Sunday, January 21, 2018

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Sir Isaac Newton (1675)
Nicolas Poussin, "Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun" (1658)

Hegel on Donald Trump's Objective Humor

What can we learn from Hegel on Donald Trump and his liberal critics? Quite a lot, surprisingly. In his critical account of Romantic irony, Hegel scathingly dismisses it as an exercise of empty negativity, of the vain subjectivity which perceives itself as elevated over every objective content, making fun of everything, caught in “the hither and thither course of the humor which uses every topic only to emphasize the subjective wit of the author.” “It is the artist himself who enters the material, with the result that his chief activity, by the power of subjective notions, flashes of thought, striking modes of interpretation, consists in destroying and dissolving everything that proposes to make itself objective and win a firm shape for itself in reality, or that seems to have such a shape already in the external world.”1

Today, we can easily recognize in these lines a postmodern intellectual who obsessively “deconstructs” every stable social institution or value. So what does Hegel oppose to this vain irony? Hegel’s point is usually taken as conservative: instead of the all-destroying anarchic irony of the Romantics, one should recognize the Good and the True embodied in social customs, i.e., its own rational core… However, Hegel is much more ambiguous here. First, his basic reproach to subjective humor is not that it is undermining all objective content, not taking it seriously, relativizing it, but that this all-destroying ironic stance is really utterly impotent. It actually threatens nothing; it just provides the ironic subject with the illusion of inner freedom and superiority. When individuals are caught in an impenetrable cobweb of social relations, the only way to assert their subjectivity is the niche of jokes which allegedly demonstrate their inner superiority.

Hegel opposed to Romantic subjective irony a much more radical ontological irony which characterizes the innermost core of dialectics. Apropos Socratic irony, he points out that, “like all dialectic, it gives force to what is — taken immediately, but only in order to allow the dissolution inherent in it to come to pass; and we may call this the universal irony of the world.”2 Perceiving reality as in itself antagonistic, a dialectical approach does not try to undermine it actively; it just lets it be what it is (or claims to be), taking it more seriously than it takes itself, and in this way allows it to destroy itself. This irony is in a way objective, so no wonder that, in a short (and regretfully underdeveloped) passage, Hegel opposes to “subjective humor” what he calls “objective humor”:
When “what matters to humor is the object and its configuration within its subjective reflex, then we acquire thereby a growing intimacy with the object, a sort of objective humor. /…/ The form meant here displays itself only when to talk of the object is not just to name it, not an inscription or epigraph which merely says in general terms what the object is, but only when there are added a deep feeling, a felicitous witticism, an ingenious reflection, and an intelligent movement of imagination which vivify and expand the smallest detail through the way that poetry treats it.”3
We are dealing here with a humor which, by way of focusing on significant symptomal details, brings out the immanent inconsistencies/antagonisms of the existing order. So would it not be legitimate to extrapolate from these indications the idea that the social totality itself is traversed by antagonisms, wrought by comical reversals? Freedom turns into terror, honor into flattery – are such reversals not the stuff of the Cunning of Reason? Can one imagine a more terrifying case of “objective humor” than that of Stalinism, of the comical reversal of great emancipatory hopes into a self-destructive terrorist violence? Was, in this sense, Stalin not the big Jokester of the twentieth century? And is, in our time, individual freedom of choice also not a joke whose truth is the desperate situation of a precarious worker? In view of the fact that the greatest cultural product of the Stalinist era are political jokes, one is tempted to paraphrase Brecht yet again: what is even the best anti-Stalinist joke compared to the joke that is the Stalinist politics itself? Or, closer to our time, what are even the best jokes on Trump compared to the joke that is Trump’s actual politics? Imagine that, a couple of years ago, a comedian were to perform on stage Trump’s statements, tweets and decisions. That would have been experienced as a non-realist exaggerated joke. So, Trump already is his own parody, with the uncanny effect of the reality of his acts being more outrageously funny than most parodies.

Hegel’s critique of subjective humor is more actual than ever today. One of the popular myths of the late Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was that there was a department of secret police whose function was (not to collect, but) to invent and put in circulation political jokes against the regime and its representatives, as they were aware of jokes’ positive stabilizing function (political jokes offer to ordinary people an easy and tolerable way to blow off steam, easing their frustrations).

