its addressee a symbolic engagement/ commitment evinces an inherent force of its own, so that what seduces us into obeying it is the very feature that may appear to be an obstacle — the absence of a “why.” Here, Lacan can be of some help: the Lacanian “Master-Signifier” designates precisely this hypnotic force of the symbolic injunction which relies only on its own act of enunciation — it is here that we encounter “symbolic efficiency” at its purest. The three ways of legitimizing the exercise of authority (“authoritarian,” “totalitarian,” “liberal”) are nothing but three ways of covering up, of blinding us to the seductive power of the abyss of this empty call. In a way, liberalism is here even the worst of the three, since it NATURALIZES the reasons for obedience into the subject’s internal psychological structure. So the paradox is that “liberal” subjects are in a way those least free: they change the very opinion/perception of themselves, accepting what was IMPOSED on them as originating in their “nature” — they are even no longer AWARE of their subordination.

Let us take the situation in the Eastern European countries around 1990, when Really Existing Socialism was falling apart: all of a sudden, people were thrown into a situation of the “freedom of political choice” — however, were they REALLY at any point asked the fundamental question of what kind of new order they actually wanted? Is it not that they found themselves in the exact situation of the subject-victim of a Beauvois experiment? They were first told that they were entering the promised land of political freedom; then, soon afterwards, they were informed that this freedom involved wild privatization, the dismantling of the system of social security, etc. etc. — they still have the freedom to choose, so if they want, they can step out; but, no, our heroic Eastern Europeans didn’t want to disappoint their Western mentors, they stoically persisted in the choice they never made, convincing themselves that they should behave as mature subjects who are aware that freedom has its price ... This is why the notion of the psychological subject endowed with natural propensities, who has to realize its true Self and its potentials, and who is, consequently, ultimately responsible for his failure or success, is the key ingredient of liberal freedom. And here one should risk reintroducing the Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom: in an act of actual freedom, one dares precisely to BREAK the seductive power of symbolic efficiency. Therein resides the moment of truth of Lenin’s acerbic retort to his Menshevik critics: the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options WITHIN a pre-given set of coordinates, but I choose to change this set of coordinates itself The catch of the “transition” from Really Existing Socialism to capitalism was that people never had the chance to choose the ad quem of this transition — all of a sudden, they were (almost literally) “thrown” into a new situation in which they were presented with a new set of given choices (pure liberalism, nationalist conservatism ... ). What this means is that the “actual freedom” as the act of consciously changing this set occurs only when, in the situation of a forced choice, one ACTS AS IF THE CHOICE IS NOT FORCED and “chooses the impossible.”

This is what Lenin’s obsessive tirades against “formal” freedom are about, therein resides their “rational kernel” which is worth saving today: when he emphasizes that there is no “pure” democracy, that we should always ask who does a freedom under consideration serve, which is its role in the class struggle, his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of the TRUE radical choice. This is what the distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom ultimately amounts to: “formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. In short, Lenin’s point is not to limit freedom of choice, but to maintain the fundamental Choice — when Lenin asks about the role of a freedom within the class struggle, what he is asking is precisely: “Does this freedom contribute to or constrain the fundamental revolutionary Choice?”

The most popular TV show of the fall of 2000 in France, with the viewer rating two times higher than that of the notorious “Big Brother” reality soaps, was “C'est mon choix” (“It is my choice”) on France 3, the talk show whose guest is an ordinary (or, exceptionally, a well-known) person who made a peculiar choice which determined his or her entire life-style: one of them decided never to wear underwear, another tries to find a more appropriate sexual partner for his father and mother — extravagance is allowed, solicited even, but with the explicit exclusion of the choices which may disturb the public (for example, a person whose choice is to be and act as a racist, is a priori excluded). Can one imagine a better predicament of what the “freedom of choice” effectively amounts to in our liberal societies? We can go on making our small choices, “reinvesting ourselves” thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance. For “C'est mon choix,” the truly radical thing would have been to focus precisely on the “disturbing” choices: to invite as guests people like dedicated racists, i.e. people whose choice (whose difference) DOES make a difference. This, also, is the reason why, today, “democracy” is more and more a false issue, a notion so discredited by its predominant use that, perhaps, one should take the risk of abandoning it to the enemy. Where, how, by whom are the key decisions concerning global social issues made? Are they made in the public space, through the engaged participation of the majority? If the answer is yes, it is of secondary importance if the state has a one-party system, etc. If the answer is no, it is of secondary importance if we have parliamentary democracy and freedom of individual choice.