And, at a different level, the same holds for Trump. Remember how many times the liberal media announced that Trump was caught with his pants down and committed a public suicide (mocking the parents of a dead war hero, boasting about pussy grabbing, etc.). Arrogant liberal commentators were shocked at how their continuous acerbic attacks on Trump’s vulgar racist and sexist outbursts, factual inaccuracies, economic nonsense, etc., did not hurt him at all but maybe even enhanced his popular appeal. They missed how identification works: we as a rule identify with the other’s weaknesses, not only or even not principally with the strengths. Which means that the more Trump’s limitations were mocked the more ordinary people identified with him and perceived attacks on him as condescending attacks on themselves. The subliminal message of Trump’s vulgarities to ordinary people was: »I am one of you!«, while Trump supporters felt constantly humiliated by the liberal elite’s patronizing attitude towards them. As Alenka Zupančič put it succinctly, “the extremely poor do the fighting for the extremely rich, as it was clear in the election of Trump. And the Left does little else than scold and insult them.”4 Or, we should add, the Left does what is worse still: it patronizingly “understands” the confusion and blindness of the poor… This Left-liberal arrogance explodes at its purest in the new genre of political-comment-comedy talk shows (Jon Stewart, John Oliver…) which mostly enact the pure arrogance of the liberal intellectual elite:
1. Quoted from Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. Part 2.
2. Quoted from Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy
3. Quoted from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art. – ed. pdf)
4. Alenka Zupančič, “Back to the Future of Europe” (unpublished manuscript).
- Ippolit Belinski, "Hegel on Donald Trump's Objective Humor"

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Politicization of EVERYTHING

...Cultural Capitalism Continues on the March!

Disturbances in a Cupola

In Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic horror movie The Black Cat (1934), the opposition between the Bela Lugosi character (Werdegast) and the Boris Karloff one (Poelzig) is the one between the two modes of the ‘undead,’ both referring to the previous screen images of the actors — Lugosi is the spectral survivor obsessed with the traumatic past, while Karloff is a machine-like monster, i.e., we have the vampiric undead versus the Frankensteinian monster (this is clearly discernible from their acting: Lugosi’s Dracula-like mannerisms versus Karloff’s wooden gestures). The entire film thus points towards the final theatrically staged sadomasochistic torture scene, in which Lugosi starts to flay the skin off the living Karloff. Is this opposition not that of the class struggle reduced to its minimum, the opposition between the aristocratic vampire and the proletarian living dead? So what form does this flaying take in our times?

In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza, Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the ‘humanitarian’ issue of the refugees — class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by liberal-cultural topics of tolerance and solidarity. With the Paris terror killings on Friday, 13 November, 2015, even the refugee crisis (which still refers to large socio-economic issues) was eclipsed by the simple opposition of all democratic forces caught in a merciless war with the forces of terror — and it is easy to believe what has followed: paranoiac searches for ISIS agents among the refugees, etc. (the media gleefully reported that two of the terrorists entered Europe through Greece as refugees). The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be refugees themselves, and the true winners behind the platitudes in the style of Je suis Paris will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not just by engaging in pathetic shows of anti-terrorist solidarity, but by insisting on the simple cui bono question. There should be no ‘deeper understanding’ of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of ‘their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to European brutal interventions’): they should be characterized as what they are, as the Islamo-fascist obverse of the European anti-immigrant racists — two sides of the same coin.

But there is another, more formal, aspect that should give us pause to think — the very form of the attacks: a momentary brutal disruption of normal life. (Significantly, the attacked objects do not stand for the military or political establishment but for everyday popular culture — restaurants, rock venues and so on.) Such a form of terrorism—a momentary disturbance—mainly characterizes attacks on developed Western countries, in clear contrast to many Third World countries in which violence is a permanent fact of life. Think about daily life in Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon — where are the outcries and declarations of international solidarity when hundreds die there? We should remember now that we live in a ‘cupola’ where terrorist violence is a threat that just explodes from time to time, in contrast to countries where (with the participation or complicity of the West) daily life consists of uninterrupted terror and brutality.

In his In the World Interior of Capital (2013), Peter Sloterdijk demonstrates how, in today’s globalization, the world system completed its development and, as a capitalist system, came to determine all conditions of life. The first symbol of this development was the Crystal Palace in London, the site of the first world exhibition in 1851: the inevitable exclusivity of globalization as the construction and expansion of a world interior whose boundaries are invisible, yet virtually insurmountable from without, and which is now inhabited by the one and a half billion ‘winners’ of globalization. Three times this number are left standing outside the door. Consequently, ‘the world interior of capital is not an agora or a trade fair beneath the open sky, but rather a hothouse that has drawn inwards everything that was once on the outside.’ This interior, built on capitalist excesses, determines everything: ‘The primary fact of the Modern Age was not that the earth goes around the sun, but that money goes around the earth.’ After the process that transformed the world into the globe, ‘social life could only take place in an expanded interior, a domestically and arti cially climatized inner space.’ As cultural capitalism rules, all world-forming upheavals are contained: ‘No more historic events could take place under such conditions — at most, domestic accidents.’ What Sloterdijk correctly points out is that capitalist globalization does not stand only for openness and conquest, but also for a self-enclosed cupola separating the Inside from its Outside. The two aspects are inseparable: capitalism’s global reach is grounded in the way it introduces a radical class division across the entire globe, separating those protected by the sphere from those outside its cover.

The latest Paris terrorist attacks, as well as the flow of refugees, are momentary reminders of the violent world outside our cupola, a world which, for us insiders, appears mostly on TV reports about distant violent countries — not as a part of our reality but encroaching on it. Our ethico-political duty is not just to become aware of the reality outside our cupola, but to fully assume our co-responsibility for the horrors outside it. James Mangold’s Cop Land (1996) is set in Garrison (an imagined New Jersey city across the river from Manhattan), where Ray Donlan, a corrupt Lieutenant of the NY police (played by Harvey Keitel) has established a place in which New York policemen can live safely with their families. When Freddy Heflin, an honest local cop (Silvester Stallone), expresses his moral qualms about Donlan’s mode of operation, Donlan replies
Freddy, I invited men, cops, good men, to live in this town. And these men make a living, they cross that bridge every day to that city where everything is upside down, where the cop is the perp[etrator] and the perp is the victim. The only thing they did was to get their families out before it got to them. We made a place where things make sense, where you can walk the street without fear, and you come to me with the plan to set things right, everyone in the city holding hands, singing ‘We are the World.’ It’s very nice. But, Freddy, your plan is a plan of a boy, it was made on the back of a matchbox without thinking, without looking at the cards. I look at the cards, I see this town destroyed. Now that’s not what you want, is it?
It is easy to see in what way Donlan’s quasi-ontological vision of social reality is false: the group of policemen create their safe haven by withdrawing from the corrupted Manhattan, but it is their full participation in the corrupted crime universe of Manhattan that enables them to keep crime at bay in their own hamlet and sustain their safe and friendly way of life. What this means is that it is their very concern for their safe haven that contributes to the regular reproduction of crime in Manhattan — and the same can be said for all the participants in the Manhattan crime, with the exception of the lowest-level street criminals. Are mafia bosses also not doing what they do to protect their safe family haven? One should note the circularity of this constellation: the effort to create a safe haven and protect it from the crazy world outside generates the very world it tries to protect us from. Do we not encounter exactly the same paradox in Song-do, a new city for quarter of a million inhabitants built out of nothing close to Seoul’s Incheon airport in South Korea, a kind of supreme ideological manifesto in stone? In his report ‘Song-do, the Global City Without Soul,’ Francesco Martone describes how Song-do is built
on 6.5 square kilometers reclaimed from the sea, by a human hand that alters boundaries and morphologies. It would eventually host 250,000 and is rapidly becoming a trendy location to the extent that various soap opera stars moved in to what they would like to see as the Beverly Hills of the East.
As it stands now, however, the city is composed of almost empty futuristic buildings, a few bikers rambling along its wide avenues, construction sites active around the clock. Canals filled with merchant vessels in the background. Walking among these high-rise buildings made of steel and crystal, semi-deserted roads waiting to be filled with cars, is like living in a Truman Show of liberalism with no limit […] A sort of ‘city-state’ where investors enjoy all sort of exemptions, from tax breaks and beyond. A plastic and virtual performance of extreme liberalism, the reification of daily reality, of nature transformed into a consumption commodity, the impossible equation between a Green New Deal and growth, fake stones and trees plucked on at sand, battered by gusts of wind, icy cold in winter, steaming hot in summertime […]

Song-do is today considered and boasted [of] as the show-case of ‘green economy,’ built at the cost of the displacement of a delicate ecosystem where as many as 11 species of migratory birds, among them the ‘Platalea Minor,’ used to live, a site of major importance for the Ramsar convention. Supergreen zero-emission powerplants turn sea tides into energy, destroying fragile coastal habitats. Paradoxically, the world’s biggest tidal wave powerplant, the Siwha Tidal Powerplant, has been registered by the Clean Development Mechanism, set up to reduce emissions and generate carbon credits. ‘A Conflict of Greens: Green Development versus Habitat Preservation — the case of Incheon, South Korea’ is the eloquent title of an article that pointed to the contradiction between green capitalism and ecology. What sort of ecological conversion is possible in an artificial place, where rights are subject to the rule of market and finance? A place that pretends to be a laboratory of a Green New Deal, antiseptic and without soul?

It’ll be those urban extraterritorial spaces, such as IFEX and many more, developed ‘in vitro,’ suspended in space and time, black holes where exemption from labour legislation and tax breaks are the rule, that will represent the new frontier of wildcat liberalism, fuelled by the expoliation of resources elsewhere in the world. The fact of the matter is that Song-do is currently one of those ‘extraterritorial’ spaces, akin to the Export Processing Zones that together with tax havens draw a parallel geography of power, a cobweb of parallel governance, away from public scrutiny, that envisages no anomaly or alternative […] So, Song-do, designed by planning firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, is a city that can be reproduced anywhere in the world, with its Central Park, its World Trade Center, its canals that evoke a futuristic Venice, a technopark and a biocomplex. Electronic closets in hotels offer various options to guests, from automatized enema to butt massages at varying temperatures. Supermarkets sell cosmetics produced with the genetic manipulation of stem cells, to whiten the skin and nurture the illusion of eternal youth.