Did something homologous to the invention of the liberal psychological individual not take place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s? The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man — no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very “ultra-orthodoxy,” i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology: the image of man that we get in Eisenstein, Meyerhold, constructivist paintings, etc., emphasizes the beauty of his/her mechanical movements, his/her thorough depsychologization. What was perceived in the West as the ultimate nightmare of liberal individualism, as the ideological counterpoint to “Taylorization,” to Fordist ribbon-work, was in Russia hailed as the utopian prospect of liberation: recall how Meyerhold violently asserted the “behaviorist” approach to acting — no longer emphatic familiarization with the person the actor is playing, but ruthless bodily training aimed at cold bodily discipline, at the ability of the actor to perform a series of mechanized movements . . .” THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist “socialist realism” effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a “Socialism with a human face,” i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.

The obvious reproach that imposes itself here is, of course: is the basic characteristic of today’s “postmodern” subject not the exact opposite of the free subject who experienced himself as ultimately responsible for his fate, namely the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control? Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat — if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment — recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery ... This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.
=Slavoj Zizek, "On Belief" (Leninist Freedom)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Harnessing the Intersubjective 'Surplus' Values

Fantasy is intersubjective. It is only produced by the interaction between subjects. However specific a fantasy may be to an individual, the fantasy itself is always a product of an intersubjective situation. It is a mask of the inconsistency in the big Other.

When we submit to the big Other, we sacrifice direct access to our bodies and, instead, are condemned to an indirect relation with it via the medium of language.. So whereas before we enter into language we are what Zizek terms "pathological" subjects (the subject that he notated by the figure 'S') after we are immersed in language we are what he refers to as 'barred' subjects (the empty subject he notates with the figure $). What is barred from the barred subject is preceisely the body as materialization, or incarnation, of enjoyment. Material enjoyment is strictly at odds with, or heterogeneous to, the immaterial order of the Signifier.

In order for the subject to enter the Symbolic Order, then, the Real of enjoyment or jouissance has to be evacuated from it. Which is another way of saying that the advent of the symbol entails 'the murder of the thing'.

What the fantasy of a sexual scenario conceals is the impossibility of a sexual relationship. It covers up the lack in the big Other, the missing jouissance.

Zizek avers that fantasy is a way for subjects to organize their jouissance - it is a way to manage or domesticate the traumatic loss of the enjoyment which cannot be Symbolized.
-Tony Meyers, "Slavoj Zizek"

Saturday, June 6, 2015

True Colours

When they were blue,
They gave no clue.
When they were white,
Everything seemed to be so perfect and right.
When they were green,
Life was being selfish and mean.
When they were pink,
Affection was silly and feelings used to stink.
When they were black,
My life was out of track.
When they were yellow,
Relations were mellow.
When they were orange,
I couldn’t understand relations were so strange.
When they were brown,
I felt like a clown.
When they were red,
Everything was going wrong, nothing was correct.
Finally the colouring stopped
But till then, my life was robbed……
Silkina Mankotia, "True Colours"

Monday, June 1, 2015


If on the closed curtain of my sight
My fancy paints thy portrait far away,
I see thee still the same, by night or day;
Crossing the crowded street, or moving bright
'Mid festal throngs, or reading by the light
Of shaded lamp some friendly poet's lay,
Or shepherding the children at their play,--
The same sweet self, and my unchanged delight.

But when I see thee near, I recognize
In every dear familiar way some strange
Perfection, and behold in April guise
The magic of thy beauty that doth range
Through many moods with infinite surprise,--
Never the same, and sweeter with each change.
Henry Van Dyke, "Portrait and Reality"