This new form of a city is, to put it blandly, neo-liberal ideology embodied, an impossible combination of market economy exempted from the state control with the usual ‘progressive’ ecological, educational and health concerns, the result being a ‘green’ environment built on a ravaged natural habitat. To get a full picture, one need only imagine a gigantic transparent cupola (similar to the one in the films Zardoz or Elysium) to keep the city safe from its polluted environs, plus transgender toilets to guarantee that all forms of segregation are left behind (in a city which is itself a segregated area).
-Slavoj Žižek, "The Courage of Hopelessness"

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sound for the Film Nerd

Sex for the Sex Addict

Segregated toilet doors are today at the center of a big legal and ideological struggle. On March 29, 2016, a group of 80 predominantly Silicon Valley-based business executives, headlined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, signed a letter to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory denouncing a law that prohibits transgender people from using public facilities intended for the opposite sex. “We are disappointed in your decision to sign this discriminatory legislation into law,” the letter says. “The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business.” So it is clear where big capital stands. Tim Cook can easily forget about hundreds of thousands of Foxconn workers in China assembling Apple products in slave conditions; he made his big gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, demanding the abolition of gender segregation… As is often the case, big business stands proudly united with politically correct theory.

So what is “transgenderism”? It occurs when an individual experiences discord between his/her biological sex (and the corresponding gender, male or female, assigned to him/her by society at birth) and his/her subjective identity. As such, it does not concern only “men who feel and act like women” and vice versa but a complex structure of additional “genderqueer” positions which are outside the very binary opposition of masculine and feminine: bigender, trigender, pangender, genderfluid, up to agender. The vision of social relations that sustains transgenderism is the so-called postgenderism: a social, political and cultural movement whose adherents advocate a voluntary abolition of gender, rendered possible by recent scientific progress in biotechnology and reproductive technologies. Their proposal not only concerns scientific possibility, but is also ethically grounded. The premise of postgenderism is that the social, emotional and cognitive consequences of fixed gender roles are an obstacle to full human emancipation. A society in which reproduction through sex is eliminated (or in which other versions will be possible: a woman can also “father” her child, etc.) will open unheard-of new possibilities of freedom, social and emotional experimenting. It will eliminate the crucial distinction that sustains all subsequent social hierarchies and exploitations.

One can argue that postgenderism is the truth of transgenderism. The universal fluidification of sexual identities unavoidably reaches its apogee in the cancellation of sex as such. Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the “anonymous kingdom of the Republic.” The only way to be a royalist in general was to be a republican, and, in the same sense, the only way to be sexualized in general is to be asexual.

The first thing to note here is that transgenderism goes together with the general tendency in today’s predominant ideology to reject any particular “belonging” and to celebrate the “fluidification” of all forms of identity. Thinkers like Frederic Lordon have recently demonstrated the inconsistency of “cosmopolitan” anti-nationalist intellectuals who advocate “liberation from a belonging” and in extremis tend to dismiss every search for roots and every attachment to a particular ethnic or cultural identity as an almost proto-Fascist stance. Lordon contrasts this hidden belonging of self-proclaimed rootless universalists with the nightmarish reality of refugees and illegal immigrants who, deprived of basic rights, desperately search for some kind of belonging (like a new citizenship). Lordon is quite right here: it is easy to see how the “cosmopolitan” intellectual elites despising local people who cling to their roots belong to their own quite exclusive circles of rootless elites, how their cosmopolitan rootlessness is the marker of a deep and strong belonging. This is why it is an utter obscenity to put together elite “nomads” flying around the world and refugees desperately searching for a safe place where they would belong–the same obscenity as that of putting together a dieting upper-class Western woman and a starving refugee woman.

Furthermore, we encounter here the old paradox: the more marginal and excluded one is, the more one is allowed to assert one’s ethnic identity and exclusive way of life. This is how the politically correct landscape is structured. People far from the Western world are allowed to fully assert their particular ethnic identity without being proclaimed essentialist racist identitarians (native Americans, blacks…). The closer one gets to the notorious white heterosexual males, the more problematic this assertion is: Asians are still OK; Italians and Irish – maybe; with Germans and Scandinavians it is already problematic… However, such a prohibition on asserting the particular identity of white men (as the model of oppression of others), although it presents itself as the admission of their guilt, nonetheless confers on them a central position. This very prohibition makes them into the universal-neutral medium, the place from which the truth about the others’ oppression is accessible. The imbalance weighs also in the opposite direction: impoverished European countries expect the developed West European ones to bear the full burden of multicultural openness, while they can afford patriotism.

And a similar tension is present in transgenderism. Transgender subjects who appear as transgressive, defying all prohibitions, simultaneously behave in a hyper-sensitive way insofar as they feel oppressed by enforced choice (“Why should I decide if I am man or woman?”) and need a place where they could recognize themselves. If they so proudly insist on their “trans-,” beyond all classification, why do they display such an urgent demand for a proper place? Why, when they find themselves in front of gendered toilets, don’t they act with heroic indifference–“I am transgendered, a bit of this and that, a man dressed as a woman, etc., so I can well choose whatever door I want!”? Furthermore, do “normal” heterosexuals not face a similar problem? Do they also not often find it difficult to recognize themselves in prescribed sexual identities? One could even say that “man” (or “woman”) is not a certain identity but more like a certain mode of avoiding an identity… And we can safely predict that new anti-discriminatory demands will emerge: why not marriages among multiple persons? What justifies the limitation to the binary form of marriage? Why not even a marriage with animals? After all we already know about the finesse of animal emotions. Is to exclude marriage with an animal not a clear case of “speciesism,” an unjust privileging of the human species?

Insofar as the other great antagonism is that of classes, could we not also imagine a homologous critical rejection of the class binary? The “binary” class struggle and exploitation should also be supplemented by a “gay” position (exploitation among members of the ruling class itself, e.g., bankers and lawyers exploiting the “honest” productive capitalists), a “lesbian” position (beggars stealing from honest workers, etc.), a “bisexual” position (as a self-employed worker, I act as both capitalist and worker), an “asexual” one (I remain outside capitalist production), and so forth.

This deadlock of classification is clearly discernible in the need to expand the formula: the basic LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) becomes LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) or even LGBTQQIAAP (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies, Pansexual). To resolve the problem, one often simply adds a + which serves to include all other communities associated with the LGBT community, as in LGBT+. This, however, raises the question: is + just a stand-in for missing positions like “and others,” or can one be directly a +? The properly dialectical answer is “yes,” because in a series there is always one exceptional element which clearly does not belong to it and thereby gives body to +. It can be “allies” (“honest” non-LGBT individuals), “asexuals” (negating the entire field of sexuality) or “questioning” (floating around, unable to adopt a determinate position).

Consequently, there is only one solution to this deadlock, the one we find in another field of disposing waste, that of trash bins. Public trash bins are more and more differentiated today. There are special bins for paper, glass, metal cans, cardboard package, plastic, etc. Here already, things sometimes get complicated. If I have to dispose of a paper bag or a notebook with a tiny plastic band, where does it belong? To paper or to plastic? No wonder that we often get detailed instruction on the bins, right beneath the general designation: PAPER–books, newspapers, etc., but NOT hardcover books or books with plasticized covers, etc. In such cases, proper waste disposal would have taken up to half an hour or more of detailed reading and tough decisions. To make things easier, we then get a supplementary trash bin for GENERAL WASTE where we throw everything that did not meet the specific criteria of other bins, as if, once again, apart from paper trash, plastic trash, and so on, there is trash as such, universal trash.

Should we not do the same with toilets? Since no classification can satisfy all identities, should we not add to the two usual gender slots (MEN, WOMEN) a door for GENERAL GENDER? Is this not the only way to inscribe into an order of symbolic differences its constitutive antagonism? Lacan already pointed out that the “formula” of the sexual relationship as impossible/real is 1+1+a, i.e., the two sexes plus the “bone in the throat” that prevents its translation into a symbolic difference. This third element does not stand for what is excluded from the domain of difference; it stands, instead, for (the real of) difference as such.

The reason for this failure of every classification that tries to be exhaustive is not the empirical wealth of identities that defy classification but, on the contrary, the persistence of sexual difference as real, as “impossible” (defying every categorization) and simultaneously unavoidable. The multiplicity of gender positions (male, female, gay, lesbian, bigender, transgender…) circulates around an antagonism that forever eludes it. Gays are male, lesbians female; transsexuals enforce a passage from one to another; cross-dressing combines the two; bigender floats between the two… Whichever way we turn, the two lurks beneath.

This brings us back to what one could call the primal scene of anxiety that defines transgenderism. I stand in front of standard bi-gender toilets with two doors, LADIES and GENTLEMEN, and I am caught up in anxiety, not recognizing myself in any of the two choices. Again, do “normal” heterosexuals not have a similar problem? Do they also not often find it difficult to recognize themselves in prescribed sexual identities? Which man has not caught himself in momentary doubt: “Do I really have the right to enter GENTLEMEN? Am I really a man?”

We can now see clearly what the anxiety of this confrontation really amounts to. Namely, it is the anxiety of (symbolic) castration. Whatever choice I make, I will lose something, and this something is NOT what the other sex has. Both sexes together do not form a whole since something is irretrievably lost in the very division of sexes. We can even say that, in making the choice, I assume the loss of what the other sex doesn’t have, i.e., I have to renounce the illusion that the Other has that X which would fill in my lack. And one can well guess that transgenderism is ultimately an attempt to avoid (the anxiety of) castration: thanks to it, a flat space is created in which the multiple choices that I can make do not bear the mark of castration. As Alenka Zupančič expressed it in a piece of personal communication: “One is usually timid in asserting the existence of two genders, but when passing to the multitude this timidity disappears, and their existence is firmly asserted. If sexual difference is considered in terms of gender, it is made — at least in principle — compatible with mechanisms of its full ontologization.”

Therein resides the crux of the matter. The LGBT trend is right in “deconstructing” the standard normative sexual opposition, in de-ontologizing it, in recognizing in it a contingent historical construct full of tensions and inconsistencies. However, this trend reduces this tension to the fact that the plurality of sexual positions are forcefully narrowed down to the normative straightjacket of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine, with the idea that, if we get away from this straightjacket, we will get a full blossoming multiplicity of sexual positions (LGBT, etc.), each of them with its complete ontological consistency. It assumes that once we get rid of the binary straightjacket, I can fully recognize myself as gay, bisexual, or whatever. From the Lacanian standpoint, nonetheless, the antagonistic tension is irreducible, as it is constitutive of the sexual as such, and no amount of classificatory diversification and multiplication can save us from it.

The same goes for class antagonism. The division introduced and sustained by the emancipatory (“class”) struggle is not between the two particular classes of the whole, but between the whole-in-its-parts and its remainder which, within the particulars, stands for the universal, for the whole “as such,” opposed to its parts. Or, to put it in yet another way, one should bear in mind here the two aspects of the notion of remnant: the rest as what remains after the subtraction of all particular content (elements, specific parts of the whole), and the rest as the ultimate result of the subdivision of the whole into its parts, when, in the final act of subdivision, we no longer get two particular parts or elements, two somethings, but a something (the rest) and a nothing.

In Lacan’s precise sense of the term, the third element (the Kierkegaardian chimney sweeper) effectively stands for the phallic element. How so? Insofar as it stands for pure difference: the officer, the maid, and the chimney sweeper are the male, the female, plus their difference as such, as a particular contingent object. Again, why? Because not only is difference differential, but, in an antagonistic (non)relationship, it precedes the terms it differentiates. Not only is woman not-man and vice versa, but woman is what prevents man from being fully man and vice versa. It is like the difference between the Left and the Right in the political space: their difference is the difference in the very way difference is perceived. The whole political space appears differently structured if we look at it from the Left or from the Right; there is no third “objective” way (for a Leftist, the political divide cuts across the entire social body, while for a Rightist, society is a hierarchic whole disturbed by marginal intruders).

Difference “in itself” is thus not symbolic-differential, but real-impossible — something that eludes and resists the symbolic grasp. This difference is the universal as such, that is, the universal not as a neutral frame elevated above its two species, but as their constitutive antagonism. And the third element (the chimney sweeper, the Jew, object a) stands for difference as such, for the “pure” difference/antagonism which precedes the differentiated terms. If the division of the social body into two classes were complete, without the excessive element (Jew, rabble…), there would have been no class struggle, just two clearly divided classes. This third element is not the mark of an empirical remainder that escapes class classification (the pure division of society into two classes), but the materialization of their antagonistic difference itself, insofar as this difference precedes the differentiated terms. In the space of anti-Semitism, the “Jew” stands for social antagonism as such: without the Jewish intruder, the two classes would live in harmony… Thus, we can observe how the third intruding element is evental: it is not just another positive entity, but it stands for what is forever unsettling the harmony of the two, opening it up to an incessant process of re-accommodation.

A supreme example of this third element, objet a, which supplements the couple, is provided by a weird incident that occurred in Kemalist Turkey in 1926. Part of the Kemalist modernization was to enforce new “European” models for women, for how they should dress, talk and act, in order to get rid of the oppressive Oriental traditions. As is well known, there indeed was a Hat Law prescribing how men and women, at least in big cities, should cover their heads. Then,
“in Erzurum in 1926 there was a woman among the people who were executed under the pretext of ‘opposing the Hat Law.’ She was a very tall (almost 2 m.) and very masculine-looking woman who peddled shawls for a living (hence her name ‘Şalcı Bacı’ [Shawl Sister]). Reporter Nimet Arzık described her as, ‘two meters tall, with a sooty face and snakelike thin dreadlocks […] and with manlike steps.’ Of course as a woman she was not supposed to wear the fedora, so she could not have been ‘guilty’ of anything, but probably in their haste the gendarmes mistook her for a man and hurried her to the scaffold. Şalcı Bacı was the first woman to be executed by hanging in Turkish history. She was definitely not ‘normal’ since the description by Arzık does not fit in any framework of feminine normalcy at that particular time, and she probably belonged to the old tradition of tolerated and culturally included ‘special people’ with some kind of genetic ‘disorder.’ The coerced and hasty transition to ‘modernity,’ however, did not allow for such an inclusion to exist, and therefore she had to be eliminated, crossed out of the equation. ‘Would a woman wear a hat that she be hanged?’ were the last words she was reported to have muttered on the way to the scaffold. Apart from making no sense at all, these words represented a semantic void and only indicated that this was definitely a scene from the Real, subverting the rules of semiotics: she was first emasculated (in its primary etymological sense of ‘making masculine’), so that she could be ‘emasculated.’”[1]
How are we to interpret this weird and ridiculously excessive act of killing? The obvious reading would have been a Butlerian one: through her provocative trans-sexual appearance and acting, Şalcı Bacı rendered visible the contingent character of sexual difference, of how it is symbolically constructed. In this way, she was a threat to normatively established sexual identities… My reading is slightly (or not so slightly) different. Rather than undermine sexual difference, Şalcı Bacı stood for this difference as such, in all its traumatic Real, irreducible to any clear symbolic opposition. Her disturbing appearance transforms clear symbolic difference into the impossible-Real of antagonism. So, again, in the same way as class struggle is not just “complicated” when other classes that do not enter the clear division of the ruling class and the oppressed class appear (this excess is, on the contrary, the very element which makes class antagonism real and not just a symbolic opposition), the formula of sexual antagonism is not M/F (the clear opposition between male and female) but MF+, where + stands for the excessive element which transforms the symbolic opposition into the Real of antagonism.

This brings us back to our topic, the big opposition that is emerging today between, on the one hand, the violent imposition of a fixed symbolic form of sexual difference as the basic gesture of counteracting social disintegration and, on the other hand, the total transgender “fluidification” of gender, the dispersal of sexual difference into multiple configurations. While in one part of the world, abortion and gay marriages are endorsed as a clear sign of moral progress, in other parts, homophobia and anti-abortion campaigns are exploding. In June 2016, al-Jazeera reported that a 22-year-old Dutch woman complained to the police that she had been raped after being drugged in an upmarket nightclub in Doha. And the result was that she was convicted of having illicit sex by a Qatari court and given a one-year suspended sentence. On the opposite end, what counts as harassment in the PC environs is also getting extended. The following case comes to mind. A woman walked on a street with a bag in her hand, and a black man was walking 15 yards behind her. Becoming aware of it, the woman (unconsciously, automatically?) tightened her grip on the bag, and the black man reported that he experienced the woman’s gesture as a case of racist harassment…

What goes on is also the result of neglecting the class and race dimension by the PC proponents of women’s and gay rights:
“In ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman’ created by a video marketing company in 2014, an actress dressed in jeans, black t-shirt, and tennis shoes walked through various Manhattan neighborhoods, recording the actions and comments of men she encountered with a hidden camera and microphone. Throughout the walk the camera recorded over 100 instances coded as verbal harassment, ranging from friendly greetings to sexualized remarks about her body, including threats of rape. While the video was hailed as a document of street harassment and the fear of violence that are a daily part of women’s lives, it ignored race and class. The largest proportion of the men presented in the video were minorities, and, in a number of instances, the men commenting on the actress were standing against buildings, resting on fire hydrants, or sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk, postures used to characterize lower class and unemployed men, or, as a reader commented on it: ‘The video was meant to generate outrage… and it used crypto-racism to do it.’”[2]
The great mistake in dealing with this opposition is to search for a proper measure between two extremes. What one should do instead is to bring out what both extremes share: the fantasy of a peaceful world where the agonistic tension of sexual difference disappears, either in a clear and stable hierarchic distinction of sexes or in the happy fluidity of a desexualized universe. And it is not difficult to discern in this fantasy of a peaceful world the fantasy of a society without social antagonisms, in short, without class struggle.
[1] Bulent Somay, »L’Orient n’existe pas,« doctoral thesis defended at Birkbeck College, University of London, on November 29 2013.

[2] See
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Sexual is Political"

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On the On-Going Media Orchestrated Criminalization of the American (& European) Dream

from the NY Times
LONDON — The Czech president has called Muslim immigrants criminals. The head of Poland’s governing party has said refugees are riddled with disease. The leader of Hungary has described migrants as a poison “concentrating” migrants in asylum centers — with all its obvious and odious echoes of World War II.

So when President Trump said he did not want immigrants from “shithole” countries, there was ringing silence across broad parts of the European Union, especially in the east, and certainly no chorus of condemnation.

In fact, some analysts saw the remarks as fitting a pattern of crude, dehumanizing and racist language to describe migrants and asylum seekers that has steadily edged its way into the mainstream. Coming from the White House, such words may be taken by some as a broader signal that racism is now an acceptable part of political discourse.

“What we see now is a conscious policy to reintroduce language that was previously not acceptable in debate,” said Gerald Knaus, the director of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based research organization that has played a leading role in forming recent European migration policy.

To be sure, Mr. Trump’s choice of words drew condemnation from around the world. Botswana and Haiti asked for meetings with American diplomats to clarify what Mr. Trump said and what he believes. The president of Senegal, Macky Sall, was one of many who saw racism in the remarks. “Africa and black people deserve the respect and consideration of all,” he wrote on Twitter.

Even the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, weighed in, declaring Mr. Trump’s comments “particularly harsh and offensive.”

But the political reality is that migration has become a salient issue — and not only for right-wing, populist and nativist politicians. Across many affluent societies, people are anxious about technological change, rising inequality and stagnant wages, and they have focused their ire at the global flows of capital and, especially, labor. There are also concerns about demographic change, as the world becomes less white and as western societies age.

Moreover, the chaos and violence that have driven people from the Middle East, Southwest Asia and sub-Saharan Africa to seek to live elsewhere, even as far away as Australia and Canada, have also raised fears about refugees who do not appreciate the values of the countries hosting them — or even worse, fears of terrorists taking advantage of humanitarian policies to infiltrate societies and then carry out attacks.

Hours before the news of Mr. Trump’s comments broke on Thursday, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, spoke about the need for more “safe, orderly and regular” migration.

He implored nations to “use facts, not prejudice” to address the challenges of migration.

“Globally, migration remains poorly managed,” he acknowledged. “The impact can be seen in the humanitarian crises affecting people on the move, and in the human rights violations suffered by those living in slavery or enduring degrading working conditions. It can be seen, too, in the political impact of public perception that wrongly sees migration as out of control. The consequences include increased mistrust and policies aimed more at stopping than facilitating human movement.”

Mr. Knaus, of the European Stability Initiative, was one of several commentators who expressed fear that Mr. Trump would only embolden xenophobic rhetoric.

“This will have consequences because it’s widely followed,” he said. “In every Austrian and German village, they follow what the U.S. president is doing.”

In Western Europe, heads of government have sometimes described migrants in terms of floods and hordes — but the most abusive language has usually been restricted to far-right opposition politicians like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland.

“What is dangerous is if this kind of language migrates from the far-right to the mainstream,” Mr. Knaus added.

But some in migration policy circles fear this transition has already begun.

Several European heads of government were proudly xenophobic in their responses to a refugee crisis in 2015, when more than one million asylum seekers arrived by boat on European shores, prompting a surge in support for far-right parties and nativist rhetoric — particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

Prominent among them was Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, who criticized non-Christian migrants and then built a wall to stop migrants from entering Hungary.

European leaders initially distanced themselves from him — in both word and action. But by March 2016, several had come around to his policy suggestions, if not the tone in which he had made them.

While still moderate in tone, some leaders are pursuing policies that are Trumpian in spirit, said Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of nearly 100 refugee rights groups.

“There’s a denial among many European leaders that they’re anything like Trump — while they promote measures that will have the same impact” as Mr. Trump’s restrictions, she said.

Italy’s relationship with Libyan militias, in which the country provides inducements for Libyans not to send migrants to Europe by boat, is among the policies that has concerned advocates for refugees.

Though the policy has been justified in humanitarian terms, because it has reduced the number of people put at risk in the Mediterranean, it has also trapped thousands of migrants in slavery-like conditions on Libyan soil.

In Brussels, European Union leaders are debating whether and how to change the bloc’s common asylum policy. Central and Eastern European countries are among those that support changes Ms. Woollard believes will curb refugee rights in Europe. But so, too, is Germany, widely seen as one of the countries most sympathetic to refugees.

Then there is a contentious deal between the European Union and Turkey that is aimed at closing the main migration routes into Eastern Europe. European Union leadership has justified this as a humanitarian gesture, since it has curbed the number of migrant shipwrecks.

But Ms. Woollard feels this justification has “sugarcoated” the actions of Western European leaders, as it has also confined thousands of asylum seekers in impoverished conditions in Greece and Turkey.

Restrictive migration policy is “not solely confined to the black sheep in the East,” Ms. Woollard said.

Mr. Knaus, who first dreamed up the parameters of the controversial E.U.-Turkey agreement, said it was wrong to conflate the racist rhetoric of Mr. Trump and Mr. Orban with efforts by less reactionary leaders to exert control over migration.

“There is a danger that in opposing this kind of rhetoric one basically strengthens it because we say that anyone who is in favor of controlling borders is in favor of Trump,” Mr. Knaus said. “That is very dangerous because it concedes to racist politicians that being in favor of control is the same as being racist. And it’s not.”
Nationalism isn't "racism". Conflating the two are but pure "diversionary polemics" intended to distract attention from real issues and force an unquestioned universal acceptance of current state of liberal economic globalism.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Fall from Grace

Once a villain blurted out
that power corrupts people.
Now all pundits repeat it
For so many years
Without noticing (alas!)
That more often people corrupt the power.
- Yuri Andropov